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Pakse, the gateway to southern Laos, sits at the confluence of the Mekong River and the Se Don (Don River). The city retains the sort of Mekong River–town lethargy found in Savannakhet and Tha Khaek further north. Fewer colonial-era buildings remain, but do look for the grandiose, Franco-Chinese-style Chinese Society building in the centre of town.
Most travellers don't linger long because there is not much to do. The city's main appeal lies is sipping Beerlao on the riverfront, soaking up the laid-back provincial vibe and launching forays to nearby attractions such as the Bolaven Plateau, Tat Lo and Kiet Ngong.
Pakse is the capital of Champasak Province, which was part of the Cambodian Angkor empire between the 10th and 13th centuries. Wat Phu Champasak, near Champasak town, is the most striking relic of that time. Following the decline of Angkor between the 15th and late 17th centuries, this region was absorbed into the nascent Lan Xang kingdom, but broke away to become an independent Lao kingdom between the beginning of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th century.
Today Champasak Province encompasses Laos' southern Mekong region, including Si Phan Don and the Bolaven Plateau. The province has a population of more than 500,000, including lowland Lao (many of them Phu Thai), Khmers and a host of small Mon-Khmer groups, most of whom inhabit the Bolaven Plateau region.
Sights in Pakse
Champasak Historical Heritage Museum
This museum features ancient Dong Son bronze drums, a 7th-century Siam-style sandstone buddha head, and a textile and jewellery collection from the Nyaheun, Suay and Laven groups, interesting for its large iron ankle bracelets and ivory ear plugs. Also on display are musical instruments, stelae in Tham script dating from the 15th to 18th centuries, a small lingam (Shiva phallus), a scale model of Wat Phu Champasak, and some American UXOs (unexploded ordnances).
Wat Phu Champasak
Bucolic Wat Phu sits in graceful decrepitude, and while it lacks the arresting enormity of Angkor in Cambodia, given its few visitors and more dramatic natural setting, these small Khmer ruins evoke a more soulful response. While some buildings are more than 1000 years old, most date from the 11th to 13th centuries. The site is divided into six terraces on three levels joined by a frangipani-bordered stairway flanked by stone lions and naga; flowing down from the mountain to the barays.
Visit early morning for cooler temperatures and capturing the ruins in the best light.
There are about 20 wats in Pakse, among which the 1935 Wat Luang is one of the largest. A monastic school here features ornate concrete pillars, carved wooden doors and murals; the artist's whimsy departs from canonical art without losing the traditional effect. Behind the sǐm is a monks' school in an original wooden building.