Route 13 passes through PAKSAN, capital of Bolikhamxai province and the northernmost major settlement on the narrow neck of Laos, but few travellers actually stop over in this small and sleepy Mekong town, and the ferry crossing to and from Beung Kan in Thailand is still little used, despite being open to foreigners. After years of planning, workers have finally moved in to fix the terrible road between Paksan and Phonsavan, which would make it possible for northbound travellers from Savannakhet to head straight to the Plain of Jars without having to make a detour through Vientiane. Reports say the project, which could knock five hours off the current eight-hour slog, should be finished soon. By that time, the increased through-traffic and ensuing facilities should
make spending a night in Paksan a more tempting option than it is at present.
Forty kilometres southeast of Paksan, Nam Kading NBCA is Bolikhamxai province’s largest conservation area and a place of dramatic scenic beauty. Running parallel to the Mekong and encompassing 1740 square kilometres, the park has a chain of mountains down its length, the highest peak being the 1588-metre Mount Pha Pet, which can clearly be viewed as you travel Route 13. Unfortunately, this is likely to be as intimate a glimpse as you’ll get, as there are no roads into the reserve, and no facilities for visitors whatsoever.
Behind the ridge on the eastern boundary of the NBCA, the Nam Mouan and Nam Theun rivers converge to form the Nam Kading, so named because the waterfalls where the Nam Theun spills off the plateau are said to make a “kading” sound – the sound of a water buffalo’s bell. The Nam Kading flows out through a gap in the mountains to join the Mekong at the village of PAKKADING. There are a number of good fish restaurants along the highway here, making it a favourite lunch spot for truckers and travellers plying Route 13.
To the east of Pakkading, the highway crosses a Russian-built bridge and heads south out of town. Drivers often pause to light a cigarette before crossing the bridge, and then respectfully toss the lit cigarette into the swift waters below, an offering to appease the feisty water serpent believed to live at the river’s mouth. Every year a buffalo is sacrificed to the water serpent, though the offerings weren’t enough to spare the lives of a Russian engineer and several Lao workers who died during construction of the bridge.