Laos has always had a special place in my heart. Luang Prabang is one of my favorite getaway destinations from the hustle and bustle of Bangkok. So when I was invited to participate in a sponsored trip to the Champasak District of Laos I was both honored and excited. This initiative by the Mekong Tourism Coordinating Office was meant to inspire tourism to Southern Laos and places that are off the usual paths for tourists.
The inspiring 4-day itinerary was put together by the Southern Laos tourism organization. It captured the amazing sights of the city of Pakse and natural beauty of the Southern Laos destinations nearby in the Champasak District. If you’re looking for unspoiled landscapes, UNESCO World Heritage sites, all free from throngs of tourists, then put this destination on your radar.
Let me show you some of the things to do and places to eat that makes this place special…
Things to do:
Visit Vat Phou
Before the famous Angkor Wat in Cambodia was built there was Vat Phou, “Mountain Temple“. It was recognized in 2002 as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is the oldest archeological site in Laos.
As you enter the temple complex area there are large man-made pools of water (barays) reflecting the hills nearby. Ornately carved stone posts line the stone and grass pathway to the structures. It’s hard to not feel humble when you realize you’re treading over a path that was meant only for ancient royal footsteps.
Originally built in the 5th century as a place for Hindu worship, most of the structures still standing are from the 11th through the 13th centuries when Buddhism replaced Hinduism. The first structures you’ll find are the crumbling North and South Palaces.
To get to the main sanctuary you must climb a serious of narrow stone steps that lead to terraces that offer amazing views of the surrounding area. But unlike other sites in Asia instead of pushy sellers you share the mountainside with happy vendors and grazing goats.
The top terrace holds the Sanctuary and Library which house robed religious statues. But don’t stop there. Continue onward behind this last structure and you’ll find a natural spring from the cliffs. The locals regard this water as holy. If you’ve made it this far you’ll be pretty sweaty and splashing some of this cool water on your face is pure bliss.
If you want to reward yourself, there’s a vendor near the top that sells beer. Yes, beer. I know that seems unusual to have someone selling beer at an archeological site with such religious significance. But in Laos you can buy a Beer Lao just about anywhere! But don’t reward yourself too much, you still have to go down those narrow stone steps.
Visit Vat Phou Salao
In Pakse it’s hard to miss the large golden Buddha statue overlooking the city from across the Mekong River. It’s just one of the interesting sights to see at Vat Phou Salao.
Vat Phou Salao is relatively new (beginning construction in 2010), but the story of the hill it sits upon, Phou Salao, has an interesting history. The story is that long ago two kings of different towns agreed to have the son of one king marry the daughter of the other.
The prince from the other town came to plan out the wedding but discovered his princess bride to be had fallen in love with another man. Disappointed he decided to head back home with his troops.
On their return home they rested at this hill and drank the whisky that had been intended for the wedding. Since then the hill has been known as Phou Salao which loosely translated means “mountain of wasted whisky”.
As you enter you’ll find to the right rows and rows of golden Buddha statues facing towards the Mekong River and Pakse. The complex holds over 1200 buddha images…don’t try to count them all.
Across from the temple is a small pavilion with a large gong and bell in front. Odds are there will be few tourists at the site so feel free to ring a bell or bang a gong. But don’t be like Animal from the Muppets and go nuts! It’s still a place of worship and Vat Phou Salao has a meditation center on site.
There’s a small footpath to the right of the bell and gong leading to an impressive view of the Lao-Japan Bridge stretching across the Mekong River, the Pakse city center, and the Bolevan Plateau.
Visit the Numerous Waterfalls!
#1: Khone Phapheng Waterfall
Near the Cambodian border, Khone Phapheng Waterfall is the largest waterfall in Southeast Asia. Here you can witness the awesome power of the Mekong River and the brave fishermen casting their nets in to scoop out the catch of the day.
You can also feast on this catch at the ຮ້ານອາຫານສາລາຊົມວີວ The View Restaurant, one of the best meals I had during the visit to Southern Laos (more about that in the Where To Eat section!).
#2: Tad Yuang Waterfall
One of the most picturesque places in Southern Laos is Tad Yuang Waterfall located on the Bolevan Plateau. Narrow concrete stairs lead all the way to the edge of the water where the cool spray of the pounding water mists everything around. So use caution as the steps can be slippery!
This is a popular spot for the locals as there are picnic grounds at the top of the waterfall and several venues for shopping and eating. The kiddos seem to enjoy swinging about the vines more than taking in the waterfall scene!
#3: Tad Fane Waterfall
Plummeting 120 meters over the cliffside to shower the jungle canopy below is Laos highest waterfall, Tad Fane. To really appreciate the scenery however, strap on some zip-lining gear and zoom a couple of hundred meters above the action.
Green Discovery Laos offers a zip-lining experience in which you experience being whisked over the wide canyons and through the dense jungle (for around $40 USD). For me THIS was one of the highlights of our experience! You can see that on my face, right?
If zip-lining’s not your thing, there’s a baby monkey on the premises that’s happy to befriend you!
#4: Li Phi/Somphamit Waterfalls
Located on Don Khon Island, the Somphamit Waterfalls are locally known as Li Phi (Spirit Trap). The local belief is that the series of rapids and falls serve as a trap to ensnare bad spirits washing down the river.
The water buffalo do not seem to be impeded by superstition as they calmly graze on the grassy edges. A large section of the landscape around the Mekong River is carved out for recreation and there are several footpaths that lead to picturesque scenes of the river and falls. Heed the posted reminders about being cautious near the edges–they can be slippery and the spirits are hungry!
During the dry season, the Mekong River reveals a white sandy beach. Normally only the tourists take advantage of this opportunity as the locals are hesitant to swim with bad trapped spirits. Around the edge the water is calm, but venture out far enough and you’ll experience some serious currents.
#5: Tad Lo Waterfalls
Located in the Salavan Province, Tad Lo Village has 3 waterfalls. The most impressive one (pictured) is Tad Hang. The area is quite peaceful and you can watch some of the locals casting out nets and then ducking behind the waterfall for a reprieve.
They also offer some sage advice!
Visit Don Det Island
Near Pakse is the 4000 Islands area. As the name describes, it’s an area where there are tiny (and not so tiny) islands scattered within the Mekong River between the borders of Laos and Cambodia.
Don Det Island is one of the larger islands accessible by ferry boat crossing. Most of the islands population farms or subsists off of supporting tourism. Don’t let this sleepy island fool you, though. There’s tons of nightlife, places to eat, and imbibe.
Don Det island also offers amazing views of the sunset over the Mekong River. Relax with an ice cold Beer Lao and watch the fishermen paddling home with with their nets while the sun sets over the Mekong River peppered with tiny “islands” as far as the eye can see.
Visit a Coffee Plantation
The elevation of the Bolaven Plateau provides a cooler climate for growing coffee and tea in the rich soil. Laos is world renown for its amazing coffee and there’s no better place to try it than right there at the source. The Sinouk Coffee Resort is an excellent place to get an education about coffee from the plant to the cup.
While walking through the gardens and plantation I had a chance to try a coffee berry right off the tree. It tasted like a sweet red bell pepper!
Visit the Elusive Irrawaddy Dolphins
Dolphin lovers will be delighted to discover the Mekong River is home to the freshwater Irrawaddy Dolphin. They are very rare and isolated to a few segments of the river. The best way to discover them is in this small section of the river between Cambodia and Laos.
Taking a boat to where the dolphins hang out is easy as the fishermen keep tabs on where they are at all times. There’s no guarantee that you’ll get a perfect shot of these creatures as they are quite shy and surface quickly for air. We were fortunate to see 2 or 3 grouped together, but all of our cameras failed to capture them before they submerged again! They have a supernatural ability to be seen, yet not photographed.
Visit Vendors Along the Way
As you move about from place to place make sure to stop off and support local vendors. You’d be surprised at some of the things you’ll see. As an example, while traveling to the Bolevan Plateau region there was a small stretch of blacksmith vendors making farm tools. Each one of them was using a large munitions casing as an anvil! Not something you see everyday…
Where to Eat
ຮ້ານອາຫານສາລາຊົມວີວ The View Restaurant
As I mentioned earlier, one of my most memorable dining experiences was at the ຮ້ານອາຫານສາລາຊົມວີວ The View Restaurant located at Khone Phapheng Waterfall.
Not only did they provide a bounty of fresh fish from the Mekong River prepared in various ways, they also made some tasty vegetarian dishes for our single vegetarian guest. Their grilled banana blossoms nearly converted me to vegetarianism.
But what I really enjoyed was the opportunity to eat some serious local dishes like this deep fried grasshopper with slivers of fried ginger and fiery chili pepper dipping sauce! Don’t knock it until you try it. To me it reminded me of deep fried baby soft shelled crabs. Crunchy and meaty. Who wants some?
Nang Lar Noodle Shop
For a really delicious Laos Pho (20,000 kip) bowl of noodles and/or an amazing meat filled Khao Jee sandwich (10,000 kip) which is similar to my favorite Vietnamese Bahn Mi sandwich, then you MUST visit Nang Lar Noodle Shop in Pakse.
For 30 years and 3 generations this family has been dishing out delicious noodles and sandwiches. I highly recommend it, and so does my fellow blogger pal, The Roaming Cook. Here’s a video review from him in which myself and other blogger pal This Is Mick! joyfully participated.
I’m the good looking fella in the green polo shirt.
Where is it?
The Nang Lar Noodle shop isn’t on Google Maps, but it is located right next to the Honda shop marked in the map below.
Where to Stay
In Pakse: Champasak Grand Hotel
Located in the very center of Pakse next to the Lao-Japan Bridge is the Champasak Grand Hotel. It’s a 4 star hotel with 24 hour desk service. The location is excellent for moving about Pakse, and the accommodations are very comfortable. It’s considered a luxury hotel but don’t expect to pay a hefty price as their rooms are under $60 USD including breakfast.
However, if you’re looking for more budget accommodations, Pakse has many places to choose from for any budget!
In Don Det Island: Golden Hotel Don Det
The Golden Hotel Don Det is a family operation and one of the few places that also offers a pool on Don Det Island. For an amazing sunset and comfortable lodging I recommend this hotel. Rooms average around $36 USD per night which includes breakfast.
Though if budget is a concern, there are surprisingly several options on this island as low as $6 a night (but don’t expect a pool)!
How do I get to Pakse?
The most convenient way to get to Pakse, Laos is by International flights. Laos Airlines offers direct flights from Bangkok to Pakse roundtrip for around $225 USD (though it can be cheaper or more expensive depending on the dates you choose).
If visiting Thailand in Ubon Ratchani you can take a bus direct to Pakse crossing over the Chong Mek border crossing for around $5 USD (a 2 hour journey).
If visiting Cambodia they’ve now opened the border crossing with visa on arrival and a duty free station on the border convenient from Siam Reap. From Siam Reap to Pakse it’s a 9 hour bus ride which will cost around $30 USD.
Laos is a country that gets its hooks into you. Coming from Bangkok, I enjoy getting away from the noise and traffic of the big city. Laos straddles the line between providing modern conveniences and rustic experiences. For me it’s an escape where the pace slows down, the people are incredibly friendly and seem more connected to their surroundings, and there’s an adventure around every corner.
If you’re looking for a destination where you don’t feel like you’re being led from one tourist trap to the next, Southern Laos will definitely be of interest to you. Even though I visited during the “holiday season” I was amazed that there were so few tourists about. Now is the time to visit before that changes! I would absolutely visit again.
Should you visit I’d love to hear about your experience in the comment section below. If you have any questions I’d be happy to give you some recommendations or point you to some folks that may be helpful. Feel free to contact me!