4000 Islands

The Locomotive, The Lift & The Railway

One of the famous colonial relics of the 4,000 Islands is the 7km Don Det – Don Khon railway. You don’t need to be a railway buff to appreciate this exceptional marvel of engineering that was, until 2009, the only railway in Laos.

Take a walk across the existing 3km of tracks and see the 130-year old railway that allowed, for the first time, a continuous trade route between French Indochina bases in Vietnam and Cambodia and Laos.

Built by the Mekong Exploration Commission in the late 1800s and operated by Lao State Railway authority, it transported goods, cargo and passengers along the Mekong River between 1893 and 1940. Before this, travel via the Mekong River in Southern Laos had been impossible due to the River’s waterfalls. The 1893 treaty in which Siam relinquished the Mekong’s east bank urgently required gunboats above Don Khone, and the Gouveneur Général de l’Indochine sought a new approach.

Naval Lt Georges Simon was tasked with the “mission hydrographique du haut Mékong” to take two gunboats up the Mekong to Don Khone, dissemble them, cross the island, then re-assemble and launch the boats in calmer upriver waters.

Lt Simon contracted Messageries Fluviales de Cochinchine in Saigon to quickly supply rail tracks and a carriage capable of hauling 35 tons, in the hope of moving the boats in one piece. He completed the 3-km line from Marguerite Bay to Ban Khone in August.

Using manpower to move the train, the boats reached Ban Khone in late October, and were re-floated on 1 November in Hou Béhanzin Channel separating Don Khone and Don Det. A repaired La Grandière completed the rail trip on 5 September 1894, and continued to Vientiane, Luang Prabang, and the Tang Ho rapids near China, the final point for Mekong steamboat navigation.

The French continued to extend the railway until the early 1900s when the Second World War and the subsequent Japanese bombing in Indochina forced its closure.

Don Khone Railway Pavillions History

See and do:

Walk along the 3km length of the railway tracks across the bridge between Don Ket and Don Khon

Learn about the history of the French colonial period in Southern Laos

Marvel at the engineering ingenuity of navigating the Mekong’s impassable waterfalls by building a railway over water more than 130 years ago

Food and drink:

Food can be purchased on either island

How to get there:

You will automatically pass the locomotive on Don Khone island if you come from Don Det, as it is situated just after the bridge over the Mekong on your right. If you come from Don Khone pass underneath the bridge and take the first little road on your left. To get to the lift on Don Det, coming from Don Khone, just follow the little path along the river or continue the road after you have crossed the bridge.