Tucked away at the southern most tip of Laos, Si Phan Don (Four Thousand Islands) is an 8.5-mile-wide (14 km) archipelago where the Mekong fans out and the land dissolves into thousands of muddy, grass-covered islands, islets and sandbars. The fact that only three islands offer tourist accommodation (rudimentary at that) tells you that this far-flung part of Champasak province is in no danger of being generally discovered yet. But the more astute backpackers are trickling in on tiny wooden ferryboats, in slowly growing numbers, lured by the chance to do not very much at dirt-cheap prices.
Most make for the island of Don Det, where accommodation is cheap and plentiful, but very basic. At Mr. B's Sunset Bungalows, tel: (856-30) 534 5109, a few dollars a night gets you a basic cabin with a double bed, mosquito net and porch hanging over the water. Many of the cabins on Don Det are owned by farmers capitalizing on the island's burgeoning tourist trade, so don't be surprised to find pigs and chickens wandering the grounds, or a farm dog curled up on your porch in the morning.
Don Det is at its best at the start of the day. Wake with the first rooster crow and head out for a morning walk. The fog rises, the dew burns off and the water buffalo are saddled up for work in the paddy fields. Stop off at the bakery on Don Det's northern tip, run by an Australian pastry chef, for a simple breakfast of cinnamon rolls or focaccia bread (and don't forget, at some point during your stay, to try the best pumpkin burger on an island full of imitators). You could then cross the bridge over to Don Khon to explore the remnants of an old French railway, walk one mile (1.5 km) to Somphamit Falls to see rapids crash through the jagged gorge, then hire a longtail boat to take you to see the endangered freshwater Irrawaddy dolphins.
Once back on Don Det, head over to Mr. Vong's, on the island's south, and dine on the local specialty of mok pa minced fish, steamed in banana leaves with the addition of glutinous rice and coconut milk, giving it a very soft consistency. The island's limited electricity supply lights go out by 11 p.m. at the latest puts curbs on nightlife. But you could always take a few bottles of Beer Lao back to your cabin and enjoy them by candlelight while the waves roll in.
Si Phan Don is best reached from Pakse, a midsize city that serves as a transport hub for southern Laos. From Pakse, you can make the 90-minute journey by minibus to the Mekong where longtails wait to ferry passengers across to Don Det and other islands. As for the timing of your visit, well, now would be good. All the disquieting signs of backpacker tourism are appearing the Internet cafés, cheap pizza parlors and beach bars blasting reggae. There are rumors, too, of 24-hour electricity: great for business, not so good for lovers of sublime escapes. Just as well there are still many more islands to choose from.