Photo: Don Dhet sunset.

Two weeks in Southern Laos

Southern Laos sees far fewer travellers than the northern half of the country, so if you’re looking for less crowded destinations, this trip could be for you. While the north has mountains, hill tribes and tourist darling Luang Prabang, the south boasts fertile plateaus, waterfalls, wetlands and languid Mekong islands.

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Introduction

The southern half of the country plays second fiddle and is often left off of itineraries. But the region has exceptional natural wonders and far less tourists. Among backpackers, it is known for two scenic motorbike routes known as the Tha Khaek Loop and the Bolaven Plateau Loop. Another selling point for independent travellers is the number of land border crossing options to Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia, as well as good road connection to Vientiane, Laos’ primary aviation hub.

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When to go

Day time temperatures in southern Laos remain hot all year. The most comfortable time is cool-dry season from November to February, “cool” being relative. While the north can experience near freezing night time temperature, in the south they do not usually dip below 19 Celsius.

Lush in wet season

Lush in wet season Photo: Cindy Fan

Temperatures soar in March to May. Rainy season runs from approximately May/June to September. Also known as “green season”, it is an especially scenic time as the rice fields and forests are lush. Since a large part of southern Laos is low and flat, the region experiences seasonal flooding. Boats cannot run through Kong Lor Cave when the river is high. It is inadvisable to go swimming in the swollen rivers.

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Getting around

In southern Laos, the major artery Route 13 runs parallel with the Mekong River, which for a large part is also the western border with Thailand. From Vientiane, the highway curves northeast before heading south, an almost unwaveringly flat straight shot through Tha Khaek, then Pakse, finally ending at the Lao/Cambodian border. In the south, Route 13 is remarkably good for a Lao road and there’s frequent bus services, including comfortable air-con sleeper buses. Those travelling with their own vehicle should be aware there are often police checkpoints along this stretch of highway.

Grab a boat with some cattle.

Grab a boat with some cattle. Photo: Samantha Brown

Anywhere off of Route 13, the road ranges from paved to non-existent. Smaller destinations mainly rely on local buses in the form of songthaews or slow minibuses. While it’s certainly a memorable experience squeezing onto local transport, southern Laos has become well known for travel by motorbike, with rentals readily available in Vientiane, Tha Khaek and Pakse. This itinerary incorporates motorbiking; alternate options are included at the end.

For onward travel, Vientiane is the hub and Pakse does have a few international flights. There are numerous land border crossing options for foreigners, including but not limited to:
Thailand: Chong Mek-Vang Tao (close to Pakse); Tha Khaek-Nakhon Phanom; Savannakhet-Mukdahan
Vietnam: Nam Phao-Keoneua (near Lak Xao); Lao Bao-Dansavanh; Phou Keua-Bo Y
Cambodia: Nong Nok Khian-Tropaeng Kreal (Stung Treng)

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Day by day

Day 1: Vientiane to Tha Khaek
The first day is a travel day, departing the capital Vientiane in the morning and heading south to Tha Khaek, arriving in time to go for a stroll along the riverfront and sort out a motorbike rental. It isn’t difficult to strike up conversation with travellers who have just returned from the Tha Khaek Loop, the 450-km motorbike loop you’ll be starting first thing tomorrow. The loop takes a minimum of three days.

Late light over the Mekong.

Late light over the Mekong. Photo: Cindy Fan

Time saver option: Save a day by departing Vientiane in the early evening on the overnight sleeper bus to Pakse, disembarking en route in Tha Khaek in the dead of night. This isn’t uncommon and there is usually a tuk tuk available to transfer from the station on Route 13 into the town centre. We recommend you book accommodation in advance and let them know of the middle of the night arrival so they can let you in. There’s still time to grab a few more hours of shut eye.

Day 2: Tha Khaek Loop: Tha Khaek to Thalang
Rise and set out reasonably early in order to travel at an enjoyable pace and arrive at Thalang before dark. The first 20 kilometres of the route is dotted with interesting caves and swimming holes. Pick a maximum of two or three stops; we suggest Tham Pha Nya Inh and Tham Nang Aen because they are not far off the paved road. The route travels up to the Nakai Plateau, Nam Theun 2 Dam and the enormous manmade Nam Theun reservoir which gives the town of Nakai a lakeside feel. The rural scenery continues to Thalang, tonight’s simple rest stop of rustic accommodation.

And an amazing cave.

And an amazing cave. Photo: Cindy Fan

Day 3: Tha Khaek Loop: Thalang to Konglor
Depart Thalang early and ride 50 kilometres through a scenic water world of land flooded by the dam. Refuel in Lak Xao, a crossroads town near the Vietnamese border. Swinging westward, the next section from Lak Xao to Na Hin is considered one of the most stunning of the loop. Savour the landscape as the road traverses a dramatic corridor of karst. Stop for a refreshing swim at the cool springs along the way. There’s ample accommodation in Na Hin, home to the Theun-Hinboun hydropower project, but it is best to push on to Konglor. Staying in Na Hin would require a very early start and a significant amount of driving on the last day of the loop.

Day 4: Tha Khaek Loop: Konglor cave to Tha Khaek
Be ready at the boat station as soon as it opens and experience the thrilling journey through Konglor Cave. Allow for at least 2.5 hours for the roundtrip journey. After the cave, complete the loop by heading back to Na Hin, then west to Vieng Kham and south on Route 13 to Tha Khaek.

Hit the road Jack.

Hit the road Jack. Photo: Cindy Fan

Add-on option: The tranquil rice paddies, river and karst that surround Konglor give reason to relax. Homestays in the villages on either side of the cave can be arranged independently. Lingering in Konglor for another night means no rush when visiting the cave.

Trekking/multi-sport tours are available through the Tourism Office and Green Discovery.

Forests submerged to power shopping malls in Thailand.

Forests submerged to power shopping malls in Thailand. Photo: Cindy Fan

Day 5: Pakse
Take the bus south to Pakse, the second most populous city of Laos. Arriving in the afternoon, visit Dao Heuang market, one of the most impressive wet markets in the country. Head up the hilltop to Wat Phou Salao for an iconic shot of the golden Buddha overlooking the city. If planning to travel the Bolaven Plateau as a motorbike loop, now is also the time to secure a rental for the next day and become oriented with the route.

Day 6: Bolaven Plateau: Tad Lo
Formed from an ancient volcano, the Bolaven Plateau is blessed with waterfalls, fertile soil and a microclimate ideal for growing coffee, fruits and spices. As the journey progresses and elevation rises, the scenery becomes green and pastoral. There’s an option to pause at Tad Pasaum, the first waterfall of the loop, though time is better spent at more impressive falls to come at Tad Lo. Rural villages dot the way. Soon after crossing from Champasak to Salavan Province, take a coffee and a rest at quaint Ban Huai Houn, an ethnic Katu village. See their traditional Katu textiles and organic plantations.

Crossing the river.

Crossing the river. Photo: Cindy Fan

With a number of budget guesthouses, Tad Lo village is a good place to overnight. Arrive by mid-afternoon in order to see Tad Hang waterfall and hike to Tad Lo waterfall.

Day 7: Bolaven Plateau: Paksong and waterfalls
Depart Tad Lo early for Paksong, the coffee capital of Laos—not a stretch of the imagination when passing coffee farm after coffee farm along the way. While not an attractive town, Paksong is a good place to stop for (you guessed it) a cup of coffee.

Multi-tiered Tad Hang near Tad Lo.

Multi-tiered Tad Hang near Tad Lo. Photo: Cindy Fan

The return to Pakse is a way of waterfalls. There are four—Tad Fane, Tad Yuang, Tad E-Tu, Tad Champi—and all deserve attention. To see them, remain efficient and keep track of the time. Return to Pakse by nightfall.

Add-on option: The motorbike route can be extended into the “long loop” (minimum three days). Expect remote provinces and roadways, farms, interesting villages and more beautiful waterfalls and scenery.

US exports on display at the UXO office in Sekong.

US exports on display at the UXO office in Sekong. Photo: Cindy Fan

Day 8: Champasak
Head to Champasak, a relatively quick journey as it is only 30 kilometres from Pakse. Few people stay overnight in Champasak as the majority visit the main attraction, UNESCO World Heritage Site Wat Phu, as part of a day tour. The town has sleepy charms and interesting history: it was once a bustling ancient city, important holy site and at one point, a prosperous kingdom that formed one-third of Laos. Visitors expecting grandeur may be disappointed to learn that only bits of French colonial architecture remain in the town, but one thing is for sure, Champasak has some terrific views of the Mekong and time can be spent relaxing beside it.

Those keen to start exploring after arriving can immediately rent a motorbike and head over to Don Daeng Island, or save it for the following day.

Even in dry season the frangipani trees are stunning.

Even in dry season the frangipani trees are stunning. Photo: Adam Poskitt

Day 9: Champasak
As outlined in our One day in Champasak, take advantage of Wat Phu’s early opening hour because it will only get hotter and hotter as the day progresses. It’s also a savvy tactic to beat the tour groups coming from Pakse. Allow for around two hours to cover the main site.

Stop at Wat Muang Kang, Champasak’s oldest active temple, before finding a boat to ferry across to Don Daeng. Dirt tracks crisscross the sizeable island of mostly rice paddies, small hamlets and forest.

Former residence of the King of Champasak.

Former residence of the King of Champasak. Photo: Cindy Fan

Day 10: Ban Khiet Ngong
Time to venture back to the east side of the Mekong and Route 13. Travel to Ban Khiet Ngong, a village on the edge of the Xe Pian National Protected Area, 2,400 square kilometres of lowland forest and extensive wetlands rich with bird species. Activities are managed by the village itself. Head to the elephant stand (the village has a tradition of working elephants) and arrange a trip through the wetlands in a dugout canoe. See wallowing buffaloes, fishermen, birdlife and the dramatic profile of the Bolaven Plateau in the distance.

Travelling from Champasak to Ban Khiet Ngong can be complicated if relying on public transport. We suggest hiring private transport in Champasak or make arrangements through Kingfisher Ecolodge.

Get out on the water.

Get out on the water. Photo: Cindy Fan

Time saver option: Upon arriving in Champasak, immediately head to Wat Phu and stay in town only one night.

Though we like sleepy Champasak, time crunched travellers can do a one-day tour of Wat Phu from Pakse. We suggest customising the one-day tour with a final drop-off in Ban Khiet Ngong, thereby also overcoming the hurdle of getting there. Make the most of it by adding stops in Um Tomo and Ban Nong Bueng woodcarving village.

Land Ho!

Land Ho! Photo: Cindy Fan

Day 11: Ban Kiat Ngong to Si Phan Don / 4,000 Islands
Travel south to Don Dhet and Don Khon, two islands in the Mekong part of Si Phan Don, literally “4,000 Islands”. Cheap rustic bungalows and chilled-out bars line the riverbanks of Don Dhet, making it an attractive option for budget backpackers, while flashpacker accommodation on Don Khon draws travellers seeking quiet and comforts. Whichever you choose, it doesn’t take long to slip into the island’s signature laidback vibe. Relax in a hammock. Catch sunset on the river.

Day 12 & 13: Si Phan Don / 4,000 Islands
Though the primary activity of the island is ironically to do nothing, find a way to motivate yourself into a day cycling around Don Khon’s bucolic dirt tracks. Visit Khone Pha Pheng waterfall and Li Phi waterfall; the latter has a beach to hangout on in dry-season. There are also remnants of the French colonial railway that once crossed the island. A steam locomotive and a short section of the track are on display. Visit the former port at Ban Hang Khone village.

Quite gorgeous at times.

Quite gorgeous at times. Photo: Cindy Fan

A day can also be filled with a kayaking trip, tubing, Irrawaddy dolphin spotting in the waters along the Cambodia border, Khone Pa Soi waterfall and explorations of Don Som or any one of the other 4,000 islands. A sunset boat cruise is highly recommended.

Day 14: Onward travel
Leaving Si Phan Don is straightforward. Travellers can go to the Cambodian border or to Pakse, where it is possible to grab transport to the Thai border or Vientiane.

Don’t miss the interior of Doh Khon.

Don’t miss the interior of Doh Khon. Photo: Cindy Fan

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Without motorbiking


The alternative to the Tha Khaek motorbike loop would be:
Day 1: Bus to Konglor Cave
Day 2: Experience Konglor Cave
Day 3: Bus to Tha Khaek
Day 4: Day trip to explore Route 12 caves and swimming holes, and/or blue lagoon. Hire a tuk tuk or arrange for a guided tour through the Tourism Office.

The alternative to motorbiking the Bolaven Plateau loop would be to arrange for a waterfalls and coffee tour or private transport. Or take an overnight trip using public transport to Tad Lo or Paksong. In Paksong, make arrangements with a tuk tuk to visit the falls.

The daily commute

The daily commute Photo: Stuart McDonald

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Other options

Visit Savannakhet, a developing city on the Mekong with historic roots as a commercial hub for French, Vietnamese and Chinese. Some historic architecture remains.

Add another night in Ban Khiet Ngong to climb Phou Asa.

Spectacular waterfalls.

Spectacular waterfalls. Photo: Cindy Fan

Don Khong, not to be mistaken for Don Khon, is the largest island of the 4,000 islands. It is sleepy, authentic and sees very few tourists—which is why we love it. Consider dividing time here with the backpacker havens of Don Dhet and Don Khon.

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Where to go, how long to stay there, where to go next, east or west, north or south? How long have you got? How long do you need? Itinerary planning can be almost as maddening as it is fun and here are some outlines to help you get started. Remember, don't over plan!


Burma

Burma lends itself to a short fast trip with frequent flights thrown in or a longer, slower trip where you don't leave the ground. There isn't much of a middle ground. Ground transport remains relatively slow, so be wary about trying to fit too much in.


Cambodia

Roughly apple-shaped, you'd think Cambodia would be ideal for circular routes, but the road network isn't really laid out that way. This means you'll most likely find yourself through some towns more than once, so work them into your plans.


Indonesia

How long have you got? That's not long enough. Really. You'd need a few lifetimes to do this sprawling archipelago justice. Be wary of trying to cover too much ground - the going in Indonesia can be slow.


Laos

North or south or both? Laos is relatively small and transport is getting better and better. Those visiting multiple countries can pass through here a few times making for some interesting trips.


Malaysia

The peninsula is easy, with affordable buses, trains and planes and relatively short distances. Sabah and Sarawak are also relatively easy to get around.The vast majority of visitors stick to the peninsula but Borneo is well worth the time and money to reach.


Thailand

So much to see, so much to do. Thailand boasts some of the better public transport in the region so getting around can be fast and affordable. If time is limited, stick to one part of the country.


Vietnam

Long and thin, Vietnam looks straightforward, but the going is slow and the distances getting from A to B can really bite into a tight trip plan. If you're not on an open-ended trip, plan carefully.


The region

This is where itinerary planning really becomes fun. Be sure to check up on our visa, border crossing and visa sections to make sure you're not trying to do the impossible. Also, remember you're planning a holiday -- not a military expedition.