Don Det and 4,000 Islands, Laos travel tips

There’s no electricity on Don Det besides the infrequent generator power. We heard that the island was going to be connected to mainland power by April 2009, so for all that we know may have changed by now.

Service on Don Det is incredibly, unbelievably slow. Keep in mind that almost everything is made to order. The slowness is a good thing, relax and enjoy.

Where we ate and drank:

  • Mr. Tho’s – Stuck on a small island with lots of cruddy restaurants serving tourist slop, Lauren decided to take a tour of the island’s specialty, pumpkin burgers, which are made fresh when you order. You’ll hear the cook pounding pumpkin, garlic, ginger, and some other goodies, then the magical sound of pan frying. Mr. Tho’s was Lauren’s favorite, moist, and really pumpkin-y. Pumpkin burgers elsewhere were more a crusty deep fried fritter. Todd liked Mr. Tho’s curry: YEH
  • Pumpkin burger, Don Det, 4,000 Islands, Laos
    Pumpkin burger | Photo by Lauren Girardin
  • Jone Nee Guesthouse and Restaurant – We went to a dinner with other travelers there, and they were all happy enough with their dinners. We didn’t eat. Todd’s happy cocktail was not very, and Lauren’s rice pudding was inedible, not pudding so much as a plate of cold rice mixed with milk and sugar: NAH
  • Mr. Noi’s – Another lunch, another pumpkin burger. Too crispy and dry: MEH
  • Bakery – Considering that this bakery is on a dusty, powerless island in the deep Laotian south, the goods are phenomenal. The best is the spicy, tremendous focaccia, good for take away for your long bus ride over the southern border. The cakes are oddly unsatisfying. Opens at noon (if the baker was Laotian, he’d be up at dawn, but as a falang, he must sleep in) so, frustratingly, it’s not a breakfast destination, as it deserves to be: YEH
  • Rustic bakery, Don Det, 4,000 Islands, Laos
    Don Det’s bakery | Photo by Lauren Girardin
  • Cafe Rouge – We went with a group of eight. Though there was no one else in the restaurant, it took two hours for our food to arrive by which time we’d all gnawed off chunks of the table. We were so hungry that our dinners should have tasted like manna from heaven, but instead it was only so-so: MEH
  • Mekong Dream Restaurant and Hammock Lounge – We were intrigued by the phrase “Hammock Lounge” in their name. We were thrilled with their food. Not the cheapest meal on the island, but the sweet-sour-spicy Laotian food was worth every extra kip. Minus for the annoying cats that constantly leap on your lap as soon as the food comes out. Mekong Dream, it’s time to put kitty behind closed doors: YEH
  • Magical Moments with Mr. Man – Another pumpkin burger. Crunchy, but a good burger none the less. Particularly slow service, we went through two beers each waiting for our food: YEH
  • Reggae Cafe – Perfect setup for relaxing in hammocks with a view of the river and a typical “reggae” menu: YEH
  • Jasmin Indian Restaurant – Run by folks from Malaysia, where we’ve heard Indian food is sublime, Jasmin’s food was inexplicably awful. We begged for spice when we ordered, as did other nearby tables, yet we got what may be the blandest Indian food in this world. Even dousing it with a tablespoon of chilli powder that we had the waiter bring over did not help. Mysteriously, this place is packed every night, but those tourists must hail from places that don’t have Indian restaurants of their own: NAH

Where we stayed:

  • Sonetip Guest House a.k.a. Mr. Bounsone Guesthouse and Restaurant a.k.a. “Mike, the German Guy’s Place” – We were looking for a quiet bungalow away from the main part of town, that was on the river (rather than across the dirt road from it) and had a Western toilet. Sonetip was all that. Like most places, cold shared shower, shared toilet, generator power from 6 p.m. – 10 p.m. and the only outlet is in the kitchen. We only ate breakfast there, which was fine, not spectacular. In exchange for the quiet, you’ll need to rent one of Mike’s bikes, which are all falling apart or broken, and pedal for 10-15 minutes to get to the main part of town (for most restaurants, internet, and sunset). Also, Mike is taking advantage of his isolation, charging 1,000 kip more than anyone else for a beer and a day bike rental. But, since the bungalow is only $3 US a day, what the hell.: YEH
  • Sonetip Guesthouse bungalows, Don Det, 4,000 Islands, Laos
    Sonetip Guesthouse bungalows | Photo by Lauren Girardin

What we saw:

  • Mr. B’s Sunset Bungalows – We visited other travelers here for sunset, which is the main reason to stay at Mr. B’s. The rooms were fine, though the nearby generators were numerous and loud: YEH
  • Somphamit Falls a.k.a. Somphamith Waterfalls, Don Khone – There’s not much to do on the 4,000 Islands, which is kinda the reason you go. You can kayak the river, join a dolphin spotting tour, or see the waterfalls. Somphamit is the waterfall you don’t need to pay through the nose for a boat ride to see. Just bike on over to Don Khone, pay the silly bridge fee, and keep biking on dusty, bumpy roads to the waterfall. Large, rocky, pretty enough and only a small amount of litter in the river: YEH
  • Don Det, 4,000 Islands, Laos
    Sunset over the river at 4,000 Islands | Photo by Lauren Girardin
  • Border Crossing, Laos to Cambodia – There were lots of rumors about nightmare border crossings, usually involving booking a border crossing with a hotel/agent/tout only to find yourself abandoned on the Cambodian side. Generally these rumors come from someone trying to sell you their border crossing trip. Shop around on Don Det and haggle, the more people you book with the cheaper it is so grab a few other tourists. As far as we could tell, it doesn’t matter where you book on Don Det, you all wind up in the same boat to cross to the mainland, then the same van to the border outpost. There, you need to bring US dollars in 20s and 1s to pay the various fees, which yes, are bribes, but are at least fixed price bribes. Oddly, the van will drop you at the border outpost, then frighteningly, drive away with your bags, with not a word to you about what’s going on. After you get stamped out of Laos, then walk a few hundred meters over the border, get your Cambodian visa and stamp, pick your bag up from where it’s been dumped in the dust, then get sorted into a new van headed for your final destination in Cambodia. It’s cheaper to book through to Strung Treng and then haggle for an onward van from there: YEH