We admit it, we barely scratched the surface of Southern Laos, really stopping only to visit the Wat Phou temple, but it would be great to spend time here exploring the less developed areas. There’s certainly plenty of little-known wildlife in the Annamite Mountains, along the border with Vietnam.
Dong Daeng island
La Folie Lodge retreat was the most expensive place we stayed on our entire Asian trip (and I was um-ing and ah-ing about booking) but it was worth every penny (and kip) and I managed to get a great deal by checking booking.com regularly until the price suddenly dropped to only £140 for two nights, including breakfast, free use of bicycles and boat transfers from the mainland. It was idyllic and even Tim enjoyed a bit of luxury and I managed to get him into the pool for an evening swim while other guests were enjoying G&Ts at the bar!
Yes, we had a delightful room in a little cottage at La Folie Lodge, and food, drink and service were all excellent – we were very glad to meet the owners, who were visiting from France. We also made good use of the free bikes – there are marked trails around the island, and then we took them on the ferry to the west bank of the Mekong and rode the 10 kilometres to Wat Phou, the only major Khmer temple complex in Laos. From La Folie there’s a clear view of what to me was obviously a breast-shaped mountain across the river to the west – but to Hindus it’s clearly a Shiva-lingam, ie phallic symbol. I can’t see it myself, but it definitely needed to have a temple built on the slope below it. What is now known simply as the Ancient City, down by the Mekong river, was first recorded in the second half of the 5th century, and by the end of the 6th century it was the capital of the Khmer king Mahendravarman – it covered an area of almost 2km by 2km, but there’s nothing to be seen now beyond a few mounds and ponds and the remains of two earth walls marked by roadside signs outside the present-day village of Nong Vian. The Angkorian complex, a couple of kilometres inland, was begun in roughly the 8th century, and the temples we see today were built in the early 11th century, with some additions in the 12th and 13th centuries. A lot of it is in a pretty poor condition, particularly the steep staircases that you’ll need to use to reach the most important parts.
The site’s museum is pretty good, with a display in Lao and English on the World Heritage List sites across the region and a fine collection of sandstone sculptures, in excellent condition. It costs 50,000 kip for foreigners to visit the site (open 8am-6pm) and the museum (open 8am-4.30pm).
Champasak, the main village in the area (on the Mekong right opposite La Folie Lodge) has some nice cafés and guesthouses in attractive buildings built during the French colonial period; the other villages are good for local colour, with lurid modern temples, and they have a few rest-stops for sweaty cyclists. The villages are all being bypassed by a new road, linked to the modern toll-bridge across the Mekong from Pakse.
Pakse is the region’s transport hub, with a surprising number of foreigners in transit between say the Bolaven plateau and Wat Phou or the Cambodian border, and the airport is small but efficient and very close to the town centre. However there’s nothing much to actually see. The Champasak Historical Museum (closed Mondays) is 2km east of the centre, and seems rather run down; in fact the most interesting sight in town (best seen from a boat, I think) is the full-size new French château by the new bridge over the Mekong, built by the Dao Coffee tycoon, or so we were told.
We stayed at the well modernised Résidence Sisouk, where the Café Sinouk (yes, the spellings are correct) on the ground floor is a pleasantly upmarket haven – the Parisien Café across the road is part of a chain, with branches in the main Laotian towns, and not so nice. You could also visit the Sinouk Coffee Resort, 80km away in the Bolaven, the products of which are sold at the café here.