Southern Laos: where the Mekong blossoms

While many travellers head straight for the sybaritic charms of feted Luang Prabang, fewer sample the emerald rice plains of the south, with its stunning jungle karst formations, remnant Ho Chi Minh trail and some of the prettiest riverine villages in the country, the pinnacle of which is a group of tropical islands known as Si Phan Don (the Four Thousand Islands). It’s here that after her long journey from Tibet, the Mekong River fans out in myriad turquoise tributaries, wrapping herself around the islands of Don Khon, Don Dhet and Don Khong. Don Khon is the most stylish and where you can see rare Irrawaddy dolphins in a deepwater pool close to Cambodia.

Mist over the Mekong

While the north is synonymous with trekking, southern Laos also boasts some great jungle walks and zip-lining in the cool coffee-growing region of the elevated Bolaven Plateau. Before we get there though, allow us to take you on a little tour heading south from the capital of Vientiane. The road first takes you through colonial Tha Khaek, a developer’s dream they forgot to tell the developer about; for this cracked and pretty old French outpost is a delightful mix of peeling Chinese merchant-houses and elegantly faded villas. An hour north west of here is the country’s most famous river mountain cave, the legendary Tham (cave) Kong Lor; a nerve shattering 7.5kms ride in a longboat through an otherworldly underworld of darkness and church-high stalactites. The landscape it sits in is equally extraordinary, for Khammuane Province is a gothic mix of charcoal-black karst formations and dragon-green jungle.

Rice fields in southern Laos

From Tha Khaek the road heads south to sweltering Savannakhet, great for trekking in the neighbouring national parks, and packed to the gills with nostalgic shuttered French villas. On the balmy riverfront old boys play pétanque, while braziers crackle with aromatic fresh prawns and river fish. Further south, Pakse sits at a crossroads with Vietnam and nearby Thailand. It’s a busy, informal place buzzing with travellers who use it as a launchpad for visiting the Bolaven Plateau and its deliciously refreshing waterfalls, or as a departure point to get to Si Phan Don. Opened in the last couple of years, the Tree Top Explorer (Bolaven Plateau) is a series of 11 zip-lines, the most exhilarating of which crosses directly in the spray of a huge waterfall. Unusual accommodation is in 20m-high treehouses in the lush jungle of Don Hua Sao National Park.

Half an hour from Pakse is dreamy Champasak, a lush riverside hamlet backed by a silkscreen mountain. Before the French left their Indochinese footprint in the area, the ancient Khmers also made Champasak their home, for the sleepy 11th century ruins of Wat Phou are found here. On a far less grand scale than Angkor Wat, the crumbling temple’s location on a breezy hill overlooking the river, is much more visitor-friendly, frangipani trees blossoming along the rickety steps which lead to the upper gallery, further coloured by the occasional saffron robed monk. Apart from a few buffalo crossing the road and fishermen puttering upriver on longboats, Champasak is one of the most languid places in the country – and that’s saying something for Laos!

Monks in Laos

We stay in the beautiful River Resort, where timeless Lao tradition fuses with stylish 21st century service. The hotel blends perfectly into its fertile surroundings with fine Mekong River views, its self-contained villas dotted around tropical gardens. You also have a chance to immerse yourself in Laotian culture with a visit with the chef to the local wet market or watching a silk weaver at work, reviving yourself with an aromatic treatment using local herbs at the resort’s spa centre, or taking a kayak with a guide on the Mekong River.

Melissa Matthews is Director of Operations at Red Savannah.

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Comments (8)

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  1. noel says:

    I’m been looking to traveling and visiting in this area to experience the Mekong and the slower pace of South East Asia. This looks like just the right scale and travel I want to do in the Mekong Delta

  2. You have beautifully described these areas, making them very tempting indeed. Isn’t it great to see people walking barefoot, that’s really how it should be, at least where the climate allows it. The River Resort sounds divine.

  3. Melissa says:

    Noel – do let us know if we can help out. Jackie – thanks so much for your kind comments – a truly memorable place.

  4. Melissa, You’ve given such a descriptive overview of a place I am dying to visit. When the Mekong Delta comes up, I will definitely refer to this itinerary.

  5. Anna Parker says:

    This area looks stunning! I’ve never really put Asia on my list as I know nothing about it, but to see undiscovered places like this does sell it rather – I think it probably needs to go on the list!!

  6. This does sound a fascinating and beautiful region to visit. While I’ve always wanted to visit Angkor Wat one day, I can imagine it is overrun by tourists. So on reflection, Wat Phou sounds far more appealing – from your description it sounds quite lovely.

  7. Hi Melissa,

    We never made it so far south in Laos. We’ve heard from many travelers that the islands down that way are beyond stunning.

    We did the capital, and the 2 other more popular tourist areas. The party town was a bit much but absolutely gorgeous. Next time we visit, we’re heading south to soak up the beauty of Laos.

    One thing we were amazed at were the sweeping, monster mountains in northern Laos. I thought I was driving through the Alps, or some other mountainous region. Absolutely gorgeous country.

    Thanks for sharing Melissa.

    Tweeting in a bit.

    Ryan

  8. Melissa Matthews says:

    Thanks everyone for the lovely comments, I hope you all get to visit southern Laos soon!

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