The province of Salavan spans Laos from its western border with Thailand to its eastern border with Vietnam. Although it's home to spectacular mountain scenery, waterfalls and a diverse array of ethnic groups, much of this is currently inaccessible to all but the most intrepid and resourceful of travellers.
It says a lot about the province that, although its same-named capital city lies roughly at the centre, the road leading to it from Pakse, 125 kilometres away, reaches the town and comes to an abrupt dead end. Vietnam is only 100 kilometres further east, as the crow flies, but this is only good news if you happen to be a crow: there are currently no roads to speak of leading directly east. Instead, a new route has been opened up along route 15b to the north, which now leads all the way to Vietnam.
Although Salavan holds prospects for tourism in the future, much of the province is still too unexplored to allow travellers to simply wander around and find fun things to do. For now, most travellers only head as far east as Tad Lo, which is 85 kilometres from Pakse and easily accessible by public transport or motorbike. It's a beautiful, tranquil little spot along a series of three waterfalls that attracts a steady trickle of backpackers as well as Laotians on vacation. Those wishing to travel further east will find themselves facing a series of challenges. Among these are a lack of services, travel agents, translators and qualified guides.
Salavan is a frontier town that echoes in some way an Australian outback town. Hot, dusty, sleepy, with pretty much nothing to offer the casual visitor except for wide, open spaces and quaint rural scenery.
But it's exactly that feeling of being on the edge of a wilderness that gives Salavan its mystique and also assures that for the time being, it will only show up on the travel itineraries of those seeking an off-the-beaten track adventure. If tourism throughout the province opens up, then this will be a crucial base of operations, but until then, it remains a grim backwater. Note that we have been waiting for this day to come for the past decade but aside from the paving of route 15b there's been little progress.
If you do drift by here (perhaps you were heading to Savannakhet and got the names mixed up) at least there is a destroyed bridge to travel out to, a decent day market and a pleasant river to wander beside, along with a magnificent horizon -- but that's about it.
The hinterlands giving onto the border with Vietnam hosts hundreds of ethnic minority villages, many with their own distinct language and culture, whose lives have been shaped over the centuries by the tortured history of the region. But whatever travel adventures await there remain locked-up by the lack of roads, so unless you plan to walk or are able to hitch a ride on one of the Laotian government helicopters, the region is currently quite impossible to access.
Salavan is bordered by a loop of the Sekong River to the east, and the roads are laid out in a roughly rectangular grid, making it easy to learn your way around. A good job, since there are no road names or road signs to be found. Most of what you'll need is located in and around a rectangle of cross-streets between the road out of town to the south, the white stupa to the north, the river to the east, and the Salavan market to the west. We saw some tuk-tuks at the bus station, but it would be hard to scare one up if you're just roaming the streets, so you should count on walking or using your own transport.
There is no publicly-available internet anywhere in Salavan -- or none we could find anyway -- but 3G is available on Unitel.
The Laos Telecom office (T:(034) 211 005), west of the Salavan market, offers faxing and long-distances telephone services -- calls cost 2,000 kip per minute, open weekdays 08:00 to 17:00.
The Post Office (T: (034) 211 251) is located right next door, and Western Union transfers are available here: open weekdays 08:00 to 16:30.
A BCEL ATM is located at the northeast corner of the market and the Lao Development Bank is nearby, but only open in business hours. Currency exchange is available.
By Adam Poskitt