Less visited than Savannakhet to the south, THAKHEK, capital of Khammouane province, is gradually gaining popularity as the best base to explore the nearby Mahaxai Caves and karst formations, and the massive Khammouane Limestone NBCA. It is also an entry point into Laos from Nakhon Phanom in Thailand, as well as being a good place to break the long journey down Route 13 to Savannakhet.
Take a short walk out from Thakhek’s tiny town square and you’ll find crumbling French villas, overgrown gardens, and an almost haunted atmosphere pervading the too-wide streets. It’s hard to believe that during the Second Indochina War, Thakhek was a sort of Havana on the Mekong, with visiting Thais flocking to its riverbank casino; these days, it’s Nakhon Phanom on the opposite bank that’s the big metropolis. Separated only by the Mekong River, the two Lao peoples living on each bank couldn’t have a more different way of life.
For most visitors this lost-in-time atmosphere is the main draw. There are a few nice colonial-era buildings around the town square, and on Chao Anou Road, north of the square, is a fine row of 1920s shophouses featuring interlocking swastika designs of moulded stucco (although this Hindu motif appears in Lao weaving, it is rare in Lao architecture). Between Chao Anou and Setthathilat is a large temple, Wat Nabo.
Thakhek’s main attraction is 6km to the south and easily reached by tuk-tuk. Known locally as Muang Kao, Wat Pha That Sikhotabong is one of the country’s holiest pilgrimage sites and a great scenic spot, especially at sunset. The third lunar month, which usually falls in July, is the best time to visit, when the temple celebrates its annual bun and a carnival-like atmosphere prevails.
Thakhek’s roots date back to the Chenla and Funan empires. The name Thakhek, which means “Visitor’s Landing”, is relatively new, but is a reference to the town’s importance as far back as the eighth century. As Sikhotabong, and later Lakhon, Thakhek was a principality spanning both banks of the Mekong, and a hub for trade routes connecting civilizations in Vietnam, Thailand and Cambodia. Its former spiritual centre, the shrine of That Phanom, is now in present-day Thailand and is still the holiest site in ethnically Lao northeastern Thailand. When the kingdom of Lane Xang was formed under the leadership of Fa Ngum in the fourteenth century, Sikhotabong’s governor oversaw the southern extent of the Lao empire. Under the French, the town became an administrative outpost with a bustling Vietnamese community: the colonial administration thought that an influx of Vietnamese workers was the key to finally turning a profit on their sparsely populated Lao territory. By the 1940s, the town was 85 percent Vietnamese. After the revolution, large numbers of these Vietnamese families fled across the Mekong to Nakhon Phanom on the opposite bank, with the result that Thakhek has slipped into being the sleepy Lao town it is today.