Si Phan Don “4000 Islands” Laos and Beyond

Introducing Si Phan Don – 4000 Islands

4000 Islands is the English translation of Si Phan Don. The location of Si Phan Don 4000 Islands is on the Mekong River in southern Laos very close to the Cambodian Border. The islands are a 1-2 hour motorbike ride from Pakse which is within easy distance.

Basic Mekong River Facts

Transporting over 450 sq kilometers of water annually makes the Mekong River among the largest rivers in the world. Starting on the Tibetan Plateau the Mekong travels over 4000 kilometers to southern Vietnam where is empties into the South China Sea.

Unfortunately, for commercial use, the Mekong River is also one of the world’s most difficult rivers to navigate. The Khone Phapheng Falls located in southern Laos are the main obstacle blocking the path.

However, this is not a problem for visitors to the area. Unless you want to sail over the falls of course, then its a big problem.

Khone Phapheng Falls at Si Phan Don 4000 Islands

The Khone Phapheng Falls Falls and Si Phan Don 4000 Islands are actually one in the same. After all, waterfalls and islands are really just a bunch of semi-submerged rocks.

Si Phan Don is a river archipelago consisting of thousands of islands and half of them are submerged when the water is high. High water levels on the Mekong River transform the Khone Phapheng Falls into one of the natural wonders of the world.

Khone Phapheng Falls Near - Si Phan Don Laos

Photo of Khone Phapheng Falls in Laos during peak flood season.

I have traveled on the Mekong during both seasons and the water is normally very smooth. Although the difference is most evident as the water flows over the rapids.

The difference between flood stage and low water stage is very profound and you can view it in the photos below.

4000 Islands - Si Phan Don Falls

This first photo is during the placid low water stage of the Mekong.

mekong river flood stage - Si Phan Don 4000 Islands

In contrast, this is the same series of rapids when the Mekong is in high flood stage.

Si Phan Don 4000 Islands – Mekong River Crossing

Although there is no bridge from the mainland it is still possible to reach Si Phan Don 4000 Islands by boat even during flood season. Crossing the Mekong river to get to the islands is actually a rather placid affair, even during flood. Just follow the road to the boat launch and embark.

boat launch si phan don 4000 Islands

The approach to the boat launch that goes to Si Phan Don 4000 Islands.

 Don Det, Don Khong and Don Khon

Fortunately, the 3 main islands do not become submerged when the Mekong is at high water levels.

Ironically, Don Khong is the largest of the 3 islands although I doubt it is named after the giant Hollywood monkey. We stayed for 2 days on Don Khong. However, just because it is the biggest doesn’t mean it is best.

Positive attributes of Don Khong island include some nice restaurants on the banks of the Mekong and road access around the island is good. Traveling by motorbike is the best method because you have the freedom to move around.

don khong si phan don 4000 islands

Taking in the sunset at one of the restaurants on the banks of the Mekong while visiting Don Khong.

don khong si phan don

There are many fishermen casting their nets on the Mekong near Si Phan Don. It is an iconic landscape.

spicy lapp chicken - don khon Det si phan don

As usual the food is always good in Laos and Si Phan Don is no different. They know how to make the lapp chicken real spicy, just how I like it.

Don Det Si Phan Don

On Don Khon we made the acquaintance of a real life monkey that stayed in the courtyard of our bungalow.

Besides the friendly monkey, other features of the islands include the remnants of the French railway and also some old French colonial administrative buildings. Also, if you have the patience for it you may want to go in search of the elusive Irrawaddy dolphins that live near Si Phan Don.

Some local kids are putting the former French administrative building to good use in the the photos below.

don det si phan don

don det si phan don

Subsistence Living in Si Phan Don

Living off the land is quite common in developing countries. Of course, this includes both agriculture and fishing. On the banks of the Mekong it helps to have a huge source of fresh water nearby to irrigate the rice fields.

rice fields si phan don

Plus, the fishing is very good here. This section of the Mekong is home to the world’s largest fresh water fish called the plabuck. It is actually a giant catfish and it can grow to 10 feet in length and weigh up to 650 pounds. Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to catch one when I was at Si Phan Don.

Cast Net fishing in S Phan Don 4000 Islands

Cast net fishing is a common fishing technique used in Si Phan Don. Although this is certainly not how they fish for the plabuck.

mekong fish traps si phan don

Another common method of catching fish here is with the use of wooden traps which are set near the river rapids.

mekong fish traps si phan don

Conclusion

Si Phan Don and the Khone Falls are both must see locations when you visit Laos. If you read this post, you probably deduced that the photos were taken at different times. That conclusion is correct as I was visiting the area at different times of the year. The first trip was with my girlfriend when the river level was lower and the second trip was during flood stage when I was traveling solo. 

The second trip to Si Phan Don was after I had attended one of the school opening ceremonies for the projects that I have funded in this area. 

Additional Resources:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Khone_Phapheng_Falls
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Si_Phan_Don
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mekong