x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

The river islands are the key to laid-back Laos

I enjoyed the story on Laos last week (Rhythm of the Mekong, February 13). I'm planning a backpacking trip to Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia this year, and I wondered what there is to do on the Mekong in the southern part of the country, and how to get there?

I enjoyed the story on Laos last week (Rhythm of the Mekong, February 13). I'm planning a backpacking trip to Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia this year, and I wondered what there is to do on the Mekong in the southern part of the country, and how to get there. I know there are many trips operating in the Mekong Delta in Vietnam, but have heard that the experience is now quite touristy, so I'd be keen to do it from the Cambodian side. Can you advise?

The Mekong in southern Laos is a broad sweep of water which widens as it becomes the Mekong Delta. The "Four Thousand Islands", or Si Phan Don, are small islands dotted in the middle of this enormous river, and are well worth a visit. They fill a 50km-long stretch of river in Champasak province and are the epitome of laid-back Laos, with a general absence of roads, electricity, shops, computers, telephones or other stressful distractions. It's certainly less visited than the Mekong Delta in Vietnam.

The largest of the Four Thousand Islands are habitable year-round, but when the river level rises, some of the islands are inundated. On Don Det and Don Khong, two of the largest islands which accommodate tourists in simple guesthouses, you can lie in hammocks, swim in the river, take a boat tour of the area, cycle between small hamlets surrounded by fields and free-roaming farm animals and hike to local waterfalls.

Reaching the Four Thousand Islands is not for the faint-hearted: if you want a smooth journey, it may be better to base yourself in Luang Prabang and join one of the many Mekong cruises which operate from there. However, if you have plenty of time and don't mind an adventure, head to Pakse via a 10-hour trip by coach from Vientiane, the Laoatian capital. This can be done in a comfortable, air-conditioned overnight coach costing around $20 (Dh73) - purchase tickets from the main bus station or any guesthouse or travel agent in town.

From Pakse, it's around a three-hour journey in a songthaew, or open wagon converted into a bus, to Ban Nakasang, from where you take the short boat ride to Don Det or Don Khong. Combined tickets can also be purchased to and from Phnom Penh, and the Four Thousand Islands are only about an hour's bus journey from the Cambodian border, but the journey can be long and uncomfortable, so don't try it unless you don't mind roughing it.

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