PHU KHAO KHUAY NATIONAL .PARK
Off Rte 13, west of Tha Bok, a gravel road leads to Water Buffalo Mountain, a partially pine-forested plateau at around 670m elevation (rising to over 1660m at its highest points). It is surrounded by 2000m peaks and was off limits to foreigners for many years following the 1975 Revolution because of the presence of a 'secret' Lao military base. Declared a National iodiversity Conservation Area in 1995, it was more recently transformed into Lao PDR's only national park.
Phu Khao Khuay (admission under US$1; open Barn to sunset daily) offers a cool retreat from the furnace-like heat of Vientiane during the March to May hot season. At other times of the year it can be misty and cold.
Wildlife surveys in 1994 confirmed the presence of wild elephants and gibbons in the area; locals also report such rare species as the gaur, Asiatic black bear, tiger, clouded leopard, Siamese fire back pheasant and green peafowl. About 88% of the national park is forested, though only 32% has been classified as dense, mature forest. Depending on elevation, visitors may en- counter dry evergreen dipterocarp, mixed deciduous forest, conifer forest or grassy uplands. The park covers 2000 sq km, though a 710-sq-km section towards the west - which contains the army base and several villages - may be excised to make conservation decrees easier to enforce.
Three large rivers - the Nam Mang, Nam Leuk and Nam Nyong - drain the mountains and plateau, and eventually empty into the Mekong River. Within the park boundaries are three waterfalls, the most impressive of which is Tat Xal, reached via an all-weather side road off the main road to Ang Nam Leuk. At the head of a narrow valley, the falls tumble over several levels, surrounded by thick forest. Nearby Tat Leuk is much smaller, and exhibits more seasonal change in water flow. Even when the water hardly flows, it's still a beautiful spot that has become a favorite weekend picnic venue for Vientiane Lao. Free tent camping is permitted at Tat Leuk, and a small restaurant serves a few Lao dishes for US$1 to US$2.
A well-maintained road through the park leads to the northern reach of Ang Nam Leuk, a reservoir created by damming the Nam Leuk. To the north, the scenic Long Xan valley is home to several Hmong and Mien villages.
Visitor centers containing educational exhibits on local flora and fauna, labeled in English as well as Lao, have been established at Tat Xai and Tat Leuk.
Getting There & Away
There is no public transport to Phu Khao Khuay. It takes around two hours to reach the NBCA from Vientiane via paved Rte 13 south and an all-weather gravel road that heads west from Tha Bok.
The western edge of the national park and the namesake mountain peak itself can be approached from the south via a winding dirt road from Rte 10 east of the Tha Ngon bridge over the Narn Ngum. This route is sometimes impassable in the rainy season; any time of year you'll need a sturdy, high-clearance vehicle to negotiate the road. There are still lots of men in green about in this section - along the way you'll pass a couple of Lao military checkpoints