The Mekong River meanders its way all through Laos before finally picking up the pace in southern Laos. It rushes headlong through a series of waterfalls, branching off and rejoining smaller tributaries before finally spilling out across the wide flood plains bordering Cambodia.
It is this final stretch of Lao river which is known as Si Phan Don, 4,000 Islands, named for the riverine archipelago of rocks, scrubby outcrops and actual islands peeking up through the water.
In recent history, southern Laos had its heyday as an important trading route for the French colonialists, part of their Indochina empire. Almost exactly 100 years ago, the French built Laos' first railway across the islands of Don Dhet and Don Khone, plus a couple of bridges, to bypass some pretty big waterfalls and ensure a continuous line of transport from Saigon in Vietnam to Vientiane, Laos.
It's pretty interesting to imagine European colonialists here over 100 years ago. It must have seemed like another world. Remnants of the French still remain in southern Laos, like this old port at the southernmost point of Don Khone, now overhung with creeping vines and moss.
There's also part of the original, single carriage locomotive, though much of the remaining tracks have disappeared as scrap metal.
We stayed at the Sala Don Khone hotel in a beautiful old French mansion that was once a colonial medical dispensary. I recommend it especially if you have kids because the rooms are big enough to contain a 4 poster bed and an extra double bed squirreled away around a corner.
There are no cars on the island (although we did see a truck delivering water) so you leave your car parked relatively securely in a hotel parking lot on the mainland, and catch a wooden longboat across. The port is small but lively with plenty of supplies arriving and departing from the islands and beyond.
There's not a great deal to do on the islands, which seems to suit most people just fine. You can get around everywhere by cheaply hiring bikes (check the brakes first!) and then take off into the countryside to see waterfalls, beaches, paddy fields and the famous Irrawaddy Dolphins (sadly are on the brink of extinction). Or cross the narrow bridge (built for the train) between Don Dhet and Don Khone.
We rode over to Li-Phi waterfall one afternoon to see churning muddy water barrelling down over rocks in a series of impressive displays. The thin reedy fences and hand painted signs warning people to stay back are just for the tourists; locals routinely climb down the slippery rocks to fish with nets and traps.
We also rode our bikes to the bottom of the island to catch a boat out to the see the dolphins. I'll save you the suspense and say that we didn't see any dolphins! Bo pen yang. But we did see lots of buffaloes wallowing in mud, the countryside, school kids and more.
Note that if you go off adventuring on your own, you'll want some level of fitness. Because riding old bikes over muddy, potholed tracks, in the hot sun and particularly with a 20kg child on the back, isn't that much fun. Especially if you also have a propensity for French pastries. I'm just saying.
At night, the cool air rolls in and the sunsets over the river are pretty amazing. Lara had made a special "boat" for Boat Festival and we took it with us all the way to southern Laos to set alight and float out on the water. Sok dee.