The Xe Kong is one of Laos’s great rivers, starting high in the Annamite Mountains from the eastern flanks of the 2500-metre-high Mount Atouat and flowing southwestward around the southern edge of the Bolaven Plateau. It enters Cambodia via the Xe Pian NBCA, eventually joining the Mekong River in that country, north of Stung Treng.
The main towns along the Xe Kong in Laos are Xekong and Attapeu, which are linked by a paved but bumpy road. If you’re heading this way from Salavan, the first part of the journey involves a laborious climb through rich jungle and midland tribal villages up the steep curves of the Bolaven Plateau to Thateng, 40km away.
A dusty junction of threadbare markets and crooked wooden houses with thatch roofs, Thateng was where the French commissioner to Salavan, Jean Dauplay, “the father of Lao coffee”, chose to settle in the 1920s. Sadly, Thateng’s strategic location as the gateway to the plateau, a grip on which was considered key to controlling the bulk of the far south, made it a prime target for American bombs. The town was basically wiped out, and although villagers returned after the war, the place is nowadays little more than an unappealing transit point.