The provincial capital of Champasak, Pakse is the major transport and commercial hub for southern Laos. For travellers coming from Cambodia, it’s often their first introduction to a big Lao city, and unfortunately first impressions are not the city’s strong suit.
The city was founded as an administrative outpost by the French in 1905, and along with them came Chinese traders and Vietnamese workers. Only a few crumbling remnants of French colonial, Vietnamese and Chinese architecture can be found. You’ll see more in Savannakhet, and Pakse can never measure up to historic splendour of Luang Prabang. Granted, it is one of last places in the country you can ride a samlo, the three wheel motorbike taxi with side seat, but aside from that, Pakse just isn’t sentimental or nostalgic. It’s looking to a future fuelled by foreign business interests and tourism plays second fiddle.
The city is at the axis of roads to Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and the capital Vientiane and most travellers use Pakse as a transit point and little else. It’s a chicken-versus-egg scenario. Perhaps travellers would stay longer if the tourism infrastructure improved and there were better hotels. For now, backpackers have a sprinkling of budget accommodation options and little reason to linger. Pakse’s forte is what lies outside of it and the city is the place to recharge on creature comforts before jumping off to some of southern Laos’ most incredible sights and activities.
Lying east is a circular clump of highlands known as the Bolaven Plateau. The volcanic soil and temperate climate are perfect for growing coffee, and the rich terrain also yields lush jungles, rivers and waterfalls galore—Tad Lo, Tad Yuang and Tad Fane are some of the standouts. The miles of paved open road make it ideal to explore by motorbike and a multi-day loop has become a backpacker favourite. Day trips and coffee tours to Paksong, the coffee capital of Laos, can also easily be arranged in Pakse.
Another popular day trip is to the ancient Khmer temple Wat Phu, located southwest of the city in the town of Champasak. Built early in the 11th century, the impressive UNESCO World Heritage site was of such importance that an imperial road once connected it to Angkor. Joining a shared tour costs 120,000 to 190,000 kip per person, depending on type of transport and inclusions.
For an escape to nature, Pakse is the best pivot point to reach Ban Khiet Ngong in the edge of Xe Pian National Protected Area. Boasting gorgeous wetlands—a rare landscape in Laos—visitors can glide through the waterways in a dugout canoe, trek up Phou Asa and do a village homestay. From a water-world and terra firma to flying through the air, Tree Top Explorer’s two to three day tours has people zip-lining through the jungle of Dong Houa Sao NPA.
Pakse is the springboard to nature, Mekong islands, outdoor adventure, rivers, ethnic villages and ancient history, the irony being that the city itself is interested in the exact opposite. The second most populous city of Laos is about the business hustle and unlike Tha Khaek, Savannakhet or Vientiane, the city feels oddly divorced from its most beautiful feature, the river. This could change as we’ve heard there are plans to develop the riverfront.
Visitors finding themselves in Pakse for a day have minor sights to fill their time. Check out Laos Wind Trace Art Museum, a Laos and Korean exchange in a small building set within a forest at km-7 (open 09:00-12:00 & 13:00-18:00). Wander a few temples, cycle along the Sedone and Mekong river, starting at the VIP bus station/Sinouk Cafe and following the lazy river road all the way to Dao Heuang market and the Japanese built bridge across the Mekong. Cross the river and head up the hilltop to Wat Phou Salao for an iconic shot of the golden Buddha overlooking Pakse’s picturesque sprawl. Another great half day itinerary is to travel 17 km, take a boat over to the Mekong island of Don Kho and slip back in time. Stroll along the riverbanks to see a traditional way of life of growing rice, fishing and weaving.
The province is promoting cycling and decent mountain bikes are now available to rent for US$8/day at select travel agencies and hotels. Champasak province’s flat paved roads and relatively short distances make it ideal for two-wheel travel, be it motorbike or under your own steam. There are so many possibilities.
The ultimate grand tour would be to take the new road down the west side of the Mekong to Champasak, get a boat or travel down Route 13 to Don Khong, the largest island of Si Phan Don. Then island hop through Don Som to Don Dhet and Don Khong, head up Route 13 to Ban Khiet Ngong in Xe Pian NPA. Breeze through Ban Nong Bueng and Pakse for the large loop through the Bolaven Plateau with side trips to the frontier, brushing up on some Vietnam War history in Salavan, Sekong and Attapeu. It’s all possible from Pakse.
Pakse is situated at the confluence of two rivers, the Sedone and the Mekong. The main tourist area is on Route 13 just east of the bridge across the Sedone river. Route 13 has banks and a large minimart. Two hubs have formed on either side with restaurants and cafes, motorbike and bicycle rental shops, ATMs, guesthouses and laundry. A couple blocks south is the old French quarter with a small central market, six-storey Pakse Hotel, Green Discovery, Monument Books and money exchange. North of Route 13 on Road 24 is a strip of travel agents.
The Provincial Tourism Office is on the river across the road from Sinouk Cafe/Residence Sisouk Hotel. There are free brochures and maps. Most hotels also have free Pakse and Champasak Province maps. Next to the tourism office is the Lao Airlines office; T: (031) 212 252; http://www.laoairlines.com/.
WiFi is readily available at hotels and cafes. Pakse has 4G service.
There are money changers and ATMs everywhere, especially in the tourist centre. BCEL has finally upped the limit to 1,500,000 kip per withdrawal. The ANZ ATM (there’s one beside Pakse Hotel) offers 2,000,000 kip with a 40,000 kip charge. Lao Development Bank on Route 13 is open Mon-Fri 08:30-15:30.
Monument Books sells country maps, books on Laos, postcards and toys. Located one block west of Pakse Hotel. Open Mon-Sat 09:00-20:00 & Sun 09:00-18:00.
The Chong Mek/Vangtao Border
The Chong Mek, Thailand/Vangtao, Laos border crossing is a popular one. On the Thai side, the border is a short 20 baht songthaew ride to the Chong Mek bus terminal. The border is open from 06:00 to 20:00 daily.
On the Lao side, the opening hours are 07:30-18:00. After 16:00, weekends and public holidays, an additional “overtime” fee is levied, usually 10,000 kip.
One-month Lao visa on arrivals are available for most nationalities, US$20 to $42 depending on nationality. If you do not have a passport size photo, it’s an additional US$1. Once stamped through, keep walking down the road from the border into Laos and songthaews/minvans are available at a small terminal 200 m down on the left. They depart when full—100 baht is the price at time of writing. The trip is 45 kilometres and takes about 45 minutes. All vehicles drop off at the big Dao Heuang Market (otherwise known as the km-2 market), which is two kilometres from the tourist centre.
Browse our independent reviews of places to stay in and around Pakse or check hotel reviews on Agoda and Booking . Hungry? Read up on where to eat on Pakse. Want to know what to do once you're there? Check out our listings of things to do in and around Pakse. If you're still figuring out how to get there, you need to read up on how to get to Pakse.
By Cindy Fan.
Last updated on 19th March, 2017.
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