When you think of Laos, Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang usually spring to mind.
Don Det is one of the most underrated places in South East Asia and a place where time slows right down. It is part of what is known as The 4 000 Islands near the Laos-Cambodian border, surrounded by the Mekong River. During my travels last year, I met a British backpacker – Alex his name was, at Kuang Si Waterfalls and spent the following day on paddle bikes, getting lost around Luang Prabang. While trading stories and tips, he told me of a magical place where swinging the day away in hammocks, finding an adventure, gazing at the most amazing sunsets and devouring homemade shakshukas were a daily occurrence. This place just so happened to be Don Det.
Since this place wasn’t on my radar, I went with minimal expectation and thought I’d check it out for a few days before moving on. While there isn’t an endless list of things to do, I was stuck there for over a week. I have no regrets, this island holds a very special place in my heart and whenever I think about it, I get the warm fuzzies. Here are a couple of reasons why everyone should make their journey down to pay this island a visit.
The sunsets are to die for
Once you hop off the boat, in search for accommodation, you are torn between two sides of the island – Sunrise and Sunset. The riverbanks are lined with spots up for grabs to watch the beautiful sunrise/sunset. It may come in the form of a hammock; cushions on the floor, moon chairs or proper tables, the options are endless.
Tip: My two favourite spots to catch the sunset are from Happy Bar and from Oi’s Place. Grab a couple of beers, sit back, relax and enjoy as time passes.
If you’re feeling hungry at Oi’s, definitely try her shakshuka.
Throughout the years, I’ve noticed a majority of people (myself included) rushing through the region or any one of its many countries. A lot of people have to deal with time constraints and most have no idea when they may come back so naturally jam packing their schedules seems like an obvious solution – but in all honesty is extremely exhausting.
Sometimes it is nice to be able to take a break from endlessly moving around. That’s the best thing about Don Det, it isn’t difficult to stop and smell the roses. Throughout the country Laos implements an 11pm curfew so there isn’t any crazy partying until the wee hours. The entire day can be used exploring neighbouring islands and you’ll still have time to spend your days swinging on a hammock. The island is a great place to recharge before heading on your next fast paced adventure.
Tip: During my stay on the island, I rented out a private bungalow for USD$5 from Oi’s Place. It came with a hammock right on my porch with a view of the rice fields.
Has anyone actually taken TLC’s advice and NOT chased waterfalls? There’s an abundant supply of bike rentals around the island, hop on one and you’re on your way.
Tip: It’s almost impossible to get lost if you decide to rent a bike, there’s one main path around the island.
On the south side of Don Det, there is a bridge leading to the next island over, Don Khon. Here, there are signs leading you on your adventure but be warned, these aren’t you average waterfalls. Khone Phapheng Falls is the largest and one of the most powerful falls in South East Asia. It probably isn’t the best idea to attempt going for a swim.
What I found interesting about the waterfalls was the fishing method of the locals. A massive contraption is placed on the rocks at the bottom of the falls and the fishes naturally get thrown in by the force of the falls. It’s quite amazing watching the locals balance on the slippery rocks while gathering their catch of the day.
Bon fire and good times
On the sunset side, keep a look out for Happy Bar. Some days, they do trips out to a “beach”, which in reality is a small island in the middle of the Mekong and get a bon fire going. Hop on a little boat and ride about 15 minutes or so upstream and viola, a nice plot to start the sunset festivities. Manni (a British backpacker who has been living on Don Det for the last few years) runs it and he’s such a great laugh. With bon fire skills on fleek, you’re guaranteed to have a great time. The best bit of the day is when he pits everyone up against each other with a stack of friendly yet competitive games. Turns out intoxicated me is very competitive.
Tip: If you walk further upstream, you can jump in and the currents will carry you down, almost like a natural slide.
Throughout my travels through Laos, I never came across the concept of a traditional Laotian BBQ. I’m not even sure how I managed to remain so ignorant. Luckily for me, I was on Don Det so I didn’t have to look far to experience it. This is a social experience, sat around a table with a sizeable group, drinking and enjoying the meal.
The pot is placed on top of burning coal, the surrounding “moat” holds this amazing broth and in the middle there’s a metallic dome for the meat to sizzle off. I personally think it’s got elements of both Korean BBQ (BBQing your food on a grill at your table) and Japanese shabu-shabu (boiling off your ingredients).
If you’ve ever had to cook your own meal in a hot-pot, you’ll kind of know the drill. First goes in the vegetables as they cook the longest. Instead of using oil, a couple of slabs of pork lard are placed on the highest part of the dome. The fats dribble down the dome that helps cook off your assortment of meats and prevent it from sticking. There are dipping sauces for extra flavour, although the meats are already marinated in an amazing sauce.
Tip: I can’t quite recall how we ended up having a Lao BBQ but I recall that it wasn’t on the menu. Ask around and suss out where you can get your hands on this because you definitely need to try it.
Kayaking along the Mekong
There’s one tour that I’d recommend you should do and that is kayaking along the Mighty Mekong.
Your day starts off reasonably early and goes for the entire day. While most of the time is spent venturing around Don Det and its neighbouring islands in the kayak, you also get to check out some waterfalls, cross a very questionable bridge, join in with some local kids during their play time at the local market and have lunch in Cambodia! Since you’re extremely close to the Laos-Cambodian border, the best spot to have lunch is on the Cambodian side of town.
In case you didn’t know, there are dolphins inhabiting this part of the Mekong. They are called Irrawaddy Dolphins and as told by my guide, there are only 5 left in the wild in this section – which is a tragedy as they are listed as critically endangered. While I was unable to get a photo of the dolphins frolicking, it was quite an amazing sight to see them before they are gone for good.
Being such a small island, everyone ends up crossing paths multiple times (especially if you stay on one side of the island) and it is really a tight-knit community. During the time I spent there, I met heaps of expats/backpackers living in Don Det and absolutely loved the island. It’s really not hard to see why. At the end of the day, almost everyone knows each other and it’s incredibly hard to leave this amazing bunch of people. Unfortunately for me, my time on the island came to an end when I got accepted into my master’s program and had to move my entire life to the other side of the world.
Nonetheless, I will be back soon Don Det. You haven’t seen the last of me!
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Peace, love and good vibes