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Southern Laos

news_298thai_ing_hang_stupa_xavannakhet_laosThe narrow, long strip of southern Laos reminds me, in its geometrical and geographical characteristics of Vietnam. The coast here is by the Mekong River and the mountains are in the eastern side, but otherwise the set is similar.

The narrow, long strip of southern Laos reminds me, in its geometrical and geographical characteristics of Vietnam. The coast here is by the Mekong River and the mountains are in the eastern side, but otherwise the set is similar.

The south is the most accessible part of the country. The most overwhelming entry is from Cambodia, in a boat floating over the shallow Mekong; see details in my Planning Cambodia journal. Continuing north, along the string of cities in the way to the capital, would give a good overview of the area. Nakasong, Pakse, and Savannakhet will appear in this order. To reach Saravan and Attapeu, it is better to take any of the buses departing to the east from Pakse.

Thailand's southernmost cross is through Chong Mek, or Ban Mai Sing Amphon, as it is called in Laos, the only overland cross between the countries.

Chong Mek is about one hour from Ubon Ratchathani in Thailand, therefore it is a breeze to get there, and 40 kilometers from the bridge over the Mekong and the city of Pakse in southern Laos; the triple border with Cambodia is nearby.

Here, it is possible to cross to Laos without a passport by paying 5 Baht at the Thai side, but only if you stay in the village and return to Thailand on the same day. However, it is possible to get an exit stamp from Thailand and to make a visa on arrival at Laos. The Laotian side is better developed and has a big market catering for Thai shoppers; I saw a young gray owl, unable to fly yet, on sale for a bit more than $1. Another option is to cross by ferry from Mukdahan to Savannakhet, or from Nakhon Phanom to Thakhek. From Vietnam there is a somewhat less accessible cross, see my Planning Vietnam journal for details.

If entering from Cambodia, the Four Thousand Islands or Si Phan Don area is the first sight. It is famous for its Irrawaddy Dolphins; however, the town of Kratie in Cambodia is a better place for a close encounter with them. There, the Mekong is narrower and deeper, and the dolphins concentrate in a better-defined area. Nonetheless, the Laotian side is perfect to see the classical Lao-Thai riverside villages. The long way to the area and its slow pace invite for a significant stay of a week or so. Nakasong is the southernmost town in the area, and the village of Voem Kham is divided between Laos and Cambodia.


At the confluence of the Mekong and Xe Don rivers, and halfway between the Thai border and the Bolaven Plateau, the town is the far south's biggest city. The terminal is some 8km south of the town; if the bus drops you at the old northern terminal, then you have a similar distance to the town. The backpackers' zone is east from the bridge. Champasak, the ruined capital of the southern principality is close enough to the city to explore it in a daytrip. East from the town's center, on route 13 is the Champasak Provincial Museum (Mon-Fri 8-11.30am & 2-4pm; 1000K), which houses pre-Angkorian sandstone lintels. Eight kilometers southwest of Champasak, are the ruins of Wat Phou (daily 8.30am-4.30pm; 5000K), a series of ruined Khmer shrines dating from the 6th to the 12th centuries. The way to Saravan splits 7.5kms north of the town; hence, if planning to visit it, the best option is to do it as a stop between Pakse and Savannakhet. Since the bus returns through the same route, is a time-consuming detour.

Saravan is the closest town to the Bolaven Plateau and beyond a visit to the growing area of one of the best coffees in the world there are very few reasons to visit it. As with most Laotian provinces, the capital is the only town in it, and it serves as an administrative center and as a huge market, which occupies the town's center.

Bolaven Plateau

From Pakse or Saravan, there are trucks to Pakxong, the main settlement on the plateau. The circular plateau has an altitude of around 600m and therefore is cooler than the rest of the south. It is a good place to visit hill tribes; Lawae, Katu, Alak, Ta-oy, Suay, and Mon-Khmer groups inhabit the area.

Savannakhet is one of the busiest cities in Laos due to its location along the trade line between Thailand and Vietnam. Despite being a port, it lacks many of the maladies of those, its small center is clean and offers a look into a Utopian, semi-industrialized Laos. In the afternoons there is usually a problem to get fresh water; hence it is better to shower in the morning. Unless you're planning to head north and skip the south, or to go south and exit immediately to Cambodia, it is an error to enter Laos here. The "only one way to each town" characteristic of the Laotian roads will cause you to travel several times along the same route if you plan to begin an exploration of the south from this town. Route 9 leads from here to the Lao Bao crossing into Vietnam, and crosses the Ho Chi Minh Trail. If you do not plan to leave the country from there, then it is better to see the trail from Phonsavan in the northeast.


Halfway between Savannakhet and Vientiane is the town of Thakhek. All Laotian towns are relaxed; hence, Thakhek cannot add much on the topic, beyond being seldom visited by tourists. However, it is a good place from where to explore the Khammouane Biodiversity Park and the Mahaxai Caves. It is in front of Nakhon Phanom in Thailand, but entering or exiting from here is not recommended due to the same reasons as in Savannakhet.

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