Pakse is the capital of Champasak Province, which was part of the Cambodian Angkor empire between the 10th and 13th centuries. Wat Phu Champasak, near Champasak town, is the most striking relic of that time. Following the decline of Angkor between the 15th and late 17th centuries, this region was absorbed into the nascent Lan Xang kingdom, but broke away to become an independent Lao kingdom between the beginning of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th century.
Today Champasak Province encompasses Laos’ southern Mekong region, including Si Phan Don and the Bolaven Plateau. The province has a population of more than 500,000, including lowland Lao (many of them Phu Thai), Khmers and a host of small Mon-Khmer groups, most of whom inhabit the Bolaven Plateau region.
Directly east from Champasak and Si Phan Don, the lush Bolaven Plateau is known for its temperate climate and Mon-Khmer minority peoples; indeed, the name Bolaven means “place of the Laven”, once the predominant ethnic group in the region. Other attractions include waterfalls, boat cruises and, for those so inclined, visits to the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Hotels and travel agencies in Pakse offer a variety of guided tours to the region, ranging from day trips to three- to four-day itineraries.
The plateau spreads over Salavan, Sekong, Champasak and Attapeu provinces, and with an average altitude of 1,200 metres (4,000ft) the area is suitable for the cultivation of temperate crops. The French introduced the production of coffee, which today is a major enterprise in the region.
Si Phan Don
The lower Mekong offers scenic beauty and a glimpse into the remote rural communities of southern Laos. The Mekong is at its widest here, up to 12 km (8 miles) across during the rainy season, and when the waters recede many small islands emerge. It is from this phenomenon that the Si Phan Don region takes its name, meaning “four thousand islands”.
One of the larger and permanently inhabited islands – 6 km (4 miles) at it widest, 12 km (8 miles) north to south – is Don Khong, located about 120 km (75 miles) downstream from Wat Phu. There is charming accommodation in restored French villas in Muang Khong, and a small choice of bucolic restaurants. Don Khong can be explored by bicycle; a reasonable dirt road goes right round the island, linking several beautiful temples and villages.
Further south, one hour by boat, are the magnificent Li Phi Falls. Although the falls have a drop of only a few metres, their volume and power are impressive. A second set of falls is located about 500 metres (550 yards) further downstream. Fishermen use traps and nets in the pools at the base of the falls. A unique attraction is the endangered Irrawaddy dolphin, which can occasionally be seen in this part of the Mekong.
Wat Phu, Champasak
The best way to reach Champasak is to take a boat 30km (19-mile) down the Mekong from the town of Pakse. This sleepy townonce served as the administrative centre for the region, and the residence of Champasak’s royal family when it was an independent kingdom. The main attraction is splendid Wat Phu, 9km (5.5 miles) south of town. The temple is situated next to the dramatic mountain of Phu Pasak and is a magnificent complex dating from the 6th century.
Wat Phu is famous for its boon (festival) which attracts visitors from throughout Laos and beyond every February. During the three-day event Wat Phu is filled with pilgrims who make offerings at various sites of the temple complex, particularly the sacred yoni and the elephant and crocodile carvings. On the final day of the festival monks accept alms from the pilgrims, and in the evening a candlelight procession circles thepavilions at the lower level of the complex. Far from being a purely solemn event, the festival is also characterised by a myriad of more worldly diversions such as boat races, cock fighting and kick-boxing competitions. In the evenings popular music and drinking add to the revelry.