If relaxation is what you seek, then look no further than the 4000 Islands in Laos. This sleepy hideaway from the chaos that is South East Asia is in a universe of its own. From the moment you step off the tiny pencil boat from the main land, you get an immediate sense of how slow of a pace everything runs here. I’m talking glacial speeds. With only a small dirt path that lines the island of Don Det, all you can hear is the occasional motorbike passing, roosters crowing and reggae music playing in the background.
The 4000 Islands is a collection of small, and mostly uninhabitable, specks of lands through the Mekong River on the Laos border. Most people stay either on Don Det, Don Khong, and Don Khon. Don Det is a backpackers paradise. With plenty of affordable guesthouses lined along the coast, backpackers are attracted to the slow pace of life at the right price. Be prepared for a step back in time, as electricity has only recently hit the island, meaning Wifi and Air-conditioning are a luxury. The island is prone to blackouts, day and night, which is bad news bears on a hot day with no chance of cooling down. For a digital nomad like myself, the lack of (strong) wifi was concerning at first.
All of this disconnect to the real world truly forces you to relax, slow down and enjoy the peace and quiet. Without all of the first world distractions, you actually meet fellow travelers at every chance you get. You watch the sunset in good company, have fresh fruit everywhere you look and are completely surrounded by water. All great things in my book.
We decided to stay on Don Det for seven days. Quite a while in some people’s eyes, but we really wanted to take it all in and spend a few days doing absolutely nothing. Without Wifi, this was extremely possible. Don Det has two main sides – sunrise and sunset. Both are equally as gorgeous, but the sunrise side is a bit quieter and have a nicer selection of guesthouses. We stayed at Baba’s Guesthouse for $25 AUD a night, which included fairly decent wifi, two fans and a gorgeous second story balcony overlooking the river. The only downside was that the fans weren’t nearly strong enough to keep us cool at night, but that would have been a problem anywhere we went.
There’s plenty of things to do on and off the island to keep you exploring. One of our favourite things to do was renting a bicycle for 10,000 KIP for the day and riding around the island. We stopped at the pool at the southern tip of the island, and for 25,000 KIP you can spend the rest of the day cooling off in the pool and relaxing under a shady umbrella. We rode our bikes to the French Bridge that connects Don Det and Don Khon, and snapped a few photos there as well. Riding your bikes around the island is really the only way to get around the whole thing. Trust me, we walked around the island and it took us ages in the blistering heat, which then resulted into a massive storm. Take bikes, your legs and skin will thank you later.
Another great thing to do is a kayak tour. We’re normally opposed to expensive day tours, but this one really gives you your money’s worth. There’s three tour operators on the island and all charge the same price. We went with Wonderful Tours, as they were recommended by Lonely Planet. For 180,000 KIP, you get breakfast, a full day kayak tour, lunch, entrance to the two waterfalls in the area, a hike through Don Khong, and a visit over to Cambodia. It’s the first time I’ve ever kayaked through a border! It’s a really long day, and sometimes the kayaking could be quite challenging, but all in all it was an awesome day that I highly recommend. We got to see the biggest waterfall in South East Asia, and got to spot the Irrawaddy Dolphins while kayaking. Great day!
The sunsets on Don Det are truly out of this world, and one of the best ways to watch the sun fade is on the Sunset Booze Cruise, run by Manny at Happy Bar. For 50,000 KIP, you get taken out on the river for 30 minutes to a small bank of an island. There’s Lao Lao passed around, frisbees being thrown and human pyramids attempting not to crumble. Super cool experience with new friends, but I recommend trying to get the tour going before 3 pm. We left at 4 pm, and didn’t have much time on the island.
During dry season, you can also tube and kayak on your own if you want. When it’s wet season, the river moves too quickly for you to be able to get out on your own without heading toward the waterfalls. No bueno.
After you’re finished with all of the activities, you have plenty of options to spend hours, if not days, relaxing. Almost every bar and restaurant have cushions and hammocks sprawled out for you to lay down and relax. Some of our favourite bars to watch sunset is at Happy Bar and Oi’s Restaurant. Happy Bar is a cute little shack on stilts, with graffiti and quotes all over the walls, painted by content travelers over the last five years. The owner, Manny, is famous among the South East Asia travelers for a variety of reasons, but I’ll always remember him as being super welcoming and kind.
There’s a lot of options for food, but we only (I’m not even kidding) ONLY ate at one restaurant the whole time. Mama Thanon’s is located on the sunrise side, and you’ll know it’s her restaurant because directly outside is a bike rental space. She’ll also probably come out and tell you to buy something. It’s hands down the cheapest food on the island and the biggest portions we’ve seen. Super tasty, always good service and hits the pocket lightly.
Other fan favourites on the sunrise side include Adam’s Bar, Reggae Bar and Jasmine Restaurant. Adam’s Bar always plays movies from about 8 pm onwards. Reggae Bar sometimes lights a fire pit and plays, yep you guessed it, reggae. And Jasmine’s has some of the best Indian food in Laos. They also have a restaurant in Pakse as well.
We spent a few days exploring and a few days relaxing in a hammock. I practiced yoga on our balcony overlooking the river and even read two books in a week. 4000 Islands truly forces you into a new state of mind, a new state of relaxation I had never reached before. We met incredible people who we are still hanging out with, but now in Cambodia. And most of all, we finally slowed down and took in our surroundings for what they were – bliss.