Been there Don Det (and Don Khon)
Have you ever stayed somewhere you never wanted to leave? That was certainly how we felt about the secluded and peaceful slice of heaven we found at Pomelo Guesthouse and Restaurant. Yes, it is weird to start writing about a whole week by focusing on the accommodation but our love of this area was likely tied directly to us having chanced upon staying in the nicest place on the islands.
First, some basic geography. Si Phan Don (Laos for Four Thousand Islands) lies at the southern most point of Laos, very close to the borders with Cambodia and Thailand. It gets its name because in the dry season there are apparently 4,000 tiny islands, most of which are then completely under water in the wet season. There are a few larger islands that are inhabited – two in particular that attract tourists, Don Det (the backpacker magnet) and the far larger yet far sleepier Don Khon (or Don Khone, spelt both ways but not to be confused with Don Khong which is also a large island in the area but with less tourist appeal). Don Det and Don Khon are connected via a small bridge and are accessed by a 10 minute boat ride from the town of Nakasang on mainland Laos. Got all that?!
We stayed four nights in Don Khon and two in Don Det, mostly because we felt we should check out the busier island. There really wasn’t any need! Don Det lacks charm, has little to see or do and is filled with same same cheap backpacker hostels. We explored around on foot, chilled out on the hammocks a bit, and spent the rest of the time killing giant mosquitos.
I rush through Don Det so I can write about Don Khon, the first four nights of our stay and the part we loved. We stayed at the southernmost part of the island, miles away from any other hotels or restaurants (tourist ones anyway) but right at the point where the endangered Irrawaddy dolphins are most commonly seen. Tourists do come to this part, generally on organised tour boats to try to spot the dolphins (they often fail) but few set foot on land here. Our guesthouse was situated on the banks of the Mekong and from our window we could see Cambodia. The water border with Cambodia was about 5o meters away and we were warned not to kayak out too far else we may cross to international waters. Pomelo Guesthouse is brand new, opened about two months ago by a 20 something Swiss girl Oliva and her Thai partner. Oliva was one of the sweetest people we’ve met and we spent a lot of time chatting to her about the guesthouse and the area. The guesthouse has just two rooms in an old but beautifully refushished house and an excellent restaurant (with a tiny menu – only four dishes). We loved the food and ate all our meals there ever day. One day we pre-ordered fish which was delivered at dinner time straight from one of the fishing boats floating past the guesthouse jetty. We even saw the fish whilst it was still alive! An awesome place and although it was more expensive than most places on both Don Khon and Don Details, $25 a night felt like very good value.
We balanced our time with about 50 per cent of the time spent relaxing at the guesthouse soaking in the views (and spending hours booking hotels for our upcoming time in Japan – hard work but we will cover that in our Japan posts) and 50 per cent of the time getting out and about. Being so close to the Irrawaddy dolphins we had to try at least once to spot them. The guesthouse provided a single one person kayak into which we both managed to squeeze in. We took it for a test run on our first night, discovered that it was pretty easy to get out and very difficult to get back against the tide. Being a one person kayak Jen was responsible only for sitting on the front with her head down to make sure I didn’t accidently whack her with the paddle. We headed out again at sunrise (about 6am) one morning, beached the kayak on a tiny island right where the dolphins are most often seen and watched. We had occasional glimpses but certainly nothing we could capture on camera. A stunning sunrise though and a perfect way to start the day. And I got my morning full arms workout getting us back to shore. On our final morning Jen took the kayak out again on her own (which was much easier) while I searched for dolphins with my binos from land. We loved it.
Our second adventure involved walking to town (which takes about an hour through small dirt roads through the jungle – we were staying in a pretty remote location!) to hire bikes for $1 a day. We used the bikes to check out the famous waterfalls on Don Khon (pretty spectacular and although a big tourist attraction there weren’t that many people there) and another set of more remote waterfalls hidden off the dirt path we used to cut through to our village. We didn’t get much other use out of them other than riding to and from the Guesthouse, through the jungle. This was an adventure in itself as there was only a dirt path and we had to cross three bridges. The first looked a little dodgy, the second more dodgy and missing quite a few planks, the third outright crazy – it started collapsing while I was walking my bike across. Fortunately, we found another way around this one but the locals happily ride their motorbikes over it all the time. They are braver than us.
Our final awesome adventure for Don Khon was arranged by the guesthouse. One of the owners knows the local fisherman and was able to get us a private tour to an amazing set of waterfalls visited only by the locals (I can’t give you a name and I cannot find any reference online). Our boat driver spoke a few words of English but the Guesthouse’s housekeeper’s husband came along for a few dollars to show us where was safe to walk and swim. He spoke no English but none was really needed. We felt honored to be exploring such extraordinary natural beauty that other tourists don’t get to see.
Walking or bike riding are the best ways to get around Don Det and Don Khon. But walking to Pomelo Guesthouse with our rucksacks for over an hour in the heat wasn’t going to work so on our arrival on Don Khon we got on a tiny tuk tuk with the young daughter of a guesthouse in town. Getting to Don Det to our second guesthouse, we each jumped on the back of a motorbike with locals from the village plus our bags. Jen’s guy went nice and slowly but mine thought the dirt road was a raceway.
I can’t say if our experience would have been the same if we stayed anywhere else but thanks to some luck we landed at the right place and had a very memorable time. Thank you Pomelo Guesthouse!
Next Stop: Thailand!