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.
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.
From Savannakhet, Route 9 heads east through a series of drab and dusty towns, passing Muang Phin and then Xepon, where it begins its climb up into the Annamite Mountains. The road ends its Lao journey at the Lao Bao pass, before crossing into Vietnam and continuing down to Dong Ha, where it joins Highway 1. The French completed the road in 1930, as part of an Indochinese road network intended to link Mekong towns with the Vietnamese coast, bringing in Vietnamese migrants and trucking out Lao produce. Today, the Thais, too, have an interest in Route 9 as a trade corridor, linking their relatively poor northeastern provinces with the port of Da Nang in Vietnam.
While most travellers barrel through here on direct buses to and from Vietnam, the frontier is not without sites of interest. As you approach Muang Phin, Route 9 begins to cross the north–south arteries of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, a network of dirt paths and roads that spread throughout southeastern Laos, running from the Mu Gia Pass in Bolikhamxai province south through Attapeu and into Cambodia. While much of the debris from the war lies off the beaten track, some of these war relics are easily accessible. Another place worth stopping in to explore the surrounding area is the recently rebuilt market town of Xepon which, along with neighbouring towns, is populated predominantly by Phu Tai people, a lowland Lao group.
A picturesque village in the foothills of the Annamite Mountains, 40km from the Vietnamese border, XEPON is a pleasant rural stopover for those in transit on the route to Vietnam or Savannakhet. The original town of Xepon was destroyed during the war – along with every house of the district’s two hundred villages – and was later rebuilt here 6km west of its original location, on the opposite bank of the Xe Banghiang River. The old city (written as “Tchepone” on some old maps) had been captured by communist forces in 1960 and became an important outpost on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. As such, it was the target of a joint South Vietnamese and American invasion in 1971, aimed at disrupting the flow of troops and supplies headed for communist forces in South Vietnam.
Ties between Muang Phin and Vietnam go back a long way. During much of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the area’s Phu Tai inhabitants paid tribute to the court in Hué. In the middle of the nineteenth century, the Vietnamese rulers, having just wrapped up a war with Siam, were content to exact a light tribute of wax and elephant tusks from the Phu Tai, preferring to leave the Tai minority’s territory as a loose buffer zone between regional powers. By this point, Vietnamese merchants, following the traditional trading route across the Lao Bao pass, were already arriving in Muang Phin with cooking pans, iron, salt and fish sauce, and returning east with cows and water buffaloes in tow. A story told by an early French visitor to the town attests to the business acumen of one of these merchants. Upon arriving in town, the merchant found prices too high, but was reluctant to return home without making a good profit. With a quick conversion to Buddhism the merchant’s problem was solved: he shaved his head and shacked up in the local temple where he could defray his expenses until prices dropped, at which point the merchant donned a wig, bought up a few buffalo and hightailed it back to Hué.
On the outskirts of the village of Ban Dong on Route 9 sit two rusting American tanks, all that remains of a massive invasion and series of battles that have become a mere footnote in the history of the decade-long American military debacle in Indochina. In 1971 President Nixon, anticipating a massive campaign by North Vietnamese troops against South Vietnam the following year (which happened to be an election year in the US), ordered an attack on the Ho Chi Minh Trail to cut off supplies to communist forces. Although a congressional amendment had been passed the previous year prohibiting US ground troops from crossing the border from Vietnam into Laos and Cambodia, the US command saw it as an opportunity to test the strengths of Vietnamization, the policy of turning the ground war over to the South Vietnamese. For the operation, code-named Lam Son 719, it was decided that ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam) troops were to invade Laos and block the trail with the backing of US air support. The objective was Xepon, a town straddled by the Trail, which was some 30–40km wide at this point. Nixon’s national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, was later to lament that “the operation, conceived in doubt and assailed by scepticism, proceeded in confusion”. In early February 1971, ARVN troops and tanks pushed across the border at Lao Bao and followed Route 9 into Laos. Like a caterpillar trying to ford a column of red ants, the South Vietnamese troops were soon engulfed by North Vietnamese (NVA) regulars, who were superior in number. Ordered by President Thieu of South Vietnam to halt if there were more than 3000 casualties, ARVN officers stopped halfway to Xepon and engaged the NVA in a series of battles that lasted over a month. US air support proved ineffectual, and by mid-March scenes of frightened ARVN troops drastically retreating were being broadcast around the world. In an official Lao account of the battle, a list of “units of Saigon puppet troops wiped out on Highway 9” included four regiments of armoured cavalry destroyed between the Vietnam border and Ban Dong.