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There must be some rule in Laos that says the farther south yon go the more relaxed it becomes, because just when you thought your blood pressure couldn't drop any more, you arrive in Si Phan Don. The name literally means 'Four Thousand Islands', and the few you are likely to visit on this scenic 50km-long stretch of the Mekong are so chilled you're liable to turn into a hammock-bound icicle.

During the rainy season this section of the Mekong 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 between moon-soons the river recedes and leaves behind hundreds (or thousands if you count every sand bar) of islands and islets. The largest of dig permanent islands are inhabited year round and offer fascinating glimpses of tranquil river-oriented village life - "more detached from time than from the river bank" as one source described it. Communities tend to be self-sufficient, growing most of their own rice, sugar cane, coconut and vegetables, catching fish and weaving textiles as needed.

Siphandon (4000 islands)

Island life is changing, however, and electricity and tourism are the big drivers. Don Khong attracts travelers looking for better lodgings while Don Det has become one of Southeast Asia's backpacker magnets, with all that entails; Don Khon falls somewhere in between. Power pylons are slowly being erected and Don Khong is on the grid, thought Don Det and Don Khon will have to wait until at least 2008. In the meantime most hornes are linked to one generator or another and at night you'll see extended families sitting glued to the new-found Joy of Thai soap opera.

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 hua (head), the downriver end is called haang (tail). Hence Ban Hua Khong is at the northern end of Don Khong, while Ban Hang Khong is at the southern end.

The French left behind a defunct short railway (the only railway ever actually completed in Laos), a couple of river piers, and a few colonial buildings. Other attractions include some impressive rapids and the Khon Phapheng (p282) waterfall, where the Mekong suddenly drops in elevation at the Cambodian border. The increasingly rare Irrawaddy dolphin also likes to hang out in the Mekong south of the falls.

Dan Khong (Khong Island)

Named for the surrounding river (using the Thai pronunciation Kheang rather than the Lao tawng), this large island measures 18km long by 8km at its widest point. Most of the islanders live in and around two villages, Muang Khong on the eastern shore and Muang Saen on the west; an 8km road links the two.

Even in Laos, where 'sleepy' seems an almost universal adjective where provincial towns are concerned, Muang Khong is the very definition of the sleepy district capital Life moves slowly here, like a boat being paddled against the flow on the Mekong, and you'll seldom be disturbed by a vehicle. It's no party town - keep going south for that - but the torpid pace of life here and the sights around the island make it an attractive place to spend a day or two, getting about on a bicycle or motorbike or just chilling by the river.

As his surname suggests, the postman who went on to become president of Laos, Khamtay Siphandone, was born in Si Phan Don in 1924 - in Ban Hua Khong at the north end of Don Khong, to be exact. His family are quite influential here though tales that he is seeing out his retirement on the island are apparently untrue.

The police are a block back from the river in Muang Khong. If you get sick, head for Pakse or Thailand.
Agricutural Promotion Bank
Open: 9.30 am - 4 pm, Mon-Fri - South of town
This bank offen poor If not terrible rate for US dollar and Thai baht cash and traveler cheques, for which there is olso a US$1 charge per cheque.
Alpha Internet
Tel: 214117 - Per hour US$6 - Open: 8am-9pm
Also burns CDs and offers international phone calls at US$1 per minute.
Lao telecom
On the road to Muang Saen
Post office
Just south of the bridge

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