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.
Xekong to Attapeu by river
Xekong to Attapeu by river
If you’ve made it as far as Xekong, the scenic Xe Kong, which meanders through little-visited countryside, provides a strong incentive to charter a motorized pirogue for the journey south to Attapeu – not cheap at $60–70, but well worth the expense. To find a boat in Xekong, follow the road that passes in front of the Sekong Souksamlane hotel south for 1km until you reach a boat landing on the riverbank, where you’ll have to negotiate a price with the boatmen. Even if it’s more expensive, go for one that can offer you a life jacket.
The pirogues make the journey to Attapeu through gentle rapids and past lushly forested riverbanks, where people living in the surrounding hills come to catch fish and bathe. The journey usually takes around five hours, but late in the dry season it can take seven, and at this time the shallow waters require passengers to walk short stretches of the journey along the bank. Although the fare doesn’t rise at this time of year, captains limit the number of passengers to two, thereby increasing the price per person. Keep in mind that this river can be hazardous during high waters, and if you’re not a strong swimmer you should probably give it a pass; more than one tourist has drowned on this journey.
During the Second Indochina War, US aircraft struck at the threads of the Ho Chi Minh Trail running parallel to the river, hoping to disrupt the endless tide of men and supplies streaming southwards. Bombs invariably wound up in the river and the resulting explosions sent scores of fish floating belly-up to the surface, unintentional war reparations quickly collected by villagers living amid a battlefield. Today’s depleted fish catches are still blamed on the war, but more modern fishing equipment has surely had an impact, as has the use of explosives for catching fish, a technique that was utilized by Vietnamese soldiers during the war and remains part of the Cambodian fisherman’s arsenal along some stretches of the river. One victim of such high-impact methods, the Irrawaddy dolphin, until the 1980s a frequent visitor to Attapeu’s maze of rivers in the rainy season, now rarely visits these waters.