The moment we stepped out of the small, shaky boat onto the shore of Don Khone, we knew that we’ve finally found our little Laotian paradise. It’s a tiny, rural island with friendly locals, great and cheap accommodation and lots of outdoor opportunities… if, of course, you decide to leave the comfort of your hammock. If you’re looking for a place to relax, unwind and catch a glimpse of real Lao life, you should definitely consider spending a couple of days there – and you might even end up staying for much longer.
How to get there?
Don Khone is one of the islands of Si Phan Don, the most Southern part of Laos, just next to the Cambodian border. Best way to get there is to take a bus from Pakse – you can get the ticket in any travel agency or hotel/hostel/guesthouse in town, just be sure to compare a couple of prices to get the best deal. The bus will take you to Nakasang, where you’ll have to show your ticket in a small booth and someone should point you to the shore where you’ll be directed into the right boat. The waiting place is to the right from where the road ends.
On your way, you might want to exchange or take out money, as the nearest ATM is either here or on another island and the return ticket to Nakasang will take you back around 40.000 kip.
Where to stay
Most of the guesthouses and bungalows are on the Northern side of the island, in Ban Khone, just where the boat drops you off. You can either pre-book a place or simply walk along the main road and find something on the spot. We stayed in the Nongsak Guesthouse, in a quiet, new, clean bungalow with an en suite bathroom (hot shower!) for about $12 / night for a double room. The place is quite easy to find, but the tricky part is: their office is in the Nong Sack restaurant (yes, it’s spelled differently), a couple of meters from the bungalows, so don’t panic if you find no one at the door. The owners are really nice and helpful, even though they don’t speak much English (you might have more luck with French).
Activities, attractions & how to find them
Before you go anywhere, you might want to take a look at the map to plan the best route. You can either explore locally or head to Don Det, another island connected to Don Khone with a concrete bridge. Crossing it will cost you 35.000 kip / day (as of November, 2015), unless you go through before 7.00 a.m. or after 4:30 p.m., when the ticket booth is closed. The bikes can be rented on both islands for as little as 10.000 kip / day, but don’t expect too much, as they would be far more suitable for city roads than the rugged, dusty roads full of roots and bumps that connect different sides of the island. Still, a painful butt is a small cost for having the opportunity to cycle around an take in the amazing landscapes, as almost every part of the countryside here is beautiful.
One of the most popular choices is to visit the waterfalls: Khon Pa Soi or Tat Somphamit (also known as Li Phi). The first one is rather small and not that impressive, but the real fun is crossing the tiny, shaky wooden bridges scattered around it and exploring the neighbouring area. It also costs you nothing to get there, and at the spot you can relax in a small restaurant. And, most importantly… there are puppies. That totally won us over.
The second waterfall is much different, bigger and more touristy, but for a good reason – it’s an amazing sight. One important thing to remember: the ticket to cross the bridge or get to the Western part of the island through Ban Khone also grants you entry to this area, so there’s no need to pay twice. And, as on any other popular site, there’s a place to stock up on water if you’re just starting your trip.
Another natural attraction on Don Khone is irrawady dolphin spotting – there are a couple of them living in the Mekong on the Southern side of the islands, and nearly everyone will sell you a dolphin watching trip. As we found out, unfortunately, there seem to be no strict regulations granting that your trip won’t put the animals in distress, as some of the boat drivers seem to respect them, while others only want the tourists to get best pictures possible. While it does give the dolphins the publicity they need to make more people care about the species, it’s not executed in he best way.
We chose to go there by ourselves – on the rented bikes, following the scarce but pretty clear signposts by the road. After about 15 minutes, we arrived at a beach with one diner that didn’t look like there was anything going on. At the riverside, we saw the small, leaking fisherman boats and met a guy who didn’t speak English at all. We asked about the dolphins. He didn’t get it. We asked again – our “so, um, what’s the trip about?” question was met by confusion, and, a couple of seconds later, a pretty vague answer: “yes?”. Alright. After paying the requested 90.000 kip and a moment later boarded the tiny, unstable boat that already managed to fill up with water. Overhearing an older couple bathing nearby (“I wouldn’t trust these boats, I saw the people coming back and they were all (…)” – the rest we’ll never find out), we weren’t so sure about our choice, but soon we found out that we might have made the best decision possible. If you’re curious – yes, we saw the dolphins. And yes, they were far away, but we were happy to see them in their natural habitat, without disrupting their daily routine. If you want to go with someone who doesn’t cut them off, roaring the engines directly above their heads, pick a local boat – you’ll also have the pleasure of sharing it with no one else and not being stamped on by dozens of other tourists.
If dolphins don’t interest you at all, in the same place, you can also rent a boat to see the sunset close to Don Khong island. We considered it for a while, but then dropped the idea, as it’s also possible to have an amazing view from the bridge between Don Khone and Don Det – for free. You might walk there a little earlier to pick your favorite spot, sit down with a coconut juice and enjoy the spectacle, as it’s really magical and, with time, gets better and better, regardless of what side you’re facing.
Speaking of more spiritual experiences, you can also choose to visit the two wats, one of which is probably our favorite wat in the whole of Laos. It’s full of cats and buffaloes, and looks especially enchanting in the evening, when the sunrays go through the palm leaves of the trees scattered around the temple. Just remember, even though there’s also a road passing through the premises, it’s still a sacred site, so dress yourself accordingly or at least bring a sarong to wrap around your legs or shoulders.
After a day of cycling (or doing nothing, as that could very likely be your main activity here), you can have a hearty meal in one of the local restaurants or a drink in one of the more lively bars on Don Det, depending on your mood. There’s something to cater for everyone, except for the late night partygoers, as everything closes around 11 p.m. Nearly everything that you need is available in one of the scarce convenience stores in the village, but you might want to be prepared for medical emergencies, as the nearest health facility is a boat drive away. All else doesn’t matter – just drop by and enjoy the slow island life.