Many travellers see very little of south central Laos, spending just a night or two in the principal towns of Thakhek or Savannakhet before pressing on to the far south or crossing the border into Vietnam. However, those willing to take time out from the more popular north and south of the country will find that there is much more to the region than the main Mekong towns, not least the otherworldly beauty of the Mahaxai stone formations at the edge of the Khammouane Limestone NBCA near Thakhek, and the largest of all Laos’s conservation areas, the massive Nakai-Nam Theun NBCA to the northeast.
The three narrow provinces that dominate this part of Laos, namely Bolikhamxai, Khammouane and Savannakhet, are squeezed between mainland Southeast Asia’s two most formidable geographical barriers: the Mekong River and the Annamite Mountains. The mighty Mekong has long served as a lifeline for the inhabitants of this stretch of the interior, providing food and a thoroughfare for trade and transport. In the late nineteenth century, European colonialism turned the life-giving “Mother of Waters” into a political boundary, and the Lao on its west bank were incorporated into Siam. During the 1970s and 1980s, the river became a further political and economic divide, when short-lived but draconian post-revolutionary policies forced large numbers of the inhabitants of the towns along this stretch of the Mekong, primarily ethnic Vietnamese and Chinese, to flee across the river into Thailand.
East of the river, the elevation gradually increases, culminating in the rugged Annamite Mountains, which, throughout much of recorded history, have divided Indochina culturally into two camps, Indian influence prevailing west of the chain and that of China dominating the east. Until very recently these mountains made up one of the region’s least inhabited areas and were teeming with wildlife, including some of Asia’s rarest and most endangered species, such as the tiger, Javan rhinoceros and Indian elephant. In recent years, however, this area has been the target of heavy logging, and some observers claim that the damage done to the forest since the start of the new millennium is irreversible.
As might be expected, the three principal settlements and provincial capitals of south central Laos – Paksan, Thakhek and Savannakhet – are all on the Mekong. Paksan, the smallest of these, lies at the mouth of the Xan River, which flows down from the 2620-metre Phou Xaxum on the Xieng Khuang Plateau. Thakhek now sees few foreign visitors, though it was once a casino town that drew gamblers from Thailand. East of Thakhek is a dramatic landscape of imposing and impossibly vertical mountains of the kind often depicted in old Chinese scroll paintings, which forms the southern boundary of the Khammouane Limestone NBCA. Easily visited on a day-trip from Thakhek, these awesome limestone formations are riddled with labyrinthine tunnels and caverns. Savannakhet has been described as southern Laos’s equivalent of Luang Prabang, its inhabitants living comfortably among architectural heirlooms handed down by the French. Situated at the junction of two ancient trade routes, the town also displays evidence of other cultures – Vietnamese, Thai and Chinese – that have left their mark while passing through.
Aside from the main north–south artery of Route 13, central Laos has three important highways – Routes 8, 12 and 9 – which cross the region from west to east, connecting the Mekong River Valley with the provincial interior, and extending beyond into Vietnam. The northernmost highway, Route 8 – paved and served by daily buses from Vientiane – snakes up through mountains, rainforests and the Phu Pha Maan “stone forest” before winding down to the city of Vinh on the Gulf of Tonkin. The middle route, Route 12, begins at Thakhek and crosses the Annamites, connecting with Vietnam’s Highway 15 and the coastal city of Dong Hoi. Southernmost of the three is Route 9, served by daily buses connecting Savannakhet with Dong Ha, Da Nang and Hué in Vietnam.
Near Xepon, Route 9 bisects another route of more recent vintage: the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Actually a network of parallel roads and paths, the trail was used by the North Vietnamese Army to infiltrate and finally subdue its southern neighbour. The area is still littered with lots of war junk, some of it dangerous. The best way to view these rusting relics is to use Xepon as a base, making trips to nearby Muang Phin and Ban Dong.