Slices of paradise in Asia are becoming harder to find each year but fortunately Laos’ southern islands, covered up for half the year, continue to buck the trend.
By Dave Stamboulis.
Laos isn’t known as an island-hopping destination. Most visitors make a beeline for the cultural attractions of Luang Prabang, and nature lovers head to the mountainous north where hill tribe trekking and river kayaking lead a burgeoning eco tourism movement. Yet this tiny landlocked nation is actually home to more islands than Thailand, and while many of them aren’t more than a few lily pads and tree roots protruding from the mighty Mekong, others offer white sand beaches, plenty of sightseeing options, as well as some of the most chilled out vibe in all Southeast Asia.
Si Phan Don, the Lao name meaning 4,000 islands, gets its moniker from the thousands of tiny islets, some not much bigger than a small car, that emerge from the Mekong River during the March-May dry season. The riverine archipelago more than halves during the rainy season, and while it really doesn’t resemble an island nation, there are indeed some real gems here, beckoning more and more travelers to Laos’ south as the word gets out.
The stars of the show are several islands down near the Cambodian border. Don Khon and Don Det are connected by an old French railway bridge, and are home to some of the sleepiest bungalow accommodations you’ll find in the world. Don Det caters mostly to the backpacker crowd, with straw and bamboo bungalows furnished with only one required hammock hanging on a deck overlooking the river, and while electricity and the internet are now part of the makeup here, life is about as languid as the river slowly flowing by outside.
Across the bridge, Don Khon is slightly more upmarket, with a few boutique hotels now creeping in amongst the trees. The Sala Don Khone (www.salalaoboutique.com) features floating “raftels” along with a set of refurbished French colonial villas in a garden, where again, the entire focus is on propping one’s feet up and watching the world go by.
However, it’s not all R & R here. The southern tip of Don Khon is home to one of the last remaining populations of Irrawaddy freshwater dolphins, which can be spotted by boats that head out early each morning and late afternoon. Additionally, there are some killer waterfalls here, most notably Khone Phapeng, Laos’ version of Niagara Falls, which thunder and hammer their way down the Mekong, so dramatic that the French had to put a railway through here to pass through them with freight bound for Indochina.
Nearby Don Khong is much larger, and doesn’t offer as many activities, but the interior of the island is made up of abundant rice fields and farms, which are incredibly verdant during the planting season and quite picturesque to travel through by bicycle, the preferred means of getting around here. Longtail boats connect the east side of the island, which is being slowly developed for tourism, with both Don Det and Don Khon farther south.
Slightly farther north, Don Daeng is home to one of Laos’ first family homestay programs, and even today, doesn’t see many tourists. In the dry season, the island has a truly magnificent large white sand beach fronting its west coast, and it is also home to a rather quirky 5-star resort, La Folie Lodge (http://lafolie-laos.com), a colonial affair that faces the UNESCO ruins of Wat Phu and offers guests free pickup on fascinating bamboo rafts perched over a few dugout canoes, with rattan throne chairs sitting on top for the distinguished visitors.
I first visited Don Daeng over a decade ago, and returning recently, was impressed to see that there had been few changes. There still were no cars on the island, everyone got around by bicycle, almost nobody spoke English, other than the hundreds of smiling and welcoming kids who would give me flowers and say “Hello” as I pedalled around the dirt roads. No hawkers selling tourist trinkets banana pancakes, nor jaded enterprises as seen elsewhere in Southeast Asia, just a leisurely snail’s pace of life imbibing everyone with a nonchalant and totally laid back vibe that was just perfect, and what a real vacation should be about.
Wat Phu, across the river, actually isn’t on an island, but connected to the mainland by a small peninsula, yet it too feels silent and sleepy. The temple ruins here might not be as impressive as nearby Angkor Wat, but they have plenty of atmosphere and charm, not to mention a fraction of the tourists. My guide led me around the nearby village of Champasak to show me some fine French Colonial homes, and here I came across an elderly woman tending to her garden and polishing the wooden bannister on her old home. She invited us in for a cup of strong Lao coffee, the beans freshly picked from the nearby Bolaven Plateau, and it was only later that I learned that she was Lao royalty, quietly enjoying her retirement in this happy and sleepy spot.
Just outside of Champasak, another upscale resort has opened, The River Resort (http://theriverresortlaos.com), with dapper villas overlooking both rice paddies and the river. Nothing is ostentatious nor is the land overdeveloped here, it’s just a bit more comfortable of a spot from which to enjoy a sunset drink and marvel over the fact that busy Ubon Ratchathani, in Thailand, is only an hour or two away, yet seemingly worlds apart from here.
Asian development in the tourist sector tends to come fast and furious, with slices of paradise becoming harder to find each year. Fortunately, Laos’ southern islands, covered up for half the year, continue to buck that trend and are well worth a few slow weeks of one’s time.