KENTHAO & BOTEN DISTRICTS
Mountains, waterfalls, temples and legend hold the secrets of Sayabouly’s two southern most district’s past. Both districts border Thailand, and an international border checkpoint at the Nam Heuang Thai Friendship Bridge in Kenthao opens access to Thai arriving from Loei Province.
How to get there: Song-taews depart for both Kenthao and Boten from Paklay in the morning.
Khop’s high mountain peaks and conservation area in Sayabouly’s most northwestern district hides caves cloaked in legend and ancient stupa with interesting tales portraying the province’s past.
How to get there: song-taews bound for Khop leave Hongsa for the 140 kilometers drive at around 8:00am, but continue past Ngeun to Khop only if passenger numbers justify it. Ferries cross the Mekong from Pakbeng to Ban Pakkhop and tuk-tuk to Khop Town (Ban Phaboong). Some Hongsa guest houses arrange private transport.
Located in Sayabouly Province’s far northeast, travelers know Hongsa District for its elephant treks, but visitors will find much more to see and do.
Attractions: Inteam Waterfall cascades down forested Nongchong Mountain just 8 kilometers from Hongsa Town, and a one-hour drive north leads to Khamsane Waterfall near Tha Xouang on the Mekong. From here, a local boat cruises downriver to Ban Kaengeng for a taste of traditional Khmu lao hai, a rice wine served in a large jar for communal drinking through bamboo straws.
Closer to town, Ban Vieng Keo, a two-time host for the annual Elephant Festival, presents skilled local women weaving cotton-embroidered fabrics used for shoulder bags, traditional sin skirts, table cloths, and other decorative items, which can be purchased in the village. Remains of the 13th- century moat and wall built by Jao Houd can be found nearby. For a great sunset view overlooking Hongsa Valley’s rice fields, climb a hill just 1 kilometer from town to That Lak Meuang Stupa. Built in 1572, the site is highly revered by locals.
How to get there: Hongsa District center is a one-hour song-taew ride (20,000 kip) from the Mekong’s Tha Xouang pier, after about an eight-hour boat ride from Luang Prabang (approx.100,000 kip) or a two-hour river cruise from Pakbeng (approx. 30,000 kip).
Hongsa’s western neighbor, Ngeun District, hosts several cultural and natural attractions along with cotton weaving villages. Some are easy to access, while others are more remote, but all are surrounded by interesting histories and legends.
How to get there: Song-taews depart from Hongsa’s morning market at around 8:00am for the 44 kilometers drive to Ngeun. Ngeun’s border checkpoint at Muang Ngeun to Thailand’s Nan Province presents a gateway less than 5 kilometers from the district center, and visas on arrival are available.
Known for its caves and sacred Wat Sisavangvong temple, and steeped in history, culture, and nature, Paklay acts as a gateway to the province’s south and Sayabouly District.
Historians trace Paklay’s first permanent inhabitants to about 500 years ago, when a group of ethnic Khmu from Burma settled in the area that had been a stopover for Thai traders heading north. Shortly after in 1544, the Lane Xang Kingdom absorbed the region, which later fell under Siamese control until the French arrived in 1904. Unfortunately, a fire razed the district center and destroyed much of the colonial-era architecture, though a French prison and about 10 houses remain, as does the 120-year-old home of the royal family. The last Lao king regularly frequented Paklay and continued coming until 1963. In fact his son married a Paklay woman, who currently lives in obscurity in Luang Prabang.
Exploring the district center’s side streets reveals several old wooden buildings and temples, led by the Mekong riverside Wat Sisavangvong in the northern quarters. Like the similarly named Sayabouly District temple after the king who built them, Wat Sisavangvong is one of Laos’ three highest regarded temples, and aspiring novices strive to study and meditate there for the monkhood. Alongside the temple stands a three-storey, red and gold bell tower.
Several caves hide in Paklay’s more remote areas, though three of the caverns and hot springs are huddled in a 3 kilometers radius some 50 kilometers north of the district center. Prior to reaching the Tham Nam Lot wet cave near Ban Nachan, stop at nearby Ban Muong Pa to explore Tham Peo Pong Pha Cave (Sky Cave), with the sun peeking through a roof slit over the entrance chamber, and Tham Kok Ma, considered by locals as the Wind Cave for its natural air-con. A local hot spring that can reach a temperature of 30.c offers a soothing respite after inspecting the Caves.
Some 32 kilometers southwest of Paklay Town is Tham Pa Keo Cave, and a further 3 kilometers from Khun Lou Cave. Just 16 kilometers from the district center near Ban Phon, you can inspect Tham Nang Phom Hom Cave and the wide tunnel-like Tham Phabon Cave with a Buddha image in its alcove.
How to get there: Public buses depart at 8:00am from Vientiane Capital’s Northern Bus Terminal, located about 5 kilometers west of the airport on the Sithong Road for the 5 hours, 300 kilometers rough ride to Paklay. A five-hour public song-taew drive connects Sayabouly Town to Paklay with morning departures when the vehicle fills with passenger.
Sayabouly District seduces visitors with a mix of myth, history, culture and nature, topped by an elephant sanctuary on a reservoir close to town. Royalty has graced Tad Jao Waterfall, and several old, prominent temples also dot the landscape.
How to get there:
From Vientiane Capital: Public buses depart Vientiane Capital for Sayabouly via Paklay at 8:00am from the capital’s Northern Bus Terminal, located about 5 kilometers west of the airport on the Sithong Road. Later departures for Sayabouly Town leave between 9:00am-10:00am for the 9 hour journey. A night bus departs Vientiane Capital at around 6:00pm for a smoother, approximately 12 hour trip via Luang Prabang. Also, fledgling Capricom Air offers two weekly flights, but service can be sporadic.
From Luang Prabang: Buses and private vehicles depart Luang Prabang daily to Tha Deua ferry crossing. Hired speedboats (800,000 kip for six people) deliver passengers to Tha Deua in barely an hour, and it’s another hour to town via song-taew.
From Hongsa: Public song-taews depart from Hongsa’s Morning Market at around 8:00am (depending on when the vehicle fills with passengers) for the 2,5 hour ride.
From Paklay: Song-taews leave Paklay in the early morning for the 4-5 hour drive. Passengers can also catch the Vientiane-Sayabouly bus in the early afternoon.
Bookended by Ngeun and Khop District, Xienghone’s mountains expose caves, waterfalls, and one of the religion’s oldest stupas.
Attractions: A rugged southern mountain passage with river crossing at Ban Dong Village, about 6 kilometers west of the Ngeun border, leads to Houay Sakhaeng’s Waterfall plunging down a green-lined, rocky flume. Before reaching Ban Dong, stop at Ban Moksatour and check out Khmu weaving.
Continue west on Route 4A from Ban Dong for 16 kilometers to Xienghone District center and the 700 year old Xienglom Stupa. From here, a 2 kilometers drive heads to Ban Kham, a river crossing, and up a little slope to Wat Otoumkham. Explore the Ban Kham Cave and stay in the forest for a meditation session.
How to get there: Xienghone-bound song-taews leave Hongsa for Ngeun at around 8:00am, but only continue the 50 kilometers to Xienghone if passenger numbers justify the trip. Some Hongsa guest houses can arrange private transport.
Note: Departure time and price are subject to change