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CHAMPASAK PROVINCE

champasak
Champasak was once, 1400 years ago, the centre of power in the lower Mekong basin, later a revered outpost of the Khmer Angkor empire and later still one of the three kingdoms to rule over the remains of Lane Xang. A fine heritage that, according to the last prince of Champassak, was brought to hard times by a former queen's indiscretion.
 
The beautiful Nang Pao ruled over Champasak in the mid-17th century. But it's lonely at the top and the queen found comfort in the arms of a prince from a neighbouring kingdom. Alas, for the lady's pennyroyal was ineffective, and Nang Pao fell pregnant. A great scandal ensued and, though the queen remained in power and was succeeded by her illegitimate daughter, Nang Peng, the unhappy Nang Pao decreed that all unmarried mothers in the kingdom must sacrifice a buffalo for their sins. The practice survived in some local communities until the 1980s, the unfortunate women being known as 'Nang Pao's Daughters.
 
Though the Kingdom of Champasak prospered for a while after the final dissolution of Lane Xang, at the beginning the 18th century, its fortunes faltered quickly and it was reduced to a vassal state of Siam before the century had passed. For its part in Chao Anou's abortive attempt to win freedom from the Siamese for the Lao kingdoms, Champasak lost all of its territory east of the Mekong. Under French rule the once mighty kingdom became a mere administrative block; its royalty stripped of many of its privileges.
 
"With an unmarried mother as queen," Prince Boun Oum na Champasak, the last of the kingdom's royal line, once said. "Everything started so badly that the game was lost before it began."
 
Boun Oum, who died in French exile in 1980, may have griped about his family's downfall (though he was not a direct descendent of Nang Pao), but it did not stop him from using his remaining royal privileges to loot the nearby Wat Phu. The magnificent Angkorian temple complex was recently made a UNESCO heritage site and is considered one of the finest Angkor-inspired edifices outside of Cambodia.
HOW TO GET THERE ?
If you're coming in from Thailand, you can travel past the border crossing east of Ubon Ratchathani. There is another border crossing in Cambodia at Voen Kham north of Stung Treng. The most reliable way to travel from Cambodia is to get your guesthouse to arrange transport, or come through Stung Treng in Cambodia. Check for the latest information with other travellers.
 
Getting to Pakse
By Air
Flights from Siem Reap in Cambodia land at the Pakse International Airport, and there are regular flights from Vientiane and Savannakhet to Pakse. The Pakse International Airport lies across the river from the main town. You can board a tuk-tuk from the airport to the nearby town for around 20,000kip (US$2.5).
 
By Bus
You can get to Pakse by bus from Vientiane, Thakek or Savannakhet. The journey from Vientiane to Savannakhet takes 7-8 hours and it's about 3 hours from Savannakhet to Pakse.  Sleeper buses make the trip directly from Vientiane overnight, and there are also VIP and local buses running daily between Vientiane, Thakek, Savannaket and Pakse if you wish to break up the journey.   Pakse has three bus terminals. The new terminal is about 8 km south of town; the old terminal is also 8 km away, but towards the north. From there you can then travel on to your Paske hotel. The ticket you buy from the travel agency in town will include transport to the bus terminal and, if you're going to Vientiane, a pick up from town. You'll have to buy tickets for international travel from travel agencies.
 
Getting to Champasak Town
You can get to Champasak Town from Pakse by boat or bus. The town is about 40km south of Pakse. In Pakse you can board a bus from the south and north points. The bus will take Highway 13 and you will probably get dropped at Ban Lak 30 which is two miles east from the Ban Muang docks with onward songthaews running regularly. Ask your Paske hotel for more information. You could also travel from Pakse by songthaew or private vehicle hire. Once you reach the docks, the ferry will take you across the river to Champasak town.  The standard fare for the crossing is less than 10,000 kip ($1) per person.
 
Ferries ply regularly during the day from Ban Muang, located on the eastern side of the Mekong River, to Ban Phaphin on the western side (1.8 km north of Champasak).
 
The ferry landing is roughly 2 km north from the traffic circle which marks the middle of Champasak Town. Ferries run regularly from the landing to the opposite bank of the river. Boats coming down from Pakse (although these are not regular) often ignore the landing and stop by the Anouxsa Guesthouse instead.
 
Getting Around Champasak Town
By Cycle
The best way to travel around the Champasak Town region is by bicycle. Walking to the temples from the town is not an option as these are too far away. It is likely that your Champasak guesthouse offers bicycles on hire for US $ 1- US $ 2 per day or a motorbike for US $ 5/10 per half/full day.
 
Getting To The Four Thousand Islands
There are two main options for getting to the islands from Pakse, depending upon which islands you are heading to.
 
Don Khong: The largest of the islands is easily accessible with its own ferry crossing. Buses leave from Pakse on a regular basis, and private vehicle hire and shuttle minibuses are also available - check with your local Champasak guesthouse and internet cafe for the next departure.
 
Don Dhet and Don Khone: laying further southwards these two islands are growing rapidly in popularity as an alternative to Don Khong and are closer to the waterfalls, the remains of the French Railway system and the endangered Irrawaddy Dolphins. From Pakse you will need to get a bus to the port of Ban Nagasang, from where you can catch local longtail boats to the island of your choice (the French Railway Bridge still connects these two islands). Some restaurants, Champasak guesthouse and internet cafes can also sell you an all-in-one ticket to the island of your choice, generally costing a little more but reducing the travel time and effort.
WHAT TO SEE ?
One of the most visited provinces of Laos; Chamapsak has a population of around 50,000 and is formed by Pakse, the Bolaven Plateau, Paksong, Champasak and Si Phan Don (Four Thousand 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.
 
Pakse
Founded by the French in 1905, much of the town's colonial heritage was obliterated during the second Indochinese War. The capital of the Champasak Province retains the lethargic atmosphere Laos has become so renowned and popular for. There are around 20 Wats within the area of which Wat Luang and Wat Thai Fam are the biggest.
 
Wat Luang features a monastic school and a thaat containing the ashes of the former Lao Prime Minister. Wat Thai Fam is situated by the Champasak Palace Hotel and is set around spacious grounds, making it a prime site for temple festivals. The temple also houses a small Buddha imprint. The Champasak Historical Heritage Museum near the Hotel Residence du Champa, records the history of the province through artefacts, photography and written documents.
 
Bolaven Plateau
Situated on the north east of Champasak province the plateau covers parts of Salavan, Attapeu and Sekong provinces. One of the most heavily bombed areas during the Indochina War, Bolaven Plateau is famous for its fertile plains, tribal villages, great scenery, unexplored corners and being home to some of Southeast Asia's most spectacular waterfalls- Tadfane & Dong Hua Sao.
 
Slightly off the beaten track, the area is less popular than say Si Phan Don but is perfect for those who want the opportunity to rent a bike and really get their teeth into some untamed travel. You can enjoy scenic rides across forests, coffee and tea plantations; stop in hill-tribe villages to buy hand-woven textiles or take an elephant ride. Push and dirt bikes can be rented from most places in Pakse.
 
Paksong
The capital of coffee production in Laos, has a few places to stay and is usually visited on an over night trip from Pakse. The main attraction of the area is the Tat Lo Waterfall which has a large pool at the bottom suitable for swimming.
 
Although this is not the most magnificent of Laos waterfalls it remains popular with visitors due the lethargic atmosphere that surrounds the area. From Tad Loa, having a bike makes it easier to reach Tad Suong - the most impressive of the waterfalls.
 
Wat Phu
The only World Heritage Site in southern Laos is Wat Phou in Champasak. The ruins, seen from a Wat Phou tour, are scattered across the mountains and the Mekong plain. Wat Phou is on the main road, 6km southwest of Champasak Town.
 
The temple complex of Wat Phou Champasak is the most important religious site in southern Laos. The temple was built during the 6th to 8th centuries in the Chenla Period. During the 9th to 13th centuries, it belonged to the Khmer Angkor Empire. You may not find the ruins as imposing as the one near Siem Reap in Cambodia, but the Wat Phou countryside makes it all worthwhile whether you are a temple buff or a casual traveller. Beginning at the foothills of Phu Pasak (Pasak Mountain), the complex ascends in three stages to the main sanctuary which commands spectacular views of the surrounding countryside. It is definitely worth booking a Wat Phou tour to get the full experience.
 
According to historians, the Khmers chose this site because of the Phou Pasak peak which resembles the symbolic idol of the Hindu god, Shiva and also for the spring near the summit of the mountain. The temple complex is 8 km southwest from the small village of Champasak. Travel by bicycle is the best way to get there.
 
When you enter the complex from the ticket office, you will walk down a path which takes you to two pavilions. These are known as the Women's and Men's Pavilions and are believed to be halls for worship, although this is not yet officially ascertained. The buildings don't have roofs any longer, but they are still in good condition. You will see the Nandi Pavilion behind the Women's Pavilion (Nandi is the mount of Shiva). Long, long ago, the Royal Road to the distant Angkor Wat began from the Nandi Pavilion.
 
As you continue your climb, the route gets more strenuous and the groves of frangipani trees get denser. The next stop is the main complex. This was originally a temple to the god Shiva and was converted during the 13th-14th centuries into a Buddhist shrine. The sanctuary no longer has a roof, but the foundations and walls are in good condition. In the days when the spring still gushed from behind the temple, the water was channelled via aqueducts down the face of the cliff into the chamber at the rear. Here it would bathe the lingam (Shiva's idol) in a perennial lustre. After this the water was directed out to a public place for worshippers to bathe in.
 
You will find some intriguing sights beyond the central complex such as an elephant rock and a crocodile rock, both highly popular with visitors. The best time to go to Wat Phou, especially to book a Wat Phou tour, is April and May when the flowers of the frangipani scent the air.
 
Si Phan Don (Four Thousand Island)
According to some sources the Chinese Haw found this temple too beautiful to destroy it. Situated next to the Royal Palace Museum, the gilded facade and relief panels tell the story of the highest incarnation of the Buddha Vessentara. A good choice to follow the Royal Palace Museum.
 
Elephant Riding
For those who feel compelled to learn how to ride and elephant, here is your chance. The are a few elephant trekking opportunities around the area that will take you off into the jungle on lengthy treks. Feeding and tending to your elephant is part of the trip's package.
WHERE TO EAT ?
Apart from local stalls on main streets selling fare such as noodle soup and standard Laos dishes such as laap with sticky rice, other eating options are restaurants attached to guesthouses and hotels within the towns. Like most Laos provinces, baguette stalls dominate the main streets in Pakse. However, there are a few restaurants serving varied Western food as well as Thai, Chinese, and Vietnamese, making quite a diverse food choice, considering the size of the town.
 
Most of the restaurants are within walking distance and located along or nearby the road between the Champasak Palace Hotel and the Se Don River. Here is the list of restaurants in Pakse:
 
Ketmany Restaurant
Next to Adams internet cafe, is the Ketmany restaurant that serves Chinese, Laos and some European dishes, although the Asian fare is somewhat better than the Western.
 
Delta Coffee
A popular place for coffee and cake, as well as a selection of French and Laotian wines. Delta coffee also serves Italian dishes like pizza and pasta while the double pepperoni is highly recommended!
 
Lien Huong
Located one block closer to the river, this place offers tasty Vietnamese food. Staff are very friendly and the service is warm and efficient. Although Lie Huong has limited items on offer, it is definitely worth trying out.
 
Nazim Restaurant & Jasmin Restaurant
Both Nazim and Jasmin offer similar Malay and Indian cuisine. Prices at both places are reasonable. Meat dishes are recommended while vegetarians will love the fresh veggie dishes. The two restaurants are next door to each other on the main street, close to Phonsavan hotel.
 
Lan Kham Noodle House
Attached to Lan Kham hotel, the restaurant is popular with locals for the breakfast menu which is usually served in enormous bowls with fresh herbs and green salad. Prices are inexpensive and it is open from late morning until early evening.
 
Tour Lao Restaurant
The restaurant is located in the central market. Tour Lao Restaurant offers good hamburger and fries for those who are missing some western-style grub.
 
Korean BBQ
There are several Korean barbecue restaurants on offer in Pakse. The cook-it-your-self menu includes meats like beef, pork, chicken, and fish, which come with vegetables and noodles to make soup with. There are also non-grilled items on the menu like tasty fried chicken wings and so on. Korean barbecue restaurants can be easily found in town, especially along the river.
SHOPPING
As with every city in Laos, there is a Morning Market selling fresh meats, vegetable, and food ingredients. Souvenirs like weaving silk, silverwares, jewellery, antiques and hill-tribe products can be found at stalls located surrounding most of Champasak's attractions. When in Champasak, don't forget to try (or even buy) the famous Lao Arabica Coffee grown in Bolovens Plateau (on the east of Pakse is the best place to grow coffee in Southeast Asia.)
 
Morning Market
The market's location is about 200 metressouth from the town centre. Pakse Morning Market sells fruit and vegetables grown in the back yards of locals and also sells goods like clothing, crafts, silverwares, and household items. Although prices are negotiable, it is already inexpensive. Several stalls in the surrounding area offer food and Lao coffee and this is certainly a perfect spot to rest after a tiring morning shopping.
 
Dao Heuang (New Market)
A massive market (compared to the diminutive city size) situated on Road 13 near the Japanese bridge over the Mekong River. The new market offers everything from fresh food to metal items. The market is well organized and divided into zones like; clothes zone, silver and accessories, and food. Certainly the best one-stop shopping spot in Champasak. Dao Heuang (New Market) is about two kilometres southeast out of town.
 
Shoppers should note that Champasak is not a major tourist city and so it is best to learn some Lao numbers or at least have a calculator with you since you might just get a friendly smile or a laugh from vendors when asking for prices. There is an ATM machine in Pakse (yes - only one) that accepts international cards. Although the amount of money is limited per transaction, one can withdraw an unlimited number of times, but when the machine is empty it can remain so for as long as a week.
 

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