Pakse, between the Mekong and the Se Don rivers in southern Laos, is one of those really nice places that are just impossible to grip, to define, to stick into a category beyond saying it's ... oh, just good to be there.

A century ago, it was little more than a strip of land by the Mekong perhaps 40 miles east of Ubon Ratchathani in north-east Thailand.

Then the French developed it as a colonial administrative centre, exerting their grip, extracting the fertile wealth of the region, building their coffee and tea businesses up on the Bolaven plateau.

They went after the Second World War but the town just kept growing, through the brutal years of the Secret War caught between US targets and the Mekong.

Today, it has around 60,000 residents, though you tend not to realise it because the town sprawls out from the dusty main street, where stallholders shoo off marauding cattle between aircon offices and a dozen attractive eateries.

There is a fairly densely populated area, with an ethnic-Vietnamese enclave on the edge, and then the streets get greener and many look more jungle than residential.

One of the more interesting buildings is also one of the most welcoming: the Champasak Palace Hotel (see On The Road: Pakse), which has been converted from the palace vacated when the communists gained control after the Secret War.

It has an air of the past, with columned floors overlooking the Se Don at the back and, from the side and front, the new Mekong bridge in the distance (picture above shows this view).

On the fourth floor, there are suites fit for a king's courtiers; and on the top floor, the king's circular room, its domed ceiling friezed with a mural of Lao life, is unused – though the new business manager was casting around for good ideas when we were there.

At the back, the man who converted the building also built something akin to a Buddhist park: shrines in the gardens with animal representations, naga-guarded steps down to the riverbank, a 10ft Buddha overlooking the river and a host of other Buddhist and Hindu images.

Strangely, few people seemed to be staying there and the number of staff outnumbered guests. Perhaps because of the grandeur of the outside, which looked like it would cost a fortune when, in fact, the cheapest rooms in the new annex were $14 a night and very attractive rooms in the old building were $25. [May 2001]

While in town, there are several wats worth seeing: Wat Luang, by the metal bridge high above the Se Don, and Wat Tham Fai next to the Champasak Palace Hotel.

Both were founded in the mid-1930s but Wat Luang has worn the years far better – it has brightly painted decorations, carved doors and ornate pillars; the chedis gleam in the sun and huge dragon heads, mouths open and offerings of rice and flowers on their tongues, watch out for evil spirits and falangs.

Wat Tham Fai has a run-down charm; a casual air of serving the community from rebirth to rebirth. Its monks chant with local believers in afternoon services; and its novices study for their future and dream of motorbikes and the latest technological goods.

You can linger there, as we did, using the bench seats overlooking the river and chatting to the novices as the last of the fishermen haul in their nets and the dusk robs the distant Bolaven plateau of its form and casts deep shadows along the winding river.

There is a good museum, small but with a range of natural and cultural exhibits, and the market is endlessly fascinating – though sometimes, with the birds, frogs and fish being sold for the pot, you need a strong stomach just to look.

But perhaps the real joy of Pakse is just wandering round, lingering on the high bridge over the Se Don while the fishermen make their meagre living, eating in the restaurants, drinking in the bar overlooking the river ...

If you are looking for black jelly fungus with ginger, you might be lucky. There was a menu – at the vegetarian restaurant on Route 13 half a mile west of the Se Don – that boasted such a dish but it never materialised. There were many strange and delicious dishes, in restaurants, on stalls, and at the Champasak Palace, which served addictive variations on the green curry theme and a Malaysian satay dish to haunt the taste buds.

It was in Pakse that we were incredibly greedy: it was the fruit season and we ate beautiful sweet mangoes, whole pineapples (picture right) that melted in the mouth, rambutans by the tonne, bananas taken to market by tuk-tuk, a dozen other fruits for which we had no names ... and, outside the town on the Bolaven plateau, ripe Durian fruit with its tantalising, allegedly aphrodisiac flesh and, for some, offensive odour.

The town is becoming an increasingly popular starting point in Laos because there is an excellent road link, via Chong Mek, to Ubon Ratchathani – a lovely city, easy to reach from Bangkok, and well worth a couple of days of anyone's time (add an extra day to see the Khmer ruins just inside Cambodia; you can get in without a visa to see the site).

There are road links north to Savannakhet and on to Vientiane; and links south to Champasak (for Wat Phu), Si Phan Don and the Cambodian border. There are frequent Lao Aviation flights between Pakse and Vientiane.

And there are places to see around Pakse: take a look at the villages, plantations and waterfalls of the Bolaven plateau. The Ho Chi Minh Trail is not too far away but, by all accounts, there is little to see and it is worth remembering that the whole area was saturation bombed during the Secret War and most of what failed to detonate is still lying in wait for those wandering off the usual roads and tracks.


On The Road: Pakse


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