Zipping down from Luang Prabang? Cruising up from Phnom Penh? Shooting over from Bangkok? Make sure to cool your jets for a few days in the southern Lao town of Champasak.
Champasak lies 25 miles downstream from the southern hub of Pakse. It’s on the shore opposite the highway, accessible by boat from the Ban Muang docks.
Nearly the entire town is laid out along a single road that parallels the Mekong River. In the center, a traffic circle (with no traffic to speak of) rings a decaying stone fountain that hints of this town’s distinctive past.
In Champasak you’ll find the same “go with the river’s flow” mentality celebrated by backpackers further north at Muang Ngoi Neua and further south on the Four Thousand Islands. But there’s more to Champasak than banana milkshakes and hammock naps.
Before the French consolidated the region and added that pesky “s” to the name, there were three separate Lao kingdoms. One of them just so happened to be the Kingdom of Champasak, seated in the town that still bears its name.
It may be hard to believe this lazy village once hosted royalty. But while it lacks anything approximating Pakse’s Champasak Palace Hotel, there are faded reminders of greatness to explore.
Some of Champasak’s grandeur remains in the colonial buildings, stained by the weight of time and humidity, that line the main road. Enjoy the atmosphere conjured by these shadows from the past as you relish a slow meal of laap, sticky rice, and Beer Lao at one of the many delightfully mellow riverside restaurants.
The Main Attraction
Champasak boasts something else unique in southern Laos: a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The ruins of Wat Phu Champasak straddle the mountains and the Mekong plain 7 miles south and west of town on the main road.
If you’re planning a visit to Angkor Wat later in your trip, Wat Phu is the perfect prelude for what you’ll see there. Travelers who have already been to Angkor will appreciate the elevated location of these ruins. Wat Phu affords impressive views, something you don’t often find at Angkor.
This temple complex served as the spiritual nexus of an ancient culture as early as 2,000 years ago.
Centuries later, Champasak became part of the vast Khmer empire, and you’re sure to note the similarities between the sculptures and carvings here and those at Cambodia’s world-renowned site. If you look closely, you can see remnants of the pilgrimage route that once connected the two.
Today, Wat Phu invites you to relive the experience of a devotee as you ascend the stone staircases scented with sweet frangipani blossoms that connect the site’s multiple levels.
Along the way, you’ll pass statues decorated in saffron robes and fresh flowers, perhaps with a group of monks in attendance.
From the top level, it’s possible to look back over the entire complex, further out across the colorful plain, and eventually to the Mekong shimmering in the distance.
Each year, the ruins are overrun with local revelers during the Bun Wat Phu Champasak. Sporting events, Buddhist ceremonies, and live music abound at this popular festival.
If your visit happens to coincide (festival dates are determined by the lunar calendar and usually fall in February), book your Champasak accommodation well in advance. At other times of the year you’re likely to have the place to yourself.
Other Sights and Activities
While it’s a safe bet any visitors to Champasak have come for Wat Phu, other nearby sights reward travelers who choose to linger. For an active temple, check out Wat Nyutthitham one block west of the main drag.
There’s another wat north of the circle where the ferry docks, and yet another can be found about 5 miles to the south, past where the road curves toward Wat Phu.
More Khmer ruins are on display at Um Muang. To get there, hire a boat from Champasak for around $10 round-trip. Floating lazily along the Mekong is half the fun.
The flat dirt roads around Champasak are great to explore on your own. Most guesthouses rent out bicycles, and some have motorbikes.
Follow any path and you’re sure to come upon conical-hatted farmers at work in green fields, laughing Lao children, and maybe a water buffalo cooling off in a mud puddle.
Arriving and Departing
Champasak, located just off well-traveled Highway 13, is a breeze to reach. Buses from points north and south travel this road and will probably drop you at Ban Lak 30, a couple of miles east of the Ban Muang docks. You shouldn’t have any trouble arranging local transport to cover this distance.
Unless you specify otherwise, your boatman will ferry you a mile or so north of Champasak’s traffic circle. The standard crossing runs less than 10,000 kip ($1).
Alas, the heyday of boat travel in southern Laos is over, and the slow boat connecting Pakse to the Si Phan Don island of Don Khong seems to have been discontinued. Private boats can still be chartered (expensively) in Pakse for the journey to Champasak if you so desire.
From Thailand, use the border crossing east of Ubon Ratchathani. Despite its continuing obscurity, there’s also a crossing with Cambodia at Voen Kham. Embassy employees, guidebooks, and tour operators alike may tell you it’s not possible to purchase a visa upon exit/entry, but this author had no trouble doing so.
Your best bet is to arrange transport through a guesthouse on your way down, or in Stung Treng, Cambodia, if coming the other way. As always, check with passing travelers for the latest updates.
Guesthouses and Restaurants
Champasak guesthouses offer a variety of accommodations, from the standard $3 fan bungalow to larger, indoor rooms with A/C, private bath, and hot water for up to $15. Try to find one with a nice seating area facing the river, where you can string a hammock and contemplate the Mekong’s swift current.
Cash and the Net
There are no banks between Pakse and Stung Treng, so remember to conduct any necessary financial business before striking out. U.S. dollars are sometimes accepted, Thai baht less so—it pays to stock up on kip.
A few houses advertise Internet connections, but this is nothing more than a local’s personal computer. Rates are twice what they are in Pakse.
Fewer services means more time for relaxation. Enjoy it while you can!
This article was originally published on April 28th, 2008.