Khong district, an island situated in the Mekong River in Champasak province in the south of Laos is part of the area known as Siphandone, meaning Four Thousand Islands, and has long been popular with visitors for its laid-back bucolic feel.

Siphandone is an archipelago of islands in the Mekong River, near the Laos-Cambodia border. It lies about 140km from Pakse city, the capital of Champasak province. It is an expansive area of the mighty Mekong River which is very broad at this point and forms many channels, creating numerous islets and rapids. It’s also an area with an abundance of aquatic animals, especially fish.

A visit to Siphandone at present can be an exciting experience because things here are changing fast. A short while ago the archipelago was a quiet, sleepy, rural area where life moved at an unhurried pace, in tune with the languidly flowing river.

Now it is undergoing rapid modernisation under a massive development project being carried out by Sithandone Joint Development Co Ltd (STD). The development is known as the Sithandone Special Economic Zone or new Siphandone area. It has also been referred to as the Khone Phapheng Special Economic Zone, so named for the Khone Phapheng Falls (the largest waterfall in Southeast Asia).

The area around the falls will be turned into a “sophisticated tourist site”. Development began in the middle of 2018, but over the past three years or more the area has already undergone a transformation.

Even when the Covid-19 pandemic hit and life in some parts of Laos came to a standstill in 2021, it didn’t slow work on this development, which continued unabated.

Already a large hotel has been built on the border between Champasak province and Stung Treng province in Cambodia, close to the Khone Phapheng Waterfall. The hotel faces the Don Sahong hydropower plant and has a great view of the Mekong River. Completion is scheduled for April 2022.

In October 2019, STD began building a 43.5km concrete road around Khong island, which was completed and handed over to the government in March 2021.

In February 2021, construction of a barrier wall to prevent riverbank erosion and an adjacent road began. To date, the base of the barrier wall and the construction of walls and soil infilling has taken place over 1.2km, while 200m of the foundations of the base have been dug.

A plant to supply water was completed at the end of 2021, to provide water for hotels and people living nearby. Determined to surmount the problems caused to the tourism industry by the Covid-19 pandemic, STD adapted to the situation and promptly turned the focus to industry and investment.

The company planned a digital economy zone in the Nongnokkhien area in the south of the Special Economic Zone, with a focus on information technology (IT), blockchain, e-commerce, a data centre and other businesses, which attracted the interest of Chinese and Japanese investors. A project plan has been sent to the government for authorisation.

The company has also signed three cooperation contracts with its customers and partners.

The Covid-19 outbreak has not diminished the enthusiasm of the operator and progress of the operator in the new Special Economic Zone, and new production sites are continuously springing up.

The development in Siphandone is the largest investment venture in Champasak province, and possibly the whole of Laos. The special economic zone will cover an area of more than 9,846ha and will have its own airport. It is believed the development will help to improve the livelihoods of local people, as well as boosting tourism in the region.

The first phase of the project, which runs from 2018 to 2025, will see the installation of infrastructure including roads, water systems and drainage. The second phase will see construction of the airport to handle the expected influx of tourists and businesspeople.

STD intends to build a town that includes resorts and leisure facilities, aimed at attracting people from all over the world.

Landmarks of the new Siphandone area will include a building constructed in the shape of a “khaen”, a famed Lao pipe instrument that its music was inscribed as the world intangible cultural heritage of UNESCO on December 2017 by the UNESCO Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage and a building constructed to resemble a “tip khao” or “aeb khao” (sticky rice basket), which is another iconic Lao symbol.

The development will also include the Asian Trade Exhibition and Convention Centre and an agricultural research centre, as well as processing plants, other buildings, and tourism-related services. Also contained in the development area is the spectacular Khone Phapheng waterfall.

The company’s main goal is to turn the Four Thousand Islands area and the waterfall, which are part of the Mekong River, into a leading destination for foreign visitors.

The buildings to be constructed in the zone will reflect the characteristic Lao architectural style. Building heights will be limited and there will be different zones.

Although the project is aiming for international standards of entertainment and leisure, the scheme will include medical tourism as well as activities that promote Laos’ cultural traditions.

Concerning green areas, these will comprise four zones, namely the Khone Phapheng Waterfall Park, 520 Entertainment World Complex Centre and fountain, and green areas along the Mekong River and the 115kV electricity transmission line.

STD will build roads, improve the water supply, and build an airport, a hospital and other facilities for use by Lao and foreign visitors. Covering an area of 521.8ha, the first phase of the development has six zones.

Zone A contains boutique hotels with restaurants, conference rooms, spas, fitness centres and swimming pools. Zone B is a residential area which will include a lake and other facilities designed to provide comfort.

Zone C will contain a golf course and villas. Zone D will be a commercial area with shops and business on both sides of streets running alongside the casino and hotel. The buildings on these streets will have both Lao and French architecture.

Zone E will house the 520 Entertainment World Complex Centre consisting of 5-star hotels, shopping malls, movie theatres, restaurants, entertainment venues, places for relaxation and the display of handicrafts, and large buildings. Zone F will be a racecourse for international horse racing.