Sayabouly’s Top Attractions
Immerse yourself in “The Land of Elephants”, at the Elephant Conservation Centre, about 6 km outside Sayabouly Town on the Namtiene Reservoir. You can learn about the centre’s conservation work, enjoy the natural lake-side scenery, and interact with a herd in their environment.
Every February, Sayabouly holds the highly popular Elephant Festival, which celebrates the cultural and traditional ties between Lao communities and elephants, while drawing attention to the endangered species. Activities include an elephant procession with up to 100 elephants, a traditional elephant Baci ceremony, monks’ blessing, mahout and elephant show, and documentary films.
Temples & Stupas
Built in 1572, the highly revered That Lak Mueang Stupa sits on top of a hill about 1 km from Hongsa Town. Many visitors go there at sunset for the view of Hongsa Valley’s rice fields in the province’s northeast.
Head west from Hongsa to Ngeun Town, where you’ll find the sacred Vat Si Boun Yeun, constructed in the early 18th century under Lane Xang Viceroy Jao Luang from Luang Namtha. 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 once acted as Jao Luang’s office, and the 200-year-old Buddha image. 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. The district’s Tai Lue now hold it very sacred. Its name comes from a legend in which villagers tried to dig an elephant out of a sinkhole, but uncovered a swarm of golden fleas. They filled in the hole and built the stupa to cover it.
Stop at the 27-metre-tall Xienglom Stupa at Ban Dong on Route 4A between Ngeun and Xienghone Districts. A stone inscription, housed inside Vat Xienglom Temple, says the Burmese-style stupa was built in 1304. According to local lore, villagers who migrated from China a few hundred years ago stumbled into the stupa while hunting.
Further west, you can view the 14-metre-tall That Puak Stupa, located south of Khop Town near Ban Don Moun. The 16th century, Lane Xang-era stupa stands as the district’s most sacred monument. It was erected on a legendary spot, where a local hunter found bones near a don pho tree and termite mound. The viceroy then ordered villagers to build the stupa over the mound. Today, villagers heading on a journey take soil from That Puak for good luck.
Those in Sayabouly Town can inspect mural-adorned Vat Sibounheuang Temple. Built in 1456, the province’s oldest temple houses a 7-metre-long reclining golden Buddha on a hilltop overlooking the Nam Houng River. A stupa on the grounds rises above 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 three top-ranked Lao temples. Long decorative 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.
South of town, just past the airport, climb 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 locals rebuilt it the following year.
Travel further south to Paklay, and visit Vat Sisavangvong on Mekong River bank. 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.
In neighbouring Kenthao Town, check out Vat Siphoume, a 15th century temple on the Nam Heuang Riverbanks. Queen Phengsi, a respected warrior, built the temple in honour of her father, and it now is considered the district’s most sacred site.
Go about 2 km from Xienghone Town in the province’s northwest 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.
Further west in Khop District, investigate Phou Pha Daeng Mountain’s 200-metre-long Tham Luang Cave. The entrance opens to a 50-metre-wide, 30-metre-high fresh-air grotto leading to five large chambers. To reach the cave, travel along the Nam Phao River from Ban Nam Phao, to a challenging path and 30-minute uphill hike.
Located 8 km southeast of Khop Town, Ban Tham presents the gateway to a pair of caves and an ancient stupa. A 1-km walk through rice fields surrounded by limestone outcrops leads 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.
On the 90-minute drive from Sayabouly Town to the Houay Namsai Herbal Spa Centre, stop to examine Tham Phakounhuoay Cave and its impressive limestone formations. The more adventurous and physically fit can follow the cave’s stream that runs for several kilometres through an extensive cavern network.
About an hour’s drive from Sayabouly Town near Tha Deua, you’ll find a small hermit cave at the head of the Tad Jao Waterfall. Villagers built a shrine above it in 1985, as they consider the area sacred.
Explorers can head 43 km south of Sayabouly Town to dig into the Nam Thang 1,000 Caves Area. 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, a guide leads the hearty on a short, steep climb to Tham Loup Cave perched on a limestone ridge. The large entrance drops into a sinkhole to a sandy floor, and 130-metre walk to a slot, where you exit to an isolated valley.
A short hike 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 leading down a vast hole to a window and cliff-top 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 across the valley to a cliff over the Poui River.
From Paklay Town, journey 50 km north 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. 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.
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 on the Mekong.
Next door in Ngeun District, take the trail to the Earth Pillars (Saodin), a group of tall soil spikes that geologists have yet to explain. Some suggest they are the result of bizarre erosion, as they rise next to an earthen cliff. You can guess for yourself, while enjoying a valley view.
About 6 km west of the Ngeun Town, navigate a rugged mountain passage around Ban Dong Village to experience Houay Sakhaeng Waterfall plunging down a tree-lined, rocky flume.
About 4 km south of Khop Town, you can view 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, home to deer, tigers, bears, monkeys, and a variety of birds.
Some 6 km from Sayabouly Town, the Namtiene Reservoir covers more than 9,500 hectares. Here you can enjoy the view and dine on a floating restaurant.
Travel 13 km 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.
About an hour’s drive from Sayabouly Town near Tha Deua, take a look at Tad Jao Waterfall plunging 20 metres of a cliff and into the Mekong. 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.
See gigantic Taekha trees, with the fattest some 14 metres in diameter, in the province’s southern Phieng District near Ban Somsawad. The lowest branches on trees in this thick forest can be 10 metres from the roots, which often engulf surrounding rocks.
In nearby Boten, hard-core trekkers can tackle the trail to the peak of Phou Pha Daeng (Red Mountain) and Tat Ham Waterfall, where the Nam Ham River drops 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)
Laos’ only National Protected Area (NPA) west of the Mekong, the Nam Phui NPA, occupies 1,912 km2 of Sayabouly’s Phiang, Paklay, and Thongmixai Districts along the Thai border. Steep and rugged ridges characterize the NPA’s terrain, with peaks reaching 1,790 metres. The Nam Phui NPA is the source of three rivers, which flow east into the Mekong. It also holds some of the world’s easternmost native teak forests and 50 mammal species including an estimated 350 wild elephants.