Si Phan Don, Champasak & Pakse 9-16 October 2008
If the Cambodian border was laid back the Laos one Voen Kham was practically comatose! It was about 3.30pm when we got there and though the sign said business hours were until 4pm everyone seemed to have downed tools and were enjoying a loud game of boules nearby! We were a bit nervous of being marooned there all night - stamped out of one country but not yet received by another - but eventually someone turned up in a sweaty "England" soccer t-shirt and we were processed with 11 minutes to spare! When we asked about insurance we met the same blank look we'd grown used to in Cambodia! Ah well we survived a month in Cambodia driving some crazy roads uninsured so we're now pretty unstoppable!
We drove on into Laos- first impressions that it was very quiet and laid back. A few yards in we passed a sign for a waterfall and decided to go and investigate. The Khon Phapheng falls are a pretty impressive volume of water- consisting of a 13km long stretch of powerful rapids. An immense volume of water where the Mekong diverts and then re-converges.
We journeyed on through rice fields with buffaloes and cattle ambling along - life seems to move at a very slow and easy pace over here- and saw a lovely sunset.
Our first destination was Don Khong (DK) or Khong Island the largest of the many islands which make up Si Phan Don, a name which literally means four thousand islands. Many of these islands vanish in the wet season and reappear in the dry when the Mekong recedes. DK is the largest island measuring 18km by 8km across at the widest point. We caught the ferry across with just enough time in the light for a quick look around before we managed to find a good camping spot with a view up the river. We went for dinner at a little river front hotel -Senesothxeune Hotel - whose friendly patron Mr. Sensavath Phanvongsa made us very welcome, though he was disappointed we didn't speak French - very much the language of choice here especially with the older generation.
Dinner was delicious (laab - which is minced meat -chicken in this case -with chili and lime and sticky rice) and the national beverage Beer Lao. We used the hotel as a base for meals and internet (they had the area's only Wi-Fi!) for the next few days. It was a lovely spot and we have included their website address here and would highly recommend it as a place to stay in the area. http://www.ssxhotel.com
DK was a lovely relaxing spot where river life took place at a very slow pace! The Laos people are very friendly , though noticeably shyer than say the Cambodians and without the drive of the Vietnamese - often you have to wake the sales assistant up before you order what you want ..no hard sell here!- which is quite refreshing.
We took a few trips around the island - it is rice season and the crops are high, in fact the tallest rice crops we'd ever seen some over 1 metre. The workers were busy tending to the rice- though they still make time for a relaxing game of boules- definitely something that has stayed since the French introduction to become a feature in Laos. We stopped at a market and saw ladies selling traditional woven cloth in lovely bright colours.
There are some good examples of French architecture jostled next to the traditional wooden houses - all in all a very scenic spot.
We had lunch at an old wooden restaurant hanging over the river and enjoyed freshly caught cat fish from the Mekong which was really good. Apparently over 60 million people (throughout Asia) rely directly on the Mekong; it is an immense river and a life source to a great many different communities.
Our camping spot was directly opposite a Wat and on Saturday morning we woke bleary eyed to screams of delight and loud splashes as the novice monks had come over and - having tucked their saffron robes out of the way nappy style (or dispensed with them altogether !) were dive bombing into the river and having a real ball. Eventually an older monk came and spoke to them and somewhat sheepishly they were marched back across to the Wat - presumably to indulge in more monkly pursuits!
Next morning we caught the ferry back across and headed on further north towards Champasak. We were keen to see the famous Wat here and thought we had found it when we saw some "World Heritage" signs but after following the dirt road for a while we ended up at Um Tomo- a completely different temple - or the ruins of one. A local came out of his traditional house to sell us a ticket - he seemed a bit shocked to see anyone there!! It is actually a 9th century Khmer temple - with a few Angkor Wat like touches - though little remained so you had to use a lot of imagination. The ancient forest made it very atmospheric though.
We continued on a few miles until we once again caught the ferry this time across to Champasak. The ferry was 3 boat hulls (ex-Vietnam war stock from the USA) welded together with a car deck on top. It was a bit nerve wracking getting on and off the thing, and scary if you were parked on the edge as it felt like you might roll in! There were a few venders walking around selling food and local wood turnings-though again a much softer approach than we'd grown used to. If you said "No" once politely you were left alone.
Champasak is an attractive town on the river with lots of timber traditional houses and a few ex-colonial French ones. They were ramping up for the boat racing festival which marks the end of Buddhist lent and is celebrated all up the Mekong. As we crossed on the ferry we saw one of the teams (wearing bright green they are all colour coordinated in primary colours) of up to 40 rowers and pretty fast they were too!
We had arrived the night before the big race day holiday, and to mark the occasion there was a big boules contest going on in town as well as lots of market stalls with everyone selling drink, food & handicrafts or busy preparing things to sell later.
We found a great camp spot out of town on the banks of the river in a field with a big Buddha set looking down on us. We asked the owner who lived opposite if we could camp there and he was happy for us to do so (though it was a bit of a joint effort getting understood!) Eventually he got across that some French overlanders had camped there last year - I'm sure he would've been happier to see them again as he spoke a fair bit of French and no English..we muddled through though!
The next morning we got into town at 8am just as the boat racing was starting. People came from up and down the river in various boats and rafts to watch, cheer on their teams and bait the opposition. It was a bit hard to see who was winning overall as they raced in lots of 2 only but everyone seemed to be getting into it ..maybe as they were all drinking Lao Lao (local rice whisky) and beer from early on! They seem to have a fair few festivals in this little town all of which seem to involve a few days drinking I think they are party animals!
We decided to take a break from racing to see the nearby Wat Phu Champasak. Spread near the Pasak Mountain this temple is very impressive, particularly when set against such a beautiful mountain backdrop. The structures here vary in age from the 6-8th and then the 9th to 13th centuries and are further examples of work of the Khmer empire, indeed once a road connected this Wat to Angkor Wat just 200km away.
The site is set on 3 levels and interconnected with an ancient stone staircase flanked by frangipani trees. It was a fairly steep climb up so pleasantly cool at the top and with a fantastic view down over the temple and 2 lakes. At the top is the crocodile rock. This relief carved in stone is human sized and one theory is it was once used for human sacrifices (to crocodiles?)
All in all it was another fascinating glimpse into the Khmer empire.
We returned to town for a meal to find the boat racing over and a great many drunken people wandering around - the karaoke machines were cranking up so we beat a hasty retreat!
The next day we once more crossed over on the ferry and headed to Pakse the largest town in this area. Their boat race was due to take place the next day - we seem to be following them around! We had a look around and found a camping spot at a Wat overlooking the city. We had planned to camp on the river but the activity was too frenetic - this festival must have been an amalgamation of various local areas and it was very busy, with rock bands setting up and stalls selling things everywhere.
We went to have a look at the temple on the river and got pulled into a ceremony of sorts ..a lot of people seemed to be sitting around an alter drinking lao lao and smoking ..we had bracelets put on us by a lady in a headband who seemed to be a significant figure and were given apples to eat ..not sure what it was all about . One man said "You very lucky now" so I suppose it can't hurt!
Walking along the main street we saw a huge parade, there were a great many monks (being directed about by a little monk with a loud speaker!) what looked like beauty queens and lots of dressed up children. It was all very lovely and everyone seem to be having a great time.
All day the children had been toting (plastic!) guns ..seems to be a thing here and we had been jokingly (I hope!) held up a few times in the last couple of days.
Up at the Wat where we were camping we had noticed a little boy wandering around. The next day the head monk approached us and asked us to deliver him (in his best red jacket which must have been very hot!) to another temple in town so he could watch the racing. We were given a photo of another monk to hand him over to. This proved a bit hard as "Ngo" as he was called was so excited when we got to the street with all the stalls etc he took off and we were very stressed about getting him to some responsible person as he couldn't speak English and was ignoring us! Eventually we found a senior monk and handed him over. The Wats are a bit like a social services in SE Asia. Ngo's parents had left him to go and work in Thailand when he was 4 but had never returned. He is now 7 and has lived around various Wats for this time. It is not an ideal situation and we felt a bit sorry for little Ngo but at least he is fed and safe. It is worse for girls who cannot live at the Wats.
With Ngo duly delivered we had been going to watch the races but neither of us felt up to it. I'd had a bad neck for a few days and Andrew woke up with similar and we both had temperatures. We had a quick look around the markets -loved the young sales team for the food store! - and went off for a herbal massage in town. This was supposed to cure all ills and it certainly helped us feel better and cured some aches and pains. After this we hid in the Hotel Pakse escaping the heat whilst using the internet. We stayed until the evening and had dinner on their rooftop terrace which afforded a lovely view over the city.
After which back to the monastery and after a good night's sleep we headed off the next day. Unfortunately Andrew was still feeling a bit fluey but our next destination - the Bolaven Plateau the coffee growing highlands will be a bit cooler and all that fresh air should hopefully help!