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Champassak, a tale of a Mekong gem in Laos

Luc Citrinot, eTN  Jun 03, 2011

CHAMPASSAK (eTN) - There is a quaint town mirroring over a kilometer in length, its silhouette into the murky waters of the Mekong River. Named Champassak, this peaceful place gave its name to Laos' most southern Province. Travelers rarely stay more than a few hours, generally for lunch on their way to visit the UNESCO-listed World Heritage Site of Vat Phou, a mere 8 kilometers from Champassak town. The magnificent 12th century Khmer temple complex offers dramatic views over the Mekong and paddy fields, as it is perched on the top of a hill. With its listing as a World Heritage Site in 2001, Vat Phou firmly anchored Champassak Province into world tourists’ itineraries.

According to the Lao National Tourism Authority, Champassak province welcomed 302,000 travelers last year (up by 8.5% over 2009). Most visitors will, however, end up in Pakse, the provincial capital and an important crossroad on the way to Vietnam or Cambodia from Thailand. According to data provided by Vat Phou World Heritage Service, some 120,000 visitors –including over 50,000 foreign tourists - come every year to the ancient Khmer temple.

But travelers who spend a little more time in Champassak city will probably fall in love with its slow pace of life. Kids still go to school – generally two by two - on their bikes, curious monks in temples like to chat and test their English, not to mention the omnipresent gentle smile of the locals.

Champassak retains indeed a special atmosphere. Until the end of the Lao monarchy, the small city used to be a residence for Southern Laotian kings. Along its kilometer-long main street, reminiscences of this glorious past can be admired. In the midst of fields and modest wooden houses, emerge two splendid villas, both previously inhabited by the king. The white villa is a good example of French classical style bearing some art deco influences; the second villa takes its inspiration from the Italian baroque with its facades painted in fading yellow colors and its arches. Both can only be admired from outside. But one is still inhabited by members of the previous royal family.

“Champassak is a wonderful mix of architectural jewels. In a very small area, it is possible to see, side by side, typical Laotian wooden houses built on stilts, exquisite colonial villas, Lao-Chinese shop houses, and buildings from more recent interpretation. There is even a beautiful Catholic church, unfortunately still little-known from visitors,” tells Alexandre Tsuk, Managing Director of the Laotian company Inthira Hotels.

Inthira Champassak Hotel is one of the new properties available for travelers in Champassak. It opened two years ago in two converted colonial buildings, a few meters away from the former king’s villas. The boutique-style concept has so far attracted mostly Western travelers, and it signals that changes are in the air for the destination. Across the Mekong, on Dong Daeng Island, the traditional wooden structure from La Folie Lodge overlooks the Mekong. Opened four years ago, the Laotian-style mansion with its pavilions was the first deluxe property in the area, clearly targeting a more discerning traveler than the usual backpackers who come to Champassak and Dong Daeng.

“We firmly believed and continue to think that Champassak is one of the most attractive in Laos as it offers culture, nature, history, and the dramatic setting of the Mekong River. We, however, still suffer from a lack of promotion and also a limited number of flights,” highlighted Axel Wolkenhauer, General Manager. Another boutique hotel is now due to come by the end of the year. The River Resort will offer 20 guest rooms with Western standards to travelers.

It is located near the city’s first high-quality spa. A self-financed French sustainable development project, Champassak Spa was established in 2009 and works on promoting sustainable tourism. The center was built and equipped by local craftsmen, and organic products that are used for massage come from surrounding farms. Inthira also has a plan to run a handicraft and art shop selling only local productions. Slowly, Champassak is turning into a more distinguished destination. “Right now the city is just ideal to stay. People are genuinely friendly; it is not overcrowded, as there are no attractions besides sightseeing and immersion into a slow-pace of life such as learning the art of fishing. But we know that it will certainly change in the future,” added Alexandre Tsuk.

It would be easy to draw a comparison of Champassak city with Luang Prabang, another UNESCO World Heritage Site and a true architecture jewel. Luang Prabang is currently experiencing a boom in arrivals – over 210,000 in 2010 compared to less than 100,000 in 2003 - which strongly impacts the social fabric and the way of life of the old charming town. Despite being closely monitored by UNESCO in its development, many foreign visitors complain that the city starts to lack authenticity. Retaining Luang Prabang's physical beauty occurred by sacrificing local life in the city center; many inhabitants left their home to let them turn into guest houses, hotels, and restaurants. “There is little chance that Champassak will turn into another Luang Prabang. We are still fairly isolated, and we continue to lack many of the modern facilities and entertainment options that would drag [in] tourists,” estimated Alexandre Tsuk.

The construction of a highway passing next to the city and going straight forward to Vat Phou from Pakse could dramatically change the perception of Champassak. It will certainly take a lot of courage and willingness from both the government and private investors to resist the call for the quick buck.

Champassak, a tale of a Mekong gem in Laos
Residence of the former Laotian King in Champassak / Photo by Luc Citrinot

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