We had planned on visiting Pakse a couple years before as a part of an extended tour in Lao but between the time we began planning that trip and we actually took it, construction had temporarily closed the Pakse airport. So this trip in 2012 was our first visit to the city.
While growing in popularity, Pakse is really more of a southern Lao crossroads and jumping off point to visit some other nearby attractions in Champasak Province; like Bolaven Plateau to the east or the Siphandon archipelago (aka 4,000 Islands) in the south than as a tourist destination in itself. And that is how we used it. Our main reason for going to Pakse was to take a 3-day trip on the Vat Phou Mekong River Cruise. We flew into Pakse a day before the cruise and checked into the historic Champasak Palace Hotel.
Originally built as the palace for the last king of Laos, the hotel has been described by some as looking like the top of a wedding cake. The picture above left was taken from the 4th floor and shows the central part of the 4th, 5th & penthouse floor of the hotel. We booked one of the larger rooms on the 4th floor and while a little worn, the bedroom was full of historic charm and lovely antique furnishings. The bathroom had been recently updated and our room had large double doors opening out onto a terrace overlooking the city.
We had read some negative comments about the breakfast at the hotel but it suited us just fine. While service at the front desk was a little inconsistent, I would chalk that up more to an issue of communication than a poor attitude.
Vat Phou Mekong River Cruise
On the morning of our departure on the cruise, we met the tour at the Sinouk Coffee House in central Pakse. From there we took a bus ride of several hours to Pha Pheng waterfall and then traveled by long-tail boat to Khong Island. We had a short walk across the island including a stop at the old steam engine that powered the ancient narrow gauge train.
Eventually we did make it to the ship, where we settled into our air conditioned cabins. While the bedrooms are small, we found the bathroom to be well designed and functional. The boat itself was formally used as a ferry and contains only 10 cabins, fore and aft decks and a small dining room. One additional cabin note here: It would be smart to leave most of your luggage at your hotel in Pakse to be picked up on your return and pack only a small bag for the 2-nights on the ship as there is very little storage room in the cabins.
We were the only Americans on this trip. There were two couples from England, one couple from Belgium and the balance split between Germans and French; most of whom also spoke English. There was both an English speaking and another French speaking guide available at all times. The service on board the ship and during excursions was excellent and the food was very good, although the bar did suffer from a shortage of tonic water. Somehow we managed to survive.
On our first morning stop, we visited an elementary school and walked through the Laotian village of Ban Deua Tia. After lunch and a short cruise down the Mekong, we stopped at Huei Thamo village to see the ancient forest temple of ‘Oum Muong’.
But the highlight of the trip came the next morning on a visit to the Vat Phou ruins; a majestic pre-Angkorian 10th century Khmer Hindu temple complex and World Heritage Site. There are two teams of archaeologist continuing the restoration of some buildings but what is currently there is impressive in its own right including a “staircase with 300 steps to Heaven” that leads to the highest point of the complex and the main temple site.
After we returned to the cruise ship and were served lunch, we boarded a boat for a ride of about 90 minutes back to Pakse.
Click this link for a short video we shot while on the cruise.
Pakse Restaurants & Weaving Village
Back in Pakse that evening we met up with most of the English speaking travelers from the cruise for dinner at the roof-top Le Panorama restaurant at the Pakse Hotel, where many of the other cruise guests were staying. The restaurant menu is a mix of Western and Lao dishes. The service was excellent, the ambiance enjoyable and even though it wasn’t the best meal we ate in Lao, the food was better than decent and we would probably go back if we were looking for a Western meal in Pakse.
While we didn’t check out any hotel rooms, we liked the location of the Pakse Hotel and the lobby seemed reasonably nice. We also appreciated that the desk clerk called a tuk-tuk to come pick us up for the return to the Champasak Palace Hotel as there were none on the street.
We had most of the next day free before a late afternoon flight to Luang Prabang so we arranged for the same tuk-tuk driver from the night before to pick us up for a trip the silk weaving village of Ban Saphai. After a short walk around the town stopping in on workshops and small stores, we found a slightly larger store with a great selection and some of the best prices on quality hand woven silk textiles we have seen anywhere in Southeast Asia.
Click the link for a video of a Textiles store near Paske, Lao showing the buying of silk in Ban Saphai, the weaving capital of Champassak Provence; located about 15 km north of Pakse town.
We had several good meals in Pakse at the friendly Ketmany Restaurant, which is a short walk down Road 13 from the Champasak Palace Hotel. They serve mainstream Lao and Thai food, including some terrific soups. Everything we ate there was good as was the our fresh mango “milk shake”, which was really closer to what we would call a smoothie.
We also enjoyed a meal at Nazim Indian Restaurant, also on Road 13 within walking distance of the hotel.
We enjoyed the very professional massage and spa services at Phonsalin “Bao” Massage located right across the street from the Pakse Hotel. A one-hour body massage was right at $6 USD and a coconut scrub was roughly $12.
We also checked out the Central Market in Pakse, which is located half a block away. It is really geared for a local clientele and we didn’t find the type of textiles that we were looking for.