A nature retreat
At Kingfisher Ecolodge, guests can soak up the tranquil beauty of Xe Pian NPA’s wetlands.
The lodge played a large part in establishing tourism in this once off-the-beaten-track destination and it remains the primary accommodation option. Their bungalows are comfortable but the lodge mishandles some aspects of hospitality and for those seeking an experience greater than just a nice room in nature, it will fall short of expectations.
Kingfisher Ecolodge is a kilometre on from Ban Khiet Ngong village. The lodge’s situation on the edge of the wetlands, a water world frequented by birds and water buffalo, is nothing short of idyllic. It’s all best viewed from the observation hut or one of seven “Comfort” category bungalows, sturdy raised timber bungalows with a front wall of glass and an enormous deck with hammock. These bungalows will suit a traveller with a flexible budget but as advertised, it is comfortable rather than fancy. These comforts include ensuite toilet and solar heated shower, fan, safety box and tea/coffee. The rooms also looked well maintained, a contrast to their less expensive option.
The four more affordable “Eco” rooms are bamboo and wood bungalows, two rooms to one structure and they are a definite step up from your average backpacker hut. A neat and tidy affair, they are equipped with solid wood floors, a fan, electrical outlets, a side table, luggage rack, mosquito net and a pitcher of drinking water. The front porch has a vantage of the marshlands and here too you’ll wake to the sound of water buffalo sloshing around and fishermen paddling past. On the downside, when we stayed in October 2016, these bungalows were looking weathered and obviously hadn’t received the same maintenance TLC as the comfort rooms. We had a broken floorboard, loose bug screens and our porch chair was shamefully battered, with a huge hole in the back rest.
The eco rooms have a shared bathroom—a respectable ratio of two toilets and two showers shared between four rooms. We appreciate the expensive investment required of solar power for electricity and hot water, but for some, a room with shared bathroom for US$32 may be a stretch.
Kingfisher receives the majority of their business from tour groups—one day it is empty, the next completely booked out. The service and atmosphere is comatose until a group arrives and then there’s a flurry of activity to fulfill the group’s needs. Independent travellers are largely ignored.
It seems the lodge isn’t interested in individual bookings, as evidenced by how little support they receive from the lodge in getting there. The best way is to come from Pakse, where you have the option to rent a motorbike or arrange a private van or tuk tuk. Those on a budget, a songthaew departs Pakse’s southern bus station (kilometre-eight or ‘lak pet’ station) for Ban Khiet Ngong around 08:00 and 12:00.
Coming from anywhere else, prepare to jump through hoops: take a bus running north-south on Route 13 and ask to get off at Ban Thang Baeng village, the junction at km-48, better known as ban-lak-sii-sip-pet (village km-48). When we arrived at the junction, there were no tuk tuks. We called Kingfisher to send a songthaew to pick us up (costs 70,000 kip).
Considering the effort required, a friendly greeting and a glass of water upon arrival would have been appropriate. Our arrival was barely acknowledged.
And that’s just half the battle. Don’t expect any help in leaving either. The most straightforward way is to walk the kilometre to the village where a songthaew departs for Pakse at around 07:30. For any other destination, you’re on your own as Kingfisher doesn’t have a shuttle, and they are extremely reluctant to help make transportation arrangements. For us they called a songthaew driver who seemed to know guests have no options and quoted us steep rates. To get to the boat landing for Champasak 25 km away, we were quoted US$32. To include brief stops at Ban Nong Buang and Wat Tomo, it was an outrageous US$50.
All this nonsense aside, Khiet Ngong is worth a reasonable amount of effort to visit. In addition to the village-run activities, the lodge has three of their own programmes: half or full day trekking and one-day mountain bike ride. Sample price: one day trek for two, 340,000 kip per person including English speaking guide and lunch.
Remember to factor meals into your budget as there are virtually no options in the village. A standard breakfast is included. The lodge’s two storey restaurant is beautifully set overlooking a pond and menu features Lao, Thai and Italian pastas. The dishes are tasty and good quality. Expect to pay 45,000 - 55,000 kip a dish.
Those on an organised tour will probably enjoy their stay: there are no transportation worries and they are under the care of a guide. For others, you’ll have to content yourself with the beautiful surrounds. Maybe they just don’t need the independent traveller market. Fix the service and this place could be a winner.
By Cindy Fan
Last updated on 19th January, 2017.