Things to Do in Sayabouly
Myth blends with nature, culture, and history in the mountains of Sayabouly, The Land of Elephants. Take the Northern Legends Trail, and explore religious sites, waterfalls, and caves filled with lore. Stay in Sayabouly, and get up close to pachyderms at the Elephant
Conservation Centre. Experience an herbal spa and garden, forest mysteries, and a boat ride to an ethnic village homestay. From Paklay, check out the cave-riddled Southern Mountain Route.
Hongsa: Northern Legends Trail
Located in Sayabouly’s far northeast, travellers know Hongsa as the province’s Gateway to the North, but it also launches visitors on quick trips to nearby waterfalls, ethnic villages, and an ancient stupa.
Just 8 km from Hongsa Town, Inteam Waterfall cascades down forested Nongchong Mountain. From here, a 1-hour drive north reaches Khamsane Waterfall near Tha Souang Pier on the Mekong. A local riverboat then cruises downriver to Ban Kaengeng for a taste of traditional Khmu lao hai, a rice wine served in a large jar for communal drinking through bamboo straws.
Closer to town, Ban Vieng Keo’s Tai Lue women weave cotton and then create embroidered shoulder bags, traditional sin skirts, table cloths, and decorative items, which the village sells. Remains of the 13th-century moat and wall built by Jao Houd can be found nearby. For a great sunset view overlooking Hongsa’s rice fields, climb a hill just 1 km from town to That Lak Mueang Stupa. Built in 1572, the site is highly revered by locals.
Take a short trip west of Hongsa to Ngeun District’s natural and cultural attractions. In Ngeun Town, you’ll find Vat Si Boun Yeun, constructed in the early 18th century under Lane Xang Viceroy Jao Luang. Murals cover the exterior walls of the wood-pillared temple, and patterned toung (flags) hang from the rafters. Inspect the small booth (haw thama) that acted as Jao Luang’s office, and the temple’s 200-year-old Buddha. Outside stands a stupa honouring the temple’s builder, Khou Ba Khamsaen.
Travel 3 km north of Ngeun Town to Ban Don Keo and the Golden Flea Stupa (Prathat Mudkham). Historians suggest migrating Burmese built the stupa in 1576, and the local Tai Lue now hold the site sacred. The name derives from a legend in which villagers tried to dig an elephant out of a sinkhole, only to uncover a swarm of golden fleas. They then filled in the hole, and built the stupa to cover it.
Take a trail to the Earth Pillars (Saodin), a group of tall soil spikes that geologists have yet to explain. The 45-minute hike to view this oddity begins at the southern end of town in Ban Sang, cuts through paddy fields, and climbs up a hill. Some suggest the dirt towers are the result of bizarre erosion, as they rise next to an earthen cliff. You can guess for yourself, while enjoying a valley view.
Head 5 km east of Ngeun Town to Ban Nangoua, the only village in Laos outside Luang Prabang and Oudomxay that continues to produce pottery the traditional way. They dig the soil, creating a hole they’ll use for a kiln, and process the earth completely by hand.
A short drive northwest of town arrives at Ban Bi Mi, a cotton production hub that brings together diverse ethnic communities to create products for purchase. You can watch, learn about, and participate in the entire multi-step process from cotton cultivation to weaving cloth.
Along the 50-km road west from Ngeun to Xienghone Town, stop and climb the district’s mountains to caves, waterfalls, and one of the region’s oldest stupas.
About 6 km west of Ngeun, turn at Ban Dong, and navigate a rugged mountain passage with river crossings to Houay Sakhaeng Waterfall plunging down a tree-lined, rocky flume. On the way, visit Ban Moksatour, a Khmu weaving village.
Continue west on Route 4A towards Xienghone Town to find the 27-metre-tall Xienglom Stupa. A stone inscription, housed inside Vat Xienglom, says the Burmese-style stupa was built in 1304. According to local lore, villagers, who had migrated from China a few hundred years ago, stumbled into the stupa while hunting.
From Xienghone Town, go about 2 km to Tham Ou Toum Kham Cave at Ban Kham, and inspect its monk cell chiselled out by locals. Also inside are a stupa and several Buddha images. On the way, you can drive across a river and up a little slope to Vat Otoumkham.
Continue west to Khop’s high mountain peaks and conservation area, which hides caves cloaked in legend and ancient stupas with interesting tales portraying the province’s past.
Start your Khop tour at That Puak Stupa, the district’s most sacred monument dating to 1538 and the Lane Xang Era. Located south of the Khop Town near Ban Don Moun, the 14-metre-tall stupa stands on a legendary spot, where a local hunter found sacred bones near a don pho tree and termite dirt mound. The viceroy then ordered villagers to build the stupa over the mound. Today, locals heading on a journey take soil from That Puak for good luck.
Continue 4 km south of Khop Town to Phou Pha Daeng (Steep Red Mountain), the district’s highest peak at 1,488 metres. It rises along a 10-km-long ridge between Ban Phang Hai and Ban Don Yom inside a 2,200-ha conservation area for deer, tigers, bears, monkeys, and a variety of birds.
Phou Pha Daeng’s 200-metre-long Tham Luang Cave opens to a 50-metre-wide, 30-metre-high, fresh-air grotto with a pool and branches leading to five large chambers. To reach the cave, travel along the Nam Phao River from Ban Nam Phao, to a rugged 30-minute uphill hike.
Nearby Phabong Mountain presents another challenge, an hour-long clamber up a steep 157-metre outcrop through forests of bamboo and old trees. However, robust climbers will be rewarded with amazing views of the valley and town below. The entrance to Phabong Cave is halfway down the other side, but the descent is for experienced climbers only.
Located 8 km southeast of Khop Town, Ban Tham kicks off a1-km trail through rice fields surrounded by limestone outcrops to Tham Phounoy and Water Caves, drilled into the same karst. A small stream, with freshwater shrimp and small fish, feeds Tham Phounoy (Small Crab Cave). Neighbouring Water Cave unveils rock formations including ones resembling a standing Buddha, an elephant head, and butterflies.
Little is known about Mann Stupa that sits about 4 km from Ban Tham, though villagers have been worshipping there for generations. Archaeologists believe the stupa was built by Burmese centuries ago.
Sayabouly: The Land of Elephants
Sayabouly District seduces visitors to the Land of Elephants with a mix of myth, history, culture, and nature topped by an elephant sanctuary on a reservoir close to town.
Start in Sayabouly Town at mural-adorned Vat Sibounheuang Temple. Built in 1456, the province’s oldest temple houses a 7-meter-long reclining golden Buddha on a hilltop overlooking the Nam Houng River. A stupa on the grounds stands over a singkhone with four spirit-ghosts. The village ghost also resides at Vat Sibounheuang, and each year in mid-March, the district’s Boun Phavet (Ghost Festival) procession starts at the temple’s cemetery.
Also in town, next to the Governor’s building, Vat Sisavangvong stands as one of the three most highly regarded Lao temples. Long, elaborate Naga banisters adorn the temple, where some 100 hand-picked novice monks study, meditate, and are ordained. According to legend, if a male wants to study there, he must first ask Naga, and make merit by presenting it with gold.
While in Sayabouly Town, visit the Night Market on the Houng River bank. It opens in the late afternoon, and offers local food and drinks, with Pha Khi Min Mountain as a backdrop.
South of town, just past the airport, head to hilltop Vat Natornoy, where villagers hang baskets to make merit to Phavet. Originally built in 1950, a fire destroyed the wooden temple in 1959, but villagers rebuilt it the following year.
Just 6 km from town, the Namtiene Reservoir sprawls over 9,500 hectares. Here you can enjoy the view, examine a Buddha footprint, and dine on a floating restaurant. You can even play golf on a nearby course.
The reservoir is also home to the Elephant Conservation Centre, which offers three tourist programmes along with bungalows and a restaurant. You can learn about the centre’s conservation work, enjoy the lake-side scenery and spend the night on the 2-day package. The 3-day “Exploration” tour provides deeper insight into Asian elephants, as you interact with a herd in their environment. Mingle with locals on the “Eco-Volunteering” tour, which places you in the centre’s community projects.
Travel south of town to the Houay Namsai Herbal Spa Centre, set in a thick forest with more than 70 types of medicinal herbs. The centre offers edu-tours of the grounds as well as traditional Lao massages and steam baths.
On the drive to the herbal spa, stop at Tham Phakounhuoay Cave to view impressive limestone formations. The more adventurous can follow the cave’s stream that runs for several kilometres through an extensive underground network, before heading to the spa.
The Houay Namsai Herbal Spa Centre offers a two-day package that starts with a Nam Houng River boat ride from Sayabouly Town to the centre. Along the way, you’ll explore Tham Phakounhuoay before continuing downriver to Ban Phakoun and an overnight homestay. The next morning, continue by boat to the sand dunes at the Nam Poui–Mekong River confluence. Then it’s up the Nam Poui to Ban Keo, to explore the Tham Namlod cave tunnel, where the stream passes right through the mountain.
Further south, explore the Nam Thang 1000 Caves Area located about 43 km from Sayabouly Town. The cave-pocked karst landscape surrounds the Khmu villages of Ban Nathang and Ban Keo, where the Nam Thang stream cuts through the mountains, as it winds its way to the Nam Poui River.
From Ban Keo, you can trek on the Tham Loup and Tham Chia Khiu Cave Circuit. A guide leads you 1 km on a short, steep climb to Tham Loup Cave perched on a limestone ridge. The large entrance drops into a sinkhole with a sandy floor. From there, a 130-metre walk ends at a cave-wall slit, where you exit to an isolated valley.
A short stroll across the valley leads to the “backdoor” of Tham Chia Khiu Cave, named for the faint but pungent aroma of bat guano (bat droppings). The wide tunnel passes a formation shaped like a large elephant, before arriving at a cliff and natural stairs. These lead down a vast hole to a window and cliff-side view of the forest and valley.
Ban Keo also launches an uphill hike to Tham Pha Keo Cave, located near the phenomenon that gave the village its name. Pha Keo, means “crystal cliff”, as at certain times of year it reflects rays of light off a cliff across the valley and the Poui River.
About an hour’s drive east of Sayabouly Town, the Mekong catches the Tad Jao Waterfall, as it plunges 20 metres off a cliff near Tha Deua. The waters feeding the falls have attracted royalty since the days of the Lane Xang Kingdom, as they believed bathing or drinking from the stream was healthy and brought good luck.
A small hermit cave sits at the head of the falls, and villagers built a shrine above it in 1985 as they consider the area sacred. Steps built for the Thai princess’s 1990-visit lead down to a picnic area on the Mekong and a view of the waterfall.
Paklay: The Southern Mountain Circuit
Paklay, located 300 km south of Sayabouly Town, launches visitors into the province’s mountainous south. The Southern Mountain Circuit leads to caves, sacred Vat Sisavangvong temple, and a region steeped in history, culture, and nature.
Historians trace Paklay Town’s first inhabitants to about 500 years ago, when ethnic Khmu from Burma settled in the area that had been a stopover for Thai traders heading north. In 1544, the Lane Xang Kingdom absorbed the region, which later fell under Siamese control until the French arrived in 1904.
A fire razed Paklay Town and destroyed much of the colonial-era architecture, though a French prison and about 10 houses remain, as does the 120-year-old home of the royal family. The last Lao king regularly visited Paklay, and his son married a local woman, who lives in obscurity in Luang Prabang.
Explore the town’s side streets to discover old wooden buildings and temples, led by the Mekong riverside Vat Sisavangvong. Like its sister temple in Sayabouly District, Vat Sisavangvong is one of Laos’ three most highly regarded temples, and aspiring novices strive to study and meditate there. A three-storey, red-and-gold bell tower stands on the temple grounds.
Journey 50 km north of town to a cluster of three caves and hot springs. Stop first at Ban Muong Pa to explore Tham Peo Pong Pha (Sky Cave), with the sun peeking through a slit in the roof. Nearby is Tham Kok Ma, considered by locals as the “Wind Cave” for its cool breeze. Check out the local hot springs that are a soothing 30º C. Then, drive a few minutes to Ban Nachan and the Tham Nam Lot wet cave.
Tham Pa Keo Cave drills into the mountainside some 32 km southwest of Paklay Town, as does Khun Lou Cave just 3 km away.
You can also inspect Tham Nang Phom Hom Cave and the wide Tham Phabon Cave with a Buddha image in its alcove, some 15 km from town near Ban Phon.
The Southern Districts
Mountains, waterfalls, temples, and legend highlight Sayabouly’s southernmost districts: Kenthao, Boten, and Phieng. Spend a few days looking around on a trip from Luang Prabang, or as a stop on the way to or from Vientiane or the Nam Heuang Bridge linking to Thailand’s Loei Province.
Start at Vat Siphoume in Kenthao Town, a 15th century temple on the Nam Heuang Riverbanks. Queen Phengsi, a respected warrior, built the temple in honour of her father, and it is now considered the district’s most sacred site.
See gigantic Taekha trees, with the fattest at 14 metres in diameter. You’ll find a thick forest of them at Phieng District’s Ban Somsawad, where the lowest branches on trees can be 10 metres from the roots, which often engulf surrounding rocks.
Hard core trekkers can tackle a trail to the peak of Phou Pha Daeng (Red Mountain) and Tat Ham Waterfall starting 3 km from Boten Town. You’ll climb towards the area’s highest summit to see the Nam Ham River drop 15 metres over massive rocks into a large, clear pool. A view to Thailand awaits if you reach the mountaintop.
Back at the bottom, venture along the Nam Ham to Vang Sadaeng (Deep Red Water), and continue to Kaeng Kaday (Rabbit Rapids). Further upriver, you’ll find Kaeng Thian (Candle Rapids)