Don Deth, Don Khone and around

The islands of Don Khone and Don Deth are the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow for most travellers who head to the southern tip of Laos, and it's not hard to see why. The bamboo huts that stretch along the banks of these two staggeringly beautiful islands are filled with contented travellers in no rush to move on. Don Deth is more of a backpacker haven, not dissimilar to the Koh Phangans and Vang Viengs of the region, meanwhile Don Khone has been able to retain a more authentically Lao charm. Travelling by boat in this area is very picturesque: the islands are covered in coconut palms, flame trees, stands of bamboo, kapok trees and hardwoods; the river is riddled with eddies and rapids. In the distance, a few kilometres to the south, are the Khong Hai Mountains, which dominate the skyline and delineate the border between Laos and Cambodia.

In the area are the Li Phi (or Somphamit) Falls and Khong Phapheng Falls - the latter are the largest in Southeast Asia and reputedly the widest in the world.

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. On the southern side of the island lie the rusted corpses of the old locomotive and boiler car. Before pulling into Ban Khone Nua, the main settlement on Don Khone, Don Deth's original 'port' is on the right, with what remains of its steel rail jetty.

Don Deth

The riverbank here is peppered with cheap-as-chips bamboo huts and restaurants geared to accommodate the growing wave of backpackers that flood south to stop and recoup in this idyllic setting. A good book, hammock and icy beverage is the order of the day here, but those with a bit more energy should explore the truly stunning surroundings. It's a great location for watching the sunrises and sunsets, for walking through shady palms and frangipani trees and for swimming off the beaches, which attract the hordes in the dry season. Away from the picturesque waterfront, the centre of the island comprises rice paddies and farms; you should take care not to harm crops when exploring the island.

The national tourism authorities have been coordinating with locals to ensure that the beautiful island doesn't become 'Vang Vieng-ified', so you'll find no
Friends
DVDs here, although 'happy' shakes have started appearing. The island has no electricity (except for a generator supply 1800-2200), no cars (except for the odd truck) and few other modern conveniences. Internet has amazingly made its way to the island, however, and it's possible to get mobile phone coverage. There has been talk for years about electricity coming to the island but for now it seems unlikely. Most guesthouses run tours to the falls/dolphins. A few entrepreneurial types are starting to promote adventure tourism here. Kayaking and rafting trips can be organized through
Xplore-asia/Lang Xang Travel
, www.xplore-asia.com
. Several guesthouses also have tubes for rent for 5000 kip. It is definitely inadvisable to go tubing in the wet season and probably not a good idea all year round. Swimming, visiting the falls and other activities all need to be undertaken with the utmost caution here. The river's current is probably the strongest in all of Laos and several tourists have drowned here.

Don Khone

From the railway bridge, follow the southwest path through
Ban Khone Thai
and then wind through the paddy fields for 1.7 km (20 minutes' walk) to
Li Phi Falls
. Also known as Somphamitor or Khone Yai Falls, these are a succession of rapids, crashing through a narrow gorge. In the wet season, when the rice is green, the area is beautiful; in the dry season, it is scorching. From the main vantage point on a jagged, rocky outcrop, the falls aren't that impressive, as a large stretch of them are obscured. 'Phi' means ghost, a reference, it is believed, to the bodies that floated down the river from the north during the war. It's best to visit Li Phi around June or July, when all the fishermen are putting out their bamboo fish traps. These are dangerous waterfalls, do not swim here.

The Mekong, south of Don Khone, is one of the few places in the world where it is possible to see freshwater dolphins. They can be spotted in the late afternoon from December to May, from the French pier at the end of the island, not far from the village of
Ban Hang Khon
. The walk across Don Khone from the railway bridge is some 4 km and bicycles can be hired. It is more likely, however, to catch a glimpse of the dolphins if you're in a boat, as they reside in deep-water pools. In 1996 there were thought to be 30 dolphins, after which numbers seemed to decline and, according to local data, there were fears that only four or five were left, although a new calf has recently been spotted. The Laos-Cambodia border transects the dolphin pool and the Lao boatmen have to pay a fee to the Cambodian authorities in order to access the waters in which the dolphins live. Cambodia gets a bit tetchy about these 'border incursions' and may, on the odd occasion, deny access.

Khong Phapheng Falls

About 36 km south of Ban Hat Xai Khoune at Ban Thatkho, a road branches off Route 13 towards Khong Phapheng Falls, which roar around the eastern shore of the Mekong for 13 km. One fork of the road leads to a vantage point, where a large wooden structure, built up on stilts, overlooks the cascades for a fantastic head-on view of the falls. When you see the huge volume of white water boiling and surging over the jagged rocks below, it is hard to imagine that there is another 10 km width of river running through the other channels. A path leads down from the viewpoint to the edge of the water, be very careful here. Unsurprisingly, the river is impassable at this juncture. Another road leads down to the bank, 200 m away, just above the lip of the falls; at this deceptively tranquil spot, the river is gathering momentum before it plunges over the edge.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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