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Palaces and Islands: Pakse and Don Det

LAOS | Tuesday, 12 May 2009 | Views [3323] | Comments [4]

The Champasak Palace Hotel in Pakse was built by Prince Boun Oumna Champasak with, supposedly, a room for each of his concubines. Also known as the thousand room pavillion, it's built in Laotian style, looks a bit like a wedding cake, has 1 King and 1 Queen suite, 4 VIP rooms and I guess, 996 others. We were going to glampack for a day and stay, on holidays still. Poor old Prince Boun had to flee to France before it was completed. No mention of what happened to the concubines.

It was such a pleasure, after the ironically named sleeping bus for porters to whisk our rucksacks away before we even checked in. Rooms started at $40 a night – we got shown a standard, which was complete luxury, then a superior which was even bigger and had a balcony. Finally we took a glass elevator up to a VIP room. All the VIP rooms are on the open plan, al-fresco fourth floor, strangely detached from each other. Each has a private area the size of a tennis court outside, overlooking the Mekong on one side and the city on the other. The room itself was enormous – bigger than anything I had stayed in while on expenses. Even when I got upgraded to the Presidential suite once. Admittedly not many presidents make it to Cardiff very often.

Fuck it – we could be VIPs for a day – it was just before 7am when we arrived so we would be taking full advantage. Ohh the AC, the Egyptian cotton, the BBC news, the broadband. We had room service for brunch on the outside table, wearing our hotel slippers and dressing gowns. It got hot so we retreated to the arctic chill of the AC. It was pure, unadulterated luxury and, knowing it was only for a day and because we were on holidays, didn't feel we were selling out too much. We knew we had though, when we discovered that not only was the toilet paper was free but the hankies on the coffee table were delicately scented.

We ventured out once and only because the receptionist hadn't a clue what we were talking about when asking about getting bus tickets south. We probably didn't do the city justice at all but the only thing we found of interest was a big sign saying “Welcome to the tourist places” in front of a Wat with an open bee-hive hanging from its roof and a few monks meditiating although it looked very like having a nice lie-down to me. No bus tickets available either – “Go to station every hour”.

After strolling about, trying to keep in the shade, it became clear that Pakse is not a wealthy place. Despite being the second biggest city in Laos we didn't find anything to write home about. Not at 35°C anyway. So we went back to our little bubble of fake reality in the hotel. No other guests in sight.

If you're going to do it you might as well do it properly – after a very pleasant oil massage we had a meal in the restaurant washed down by a tasty Sauvignon Blanc and watched a movie in bed. The whole stay was simultaneously outrageously expensive and a steal at 530,000 kip.

The back-on-the-road feeling started immediately after settling the bill. We threw on our bags (no help for exiting guests) and walked through sweltering heat of the palace grounds toward the road. A tuk tuk brought us to the bus station which looked like a cross between a market, a refuse tip and a racing track. We were ushered onto an already jam packed sangthaw with a difference – this one had a wooden plank down the middle to allow even more people in! We had just moved a few sacks of sugar around to make room for Claire and I when a group of three jolly, heavily built Germanic types turned up slew their bags on the roof, crammed in and the “bus” left the “station”.

I counted 30 people including 3 children, one naked, in the back of what was essentially a converted hi-ace. The front seemed crammed too but I couldn't get an accurate count. A few people had gotten off by the time a woman got on with a basket containing 4 oinking cuddly piglets.

We stopped at one point and were invaded by a plethora of women peddling various forms of meat on a stick. Chicken-on-a-stick, literally a whole chicken splayed out like road kill, was the most prevalent but the discerning epicurean could hold out for cuttlefish on-a-stick, cicadas on-a-stick (4, large, deep fried) or an unidentifiable ruddy brown thing with hairs on-a-stick. It was fun but a little perturbing to be in a jam packed truck filled to bursting with shrieking meat-stick wielding ladies of the road. As we waved goodbye another sangthaw came along and the process repeated itself. Much better view from the outside-in.

The truck kicked up a lot of dust during the last few kms so the Mekong coming into view was a welcome sight. Still $3.50 for a five hour journey isn't bad at all. The Germans (one turned out to be half-Russian) had decided to go to Don Det too so we all jumped in a boat together.

Si Phan Don, or Four Thousand Islands is a landlocked archipelago carved out by the Mekong just north of Laos' border with Cambodia. Why not spend the last few days of our holidays on an island? The long tail boat driver expertly navigated the sand bars and rivulets and cut the engine to allow us to drift onto a beach after a short crossing. I'm not sure why but it was surprising to see people paddling, chilling out and catching the last few rays of the sun as we wobbled off the boat bearing our packs.

We checked out a few guesthouses near the main strip but they didn't do it for us – our criteria being a hammock (each), a view of the river and a mosquito net. Mr Tho's bungalows, a good 30 minute walk south from the beach, fit the bill. We had gone from the most expensive night's stay of the trip - $60 to the cheapest, at $2.50, in one fell swoop. Also the most basic – no running water and one light comes on to entertain the bugs at dusk and goes off at 11pm. That's it. But to be fair, we didn't need anything else. No fan (no point without electricity) but the windows on both sides of the cabin gave a bit of natural ventilation. We had a lentil curry at the restaurant attached to the cabins and it was superb, and great value. The service was so gentle – we were given a copy book with Lao Lao (the name of our cabin – the local moonshine) written on the front and were asked to write down whatever we consumed. So we could go to the freeze box without asking permission.

Don Det is a beautiful island, filled with rice paddies and the odd patch of forest on the inside. A trail plied by backpackers, bikes, mopeds, chickens and pigs hugs the riverbank and is punctuated by little shops and guesthouses whose staff snooze in the daytime heat and laugh loud and long at night. The further away from the beach in the north, the quieter things get. Not that anything gets very hectic there. An old railway bridge, the only line the French built during their sejour in Laos, crosses the river at the Southern end of Don Det over to the next island down, Don Khon. About half way from Mr Tho's to the beach there is a bakery run by an expat Aussie who makes a mean banana and chocolate doughnut.

The beach was fabulously refreshing during the oppressive heat of the afternoon. It was also the place to find anyone who wasn't in their hammock. We got talking to a friendly bunch of Aussies our first day and met up again the next. We also bumped into a crowd we had met tubing in Vang Vieng. Drinks were had in the Reggae bar and doughnuts and foccacia bread were snapped up fresh out of the oven in the bakery. Not much to worry about in Don Det.

Opposite Mr. Tho's was a little place where we rented bikes. We crossed the bumpy bridge to Don Khon one day and visited a waterfall, a pleasant 5km jaunt across the verdant islands. I ran over a snake on a sandy path. We would have carried on if not for Claire's chain continuously falling off. That was remedied though after a frustratingly hot walk with the bikes took us past a strategically placed repair shop.

On the second day we went all the way to the south of Don Khon island across a rough track. Once at the southern tip of the island, looking across the river to Cambodia we chartered a long tail to take us to see the very rare Irriwaddy dolphin – one of the only remaining species of once common fresh water dolphin in Asia. The long tail driver took us to an outcrop of rocks where we sat, watching the dolphins frollick in the distance as the sun set bloody red against the backdrop of rolling, hazy hills. I was amazed no-one got a puncture on the way back as we raced against the dusk on our bikes designed more for a European city than a South East Asian island dirt track.

We intended to stay 4 nights but on the fourth we ended up at a strange local party at the temple after an evening with the Aussies in the Reggae bar. Unusual for a number of reasons – firstly the electricity was still on and powering the floodlights and loudspeaker at 3am while the rest of the island was swathed in darkness and quiet. Then there was the MC – he spent about 10 minutes out of every 20 enthusiastically proselytising, or perhaps pontificating to the seated crowd, always with a big cheeky grin. Once he had said what he had to the music came on. For some songs no-one got up to dance. Others, everyone swarmed up in unison, got down to it and minutes laster left again en masse, a few bewildered foreigners in the middle throwing shapes remaining. When Claire gestured toilet activities to a few local ladies they laughed and pointed at the shady paddy fields behind. No airs or graces here – but we've both learnt that toilet squatting and wearing shorts are not a good team.

All this entailed that a recovery day in the form of serious hard time in a hammock was needed. We did just that. We had been flying through books since we left Louang Phabang. Thankfully we had both finished “A Spot of Bother” when one of the Aussies offered “Shantaram”, the Indian epic in exchange. Unsure exactly how it was possible to have a sore back after being in a hammock all day we decided that if we didn't leave soon we could quite possibly end up staying forever. Perhaps I could set up a bakery? No – someone had already done that – time to wrench ourselves away. Besides our visa in Laos was almost used up – had it really been 3 weeks?

A spectacular electrical storm approached as we ate dinner, bright flashes in the distance eventually becoming spectacular forks right above. Ear splitting thunder claps then announced the arrival of a heavy tropical downpour which lasted until morning. Another local party sounded out nearby despite the rain and the thunder. Less talking and more bongos this time.

Tags: hammock, holiday, hotel, island, river, wildlife




it is fantastic and incredible. i am recommedning my friends to visit Pakse & Don Det. Please can you send me information about weddings in these place? many thanks



  Dino Camacho Aug 28, 2009 3:40 PM


hello dino
thanks for your comment. Im afraid I did not get married in Pakse or Don Det so i dont know anything about that. I assume you mean getting married in the champasak palace hotel - I think they have a ballroom but you might be better off containg them directly ... http://laoyp.com/business-services/hotels/champasak-palace-hotel-2699.html.
Good luck!

  Eoghancito Aug 29, 2009 2:35 PM


Hi there :) looks like it has been a long time since this site has been active, so let's hope you will reply still :P

How long would it take to go from Don Det to Pakse? how did you get there? are there any must see must do over there??

Were you able to prebook your accommodation in Don Det? i had a look on those booking website, most hotels they have are located in Pakse, nothing in Don det. may it is called differently? Just that we are going to cross the border from cambodia and will be arriving late, wanna make sure we got a place to stay!

  Rachel Jan 6, 2012 8:57 PM


Hi! I too have questions regarding the place you visited, it looks like a great place to chill out.

Rachel: I haven't got a reply from the owners but you can check this out http://www.facebook.com/pages/Don-Det-Bungalows-Restaurant-Laos/104753716239974

Similar question, did you border cross from cambodia? actually i intend to border cross into cambodia and I do understand there are some bus services but could do with some advise from someone who might have done it before

  Shaun Mar 26, 2012 8:19 PM

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