Warning: this is just the sort of earthly paradise one is loathe to leave behind. Rising from the Mekong River at the southern point of Laos, the 4,000 Island archipelago marries bucolic charm with the exotic beauty of South-East Asia.
At just a few minutes by boat from the Cambodian border, the scintillating Mekong spreads and gives room to a breathtakingly beautiful archipelago. Without a doubt, it is here, in the province of Champassak, that time has chosen to suspend its flight. Amongst the multitude of islands there are Don Det, ‘earmarked’ for tourism, and its big sisters Don Khône and Don Khong, wilder and more discreet. Excepting the few scooters transporting some trinkets, everyone travels by boat or walks or bicycles along the islands’ verdant paths and rare roads. The imperturbable residents of this Laotian Eden still greet you with the warm smile that their Thai neighbours were famous for before they began developing mass tourism pell-mell.
Back to basics on the banks of the Mekong
Only recently has the ancient and venerable ‘land of a million elephants’ welcomed a million tourists within its borders in the space of a year. The Laotian mini-boom pales in comparison with the numbers boasted by Thailand, its hegemonic neighbour, with over fifteen million visitors annually.
In Laos, modernisation of the different infrastructural networks takes time, a long time. In Si Phan Don, for example, they didn’t have electricity until early 2009. With electricity came a massive influx of tellies, making it possible for each family to get their daily dose of Thai and Vietnamese soap operas. As for internet, it is attempting a slow and difficult conquest of this territory far from everything. In fact, this region is hell for those who are addicted to modern technology and paradise for travellers looking to recharge their batteries in the bosom of nature. The 4,000 Islands continue their peaceable path through the dry and wet seasons, far from the technological extravagance of western society. Here, the only alarm clock is a rooster living alongside villagers and a handful of tourists whose numbers are beginning to swell, attracted by the Spartan charms of a warm and gentle rural sojourn.
Paradise soon lost?
It seems that Don Det is starting to become the victim of its success. This islet, which can be explored on foot in less than two hours, has changed radically in the space of a decade. All homes now house little businesses and have rooms to let; they also serve as miniature tourist offices. The dozen or so original bungalows have been multiplied twenty-fold, thanks to their straightforward appeal: 30,000 kips (around € 3.00/£ 2.60) suffice for a bamboo cabin on stilts with a shared WC and cold shower, camping style; the warm weather makes this lifestyle possible. Where tourism is concerned, the inhabitants of Don Det quickly understood that their island had everything it needed to become an ideal destination for world travellers of all ages. Some locals have begun building more comfortable habitats with bathrooms and air conditioning. And yet, true to form and indifferent to the allure of improved comfort, the natives still wash in the river.
Joined by a narrow stone bridge dating from the colonial era, the island of Don Khône is wilder, with its bamboo forest and lovely waterfalls. There are also a few rooms to let here and there, but there’s no comparison with its popular little neighbour. We can only pray that things won’t change; it is generally agreed that the atmosphere on Don Khône resembles that of Don Det ten years back. From the southern point of this island one can see Cambodia and, with a bit of luck, some Irrawaddy dolphins, a critically endangered freshwater species.
Si Phan Don: islands and hours
The 4,000 islands are often visited as a relaxing break during a tour of South-East Asia or at the end of a visit to the lavish cultural sites in the north of Laos. You go there thinking that you’ll relax for two or three days, just to catch your breath; then you realize you’ve already been there one week, retained by the enticing nonchalance of the place. In Si Phan Don, hammocks are de rigueur and nap time is extensible. In the same vein, every restaurateur makes it clear that patience is a must. No matter - in this corner of paradise, time is the most precious of commodities..