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Southern Laos: Adventures for the Active Traveler

Jungle treks, rushing waterfalls, ziplines, wildlife – Southern Laos is an adventure playground for every type of thrill seeker in Southeast Asia.

Laos is an adventurer’s playground, and nowhere is that more true than the southern reaches of this country’s jungles: cliffs, waterfalls, and rivers of legend and myth. From basecamps at places like Pakse, Paksong, Don Khone, and Champasak in the eponymous province, adventure travelers will find that the canyons and canopies of southern Laos are some of the most exciting destinations in Southeast Asia.

Extreme Trekking in the Bolaven Jungle

Hopefully waking to the smell of Arabica coffee, native to the Bolaven Plateau, hikers can hit the outskirts of the Bolaven Jungle. With its dense undergrowth and rarely traversed trails, the privately owned land is the ultimate challenge for jungle hikers, requiring at least some survival skills for a successful trek. Determined trekkers will be rewarded with diverse scenery throughout the journey, as the Bolaven Jungle is rife with fields, rice paddies, streams, and waterfalls.

As to wildlife, there is much to enjoy in Southern Laos, but of particular interest are the wild elephants and seven species of gibbon.

Zipline Over Waterfalls

ABOVE: Fly @ Tad Fan.

Southern Laos, home to some of the most impressive ziplines in Southeast Asia, has a network of cables crossing over steep gorges, waterfalls and treetops, most run by Tree Top Explorer.

The most imposing of the zipline options in Laos is undoubtedly Tad Fan, taking “riders” within reach of one of the continent’s most impressive waterfalls in Asia. It’s beautiful, yes, but not for the faint of heart. The venue can only be reached by foot, but the trek is well worth the effort.

Explore the 4,000 Islands 

There is little space for boredom in Si Phan Don, better known as the 4,000 Islands. Scattered across the Mekong River in southern Laos, the islands offer a charming and laid-back atmosphere, but there are plenty of activities to keep the adrenaline flowing, including cycling, hiking, and boating. 

Of the 4,000 islands, there are three main destinations. The islands of Don Det and Don Khon connect by a rusty footbridge – the “Old French Bridge”.

Travelers walking or cycling around the islands will find the raging Li Phi Falls, the gem of Don Khon. During the dry season, guests snooze in hammocks at the “beach” or swim in the pools from the waterfall to cool off. Travelers can also traipse across a wooden suspension bridge to take in the view at the Khon Pa Soi Falls.

ABOVE: Monks on a boat at Si Phan Don.

The largest of the three islands, Don Khong lies in the embrace of the Mekong River. Cycling enthusiasts ride the 11-mile-long and five-mile-wide island, where one road hugs its perimeter and another cuts through it – an excellent early morning ride. Don Khong offers travelers the unique chance to see the Khone Phapheng Falls, which is the largest waterfall in Southeast Asia.

It is best to visit during the dry season – late October to March – when the temperatures are cooler and the Mekong River recedes, leaving more land area exposed. On the other hand, the wet season – May to October – offers spectacular views of the waterfalls, when the Mekong River expands up to 46,000 feet.

Kayak the Mekong

ABOVE: Kayaking trip from Don Det.

Experienced kayakers can venture out into the Mekong from any of the three major islands. Other trips begin from Don Det or Pakse.

While paddling down the Mekong, travelers can observe villagers going about their daily lives along the shore and discover waterfalls and isolated, pristine river beaches. Thrill-seekers can brave the Mekong’s grade two and three whitewater rapids for the ultimate rush.

Search for Irrawaddy Dolphins

ABOVE: Rare Irrawaddy dolphins boat trip

Once found in huge numbers in the waters of southern Laos near the Cambodian border, the Irrawaddy dolphins of Laos are now functionally extinct. Today, there are only about 10 inhabiting the surroundings of Don Khon. However, the spirited creatures still come out and play. As travelers kayak the part of the Mekong near Don Khon, the rare Irrawaddy dolphins swim beneath the river’s surface, dive, and spyhop. Although sightings are extremely rare, it is a reminder to every visitor to Laos to take great care when visiting this delicate jungle playground.