Beyond Angkor Wat: Unveiling The Hidden Gems Of Champasak, Laos

Champasak, located along the Mekong River in the south of Laos, serves as a portal to Wat Phu, an ancient Khmer temple dating back to the 11th century
Wat Phu temple in Champasak
Wat Phu temple in Champasak Shutterstock

When you mention Southeast Asia to even the savviest travellers, the country of Laos might not pop up on top of their lists, and probably not its region of Champasak because most travellers who manage to make it to Laos don't venture beyond the much more popular destinations like Luang Prabang or Vang Vieng.  This was our second trip to this lovely little gem in Indochina, and we decided to go a little bit off the beaten track, and it was well worth it.

The Champasak district is a small area in southern Laos that is still untouched by the chaotic crowds that one might encounter in the popular destinations of Indochina, such as Siam Reap, Luang Prabang, or Hoi An. Something hard to believe as this region offers Khmer ruins that rival those in Cambodia, the relaxed beach vibes of Thailand, a haunting history that is just as violent (if less well known) than that of Vietnam—and all this among the spectacular sceneries—forests, waterfalls, and mountains.

Romancing The River

The mighty Mekong River
The mighty Mekong River Prasanna Vee

Our first glimpse of the mighty Mekong River was from the flight window as the propeller plane from Bangkok descended into the airport at Pakse—the gateway town to this region. The drive from the airport to The River Resort—where we spent the first night—was a mesmerising one filled with spectacular sceneries of the picture-perfect paddy fields, mist-shrouded mountains, and a meandering river running almost right next to the road, all through the route. 

The resort felt upmarket and luxurious, with a peaceful setting in the middle of a paddy field on the western banks of the Mekong. We stayed in a stylish bungalow fitted with floor-to-ceiling glass windows opening onto a vast balcony overlooking the fast-flowing Mekong, making it a perfect spot to romance the river.  The Torrential tropical downpour—that greeted us upon check-in—added a heavy dose of Monsoon Magic to the mix.

A Date Night With The Mekong

The setting at the waterfront restaurant of River Resort made up for a different kind of unwinding after the sun went down. Candle-lit dinner tables, with an unobstructed view of the river (which was now very calm), a seductive sky of tropical dusk, and a romantic rain shower that played to a mesmerising rhythm. How can you resist uncorking a fine bottle of Chilean Chardonnay or an Argentine Malbec and slowing down the night by a few paces? Not only did the restaurant have a fine selection of white and red wines, but their chef also whipped up some delicious local entrees that went well with these wines.

What The Phu?

Wat Phu is a ruined Khmer Hindu temple complex in southern Laos
Wat Phu is a ruined Khmer Hindu temple complex in southern Laos Prasanna Vee

Wat Phu was one of the main reasons we had been itching to come to Champasak for a long time. We had seen a picture of these magnificent ruins in an article a long time back, and ever since, We have been dreaming of seeing this place in person. We embarked on an early morning tour to explore one of Asia's most hauntingly untouched ruins. An ancient temple complex built by the Khmer civilisation some 200 years before attention was turned to Angkor Wat. The impressive archeologic ruins are lined with frangipani trees, phallic pillars, and a cluster of buildings dedicated to Hindu deities—including Shiva, Brahma, and Vishnu, and a stone on which human sacrifices were once made—making it as mystical as any Mayan or Incan ruins in Latin America. 

Luckily, since it does not get the clout and attention of a much younger Angkor Wat, you do not have to share with tens of thousands of others and almost have the whole place to yourself. What makes Wat Phu stand out is the stunning landscape—which is loaded with waterfalls, jungles, and mountains—making it more mysterious and breathtaking than any other ruins in the world!

Falls Alarm

The Tad Fane Waterfalls
The Tad Fane Waterfalls Prasanna Vee

The region's biggest natural attraction—rivalling the Wat Phu temple complex in terms of its ability to blow an explorer's mind away—was the Tad Fane Waterfalls. I was looking forward to witnessing and experiencing the magnificence of this wonder—supposedly the tallest waterfall in this part of the world—as much as I was excited about Wat Phu. Unfortunately, most of the falls were shrouded in heavy rain mist. We were lucky enough to get a quick glimpse as we arrived, but that was it. After that, we could only hear the monumental falls but never see it. 

However, though Tad Fane Falls decided to pull off a disappointing disappearing act on us, its less famous cousin—the Tad Guaneng Falls, put on a spectacular show to more than makeup for it. We have been to more than a dozen impressive waterfalls but never have come so dangerously close to one that I could almost feel the force. When I stood near the spot where the water hit the ground for those few minutes, I almost felt like I was in an Aquaman movie trailer. You also have a unique opportunity to touch and feel the waterfalls both from the source of the drop and on the ground where the falls pound the rocks. 

A Slice Of Africa And Alps

Since we had very little time in the region and wanted to sample as much variety as possible, we shifted to La Folie Lodge on the southern side of the mighty Mekong on the second day. The place was a wonderful little oasis consisting of tastefully decorated wooden bungalows beside the Mekong on its lovely little island. This place could have easily blended into any safari-heavy jungle location, making this island seem like a slice of Africa in Asia. As the sun went down, the little island underwent an even more unbelievable transformation from an African jungle village to an Alpine lake town. The muddy brown waters of Mekong seemed to have been replaced with a pristine blue liquid layer. This place could have been mistaken for a lake town in Latin America, like Lago Atitlan in Guatemala, or a pretty village in the Italian Lake district. It made itself a perfect spot for that sweet sundowner while watching the dim lights glitter in the charming town across the water.

Parting Shot

Like any other destination closer to our hearts, the warm hospitality and the friendliness of the Laotians made me fall for this place head over heels. The locals don't seem to have any residual resentment from the years of French rule—or indeed the bombardment the country received more recently at the hands of the Americans when it became the most bombed country on the planet. They displayed admirable Buddhist kindness and forgiveness and treated everyone like their family. This place is undoubtedly a Love story waiting to be written in every traveller's journal.

Getting There

To reach Champasak, travellers can fly into Pakse International Airport, approximately 35 kilometres northeast of Champasak town, with connections from Vientiane and neighbouring countries. Alternatively, buses from major cities like Vientiane and Luang Prabang offer access to Pakse, where further transportation to Champasak is available via taxi or bus. Boats along the Mekong River provide scenic routes from nearby destinations like Si Phan Don. Those seeking independence can rent cars or motorcycles in Pakse for a drive to Champasak. 

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