Pakse, Laos (Gateway to Bolaven Plateau) – Travel Guide

Pakse, Laos - Tad Champee Waterfall  

Pakse is a small, quiet city in Southern Laos, situated on the banks of the Mekong River. There isn’t much to do in the city other than wander around, see a few temples, and enjoy some peace and quiet. However, one of the main draws of Pakse is that it’s a launching point for visiting Wat Phu, a UNESCO World Heritage site dating back to the 5th century, not to mention the spectacular Bolaven Plateau, a lush, cool region that’s famous for home-grown coffee and spectacular waterfalls! 

Tad Champee and Tad Fane Waterfall, Bolaven Plateau, Laos.
Tad Champee and Tad Fane Waterfall, Bolaven Plateau, Laos.

Pakse is not YET a backpacker hot-spot in Laos but lately, word is certainly starting to get out! After other more touristy places, like Luang Prabang, why not head down to this relaxed city to enjoy some awesome locally grown coffee, watch the sunset over the Mekong and experience a more authentic side of Laos. Once in Pakse you can rent a motorbike and explore the many amazing surrounding areas… This guide will help you get the most out of your visit, in and around Pakse!

Coffee plantations around Pakse, Laos.
Coffee plantations around Pakse, Laos.

Read more about backpacking Laos here.

Please note: Antimalarial tablets are advised for travellers to Pakse as there is a higher risk of contracting malaria here than in other parts of Southeast Asia.

Where to Stay in Pakse, Laos

Pakse offers accommodation of varying quality, with a number of offers sitting at the “not so good” end of the spectrum. Guests at some of the less-desirable establishments have listed such complaints as “They have a monkey on a leash” and “Bed unmade, rubbish bin full. We had to demand to change rooms.”. However, recently, with an increase in tourism, there are some much better options available!

Sanga Hostel – Sanga Hostel is the top-rated hostel on booking.com and for a very good reason! Not only are the beds extremely comfortable and spacious, the entire place is spotlessly clean, the food (especially breakfast) is delicious and the hostel’s manager and her staff are some of the loveliest people you’ll ever meet.

They go above and beyond to make every guest feel so welcome and are on hand to help with absolutely anything you might need. It may be one of the slightly more expensive options in Pakse, but this is the best hostel we stayed in Laos, and we heard many people say the same. A bed in a mixed dormitory costs £7/$8/70,000 kip and comes with power socket, light, curtains, locker, free water refills and air conditioning and it’s also less than 10 minutes walk to the bus terminal.

Lunch in Sanga Hostel, Pakse, Laos
Lunch with the staff at Sanga Hostel, Pakse, Laos.

1918’s HOSTEL – Also very highly rated amongst properties in Pakse, 1918’s Hostel is a short walk to surrounding restaurants. It has a garden, lounge area, 24-hour reception and free bicycle rental. Dormitory beds are super clean and comfortable, with A/C and curtains for privacy. Both mixed dorms and single-gender dorms are available for £5/$6/55,000kip. 

You Empire Hostel and Bar – If you’re looking for a private room in Pakse then look no further than You Empire Hostel. This property has a garden, bar and pool table and is praised for its friendly staff, good location and super comfortable beds. Also, there are loads of room types to choose from: a private twin with a fan and balcony is £13/$16.50/143,000 kip a night, while a range of double rooms with A/C can be booked for £16/$18/156,000 kip – £19/$24/209,000 kip a night. Dorm beds are also available, with prices starting at £5/$7/60,000 kip for a bed with a fan (air-conditioned rooms are also available).

Chato Hostel is another good choice for backpackers. It’s modern, clean, and well located (a very short walk from the bus station). The beds (which are extremely comfortable) come with a curtain for extra privacy. Prices start at $6 USD. Private singles are available for $11 USD.

DownTown Pakse is, as the name would suggest, located right in the heart of the action. Good for restaurants etc. The owners are friendly and helpful. The rest of the place could be described as basic, but comfy. Beds (mattresses on the floor) cost $5 USD.

Xuanmai Garden Resort is a little way out of town, this may put you off, particularly if you’re not going to hire a bike. However, it’s very clean and comfortable. The garden, owners and breakfast are all exceedingly nice. Rooms start at around $25 USD.

Search more accommodation in Pakse here.

Where to eat in Pakse

Friendship Mall – Friendship Mall is small, yet has several restaurant choices, as well as a cinema! If you’re off to watch a movie then you can easily grab some dinner beforehand – there are a few sit-down restaurants with yummy Thai and Lao options for cheap prices, as well as various food stalls. 

Pork with Holy Basil in Friendship Mall, Pakse, Laos
Pork with Holy Basil in Friendship Mall, Pakse, Laos

Sanga Hostel (see above) – Even if you’re not staying at Sanga Hostel, you should definitely pop in for a taste of the food on the menu. From Lao favourites to other Asian Classics (try the Lao Sausage and the Coconut Curry), they also serve some of the best breakfast we’ve ever had! 30,000-35,000 kip will get you eggs any style, unlimited refills of freshly baked bread, homemade pineapple and strawberry jam, fruit juice and proper coffee from their plantation on the Bolaven Plateau. It’s one of those places where you pay a little more, but you get great value for money.

Vida Bakery Cafe – Tucked away down a quiet road, Vida Bakery Cafe is the place to go for fresh and yummy baked goods, as well many breakfast and lunch options – including their delicious Hummus Platter! Comfy chairs, free wifi and air con make this a great place to get some work done while sipping a coffee, or just to meet up for a bite to eat. The business is also linked to Lao Vida – an outreach company dedicated to working with local people, giving them opportunities to expand their knowledge in language and life outside of rural village life.  

Champady Restaurant – Located in a quiet spot down a street near the main road, Champady Restaurant offers a large selection of tasty Asian and western dishes. The staff are friendly, and the menu written in English makes it easy to choose what to have for dinner. Big portions of food with cheap price tags can be found here – with decent burgers costing around 13,000 kip and Asian dishes with rice only a little more, at around 18,000 kip; and what better way to wash it down than with a Beer Lao for 10,000 kip. 

Hasan Restaurant – Rated highly for it’s Indian and Malay cuisine, family-run Hasan Restaurant is the place to go for your curry fix in Pakse. Since 2012, Hasan and his brother, Hilur, have been serving both meat and veggie/vegan-friendly dishes at around 35,000-45,000 kip for big portion of curry, or whatever else takes your fancy. They can also help you out with local recommendations and transport tickets. 

Dao Lin Restaurant – The sign above Dao Lin Restaurant reads “Lao, Vietnamese, Thai, Chinese, European Food” and that’s exactly what you’ll get if you eat here – loads of choice! This is one of the most popular places to eat in Pakse, and it can get pretty busy with people looking for cheap eats served by friendly staff. Visit Dao Lin for baguettes, curries, soups, fruit shakes, coffee and much more, and expect to be paying around 20,000-30,000 kip for a decent-sized meal.

Delta Coffee – If you’re a bit of a coffee snob head to Delta Coffee, hands-down the best coffee in Pakse (Espresso $1.6). The staff are not so welcoming or friendly but you will get an espresso that could even have tasting notes! Delta also grows and roasts their own coffee, plus they run medical projects in local rural villages. Look at you go supporting all these good causes.

By the Riverside (Local Style!) – Oh, you want to eat like a Laotian? OK! Head to the Mekong with a few friends (minimum of four is ideal, anything more is a bonus) and set up at one of the quaint, cheap local places along the riverfront. Now, to eat like a Laotian you must order – one clear soup, a meat dish (crispy pork is always a winner), some steamed vegetables, papaya salad and a huge old straw container of sticky rice! See why you need a lot of friends? If you’re still hungry you opt for the mango sticky rice or maybe just a few bottles of Beer Lao.

Things to do in Pakse

Many of the things to do in Pakse are not actually in the town itself, so to get to them you’ll need to book a tour, rent a bike or hire a tuk-tuk. Thankfully, all of these things are easy to do from town, with many tour agencies and helpful hostel staff to point you in the right direction. However, here are a few things to do and attractions in the town itself…

To get out into the countryside around Pakse, it’s good to have your own wheels!

Cycle along the Mekong

Rent a bicycle for around $2 USD a cycle along the Mekong River. Wat Luang is in the heart of the city. In the afternoon head across the Japanese friendship bridge, ditch the bike and climb the stairs to Phu Salao or Golden Buddha (see below) where you will be rewarded with an awesome view of the sun setting over the Mekong.

The Golden Buddha

The ginormous Golden Buddha located at Phu Salao temple can be seen perched in the distance on the hills looking over Pakse from almost anywhere in town. This popular sunset spot is around 8-10km/15-20 minutes drive (back entrance) from Pakse; a journey that can be made by tuk-tuk or by renting your own wheels (see more info on renting a motorbike in Pakse below). The temple can be entered by climbing up the front (which can get hot!) or by driving the extra 5km around to the rear entrance. Make your way up here for a wander around an interesting Buddhist temple and to marvel at the views over the river and Pakse town beyond.

Visit Daoheuang Market

Keep your bike for that extra day and go to Daoheuang Market – it’s pretty much just like most other big markets in Southeast Asia but nonetheless still a fun experience! Afterwards, why not head towards the Phonsavan Temple, the National Stadium and the Historical Museum!

Buy Local Crafts

If you are looking to buy local handcrafted goods look no further than the Dream Weavers shop located across from Champasak Plaza. All the artisanal goods are made by survivors of human trafficking, the profits go straight back to the women and their communities! (Good deed – check)

Health & Fitness Workout!

If you’re a gym junkie and craving to work out you have two options. The National Stadium has a small free weights room (5,000 Kip per session), it is packed with local men in the afternoons so head there at midday! Otherwise, the Champasak Palace Hotel has an air-conditioned facility, the only catch is that it is 50,000 Kip per session!

Go to the Cinema at the Friendship Mall!

The Friendship Mall in Pakse is home to one of only three cinemas is Laos, so why not take the opportunity to watch the latest film while you can! The cinema, run by Major Cineplex, has good comfy seats, staff who speak very good English and is quiet – meaning you’ll find it easy to get a seat, even at popular releases.

Going to the cinema in Pakse, Laos at the Friendship Mall
Going to the cinema in Pakse, Laos at the Friendship Mall is a true local experience!

Short Trips From Pakse

To get to these places, you will either need to arrange transport from your hostel or guesthouse or if you’re up for an adventure, hire a motorbike and make your way there by yourself.

Renting a Motorbike in Pakse

Miss Noy Motorbike Rental is one of the most popular and recommended rental shops in Pakse. Owned by Miss Noy and her partner (French and English speaking). Yves, the shop offers a range of motorbikes, both automatic and semi-automatic. The prices are amongst the cheapest in Laos (semi-auto = 50,000 kip per 24 hours), and they’ll also help guide you on visiting the main highlights of the region, providing customers with briefing sessions, maps and detailed information of where to go and stay. They also offer transport tickets.

Rented Motorbikes from Miss Noy in Pakse – the best way to get around Laos!

Wat Phu (Wat Phou)

Around 41 km/1 hour drive along the Mekong River from Pakse is Wat Phou (also known as Vat Phu or Vat Phou) – the main reason many people visit this region of Laos. These Khmer temple ruins surrounded by lush mountainous jungle are a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and are truly ancient – with some structures dating as far back as the 5th century! 

The standing temple that visitors come to see today was originally constructed as a Hindu temple, but after the Khmer Empire fell, it was eventually converted into a Buddhist temple. The mixing and matching of different religions translates into a fascinating combination of images and relics combined in a single site.

Wat Phu Pakse Laos
Wat Phu, Pakse, Laos.

Wat Phu is no Angkor Wat, and if you’ve been to that famous temple complex in Cambodia, be prepared for a very different experience. However, most visitors agree that this seldom-visited spot is a fantastic break from the more popular tourist-ridden sites. As you walk along the long, straight path to the temple near the top of the mountain, you pass along remnants of other ruins and relics that display the ancient and varied history of the area.

Wat Phu, sitting on a natural outcropping on the side of the mountain, isn’t very big but seems to vibrate with the spiritual energy and significance that has been poured into it by devotees for over 1,000 years. It also offers fantastic views of the plains below, and is a peaceful place to sit and ponder.” (Taken from previous Pakse page)

The grounds are open from 8 am – 6 pm and getting there from Pakse is relatively easy – either sign up for a tour, hire a tuk-tuk to drive you there, or rent a motorbike and have the freedom to visit villages and cross the river along the way. Consider hitching up with other backpackers to cut costs. Day-trips to Wat Phu from Pakse give plenty of time to visit both the temple and the museum associated with it.

The Bolaven Plateau

To the east of Pakse town is the waterfall haven and significantly cooler region known as the Bolaven Plateau. This area is extremely well known for its coffee plantations, due to the ideal growing climate, and therefore much of the country’s coffee beans come from here.

Bolaven Plateau Farmland, Laos
Bolaven Plateau Farmland, Laos.

There is also an abundance of stunning waterfalls to explore, and these are what you’ll be visiting on any organised tour. Day tours from Pakse normally include visits to some of the most popular waterfalls, including Tad Fane, Tad Yuang, Tad Champee and Tad Lo, as well as stop-offs at local cultural villages and tours of the coffee plantations. If you want to get a bit off the beaten track (motorbike needed) look out for Tad Alang and Tad Katamok Waterfalls. You may have to go down some long winding dirt roads to get to them but the serenity and beauty of the place are worth it.

A coffee tour in the Bolaven Plateau
A coffee tour in the Bolaven Plateau.

Motorbiking the Bolaven Plateau – The “Small Loop” and the “Big Loop”

For bikers, there are two well-established loops which take visitors to the main highlights of the region. It’s up to you how long you take to do these loops, but generally the ‘Small Loop’ takes around 2 days, 1 night, and the ‘Big Loop’ takes around 4 days 3 nights, (but this varies depending on the weather or where/how many times you choose to stop).

If you rent a motorbike from Miss Noy, they’ll invite you to a briefing session at 6 pm the day before you depart. At this session, they’ll provide you with maps and detailed information of the route, places of interest, where to stay and how to look after your bike. There’s a lot of information, so the best option, if you’re considering driving this loop, is to go to this briefing. 

Bolaven Plateau Map – “The Loop” – Provided by Miss Noy’s Motorbike Shop.

All in all, the countryside of the Bolaven Plateau has something more than the warm, somewhat murky waters of 4,000 Islands, a nearby backpacker haven. A slice of authentic Laos, it offers the chance to explore relatively untouched villages and to interact with shy, bashful locals, not to mention the revitalising havens of hidden waterfalls. With the opportunity to hire a motorbike and explore the villages yourself, it is hard to think of a better place to go to get off the beaten track in Southeast Asia!

Tadlo, Bolaven Plateau, Laos. Travellers stand on a rock.
The villages of the Bolaven Plateau offer great adventures for those wanting to get off the beaten track in Laos!

Paksong Jungle Tour

If you’re up for a unique experience head to Green Discovery’s office in Pakse and book a tour to the Jungle Hostel in Paksong. You can do tours 3D/2N or 4D/3N, this hotel is only reachable by trekking and zip lining! Fairly pricey but an awesome experience if you have some extra cash to spare! Green Discovery also run a number of other day trips or multi-day trips in the surrounding area.

Countryside in Pakse, Laos.
Getting out into the surrounding countryside in Pakse, Laos.

Oh and while you’re in Paksong be sure to take a coffee break at Jhai Coffee House – another social enterprise with wicked coffee in a great location!

A homestay in Tadlo Village – A must-do off the beaten track experience!

(Section by Lottie Butler)

Tadlo is small village on the Bolaven Plateau that sees little in the way of tourism. Instead of being squashed into a mini-bus full of fellow backpackers, on your way to Tadlo, you will find yourself sitting amongst locals, some of whom have casually strapped their animals to the roof.

On arrival in Tadlo, visitors are deposited at the edge of the dusty red, sun-baked road, marked only by two or three widely-spaced bunches of simplistic bungalows, all made from roughly hewn wood with thatched rooves. Sleepy and quiet, with not a shop in sight, the only obvious residents are the long-legged chickens clucking between the bungalows and the squeaking piglets and puppies which play in the dirt.

Tadlo Village, Laos
The locals of Tadlo Village, Laos.

Appearances of tranquillity aside, the village community is alive and vibrant, albeit hidden from public view. You don’t have to venture far from the road before hearing the buzz of voices and glimpsing flashes of coloured clothing. The locals homes are scattered in clusters across the landscape, and a local will happily act as a guide to lead you around the village, explaining in broken English their curious religious beliefs and customs. The experience is a far cry from the tourist-friendly villages of North Thailand that offer guest rooms and clean sheets: the community in Tadlo is refreshingly untouched.

Wandering freely, will you have the chance to peer tentatively into the musty huts, where your awkward smiles will be greeted by enthusiastic waves and toothy grins. Women squat on their haunches, arranged in a semi-circle and chatting idly, groups of men shelter under the shade of ferns, lounging in hammocks or sharpening knives on a block of wood and children potter around barefoot between the huts. The older residents, their leathery wizened skin crumpled in deep wrinkles, can be seen crouched down around a long, faded, wooden pipe with a smouldering cake of herbs attached. Sucking deep gulps of smoke, they barely pause for oxygen.

Tadlo’s Secret Jacuzzi?

Amidst the sweltering heat of Southern Laos, the Mekong River provides a watery sanctuary for travellers, who loll lazily in the waters to try and alleviate the heat. Indeed, it is hard to imagine being comfortable in a village that not only is a substantial distance from the nearest air conditioning unit but is also without easy Mekong access. However, first appearances can be deceptive…

In the morning, the only sign of water in Tadlo is a narrow stream that dribbles tentatively down tiered, black slabs of stone to form muddy pools. However, at 3 pm every afternoon the currents of the water suddenly gather pace and strength and within half an hour, the murky trickle is flooded. White froths gather in swirling pools around what were just rockpools in the morning and the tiered black slabs become submerged under strong cascades of water, transforming dry rocks into an impressive waterfall.

Mesmerising to watch, the rushing sound of the water makes it the ideal spot to sit in the jacuzzi-like currents that gather in the rocky coves or to bask on a rock and enjoy the cool, refreshing spray. The transformation is a daily event, occurring like clockwork when the damn located higher up in the valley is opened, and you don’t have to scramble far before you stumble across other equally impressive torrents or natural lagoons.

The revitalising rush of water through the village serves villages and travellers alike. One pool, in particular, seems to be a popular haunt for locals. Though hidden from view by a knot of trees and tall jagged rocks, its existence is given away by loud splashes and excited squeals. Overflowing with children leaping off rocks, sliding down rapids and diving to pluck stones from the bottom, the pool is a hive of activity. 

Waterfalls around Tadlo, the Bolaven Plateau.
Waterfalls around Tadlo, the Bolaven Plateau.

How to get to Pakse

The easiest way to get to Pakse is by bus. Since Pakse is the third-largest city in Laos, bus routes will go here from all other major cities in Laos. If you’re coming from Thailand, buses run between Ubon Ratchathani and Pakse regularly and take a few hours including the border crossing. 

How to get to Pakse from Vientiane

It’s easy to book an overnight bus to take you from the capital of Vientiane all the way down to the south of Laos (and there are stops in other towns on the way). To Pakse, a seat on a VIP sleeper bus costs around 180,000 kip and takes about 12 hours; it’s run by a company called King of Bus, but there are other companies available.

This “seat” is a bed which is slightly larger than a single and is meant to fit in 2 people side by side with no division. This is perfectly fine if you know the person next to you, but if this person is a stranger… well just be aware that things will be a little cosy! Saying that, staff will always pair the same gender together, but if sleeping next to a stranger is something you feel uncomfortable with, make sure you book 2 tickets! 

It is also possible to fly from Vientiane, with tickets occasionally on sale for £36 (without luggage), however, most airlines charge over £100 for a flight that lasts less than 1.5 hours. 

How to get to Pakse from Cambodia

It’s possible to catch a minivan from Siem Reap, Cambodia, over the border to Pakse. There are several companies which can be booked on location, but online, minibuses run by a company called Asia Van Transfer can be booked through their website or 12go.Asia for around £24/$30/259,000 kip. The minivan is basic and it takes around 9.5 hours to complete the journey, depending on how long it takes for everyone to cross the border. 

How to get to Pakse from Thailand

Bangkok – A sleeper bus from Bangkok to Pakse leaves Morchit Bus Terminal at 7 pm daily and costs around $35, tickets for which can be purchased from counters at the bus station. or online, if you prefer to book in advance. Check availability here.

Ubon Ratchathani – It’s not very clear how to book tickets online for the bus from Ubon Ratchathani to Pakse, so the best way to find out about this is by going to the bus terminal and asking a staff member where this can be booked, or asking the staff at your hostel. The journey the opposite way (Pakse to UR) costs around 80,000-90,000 kip and takes 4 hours including border crossing.

There is an airport in Ubon Ratchathani which means you can fly there from Bangkok to catch the bus. I would not recommend flying from Ubon Ratchathani to Pakse as all of the flights (bookable online) go through Bangkok and Vientiane which makes what should be a short and inexpensive journey into the complete opposite of that! It’s not worth it!

Where to go next?

Northern Laos – Cities and places of interest north of Pakse include: Savannakhet, Thakhek (good for climbing and there is another motorbike loop here), Vientiane (the capital), Vang Vieng, Luang Prabang, Phonsavan (Plain of Jars), Nong Khiaw, Luang Namtha (good for trekking). There are various bus and airline companies who can arrange transport to any of these destinations, but just be aware that the transport in Laos (especially the buses/minivans) is not the most comfortable and the flights are expensive! 

Southern Laos – 4000 Islands (Si Phan Don) – 4 hours drive south of Pakse is the 4000 islands or Si Phan Don. Looking for some chill time amongst the Mekong river? This is the place to go. There are many buses from Pakse – we booked a ‘VIP’ air-conditioned bus/ ferry combo ticket through our hostel (Sanga Hostel) for 60,000 kip to Don Det. It’s a bit more expensive when booked online, which you can do here.

Cambodia – Minivans to Siem Reap from Pakse can be booked through 12go.Asia or at hostels. Buses begin the journey at 8 am, and this can take around 11 hours. Tickets cost £24/$30/259,000 kip on 12go.Asia (this may be cheaper if booking on location in Pakse). Check online availability here.

Thailand – International buses run daily from Pakse, through the Chong Mek Border, into Thailand and can take you to destinations such as: 

Bangkok – Run by Kriangkai, the journey to Bangkok is overnight and takes around 12 hours to make it to Morchit Bus Terminal in Bangkok. The bus is comfy, with air-con and they also normally have toilet facilities onboard. Tickets on 12go.Asia are around $40 USD, check availability here.

Ubon Ratchathani – Ubon Ratchathani is a short hop across the border from Pakse so it’s a good place to catch a bus to if you’re thinking of heading to Thailand after Laos. There is also an international airport there which can take you onto other destinations. A good quality bus takes around 4 hours to make the journey from Pakse to UR (depending on how quickly the border crossing happens), and the tickets are cheap, varying between $10 and $15. Bizarrely, although it is so difficult to book the opposite direction online, there are multiple options you can book in this one! Check availability here.

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    Will and Ellie are the UK travel bloggers behind Tapp and Bear Travel. Originally from Devon and The Cotswolds, they both graduated from Falmouth University with degrees in Marine and Natural History Photography and set off on the adventure of a lifetime! They are currently writing for South East Asia Backpacker reviewing trips and tours all over the continent. Interested in becoming a writer for us?