Bokeo’s Heritage Sites
Fort Carnot: Climb a hill to the French Colonial fort overlooking the Mekong and potential foe, Siam. Located on a hill overlooking Houay Xay and Chiang Khong, Thailand, Fort Carnot stood as colonial France’s western-most Indochinese stronghold. Built in 1900, only a couple of French officers oversaw the garrison manned by some 30 Lao and Vietnamese soldiers. When the Laos achieved independence from France in 1954, the Lao army used the fort as barracks.
Fort Carnot is among the best-preserved colonial military outposts in Laos. Barracks on the western and eastern sides of the military compound remain intact, as do the southern and northern watchtowers and two of the corner bastions. Tunnels from the southwest and southeast corners once provided safe passage for soldiers to bunkers outside the fort. The southern wall and tower, which suffer from age and neglect, present slits for riflemen aiming at approaching attackers. The rooms flanking the southern entrance tower most likely held the kitchen and jail. Much of the wall along the western side has collapsed, as has the bastion at the northwest corner. In the western barracks which are being developed into a history and ethnographic museum, you can see rifle racks on the walls.
Location: Houay Xay tuk tuks are available for the short ride to Fort Carnot. For walkers, cyclers, and motorbike riders, head south on the main road, turn left onto the road across from the post office, and then turn right to the hilltop and aim for the telephone towers.
Souvannakhomkham: Legend and thin evidence tell the fascinating tale of Souvannakhomkham, the centre of an ancient kingdom stretching to Vietnam. Once a Mekong island until the river changed course, Souvannakhomkham occupies 10,000 hectares of the Golden Triangle. The city, established in the fertile valley during the 1st millennium, is thought to have been rebuilt several times by different civilizations.
Chronicles by early French explorers state that Tai people had settled in a place they called Wiang Yonok in present day Chiang Saen District, Thailand. When their city “disintegrated into swamp” during the 11th century, they “set up a new town to the southeast…This settlement was on high ground on an island that was formed” when the Mekong’s path changed. This site became Souvannakhomkham. Souvannakhomkham played a significant role during the Lanna Era, but by 1545, the Lane Xang Kingdom took control of the trade hub. It is believed that most of the ruins visible today date from this era.
According to legend, the story behind the name “Souvannakhomkham” began when Lane Xang Viceroy Ayakoumarn journeyed to the Golden Triangle’s Kheun Island. He had a son, Souvanna, but the palace believed the young prince brought bad luck, so they sent him downriver on a raft. To save him, Ayakoumarn ordered a “khoumkham” ceremony, in which people lit candles as an offering to Phaya Nak, the mythical Mekong serpent-god. Phaya Nak answered their prayers, and returned the raft to Kheun Island. To honour Phaya Nak, Ayakoumarn named the city “Souvannakhomkham”, and some believe this is the origin of October’s Boun Auk Phansaa Festival, which marks the end of Buddhist Lent, when the Mekong boat races are held.
To visit Souvannakhomkham on the Golden Triangle Circuit, head west from Houay Xay on Route 3 which mostly follows the Mekong. The 50-km drive presents great views of the Mekong’s rocky islands. Along the way, you can eat at Nang Peng’s for what many call the country’s best khao soi noodle soup, swim at Nam Nyon Waterfalls, and view a gold-plated princess, sculpted into a boulder. The road continues to the 1,000-year-old city of Souvannakhomkham.
The first stop is a massive headless Buddha image about 6 km south of the Nam Kan River. A 15-minute drive further along leads to Ban Done That’s Souvannakhomkham Visitor Centre and its pottery and stone relics. From here, a short trail weaves between crumbling brick stupas sitting silently in a field that was once a great civilization. The path reaches an ancient 7-metre-tall Buddha image, one of Laos’ largest.
Location: Rent a motorbike and follow Route 3, or hire a song taew or tuk-tuk with driver for the day. Hotel and guesthouses can assist in finding transportation, and a few local travel agents offer tours to the area.
*Note: Souvannakhomkham is located near the King’s Roman Resort & Casino, which mostly caters to Chinese tourists, offers rooms and transportation.