And while this may not necessarily be a good thing for Laos in economic terms, it’s good news for those of us who like to get off the tourist trail on our travels, and the recent launch of direct flights between Ho Chi Minh City and Pakse has made Laos’s wild south a lot more accessible to visitors from Vietnam.
Pakse, nestling scenically on a bend in the Mekong, is deceptively big — it has a small town feel yet is home to over 500,000 people, the country’s second biggest city after Vientiane. Like Luang Prabang, it combines beautiful colonial buildings, golden temples and a scenic riverside location, without the trappings of mass tourism — there’s no night market here, no tourist restaurants, no elderly European tourist coach parties. Just a very friendly, laidback atmosphere and, on the riverfront, a surprisingly vibrant nightlife, with the riverbank lined with great restaurants and beer gardens, where Pakse’s young locals gather to swill vast quantities of Beer Lao and listen to live bands. What few tourists come here don’t seem to have discovered this aspect of Pakse — on two fun nights out on the riverside I didn’t see a single western face.
An ethnic minority village in southern Laos
A Friendly Change
Aside from the charm of the city itself, Pakse’s main appeal is its location, serving as a gateway to the largely undeveloped south of Laos, a beautiful region of hills, waterfalls and tribal villages where foreign visitors are so rare that, for many villagers I met, I was the first whitey they had ever encountered, an increasingly rare experience in Southeast Asia.
To the south of Pakse is the delightful riverside town of Champasak, with its beautifully preserved colonial houses, more temples than you can shake a stick at, and the nearby Angkor-era temple of Vat Phou, the country’s most sacred religious site. My visit coincided with the Rocket Festival at a neighbouring village, an annual fertility ceremony involving high explosives, cross-dressing, wooden genitalia and lashings of booze that has to be seen to be believed.
To the east, quiet but well-maintained roads lead through Paksong, Thateng, Sekong and Attapeu as far as the Vietnamese border, a beautiful area full of coffee plantations, hill tribe villages and market towns, where you can sample such delights as squirrel and monitor lizard with your Beer Lao. The real pleasure here is simply to pull in at a village and go for a wander — you will inevitably be followed by dozens of local kids, baffled and delighted by your presence and curiosity value, and the villagers, though initially shy, will reveal themselves to be very friendly hosts, with no agenda other than making you feel welcome.
It’s this genuine, unaffected friendliness that makes travelling in Laos such a pleasure and a refreshing change from other more developed destinations in Southeast Asia, and with Pakse now just a direct 90-minute flight away from Ho Chi Minh City, it’s a pleasure that is more accessible than ever.
Lao Airways operates direct flights between Ho Chi Minh City & Pakse three times a week. Stay at Champasak Palace Hotel in Pakse, rooms from US$30 per night.