Pakse (ປາກເຊ້), 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.
Bolaven Plateau Region
Spreading across the northeast of Champasak Province into the southeastern Salavan, Sekong and Attapeu provinces, the fertile Bolaven Plateau (ພູພຽງບໍລະເວນ; known in Lao as Phu Phieng Bolaven) is famous for its cool climate, dramatic waterfalls, fertile soil and high-grade coffee plantations.
Don Det & Don Khon
The vast majority of travellers to Si Phan Don end up on these twin islands. Don Det in particular has become more popular among younger travellers in recent years, leading some to speculate that it will replace Vang Vieng as the go-to spot in Laos for vice-fuelled excess. That would seem unlikely.
Life moves slowly on Don Khong (Khong Island), like a boat being paddled against the flow on the Mekong. It's a pleasant place to spend a day or two, wandering past fishing nets drying in the sun, taking a sunset boat ride, pedalling about on a bicycle or just chilling and reading by the river. Don Khong measures 18km long by 8km at its widest point.
The capital of Attapeu Province, set where the mighty Se Kong and the smaller Se Kaman meet, is famed in southern Laos as the 'garden village' for its shady lanes and lush flora. This reputation is remarkable given that Attapeu actually means 'buffalo shit' in Mon-Khmer dialects.
Paksong, Laos' coffee capital, may not be much to look at, most of it having been obliterated in a storm of bombs during the Second Indochina War, but it boasts a temperate climate thanks to its altitude of 1300m. It is an affordable Bolaven base from which to explore the plateau, has a mildly interesting market and is refreshingly cool.
Wat Phu Champasak
The ancient Khmer religious complex of Wat Phu is one of the highlights of any trip to Laos. Stretching 1400m up to the slopes of Phu Pasak (also known more colloquially as Phu Khuai or Mt Penis), Wat Phu is small compared with the monumental Angkor-era sites near Siem Reap in Cambodia.
Tat Lo (pronounced tàat láw) is experiencing growing popularity on the backpacker trail thanks to an attractive setting, cheap accommodation and plenty of diversions. Waterfalls are the town's raison d'être and they give it a serenity that sees many visitors stay longer than they planned.
The Lao Loum villagers of Kiet Ngong, perched on the edge of Se Pian NPA, have had a centuries-long relationship with elephants. The elephants have traditionally worked moving logs or doing heavy work in the rice fields. Typically each elephant has a different owner and in many cases the relationship between owner and pachyderm has existed for the majority of both lives.
The area southeast of Attapeu was an integral part of the Ho Chi Minh Trail and as such was heavily bombed during the war. The bombers were particularly interested in the village of Phu Vong, 13km southeast of the capital, where two main branches of the trail split – the Sihanouk Trail continuing south into Cambodia and the Ho Chi Minh Trail veering east towards Vietnam.
Dong Amphan NPA
The main attraction in this 1975-sq-km protected area in northeast Attapeu Province is fabled Nong Fa. This beautiful volcanic lake, similar to but larger than the more heralded Yeak Lom in Cambodia's Ratanakiri Province, was used by the North Vietnamese as an R'n'R for soldiers hurt on the Ho Chi Minh Trail.