Pakse is the provincial capital of Champasak and is one of the most Thai-like towns in all of Laos. Until recently most travellers and backpackers tended to use it as a transit point and little else. Tourism infrastructure here is less developed than the more popular north, making it a bit harder to explore, but Champasak province has much to offer -- and Pakse is an ideal base to explore much of it from.
Pakse doesn't measure up to the low-key splendour of Luang Prabang, but nevertheless it has a definite charm, some beautiful wats and two gorgeous rivers -- great for enjoying some eats and drinks by the waterside and watching the sun smoulder into the horizon.
Pakse in recent times has made a transition from transit point to staging area -- the Lao government has put a lot of careful work into cultivating new, ecologically friendly and quite well-regulated tourist destinations that combine the adventure of exploring the unknown with the convenience of regular and reliable services. You can easily spend a week or so just making daytrips and overnights from Pakse and winding up right back in town to plan the next stage of your journey.
Pakse over the years has become so modern and comfortable for many travelling through Laos that many do now indeed come here to hang out, recharge their batteries and pick up information. And it's easy to do with a decent guesthouse scene, some good food and excellent local hospitality.
The province is best known for the spectacular Khmer ruins at Wat Phu and the stunning cluster of islands near the Cambodian border known as Si Phan Don (4,000 Islands). You'll also find stunning waterfalls rimming the Bolaven Plateau, and you'll get a glimpse into authentic, traditional Laotian life on the island of Don Daeng near Champasak town, making a tour of the region well worth the extra effort.
Travellers should be prepared to spend longer in this province than expected. Besides the excellent hospitality of the locals, there's a growing list of worthwhile things to do. Another reason is the rather slow pace of public transportation. Although Champasak has generally good roads, as in much of Laos the transport that runs along them does so at its own creaky pace, loaded to the roof with more goods and baggage than people, making frequent stops along routes that offer a small selection of daily departures.
Partly as a response to the slow buses, motorbikes have become a popular alternative and are easily rented in the provincial capital of Pakse. For those so inclined, this is recommended, as it will allow you to better explore the province without spending half your time sorting out departure times, waiting in terminals, and languishing on long, slow bus journeys. Increasingly, group package tours offer to take care of some of these hassles for you, but nothing can beat stopping off at a roadside food stall in the middle of nowhere, or coursing down back roads along streams and canals through fields of rice against a scenic backdrop of mountains.
Many backpackers and travellers to Champasak province elect to head straight down to Si Phan Don to while away a few days in a hammock, but for those with more time on their hands, Champasak and Pakse are well worth more than a cursory glance.
Laos visa on arrival is available at this border and costs the same as every other border crossing into Laos, which depends on your nationality – between US$30 and $45.
Cambodian one-month visas on arrival are available at the Veun Kham-Dom Kralor border for US$20 -- an 'overtime' fee will be levied on weekends, holidays and after 16:30. Of course, Thailand still offers a free 15-day visa on arrival.
By Adam Poskitt.