Rich forest with diverse plant and animal life, quaint rural towns and verdant forests with trickling streams and towering waterfalls – these are the spellbinding sceneries which await travelers in Southern Laos. The country is more off the beaten path than neighboring Thailand or Vietnam, but equally beautiful and in terms of what it offers her visitors, perhaps all the more rewarding.
Similar to Northern Laos, the country's southern regions are home to ethnic minorities, including the Hmong and the Khmu. This ethnically diverse region offer the perfect opportunity for visitors to experience traditional lifestyles with significant cultural differences between the various ethnic minorities. The relaxed pace of life, combined with stunning natural landscapes, make the under-visited South an ideal getaway destination for travelers looking for adventure, or equally, for those in search of low-key holiday tranquil.
The main city in southern Laos is Pakse on the Mekong and Sedone rivers. The town is not as quaint as Luang Prabang and doesn't carry the same historical significance, but what it lacks in heritage grandeur it makes up for in small charming alleyways, and the river bank is the perfect place to sit and enjoy a cold Beerlao. Pakse is also a popular starting point for those traveling to the Bolaven Plateau – which with its coffee and fruit plantations is the food bowl of Laos – or to the Si Phan Don, the Four Thousand Islands, an archipelago in the Mekong River.
Outside the town of Champasak, a fascinating ancient Khmer capital nestles amongst an overgrown forest, rivaling the Cambodian Angkor Wat in magnificence. It is one of the region's most important centers for Therewada Buddhism and in 2001, it was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage for its significance to religious history in Southeast Asia.
Some images are compliments of Tourism Laos!
The climate in parts of southern Laos is cooler than other areas of the country. Although temperatures in the daytime remain pleasantly warm for most of the year, they can drop significantly in the evening. This does make sleeping more comfortable, but if you are out and about in the evening or early morning you may require a light sweater or jacket. Remember to pack sunscreen and a hat together with a comfortable pair of shoes for walking. There are some stunning waterfalls in southern Laos and on some tours you will have the opportunity to go for a swim in the water below the falls so make sure you bring your swimming costume. At the same time though, Laos is a very conservative country so please be respectful of what you wear in the presence of local people when you have finished swimming.
Southern Laos is the base of some of the oldest civilizations in Southeast Asia and today remains an important region of the country. Travelers visiting southern Laos will want to visit Champasak province, home to many of the region's attractions are located, from the ancient temple ruins of Wat Phou to the fertile Bolaven Plateau where many of Laos' fruit and coffee plantations are located. Pakse, the largest town in southern Laos is also located in Champasak province, as is Si Phan Don, also known as Four Thousand Islands.
Southern Laos also offer plenty of natural attractions. One of the most popular is the Tad Fane waterfall in Pakse. The mesmerizing waterfall is made up of twin cascades that drop over a hundred meters into a deep gorge. Another popular day trip in this part of Laos is to Paksong, which is the center of coffee production in Laos.
The Mekong river plays an important part in the economic and cultural make up of southern Laos and the mighty river offers a great opportunity to travel the region as well as experience life along the river. Many tour operators arrange trips of various lengths for travelers. Some trips have incorporated excursions to waterfalls or remote fishing villages.
Irrawaddy dolphins are rare, but can be found in certain coastal areas in South and Southeast Asia. They can also be found in three rivers in the region including the Mekong. The Mekong River Irrawaddy dolphin is extremely rare with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) estimating there are less than 90 individuals left. These beautiful creatures inhabit a small stretch of the Mekong (approximately 115km long) between Cambodia and Laos. Boat trips to try and spot the dolphins can be arranged from Si Phan Don.
In Champasak province in the south of Laos lies the Bolaven Plateau, home to the coffee plantations where Laos gets its famous coffee beans. Of the more than 15,000 tonnes of coffee harvested here every year, the vast majority, around 80 per cent is Robusta, the sort known for its high caffeine content and for having a greater crop yield than most sorts. The stretch of fertile plain is also home to picturesque waterfalls and plenty of hiking opportunities.
Sprawling over 16,000 sq km, the mountainous region is blanketed with thick forests and a dream playground for trekkers. In addition to three biodiversity reserve areas, the area also boasts trickling streams, limestone hills, and caves, the latter including the 7.4 kilometer-long Khonglor Cave – complete with rock formations and an internal sandy beach – and Pa Fa Cave (a.k.a. Buddha Cave), so called for the 200-plus Buddha statues of unknown origin which adorn the cavern.
Pakse is the main commercial hub of southern Laos and a starting point for anyone wanting to experience this part of the country. Its location on the Mekong and Sedone rivers gives it the same laid back feel of Vientiane and Luang Prabang where locals can enjoy a meal on the riverside or relax at one of the city's many massage parlors. Points of interest include Wat Luang, a beautiful temple where travelers can observe alms-giving ceremonies.
Si Phan Don is an archipelago located in the Mekong River in the southern part of Laos. While there aren't quite 4,000 islands, the archipelago is still a popular travel destination for those looking for some relaxed island atmosphere. The main islands are Don Khong, Don Det and Don Khon, which all offer affordable accommodation and activities including swimming in the river, biking, or sailing amongst the islets. Buses and tour operators leave from Pakse to Si Phan Don daily.
Just 6 kilometers from the Mekong River in Champasak province lies the ruined Khmer temple complex Wat Phou at the foot of Mount Phu Kao. Although the site has been a temple site since the 5th century, the existing structures date back to the 11th, 12th and 13th centuries when they were part of the vast Khmer empire. Built by the same people behind the better known Angkor Wat, the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Wat Phou provides visitors with the enchantment of well-preserved temple ruins without the tourist crowds that swarm its Cambodian counterpart.
From a tourist perspective, the best markets in Laos can be found in the north, especially Vientiane and Luang Prabang. But there are still a number of interesting markets in southern Laos. And with fewer tourists here compared to the north of the country, shopping in this lesser-visited region of Laos can be a lot of fun. It’s also the perfect opportunity to interact with locals and practice your Lao language skill as well as your bargaining skills.
If your itinerary allows, try to visit a morning market which can be found at most towns in Laos. Whilst coffee is at the heart of many markets in southern Laos, visitors will also see local handicrafts and textiles available for sale at the morning markets. Silk, silverware and hill-tribe products can all make for wonderful souvenirs. Tourists are always welcome at these markets, but the south of Laos sees far fewer foreigners than the north of the country. This does mean that communication isn’t always easy, but it does make for plenty of smiles and an authentic local experience.
Southern Laos is renowned for the quality of the coffee produced here. Originally brought into Laos by the French, the arabica coffee plant has flourished in this region of the country. A combination of climate, altitude and soil has provided optimum growing conditions to produce what connoisseurs consider to be some of the best coffee in the world. Visiting this region of Laos you will see any number of small local markets with coffee traders figuring prominently. There are an estimated 5,000 families in the Paksong district involved in coffee farming. Many Lao people in this part of the country live in isolated villages and travel to the local markets in towns like Paksong, Savannakhet and Thateng to trade. If you visit this area, you also have the opportunity to take a tour of an organic coffee farm and buy produce direct from the farmers.
A trip to the food markets in Laos is always an enlightening experience regardless of whether you need to buy food or not. Be prepared for some strong smells and unusual sights, but the fresh food markets are a hive of activity and fascinating to witness. They are also a great place to pull up a small plastic chair at one of the roadside no—name food-stalls and sample a bowl of noodles.
Considering southern Laos receives relatively few tourists, there is still a good variety of venues to eat and drink, especially in Pakse and Si Phan Don. Most tourists visiting southern Laos do so for the culture and natural attractions and nightlife options here are limited. But after a day’s sightseeing or cruising along the Mekong River, a quiet meal at a riverside restaurant is the perfect way to end the evening.
Visitors to Pakse may be surprised by the range of restaurants with Thai, Vietnamese, Indian and Italian all having a presence in the town alongside the Lao favorites. The main tourist area in Pakse is located at the west of town near the mouth of the Mekong River, with most of the cafes, restaurants and hotels situated around the main road.
Be sure to try some of the local specialties when you are visiting the southern part of Laos. In Pakse, try a noodle soup called ‘khao poon nam pa’ for breakfast. All over the region, dishes made with fish caught from the Mekong River are always popular in local restaurants.
Beer Lao is available all over Laos and even if you’re not normally a beer drinker, the subtle flavor goes well with spicy food or is equally enjoyable to drink by itself. Lesser known is Lao Biere which is produced in southern Laos in Champasack Province. A distinct alternative to Beer Lao, Lao Biere is unusual because it is made from palm juice. And if you’re more of a coffee drinker than beer drinker, you’re in luck. The south of Laos produces some of the best coffee in Asia. Experts say the coffee from southern Laos compares favorably with other products from better known coffee producing regions around the world. The quality of the Lao coffee owes much to Bolaven Plateau which lies in the middle of an ancient volcano. The volcano may no longer be active, but the lava and minerals thrown up from the center of the earth left behind extremely fertile soil. This soil has proved to be ideal for coffee cultivation. And whilst you’re enjoying your food and drink in lovely southern Laos you can also enjoy a landscape featuring wonderful waterfalls, verdant jungle and beautiful vistas.
In Savannakhet and other parts of the south, ‘savanh sin’ is a favorite snack. Think of this as beef jerky with strips of beef marinated in a mixture of ginger, garlic and fish sauce. Sesame seed, sugar, salt and black pepper is also added for seasoning. The strips are then left to dry in sunlight before being deep fried until lightly crisp. Served with a spicy dip and sticky rice this makes for a really tasty treat
The main form of transportation between destinations in southern Laos is by bus, minivan or converted trucks. Outside of the main urban areas the roads are still fairly primitive although the main thoroughfares around the country have improved vastly in recent years. Buses are of relatively low standards compared to western equivalents but the main routes are plied by VIP buses with air conditioning and toilets. If comfort is a main criteria, travelers should consider renting a private car with a driver; at approximately US$100 per day, it is the most expensive form of land transport but also the most comfortable.
The Mekong River lends itself perfectly for transportation between the north and the south, and travelers have the added bonus of being able to experience life along the river – a scenic journey enjoyed by all who take this tour.
For shorter trips travelers can hail tuk-tuks, which are small vehicles that are used mainly within towns and cities. Fares are always negotiable so don't be afraid to haggle. In Pakse it is also possible to rent motorbikes and bicycles for independent exploration.
Visitors from ASEAN countries and Russia, Korea, Japan and Switzerland can enter Laos without a visa. Everyone else has to apply for a visa issued by a Laos embassy or consulate or get a visa on arrival which is available at major entry points including airports and at the border to Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam.
The two international airports in Southern Laos are Savannakhet and Pakse. Lao Airlines connects Pakse to Bangkok, Siem Reap in Cambodia and Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam while Savannakhet is connected to Bangkok.
Travelers from Cambodia can enter southern Laos at the Voeung Kam – Dom Kralor border. From Vietnam, travelers can use the Cau Treo Nam Phao border crossing in central Laos, or the Lao Bao Dansavanh border crossing and Ngoc Hoi – Bo Y border crossing in southern Laos. For visitors entering southern Laos from Thailand, the most convenient land crossing is the Chong Mek/Vang Tao, accessible with buses leaving from Ubon Ratchathani in Thailand. There is also a crossing at Mukdahan Savannakhet.