Don Det, Southwest Laos
Bridget Casey | Photography by Michael Marquand
The adventure begins before my arrival on Don Det, the most popular destination in Si Phan Don and a 4,000 island archipelago in Southwest Laos. A van takes me from the small city of Pakse down the Mekong River, mere miles from the Cambodian border. Roads in Southeast Asia are not well paved which can make for a bumpy, disruptive ride, but it all becomes worth it for the gorgeous scenery and adventures that await me.
Poverty and beauty intermingle in Southeast Asia. For all the scarcity of the economy, Laos does not lack in exotic plants and lush greenery. Woodlands and comically rounded hills and mountains provide a magnificent backdrop, emblematic of rural areas in Asia. Along the roads, a lot of dust kicks up which can keep passengers from getting a glimpse of the rundown bars and shanties where many residents of Southern Laos reside. Families on motorbikes pass us with dust masks to protect them from the debris. It’s not uncommon to see as many as five people piled onto a struggling bike in this part of the world.
As we approach the shores of the Mekong, our driver collects our bags and loads them into slow boats, or elongated vessels with small motors, typically covered by a wooden canopy. Fisherman and families fill the rivers, enjoying the sun and views of the many islands.
Don Det is one of the larger islands in the archipelago. Some are as small as a couple of feet, sprouting only enough foliage to provide refuge to swarms of insects. Our boat is crowded, making the seating area intimate. We are elbow to elbow for the duration of the passage and need to gaze over our luggage, loaded in the front, to get a sense of our surroundings. Over the backpacks, I take in the various isles, other colorful slow boats and the rushing current of the Mekong River. After about fifteen minutes, the boat pulls into a sand bank, and we unload before we grab our luggage. There’s an urgency to find a place to stay as it’s a small, walkable island, with a long pathway dividing the sunrise and sunset view bungalows.
Semi-domesticated dogs, cats and chickens greet travelers by the restaurants and shops along the main street. My companions and I quickly reserve rooms at a guesthouse with sunrise views. A more modest accommodation, the house attracts us primarily because of its proximity to the local eateries and nightlife. The bedrooms are dimly lit, with mosquito nets above the beds. The bathrooms have plumbing, which is not always something travelers can expect in Southeast Asia, but the appearance is simple, derelict. The other selling point of this guesthouse is the outside deck, complete with hammocks to watch the sunrise. After booking our lodging, we set off to find dinner.
The restaurants feature an array of fare from pumpkin burgers to fragrant curries, as well as Western staples like pizza and cookies. As an adventurous eater, I prefer to try the Asian dishes, also preferred by the locals, rather than eating European and American comfort food. I eat some of the spiciest, most delicious curries I've ever tasted. The restaurants provide outdoor seating to look out onto the Mekong - never far away, the river always provides an enchanting backdrop.
The next day, we rent bikes for a minimal fee to cruise the less inhabited parts of the island and to cross the bridge into Don Khon, one of the few other islands with accommodations. While there are fewer places to stay on this island, it has a lot to offer. There’s a small beach surrounded by rocks to take a quick dip; Li Phi Falls, a small, craggy waterfall; and another Asian and European influenced restaurant that overlooks the Mekong.
A little further into the island I spot Wat Khan Tai, a red and gold pagoda — a tiered tower with multiple eaves –– and one of a few monasteries spread throughout the islands. Monks in bright orange garb venture into Don Det as well and can be seen chanting in the morning on restaurant balconies.
We take our bikes back a little late, realizing that there’s not much light when away from the houses in the evening. My bike chain gets stuck on a stone on the path, and I lose my friends who go several feet ahead of me. I calmly walk the bike back toward the main stretch, reminding myself I cannot be more than a half a mile away from our guesthouse. A few minutes later, my friends reappear, having sensed something is wrong. We find some light at a nearby house, and one of them pops the stone out and realigns the chain. After this experience, I feel I have earned a Beerlao – a tasty lager sold for $2 a bottle throughout the country – before we turn in for the night.
Laying in a hammock as the sun rises over the balcony of our bungalow is a charming way to start the next day, and it becomes a favorite pastime during our three-day sojourn. However, I decide to be adventurous after my eggs and tea in the morning and book a day-long kayaking adventure on the Mekong. As I discover, the trip is for far more advanced kayakers as I row against a rough current at various times throughout the journey. Albeit the current, it’s a wonderful way to get a clearer sense of the geography of the area as a great deal of our time on the island is spent wandering, eating and biking, which does not lend itself to a full view of the Don Det and its surrounding islands.
The rest of the trip is a mix of hour-long excursions on the Mekong and hikes through the forests -- green and lush, with several types of trees, including palm and banana. The clearings open to locals harvesting bamboo and informally selling mango slices. The residents of the area are friendly, but like most Southeast Asians, aggressive when selling products. They approach travelers and ask them to buy their products until someone gives them an apparent dismissal. Many of them are open to bartering for just about anything, from food to transportation.
During our final hours, we decide to embrace the best of what Don Det has to offer: relaxation. It is near impossible to compete with a rest in the hammock and views of the Mekong from when the sun rises in the morning to when it sets in the evening. Whether it’s tubing in the lazy river, napping in hammocks, swimming just off the coast or taking a stroll through the villages and forests, the island is an excellent place to settle back and unwind.