Pakse is the capital of the Champassak province and gateway for exploring southern Laos. The town of Pakse boasts a very lively market as well as the Falls of Selabam and its dam. For travelers, the place is mostly a convenient stopover en route to Si Phan Don and Wat Phou, though it's also a more comfortable base than Pakxong for exploration of the Bolaven Plateau and nearby NBCAs, and the border crossing to Thailand just west at Chong Mek makes Pakxe a logical entry or exit point for those doing a north– south tour of Laos.
Unlike other major Mekong towns, Pakxe is not an old city. Rather it has risen in prominence, from relatively recent beginnings a hundred years ago as a French administrative centre, to being the region's most important market town, attracting traders from Salavan, Attapu, Xekong and Si Phan Don, as well as from Thailand. The diverse population of Vietnamese, Lao and Chinese today numbers some 60,000.
The town attractions:
Along Route 13
On a low hill just west of Wat Pha Baht stands the Champasak Palace Hotel, a majestic eyesore resembling a giant cement wedding cake, and one of the few prominent reminders of the late Prince Boun Oum na Champasak, a colorful character who was the heir to the Champasak kingdom and one of the most influential southerners of the last century. Legend has it that Boun Oum needed a palace this size so that he could accommodate his many concubines. The palace, left incomplete after the one-time prime minister wound up on the wrong side of history and left for France in the 1970s, was converted into a hotel by Thai investors, who retained its original wooden fittings, tiled pillars and high ceilings. The stucco motifs on the gables depicting the country's post-revolutionary zeal were not in the prince's original plans. Wat Pha Baht, just east of the bridge that crosses north over the Xe Don, features a stylized Buddha's footprint, but like the rest of Pakxe's monasteries, the architecture doesn't reflect much divine inspiration.
The Champasak Provincial Museum, 1500m east of the town centre on Route 13, houses some fine examples of ornately carved pre-Angkorian sandstone lintels taken from sites around the province, situated in the rear gallery. The upper gallery contains a dusty selection of costumes and jewellery from tribal peoples, and a small display of antique ethnic clothing. The rest of the museum is given over to the obligatory display of photographs and artefacts of the long Lao struggle to establish a workers' paradise on earth.
The New Market
The New Market (Talat Dao Heuang) on No. 38 Road is well worth a visit, and is certainly big enough to remind you of Vientiane's Morning Market. Along with the usual array of mounds of tobacco, plastic ware and live chickens, specialities available at the market include tea, coffee and a variety of fruit and vegetables, much of this from the bountiful Bolaven Plateau, as well as fish from the islands of Si Phan Don, including gigantic golden carp featherbacks, and the fermented fish paste known as pa dàek, sold out of ceramic jars.
B. Around Pakse:
1. Wat Phou
Vat Phou is an ancient stone palace, an architectural marvel, located on the eastern slope of Kao Mountain, at about 45km from Pakse district. It is the crowning jewel of Champassack province and perhaps of the entire country.
One of the most evocative Khmer ruins outside Cambodia's borders, Wat Phou, 8km southwest of Champasak, should be at the top of your southern Laos must-see list, occupying a setting of unparalleled beauty. It's not hard to see why the lush river valley here, dominated by an imposing 1500-metre-tall mountain, Lingaparvata, at the foot of which Wat Phou resides, has been considered prime real estate for nearly two thousand years by a variety of peoples, in particular the Khmer. The surrounding forests are rich with wildlife, including the rare Asiatic black bear. The pristine state of the environment – it is without question one of the most scenic landscapes chosen by the Khmer for any of their temples – was a major factor in UNESCO's decision to propose the area as a World Heritage site. A few kilometers up the road, an ancient buried city, with ruins dating back to the fifth century, is currently the object of intense archeological interest. Experts are unable to agree on who the inhabitants of this city were, with some calling it a western outpost of the Champa kingdom and others celebrating it as the cradle of Khmer civilization.
Wat Phou, which in Lao means "Mountain Monastery", is actually a series of ruined temples and shrines dating from the sixth to the twelfth centuries. Although the site is now associated with Theravada Buddhism, sandstone reliefs indicate that the ruins were once a Hindu place of worship. When viewed from the Mekong, it's clear why the site was chosen. A phallic stone outcropping, easily seen among the range's line of forested peaks, would have made the site especially auspicious to worshippers of Shiva, a Hindu god that is often symbolized by a phallus.
Archeologists tend to disagree on who the original founders of the site were and when it was first consecrated. The oldest parts of the ruins are thought to date back to the sixth century and were most likely built by the ancient Khmer, although some experts claim to see a connection to Champa. Whatever the case, the site is still considered highly sacred to the ethnic Lao who inhabit the region today, and is the focus of a festival in February, attracting thousands of Lao and Thai pilgrims annually.
Entering the site
At the entrance to the site, small museum houses pieces of sculpture found among the ruins as well as some said to have belonged to Prince Boun Oum. The stone causeway leading up to the first set of ruins was once lined with low stone pillars, the tips of which were formed into a stylized lotus bud. Stone pedestals along the way indicate that a few statues may have lined this path as well. On either side of the causeway there would have been reservoirs known in Khmer as baray. As ancient Khmer architecture is rich in symbols, it is surmised that these pools represented the oceans that surrounded the mythical Mount Meru, home of the gods of the Hindu pantheon.
Just beyond the causeway, on either side of the path, two megalithic structures of sandstone and laterite mirror each other. According to local lore, they are segregated palaces, one for men and the other for women. Archeologists are skeptical though, pointing out that stone was reserved for constructing places of worship, and, even if this hadn't been the case, the vast interiors of both buildings were roofless and would have afforded little shelter. The structure on the right as you approach is the best preserved. Its carved relief of Shiva and his consort Uma riding the sacred bull Nandi is the best to be found on either building. As with much of the architecture of the pharaohs of ancient Egypt, that of the Khmer kings of Angkor was monumental and symmetrical. Even in their ruined state, you can imagine the awe these stacked and carved stones must have inspired, especially with the spectacle of a majestic royal procession passing through their midst.
As the path begins to climb, you come upon jagged stairways of sandstone blocks. Plumeria (frangipani) trees line the way, giving welcome shade and littering the worn stones with delicate blooms known in Lao as dawk jampa, the national flower of Laos. At the foot of the second stairway is a shrine to the legendary founder of Wat Phou. The statue is much venerated and, during the annual pilgrimage, is bedecked with offerings of flowers, incense and candles. When and why this one statue has come to be venerated in such a fashion is unknown, and once again, local folklore and archeological record diverge – according to archeologists, the statue is actually that of a dvarapala, or temple guardian. In the field behind this statue, half buried in the ground, lie the headless torsos of two similar statues.
Continuing up the stairs, you come upon the final set of ruins, surrounded by mammoth mango trees. This uppermost temple contains the finest examples of decorative stone lintels in Laos. Although much has been damaged or is missing, sketches done by Georges Traipont, a French surveyor who visited the temple complex in the waning years of the nineteenth century, show the temple to have changed little since then. On the exterior walls flanking the east entrance are the images of dvarapalas and devatas, or female divinities, in high relief. On the altar, inside the sanctuary, stand four Buddha images, looking like a congress of benevolent space aliens. Originally, this altar would have supported a Shivalinga, a phallic stone representing Shiva. Today, it's crowded with a collection of ancient odds and ends gathered from the surrounding area. Doorways on each side of the altar lead to an empty room with walls of brick; it is thought that these walls constitute the oldest structure on the site, dating back to the sixth century.
To the right of the temple is a Lao Buddha of comparatively modern vintage, and just behind the temple is a relief carved into a half-buried slab of stone, depicting the Hindu trinity – a multi-armed, multi-headed Shiva (standing) is flanked by Brahma (left) and Vishnu (right). Continuing up the hill behind the temple, you'll come to a shallow cave, the floor of which is muddy from the constant drip of water that collects on its ceiling. This water is considered highly sacred, as it has trickled down from the peak of Lingaparvata. In former times, a system of stone pipes directed the run-off to the temple, where it bathed the enshrined Shivalinga. By tradition, this water was utilized in ceremonies for the coronation of Khmer kings and later the kings of Siam. Even today, Lao pilgrims will dip their fingers into a cistern located in the cave and ritually anoint themselves. Foreign visitors should resist the temptation to use this water to scrub off some trail-dust – indeed; doing so would be extremely poor form, not so different from going into a church and washing your face in the baptismal font.
If you follow the base of the cliff in a northerly direction, a bit of sleuthing will lead you to the enigmatic crocodile stone, which may have been used as an altar for pre-Angkor period human sacrifices, though there is no hard evidence that ritual sacrifice was a part of the ceremonies that took place here. Nearby is a pile of sandstone rubble that once formed a pavilion and is thought by archeologists to be one of the oldest structures on the site. A few meters away to the north are the elephant stone, a huge, moss-covered boulder carved with the face of an elephant. This carving is relatively recent, probably dating from the nineteenth century.
If you were to hike straight up the mountain to the summit of Lingaparvata, it would take two days of rigorous climbing over vertical cliff-faces and dense forest. In 1997, an Italian team of archeologists did just that. On the very tip of the natural phallic outcropping that is the peak of the mountain, they discovered a small Shivalinga of carved stone. Sadly, the archeologists found it necessary to remove this artifact that had crowned the sacred mountain for untold centuries, catching raindrops that would eventually filter down to the cave of lustral waters at the foot of the mountain. The trophy now rests in the small museum at the entrance to Wat Phou.
2. Si Phan Don
In Laos's deepest south, just above the border with Cambodia, the muddy stream of the Mekong is shattered into a fourteen-kilometer-wide web of rivulets, creating a landlocked archipelago. Known as Si Phan Don, or Four Thousand Islands, this labyrinth of islets, rocks and sandbars has acted as a kind of bell jar, preserving traditional southern lowland Lao culture from outside influences. Island villages were largely unaffected by the French or American wars, and the islanders' customs and folk ways have been passed down uninterrupted since ancient times. As might be expected, the Mekong River plays a vital role in the lives of local inhabitants, with 95 percent of island families fishing for a living. Ecological awareness among locals is high, with nearly half of the villages in the district participating in voluntary fisheries conservation programmes.
The archipelago is also home to rare wetland flora and fauna, including an endangered species of freshwater dolphin, which it's sometimes possible to glimpse during the dry season. Southeast Asia's largest – and what many consider to be most spectacular – waterfalls are also located here. The area's biggest sightseeing attractions, the Khon Phapheng and Somphamit waterfalls, dashed nineteenth-century French hopes of using the Mekong as a trade artery into China. The remnants of a French-built railroad, constructed to carry passengers and cargo past these roaring obstacles, can still be seen on the islands of Don Khon and Don Det, along with a rusting locomotive and other ghosts of the French presence. The most developed place to base yourself is the popular island of Don Khong, with its collection of quaint villages and ancient temples, but there's also plenty of accommodation on Don Khon and Don Det.
2.1 Don Khong
The largest of the Four Thousand Islands group, Don Khong draws a steady stream of visitors, most of whom use it as a base to explore other attractions in Si Phan Don. Don Khong is surprisingly wide for a river island, though, and is known locally for its venerable collection of Buddhist temples, some with visible signs of a history stretching back to the sixth or seventh century. These, together with the island's good-value accommodation and interesting cuisine, based on fresh fish from the Mekong, make Don Khong the perfect place for indulging both adventurous and lazy moods. The islanders, an amiable lot, seem to be taking the mini-onslaught of foreign travelers in their stride.
Don Khong has only three settlements of any size, the port town of Muang Sen on the island's west coast, the east-coast town of Muang Khong, where most of the accommodation and cafés are situated, and the smaller town of Ban Houa Khong, where slow boats from Pakxe moor. Like all Si Phan Don Settlements, both Muang Sen's and Muang Khong's homes and shops cling to the bank of the Mekong for kilometers, but barely penetrate the interior, which is reserved for rice fields.
The best way to explore Don Khong and experience the traditional sights and sounds of riverside living is to rent a bicycle from one of the guesthouses and set off along the road that circles the island. Don Khong's flat terrain and almost complete absence of motor vehicles make for ideal cycling conditions. For touring, the island can be neatly divided into two loops, southern and northern, each beginning at Muang Khong, or done all in one big loop that takes about three hours without stops.
The chain of picturesque villages that line the south coast makes the southern loop, roughly 20km long, the more popular of the two itineraries. Following the river road south from Muang Khong, you soon cross a rotting wooden bridge, with an inscription indicating that it was constructed in 1963 by USAID (United States Agency for International Development). A couple of kilometers south of Muang Khong lies the village of Ban Na, where the real scenery begins. Navigating the trail as it snakes between thickets of bamboo, you come upon traditional southern Lao wooden houses trimmed with painted highlights of white and royal blue. They're all surrounded by plots of barren, hard-packed earth, kept tidy by frequent sweeping with a stiff coconut-frond broom and enclosed by low fences of split bamboo.
Near the tail of the island the path forks. A veer to the left will lead you to the tiny village of Ban Hang Khong and a dead end; keeping to the right will put you at the gates of Wat Thephasoulin, parts of which were constructed in 1883. The sala and monks' quarters, composed of teak-plank walls and terracotta tile roofs, are particularly pleasing to the eye, making this a good place for a breather and a swig on the water bottle. From here the path soon skirts the edge of a high riverbank, at intervals opening up views of the muddy Mekong flowing sluggishly southwards. The dense canopy of foliage overhead provides welcome shade as you pass through Ban Siw, whose quaint gingerbread houses, decorated with wood filigree, look invitingly cosy. The bamboo-and-thatch drink shops that line this section of the path are a good place to linger while enjoying a rejuvenating sip of coconut juice. Worth a look is the village monastery, Wat Silananthalangsy; the recently restored sim lacks charm, but a school building at the back of the compound has been left in a wonderfully decrepit state. This is often the case in Laos, as Buddhist laymen believe that much more merit is acquired by donating money towards the restoration of a structure that shelters Buddha images than by rebuilding a mere school for novice monks.
As you continue on from here, the path widens at the approach to Muang Sen, Don Khong's sleepy port. While there is nothing to see, it's a recommended stop for rest and refreshment before heading east via the shade-stingy eight-kilometre stretch of road that leads back to Muang Khong.
The long, sometimes shadeless, route of the northern loop rewards handsomely with access to what is certainly one of southern Laos's most idyllic spots. The total distance of approximately 35km is probably best covered by motorbike; in the hot season, industrial-strength sun block and a wide-brimmed hat are a must.
Starting from Muang Khong, you begin by heading due west on the road that bisects the island. During the hot season the plain of fallow rice paddies that makes up much of the island's interior looks and feels like a stretch of the Kalahari. After the rains break and rice paddies are planted, the scenery is actually quite beautiful.
Just before Muang Sen, turn right at the crossroads and head north; follow this road up and over a low gradient and after about 4km you'll cross a bridge. Keep going another 1500m and you'll notice large black boulders beginning to appear off to the left. Keeping your eyes left, you'll see a narrow trail that leads up to a ridge of the same black stone. Park your bike at the foot of the ridge, and, following the trail up another 200m to the right, you'll spot a cluster of monks' quarters constructed of weathered teak. These structures belong to Wat Phou Khao Kaew, an evocative little forest monastery situated atop a river-sculpted stone bluff overlooking the Mekong. Until a recently built sala of modern materials added a bit of the late twentieth century to the landscape, you could wander the grounds of this wat and almost believe that the clock had been turned back a hundred or so years. The centerpiece is a crumbling brick stupa crowned with a clump of grass; a fractured pre-Angkorian stone lintel sits at the base of the stupa and, assuming it was once fixed to it, would date the structure to the middle of the seventh century.
Nearby sits a charming miniature sim, flanked by plumeria trees. A curious collection of carved wooden deities, which somehow found their way downriver from Burma, decorates the ledges running around the building. In 1998, a life-sized bronze Buddha image was stolen from the altar, only to turn up hidden under a hastily made tent of branches in an isolated stretch of forest on the mainland. The antique image's ushnisha (flame-like finial on the crown of the head) was missing, but the Buddha was otherwise intact. Undoubtedly it had been destined for Thailand's black market in plundered antiquities. At present, the image is stored at the police station in Muang Khong. If you want to have a look at the inside of the sim, ask one of the resident monks to unlock the door for you, or you can peer through the windows on either side of the main entrance, which faces the river.
If, after a look round Wat Phou Khao Kaew, you're still feeling energetic, continue another 6km north to Ban Houa Khong, on the outskirts of which stands the modest residence of Khamtay Siphandone, former revolutionary and ex-prime minister. Not far away is a monastery that has been restored to reflect the status of the village's most important part-time inhabitant. The wat is not all that remarkable, except perhaps for the collection of artefacts in the main temple. Sharing the altar with rows of Buddha images is a gargoyle-like object, actually a somasutra from an ancient Khmer temple, used to channel lustral water onto an enshrined Shivalinga. Next to the altar is a display case filled with small Buddha images and other dusty relics.
Pushing on from Ban Houa Khong, you follow the road east to Ban Dong and then south to Muang Khong, a journey totalling 13km. On arriving at the northern outskirts of Muang Khong, just before reaching the high school, you pass a trail bordered with white stones, which leads to Tham Phou Khiaw, or Green Mountain Cave. Although it has gained quite a reputation among travellers, based no doubt on the obscurity of its location, the cave is no Lost City of Gold: in reality, it's a shallow grotto sheltering one termite-riddled Buddha and a number of clay pots containing crude votive tablets, each with an image of the Buddha pressed into it. Unless you're here during the Lao New Year celebrations, when islanders visit the site to make offerings and ritually bathe the images, or the Bun Bang Fai festival, a month later, when bamboo skyrockets are launched in a rain-making ritual, it's not really worth the effort; the trail leading up to the cave is overgrown at other times of the year and you'll have to hire a local guide.
2.2 Don Khon and Don Det
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 and traversed by a trail, provide opportunities for some leisurely trekking. In fact, there are as yet 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.
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. A handful of quaintly decrepit French-era buildings with terracotta tile roofs add some colonial color 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. Just 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, follow the trail 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 three-kilometer elevated trail to the small village at the northern end of the island. Here several guesthouses 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.
Don Khon's most popular attraction is the dolphins which can be spotted off the southern side of the island. To get there, take the railroad trail for 4km through rice paddies and thick forest to the village of Ban Hang Khon, the jumping-off point for dolphin-spotting excursions. The April – May dry season, when the Mekong is at its lowest, is the best time of year to catch a glimpse of this highly endangered species. The dolphins tend to congregate in a deep-water pool, and boats can be chartered from the village to see them. During the rest of the year, chances of seeing the dolphins decrease, as deeper water allows them more range.
Sadly, however, if current trends continue, dolphin-spotting off Don Khon may soon be a thing of the past. The present dolphin population here is less than ten, down from thirty in 1993.
2.2.2. Khone Phapheng Falls
Khone Pha Pheng waterfall is in the south of Laos, at about 130km from Pakse. It is known as the most beautiful waterfall of Southeast Asia. The "Pa Kha" or river dolphins inhabits this part of the river. They are nearly extinct and considered an endangered species. The dolphins could be a potential major attraction for tourist, as they are only found in this area of Asia.
By volume the largest waterfall in Southeast Asia, thundering Khone Phapheng is one of the most inspiring and popular attractions in the province. Among the waterfall's many channels and rocky outcrops visitors can see local people using traditional fishing techniques. Li Phi, just north of Khone Phapheng, is another amazing natural site that is best seen during the months of December-March when the cascade's clear waters are tinted emerald green. Food and beverage facilities are available at both sites.
3. The Bolaven Plateau
Rising over 1.500m above sea level. The rich volcanic soils and cool climate of the Bolaven Plateau produce some of the finest Arabica coffees in the world. The town of Pakxong is a base for day trips to the region's coffee and tea plantations, as well as the spectacular Xe Katamtok Waterfall. On the way to Pakxong stoop at the Tad Fane Resort at km 38 for breathtaking views of the Tad Fane Waterfall located on the edge of Dong Houa Sao NBCA.
4. Xe Pian NBCA
The 2.400 sq km Xe Pian National Biodiversity Conservation Area is one of the most biologically important and diverse protected areas in the country. Home to 51 key species of birds including the Giant Ibis and Sarus Crane, as well as 36 species of mammals, Xe Pian is one of the province's premier ecotourism destinations. Kiet Ngong Village is the jump off point for nature walks, bird watching, trekking, elephant rides and day trips to the Phou Asa archaeological site.