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Published: January 24th 2010
Originally on crossing the border into Laos we had planned on catching a bus to Champasak (or at least the edge of the river so we could cross over by ferry to the village which until 30 years ago had been the seat of Lao Royalty) but after a language communication problem with the bus driver we decided to head for Pakse, further north and also on the Mekong River. It proved to be a wise decision as what we though was going to be a short day turned into a rather long one. With bus changes at the border - and then a Lao bus that then only took us half an hour up the road where we were left in a dusty little riverside cafe for a couple of hours to await yet another bus - we ended up not arriving in Pakse until late in the day. I wasn't feeling well by that stage - I still had the remnants of my head cold - and we booked into a hotel right beside the bus stop in Pakse. A large hotel - the Pakse Hotel, run by a Westerner and with the widest corridors I've ever seen
in a hotel - it was permanently booked out whilst we were staying there. Next day I succumbed to the bug so we had a quiet day. Wandering around that evening I was surprised to see a large covered market area full of stalls and with a supermarket on the first floor. We hadn't seen the word supermarket written on anything for a while! Streets which had been very quiet during the heat of the day were suddenly bustling with people shopping and eating at the open air food stalls set up around the market square. That evening was New Years Eve but though we had a lovely meal out we didn't see the new year in - and we didn't even hear the big party that our hotel was holding.
Happy New Year!!
Next day we shared the cost of a tuk tuk with a young French couple to take us back down to Champasak to visit Wat Phu Champasak, an ancient Khmer religious complex. It was placed on the World Heritage list in 2001 and has since become an important tourist attraction in Laos. The highlight of the day for me was the river crossing - Champasak and
the Wat are on the opposite side of the river to Pakse. The ferry was pretty unusual - literally planks of wood which lay across three canoe style boats. It all looked very unsafe but seemed to work! There were three or four crossing the river as well as many tinier ones (for single motorbikes or a few people) - each one was loaded with 6- 8 vehicles, including tour buses. It took about an hour before it was our turn so we had great fun watching all the activity on the shore. Lots of kids were swimming in the water, dozens of women were selling food from shoulder baskets and the queue for the ferries just kept getting longer. Crossing the river it was a dusty half hour trip through the palm leave houses of Champasak (it appeared to be a very quiet town!) before we reached Wat Phu Champasak. After visiting the museum, full of stone work from the site, we arrived at the complex. Unfortunately after the splendours of the Angkor temples I didn't particularly enjoy this temple. Maybe we were expecting to see less of a ruin - the buildings on the lower part of the
complex were the most complete but were also closed off due to ongoing renovation work. Also it was very hot and quite a climb up fairly steep steps to the ruins on the upper level of the complex. It was interesting to see all the local tourists praying at a stone altar there - when they finished they all picked up a large stone and held it above their heads before leaving. Behind the temple was a rock with a large crocodile outline cut into it - what it was used for is unknown but the young local tourists loved it as a backdrop to their photos! Another interesting ferry crossing and a slow afternoon resting in Pakse ended the day. We spent the evening wandering around all the old French buildings, and checking out another Mekong sunset at one of the food stalls which lined the riverbank.
Next day we had booked a trip to the Bolaven Plateau, a large 1500 metre above sea level fertile area behind Champasak which is famous for waterfalls, cooler temperatures (we didn't notice that - it was still hot and dusty) and dozens of coffee plantations. Our hotel had no other guests taking
a trip that day so booked us in with a small group from another guest house.(Sabaidy 2). We had a fabulous day! The area was much dustier then we were expecting but the waterfalls were quite impressive though the first two we saw could only be seen from a distance. They dropped 150 metres into a dense green valley. At the next one (Tat Yuang) we had to join a long queue of Thai tourists to climb down a narrow ladder and slippery footpath to get to the bottom of the falls. They were spectacular and we spent a while just watching and listening to the flow of water. We were passing through very pretty countryside, dotted with dozens of wood and palm leave houses, lots of grubby waving kids and roadsides that were lined with bamboo mats covered with drying coffee beans.
Our guide was very knowledgeable and took us to some of the smaller villages where he explained the culture of the people who lived in them. One of the Katu ethnic villages had a very old spirit house in the centre (where the friendly village spirit lives) and the guide explained our the people still sacrifice bullocks
on the full moon in March as a homage to the village spirit. The Katu people also store wooden (though today they are more likely to be cement as the large trees needed for the old style coffins are not allowed to be felled any longer) coffins under their homes. If anybody gets ill they immediately prepare a coffin just in case! The next village was even poorer and the owners of the guest house we were touring with are currently building a library and school in the village. We were made very welcome and everybody was happy to see us. An interesting tradition within this village was the smoking of large bamboo pipes of tobacco - everybody does it, including children, from the age of five! We saw quite a few children partaking when we were there. The government is in the process of surfacing all the roads with bitumen and it is causing serious problems in the many villages which line what were once only rough dirt tracks. Because of the better road surfaces there is now a lot more traffic going past, and at a much faster speeds so some of the villagers have been killed whilst
crossing the road. They are trying to show the villagers to use just one area but so far without much success.
We ate lunch later at a restaurant overlooking the three levels of Tat Lo waterfall. A very pretty spot where despite the signs asking tourists not to most of the young backpackers were swimming in the pools wearing bikinis. Local women throughout Laos and Cambodia bathe openly in rivers, ponds and under roadside water pumps, but they always wear sarongs tied around their bodies. The tourists were climbing all over the waterfalls and our guide told us that at 4pm each day there is always a sudden sharp increase in the flow of water coming over the falls due to water being released from a dam further upstream. There may have been signs about not wearing bikinis but I couldn't see any signs warning the swimmers abut the increase in the flow. I should think a few people are washed off the rocks regularly.
On the way home we stopped at a tiny market beside the road. It was a forest market - meaning everything for sale was found in the forest behind the stalls. They are not easy
to find now as the government has banned the removal of many of the products that were once sold. However there was nothing at this market (other then a bunch of bananas) that I would have eaten - half of it I didn't even recognise! There was a snake, beautifully displayed in a coil, two different birds complete with feathers, grubs of all types, bowls of ant eggs, turtles, frogs, toads, and dozens of weeds! It was absolutely fascinating! Our last stop was at another village where women were weaving shawls - an interesting process where somehow they wove tiny white glass beads into the warp of the thread. Our guide told us they were overpriced but as I haven't seen them since I have regretted not buying a small piece. I've never seen weaving done that way before. And so ended a great day - we had already fallen in love with the relaxed pace of life in Laos after a few days there. Next day another bus took us further north to Savannakhet as we continued to head north towards the capital city of Vientiane.
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