Don Det blogs will tell you that Si Phan Don, the 4000 Island region of southern Laos bordering Cambodia where the wide Mekong river splinters into a web of narrower channels creating an archipelago, is a great place to chill on a budget. This may be true if you set your expectations appropriately.
The river is beautiful and generally clean, but the islands are densely populated with guest house on top of guest house even outside the main village. If you want seclusion choose your location carefully and don’t be fooled by the maps. There are many more guest houses than appear in Lonely Planet or on TripAdvisor with even more being built.
The developed areas are not tidy. The tropical plantings cover some of the disorder but for the most part it’s a junky looking place. Some individual proprietors do have well-tended properties, such and Mama Leuah Guesthouse and Restaurant, Baba Guest House, Little Eden, etc.
Prices are set to attract the backpacking crowd and services follow suit with mostly basic budget accommodations, cheap meals and day trip excursions available, therefore don’t expect quality. Again there are exceptions. We had one of our best meals in Laos at Mama Leuah’s on her pleasant terrace overlooking a beautiful section of the Mekong. Other highlights were the sunset at Little Eden with a gin a tonic and breakfast on the Baba Guest House terrace with views over the Mekong in the morning light.
One of the better options on Don Det, Baba Guesthouse, located on the sunrise side of the island, was quiet at night despite its proximity to the concentration of shops, services and restaurants near the boat dock.
They have a terrace that overlooks the Mekong with lovely light on the river in the morning. Breakfast, however, is not included in the price. We had the toast, butter and jam, simple but nice, and coffee, also good quality served with fresh milk, a rarity.
The rooms are spacious and clean but offer minimal amenities. There is soap but no shampoo, no safe, nor water boiler. Toilet paper and bottled water are resupplied each day. The bed is hard but amazingly comfortable to sleep on. The room is well air-conditioned and has a fan and mosquito netting over the bed, although we didn’t see many mosquitos.
We had some difficulty with the wifi. It worked on some devices but not others. In talking with the owner this may just be a temporary problem with their wifi service. The have a website with good information about the islands but offer no services themselves. You will have to go next door to Mr. Mo’s or one of the other agencies in town to book tickets and activities.
Lunch at Mama Leuah Guesthouse and Restaurant
A 20-30 minute walk from the town center, this small top rated restaurant with a lovely open terrace decorated in tropical woods and wicker furniture is right on the water with great views.
The property, unlike most of the island, is well tended. The rooms, from what I could tell from the outside and what I read, look small and basic but face the river and have hammocks on the front porch.
The food was delightful, probably the best curry I’ve had since I’ve been here. The green curry had balanced flavors, nice looking well cooked vegetables and tender pork. Don’s chicken laap was equally well executed.
Dinner at Jasmine
Jasmine is a casual budget option offering Indian and Malay dishes. Service is friendly and efficient. We got our appetizer, vegetable pakoras, fresh hot and quickly, almost unheard of here.
The tandori chicken was the most tender on the bone chicken we’ve had in Laos. Lao chickens tend to be the ultra-free range variety. The seasoning, however, was too salty. The eggplant and potato was great, nice flavors and well-cooked vegetables. The tandoor roti was a tad overdone. Overall a good meal and a bargain at $15 including 2 large beers and a water.
Drinks and Dinner at Little Eden
The Little Eden terrace is the ultimate sunset spot. Despite the upscale setting, drinks are not grossly overly priced, maybe a little high for Don Det.
After a hard day of kayaking we decided to treat ourselves to dinner at Little Eden, the nicest looking place in town. Arriving at 6 we were too late for the sunset, the place was empty, but it was still lovely looking out over the dark water with just a hint of light left in the sky while we sipped our gin and tonics.
Nearing 7 we were still the only patrons on the terrace but decided to stay for dinner anyway. We started with the fried spring rolls. Served fresh hot they were actually brought out well in advance of the mains, like an appetizer should be but often isn’t in Laos. A mismatched display of rolls, they were tasty albeit a tad too greasy. The shredded vegetable filling was nicely cooked and the dipping sauce more flavorful and spicy than others.
For mains we tried the pork chop with fries, nothing special. The thin small chop was tender enough. Fries fresh hot but ordinary. Don’s whole grilled fish however was great. Fresh and beautifully done the moist flakey meat was the best we’ve had on this trip.
A group of French diners showed up about 7:30.
Transportation Pakse – Don Det
After our experiences with shared minivans in the north we ordered a private driver to Don Det arranged through the Sisouk Residence in Pakse ($100USD). Mr. Ko was professional. The easy drive, now on good roads, took just 2 hours to Nakasang where Mr. Ko made sure we got on the right boat to Don Det, 15,000kip ($2USD) for the 15 minute boat ride with just Don and me on board.
Bus back to Pakse
We decided to take the tourist bus back to Pakse which turned out to be a long slow process. The 60,000kip ($7USD) ticket says 11AM – 2PM but there is no way this actually happens. The first hour they spend just boating passengers to the bus terminal in Nakasang. This should be just a 15 minute boat ride followed by 5 minute walk up the road. But when you exchange your ticket at the bus station, it says that the bus to Pakse leaves at 12.
A larger bus rather than a minivan, it was old but reasonably comfortable with adequately spaced seats and good air-conditioning, although it does drip in places so be careful where you sit. The bus picks up locals at a few places and drops passengers at other locations such as the boat crossing to Champasak and the bus terminal outside of Pakse before arriving in the tourist area of Pakse at 3:15, just a 5 minute walk from the Sisouk Residence.
November 12-14, 2018
For links to all the posts in this series see the Laos/Cambodia page.