Don Det used to be a really off the beaten track place only five to ten years ago. While you won't find the same crowds here as in Vang Vieng for example, most of the island's shore is now covered in lines of guesthouses and tourist restaurants. The installation of electricity poles and wires is now completed and Don Det does now have 24 hour electrical service, though it's not unusual for the power occasionally to go our for a few minutes to a few hours.
Don Det is somewhat of an attraction for backpackers and is often compared with the much less relaxing Vang Vieng. Backpackers, mostly in their 20s and 30s come to this island to relax. Some stay a day or two, some for weeks and a few have decided to stay for good.
- Ban Nakasang is 2 1/2 hours by mini bus or around 3 1/2 hours by local transport from Pakse. Local public transport leaves from the southern bus station in Pakse.
From Nakasang town, one can reach Don Det on a local tiny boat. The official one-way price for immediate departure is 30,000 Kip if alone, 15,000 Kip a person if there are at least 2 passengers (usually you're welcome to wait for a second passenger to show up); bicycles and motorbikes not included. Fares go up 5,000 kip after 17:30, and there are no boats after 20:00. If considering buying a round-trip ticket, keep in mind that you may end up booking a boat-included bus ticket to your next destination from one of the agents on the islands.
- Cambodia: The prices are more expensive for the local transport than they are for the chicken bus. Many visitors like the local style transport but if price is an issue then shop around.
Don Det is a small island. The walking path around the island is 7.2 km, and takes about two hours. A bicycle will make it a lot quicker.
It is possible to rent bicycles for 10,000 kip from guesthouses and restaurants. Mountain bikes with 21 gears go for about twice that. Most tourists who do this cycle over the old railway bridge to Don Khon. The cost of crossing the bridge is 20,000 for a day pass.
There are not so many temple or culturally important sites to see in Don Det, but the island and tranquil surroundings are the real gems. Anywhere you walk you will be greeted by smiling locals, stunning islands and scenery and a new experience. The temple on Don Kon is interesting enough and has a very old stupa that is not typical for the region. It is also on the way to the waterfall.
If laying in a hammock in front of your bungalow isn't enough for you, there are some other very relaxing things to do in Don Det:
- Swim in the Mekong River. There is a little beach where boats drop people off, or it's possible to swim in the waters in front of most of the guesthouses. There are even little fish in the water, which nibble off dead foot skin, if you keep still enough. Be careful! Currents can be very strong, and jumping in the river is not recommended if you are not a confident swimmer. Just like in the ocean, if you do get caught in a current that's difficult to swim against, don't fight it, but turn 90 degrees and swim out of it. You may end up some way downstream, but it's better to have to walk back to where you started, or even wade back through the shallows, then to be caught in the middle of the river with no energy left to swim. At Don Det there's almost guaranteed to be an easy place to get out of the water and back up to the ring road further downstream.
- Tubing. Rent a tube and float in the Mekong river for a few hours. 10k for a tube, and another 15,000 kip if you want to be driven out a bit by boat. Bring some beers and or water and have fun. 10,000 kip.
- Waterfalls. Go see waterfalls on Don Khon island.
- Dolphin Watching. Take a boat tour and see dolphins
- Hang out at the "beach". Have a drink at the Garden of Nang, a small sandy private beach open to anyone who makes a purchase at the friendly locally-run restaurant across the street. Located on the southwest shore of the island near the bridge to Don Khon.
- Take any one of the numerous scenic tours to outlying islands. The sunset barbeque tours offered going north of the island to pristine sand beaches are also quite good. The people in this region are the main asset and do not hesitate to mingle with them. Even if the language is a barrier they will be more than nice.
- Go on one of the numerous kayaking trips available in the area.
Many shops in the tourist village at the north end of the island offer money exchange and "ATM service": for example, you can get US dollars or kip from 4000 Island Bar, Adam's Rogue or Little Eden. They charge your Visa or MasterCard for a commission of 6-10%.
The nearest banks, Lao Development Bank and BCEL, are on the mainland in Ban Nakasang, where there are two ATMs. They also provide Western Union services for emergencies. Best to use before going to the island. Most guesthouses will provide boat trips there and back for about 50,000 Kip, waiting for you while you do your banking. Banking hours are between 08:30-15:00.
The food situation is always changing now and has developed from simple dishes like fried rice to Belgium stew soaked in Guinness. The following is a small preview of what you can expect.
- Rib Shack. Now serves hamburger joint but not ribs.
- Mr Mans restaurant (opposite Mr Mans accommodation) has an excellent and inexpensive menu. Try their lentil curry and rice soup.
- Adam's Bar and Restaurant is located at the main Northern tip of Don Det. Has a variety of Asian and Western food, and a variety of shakes and cocktails. Hosts open mic acoustic sets, late night parties and barbecues at an hours notice. Can get the latest films, music and TV series uploaded onto your MP3 player and hard drive and computer. Also has a free DVD lounge, plunge pool, darts, Wi-Fi and a Nintendo Wii.
- The Happy Bar, 4000 Islands, located on the main sunrise strip by the beach is an excellent restaurant serving Asian and Western food. Stunning views of the Mekong along with the islands best pool table and the latest DVDs. English speaking staff. Has WiFi.
- Paradise Restaurant, located about 10 minutes south of town. Serves island cuisine and is noted for its lentil curry/pumpkin, pumpkin burgers and chicken burgers. The French rave about the crêpes and the Israelis about the shakshuka. The menu has a wide variety of foods with large portions at low prices. The menu includes the 'Don Det Manual' with information about the island and an excellent map to photograph.
- King Kong restaurant located in the south of Don Det has an ever increasing array of Western foods, including pizza, fish and chips and Sunday roasts. It's famous for the King Kong double cheeseburger. The owner, Mini, is polite, friendly and always ready for a game of poker.
- Mr Vong's restaurant, approximately 500 metres north of the bridge, offers good homestyle Laotian food. The proprietor speaks excellent English, and is a wealth of local information.
- Don Summers Located across from Adam's Bar. Serves a variety of western and Lao food. The owners are very laid back, and it is a great place to chill and hangout.
Beer Lao available everywhere for between 10,000 & 15,000 kip.
A plastic water bottle of rice whisky, lao lao, is also widely available for 10,000 Kip.
Fruit shakes cost from 8,000 to 12,000 kip
Marijuana is widely available anywhere on the island but should be used discreetly. Unlike Vang Vieng the police don't collude with dealers to bust people but that is subject to change at any moment. So far there are not many places offering 'happy shakes' but if you find a 'hangover special breakfast' it could have Valium or other drugs in it. If this isn't your thing, then avoid such places.
Dozens of guesthouses from 50,000 kip a night and up (although can be as little as 20,000 during the low season): all have basic bungalows that usually have a porch with a hammock, a bed and a mosquito net. There might be a little difference between the conditions of bungalows, mattresses, and mosquito nets. More expensive accommodation is also available, which may include luxuries such as air conditioning.
The most important thing when selecting your accommodation is whether you want to stay on the sunrise or sunset side of Don Det. Bungalows on the sunrise side are normally cooler. The morning sun is not as hot as the afternoon sun on the sunset side.
In general the bungalows in the north and sunset tend to be more centered to the party crowd and the places in the south tend to get more of the nature lovers. The area around sunset and Hua Det are higher density tourist areas and the feeling of being in Laos is being somewhat lost.
Don't expect late nights out partying though because there is a curfew that oftentimes changes, it is now 23:00 closing time strictly enforced. In the areas away from the main settlements you can walk around at will if you fancy a midnight stroll.
Most, if not all, accommodation has Wi-Fi.
Proper attention to the security of the accommodation, especially locks of doors and windows, is recommended. Better use own locks and even chains to guarantee safety.
- The Smiling Lao, Sunrise Side (Just a bit south of town on the sunrise side). Restaurant and guesthouse run by a relaxed local family. Private bungalows with double bed, shared balcony overlooking the river, and individual hammock. Very basic and somewhat run-down (check for broken mosquito nets and door bolts), but nice location. Outdoor restaurant hanging over the river is a nice place to hang out, and competitively priced. Restaurant and bungalow balconies are fully shaded from the mid-day sun. 50,000 kip.
- Mama Mon and Papa's, Sunrise Side (Just a bit south of town on the sunrise side). Run-down bungalows operated by a hustler from Vientiane who seems more interested in selling you drugs than providing quality accommodation. 50,000 kip.
- Bungalows Peace & Love, Sunset Side (About a 5-minute walk along the sunset side path), ☏ , ✉ firstname.lastname@example.org. Owned by a very kind and accommodating family, these simple yet clean bungalows, with shared bathroom, overlook the Mekong River.
- Mr B’s Guesthouse (About a 5-minute walk along the sunset side path). Check-out: 10:30. The bungalows are simple with nothing more than a double bed, fan/air-con and mosquito net, but for the most part, you will be out on your private deck soaking up the sunset on your own hammock. Shared bathrooms, cold water showers, best sunset view of the Mekong, bike rentals available, food is pretty cheap. 30,000 kip for your own bungalow.
- 1 Little Eden Hotel & Restaurant, ☏ , ✉ email@example.com. Check-in: Anytime, check-out: 11:00. Owned & managed by a friendly Belgian citizen and his Laotian wife. 2 kind of rooms: standard (250,000 kip, 35USD) & deluxe (400,000 kip, 50USD) with breakfast included. Restaurant. Swimming pool with bar (open as well to non guests for a 40,000 kip fee, 5USD). Wifi everywhere. It's 100 m from the pier, with an excellent view over the Mekong, including for sunset. Beautiful architecture (colonial style).
- 2 Paradise Guesthouse (About 1.1 km from the northern beach (ferry) on the eastern bank), ☏ . Check-out: 11:00. Owned by a sweet Lao family. Watch the sunrise and moonrise from the hammock of your Mekong River bungalow with beautifully decorated shared bathrooms with sit-down toilets, mosquito net, fans, electricity 24/7. Restaurant is 06:00-21:00/22:00 (depending on season). Boating trips can be arranged with the family. Wi-Fi. 50,000 kip high season, 20,000 kip low season.
- River Garden Guesthouse (about a 5-minute walk north of the French Bridge)), ☏ . Run by Aek, a charming Lao who speaks excellent English and is usually willing to chat. Bungalows have nice river views across to Don Khon, private bathrooms (cold water shower) and a lovely little riverfront restaurant that is cantilevered out over the river. Good food at the little restaurant and Wifi available. 35,000.
Free Wifi is available at most of the restaurants and guesthouses, many of which advertise it as "fast".
If you have a Lao SIM card, you'll likely be able to access the internet through the mobile network as well. Unitel has good 4G coverage, and a top-up costs 10,000 kip for 2 GB. You may not be able to buy a SIM card on the island (better to take care of it in a bigger town before you come), but you can try the Street View Cafe on the sunrise side, which has a Unitel sign hanging in front. In any case you can probably at least top up there. It's unclear whether any services for other providers are available on the island, though if you want a fast connection, Unitel is the only one in Laos that offers 4G anyway.
- Don Khon - An aged colonial era bridge built by the French connects the islands of Don Det and Don Kon. It is possible to visit the Dolphin viewing area and the waterfall before exiting to Cambodia. The prices for this service exceed those of what you can expect to depart from Nakasang but you need a combination of boats and ground transport to do it this way. Depending on your budget it is well worth it.
- Stung Treng - A bus service operates daily rides to Cambodia. A ticket to Stung Treng including the boat to mainland is about US$6. Even though ticket sellers and bus operators tell you that the bus/van is going to Stung Treng bus station/centre, they may not be telling the truth. If there are not enough passengers to fill an entire van to Stung Treng, you will be dropped at a small shack 3 km outside Stung Treng. There is no infrastracture and no motos are available. The driver will promise that he called a moto driver to pick you up and leave, but the moto may not show up. Your only option is flagging down any vehicle going to Stung Treng, or walking.
- Kratie - The same bus company operates buses to Kratie. Cost USD 9.