Don Khone Island

Don Khone Island (also known as Don Khong, Done Khone and Don Khon) is one of the many islands that comprise Si Phan Don (Four Thousand Islands) and is located in the Mekong just north of the Cambodian border, in the heart of the province of Champasak.

Don Khone Island from Champasak Province
Don Khone Island from Champasak Province

Don Khone is a relatively small island, which is connected to an even smaller island known as Don Det by way of the abandoned French railway bridge.

Silhouettes on the old railway bridge.
Silhouettes on the old railway bridge.

“The French envisaged Don Deth and Don Khone as strategic transit points in their grandiose masterplan to create a major Mekong highway from China. In the late 19th century, ports were built at the southern end of Don Khone and at the northern end of Don Deth and a narrow-gauge railway line was constructed across Don Khone in 1897 as an important bypass around the rapids for French cargo boats sailing upriver from Phnom Penh. In 1920, the French built a bridge across to Don Deth and extended the railway line to Don Deth port. This 5-km stretch of railway has the unique distinction of being the only line the French ever built in Laos.” [1]

Don Det is a backpacker haven. You can walk around the island slowly, or ride a bike around the island even slower. You can sleep all day in a hammock, read, smoke or contemplate the meaning of life.  Although it is a lot quieter than Vang Vieng, there is suitable (cheap) accommodation, inexpensive yet tasty food and the odd ‘happy’ shake or pizza that is prepared with marijuana, mushrooms and, occasionally, opium. What happens on Don Det, stays on Don Det 😉

Rice paddies on Don Khone Island
Rice paddies on Don Khone Island

Don Khone on the other hand does not have a huge backpacker scene, but is just as peaceful and serene. As per usual we hired push bikes to get around the island, but the roads are paved in places so motorised scooters and tuk tuks are an option.

Off the beaten track
It gets worse…

Although the main roads are to the south of the island, there are some tracks that take you along the coast to the north and parallel to Don Det. From the tip of the island you turn right and follow the track back down the eastern side of the island where there are many small villages, never-ending rice paddies and plenty of traditional Laos life.

From here the track becomes a little precarious and we found ourselves braking hard to avoid large pot holes, wayward bullocks and rotting broken bridges. You will also spend a lot of time ducking, swerving and swearing at the foliage as it reaches out to unseat you from your transport.

But that’s all part of the adventure and as you pop out of the jungle at the southern tip of the island you will reach the old French port at the end of the railway with spectacular views across the Mekong toward Cambodia.

Cambodia is but a short swim away 🙂

Here you can hire a boat to take you out into the mini delta and search for one of the last five remaining Irrawaddy river dolphins in the area. The plight of these beautiful and critically endangered species is so desperate that, back in April, the WWF urged the Laos and Cambodian governments to work together to find a solution to the declining numbers, and to protect the existing pod.

“Gillnet entanglement has been identified as the major cause of dolphin mortality in the river, as local fishermen have been using these nets more and more over the last few years.” – WWF [2]

© David Dove / WWF Greater Mekong
© David Dove / WWF Greater Mekong

During a visit here in October 2015 with thirty-five grade eight students (approximately 14 years of age on average) we kayaked from the beach a little further north and down towards Cambodia. I managed to stay at the back of the pack on purpose and as the rest of the group drifted further ahead, thus making less and less noise, one lucky student and I were treated with an incredible sight. Two small grey dolphins surfaced only a few feet from our kayak for a quick breath and we got so see them up close. We watched them swim away from us heading north and just as we were about to head off to join the rest of the group a larger light grey coloured dolphin breached right beside us.

Seeing these magnificent creatures in their natural habitat was both awesome and sad at the same time. Will the species survive, or am I about to become one of the last people to see them in the flesh? Only time will tell.

From the old port there is a main road that will take you back to the bridge in the north of the island. Along the road are many detours to the beach from where my kayaking expedition set out and to the Liphi Waterfalls also known as the Tat Somphamit Waterfalls. The falls are a wonderful sight to see, splashing down the rocky slope at various angles, however the entrance fee of 35,000 kip is a little steep. 

So, after a day of cycling, swimming, kayaking, boating and sightseeing it is time to soak up the sunset from any number of vantage points. On our first visit Heidi and I managed to watch the sun disappear from the old railway bridge. On my second trip I watched the daily solar phenomenon from across the rice paddies on Don Det.

Finally, you’re now feeling really hungry and probably have a sore bum from all the biking etcetera well never fear because Don Khone has a plethora of inexpensive little restaurants dotted all along the roadway back from the bridge and into town, service all manner of Laos cuisine.

In our opinion Don Khone and Don Det are wonderful destinations to visit.

[1] Footprint Travel Guides – Accessed 29th November 2015

[2] WWF Global – Accessed 29th November 2015.

[3] Irrawaddy dolphin, Mekong River, Cambodia Irrawaddy dolphins (Orcaella Brevirostris) at Koh Kon Sat, Mekong River, Cambodia. © David Dove / WWF Greater Mekong

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