People are often surprised to hear that Laos has a clutch of islands. Why? Well, Laos is known for being a landlocked country which means that it has no coastline, but it is still the home to the Si Phan Don Islands which translate as ‘Four Thousand Islands’ in Lao.
The islands are actually part of the Mekong River which spills out across the border with Laos and neighboring Cambodia and forms a series of small islands in the region. There are a number of islets here but the main ones are Don Khon and Don Det, which are the larger islands, and Don Khong which is smaller, less developed and all together more laid back.
The main reason to come here is to explore a more rural and less touristy part of the country, although don’t expect a huge amount of tourist infrastructure here as there is not much to do here in the evenings, or in the way of nightlife, although this is largely the point.
Here are the 25 best things to do on the Si Phan Don Islands…
1. Trek to the Khon Pa Soi Falls
Khon Pa Soi Falls is one of the prettiest waterfalls on the Si Phan Don Islands and it is also perfect for a day out as it is usually quiet compared to some of the other cataracts on the island.
The main reason for this is that it takes a while to trek out here.
One of the best parts of the waterfall experience is the journey as you need to walk across a rickety bridge to get to it which will take you to Don Po Soi Island.
From here, it is around a 200 meter trek out to the falls but it is more than worth braving the bridge and the hike to check out this amazing cataract with a plunge pool at the base.
2. Go swimming in the Mekong River
The Mekong River flows around the Si Phan Don Islands and this means that activities on the river offer you the best ways to explore the region.
There are a number of small beaches dotted around the islands and you can take a boat and island hop to your heart’s content.
Many of the main guest houses on the Si Phan Don Islands have small jetties located in front of them which offer you the chance to go swimming and the waters are amazingly clear in many places so you can check out a range of marine life including colorful indigenous fish.
3. Check out the Don Det-Don Khon Locomotives
The Locomotive is a relic from the 1800s when it was constructed during the French colonial period.
This was used as a way of transporting goods and building materials around the islands and although it stopped operating after the Second World War, it is still worth a visit as there are a number of signs here which will fill you in on all the history of how the railway was built and how it would have operated in the days of old.
On a visit here you will also find a number of old fashioned locomotives which have been out of commission for years.
The tracks, many of which no longer exist, would have run between Don Khon and Don Det.
4. Visit Wat Khon Tai
Wat Khon Tai is located on Don Khon and is one of the main attractions on the island.
This is a Buddhist temple and it is actually built atop a previous Khmer shrine.
You will find a number of stupas here as well as some ancient Khmer relics and carvings which make this a great spot for history buffs.
The temple is gracefully crumbling now which only serves to add to its old world charm.
5. Relax on Xai Kong Nyai Beach
Xai Kong Nyai Beach is one of the most famous beaches on Don Khon and this is the perfect place to spend some time if you want to relax on the Si Phan Don Islands.
You can also swim in the waters off the coast of the beach although you need to be aware that the currents are changeable here and can be strong in places.
Another highlight of the beach is that you will also find a few simple restaurants here which are the ideal spot to grab a drink and some food as you make a day of it at the beach.
There are also a number of traditional long tail boats here that you can hire if you want to take to the waters and explore the area around the beach.
6. Try the local food
The Si Phan Don Islands are a great place to try some local Laotian food.
Many of the restaurants on the island grow their on vegetables on local plots which mean that the food is fresh and delicious.
As the islands, by definition, are close to the water, fish also features heavily on most menus and focuses on freshwater species plucked straight from the Mekong.
Favorites that you can expect to find in most restaurants on the Si Phan Don Islands include fresh papaya salad which usually comes with a kick of chili as well as other delights like chicken rubbed with fragrant lemongrass.
7. Hike to Ban Hang Khon Viewpoint
Located on Don Khon is the Ban Hang Khon Viewpoint which is also close to the ancient port built by the French during the colonial period.
To get to the viewpoint you need to travel to Ban Hang Village where you will find some 150 steps that lead to the lookout.
Bear in mind that the walk is steep and you will need to have a reasonable level of mobility to attempt the hike.
Once you get to the viewpoint however you will be rewarded with vistas across the stunning Mekong River.
8. Go dolphin watching
The Si Phan Don Islands are known for being the natural habitat of the gorgeous Irawaddy dolphins.
There are only around 20 of these graceful animals left in this part of Laos, so if you like local wildlife then this is not to be missed when you are on the islands.
The best way to see them is to take a boat tour which will take you out to the spot where the dolphins usually swim or you can also get up close and hire a kayak.
Many of the dolphin watching boat tours will also stop off at some of the scenic beaches for which the islands are famous and usually include a delicious local barbecue lunch or dinner.
9. Visit Don Khong History Museum
The Don Khong Museum is a small museum that is located in what would have been a traditional home built during the French colonial period.
The museum itself is rather small, although it does show you how people would have lived and worked here in the days of old.
It has recently been restored and you can find some ancient curious such as musical instruments as well as photographs of how the Si Phans Don Islands would have looked in previous years.
As this is one of the few main ‘attractions’ on the islands, it is well worth stopping by if you want some historical perspective on this region of Laos.
10. Go tubing
As the Si Phan Don Islands back onto the Mekong River, one of the main activities here is tubing.
If you are looking for a way to relax then there is no better way to do so than by renting a tube and then drifting along the water for an afternoon.
You can usually rent a tube from a guesthouse and float around in the water in front of it, or if you are looking for something a little more exciting then you can go on a boat tour and then tube off the boat which will allow you to explore a little further afield.
11. Try the Indian food
Indian food is widespread across Laos and the Si Phan Don Islands are no exception.
This also makes a nice change from the local Lao dishes that are ubiquitous on the islands, and one of the best places to find some delicious Indian bites is at Datta Banana Leaf Restaurant which is located in Ban Hua Det.
Here you will find toothsome curries from both the north and south of Indian as well as tasty flatbreads and some Malay style dishes thrown in.
12. Tour Ban Hin Siew Tai Palm Sugar Trees
Located on sleepy Don Khong are the Ban Hin Siew Tai Palm Sugar Trees farms.
This is known for being one of the most important places that produces sugar in all of Laos and one of the highlights of a visit here is the chance to watch the sugar farmers climbing the trees.
The aim of this is for the farmers to harvest the juice from the trees which is then boiled and turned into pure sugar.
The best time to watch the sugar harvest is between November and February and you should aim to get to the farms as early as possible in the morning which is when the farmers collect the juice.
13. Cycle around the islands
One of the best ways to get around the island is to rent a bicycle and cycle from Don Det to Don Khon.
There is a small bridge that allows you to do this and you can also check out the ancient railway tracks at the same time.
Most guesthouses will rent you a bike for around LKP 10,000 and a popular route takes you out to the Donkhone Somphamit Waterfalls, also known as the Mekong Falls.
14. Visit Tat Somphamit
Tat Somphamit is located on Don Khon Island and is made up of a series of bubbling white water rapids.
It also, rather confusingly, also goes by the name Li Phi which translates to ‘Spirit Trap’ as it is believed that the waters act as a trap and catch evil spirits.
A highlight of the rapids is also the chance to check out the local fishermen who set bamboo traps here to catch fish as they swim downriver.
The falls are located in a wider park and other highlights here include a small strip of sand known as Li Phi Beach which also features a rustic restaurant which is the perfect place to watch the waters rush by.
15. Watch a movie at an open air cinema
You won’t find much in the way of nightlife on the Si Phan Don Islands, so if you are looking for something to do in the evenings then one of the best things to do is visit an open air cinema.
There are a few of these dotted around, but one of the most famous is located at The Last Resort and is open from November to April.
Movies are projected onto a large screen here and you can also have food and drinks as you watch under the stars, surrounded by the lush jungle for which the Si Phan Don Islands are famous.
Most open air cinemas are small however so you may want to book in advance during the high season.
16. Trek to Tham Phu Khiaw
Located on Don Khong is Tham Phu Khiaw which translates as Green Mountain Cave.
You will find the cave on a path that leads from Muang Khong and it is around a two kilometer trek to get to the main chamber.
The cave is located in the middle of the jungle and is filled with some images of the Buddha as well as some historic pottery pieces.
If you happen to be here in June then you will find that the cave is quite busy as this is the site of a yearly pilgrimage for Buddhist devotees.
It takes around 15 minutes to get to the cave but bear in mind that most of this is up a hill so you need to have a reasonable level of fitness to attempt it.
From the cave you can also continue on to a scenic viewpoint.
17. Admire Wat Jom Thong
Located close to Muang Khong is the pretty Wat Jom Thong which is famous for being the oldest temple on the Si Phan Don Islands.
The temple is said to have been constructed between 1805 and 1828 during the time of the Chao Anou era and it has a large temple hall as well as three large gates which you need to walk through to get inside.
Also make sure you check out the gorgeous carvings and the mythical animals which line the ceilings and are both Buddhist and Hindu in style.
18. Shop in Muang Khong Market
If you want to check out a traditional Laotian market then you need to head to Muang Khong Market which is known for its local produce, much of which is sourced from local farms.
You will also find many local ingredients which have been foraged for by locals such as wild mushrooms, so if you want to find out more about traditional foods in Laos then this is a great place to visit.
Come early in the morning however as this is when the market is most active.
19. Explore Wat Phu Khao Kaew
Wat Phu Kao Kaew is located on Don Khong and is close to the village of Muang Saen.
The temple was built on top of crumbling ruins which are thought to be Khmer in style which is how many of the temples in this part of Laos were constructed.
This is a very important pilgrimage spot for locals and you can check out a large statue of the reclining Buddha here as well as some stupas covered in ornate gold leaf.
One of the big draws here is that this temple sits looking out over the mighty Mekong and local legend says that a naga (a mythical serpent) also lives here.
20. Lie in a hammock
One of the main reasons that people come to the Si Phan Don Islands is to enjoy the slower and sleepier pace of life here.
With that in mind, one of the best ways to spend your time here is to lie in a hammock strung up between two coconut trees and read a good book or watch the sunset.
Many guesthouses and restaurants have hammocks that you can use and this offers you the chance to truly kick back and relax.
21. Dine at a floating restaurant
As the Si Phan Don Islands are located on the water, it stands to reason that there are also a number of floating restaurants here.
Most of these restaurants are upscale, and therefore more expensive, compared to other local eateries on the islands, but they usually serve a wider range of dishes such as traditional Lao sausages, salads and curries.
As you would expect you can also get a range of tasty grilled fish that is caught straight out of the Mekong.
These restaurants are also some of the best places to watch the spectacular local sunsets across the islands.
22. Watch Bun Suang Heua
If you are heading to the Si Phan Don Islands in November or December then make sure not to miss the chance to check out the Bun Suang Heua boat race.
This annual festival usually takes place over four days and you can watch as ornate long boats race along the waters off the coast of Muang Khong.
23. Take a boat trip
If you don’t have much time in the Si Phan Don Islands then one of the best ways to get an overview of the region quickly is to take a boat tour.
Boats can be charted and fees are usually negotiable, and you can either sign up for a tour of the islands or just go island hopping and moor where the mood takes you.
One of the best reasons to take a boat tour is for the chance to explore the small beaches and inlets that the islands are famous for, so make sure you bring some drinks and a picnic and make a day of it.
24. Watch the sunset with a sundowner
The Si Phan Don Islands don’t have a huge amount in the way of attractions but one of the best things to do in the evenings is find one of the many bars dotted around the islands and settle down to watch the gorgeous sunsets for which this part of Laos is so well known.
Most bars are attached to guesthouses and make the perfect spot for a drink as you watch the natural light show.
25. Visit the Khon Phapheng Falls
The Khon Phapheng Falls have the claim to fame of being some of the prettiest falls in this part of Laos and you can stand back in awe as you watch the water crash into deep pools at the base.
There are a number of different spots where you can stop and enjoy the crashing waters, but the best time to go is in the early morning which is when the light over the falls is at its most beautiful.