Laos : February 17 - March 3 cont'd

1.  March  

Savannahket to Pakse, continuing to south 


Arriving last night we learned that there was only one bus in the morning to Pakse, in the southern part of Lao. And it would leave at 7:00AM, so while we wanted to sleep in we couldn’t and found ourselves at the bus station again at 6:45AM. The bus was much emptier than the one before and we got lucky with front row seats. The bus stopped several times for longer breaks (mostly at village markets) which was nice as it allowed us to stretch our legs regularly. On one of those markets we saw a sad picture of a songthaew that (besides the people) had many animals attached to it. There were chickens on the roof, pigs tied up on top of the trucks tailgate and ducks hanging off the side. It was rough to see especially since these animals seemed to just have resigned to their current state and kept quiet and still in fear. We didn’t like it one has to accept even the less attractive parts of the culture. As our book said, without slaughterhouses or butchers, people are completely responsible themselves for transporting the animals they need for their livelihood. After a long 5 ½ hours we finally arrived at Pakse to learn that the last bus to Champasak had left. But after 7 months of traveling you do not give up that easily and we looked for other ways to get there. The local tuk-tuk drivers offered their services at a very high price and when they learned that they would not sell us their services today, they took the smaller deal by telling us that we could take the songthaew from the market in Pakse to Champasak and that they –of course - would be happy to take us there. About 1 hour later we found ourselves on such a larger songthaew heading for our final destination. Of course in true Lao style, we would see another curiosity. It was a ferry across the Mekong that the songthaew had to take. It was just three very old barges stuck together with wood making a platform for cars to drive on. It really looked like a scene out of the movie “Waterworld”. But I guess it was safe enough and 10 min. later we arrived at our guesthouse concluding a 3 day, 17-19 hours of cumulative bus rides. The rest of this day was dedicated to power lounging, which was easy on the banks of the mighty Mekong.


2. March 

Wat Phou at Champasak – Pre-Angkorian building at its best 


We went all the way to Champasak to get a taste of the first set of temple ruins in a long list of temple ruins we would see in the next few days at Angkor. To get there from our guesthouse we had to cover 9 km and did so with bicycles we had rented for 15,000 KIP ($2 per day). The ride was easy and flat and we passed a few little villages with people going about their business. While this area didn’t feel very touristy at all, we felt a big difference to the people we met in Ban Kang Lo. They seemed disinterested in visitors and less friendly making us even more grateful for our experience at the cave and the unspoilt kindness of the villagers. Once we arrived we got our tickets and went exploring. 


[This is a playlist with serveral videos, click on the Filmstip button (next to the play button) to see all]

Wat Phou (Vat Phu) is a Pre-Angkorian temple complex and we realized how perfect it was to come here first before seeing Angkor itself.  a.) It was build before the Angkor temples b.) it is less impressive than the ones in Angkor and c.) if we would have visited Angkor first we would have been so fed up with temples that we probably would have not enjoyed visiting Wat Phou. This way we would enjoy this temple full out, with its three levels and very finely carved lintels (the stone above and across a doorway of any temple). After a steep climb we were awarded with a fantastic view, despite the immense haze that covered almost all of Lao. The other surprise was that the exhibition hall was very informative letting us know about the different Hindu gods through detailed text boxes in all the sections of the little exhibitions. Our recommendation, if you are going to Champasak go to it before you visit Angkor and definitely take a look at the exhibition hall. The remainder of the day was rather relaxed and eventless, besides a little extra stroll on the bike that I took alone without Alex around the village we stayed in. I saw two monks juggling fruits in their hand, local kids playing soccer on a dried up rice field and a bunch of men enjoying bocca in the front yard. I must say that the late afternoon early evening is the best time in Lao as the light is perfect and you get to see everyone just hanging out on their street or in their yards chilling after a day’s work done. We had a great last day in Lao and during dinner we made sure to enjoy our last Beerlao, concluding an absolutely amazing stay in this friendly country.


[Click on any picture to view full screen slideshow]

3. March 

Champasak to Pakse Airport, Leaving Lao by air 


We got up early to watch the sunrise across the Mekong, which peaked through the haze at around 6:10 AM. One could hardly see it as the haze was so strong that it filtered out most of the sun’s rays. However, the higher it climbed the stronger it got and at one point it was this super red perfectly round fireball on the horizon. Just beautiful. Breakfast was followed by our departure at 7:30 in an old worn-out bus from the 1950’s. It was full of locals, their chickens and their bags of rice for the market. Alex kept hearing a duck and I was trying to convince her it was outside but in reality in was probably under someone’s seat or in their hand-bag. Since we still had to go through the village before getting to the ferry, we stopped almost every 100 meters to pick-up people and their wares. It took us 45min to cover 1.5 km as bags were loaded both on top in and in the bus. The amount of things one woman loaded on even seemed to surprise the locals, by the looks on their faces. These stops let us watch the children on the street going to school: most on bicycles, some on mopeds but all in uniform with their starched white shirts and dark bottoms (the boys in pants and the girls in a sarong). The younger kids were heading towards us, while the teenagers were headed to the secondary school by the ferry.

We finally arrived at the ferry dock with a loaded bus…the aisle was the bus was filled to the rim with rice bags, live chickens, and other big bags we think were filled with pillows or foam pads. We went back the same way we came and had the pleasure of getting on one of those ferries again. It was already loaded with many other vehicles and when the big bus got on board, the ferry was so heavy that the skipper had a very hard time getting the boat out of the sand of the river bank. He had to swing the boat back and forth to eventually get it unstuck. I was convinced it would not work, but after a little while we got on our way. I was running around taking videos of the ferry just to prove back home that such a thing does exist. My aim was to take a picture of the “bridge” of this trimaran like boat and so I walked to the front of the right side hull. These hulls were all open on the top and just covered with the wood that connected them and made the ferry’s deck. I saw two planks at the edge of the wooden deck (close to the front of the 3rd hull) and decided to step on those to take the intended picture. However the moment I stepped on them, both of them broke under my weight and I fell dramatically into the inside of that 3rd hull of the boat (about 1.5 meters onto to steel). I got very lucky, because this accident could have gone very differently. Thankfully, a bloody nose, scraped legs and hands is all that happened to me and we could carry one without delay to the airport.

At the airport we were greeted by a large billboard sign displaying a lovely looking Lao woman urging us: “Have a pleasure trip”. How nice of her. Soon we were walking on the tarmac to the airplane and could officially say we had used every type of transportation available in this delightful country, except the traditional elephant.We both said thank you to Lao for a great visit here by putting our hand palm to palm in front of the chest and bowing down. Goodbye Lao.




next: Cambodia