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Champasak Province in the far south of Laos offers a different character from the north of the country. Base yourself in the provincial capital, Pakse, to explore its many attractions, including the romantic, pre-Angkorian ruins of Wat Phou, the most significant Khmer archaeological site in Laos. With its teetering, weathered masonry, Wat Phou conforms exactly to the Western ideal of the lost city.
Construction of the original Hindu temple complex began in the fifth and sixth centuries, and the main sanctuary, approached by a processional causeway, was originally dedicated to Siva. The front has some fantastic carvings of apsaras, dancing Vishnu, Indra on a three-headed elephant and Siva, the destroyer. The Hindu temple was later converted into a Buddhist shrine; a large Buddha statue now presides over its interior.
The appealing riverside town of Champasak is the nearest town to Wat Phou and a good base from which to explore the site and the surrounding area, including the lesser-known temple complex of Um Muang. Don Daeng Island sits in the Mekong right across from Champasak and is the perfect place to witness quintessential village life: basket weaving, fishing and rice farming, with little hustle and bustle. There is a lovely sandy beach on the Champasak side of the island, perfect for a dip.
Inland from Pakse, rivers run off the Bolaven Plateau in a series of spectacular waterfalls, including towering Tad Fan and stunning Tad Lo, while to the south is Siphandon, where the Mekong divides into myriad channels and islands. The idyllic, palm-fringed Don Khone, Don Deth and Don Khong are archetypal tropical islands, where visitors can relax and absorb riverine life, as fisherman cast nets amongst lush green islets and children frolic on the sand bars.