Pakse, Laos

Khon Kaen to Chong Mek

Believe Google, drive defensively, trust no-one, arrive alive.

The journey from Khon Kaen to Chong Mek at the Thai/Laos border is about 380 kilometres and will take 5½ to 6 hours depending on stops. Negotiating all the traffic lights along the Roi Et bypass is excruciating.

Chong Mek, Thai Border Town

The tariff for resorts at Chong Mek, Thailand start around ฿500 for an approximate 25m2 room, air con, wifi, and on site parking. It is ฿50-100 per day to park a car while in Laos. Transport to border control is part of the room tariff (although you could walk) .

It seems that everyone in Chong Mek has a money exchange side hustle. It is a good idea to arrive in Laos with at least some Kip so acquiring some in Thailand benefits the local economy – or at least the money changer.

Chong Mek has a good selection of restaurants, not all offering Isaan food – so you can survive. It has a definite, desperate feel of a frontier town that I have noticed at numerous border crossings.

Why here?

We’ve done border crossings at Chiang Khon (start of Slow Boat to Luang Prabang trip), Nong Khai (gateway to Vientiane), Mukdahan/Savannakhet (because we could), Nakhon Phanom/Khammouane (to do the Thakhek Loop) so Chong Mek was next on the list. The other official border crossings from Thailand into Laos are at Kaenthao-Nakaxeng (Sayabouly Province Laos – Loei Province Thailand and the Lao-Thai Friendship Bridge #4 (Bokeo Province Laos – Chiang Rai Province Thailand).

The Border Crossing at Chong Mek/Vang Tao

There is a large and busy market on the Thai side of the crossing. Not so in Lao People’s Democratic Republic. A long line of trucks wait to deliver their goods into Laos.

The process to gain entry to Laos was rather painless except for the extraction of the visa fee of ฿2000 – ฿500 more than advertised – by the government of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic. Dollars, Euros, and Pounds also accepted – Kip not wanted.

The Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Laos)

Laos is a landlocked country in South East Asia. It is bordered by Myanmar and China to the northwest, Vietnam to the east, Cambodia to the southeast, and Thailand to the west and southwest. Its capital and largest city is Vientiane.

According to the World Bank, Laos is one of the fastest growing economies in South East Asia/the Pacific, with an annual growth rate of 7.4% since 2009.

Laos is the most heavily bombed country on the planet, courtesy of the good ole United States. Two million+ tons of bombs were dropped on Laos during the conflict of the 1960s and 1970s known variously as the Indo-China War, the Vietnam War, and by the eventual victors as the American War. This staggering total of munitions is more than all the tonnage of bombs dropped in WWII in total. As part of this gift from America around 275 million cluster bombs were dropped from US bombers – 30 percent of which didn’t go off which means, 50 years later, they are still causing havoc, disruption, maiming and death.

This huge quantity of death and destruction was delivered by a plane load of bombers every 8 minutes, 24 hours a day for nine years (1964-1973). The US and its allies didn’t win and neither, certainly, did Laos.

And while there is no remnant of the conflict in the bustling cities today, the US, Australia and other developed countries with a guilty complex or a humanitarian spark warn travellers of potential UXO risks if they are visiting certain areas. One of these was our planned destination to Champasak province – along with many other tourists most of whom will be oblivious to the potential risk. Don’t walk in long grass, don’t pick up ‘tennis balls’, don’t stray off the beaten path.

Pakse, Laos

Pakse is in southern Laos, touted as the gateway to the 4000 Islands – and they are touted as a desirable destination. Hopefully better than Pakse.

This city/town spans the Mekong River, which at this point no longer forms the border between Thailand and Laos, as it does for about a thousand kilometres further north. Pakse has a population of around 90,000.

Pakse is bereft of street lighting (except on the main drag in downtown) but has plenty of dogs, rubbish, rubble, potholes, shanties, homeless, and useless patriotic hammer and sickle signs. It bears no relationship to the starry eyed, woke reviews/images one will see on Trip Advisor and the like – which, unfortunately, are read way more than this website will ever be viewed. Google has to sell!

The symbol hasn’t brought the wealth and prosperity of its years of promise.

“Comparisons are odious” – so said lots of well-known authors – but Pakse doesn’t stack up too well. In any comparison. It’s a dump.

It’s winter in southern Laos. The temperature today reached 34°C with a ‘feels like’ of 39.

Hotels Roulette in Pakse

How does one select a hotel in a foreign city never before visited? And without private transport to shop around? The pics one sees on Trip Advisor, etc never represent actuality on arrival. As much as I hate to admit it, price is the most reliable guide. Pick the price range with which you are comfortable. The market levels – even in a communist/one party country.

It was the first time in all my travels in SE Asia that on arrival at the check in desk of a hotel the displayed ‘rack rate’ was less than what I had booked on Agoda (or any of the other booking apps). I told the check in clerk to cancel my Agoda booking so I could take advantage of the rack rate but, after a short consultation with the upstairs manager, we were upgraded which was OK. The hotel adventure continued at check out a couple of days later.

Wet Market

In the early afternoon we walked around the Pakse wet market. This is not the famous Dao Heuang Market (KM2 Market).

Around Pakse

Off Roading in Pakse

In the evening our tuk tuk journey to the restaurant on the bank of the Sedone River (a tributary of the Mekong) was a real off road adventure, certainly for the last part of the journey. The incongruity of it is that this is an exclusive area. The wealthy residents would certainly put their 4WD SUVs to good use in the rainy season.

After dinner the tuk tuk coughed and spluttered its way back to our hotel, sans suspension. First world issues aside, we booked the driver for another adventure tomorrow evening. The destination is in ‘downtown’ so access  should be less dramatic.

The Vagaries of Forex in Laos

At the time of our visit the forex rate for one Thai Baht was 588 Lao Kip – as stated on Google. It is common knowledge that the average punter won’t get anywhere near the ‘spot price’ shown on Google yet we got 630 kip to the baht at our Chong Mek hotel (which we acceptingly knew was steeped in their favour). And when we got to Pakse, brick and mortar money changers gave us 645. How did this work? What’s going on? We never did find out – unless the whole economy is one big black market.

And here’s another tip – take plenty of whatever currency with you – US Dollars preferrably, Thai Baht or basically any major currency. Do not use a Lao ATM unless you are desperate.  Terrible forex rate and a huge fee. You will get flimsy Kip that you must spend before you exit the People’s Democratic Republic. Or give it away.

To the Ancient Ruins

The next morning our tuk tuk driver picked us up at 9.00 a.m., en route to Wat Phou World Heritage Site.

We crossed the Mekong River and turned south towards our destination. Within a short distance we were stopped by road pirates disguised as Police. After paying a ฿100 fine for being tourists we were allowed to continue. No receipt.

It’s a long haul to Wat Phou in a sidecar-style tuk tuk. How did we let ourselves get into this situation? No helmets, no seatbelts, no protection of any kind. Stupidity disguised as adventure.

We got there and back safely with only two minor scares, a little sunburned and windblown, and a greater appreciation for the omega users of the road.

Wat Phou

Wat Phou lies at the base of Phou Kao Mountain, overlooking the Mekong River. The ancient Khmer temple complex is a World Heritage Site, built between the 5th and 15th centuries. Wat Phou is one of the largest archaeological sites in Laos. Its oldest structure is a sandstone temple dating back to the 5th century.

The scale of construction at Phou Kao Mountain by these ancient people is impressive and the longevity of their efforts even more so.

More photographs of Wat Phou.

Lunch at Wat Phou

The lunchtime setting at Wat Phou had a definite rural flavour. Cows wandered among the tables. No one cared.

Bolaven Plateau Coffee and Waterfalls

The Bolaven Plateau, about 20 kilometres to the east of Pakse, is important historically, culturally and economically to southern Laos. Tourism and coffee are the two primary economic contributors.

Coffee is one of Laos’ major exports. The main variety of coffee produced on the Bolaven Plateau is Robusta although the superior variety, Arabica, is also grown.

The Plateau boasts a number of waterfalls, some more difficult to get to than others. Among the more popular waterfalls are Tad Fane, Tad Pha Suam and Tad Yuang.

Tad Fane Waterfalls

Next on the agenda (early afternoon) was Tad Fane Waterfall, 35 kilometres east of Pakse. By this time we were a bit over open tuk tuks (windburn, sore bum) but these waterfalls were highly recommended. And we were not disappointed.

Tad Fane falls are an excellent site and sight. And the adrenaline junkies who ride the zipline across the 400 metres chasm of the falls provide a vicarious thrill for the coffee-sipping, safely ensconced spectators assembled near the departure platform with an excellent view of the zipline launch.

The cost of the zipline adventure is US$35 and there was no shortage of customers in the time we were there.

The resort and grounds look well set up and very well maintained.

Return to Pakse

Time to return to Pakse. Time get back into our waiting tuk tuk. Time to take our chances on the open road again. The journey back to the city was without the ‘scares’ of the morning’s adventure. Even though it was uneventful it was good to see our hotel at the end of long day.

Who’s Winning the Cultural/Cola War

Pepsi and Coke slug it out in many countries for Cola Supremacy but in developing countries particularly there is a cultural edge to the battle.

Pakse may not be representative of all of Laos in this fascinating corporate duel (which from my observations has tempered drastically in recent times), however, if signage is any guide, Pepsi has clearly established cola supremacy.

Hotel Roulette in Pakse (continued)

When we went to check out the Manager stated that we needed to pay more for our room. I checked what Agoda charged me and it was more than rate advertised on their site – and now here was a demand for even more. Both sides withdrew to consider their position.

I showed the Manager my screenshot of what I had paid. He showed me his screenshot of what he got paid by Agoda!

The Manager said he got paid in USD and I hadn’t paid enough. I countered that my hotel booking didn’t make me a player in the Forex Market and I’d already paid too much.

There was going to be no winner here other than the big banks. We both determined to contact Agoda.

I’m not sure what transpired and what happened to the ฿340 difference between what the hotel received and what I paid. This is Laos.

Time to Leave Laos

In Laos, contact costs. Any time you interface with a person in Laos, you pay. And while I don’t mind being generous in such a poor country (their currency makes you feel like a multi millionaire) I do wish they would declare in advance some of the more obvious scams.

We weren’t to know that our van departure point was within sight (about 400 metres) of where we having breakfast. But presumably to make us feel less ripped off, our tuk tuk driver took us around the block to earn his 120,000 Kip fee – about comparable to the cost in the West. Hah, who cares – we had to get rid of our Kip, anyway.

The wait at the mini-van departure point was getting hotter and longer. Finally, an hour and a bit after our arrival it was time to leave. Flat battery! After a bit of pushing backwards and forwards in heavy traffic the jump start worked. Off to the border!

The next ‘scam’ was a little more rude.

Our mini-van took us only to the Bus Station near the border crossing – a cleared-dirt area with temporary shelters. Apart from walking the last 400m to the crossing with our bags, the only other option was conveniently available motorcycles – at 20% of the rate for the entire 40+ kilometre journey from Pakse. Happy to contribute to the local economy and a good way to get rid of worthless Kip.

We’ve been caught twice in Laos with this ‘shortfall delivery’ – once here and once after the Slow Boat on the Mekong. It is a common artifice to extract cash from tourists – not restricted to Laos.

The involuntary spending didn’t end there. Laos has a ‘departure tax’ of ฿100, Kip not allowed. The communist government of Lao People’s Democratic Republic doesn’t want its own currency.

Back in Thailand

It was great to be back in Thailand. We took Rural Road 2396 south out of Chong Mek, east of the huge Sirindorn Dam. This route is seldom used by tourists and it would take us close to the Laos border and then the Cambodian border for a  tour of the South East Corner of Thailand.


© Kim Epton 2023
2675 words, 66 photographs, 3 images.

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