Set on the west banks of the Mekong, Champasak is a sleepy town sandwiched between the river and mountains. It’s primarily known for being the gateway to UNESCO World Heritage-listed Wat Phu.
Despite its location just 30 km south of Pakse, Champasak is not really on the tourist trail and this to us is a small injustice. The town is historic and charming, with a single road running along the Mekong lined with decaying colonial manors that were once royal residences, side by side with wood-shuttered Chinese shophouses and traditional wooden homes. Even the modern homes have zeal—the locals here seem to love painting them in wildly cheerful colours.
One of the greatest barriers to visiting is the town’s location on the west side of the Mekong, the opposite side of the “mainland” and highway. To get here it was necessary to cross the river by boat. As of 2014, a brand spanking new sealed road on the west bank connects Pakse with Champasak; this road is virtually free of traffic and the scenery is gorgeous to boot but the outside world has been slow to latch on.
If more reasons are needed to add Champasak to the itinerary, the surrounding landscape is magnificent and a daytrip or homestay on Don Daeng island gives you authentic Laos, something long lost on popular Don Dhet and Don Khone. Relatively unknown Wat Muang Kang is a crumbling architectural treasure and we think it’s one of the prettiest temples of the entire country. There’s good accommodation, an excellent spa and sensational food, all within a backpacker’s budget.
Wat Phu, 10 km southwest of town, remains the primary draw. The impressive Khmer Hindu temple complex starts from the Mekong plains and sweeps up to the base of Phou Kao mountain, the entire layout and structure imbued with extraordinary religious symbolism. The temple may well have marked the beginning of the Angkor Empire.
While nowhere near the size and scale of Angkor Wat, the temple obviously held great importance, as evidenced by the pilgrims’ road that stretched over 200 km from Wat Phu to Angkor. You can still follow this road to other temples like Hong Nang Sida, but the vast majority of tourists drop into Champasak for half a day, or at most stay one night before scurrying on. It’s a tempo completely unbefitting of the place. The town has a faded, golden, melting quality to it, one best suited for a snail’s pace.
It’s hard to believe that it was once a bustling ancient city, a dominant holy site and at the beginning of the 18th century, part of a prosperous kingdom that formed one-third of Laos. Now a quiet bygone town, it will take more than glossy NGO produced brochures to buoy tourism. These brochures promote a weekly traditional shadow puppet theatre but when we inquired with the tourism office, they said it hadn’t been running for a while (however, they did enthusiastically show us the box of puppets collecting dust). It’s not easy to explore when only a handful of guesthouses rent out rusted bicycles. And lack of public transport means that most visitors still have to get to Champasak by boat.
Don’t let this deter you. Rent a motorbike or mountain bike in Pakse and travel down on under your own steam. Take a leisurely stroll through town — there are a few houses that belonged to the royal family including that lovely, faded yellow colonial one on the main street. Or head down the Mekong path at Wat Muang Kang. One local commented that in it you can practically walk all the way to Cambodia. Shop the collection of handicraft from all over Laos at Chez Maman, clay art at Champasak Pottery or bamboo handicraft at the villages. Lose yourself (in a metaphoric sense) on Don Daeng. This is what Laos is all about.
Champasak is located on the west side of the Mekong, which is the opposite side of the main highway Route 13. Though an excellent sealed road now runs north to Pakse on the western side, Route 13 combined with the river crossing remains the most common way to get to/from the town.
The east boat landing is at Ban Muang village, 4 km west of Route 13 at junction km-30. Small boats and a vehicle ferry regularly cross in the daytime. The west boat landing is at Ban Phapin, 2 km north of the town centre.
The town centre is a “roundabout” — not really a roundabout, more like a decorative traffic island as there is only one road passing through! There is a BCEL ATM and Tourist Information Centre. Lao Development Bank is a block west. Signs at the Tourist Information Centre explain the district’s attractions and suggested activities, with special attention paid to the star Wat Phu. English is spoken and they can arrange tours, guides, boat trips and the homestay in Don Daeng. In theory, it is open daily 08:00-18:00.
Champasak doesn’t follow the common formula in Laos where the name of the provincial capital is the same as the province. The town of Champasak is not the capital of Champasak Province, that title belongs to Pakse. This is often the cause of confusion, especially in the online world. Be mindful of this when doing any internet research.
Internet is offered at most accommodation.
Browse our independent reviews of places to stay in and around Champasak or check hotel reviews on Agoda and Booking . Hungry? Read up on where to eat on Champasak. Want to know what to do once you're there? Check out our listings of things to do in and around Champasak. If you're still figuring out how to get there, you need to read up on how to get to Champasak.
By Cindy Fan.
Last updated on 24th January, 2017.
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