The province of Salavan spans from Laos' eastern border with Thailand to its western border with Vietnam. Though it is home to spectacular mountain scenery, waterfalls and very diverse ethnic groups, much of it is currently inaccessible, save to 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, 125km away, reaches the town and comes to an abrupt dead end. Vietnam is only 100km further west, 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 west. The few that exist are notoriously treacherous dirt tracks leading high into the mountains to remote tribal villages. After that, it's all trackless jungle. Even the when Laotian government's own provincial road planners visit the area, they go by helicopter.
But of all the southern provinces of Laos, Salavan holds the brightest prospects for tourists looking to explore the natural beauty of Southeast Asia. It's our bet that, given a decade or three, this area is most likely to become the next Chiang Mai. For now, most travellers only head as far east as Tad Lo, which is 85km 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.
Even though it's the provincial capital, Salavan is a frontier town that echoes in some way the Old West of America, or the Austrailian outback. Hot, dusty, sleepy, with pretty much nothing to offer the casual visitor except for wide-open spaces and quaint rural scenery.
But it is 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 will remain a backwater.
If you do drift by here (perhaps you were heading to Savannakhet and got the names mixed up) at least there are a couple of interesting treks to look into, a good day market and a pleasant river to wander beside, along with a magnificent horizon -- but that's about it.
Those wishing to travel further east will find themselves facing a series of challenges. Among them, a lack of services, travel agents, translators, and qualified guides. There is one tourist information office which, while quite friendly, is particularly Monty Pythonesque. All of which pales into comparison to the state of Salavan's aforementioned eastern road network.
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 all-but impossible to access.
Every year, a small number of truly daring travellers attempt the road to the minority village of Ta Oy, 80km from Salavan, high up in the mountains. The road is reportedly so perilous that even experienced motorcyclists describe it as a nerve-wracking journey balancing on at the edge of death -- but also as a life-changing experience. This was one of the areas worst-hit by bombing in the 60's and 70's, and is still strewn with detritus from the war -- not to be taken lightly is the fact that the workers who remove unexploded ordinance from the region, still have a lot of work on their hands.
Man-made hazards aside, good old Mother Nature will provide fallen trees, rockslides, and washed-out bridges. During the rainy season, there may be no transport coming or going from Ta Oy for weeks on end. For those of you whose appetites are only whetted all the more by such warnings, please do your research before undertaking this or any other significant up-country exploration in the area. Find out about the state of the roads, take it slow and steady, and prepare for the unexpected. And definitely write to Travelfish and tell us all about it when you're done!
Text and/or map last updated on 10th August, 2009.
Get orientated with a map of Salavan, Laos
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