Tha Khek and Champasak, Laos travel tips

There’s not a lot to choose from in either Tha Khek or Champasak, as far as food and accommodation go, so do as we did and be willing to settle. Best tip, as is true almost everywhere in Laos, is to fear no street food.

Where we ate and drank:

  • Cheapie restaurant, name unknown, SW corner of Town Square, Tha Khek – There’s a couple of handwritten sign boards just outside this really divy shop. There’s not a lot of restaurants to choose from in Tha Khek, so don’t be choosy. Here, they make fast, cheap, and surprisingly tasty fried rice and noodles (including pad thai). The menu is tough to interpret, as the English translations mostly list ingredients. They got our order wrong too, but corrected it. No English spoken: YEH
  • Thakhek Travel Lodge, Tha Khek – Since the hotel is far from town, we ate here often, but only out of sheer laziness. Basic Western tourist menu, done without love. They won’t make you sick, but foodies will definitely be left unhappy, but that’s Tha Khek for you: MEH
  • Salad lady near Wat Pha That Sikhotabong, Tha Khek – Be brave enough to try this practically in-the-middle-of-nowhere street food, and you will be rewarded with a pounded Laotian salad, spicy and flavorful. Observe the constant motorbike arriving for take-away, this is a sign of good food. We have no idea what was the salad’s main ingredient, but it wasn’t green papaya. Unless you’re a masochist, do as we did and point to the chilies and mime “no” as the salad was still killer spicy even when chilly-free. Get some sticky rice and cold soy milk and your golden: YEH!

Where we stayed:

  • Mekong Hotel a.k.a. Mekong Khammouane Hotel, Tha Khek – Though it’s on the river, the rooms have no view; you have to stand in the open-air hallway outside your room. Very loud karaoke in the ‘hood, so bring earplugs. Staffing is a major drawback. The bafflingly asinine woman at the front desk didn’t want to show us more than one room, saying “same same,” which they weren’t (the first had a Tweety Bird blanket and was a virtual cave). We had to badger her for a high-floor room. Then, when we returned from fruitlessly checking out other hotels, she was missing for a full 15 minutes and then was mad when she saw us waiting for her. We left after one night. Our strong advice is book ahead at the Travel Lodge: NAH
  • Thakhek Travel Lodge, Tha kek – Do not be discouraged by it’s edge-of-town location, from what we saw of Tha Khek’s hotels (and we saw most), this is the best place in town. Campfire at night is a very social scene, beer was cheap, and rooms were either comfy and chic (but a little pricy) or drab (but cheap). Lonely Planet had the wrong phone number, so email them or call the right number at 008 563 3053 00145. See above for restaurant notes: YEH!
  • Vong Paseud Guest House, Champasak – Scam-o-la. We didn’t have a lot of choice since the few hotels in town were lots more expensive or closed. The songthaew from Pakse will probably drop you off in front of this place, which is dirt cheap and has edible food, a rare find in town. However, when we booked our boat-bus-boat to 4,000 Islands with the hotel owner, we discovered that he – one of those annoying constantly laughing types – is a con man. We and the other travelers he sold a fast mini-van ride to literally had to surround him so he couldn’t run, holding our hands out for a partial refund when we found out we were booked on a huge, cumbersome, bus that would take twice as long. Karma dictates that everyone should avoid this hotel if possible so this guy can’t profit off tourists any more: NAH

What we saw:

  • Mahaxai (or Mahaxay) Caves, Tha Khek – A bunch of caves, spread out to the east of Tha Khek. It would be a crazy bike ride so hire a driver, or as some people do in Laos, rent a car for your tour of the whole country (helps you avoid the local buses too!). “Tham” is Laotian for “cave” so you may see the cave names written as “Tham Nang Aen,” etcetera. Here’s the ones we saw:
    • Nang Aen Cave – A waste of time and money. Whoever owns this cave is in it only for tour group gold, charging 10,000 kip each admission for a sprawling, ugly, unremarkable cave they’ve covered with cement stairs and colored fluorescent lighting. Avoid this rip off at all costs: NAH
    • Pha Inh Cave – Our favorite. Simply decorated with paper prayer flags that fluttered in the wind, making a soundtrack to meditate to. Scramble down the precarious pile of rocks to the pool of water. Since it’s holy, you can’t swim, but if you stare at the water you can really zone out: YEH
    • Pa Fa Cave – 6,000 kip will get you admission for two and a skirt rental for one, which is required for the ladies. Inside, you can check out a multitude of Buddhas and cave formations, but only from a fenced off prayer area. No photography since it’s an active temple: YEH
    • Ban Cave – The most difficult to find cave, as we were leaving, we had to point a few tourists in the right direction, so be inquisitive or bring a driver/guide. Walk through the outskirts of a village, hop a few rocks over a polluted stream, and stroll across an empty field. You’ll be surprised by the cave’s bizarre, colorful, and folksy Buddhist statues. The elephant in the back corner requires suspension of disbelief: YEH
    Tha Khek, Laos
    Curious statues in Ban Cave | Photo by Lauren Girardin
  • Tha Fa Lang (or Tha Falang), Tha Khek – Blah blah, rumors about the French (the eponymous “falang”) swimming here in yesteryear. A swim in this frigid river swimming hole is just what you need at the end of a hot, dusty cave tour in a windy songthaew. Our driver thought it was safe to swim, so we did and he did. It’s ok, we have health insurance: YEH
  • Wat Pha That Sikhotabong a.k.a. Muang Kao, Tha Khek – A nice day-trip bike ride out of town. This wat won’t blow your mind, but we found the little details fascinating, from the simple panorama paintings on the wat walls to the old monk sleeping beneath the big Buddha statue, to the ice cream bike vendor who followed us into the wat to try to make a sale. See above for a nearby food review: YEH
  • Tha Khek Bus Station – They don’t make it easy to get out of Tha Khek. If you’re heading south to Pakse or beyond, you can’t even find out if there’s an available seat on that night’s overnight VIP bus (yes, we quickly broke our no more overnight bus rule) until 8pm that same night, by which time you’ve had to check out of your hotel. Since ticket inquiries are only in person, and not by phone, that’s a lot of schlepping. Also, there’s barely any edible food available at the bus station besides crackers, unless you enjoy old, roasted flayed rat or some weird hairy strips of skin: NAH
  • Wat Phou a.k.a. Vat Phou, Campansak – One of the few things to do in Champasak. The advice was, if you’ve ever been to Angkor Wat, skip Wat Phou since it’s a small Angkor-era temple. Nonsense. We biked a dusty lane to get to the wat, all the way constantly waving since every kid wanted to say “Hi. We even had a bike race with some teens. The wat is beautiful and uncrowded, and when we were there in January, the trees were beautifully, perfectly in bloom. Stay to catch the view of the surrounding area from up high just before sunset: YEH
    Tree lined precarious old staircase - Champansak, Laos
    Tree lined precarious old staircase | Photo by Todd Berman
  • Pakse to Champasak Transportation Dance – If you arrive at the Pakse bus station in the early morning, you need to get a tuk tuk to take you to the songthaew station, which for us was a misadventure in misunderstanding. Potential for scam is high and non-English speaking tuk tuk drivers is a guarantee. At the songthaew station, first, ask around for Champasak, then get the price (we paid 20,000 kip each, just like the locals) and stick to it. Helps to have learned your Laotian numbers. The woman collecting money on the songthaew thought it was hilarious to loudly insist for 25k from everyone, local and falang alike, even though the songthaew was so crowded you could hear when someone blinked. Bring a sense of humor: MEH