Beach on Don Det, Laos

Cycling and Stomach Aches on Four Thousand Islands

Just as we were about to abandon ship, the engine of our crowded longboat sputtered to life and we set off across the moss-coloured surface of the Mekong, skirting around tiny grass-topped mounds. In less than ten minutes we hit the shore of Don Det with a soft bump and disembarked, trudging up the sandbank onto the one dusty road that runs the circumference of the island.  We had arrived in Si Phan Don, also known as Four Thousand Islands, the area in southern Laos where the Mekong River is at its widest, surrounding hundreds of sandy islets and some larger inhabited islands.

Mekong River, Four Thousand Islands

Don Det is referred to as the most touristy of the three main islands, but that’s not saying much. A few dozen small wooden restaurants and bars line either side of the main strip, intersped with rickety bungalows suspended on stilts above the water’s edge. Their density thins the further you venture; a twenty minute walk along the path you find yourself surrounded by the river on one side and fields dotted with houses and the occasional bungalow or restaurant on the other.

The Mekong River, Laos

We somehow found ourselves in a wooden bungalow opposite one of the noisiest restaurants on the island and settled in for a week-long stay. There’s not much to do on Four Thousand Islands besides relax; everywhere you look people laze in hammocks or sip fruit shakes in cafes. With extremely sketchy internet the main entertainment occurs alongside the river, children play in the shallows, fishermen cast nets from their narrow boats and falangs (tourists) float by in tubes or kayaks.

Cycling Path on Don Det, Laos

Biking Around Don Det and Don Khon

Since we’d gotten our tubing fix in Vang Vieng, after a couple of days on Don Det Andrew and I decided to head out and explore the island by bike. Like most days we’ve spent in Laos, the sun was shining fiercely as we set off, our tires kicking up clouds of dust as we went. Weaving alongside the river we passed buffalo grazing on parched yellow grass, half-naked kids playing boules and stray puppies sleeping in the shade.

Bikes on Don Det, Four Thousand Islands

Don Det is connected to the island of Don Khon by an ugly cement bridge which we cycled across, paying 25,000 kip (£2) each for a ticket to the waterfalls when we arrived at the other side. While searching for the falls we spotted a hand-painted sign directing us to the beach, which we followed down to a small cove, inhabited only by several restaurants and a hand-full of tourists. The sand was too hot to walk on and scorched our feet, so we took refuge in one of the restaurants for a tuna baguette before setting off again.

Beach on Don Det, Laos

Next we found our way to one of the waterfalls; while it wasn’t the most impressive we’ve seen in Laos it made for a picturesque rest stop nonetheless. As the afternoon wore on we diverted down a bone-jarringly bumpy road in search of a second waterfall; at times the path was so rocky I had to get off and walk my bike along. After an hour of this we abandoned our search and exhausted, rode wearily back to Don Det.

Waterfall on Don Khon

Sickness Strikes on Four Thousand Islands

The day after our bike ride that innocent-looking tuna baguette came back to haunt me. For the next couple of days I lay inside the bungalow, avoiding food and battling nausea while my stomach cramped relentlessly. It was almost a week before I was able to eat a full meal again, a week in which all I wanted to really eat was a bowl of Heinz tomato soup – being sick when you’re away from the comforts of home is really miserable.

Buffalo on Don Det, Laos

On the whole, while I love Laos I find its food pretty dire.  If it weren’t for the clean cafes in Luang Prabang and the French-style baguettes, the country would be a complete write-off for me food wise. Yes, I may be a fussy eater and I do generally struggle with food in Asia but even Andrew finds it difficult to get tasty meals in Laos. Hygiene and food preparation standards in Laos seem particularly dodgy in comparison to other countries in South-East Asia and we’ve both had stomach issues more than once while travelling there. Luckily the scenery, people and atmosphere in Laos make up for the bad food somewhat.

Rice Fields on Don Khong, Four Thousand Islands

Our Final Stop in Don Khong

Before leaving the area we decided to make one last stop on Don Khong, the largest of the inhabited islands. Despite its size, we found this to be the quietest and least touristy island we visited. Visitors stay along a small stretch of road where the boats dock; there aren’t any wooden bungalows to rent here, instead there’s a sparse selection of hotels and guesthouses, as well as restaurants overlooking the river.

Don Khong, Four Thousand Islands

Once again we headed out to explore the island by bike, passing along now familiar dusty, bumpy roads. We cycled by a few different schools, stopping at one to drop off some books we’d bought from Big Brother Mouse in Luang Prabang. The further we got from the main strip the more kids stopped to wave at us and people called out in greeting: “Sabaydee!” Spending a final few days on Don Khong was the perfect way to end our stay in Four Thousand Islands.

Sunset in Don Det, Laos

We spent a couple of weeks on Four Thousand Islands in Laos on Don Det, Don Khon and Don Khong cycling around and suffering from stomach aches

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  • Emiel
    Posted at 07:04h, 21 February Reply

    Beautifully written and honest post! I loved reading it. You described the perfect atmosphere (besides being sick of course) to discover rather unknown territory in a relaxing, slow pace. I really loved it!

    • Amy
      Posted at 07:14h, 21 February Reply

      Thanks Emiel! If you want to relax for a while then Four Thousand Islands is the place you need to be 🙂

  • Heidi Wagoner
    Posted at 10:12h, 21 February Reply

    It’s terrible to be so sick while in a foreign land. I feel for you. I love the way you write. Your words just took me there and made me feel part of the experience.

    • Amy
      Posted at 10:18h, 21 February Reply

      Thanks Heidi, that’s really sweet 🙂 Hopefully I’ve left the stomach aches behind in Laos but we are headed to Burma next week so I probably shouldn’t speak too soon!

  • Kellie
    Posted at 12:32h, 21 February Reply

    Eugh being ill is rubbish, stupid tuna baguette! Heinz tomato soup is just the best when you’re ill, so sweet and so delicious. Glad you got to enjoy what sounds like a very peaceful relaxing place though.

    • Amy
      Posted at 16:01h, 21 February Reply

      Yep, I definitely miss home the most when I’m sick Kellie. I’m really looking forward to catching up on some proper Heinz tomato soup when I visit the UK over the summer 🙂

  • Shane
    Posted at 17:27h, 22 February Reply

    Despite being laid low by that baguette you still seem to have been far more active than me in Don Det. Getting out of those hammocks is sooooooo hard 😉

    • Amy
      Posted at 05:35h, 23 February Reply

      I hear you Shane, Don Det does present the perfect excuse to be extremely lazy! I’m glad we went out on the bikes before I got sick, I wouldn’t have managed it otherwise.

  • Val-Eating The Globe
    Posted at 17:45h, 22 February Reply

    How disappointing to hear that the food there is a write off. This was one of the culinary countries that I was hoping to explore. Food poisoning is the absolute worst. I can’t wait to hear about Burma!

    • Amy
      Posted at 05:34h, 23 February Reply

      Hi Val, thanks for commenting. Bear in mind that I’m a fussy eater and by no means the best judge of food; you might well discover some culinary delights in Laos that I simply wasn’t brave enough to try!

  • Les / The Indie Traveller
    Posted at 16:19h, 26 February Reply

    Ahhh…. those pictures really take me down the memory lane haha 🙂 How about those sunsets, right?
    Sorry to hear about the sickness. Actually, when I read about it in the blog post title I was sure it had something to do with too many happy shakes or anything else that’s happy and readily available there in large quantities. Damn those tuna baguettes! Jokes aside, I can’t believe you got hold of Heinz tomato soup in there. The shops there must have improved lately I guess.

    • Amy
      Posted at 13:00h, 28 February Reply

      Definitely no happy shakes, pizza or anything else Les, 🙂 We didn’t find Heinz tomato soup either unfortunately, wish we had though!

  • Siobhan Oldale
    Posted at 14:27h, 31 March Reply

    You obviously haven’t eaten in Vietnam.. The food in Laos has been amazing, much tastier and hygienic that other places! No upset tummies here and I’m a very sensitive little bean!

    • Andrew
      Posted at 14:30h, 31 March Reply

      We’ve eaten plenty in Vietnam, and although we weren’t sick there we did get chicken in our ‘vegetarian’ soup! We found the food in Vietnam was better. Glad you enjoyed the food in Laos though! 🙂

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