Time to leave Don Khone. We packed our bags and because of the late 11am departure had time to relax in our hammocks most of the morning. We noticed two little girls playing beside our bungalow and realised that they were going through the rubbish bag we'd left out, in case there was something of interest. They'd kept a colour brochure on Cambodia and left the rest of the rubbish strewn over the garden so I had to go out and repackage it. They were a very cute and happy little couple of girls. We know we shouldn't (because it encourages begging) but we couldn't resist giving them our last couple of sweets. At 11am the small open boat (more like a big canoe) collected us and our bags and we headed low in the water through lovely scenery past basking water buffalo to the mainland and its scruffy little port which is really just a scrape of dust with a few minibuses. For once we drew the long straw and got decent seats at the back of the minibus. We stopped only for the driver to stop in a small town where we were as usual surrounded by the usual hawkers of street food. Ignoring the chicken and smaller birds on sticks, Jen bought some delicious roast sweetcorn (about 20p) on a stick. The journey is quite boring because the road passes only through this one small town and for some reason there are no roadside villages. The landscape is scrubby forest. It reminded me of some parts of Africa and I almost expected to see a giraffe's head poking above the short trees. We arrived at a small town by a river. I had not done my research very well and was still trying to work out whether our destination was on the east our left bank of the Mekong when we pulled up and were bundled out as the minibus which carried on to Paxse. I suddenly realised as it pulled away that I hadn't actually checked that this was the right stop for Champasak and there was a slight doubt that we'd got out to soon. So we just followed some other westerners who were heading for the river. The locals indicated that we should head quickly for a small boat that was leaving. We piled aboard and were relieved to discover that it was the ferry to Champasak. The ferryman tried to charge us double but another westerner knew that we should only pay 10,000 each and the ferryman backed down immediately. Waiting on the other bank was the jovial owner of the Vong Phaseud which I'd already earmarked as somewhere good to stay. So with another English couple we took up the offer of a free lift to the guest house. We took a simple but very cheap fan room for 30,000 kip ( less than £3 ). The walls are thin, the mattress hard, the plumbing dodgy and the electrics dubious but what the heck. There is a magnificent social and restaurant area overlooking the Mekong and the island of Don Daeng. The 20m between the guest house and river edge is a garden for vegetables and salads and it appears to be the children's job to keep them watered each evening with watering cans filled from the Mekong. They still have plenty of time for splashing around and having fun in the water. The owner is a lovely man and seems to spend half his time laughing. We met up again with the young couple called Alison an Mark who we'd met on the ferry. They have been working in Australia for over a year and are travelling through south east Asia as they head back back to the UK. There were a very affable couple and we shared some beers as we relaxed overlooking the Mekong. I set off to explore Champasak and couldn't believe how slow and peaceful it is here. There are a few laid back shops and restaurants but only really one street and no real centre. The town is overlooked by mountains - one of which reminds me of Table Mountain overlooking Cape Town but there the similarity definitely ends. We had a simple meal at the guest house and then retired to our room with the luxury of all night electricity - dodgy wiring permitting
Friday 23rd Wat Pheu
We hired bikes and we first headed to the only financial place in town - the Laos Development Bank. It was like stepping back to the Soviet Union. ( Note : The hammer and sickle is still commonly flown alongside the Laos national flag ). A stern lady inside was wearing a party badge with a picture of the leader handled my American Express travellers cheques with disdain. I expected her to call me a capitalist pig dog an any moment. After much form filling and not a single smile she handed me a further form to take to the cashier who finally converted my cheques to kip. It was a large wedge of cash because of the relatively small denominations. My bike had a loose crank because the nut was missing off the pin. I took it back the man at the guest house who simply whacked it with a hammer rather than finding a nut or giving me a replacement bike. Amazingly it seemed to work. We set off later than anticipated to the local sightseeing location of Wat Phu Champasak which is one of Laos most famous monuments which is about 12km from the modern Champasak town. We set off later than anticipated due to bank stop and cycle fix stop so the sun was already getting very hot. We passed the site of what was once the location of a large ancient city by the Mekong of which hardly a trace now remains. Unfortunately I'd not revised the maps sufficiently and we thought we'd taken a wrong turning so turned back only to meet two English guys who thought we had been heading the right way We followed them and found out that we'd turned back only 500m short of the sign that would have shown that we were on the right track. So eventually getting hot and bothered we arrived at the Wat. It is in a wonderful setting on a terrace leading up to what the Laotians regard as a sacred mountain (partly because of its phallic shape so they say - but they must have very strangely shaped ones in Laos). The site is on three levels and impressive but not in the same league as those at Angkor. Getting to the top involved a steep and unrelenting climb up steep uneven steps and the heat was telling. We'd also read to beware of snakes on this site which added to the fun (along with the usual instruction that if moving off the site to keep to clear paths as there could still be landmines). There are some interesting features such as a deeply carved image of a crocodile in a rock and a natural spring appearing from the rockface. Many of the buildings are in danger of collapse and are inaccessible. It was worthwhile visiting just for the setting. The views over the Mekong are magnificent. The nearby museum is very well presented and has good examples of Hindu sculptures, mostly from the pre Angkor period. The number and names of the gods is a bit mystifying to a non-Hindu as myself and I still don't quite understand how these sites became revered by Buddhists. We eat at a nearby restaurant and I tried a papaya salad which Mark had recommended yesterday ( he offered a taste of his yesterday which was lovely). However the one served was so spicily hot that I had to munch loads of the accompanying raw cabbage to sooth my lips. They were on fire and no amount of water seemed to help - I just had to wait 15 minutes for the heat to subside. We set off back in extreme heat back to Champasak town stopping in the shade for water at intervals. As the sun went down we again sat on the verandah with Mark and Alison.