The long-tail boat languidly cuts through the emerald waters of the Mekong River. Its rudimentary motor chortles as it propels the craft between the jungle-covered islands of the Si Phan Don archipelago. Tiny, ramshackle houses line the banks, each with its own full set of laundry flapping in the breeze. Fishermen precariously perch in dugout boats casting their nets. Children out for an afternoon swim shyly and wave from the shallows. Veering around one final corner, a village comes into view, and just beyond it, a bridge that looks like the jungle version of Paris’s Pont Neuf.
How did this historical oddity come to be in one of the most remote regions of Southeast Asia? The story begins in 1866. French colonists arrived in the southwest corner of what is modern-day Laos and formed the Mekong Expedition Commission to explore the region and secure a river route to the raw materials and luxury goods produced in China’s interior.
The challenge? Si Phan Don translates to “4,000 Islands” because of the many outcroppings — most little more than rocks — formed by the rushing rapids and powerful waterfalls along this stretch of the Mekong. And these waterfalls the, French found out, were impassable by ship. Instead, they decided to build a four-mile narrow-gauge railway to transport boats and freight over land from one calm stretch of the river to another.
They finished the first section in 1893 and continued improving upon it over the following decades, creating Laos’s first railroad. The bridge portion, which runs between the islands of Don Khon and Don Det, was built around 1910. The railway remained in operation until after World War II, when it was stripped for metal. The bridge, however, endured, and visitors can walk and bike across it today.
On Don Khon, there is still a small piece of track holding a tiny, rusted locomotive named the Eloïse and placards explaining the railway and the French period. The rest of the former track is now a biking path that visitors can follow around the island.
Walking along Don Khon’s main road, travelers will also find colonial-era buildings including a health clinic, a school and the Sala Done Khone hotel, part of which occupies an 1896 French villa. On the other side of Don Khon from the bridge is the skeleton of another French structure, an embankment over the river used to haul freight up from the river to the start of the railway track.
River Dolphins and Rushing Rapids
Besides the historical landmarks sprinkled around the islands, there are myriad reasons to visit Si Phan Don. Unlike the café-packed alleys of Luang Prabang and the quickly modernizing metropolis of Vientiane, the region is still relatively untouched. This remains one of the last unindustrialized portions of the Mekong, so you won’t find huge tankers or river cruise ships steaming through, and the water is even clean enough and the current gentle enough to swim from January-May.
Visitors can hire a boat or kayak from the southern side of Don Khon and paddle to a tranquil bay that forms the border between Laos and Cambodia. A family of four Irrawaddy river dolphins — two adults and two adolescents — lives here. Growing up to seven-feet long, dark in color and with stubby noses, these creatures are quite rare. They are also quite shy. Though you will not be able to get too close, there is a good chance you will spot them swimming as a group and coming up for air from time to time. You might also see some of the enormous plabuck catfish endemic to the region, which can grow to nearly 10-feet long and over 600 pounds, making them one of the largest species of freshwater fish in the world.
Don Khon’s main attraction, however, are the rugged Li Phi waterfalls along its western edge. The name means “spirit trap,” as locals once believed that the gushing waters and dangerous rocks would trap the spirits of unfortunate fishermen who had drowned upstream. Morbidity aside, the falls are truly stunning, especially around sunset.
You must pay 35,000 Lao Kip ($4) to enter the park surrounding the falls, but once inside, you will find trails to breathtaking viewpoints, a riverside restaurant, a small beach, an open-air café and shaded decks with hammocks and cushions that are available on a first-come first-served basis and are perfect for whiling away a steamy afternoon.
Don Khon tends to be quieter than Don Det, but you can still find plenty of bars and restaurants around the island’s main village of Khon Tai. Try the homemade buffalo sausage at Our Kitchen, or the spicy green papaya salad at Chez Fred et Lea.
Don Det, by contrast, offers cheaper accommodations and is popular with the backpacking set who want more of a party scene. Everything is still much lower-key than what you’d find in busier towns like Vang Vieng or Siem Reap, though.
Coffee Plantations and Ancient Temples
Don Khon and Don Det are the ideal settings to laze away several days. However, the surrounding Champasak province is rife with natural attractions and historical sites that are also well worth exploring.
The best way to do so is to book an inexpensive flight from Luang Prabang or Vientiane to the gateway city of Pakse. From there, you can create an itinerary with a well-established operator, like Remote Lands, so you can move quickly and cover the most ground without sacrificing the quality of the experience (or getting lost). Remote Lands’ Charms of Southern Laos itinerary hits all the highlights, but in a leisurely fashion and with the expertise of local guides who know the sights and terrain well.
Among the excursions included are trips from Pakse up into the forested Bolaven Plateau to visit old coffee plantations and picturesque villages, not to mention waterfalls like the twin-stream Tad Yeung, where you can take a refreshing dip in the pool.
You can tour the ruins of Vat Phou, a UNESCO-listed complex of ancient palaces, temples and Hindu holy sites carved into the slopes of a mountain. It resembles the sites of Angkor in Cambodia but predates them by over 500 years.
On the drive down to Ban Nakasang, the river town from which you catch a long-tail boat to Don Det and Don Khon, you can stop in villages famous for woodcarving and silk-weaving and have a lunch of grilled chicken skewers or noodle soup at an open-air roadside restaurant with the locals.
About a half-hour from Ban Nakasang lies Khone Phapheng, Southeast Asia’s largest waterfalls by volume. The falls curve over a kilometer across the Mekong like a tropical version of Niagara Falls, and their roar can be heard miles away. It was the impassability of these mighty cascades that led the French to build their railway to nowhere in the first place.