Salavan, Xekong and Attapeu, cut off from the Mekong River Valley by the Bolaven Plateau and made remote by the rugged jigsaw of the Annamite Mountains, are some of the least-visited provinces in Laos. Until recently, poor infrastructure and the scars of war conspired to keep the region isolated. With the Ho Chi Minh Trail streaming across their borders, these provinces were victims of some of the heaviest bombing during the Second Indochina War. Villages were decimated, roads destroyed and in some places the dangerous litter of battle still lies about. Yet these factors kept the densely forested mountains of Attapeu and Xekong pristine until the beginning of this century. Today, intense logging along the Vietnamese border is turning parts of this once rich ecosystem into a moonscape. For the time being, however, the provinces are still home to a variety of wildlife and numerous ethnic minority villages.
Arcing around the Bolaven Plateau, these provinces can be seen in a convenient clockwise loop from Pakse. From Lak Sao-et, 21km east of Pakse, head northeast for roughly 100km along well-maintained Route 20 towards Salavan, where bus connections are available for the bumpy 90km trip to Xekong via Thateng, the dusty northern gateway to the Bolaven Plateau. Just east of the plateau, uninspiring Xekong provides a jumping-off point for the pretty five-hour boat trip along the babbling Xe Kong to Attapeu, capital of Laos’s southeasternmost province.
From Attapeu, it can be a rough haul back to Pakse up the eastern flank of the Bolaven and through the coffee plantations surrounding Paksong. Unfortunately, public buses have yet to start travelling impassable Route 18, the shortcut to Si Phan Don, which shadows the southern edge of the Plateau.