Photo: The Mekong passing by.


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The provincial capital of Bolikhamsai province in central Laos, Paksan or Pakxan is a blip of a town that sits at the confluence of the Nam San and Mekong rivers, almost opposite the small Thai town of Bueng Kan.

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It’s little more than a pivot point; traffic from Vientiane actually has to go north before heading south on Route 13 and Paksan is on the arc of the downward turn. For travellers, the only likely reason to find yourself setting foot here is as a pitstop before swivelling north up to Xieng Khouang province and Phonsavan, or heading into Thailand via the little used border crossing.

Paksan is an adequate rest stop, with backpacker-friendly BK Guesthouse, a poky bus station, market and tourism office, though there really isn’t anything to see or do in town. The locals here are friendly and a couple of restaurants along the Nam San, like Saiynamsun at the bridge, provide the perfect opportunity to interact over a bottle of beer.

Paksan is about as low key as a provincial capital can get. Photo taken in or around Paksan, Laos by Adam Poskitt.

Paksan is about as low key as a provincial capital can get. Photo: Adam Poskitt

If you do decide to drop into the tourism office, which is inconveniently located on 4B two kilometres north of Route 13, be prepared to learn the phrase “bor mi” which means “don’t have”. Tours? Bor mi. Treks? Bor mi. Unlike its southern neighbour Khammouane, there are no tours, treks or guides available. English posters, free pamphlets and maps give some general information but the staff don’t speak English and the absence of tourist infrastructure means that Paksan actually isn’t the best jumping off point for exploring the province: Tha Khaek and Vientiane are.

Bolikhamsai or Bolikhamxay province is around 15,000 square kilometres, spanning the width of the country from the Thai border formed by the Mekong, all the way east to the Annamite mountains of Vietnam. Travellers who venture into Bolikhamsai probably don’t even realise they are in it—a brief part of the popular Tha Khaek motorbike loop skirts into the southern edges of the province, including Lak Xao (the last significant town before the Nam Phao-Cau Treo border crossing) and the jaw-dropping corridor of karst on Route 8 from Lak Xao to Na Hin. About 33 kilometres west of Lak Xao you’ll find “nam yen” or cold springs, a crystal clear swimming hole. Bolikhamsai’s cameo appearance on the loop does make a strong impression.

The Tha Khaek Loop will take you briefly into the province. Photo taken in or around Paksan, Laos by Cindy Fan.

The Tha Khaek Loop will take you briefly into the province. Photo: Cindy Fan

The other accessible part of the province is Phou Khao Khouay NPA, 40 kilometres northeast of Vientiane, making it a good day trip and nature escape from the capital city. Tad Leuk and Tad Xay waterfalls are pretty, especially during orchid season, but the park pales in comparison to the other more pristine and wild NPAs found in southern Laos.

It’s too close to the big city for true wilderness and there are no longer any elephants, making the Ban Na elephant watch tower redundant. In theory local guides can still be hired in Ban Na and Ban Hatkai. However, you’ll get the most out of Phou Khao Khouay by opting for an organised exploration with Green Discovery who offer one- or two-day multi-sport tours.

A boat trip on the Nam Kading: Another trip sadly lost to dams. Photo taken in or around Paksan, Laos by Stuart McDonald.

A boat trip on the Nam Kading: Another trip sadly lost to dams. Photo: Stuart McDonald

Once the highlight of the province, the river journey up the Nam Kading river (now also known as the Nam Theun) from Pak Kading is off limits thanks to the Theun-Hinboun Dam. It’s no longer possible to enter Nam Kading NPA, a pity because the journey upriver used to be a stunner.

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Route 13 links Vientiane to southern Laos like a spine and it runs straight through Paksan. The other major road is 4B, which intersects with Route 13 and heads north out of town — Paksan is the pivot point for the alternate way up to Phonsavan, making it an excellent place to jump off into northern Laos.

The bus station and market is located west of the bridge. The bulk of the hotels and eateries are here, as well as the Bolikhamsai Tourism Information Centre, a standalone building on 4B, 1.8 kilometres north of the junction with Route 13. Floor staff do not speak English; if you’re desperate for a translation, try getting to the big boss of the office who does. The centre is open Monday to Friday 08:00-11:00, 13:00-16:00. Don’t confuse it with the “culture and tourism” department which a large sign directs you as you head up 4B—it’s the government admin building, not the visitor centre.

East of the bridge is the post office, on the street leading past BK Guesthouse towards the Mekong. Banks line the length of Route 13.

Tuk tuks are scarce — they don’t float around like they do in other Lao towns. You’ll find some at the bus station, market and border.

The Paksan-Beung Kan Border
The border is open to nationals, foreigners and vehicles; however, there is no Lao visa-on-arrival available at this border and very few foreigners use this crossing to enter Thailand. There’s also no Friendship Bridge here—yet. It has been proposed as the Fifth Thai-Lao Friendship bridge and the latest grumblings have the oft-delayed project starting in 2017. For now, it’s just a small ferry that crosses the Mekong, open 08:00-11:00, 13:00-16:00. A boat to the Thai side costs 15,000 kip or 60 baht.


What next?

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