Tropical islands in the classic sense, DON KHON and DON DET are fringed with swaying coconut palms and inhabited by easy-going, sarong-clad villagers. Located south of Don Khong, the islands are especially stunning during the rainy season when rice paddies in the interior have been ploughed and planted in soothing hues of jade and emerald. Besides being a picturesque little haven to while away a few days, the islands, linked by a bridge, provide opportunities for some leisurely trekking, cycling and tubing. As yet, there only a handful of motor vehicles on the islands, making them one of the precious few places in Southeast Asia not harried by the growl and whine of motorbikes. There is, however, a fee of 20,000K (payable at the bridge) to cross between the islands, but this includes access to the waterfalls.
A delightfully sleepy place with a timeless feel about it, BAN KHON, located on Don Khon at the eastern end of the bridge, is the largest settlement on either island and has the most upmarket accommodation. Quaintly decrepit French-era buildings with terracotta tile roofs add some colonial colour to the village’s collection of rustic homes of wood, bamboo and thatch. A short walk west of the old railroad bridge, past the ticket booth, stands the village monastery, Wat Khon Tai. Hidden behind the newly built sim is the laterite foundation of what was once a Khmer temple dedicated to the god Shiva. As with several Buddhist temples in southern Laos, this one was built upon the ruins of an ancient Hindu holy site, suggesting that the otherwise humble Ban Khon is around 1000 years old. On a pedestal nearby stands a Shivalinga, which was probably enshrined in the original Khmer temple. Because Khmer Shivalinga are usually simple and lack the intricate carving for which Khmer art is famous, they are rarely the target of art thieves and so stand a better chance of remaining on or near their original place of enshrinement.
Taking the southwestern path behind the wat, you’ll soon be aware of a low, almost inaudible purr that gradually becomes a roar the further you proceed. After following the path for 1500m, you’ll come to a low cliff overlooking Somphamit Falls, a series of high rapids that crashes through a jagged gorge. Fishermen can sometimes be seen carefully negotiating rickety bamboo catwalks suspended above the violently churning waters.
To see the remnants of Laos’s old French railroad, head south from the old railroad bridge. A short distance back from the bridge lies the rusting locomotive that once hauled French goods and passengers between piers on Don Khon and Don Det, bypassing the falls and rapids that block this stretch of the river. Nearby, behind thick brush bordering rice fields, is an overgrown Christian cemetery that includes the neglected tomb of a long-forgotten French family that died on the same day in 1922 – some say murdered by their Vietnamese domestics. It is actually possible to follow the former railroad all the way across both islands; however, with the exception of two alarmingly precarious bridges constructed from railroad scrap and lengths of rail recycled as fences, there are few signs that a railway ever existed.
A similar but shorter walk is from Don Khon to Don Det across the bridge and along the 3km elevated trail to the now bustling village at the northern end of the island. Here, dozens of backpacker-friendly guesthouses and restaurants have opened just a stone’s throw from an incongruous industrial structure once used for hoisting cargo from the train onto awaiting boats; it’s all that remains of the railroad’s northern terminus.