French Locomotives on Don Khone and Don Det by Asienreisender

French locomotives who run on Don Khone and Don Det to bypass the Mekong Waterfalls. Image by Asienreisender, 2013

Remain of a French Locomotive on Don Khone by Asienreisender

The remain of one of the locomotives at Ban Hang Khone, at the southernmost tip of Don Khone. Image by Asienreisender, 2013

Railway Tracks by Asienreisender

Remaining railway tracks aside the old railway line. They were used after the demolition of the railway for different construction purposes by the villagers, e.g. bridge building. Image by Asienreisender, 2013

The dismantled 'Ham Luong' on transport by Asienreisender

The dismantled 'Ham Luong', a French steam boat, transported on the railway track. Image by Asienreisender, 2013

Steamers 'Haiphong' and 'Ham Luong' on the Mekong River by Asienreisender

The steamers 'Haiphong' and 'Ham Luong' on the Mekong River. Image by Asienreisender, 2013

The old French Pier at Ban Hang Khone by Asienreisender

The old French pier at Ban Hang Khone. Here the freight, disassembled or even whole ships were loaded up on trains. Image by Asienreisender, 2013

The old French Pier at Ban Hang Khone by Asienreisender

The landing side of the pier, where goods and materials could be wound up. Image by Asienreisender, 2013

Kapok by Asienreisneder

Kapok, one of the agricultural products coming from the area. Image by Asienreisender, 2013

Samphamit Waterfalls / Khone Waterfalls by Asienreisender

One of the channels of the Samphamit Waterfalls. Image by Asienreisender, 2013

Laotian Owl by Asienreisender

An owl, kept in captivity in a garden. Image by Asienreisender, 2013

Gibbon Monkey by Asienreisender

A gibbon monkey, kept in a cage on Don Khone. Image by Asienreisender, 2013

A Parakeet by Asienreisender

A parakeet in one of the restaurants in Don Khone. Image by Asienreisender, 2013

Water Buffalo by Asienreisender

One of the good, old water buffalos. They are everywhere around in Laos, for it's mostly an agricultural country. Image by Asienreisender, 2013

A Garuda Painting in a Temple on Don Khone by Asienreisender

A garuda painting in a temple on Don Khone. Image by Asienreisender, 2013

Fighting Scene in a Temple on Don Khone by Asienreisender

A fighting scene in the same temple. Probably a scene out of the Ramayana epos. Image by Asienreisender, 2013

Si Phan Don - 4000 Islands



Si Phan Don, the
Fourthousand Islands

Some 120km south of Pakse in Laos the Mekong River has it's broadest part on his 4,800km journey from the high Tibetan Plateau down to the South China Sea. Here the stream becomes 14km wide and splits up in many sidearms. A great number of islands appear here in the big river. The big islands as Don Khong, Don Pet, Don Khone and many others are permanent. But in dry season, when the water level lowers, many more islands, actually merely bigger sandbanks, come up. I don't know how many islands there are in dry season, if it is really 4,000 or just a few hundreds I can not tell. But there is a great number of them and the river looks completely different than it does at other parts. It's divided in many small arms, surrounding all the islands and sandbanks. Plants grow at the islands banks, providing habitats for many fish species and other animals. Some of the islands are inhabited by peasants and fishermen families. Most of the islands are uninhabited. The whole Mekong River section of the 4000 Islands is approximately 50km long.

Don Khone / Samphamit Waterfalls by Asienreisender

Don Khone / Samphamit Waterfalls. Inconspicious in dry season, strong in rainy season. Image by Asienreisender, 2013

The climate is varying. Between dry (hot) season and rainy season is a big difference. The water level of the Mekong River rises significantly. Besides, when it comes to rain and thunderstorms in dry season, they can be very heavy. It reminds a bit to heavy weather on islands in the sea and appears as quick as there.

Very remarkable is that the surroundings of the Fourthousand Islands are a refuge for the critically endangered Irrawaddy Dolphin. There are places around here where dolphin watching is possible, as the gifted animals come up to the surface every now and then to breathe. Beside the fascinating dolphins there is a huge biodiversity on and around the 4000 Islands.

Since a short time there is electricity on the both touristic islands of Don Khone and Don Det. The electrical system is weak and has repeatedly breakdowns when it starts to rain. The local people use it for light, TV, music and karaoke.

The ferry connection to Don Khone and Don Det is linked to Ban Nakasang. There is a bus station providing transport to Pakse and the Cambodian border. The boat fares suffer heavy inflation and are getting ever more expensive. A single traveller might have a longer waiting time for the boatsmen go only when they have a certain minimal number of passengers; best case for them is when the boat is crammed full.

Map of 4000 Islands / Si Phan Don by Asienreisender

Map of the southern part of the Si Phan Don / 4000 Islands landscape with Don Khone and Don Det in the center.


The Mekong Falls / Khone Falls

And there is another peculiarity here. The Mekong is 'interrupted' at the Fourthousand Islands in it's equal stream. There are six waterfalls or rapids at the very southern section of the Mekong River in Laos, very close to the Cambodian border. The Mekong Falls are also called the Khone Falls.

Samphamit Waterfall by Asienreisender

Samphamit Waterfall, one of the two big Mekong Falls west of Don Khone. Image by Asienreisender, 2013

Here the Mekong drops in cascades over 21m down. The Mekong Waterfalls are the broadest waterfall on earth and the biggest in Asia. Two of the six falls make the main ones: the Somphamit Falls and Khong Phapheng Falls. I think I don't tell too much when I call this special landscape with it's great biodiversity one of the natural wonders of Southeast Asia.

The rapids are very important for the Mekong River. They safed the magnificient and so very rich river from being industrialized from the colonial times on. The French Mekong Expedition (1866) was following the Mekong River upwards to find out if it could be a waterway between the South China Sea and inner China. It couldn't. No ship could pass here.

Samphamit Waterfall by Asienreisender

Samphamit Waterfall in most of it's width. That's how it looks in April, at the end of the dry season. In the late rainy season it's a mighty fall. Image by Asienreisender, 2013

The 'Garcerie', a French Steamboat transported over Don Khone by Asienreisender

The 'Garcerie', one of the first commercial steamboats transported over Don Khone to bypass the Mekong Falls. Image by Asienreisender, 2013

When the French occupied what was before the kingdom of Champasak respectively part of the empire of Siam in around 1900 they tried to find a solution. Particularly after the 'Paknam Incident' in 1893 the French navy was ambitious to control the middle section of the Mekong River with gunboats. For that purpose they built a short railway section on the two islands of Don Khone and Don Pet, linking them with a railway bridge. So they were able to put whole or disassembled gunboats on trains and bypass the rapids.

French Locomotive on Don Khone by Asienreisender

One of the old locomotives left as a museum piece. It's barely more than a steam engine. Image by Asienreisender, 2013

How may the future looks here for the Mekong River and the waterway? Since there is so much money on the globe, particularly in China and Southeast Asia on the search for investment, it might be that there will be efforts in the future to make the Mekong shipable over the rapids. Technically it wouldn't be a problem. Years ago I visited the 'Schiffshebewerk Niederfinow' in Brandenburg, Germany. In around 1920 there was a big construction finished for lifting ships over a height of 80 meters. It still worked fine after almost ninety years. The technical problem here at the Mekong seems to be a much easier one to solve.

For the ecology that would be another hard punch. The construction of the Sanyabury Dam and the dozends of more planned dams on the Mekong and it's tributaries is already the death sentence for a great number of species, including estimated 70% of the fish species.

In October 2013 the Laotian government announced to the Mekong River Commission the plan to build a hydropower dam at Don Sahong, one of the 4000 Islands. Secretly the building site was started. The Hou Sahong channel, who get's dammed, is most crucial for the migration of local fish populations. For more information on the 'Don Sahong Dam' click the link.

Khone Pha Soi Rapids by Asienreisender

The Khone Pha Soi Rapids on the easter side of Don Khone. Now they are small, in rainy season they swell on massively. Image by Asienreisender, 2013


Don Det

Of the however many islands only a few are inhabited. The by distance biggest island is Don Khong. There is also a car ferry to the island and there are roads on Don Khong.

South of Don Khong lies, behind a couple of other islands, Don Det. Don Det is pretty touristic. Particularly the area around the pier is crammed with bars and guesthouses, backpacker style. The backyards look really dirty and there are already too many motorbikes on the small paths. The drivers love to use their horns and drive to fast. They clearly expect anybody walking has to jump away when they approach on a vehicle. That's another strong reason for driving a motorized vehicle: it's strong!

Don Det is clearly the party center for the touristic scene. Basically everything is in walking distance there and additionally everywhere are bicycles available for rent and that's really a good solution. Nevertheless do many tourists rent a motorbike instead.

The rest of the island is of no further interest. It consists mostly of rice paddies. There is a path surrounding the island and there is a dirt road who connects the pier and the village with the concrete bridge to Don Khone. The dirt road follows mostly the same track as the former French railway line did.

The accommodation on both islands described here is very basic. Since a few years there is electricity, but in case of rain it's frequently interrupted. Internet is comming up quickly.

Hou Behanzin Channel by Asienreisender

The Hou Behanzin Channel, separating the both touristic islands Don Det / Don Khone. Although many more of the 4000 Islands are inhabited, tourism is concentrated on this two plus Don Khong further north. Image by Asienreisender, 2013


Don Khone

Don Khone is the southern neighbour of Don Det and the southernmost island on Laotian territory. Hard south of it is the border to Cambodia. The both islands are only separated by a sidearm of the Mekong. It's called the Hou Behanzin Channel. The two islands are connected via Hou Behanzin Channel by an old concrete bridge, built by the French in 1910. If you see the bridge it looks as it were just ten years old.

The old French Concrete Bridge over the Hou Behanzin Channel by Asienreisender

The old French railway bridge over the Hou Behanzin Channel, connecting Don Khone with Don Det. Although the construction on the first glance looks not older than 10, 15 years, it's built in 1910. Image by Asienreisender, 2013

Don Khone now is slightly bigger than Don Det and less touristic. Here are also the 'sights' concentrated. There is an old locomotive placed as a museum piece, which was operated in the old days by the French to transport goods and ships from one side of the Mekong Falls to the other, crossing both islands. The old railway line is without railway tracks now used as a normal dirt road. It leads to the southern end of Don Khone (Ban Hang Khone). There are a few restaurants and boatsmen, waiting for customers to make a trip into the Cambodian section of the river, visiting the Irrawaddy Dolphins.

After the railway line was established, Don Khone became an important transit point riverup- and downwards. That triggered an economic boost on the small island from the mid 1890s on.

French Building on Don Khone by Asienreisender

The poor remains of an old French building, probably an administration building. Image by Asienreisender, 2013

At the western banks of the island is Somphamit Waterfall. It's one of the two big out of the six Mekong falls. One has to pass a ticket booth. Behind the smaller neighbouring islands are two more waterfalls, but not to see from Don Khone.

On the eastern side of Don Khone is another waterfall, or better rapids: Khone Pha Soy.

Typical rural Landscape on Don Khone by Asienreisender

A typical rural landscape in the south of Laos in dry season, here on Don Khone. Image by Asienreisender, 2013



The Mekong section at the 4000 Islands is very rich in wildlife. Though, in dry season there are less animals to see than in rainy season. When the rice paddies on the islands dry out, a number of fish species who live in the paddies are leaving them and migrating into the Mekong channels. The local peasants have methods to catch part of them.

Caught Fish on the 4000 Islands by Asienreisender

One early morning an angler appeared next to my place. Every time he threw his rod into the water immediately he pulled a fish out. Within a short time the bucket filled up. Image by Asienreisender, 2013

At the beginning of dry season at the end of October / early November other fish species are migrating riverupwards from Cambodia. They come to the 4000 Islands to spawn. Local fishermen catch a critical part of them for their own needs or to sell them to the markets of other places, including the biggest city around, what is Pakse.

Over the duration of the dry season other fish species arrive here, either to spawn or to make their way further riverupwards to spawn there. The locals catch many of them in simple, but big bamboo traps. The fish who migrate along are middle-sized or big fish species.

The Hou Sahong Channel is a critical passway for certain migratory fish species riverupwards. Due to heavy overfishing in the channel the species are suffering and getting endangered. This is not a new problem but happened already decades ago. It's just too easy for the local fishermen to catch fish in this bottleneck. Fishermen living upstream up to Vientiane claimed that they wouldn't catch enough fish anymore to feed their families because many fish species suffered too heavy losses at the 4000 Islands. Because of that the Laotian government repeatedly banned fishing in the Hou Sahong Channel.

But now there is the construction of a dam exactly at the end of Hou Sahong Channel ongoing. Blocking the channel would have a huge impact on all the fisheries upstream and downstream, and hurt the migratory fish species heavily, leading to the extinction of some, if not many.

Mekong fish is the most important source of animal proteins for a great deal of the people of Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam (up to 90%).

In July, when the Mekong River has increased to a high water level, many traps and fishing nets are swept away by the strong current. The local people don't remove them right in time. The loose fishing nets then become a deadly trap for other fish and also the Irrawaddy Dolphin, of whome many find a miserable end in them.

Irrawaddy Dolphin by Asienreisender

A single Irrawaddy Dolphin south of Don Khone, already in Cambodian waters. Some 100m away from the photographer. Normally they appear in couples. Besides they come only for a very short moment up to the surface and it's barely possible to predict where they will come up next time. That's one of the poorest images by Asienreisender, 2013

Well, as just mentioned, there are a few couples of the Irrawaddy Dolphin left in the river section south of Don Khone. Most of them appear at the Cambodian side of the river. A WWF (World Wildlife Fund) estimation from 2011 numbers the Irrawaddy Dolphins in the whole Mekong on between 78 to 91 individuals. A few decades before there were thousands of them living in the great river. It's not unprobably that the Irrawaddy Dolphin will extinct within the next few years. The construction of the Don Sahong Dam will certainly accellerate this prediction.

The Irrawaddy Dolphin enjoys a certain popularity among the local people. There are numerous stories around that dolphins helped fishermen driving fish into their nets and even rescuing their lives from drowning when fallen into the water or being attacked by crocodiles.

Crocodiles do not appear here anymore. They must be extinct around here and are nowadays mostly bred in stations under industrial conditions in Thailand and Vietnam. A crocodile skin brings a lot of money, but as a free-living animal it is a permanent danger for people living with and in a river.

A Gibbon Monkeys Foot by Asienreisender

A gibbon's foot. The nice fellow is very keen on physical contact. His feet are optimized for climbing and to encompass smaller and bigger branches. Image by Asienreisender, 2013

In one of the places on Don Khone in a garden is a bigger cage with a gibbon monkey in it. The cage is kept clean, it's high and equipped with two swings. The fellow has a place to hide a little bit. Nevertheless he looks unhappy. He is seemingly a young one and happy for visitors who touch him and stroke his back. He pushed his arm through the grid and laid his hand on my shoulder. Very nice. Like a friend. Less nice was the following unexpected trial to take my spectacles over.

At another place, one of the simple peasant shacks on Don Det at Hou Behanzin Channel, I found an owl bound with a string. The fellow looked seemingly unhappy, frightened and unwell. He was always disturbed by ongoing activities around instead of being able to sleep in day time. When I was approaching he tried to fly away but was rapidly stopped by the string what provided him a crashdown. The owner of the place noticed that and came after a while out and pulled the big bird back with the string to the destinated place.

Laotian Owl by Asienreisender

The owl, seemingly frightened and irritated by being in captivity for days already. Image by Asienreisender, 2013

I saw the owl there for two days. On the third day when coming along there it was gone. I asked the guy there what happened to the bird, and he told me it was gone away, escaped. I hope that's true and it could make himself free. Could also be that it ended up in the locals familiy food... At least I found the string at the ground and the loop looked ripped - that makes me being in good hope for the remarkable animal.

At again another place I saw locals keeping parakeets, bound on short strings. There is also the habit of keeping more common birds like doves and beos (hill mynas) in small cages.

One morning, when jogging from Hou Behanzin Channel to the southern tip of Don Khone, I saw something on the way which I thought it would be a branch. When I was passing by it very closely (10cm distance from my foot) I realized in a late second glance that the thing had a head. It was some 150cm long, some 8cm in diameter, with an intensive dark-brown and bright-brown pattern. It didn't move. I stopped two meters further and had another look for it. The snake turned then and disappeared into the bushes. Surprising encounter, but most of these scary animals are not aggressive or even harmful. The two only troublesome animals I know are mosquitoes and dogs. And then there is homo sapiens...


People of Si Phan Don

The islanders are all peasants and fishermen, of whom a part now makes tourist business. A traveller can get here an authentic insight in a rural community. The people are very simple minds, mostly seemingly friendly towards tourists. Like all the rural people in Laos they are as noisy as they can with their vehicles and particularly with their new entertaining equipment. Every day over hours music is played out noisily - not only at songkran and other festivals. There is not only a single source of din - sometimes one suffers heavy noise pollution from two, three, five sources. That appears everywhere, there is no way to escape it except to leave the village. TV watching is also notorious. The Laotians suck up Thai TV with it's superficial soup operas, appealing all to wrong feelings, with an enthusiasm they should dedicate for better purposes. That makes staying here, after all, very unpleasant.

Laotian Ticket Sellers on the Bridge over Hou Behanzin Channel by Asienreisender

These two guys were sitting on the bridge over Hou Behanzin Channel every day. Every time when I came along they commanded: "You! Stop! Buy ticket!" It's not a ticket for crossing the bridge - that happened in the past. It's a ticket meaned for the Samphamit Waterfall (25,000 kip), 2km away. There is absolutely no reason to sell tickets here at the bridge because there is of course a ticket booth at the waterfall itself. And the guys never remembered that they asked me already 15 to 20 times the same thing with always the same result. Image by Asienreisender, 2013

Further on they are not different to the lowland Laotians as described in the people section of the Laos page. They are blunt, lazy, greedy, dirty, both in carelessness of littering as in hygienic matters. They throw their rubbish wherever they are, and might it be out of the kitchen window. Same thing it is with the food cleanliness - hand washing and keeping food clean means nothing to them. Due to all the littering many flies and cockroaches are around - flies in daytime, cockroaches in nighttime.

Generosity is no strength of the Laotian People in general. That's remarkable because they are ethnically very close to the Thai People, who are so different. Thai People like to be generous, like to give gifts, favours and little (or bigger) services, giving support and help without asking for money. Laotians have no sense for that idea. They take wherever they can. They wouldn't give something away for the reason of 'nam jai' (Thai: 'flow of the heart'); they mean business here.

When it comes to problems they first try to avoid it. If this is not possible, they second give it the smallest attention possible. Fixing a technical problem means doing the very least one can do to reach an easy improvement for the moment. Looking forward is definitely not their favour. Doing anything properly neither.

Monk's Alm's Collecting on Don Khone by Asienreisender

The traditional alm's collecting of the Buddhist monks in the early morning still happens. There are two country temples on Don Khone. Image by Asienreisender, 2013

The locals seem to got some input of third parties on how to behave towards tourists. Despite the seemingly friendlieness of a majority their bad manners are always shining through. They use strong words among each others, shout out noisily and make dirty noises. The kids appear impudent and rude here and there. Their seeming friendlieness is just a treacherous layer like a make-up is. It's rather the result of an abstract learning process - 'when you smile, you get the banana'.

They are not interested in the foreign visitors they make business with. The foreign visitor on the other hand doesn't understand much of the local population and does not intend to. Tourists are mostly busy with themselves and having fun.

Interestingly I didn't see anybody heavily retarded (as so many times on Java). In rural populations there appeares usually a certain 'idiotic' part of the population, the so called 'village morons'. That would very much fit to the social environment here, but doesn't appear. Why? I don't know. There are informations about a government policy who takes away such people who are homeless and socially disintegrated. They come to one of the notorious 'rehabilitation centers' (formerly called: reeducation camps) like Somsanga in Vientiane and suffer a mysterious fate in captivity.


Waste Management

A Garden Fire on Don Det by Asienreisender

A garden fire on Don Det. All the gardens are more or less littered, and every day people burn the rubbish. There is no communal waste management. Image by Asienreisender, 2013

On all the excursions over the islands I didn't see a waste disposal site. Due to the consumption of the locals and more of all the tourists there is quite a lot of rubbish coming together, much of it is plastic and packaging material. In many other cases in rural communities the waste is collected and then driven two or three kilometers out of the town. There it's dumped in an open site and - just burned. No oven, no filter, just an open fire.

Here there is no organized solution for the waste problem at all, and therefore a great part of the litter is thrown into the Mekong River.

From time to time the surroundings of the houses are swept and leaves and litter are piled on little heaps.

In all the little gardens burn little fires then. The chance is big to get smoked by a plastic fire for some hours. That's a permanent solution and doesn't cease until the rainy season does not allow open fires outside.



Ban Hua Khong on Don Khong is the birthplace of Khamtay Siphandone (*1924), who rose from being a postman in the colonial time to a career in the communist party becoming the Laotian president. The Siphandone family has still a strong influence on the islands.

Asienreisender Up to the top!

Published on April 22nd, 2013


Last update on May 5th, 2014