Waterfall in Laos, Champasak Province, Bolaven Plateau

Laos //

The far south

The tail end of Laos is anchored by the provinces of Champasak, Xekong, Attapeu and Salavan, a region that lay at the crossroads of the great empires that ruled Southeast Asia centuries ago – Champa, Chenla and Angkor. Bordered by Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, the far south conveniently divides into two sections, dictated primarily by topography, with Pakse, the region’s most important market town, as the hub. In the west, the Mekong River cuts Champasak province roughly in half, while further east, the fertile highlands of the Bolaven Plateauseparate the Mekong corridor from the rugged Annamite Mountains that form Laos’s border with Vietnam.

There are dozens of ancient Khmer temples scattered throughout the lush tropical forests that skirt the Mekong, the most famous of which, Wat Phou, is the spiritual centre of the region and the main tourist attraction in southern Laos. An imposing reminder of the Angkorian empire that once dominated much of Southeast Asia, Wat Phou is one of the most impressive Khmer ruins outside Cambodia, and lies a few kilometres from the town of Champasak, the former royal seat of the defunct Lao kingdom of the same name.

From here it makes sense to follow the river south until you reach Si Phan Don – or “Four Thousand Islands” – where the Mekong’s 1993km journey through Laos rushes to a thundering conclusion in a series of picturesque waterfalls. As the region’s name suggests, there are thousands of sandy islands cluttering the river, many of them home to long-established ethnic Lao villages, but just three – Don Khong, Don Det and Don Khon – have been properly developed for tourists.

Much of the area east of the Mekong lies off the beaten track, with travel here often involving long, bumpy journeys to spots of raw natural beauty. Easier to explore is the Bolaven Plateau, just east of Pakse, with its rich agricultural bounty and crashing waterfalls. Historically, the isolation of this region made it an ideal place for insurgents to hide out – from anti-French rebels to the North Vietnamese in the Second Indochina War. The latter transformed trails and roads along Laos’s eastern edge into the Ho Chi Minh Trail, which American forces and their allies later subjected to some of the most intensive bombing in history. By braving the primitive transport links between the far-flung villages of Salavan, Xekong and Attapeu, you’ll witness the resilience of the land, still home to a diverse variety of wildlife.

Pakse, the region’s commercial and transport hub, provides the most convenient gateway to the far south, with travellers arriving either from Savannakhet or from Thailand via the Chong Mek border crossing. It’s also possible to arrive from Stung Treng in Cambodia by road, or from Vientiane by air.

The most pleasant time of year to visit the region is during the cool season (Nov–Feb), when the rivers and waterfalls are in full spate and the scenery is at its greenest.

Some history

The early history of the far south remains a hot topic of debate among archeologists. Although the ruins of an ancient city buried near Champasak (and not far from Wat Phou) indicate that the area was the centre of a thriving civilization as early as the fifth century, no one seems sure if the town was part of Champa, a Hinduized kingdom that ruled parts of central Vietnam for more than fourteen centuries, or the Chenla kingdom, which is thought to have been located near the Mekong River in present-day northern Cambodia, extending through what is now southern Laos. The Khmer were the first people to leave a clear imprint on the area, and the temple ruins that survive throughout the far south along the Mekong River suggest the region was an important part of the Khmer empire from the eighth to the twelfth century, when the Angkor empire was at its height. It is also thought that the better part of southern Laos was dominated by ethnic Khmer, in particular the Mon-Khmer ethnic groups that still inhabit the Bolaven Plateau region and the Annamite Mountains.

The ethnic Lao are relative newcomers to the region, having made their way slowly south along the Mekong as Angkor’s power, and its hold over present-day southern Laos, waned. By the early sixteenth century, King Phothisalat was spending much of his time in Vientiane and eventually, in 1563, the capital of Lane Xang was shifted from Luang Prabang to Vientiane. While the origins of the first ethnic Lao principality in the Champasak region are unclear, legends trace the roots of the Lao kingdom of Champasak back to Nang Pao, a queen said to have ruled during the mid-seventeenth century. The story goes that Nang Pao was seduced by a prince from a nearby kingdom and gave birth out of wedlock, initiating a sex scandal for which she has been remembered ever since. The queen supposedly acknowledged her mistake by decreeing that every unwed mother must pay for her sin by sacrificing a buffalo to appease the spirits, a tradition continued into the late 1980s by unwed mothers, known as “Nang Pao’s daughters”, from some of the ethnic groups in the area. Legend has it that Nang Pao’s actual daughter, Nang Peng, ceded rule over the kingdom to a holy man, who in turn sought out Soi Sisamouth, a descendant of Souligna Vongsa, the last great king of Lane Xang, and made him king in 1713.

Soi Sisamouth ascended the throne of an independent southern kingdom centred on present-day Champasak, near Wat Phou, and extended its influence to include part of present-day Thailand, as well as Salavan and Attapeu. But the king and his successor only managed to maintain a tenuous independence and, after its capital was captured by Siamese forces in 1778, Champasak was reduced to being a vassal of Siam, and so it remained until the French arrived more than one hundred years later, claiming all territory east of the Mekong River.

Caught between French ambition and a still-powerful Siam, Champasak was split in half – a situation which lasted until 1904, when a Franco–Siamese treaty reunited its territories. Following this, Champasak’s king, Kam Souk, had to travel to Pakse to swear his allegiance to France.

In 1946, Kam Souk’s son, Prince Boun Oum na Champasak, renounced his claim to the throne of a sovereign Champasak (in exchange for the title of Inspector General for life) and recognized the king of Luang Prabang as the royal head of a unified Laos, effectively ending the Champasak royal line. When he fled Laos after the communist takeover in the mid-70s, the Prince said the kingdom was doomed from the start because of Nang Pao’s misdemeanour: “With an unmarried mother as queen, everything started so badly that the game was lost before it began.”