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.
When the frangipani are in full bloom, Wat Phu really comes into its own.
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 view from the top of Wat Phu is quite impressive.
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.
The perfect place to unwind alongside the Mekong.
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.
When you're in Champasak Town facing the Mekong river, north is to your left
. There's a 'roundabout' at the centre of town with a lotus-flower statue at the centre -- its purpose is decorative rather than functional, since there is only one road passing through the roundabout!
There's a branch of the Lao Development Bank
in a new location off a side road just south of the traffic circle. They'll cash travellers cheques for US dollars for $US 2 per note, but listen to this -- they'll cash TC's for Lao kip with no commission at attractive rates! There is also a BCEL ATM.
There's only one internet place in town, Internet Nam Ohy
, (T: (031) 920 025) 150m south of the Vong Paseud Guest House. It has two very nice terminals and charges 300 kip per minute. They also serve drinks -- they squeeze out a mean glass of sugar cane juice.
Obviously, if anything drastic happens to you while you're in Champasak, you'll want to get yourself to Pakse if at all possible. There is a small hospital
off a side road 100m south of the Vong Pasued Guest House. The doctor there, Mr. Ponsai, speaks a little English and has office hours from 08:00 to 16:00 daily, or you can give him a call on his cell: (020) 562 5355.
The post office
is just north of the Visitors' Centre on the riverside of the main road. Open 08:00 to 15:30 daily.
There's a Visitor Information Centre
just north of the traffic circle on the riverside -- you can check in here to arrange tours and boat trips, hours 08:00 to 12:00 and 13:30 to 16:30 Mon through Fri. But the staff at the Anouxsa Guesthouse are also a good bet.