Laos: Wandering through Champasek and Wat Phou

Travelling in southern Laos is a different experience from the tourist comforts of Luang Phabang and Vientiane in the north.  Once I headed off to Champasek there were no more VIP express air-con buses.  Instead it was time to get used to regular verbal battles with tuk-tuk drivers and crowded local transport.

The ferry across the river turned out to be two slender mismatched wooden longtail boats nailed together with a few even more mismatched planks.  I sat on my rucksack and was thankful it was a calm day.

Champasek is a small village which is the gateway to the pre-Angkorian Khmer ruined temple complex of Wat Phou (6th to 9th century), a Unesco World Heritage Site.  There a few very basic guesthouses in this Laos village and they will often provide a bicycle for the day free of charge.

At first I was convinced the ancient velo was going to collapse under me, however, when I gained a bit more confidence in the bike it was a lovely ride along the village road that stretches along the river.

Wobbling along avoiding the water buffalo loafing or wallowing in huge mud puddles. Little brown calves lounge in front yards and under one stilt-house there are at least 30 large pigs lying prone in the heat.

Five white yellow-billed ducks calmly cross the road in single file, holding up a tuk-tuk, a motorbike and me wobbling at the rear, trying to avoid actually stopping and the related disaster of having to regain momentum again.  A group of local men sit around a low table, settling in for a day of eating and drinking the local lao-lao (rice whisky).

You approach the ruins by a long causeway lined with stone markers, the forest-clad mountain is before you.  Passing a manmade lake on each side the two palaces appear, rising up out of the long grasses. Crumbling dark sandstone, many of the carved pediments and lintels etc have been removed to the museum but you occasionally come across a lump of stone covered with indeterminable faces.

Wat Phou, Laos

Or two stone feet protruding from a stone pedestal, the headless warrior fallen to the ground beside them. Between the palaces, what once must have been a huge ornate staircase rises steeply up the hillside to an exquisite crumbling and moss covered temple beneath the frangipani trees where women sell woven palm and flower offerings to local Laos people who have come to worship.

The view back over the plain is spectacular and the whole place very peaceful and atmospheric. This is a very special part of Laos.

By Natasha von Geldern

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