An Adventure in Laos

For Water Festival, Kiripost’s Seng Mengheng escaped Cambodia and caught a minivan to Laos to explore Champasak and Pakse. He shares his journey and offers some top tips on taking a trip to the neighboring country
Tad Fane Waterfall. Kiripost/Seng Mengheng
Tad Fane Waterfall. Kiripost/Seng Mengheng

During the Water Festival, my friend, Chhim Norak, and I traveled from Phnom Penh to Champasak and Pakse in Laos for an unplanned getaway. To start planning my journey, I went through social media posts in advance to find tips and directions.

Norak works at a recruitment agency and has been my friend for five years. Like me, Norak likes exploring new places and trying new food.

We bought bus tickets from Virak Buntham Express Tour & Go. We traveled by night bus on the Saturday before Water Festival. A one-way ticket cost $11.50 per person. We left Phnom Penh at about 9.15am and arrived at Steung Treng at 2am due to heavy traffic as people began to travel for the long holidays.

Three-day trip to Champasak and Pakse, Laos: For under $200

Champasak province is in southern Laos. The provincial capital is Pakse. To the north and east, it borders Saravan, Sekong, and Attapeu provinces. To the south, Steung Treng and Preah Vihear provinces in Cambodia, and to the west adjacent to Thailand’s Ubon Ratchathani Province. Champasak served as the capital during the Mohanakor period.

Wat Phou
Wat Phou

Getting to Steung Treng province from Phnom Penh

Due to exhaustion and fatigue from the long journey to Steung Treng (River of Reeds), we stayed one night there to soak up the scenery, explore Steung Treng, and exercise our legs in preparation for the next day’s challenging journey.

As there is no Lao kip currency available in Phnom Penh, I used a money exchanger in Steung Treng. The exchange rate is $1 to 17,500 kip. I exchanged $340 and received 595,000,000 kip.

Day 2: From Steung Treng to Laos by bus

After lunch, we left Steung Treng at noon and arrived at the Cambodia-Laos border an hour later. At the immigration office when we were getting our passports stamped, the immigration officer requested a “voluntary” payment of $2.50 from me. He said it was tea money and I paid because my passport was in his hand.

We then crossed the border to Laos to obtain a stamped visa, which cost $2.50 (I wonder if they accept kip?) At the border, I bought a Laotian sim card for another $2.50.

From the border to Pakse province, took another three hours by minivan. We had previously negotiated with a driver at our hotel in Steung Treng to pay $25 for the minivan. Once in Pakse, we took an evening stroll ahead of a well-deserved dinner.

Day 3: Pakse to Tad Fane Waterfall

The impressive twin 120-meter waterfalls are located in Dong Hua Sao National Park on the Bolaven Plateau. Along the way, we made many stops at nearby Tad Fane resort to take photos and soak up the views. There are also treks available in the area that will bring you closer to the waterfalls. Turn off Road 16e, 38km from Pakse in the direction of Paksong.

When in Pakse, where the Mekong and Xe Don rivers collide, I rented a motorbike, which is one of the simplest and least expensive ways to visit Tad Yuang Waterfall and the Bolaven Plateau. You won't have any trouble locating a rental store because there are so many. However, unlike Phnom Penh, there are no Grab tuk tuks.

To rent a motorcycle for the day, budget between $9.10 and $11.40, about 80,000Kip. However, you may be able to negotiate a discount if you wish to hire one for several days, possibly to complete the short or long loop around the Bolaven Plateau.

We left Pakse at 7am and set off on a scenic one-hour ride to the waterfalls. I enjoyed the ride, absorbing the surrounding mountain views, the cold air, and the lush forest.

As we neared the destination, the entry road became a little challenging because of tiny stones, bumps, and slides.

There are open parking places, so we were able to park wherever we wanted, walk straight in and take an exhilarating zipline to a slightly fancier waterfall. There are 4 parts to the zipline.

Wat Phou
Wat Phou

Tad Fane Waterfall to Tad Yuang Waterfall

Tad Yuang waterfall is a 40m high, truly picturesque waterfall surrounded by stunning nature. Be careful when walking to the pool of water as the steps are slippery. At the entrance to the falls (signposted well on road 16E at 40km), you'll find food and drink stalls and a restaurant.

The road between Pakse and Tad Yuang Waterfall was surprisingly well-paved. There were a couple of areas where work was being carried out, however, the majority of the way was smooth driving.

Nearing the destination, the entry road becomes a little challenging with tiny stones, bumps, and slips.

There are many views at Tad Yuang that are angled around the top, middle, and bottom of the waterfall. Reaching these points requires some short steep walks along the path, which is a bit slippery in wet season.

Wat Phou

From Ted Yuang Waterfall, we traveled to Vat Phou (Wat Phu).

Vat Phou is an ancient Khmer temple site situated on a hillside in southern Laos. It is at the base of mount Phou Khao, some 6 kilometers from the Mekong in Champasak Province. There was a temple on the site as early as the 5th century, but the surviving structures date from the 11th to 13th centuries. It has a unique structure.

There are also various Buddha images found among the ruins, and the site remains an active Buddhist place of worship to this day.

The entry permit costs less than 50,000 Kip a day for two people. You’ll find the ticket station, where electric cars are waiting to take guests around the site, at the entrance to Wat Phou.

Wat Phou temple is divided into three levels by a stairway ascending the mountain to the main shrine at the top.

At 4pm, we returned to Pakse and found a place for dinner.

What to Prepare

  • Sportswear: Bring two sets of lightweight, quick dry, and versatile sportswear for your 2N3D trip.
  • Sweater: You only need one sweater or jacket to keep you warm. Bringing too many will eat up your space.
  • Long Socks: You actually need only three pairs, but always bring an extra just in case.
  • Hat/Cap: Bucket hat, baseball cap, or sunshade, bring one of your choice to protect yourself from the sun.
  • Sunscreen: I lost my sunscreen on the third day of the trip and my skin didn’t feel or look great. Make sure to bring one.
  • Sunglasses: Bring one for both protection and style.
  • Face Mask: Not just because of COVID, you should wear it during your 4.5h motorbike journey to the top. It’s going to get very dusty and ugly.
  • Insect Repellent: This is a must-have for every trip.
  • Raincoat: I know it is not the rainy season, but you can never predict the weather. Just bring one, it won’t eat up your space.
  • Backpack and Bag: You’ll need one backpack for your clothes and one for your other essentials, such as a camera, phone, etc.
  • Snacks: In case you’re a picky eater, bring some of your own.
  • Protein Bar: Not necessarily, but if you’re like me and don’t eat much when you’re tired, bring some.
  • Lunch Box and Water Bottle: Bring your own lunch box to pack your food and a water bottle to refill filtered water.
  • Power Bank: You’ll need it for your camera and phone.
Seng Mengheng (right) and Chhim Norak
Seng Mengheng (right) and Chhim Norak

Things to Know

  • You can drive your car from Cambodia to Laos for $40. You need to have your identity card, driving license, and ownership.
  • From Steung Treng to the Laos border, the road is bumpy and dusty.
  • Don’t change too much money, just enough to spend on things such as a hotel, rent a motorbike, and food.
  • Don’t trust those who work at the car station and negotiate the price, Steung Treng to Pakse costs $25 per person, but I suggest it should be less.
  • A money exchanger at the border told me the cost of hiring a minivan from Steung Treng to Vientiane is about $110.

Safeguard your property.