One of the most visited provinces of Laos, Champasak has a population of around 50,000 and is formed by Pakse, the Bolaven Plateau, Paksong, Champasak and Si Phan Don (4000 Islands). Bordering Thailand and Cambodia, Pakse sits at the confluence of the Mekong and is the province’s capital, as a result of the Lao-Japanese Bridge spanning the Mekong, the town has quickly grown as an area of trading importance and is a popular tourist destination.
The Mekong River flows past the ancient Khmer religious compound at Wat Phu Champsak, before dispersing at Four Thousand Islands, an area of utter tranquility. The Bolaven Plateau is renowned for its production of coffee, rattan, fruit and cardamom, while the vast number of wats (temples) across the terrain make for interesting viewing.
The Champasak cultural landscape, including the Wat Phu Temple compound, is a well-preserved planned landscape more than 1,000 years old. It was shaped to express the Hindu belief of the relationship between nature and humanity, using an axis from mountain top to river bank to lay out a geometric pattern of temples, shrines and waterworks extending over some 10 km.
Attractions in Champasak
4,000 Islands: Known also as ‘Si Phan Don’, the Four Thousand group of small islands are dotted across the Mekong. The southern islands of Don Dhet and Don Khong are the two most visited as the remaining majority stay wild and uninhabited, largely due to their minute size. Both islands are situated close to the Cambodian border and as such provided a vital connection between Saigon and Laos during the French Colonial times when a railway was built to connect the two sides.
Don Dhet is the most laid back of the two, although it has some bars and restaurants, Don Khong is the biggest and easier to reach and often a little busier with accommodation getting overcrowded at times. The waters surrounding the islands are home to the rare and illusive Irrawaddy dolphin and provide plenty of fish to the local villagers.
Self-sufficient villages survive on local produce including rice, coconuts, sugar cane and vegetables, with clothing and textiles made by their own weaving techniques as and when required. The islands are a great place to discover a new very rural side to Laos, rich in tradition and culture with old buildings, walking trails and a choice of places to sleep and eat
Don Dhet and Don Khong provide a chance to really escape from it all. There are some interesting rapids and waterfalls close to the Cambodian border including a waterfall that is rumoured to be the biggest in Southeast Asia, plus a chance to see the famous Irrawaddy dolphins. The dolphins are best spotted from the south of the island towards the end of the day from December until May. There is also a boat tour available from the end of the pier but remember you will need to pay regardless of whether the dolphins put in an appearance or not.
Bicycles are available for rent which you can use to explore the entire Don Khong Island, expect to discover plenty of secluded beaches, rice fields and small villages along with some very old temples. The main village is Ban Khong which is home to Wat Jom Thong, a temple from the Chao Anou period built on the site of a Khmer temple with a hundred-year-old stupa alongside it.
There are also a few villas dating back to the French colonial era and a market which gets busy early evening. Heading out west from the temple are the rapids and Li Phi Falls. If you are visiting in December then stay around for National Day when there is a five-day boat celebration with additional activities including late night boxing matches.
Bolaven Plateau & Tad Fane Waterfall: Bolaven Plateau in southern Laos is famous for its great scenery, ethnic villages and unexplored corners. It’s probably best known for being home to some of Southeast Asia’s most spectacular waterfalls including Tad Fane and Dong Hua Sao (aka Taat Fang). The plateau’s elevation ranges approximately from 1,000 to 1,350 metres above sea level and here the weather in general is milder than the rest of the country, getting cool, especially at night.
Its fertile plains allow farmers to produce some of the best tea and coffee in the country (coffee remains Laos’ biggest agricultural export.) Tourism has become another important source of income for locals as the area has almost unlimited trekking and daytrip opportunities.
The impressive Tad Fane twin falls thunder over 100 metres down the steep cliffs into a gorge, located a few kilometres west of Paksong Town, Champasak Province. The scenic rainforest spot is part of a big national park where wild animals live, including leopards, tigers, elephants and monkeys. Hornbills are among the 300 bird species found in this area.
Wat Phu (Vat Phou): Wat Phu (meaning ‘mountain temple’), is situated on a hillside and offers stunning views over the surrounding land and Mekong River. Visitors who appreciate art and history will be amazed by the magnificent workmanship in this ruined Khmer temple complex in the form of temple pillars, barays, lintels, pediments, terrace, courtyard, walls, doorways, sanctuary, shrine, library and palaces.
There is also a natural spring that is believed by locals to emit holy water. Older than the great temple complex at Angkor Wat in Cambodia, Wat Phu was named a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2002.
Wat Phu is considered one of the oldest archaeological sites in Laos. One temple in the site was constructed around the 5th century but most buildings found in the complex are from the 11th to 13th centuries. Like other notable Khmer architecture in Southeast Asia, it was constructed using sandstone, laterite and bricks. Among many of the outstanding carvings there are the Indra, the Hindu god of war, storms, and rainfall, riding a three-headed elephant and Vishnu riding on a garuda, an eagle.
Wat Phu has been an active temple for Buddhist religious practice for quite some time because Buddhism replaced Hinduism in Laos in the mid 13th century. There is an altar at the front section of its sanctuary featuring four big Buddha images with more Buddha images around the ruins.
If you visit Wat Phu on the full moon of the third lunar month (usually in February), you will come across the temple’s biggest annual festival with many impressive ceremonies and fun activities going on during the week-long period. These include monk-blessing ceremonies, elephant racing, buffalo and cock fighting as well as a trade fair. The event is never short of entertainment such as live music and traditional Lao dancing