These epic waterfalls positioned at the southern tip of Laos are the main reason the Mekong River is not navigable all the way up to China (much to the disdain of the Chinese, I suspect).
The Khone Phapheng Falls are the largest in south east Asia and they are characterised by thousands of islands and countless waterways, which become visible at low tide/dry season, giving the area its name of Si Phan Don or “The 4,000 islands”. The highest falls reach to 21 metres and the succession of rapids stretch over 6 miles of the river’s length. It is, perhaps unsurprisingly, forbidden to swim in this area, as even the most confident of swimmers would probably get wiped away by the torrent of water and never seen again.
Many years ago, the French tried to navigate the Mekong from Vietnam to China, but these falls stopped them abruptly in their tracks. As such, the Mekong, much like the Congo River in Africa, is pretty useless as an international waterway – but that doesn’t stop the tourists taking photos and cruises!
I was always looking forward to visiting this area of Laos. I think it was the highlight of my time down in Champasak. It takes around 30 minutes bike ride to get here from my guesthouse in Champasak, and you pass through lovely scenery and rice paddies enroute (plus you keep yourself fit, which is important after a night on the Beer Lao). The green of the leaves and the grass make a nice contrast to the scenery you will find when you arrive at the falls. In many ways, it is very green here too (we are in the tropics, after all) but your eyes automatically scan through the greenery on the riverbanks and focus on the thunderous water and rapids that are cascading over the darkened rocks that lay embedded in the Mighty Mekong.
The Lao people believe the mighty Khone Phapheng Falls are a natural phenomenon that protects them from evil spirits that roam the area. As long as there is water on the falls, the legend goes, Lao people will be able to live in peace, especially those based in the nearby rural areas of Don Det and Champasak. As the falls are located very close to the border with Cambodia, they can get busy with backpackers in the process of a “visa run” but at any time of the year it is still an important place to add to your itinerary and cross off your bucket list.