If you’re interested in UNESCO World Heritage temple sites, Cambodia isn’t the only place to visit. Plan on spending a few days relaxing and exploring in Champasak.
This is the location of the renowned Wat Phu, a collection of Khmer ruins constructed between the sixth and 12th centuries. There are ongoing restoration and preservation efforts, but these are far less obvious than at other Khmer sites in the region.
Being so far off the beaten tourist track, you can wander and imagine what life was like 1,500 years ago, without having your reverie interrupted by a bunch of tourists piling off a bus (shades of Angkor Wat). There is a small, ever-changing admission fee, and it’s worth every penny. The province itself has a history going back almost 2,000 years. There are a few other sites of note.
Some of the best, and certainly the largest, waterfalls in Laos are in Champasak province. I highly recommend a visit to at least one of the falls: Selabam, Khonphapheng, or Liphi (the largest in Laos).
Where to stay
Tad Fane Resort, Ban Lak 38, Paksong, Champasak. This overlooks the Tad Fane waterfalls, thundering down a 200-m/600-foot deep gorge. Beyond the waterfalls stretches the extensive jungle of Dong Hua Sao, one of the 18 National Biodiversity Conservation Areas in the country. The Tad Fane Resort is nestled on one of the most scenic spots in Southern Laos, the Boloven Plateau. It is located 38 km/23 miles west of Pakse town and the airport. Less than 10 km/six miles from the resort is the provincial town of Paksong. Along the road to Paksong are several villages of minorities, such as the Alak and Lawen.
There are dozens of guesthouses along the main road just in from the river. Many are quite new with A/C, private bathrooms, balconies or patios looking over the river, satellite TV, and breakfast included in the price. They can usually arrange tours and often rent bicycles.
Getting there & around
Most people arrive on the bus from Pakse or the Mekong Islands in the south. You may also be able to snag a ride with a private van.
Buses run several times a day to and from Champasak – you just flag the bus down in front of your guesthouse and pay on board. You and the bus get to take a ferry to the main road and proceed from there. You may have to change buses once you get off the ferry. The buses going from the Mekong Islands to Pakse will let you off along the main highway (Hwy 13) and then you have to catch a bus to the ferry and into town. It’s not as hard as it sounds. Just plan on an early start – by or so – to catch a bus going south.
There are more choices going north to Pakse, unless you plan to go all the way into Thailand the same day (in which case plan on an early bus). Pakse is only 45 km/27 miles to the north but the trip takes close to two hours. The trip south to the islands takes several hours.
Many people prefer to make this trip by boat. It takes about two hours to Pakse and five or so to the Mekong Island area. I found the boats to be seriously overloaded and completely lacking in both safety equipment and seat padding. Nonetheless, the river air is quite cool and pleasant even when the weather is hot. To catch the boat, figure on an departure; go to the river and ask where the boats are.
A bicycle is the best way to get around the Champasak area. The temples are too far from town to walk to them.
What to See & Do
Champasak Temple Complex is a great alternative to the frenetic pace of Angkor Wat. I actually rented a bicycle at my guesthouse for the grand sum of one dollar and rode the eight-10 km/five-six miles to the complex. You can’t take bicycles inside, though, so entrust yours to the watchful eyes of the men who just hang around outside the entry. Once you have your fill of the temple complexes, Champasak is a great place to buy traditional, quality Lao crafts and goods. Check out the silks and cottons – they are made from hand-woven, hand-dyed thread.
This is the reason to go to Champasak. The Mekong River setting is great, and the complex is stunning. The complex is about eight km/five miles south of Champasak. If you’re not riding a bike, you can always flag a local bus – the driver will know where you are going. The admission fee is about 50¢ (5,000 Kip, but will probably go up soon). There is a museum at the entrance area and admission is included in the complex fee. The hours are flexible, but generally from to Make sure to get the guide and map so you can relate the descriptions that follow to what you are passing by.
Most of the ruins date from the fifth and sixth centuries and are not in good repair. Since Angkor Wat wasn’t even started for another 200 years or so, you can get a good feel for the architecture that came before. The complex is more Hindu than Buddhist, from Linga Parvata in the background to the style of the remaining buildings and the overall layout.
Very little is known about the history of Wat Phu or the people who built the complex. It is suspected the sixth-century Chenla capital was based here. In addition, there are remains of walls and a palace in the area. These date from the mid-12th century. It is possible the buildings are the work of the Khmer King Suryavarman II –the founder of Angkor Wat.
You enter the complex along the grand causeway (late 11th-early 12th century) and walk around a number of buildings and a moated area. There are two sandstone buildings on either side of the causeway; these are probably the most intact buildings in the complex.
If you continue up some stairs behind the two sandstone buildings you will come to the Nandi Pavilion and more temple remains. Nandi is Siva’s bull (Hindu). At one point each chamber of the pavilions contained statues, but these disappeared many years ago.
Continuing on you will come to the ruins of six small temples made of brick. Walk farther up the hill and you will come to the main temple sanctuary. This temple was dedicated to Siva and parts of the building date from the sixth century. Note the Buddha statue and sacred linga. Walk around the sanctuary and you will encounter more sixth-century ruins – a possible library, a statue of Siva, and the holy spring.
Take care while walking. The ground and steps are uneven and safety is not a concern of the local authorities.
Day-Trips from Champasak
There are other temple complexes in the Champasak area, many dating from the same time as Wat Phu. One that is worth a day-trip is called Oum Moung (Um Muang). Most people coming down the river from Pakse make this stop, but you may be able to find a boat going upriver and get off at Ban Noi. Just make sure you know how you are getting back! You can also take the Pakse-bound bus and get off at marker 30 at Ban Thang Beng and follow the track to Ban Noi and on to the Oum Moung site. This road is vehicle-accessible so you might want to hire a tuk-tuk to take you there, wait, and take you back to Champasak (or Pakse).
The highlight of this complex is a sixth-century temple complex surrounded by jungle. The complex is open from about to every day, and admission is around 30¢( 3,000 Kip).
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