Si Phan Don (ສີ່ພັນດອນ) is where Laos becomes the land of the lotus eaters, an archipelago of islands where the pendulum of time swings more slowly and life is more laid-back – yes, even by Laos standards. The name literally means ‘Four Thousand Islands’, and they are so tranquil that you can imagine them just drifting downriver into Cambodia with barely anyone blinking an eyelid. Many a traveller has washed ashore here, succumbed to its charms and stayed longer than expected.
During the rainy season the Mekong around Si Phan Don fills out to a breadth of 14km, the river’s widest reach along its 4350km journey from the Tibetan Plateau to the South China Sea. During the dry months the river recedes and leaves behind hundreds (or thousands if you count every sand bar) of islands and islets.
Travellers hone in on three of those islands: Khong, Det and Khon. Don Khong, by far the largest island in Si Phan Don, is sleepiest and sees the fewest tourists. There's much more to do on Don Khon and Don Det, which have become de rigeur stops on the Southeast Asia backpacking circuit. Activities include cycling, swimming, tubing, boat cruises, kayaking, and dolphin spotting, although many travellers forsake these and pass the days getting catatonic in a hammock.
The villages of Si Phan Don are often named for their position at the upriver or downriver ends of their respective islands. The upriver end is called hǔa (head); the downriver end is called hǎang (tail). Hence Ban Hua Khong is at the northern end of Don Khong, while Ban Hang Khong is at the southern end.