The world that the bulge of the great Mekong river has created here in Si Phan Don is like nothing else you will have seen. A labyrinthine Archipelago with rare freshwater dolphins darting beneath you as you drift along its waterways in a local boat, this maze of small islands in Southern Laos seems almost a mythical place that lives up to the mystery suggested by its name: literally, ‘Four Thousand Islands’.
You really feel the majesty of the Mekong river here on its way down to its final destination in the South China Sea from its source high up in Tibet. The water is absolutely central to life in Si Phan Don – the vast majority of the local people make their living by fishing its bountiful supplies.
Swimming amongst the fish is a rare breed of freshwater dolphin that calls this wetland home. This species is now considered endangered, but your chances of seeing a pink head popping up on one of the popular dolphin boat tours here are still high, and it’s an experience you won’t forget.
The archipelago is largely made up of calm, tranquil waters which the locals navigate around on small boats, but there is one place where the water plunges with real power. Si Phan Don is home to South East Asia’s largest waterfall, Donkhone Somphamit on Don Khon, and you can hire bikes to cycle around all the most popular points of interest that characterise this landscape.
This also gives you the best view on the fascinating traditional lifestyle here, with local farmers working the rice paddies, beautiful little rural villages and fragrant smells emanating from local eateries – all shaped in some small way by the ghost of the French presence which was an important part of life here in the past and which has left physical remnants in the form of the French-built rail road and its rusting locomotives.
Si Phan Don is most popular with visitors during the dry season, from when the monsoon leaves the area in October through to May the following year. Don Khon is a recommended base for your trip here, a place of charming accommodation with riverside hammocks looking out onto the water and the ancient temples. Overall, Si Phan Don is a fascinating slice of life in Laos. Located so close to the Cambodian border, it is a perfect stop-off for those on their way there.