Formed in 1984 by carving out parts of Salavan and Attapeu, Sekong is the second smallest province in Laos. It is also one of the poorest, the least accessible and therefore one of the least explored.
Much of Sekong is rugged, wild, mountainous terrain that rises up with the Dak Cheung Plateau sprawling eastward to the Annamite mountain range and Vietnamese border. The most accessible part is the narrow strip of lowland in the western edge, where Route 11 runs along the Sekong river valley dividing the Bolaven Plateau with the rest of the province. Those on the shorter motorbike loop from Pakse (heading clockwise from Tad Lo to Paksong) will only cut through the corner for 13 km. Those doing the bigger loop are treated to a longer stretch of lonely, beautiful open road and two waterfalls.
Another title of distinction: Sekong is the most ethnically diverse province in southern Laos. It is home to 14 different groups, mostly belonging to the Mon-Khmer linguistic family including the Nge, Talieng, Alak and Chieng, some groups numbering only in the low thousands, scattered throughout in isolated, hard to reach villages, sometimes cut off from the outside world for parts of the year.
The Katu are the largest group in the province and whether on the short or large loop, a highlight for travellers will be Mr Hook aka “Captain Hook” and his informative, eye-opening tour through his village Ban Kok Phung Tai. It’s a window into a fascinating world where the people still use traditional longhouses decorated with woodcarvings, weave colourful textiles with backstrap looms and perform an annual buffalo sacrifice ceremony. Stop in for a cup of homegrown coffee and a tour to learn about the culture, customs, medicinal plants and way of life guided by spirits and nature. Captain Hook also has a very basic homestay and can do a jungle trek to two waterfalls.
Only 22 km further on from Ban Kok Phung Tai is another good stop for road trippers. Look for the SFE Laos agriculture development project and Mai Savanh Lao, an organic farm where visitors can learn about the silk making process and the many different plants that can be used for tea. Unfortunately we visited on a day when they were closed but were able to walk around the organic farm and see silk machinery and crops such as roselle (hibiscus), mulberry leaf and lemon basil which all can be made into a tea.
The turn off for the farm is 10 km east of the Ban Thateng junction. There is a sign indicating it is 1400m to Mai Savanh Lao Silk and Tea Farm, as well as a tourism sign for “Tad Pa Oa, Tad Taluy, Tad Tamohone Waterfall 12 km”. The farm is open to visitors Mon-Sat 08:00-11:30 & 13:30-17:00. People are welcome to visit the farm by themselves during the lunch break. Guided tours are possible, faded signs say it is available in English, French, German for 15,000 kip, though Miss Noy’s motorbike rental shop in Pakse said it was lately only available in French. For more information about Mai Savanh Lao, see their website: http://maisavanhlao.com/
For the majority of travellers the provincial capital of Sekong is little more than a refuel station, at most, a one-night pit stop as there is little to entice people to stay. Sekong does an adequate job as an overnight, though some may prefer to press on another 14 km south to the rustic bungalows at Tad Faek waterfall or 17 km for camping at Tad Houa Khon waterfall, both offering more natural surrounds.
If that sounds too rudimentary for you then Sekong town has a number of decent, solid guesthouses and small hotels—including one that we’re convinced is haunted—gas stations, motorbike mechanics, a UXO Laos office, market and a good place to eat called IDC Restaurant, which came recommended to us by a few locals. The meal is worth it for the hilariously translated menu alone. We’ve never seen such a concentration of Google-Translate-gone-wild: “tough transparent skin, breast aware”, “Ethiopian flies”, “her soft citrus fruit” and “accuracy note”. Luckily our fried chicken and stir-fried vegetables was tasty, though we steered clear of “frozen puddle” and “touch drunkards”. Find the large eatery on a street running between the main road and the river road, just west of the market.
Culinary delights aside, Sekong doesn’t have tourists in mind, however, it seems that urban planners had high hopes. Sekong didn’t exist until 1984. The forest was cleared, a wide easy grid laid out and the development was spread across an area about 10 times the size it needed to be while ignoring the most soulful natural feature, the Sekong (Xekong) river. The result: a bland and empty feeling. The abundance of provincial department buildings and a savage midday sun add to the charm. Even the bus station is three kilometres north of town, on the main road in the middle of nowhere.
But this pocket of development squeezed into the edge of the province doesn’t reflect the rest of the untamed, raw and real land—a land that companies will aggressively try to tap into. The Sekong River Basin is one of the most important tributaries of the Mekong—it contributes 10 percent of the flow to the Mekong River and thousands of people from at least 20 different ethnic groups rely on the watershed and the surrounding forests, including the 30,000 people who live along the Sekong river in Stung Treng, Cambodia. Up to 17 dams are planned, with one already built and eight moving forward (source: International Rivers).
Just venture to the other side of the river from town and you can see rural Laos at a crossroads that will rarely be witnessed again anywhere in Asia. With time, money and luck, you may be able to arrange a dry season trek with the provincial tourism office, perhaps to Xe Xap NPA. For the most part, explorations will have to be done on your own and this is true off-the-beaten track stuff.
To strike out into the hinterlands, as is the case with neighbouring Salavan and Attapeu, be prepared for poor roads and non-existent tourist infrastructure. This province is reputed to have jaw-dropping scenery of high mountains and deep river valleys but most of it is unaccessible and riddled with UXO. The Ho Chi Minh Trail ran through here—Hamburger Hill (Dong Ap Bia), A Luoi district and the A Shau Valley lie on the other side of the border.
If you're planning to explore Sekong on your own off-road motorcycle or 4WD, expect poor infrastructure and be prepared—it’s wise to be self-sufficient and to keep on well-used paths.
It’s 55 km from the junction at Ban Thateng to the provincial capital. Arriving to Sekong from the north, the road splits in a V; veer left to reach the town centre. Route 16 forms the spine of the town before it becomes Route 11.
The town is laid out in a grid. One parallel street down from Route 16 has the market, and the next is the river road (though the river is not visible from street level). Most accommodation and eating options are on either Route 16 and the river road.
As the provincial capital, there are banks, ATMs, a post office and basic hospital. Most hotels have WiFi, and 3G works in the centre.
For a town that is a major pitstop (there’s nothing for miles in either direction), there are surprisingly few eateries except for some noodle soup joints, roadside barbecue and IDC Restaurant.
Browse our independent reviews of places to stay in and around Sekong 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 Sekong. If you're still figuring out how to get there, you need to read up on how to get to Sekong.
By Cindy Fan.
Last updated on 13th March, 2017.
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