The Journey to the 4000 Islands
The 4000 Islands in Laos was on the top of our list for places to see. Lonely Planet described this destination as the spot where “your pulse palpably drops,” and claimed the island of Don Det to be “the Khao San Road of Laos” (two seemingly contradictory claims). Out of the two statements they had one thing right: our pulse surged with irritation whenever trying to get anything done followed by dropping an alarming rate during the evening out of sheer boredom. Perhaps it was the time of year, or maybe just the bad weather, but the 4000 Islands did not live up to everything we’d heard and read.
To start, we had to get there from Kong Lor Village, which on a map doesn’t seem all that far away, but in Laos you have to remember that what should take an hour will take you three (if not more). On top of that there was no direct route, so the evening before our departure we overheard another couple mention a bus that stops outside our guesthouse, which sounded much better than the open-air, back-of-a-truck alternative. From the guesthouse the bus would drop us off at a “junction” of sorts, where a bus would come by on its way to Thakhek. From here we were told to hop on another bus down to Pakse, stay for the night, then go to the bus station to catch yet another bus to the ferry terminal. Finally, a boat would then take us to Don Khon, the more relaxed alternative to Don Det. Piece of cake. We’d heard so much about these damn islands by now it would be blasphemy to skip them (or so we thought).
The first leg of the journey wasn’t terrible, but Laos did decide to become unusually cold and rainy that day. Being a backpacker through Southeast Asia one doesn’t have too much room for a jacket, so Kyle and I put on all the layers we could find and trudged on. The first bus did indeed drop us at the “junction,” which turned out to be a small restaurant-shack on the side of the road. Luckily the lady was serving hot soup so we grabbed a bite to try and warm up. Soon after the second bus to Thakhek showed up, so we clambered on and were soon off again. A few pit stops later we were there (at an actual bus station this time), and finally found the next bus to Pakse. At this point it was around 11am, and we’d been travelling since seven in the morning. Not bad, but we really had no idea how long this next bus journey was going to be. As usual, we loaded up on Pringles and crackers, threw a scarf on and checked the clock: noon. Not long after we pulled out, we stopped yet again at another station (by station I mean a dirt area surrounded by women trying to sell you cooked chicken on a stick). Thinking this was just a toilet break, we got off for about 10 minutes, then hopped back on again. Twenty minutes went past, then thirty, fifty, an hour…and still no movement. We soon realized that they were waiting for the bus to fill up, which could have taken anywhere between half an hour and three. Again, efficiency is not a strong point in Southeast Asia. An hour and a half later and we were on our way, yet again, to Pakse. Finally at around nine at night we arrived (keep in mind that when you search this route on Google it says it should take about six hours). Exhausted, we found a hotel, grabbed a curry and called it a night.
The next day we headed to the station, expecting to hop on a bus down to the ferry terminal, which should take no more than a couple of hours. To our surprise we were loaded onto the back of a pick-up truck with two long seats on the outer edges, and one going down the center. To say we were the minority here would be an understatement: we were the only caucasians on this “bus.” After this ride I can see another obvious reason why it takes ages to get anywhere in Laos. There were probably about 30 people on the truck, with each person living at a separate village. Instead of making designated stopping areas to allow multiple people to get off at once, we stopped for each and every individual person, as well as whenever the chicken ladies as I soon called them came out waving their meat sticks for people to buy. Four hours later (on what should have been a two hour journey), and we arrived at the ferry terminal. We hopped on a boat and finally arrived at Don Khon after a day and a half of travelling. All we could think of was “this better be worth it.”
Don Khon and Don Det
Since Lonely Planet had described Don Det as being the Khao San Road of the 4000 Islands, we opted for the slightly quieter island of Don Khon for sleeping. We were meeting my parents in Bangkok in less than a week so had plenty of time to experience some rowdy nightlife (yes, my parents do like to party). I guess you could say we were expecting to chill out in our hammock by the river, grab some food in the town then perhaps a few drinks later on. We were able to do the first two, except by about 8pm the village completely shut down with not much more to do than sit in bed and wait to fall asleep. There’s relaxed, and then there’s just plain boring. We were definitely experiencing the latter.
The next day we rented bikes and explored both Don Khon and Don Det (see my post on scamming in Laos to read about our adventure in crossing the bridge between these two islands). It made for a decent day: we saw a few waterfalls, ate lunch on Don Det and confirmed our suspicions that this island was not that much busier than Don Khon. The weather had improved slightly by this time, but the Mekong river was still a poop-brown colour with a consistent flow of garbage running through. Some hostels rent out tubes for backpackers to use here – I wouldn’t even put my foot in let alone willingly jump in for fun.
We were originally planning on staying in the 4000 Islands for three days, but ended up leaving after one. Now, we’ve read numerous accounts from other bloggers who loved this place, but for us it was just too far to travel for too little in return. The weather wasn’t the best, the water definitely wasn’t as swimmable as we’d heard, and to top it all off most local Laos people who we dealt with in restaurants were extremely unwelcoming (and nine times out of ten would get our order wrong). After two nights we packed up and headed on another 24 hour journey to Koh Chang in Thailand for Christmas.
For travellers coming up from Cambodia to Laos or vice versa, I would say to stop and stay on Don Det just to see the place. However, do not go out of your way. As we experienced it’s a whole lot of travel for an excessive amount of nothing.