Photo: War detritus at UXO Lao.

Introduction

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A sliver of land spanning the width of the county, the sunbaked rural province of Salavan (Salavane, Saravan, Saravane) is home to three national protected areas and an array of interesting ethnic groups, but the lack of tourist infrastructure means that much of the province is inaccessible to travellers.


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The few travellers who do venture into Salavan only see the corner that’s part of the Bolaven Plateau. Just 40 kilometres of road skirts into the province on the popular motorbike loop from Pakse—but those 40 do make a wonderful impression. Riding north on Road 20, immediately after crossing the borderline between Champasak and Salavan provinces is Ban Houy Houn, a Katu village with Mr Vieng’s coffee plantation and homestay (covered in out Tad Lo section). Here visitors have the opportunity to learn about the Katu, a Mon-Khmer ethnic group with distinctive culture and traditions. Stay overnight, stop in for a tour of a coffee plantation, buy exquisite one-of-a-kind textiles or simply take a short break from all the riding to enjoy a cuppa.

Ant eggs for sale at a street side market. Photo taken in or around Salavan, Laos by Stuart McDonald.

Ant eggs for sale at a street side market. Photo: Stuart McDonald

Most tourists have their sights set on Tad Lo as the first overnight on the loop, and the village is haven for budget travellers. There’s three pretty waterfalls and several cheap, laid back guesthouses. Treks to Tad Soung waterfall and Phou Tak Khao mountain can be arranged with the local tourism office and this is your best bet for explorations of Salavan province. See our guide to Tad Lo for full details.

Just four kilometres on from Tad Lo is the junction at Ban Beng, where most on motorbike turn east to continue the clockwise loop. However, head straight on the sealed road, descending from the temperate high plateau down to the hot, flat plains, after 24 km you will arrive at the provincial capital of the same name.

Easy to reach but there is little in the way of practical activities. Photo taken in or around Salavan, Laos by Cindy Fan.

Easy to reach but there is little in the way of practical activities. Photo: Cindy Fan

Sleepy Salavan lies smack dab in the middle of the province. It has a dead-end feeling—the paved highways that lead in from Pakse abruptly end here, then it’s a lot of bone-jarring dirt roads spidering off into the hinterlands. But it’s exactly that feeling of being on the edge of wildness that gives Salavan its mystique and also assures that it will only show up on the itineraries of off-road motorcyclists and those seeking adventures in dusty rustic backwaters.

Despite its tiny size, Salavan has all the accoutrements of a provincial capital. There are government departments, a number of banks and ATMs, a hospital, UXO Lao office, river and an interesting market, an absolute must-see while here—go early in the morning for the eye-popping experience.

Slow down for a coconut at Ban Naxai. Photo taken in or around Salavan, Laos by Cindy Fan.

Slow down for a coconut at Ban Naxai. Photo: Cindy Fan

Outside of town, the lack of tourist infrastructure and proper roads make sights difficult to reach. A visit to the well meaning but utterly hopeless Tourism Information Office will likely be fruitless. Faded posters extoll all the things that can be done but each one has its challenges. Based on photos, the most appealing attraction would be towering Tevada Waterfall, 30 km south of town. We were told the road was bad. How about Nong Boua “crocodile pond” (which no longer has crocodiles)? Bad road. Actually, that was the response to all of our queries. And if our journey to the Khoua Ban Darn broken bridge is any indication, explorations are best tackled with a dirt bike.

It took two staff 30 minutes to calculate the price of a trek to Xe Xap or Phou Xieng Thong NPA—after much number crunching, it is prohibitively expensive, not to mention that they need one week notice to organise the logistics, it can only be done in dry season and you need your own camping equipment. It is definitely a rare request for them. It’s a pity because the province is home to several unique ethnic groups with dwindling numbers, especially along the border with Vietnam.

The broken bridge. Photo taken in or around Salavan, Laos by Cindy Fan.

The broken bridge. Photo: Cindy Fan

Speaking of that border, Salavan’s unfortunate position at the epicentre of the Ho Chi Minh Trail resulted in it being the second most bombarded province in Laos, surpassed only by Xieng Khouang. The town’s UXO Lao office is not a visitor centre but take a look at the pair of two-metre tall bombs at the front entrance and the piles of bomb casings, a reminder that the province remains heavily contaminated with unexploded ordinances, a serious hurdle for developing these rural areas and tourism. Stick to well-used paths, follow the directions of the locals and don’t touch something that looks like a bombie, a metal tennis ball-sized cluster bomb.

The province is too contaminated with UXO to allow travellers to simply wander around and find fun things to do. People told us there is nothing to see in Salavan, and maybe that is challenge enough for some adventurous souls who want to see the frontier—while staying safely on the literal beaten track.




Orientation
The town of Salavan is bordered by the Xe Don/Sedone river to the east and the junction between Road 20 and 15 to the west; the bus station is located on the western edge, where Road 20 enters the town. Streets are laid out roughly in a grid, with two east-west parallel roads serving as main streets. It is straightforward to navigate despite there being no road signs.

We saw some tuk-tuks at the bus station, but it would near impossible to find one if you're just roaming the streets—count on walking or using your own transport.

No risk of starving. Photo taken in or around Salavan, Laos by Cindy Fan.

No risk of starving. Photo: Cindy Fan

The provincial Tourism Information Office is a block south of the market, at the corner hidden behind some trees. Some English spoken. T: (034) 211 528; salavanprovince@gmail.com; open Mon-Fri 08:00-11:30 & 13:30-16:00.

Diagonally across the road from the office is a clean, tasty noodle soup shop open all day including dinner. There are some local eats such as barbecued meats and sticky rice at the market in the morning. Dinner is a challenge. Adjacent to market, one block east and north of the tourism office is large Samunzon Restaurant where we had a decent meal of a plate of rice and your choice of veg, meat and egg dishes from trays. Otherwise there is a string of local eats running for a block or so east of the bus station offering noodle soups and barbecue.

ATMs and banks are plentiful. Some accommodation offer WiFi. 3G service is available.

This tourism brochure (PDF) contains outdated information but it does have a map of the town centre and a brief description of the ethnic groups.

If travelling from Tad Lo, 5 km north of the Ban Beng junction is Ban Naxai, a village that has whole heartedly thrown itself into growing and selling coconuts. Stop for some fresh young coconut water at a roadside stall.

What next?

Browse our independent reviews of places to stay in and around Salavan or check hotel reviews on Agoda . Want to know what to do once you're there? Check out our listings of things to do in and around Salavan. If you're still figuring out how to get there, you need to read up on how to get to Salavan.





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