Viengchampa is a tour operator based in Vientiane with links all over the country. They organised a trip I took in southern Laos in September 2008 very efficiently. I only had a few days to spare and wanted to get a reasonable overview of the southern provinces without the hassle of organising it myself and Viengchampa were great. They use local guides who really know the area and all of them spoke good English and were very competent. Everything happened pretty much when they said it would and they were flexible enough to allow stops whenever a place looked interesting. Highly recommended.
We stayed the night in the village of Kong Lor,shared a meal with the villagers and experienced the baci ceremony, a ritual of offerings, prayer and mutual good wishes.
Early next morning we went with the villagers to the local temple, where a solitary monk accepted our alms and rice and blessed us in return. It was peaceful and moving.
We climbed into long, thin motorised canoes for a half-hour journey upstream to one of the most fabulous natural attractions of this delightful country. In the mouth of a cave, the boatmen switched on their head torches and we puttered slowly into darkness, the black water of the river sliding beneath us. In the past, the local people thought the tunnel led into the bowels of the earth – until they noticed ducks appearing from the cave, clearly emanating from an upper rather than a nether-world. Brave men had ventured boldly into the cave, paddling upstream for an astonishing seven kilometres to emerge in a river gorge at the far end.
Half-way along, we stopped at a sandy river beach and scrambled into the caves to peer at the ancient rock formations. At the other end of the tunnel the boatmen dragged the canoes through shallow rapids and light beckoned us into the gorge and soon into farmland. We ate lunch – duck stew – at the village the other side of the cave.
I travelled there with Viengchampa tours, who did a great job throughout my trip in Southern Laos.
Kaliandra is the most fabulous place, 21 hectares of forest, paths and hidden statues with four different levels of accommodation. It runs social and environmental programmes and does tours to support its work. The people are charming, the food (Javanese) is great, there's a high ropes course and mountain bikes for hire, there are hiking trails - and you can round it all off with a massage. Or have a more relaxing time learning the gamelan, or batik, or yoga - it's a gem. It's actually about 12 kms from Tretes but pretty easy to get to - one and a half hours from Surabaya, an hour from Malang.
The delightful Kingfisher Lodge, near Pakse, is a lovely place. For once, it's an eco-lodge which isn’t just a case of greenwash – they really do everything possible to minimise their carbon footprint, from using low-wattage light-bulbs to installing their own rainwater storage tanks. The lodges look out over flooded paddy fields, with hammocks so you can lie back and enjoy the scenery.
From there, you can take an elephant up Mount Phou Asa, a forested outcrop standing up above the plains where black columns of flat stones are all that’s left of a former temple. After gently swaying up a forested track, we descended from the elephant to explore the smooth rock summit, amongst rain-fed pools and tranquil groves and the temple pillars. Birds flit back and forth and, looking outwards, the plains stretch far into the distance.
The Sala Savanh is a former colonial building pleasantly converted into an atmospheric small hotel, with time-darkened wooden floors and chairs on balconies round the upper-floor rooms. I stayed two nights here in September 2008.
There’s also a surprisingly good choice of restaurants in the town, perhaps a legacy from the French colonial period: we ate at a charming restaurant on the main square one night and on the next at a floating restaurant on the Mekong, outlined in coloured lights and bobbing gently with the swell of the river.
Savannakhet itself is one of the former ports along the mighty Mekong, which flows north to south through Laos. These provincial towns are just emerging from the somnolence of post-colonialism and the economic straitjacket of Communism, and – as with Luang Prabang – retain many of their fine, French-era buildings.
It's a small, boutique style hotel right on the Mekong. The rooms are invididually decorated - very individual in some cases, with the bath/shower right in the bedroom. It has tea and coffee and a fridge, the rooms are spacious, and it's all very comfortable, with free wifi access. It's just a short walk from the centre of town and from lots of riverside cafes.
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