Introducing Don Det & Don Khon
Life on Don Det and Don Khon feels so laid back that you could imagine the islands just drifting downriver into Cambodia with barely anyone rolling out of their hammock in the process. Vang Vieng, the town most often compared with these two islands, feels like the Glastonbury Festival by comparison.
But in the few years since we first came here Don Det, in particular, has become a lot more rock’n’roll. From a couple of ultra-basic guesthouses and no electricity Ban Hua Det, at the north end of the island, has emerged as a sort of backpacker tractor beam. This market is serviced by generator-driven music and TV, pool tables and restaurant-bars where travellers make anything ‘happy’ – ‘happy’ mash potatoes, ‘Happy’ Lao coffee – for an extra US$0.50. We didn’t notice any Friends but you get the feeling it’s only a matter of time.
The islanders are mainly happy to have the income tourism brings, but they are aware enough of the potential changes to cite Vang Vieng as an example of what they don’t want to become. Having a spliff is part of travelling and the locals we spoke with seemed to have accepted the arrival of marijuana in Ban Hua Det, but they’d prefer it was an incidental part of your visit rather than your sole reason for coming. They are not, however, that pleased about the arrival of harder drugs, worrying about the influence on their kids. Wherever you are it’s polite to ask before you light up.
If this isn’t your scene don’t scratch the islands off your itinerary yet. Respite is only a short walk away and it’s on Don Khon, or at the guesthouses along the southern bank of Don Det, where things are much more serene. This is more what the islands were like when people were first drawn to them, with a sort of timeless beauty best appreciated by riding a bicycle around the few sights, swinging in a hammock, reading a book and chatting with locals and travellers alike.
The islands were an important link for supply lines between Saigon and Laos during the French colonial era. In order to bypass the rapids and waterfalls in the Mekong River, the French built a narrow-gauge railway across the two islands, linked by an attractive arched bridge and terminating in concrete piers at either end. Small engines pulled cargo across the islands but the French dream of making the Mekong a highway to China never really materialised. The bridge and piers remain but no engine has run since WWII, and most of the track has long since been carted off. A press report in early 2007 said the Lao government was planning to rebuild the historic railway, though it’s hard to understand why –we won’t hold our breath.
Don Khon, the larger of the two islands, is famous throughout Laos for the cultivation of coconut, bamboo and kapok. In the main village, Ban Khon, there are several crumbling French buildings that are about 100 years old. Wat Khon Tai, in Ban Khon Tai, towards the southwestern end of Ban Khon, is a Lao temple built on the former site of an ancient Khmer temple, the laterite remains of which are scattered around the site.