Set on the banks of the Mekong in one of its wider sections, Champasak is a small town with a single main street running parallel to the river. It's on this main street that most guesthouses have sprung up, with a handful taking advantage of the wonderful serenity that is the Mekong. It's the kind of town that you come to looking for something to do and end up staying a few days just reading a book and recharging.
Surprisingly, it's not really on the tourist trail despite being close to Pakse and home to a UNESCO World Heritage site — Wat Phu. It's also on the way down to Don Khong, Don Dhet and Don Khon making for all the more reason to slow down and stopover.
Wat Phu is an impressive Khmer temple that was constructed by the same person as Angkor Wat — Suryavarman II. The layout is impressive, commencing with two massive barays, a series of old crumbling buildings constantly being restored and then climbing up a set of ancient steps to the side of a mountain where a cluster of other structures sits. It's from atop this vantage point that you can experience the fantastic sweeping views of the surrounding area including the Mekong.
The ruins draw a steady crowd of daytrippers from Pakse and further afield -- you can even do a day trip from Ubon Ratchathani in Thailand if you'd like – but with Champasak's handful of colonial mansions, typical Chinese shopfronts and pretty wooden houses, try to allow for at least an overnight stay. Most people will be happy swinging through Wat Phu in a couple of hours in the morning so they can retire to their riverside accommodation or a nearby restaurant to finish reading their book or writing up notes from previous days' experiences.
Aside from Wat Phu and reading a book beside the river, Champasak is also home to a spa which is extremely professional and great value for money. In fact, it's so good for the price that we'd argue that it's one of the best value spas in the country. Western-operated, the spa hits all the right notes with drifting soft music,friendly staff, free hot tea and a massage that makes you melt right into the soft recliner. The spa usually isn't very busy, but that also means there are usually few staff on duty and if you really must go there in a group of two or more, best to book in advance.
If you're looking to take your Champasak laziness to another level, you could always visit Don Daeng. It's the massive island directly across from Champasak in the middle of the river. Walking its perimeter is nigh on impossible, but a motorbike does the trick nicely. It's a basic kind of place where things slow right down to a snail's pace, which is quite unbelievable given how slow the pace of life around Champasak already is. It's possible to stay on the island in some budget accommodation as well as a weird luxury hotel, which seems completely out of place, although happily it keeps a low profile.
Even in high season, this is a sleepy place. Along the solitary main road water buffaloes and wandering geese are more common sights than cars and buses, and the riverfront with its smattering of small restaurants and hammock-strewn cafes creates an ideal getaway from the midday heat.
Champasak is a wonderful place to relax and take in a bit of Lao culture. It's likely you'll only run into a handful of other tourists, making it the perfect stop on your southern Laos excursion.
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Text and/or map last updated on 31st January, 2015.
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