Header image courtesy of Southern-Laos.com
As Laos’s second-largest city, the defiantly old-fashioned Pakse lies in the south of this landlocked country in Champasak province, far from the glories of former capital Luang Prabang or the modern capital Vientiane. Pakse is known for its proximity to the Bolaven Plateau, one of Southeast Asia’s most distinctive coffee-growing areas, which is graced with remarkable mountainous landscape and jaw-dropping waterfalls, but it’s a quirky destination in its own right.
With its population of less than 100,000—including a large Chinese community and a distinct lack of traffic—the sprawling city rarely feels bustling. However, its enviable location at the confluence of the Mekong and Xe Don rivers, peculiar mish-mash of classical and modern architecture, abundant temples, and eclectic food scene make it a diverting weekend break.
Pakse is a trip back in time in many ways: In this Communist country, the Soviet hammer-and-sickle flag still flutters from white provincial buildings now used as post offices, shops, and scattered local government offices. While Laos proclaimed full independence back in 1954, it’s not uncommon to still see billboards written in both French and English, while marvellous relics of the colonial era, such as the boutique hotel Résidence Sisouk—shaped like a giant mille-feuille cake—still flaunt their original design details. Pakse’s strong respect for tradition—coupled with a sleepy, low-key charm—makes the city a popular stop-off for travellers to southern Laos, while it’s also accessible by bus from neighbouring Thailand or a brisk one-hour flight from Siem Reap in northern Cambodia.
Pakse’s most conveniently positioned hotel—and one of its most prestigious—is set in a former cinema and casino, in a historical building dating back to 1962. Easy to spot, with its imposing form dominating the principal street of Ban Wat Luang, the building wears its history on its sleeve with its spacious lobby decorated with vintage photography, but the real draw is one of Pakse’s few rooftop bars, Le Panorama. True to its name, it affords the best views of the city centre below and the riverside, as well as providing the best possible vantage point for lapping up the sunset.
Pakse Hotel & Restaurant, 5 Ban Wat Luang, Pakse, 16000 Laos | (+856) 031 212131, (+856) 031 252993
Formerly the palace of Boun Oum Na Champassak—the pro-French prime minister who was also a key figure in Laos’s Civil War (1959–1975)—this spectacular heritage residence was abandoned in 1974 when the Communist Pathet Lao assumed control of the government. After the revolution, the building—at that point still unfinished—was completed, and served as a venue for party congresses as well as accommodation for visiting dignitaries. It was repurposed in 1995 after a Thai delegation reached an agreement with Laos to convert the palace into a hotel, and remains one of Pakse’s stateliest buildings with its classical interiors and view over the Xe Don River.
Champasak Palace Hotel, 13 Sountren Road, Ban Prabath, Pakse, 16001 Laos | (+856) 20 55 532 988
Another exceptionally beautiful building with a rich history, this hotel was built in the 1950s by politician Sisouk Sisombat who, along with his wife Siseng and 11 children, lived there until his death in 1995, working tirelessly for the development of Pakse and the country. At the family’s request, Résidence Sisouk was renovated into a hotel, and its angular façade with distinctive wrap-around balconies now commands a prime location in the city centre, where guests can sample Thai, Laotian, and Western dishes at the terrace restaurant on the ground floor.
Résidence Sisouk, Ban Lakmuang, Pakse, Laos | (+856) 0 31 214716
With its predominantly Buddhist population, Pakse has several temples, though the largest (as well as the oldest) is the extravagant Wat Luang from 1935, which also houses the Sangha monastic school. The ornate complex sits on a peninsula bordered by the Xe Don and Mekong rivers, and is easily accessible by foot from the centre of town, with its main entrance next to Souphanouvong Bridge—the road leading to the airport. This temple has many beautiful paintings depicting the Buddha’s life and his teachings, and it’s equally pleasurable to take a riverside stroll through the well-maintained gardens and check out the intricately carved wooden doors.
On the other side of Souphanouvong Bridge, the Chinese temple Wat Sopse enjoys a particularly scenic location at the point where the Xe Don and Mekong rivers meet. Many people believe that the spirit of “Grandfather Sopse,” the guardian of the area, lives within the secluded temple and grants the wishes of visitors.
The traditional lifestyle of the southern Laotian tribes is documented in this repository for local artefacts collected over past centuries. Some of the treasures on display include Khmer stone carvings, musical instruments such as ancient bronze drums, jewellery, and textiles worn by ethnic minorities in the region, as well as a model of the Hindu ruins of Wat Phou, a UNESCO World Heritage site near Pakse. Dating from more recent times, there’s a sad reminder of the Laotian Civil War in the form of a cache of unexploded ordinances (UXOs) dropped by American planes.
One of the city’s most rewarding social enterprises, this unassuming city-centre café is run by an organisation that teaches English and gives vocational training to Lao locals. Its cosy interior makes a splendid venue to while away the scorching lunchtime hours, with a menu including satisfying burgers and generous sandwiches. The morning fare is equally tempting with its European-style breakfast, plus a range of baked goods, bagels, cakes, and pastries to delight the palate, all for a worthwhile cause.
Vida Bakery Café, 188, Road 12, Ban Thaluang, Pakse, Laos | (+856) 20 22 766 174
The largest market in southern Laos, also known as the KM2 Market, is a huge centre of morning commerce which specialises in selling home goods, flowers, clothes, and food, especially meat and vegetables. Dao Heuang Market is a short distance from the city centre, located near the impressive Lao-Japanese Bridge, so it’s an invigorating start to the day as vendors (including ethnic tribespeople) arrive from around Champasak province, while Vietnamese sellers also arrive to hawk their goods here from across the border.
A symbol of the slowly improving economy of Pakse (and Laos itself) is the creation of a tourist area to the south of the city, adjacent to the Lao-Japanese Bridge across the Mekong. This serene park’s centrepiece is the giant Golden Buddha on a hilltop, which makes for a memorable spot to take in the river below and witness the sunset. The benign-looking statue is the standout attraction of the Wat Phou Salao temple, which is best accessed by road from the bridge, or—for the fighting-fit traveller—by foot, though it’s a tough walk via a long staircase.