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.
Paksan and PakkadingRoute 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.
PakkadingForty 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.
East to Xepon and the Vietnam borderFrom 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.