There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Wednesday, 18 November 2015

Champasak, Wat Phou and then back to Thailand; Part 11 of Thailand and Laos


Our Champasak hotel, with the same name and management as the hotel in Thakhek, consisted of a bar/restaurant on the main street with accommodation in a single storey block in the courtyard behind. Our comfortable room had one feature that was new to us. The shower, accessed through a door at the end of the bathroom was surrounded by a high concrete wall to discourage exhibitionists, but had only the blue sky above. Open air showering is a delightful experience.

Inthira Hotel, Champasak
 In the morning Lynne opened the shutters on the bedroom window and a gecko dropped onto the top of her head. I am not sure who was most surprised, but neither party came to any harm.

Ging had suggested we leave at eight so we had breakfast at seven, choosing the same pavement table where we had eaten dinner. Even this early sitting in direct sunshine proved uncomfortably hot and we soon moved inside. While eating we watched the children of the town walking or cycling past on their way to school.

On the 17th we visited Wat Phou, just outside Champasak, on 18th we drove to Ubon Ratchathani in Thailand
along the southern red 'worm'
Ging and the driver arrived on time from Pakse and we set off for Wat Phou.

Wat Phou (7km from the Mekong and about the same distance from Champasak) is a UNESCO world heritage site. It was originally a Hindu temple built in the 5th century at the base of Lingaparvata Mountain, a hill with a natural lingam on the summit and thus, obviously, the home of Lord Shiva. The excitement of 5th century man when he discovered a hill with a willy on top can only be imagined, but sadly the organ was lurking in the haze, so I have no photograph.

The area later came under the control of the Khmer Empire based in Angkor and the surviving buildings are mostly 11th century Khmer. When the Khmer Empire converted to Theravada Buddhism so did the temple, which remains an active shrine.

We reached the site after a short journey through farmland dotted with hamlets and temples. Apart from the hills and an artificial lake (the last survivor of several) there is little to see from the entrance where the museum concentrates on artefacts showing the transition from Hinduism to Buddhism.

Leaving the air-conditioned museum, a buggy took us round the lake to the start of the ‘Royal Road’ an avenue leading to the temple and the cliff beyond, once the holiest part of the complex.

The Royal Road up to Wat Phou
 Along the avenue and up the first set of steps are the North and South Palaces lying on either side of the path. Built of laterite in traditional Khmer style, both are currently closed for stabilisation work.
The North Palace, Wat Phou
 The avenue continues....

Lynne and Ging continue up the next section of the avenue
 .... up to the next level to a modern Buddhist shrine and the remains of a small Nandi temple. A stall here sold candles, flowers and other offerings and we bought a good luck charm, destined to become a Buddhist Christmas tree ornament.

Remains of the Nandi Temple and a small Buddhist shrine, Wat Phou

Khmer temples were traditionally built on an east-west axis, which was easy enough in the plains of Cambodia, but the lie of the land here means Wat Phou is 8° off, which may be religiously imperfect, but at least meant photographs did not have to be taken straight into the morning sun.

Looking back down the Royal Road to the reservoir from the first level
The path beyond was in poor condition and the steps worse and required care. The approach was  fully exposed to the sun and it was already immensely hot. Ging's suggestion that we set off so early for what was our only visit of the day was well justified.

The next section of the path was in poor condition, Wat Phou
At the top is the main Buddhist sanctuary. The doorway and carvings on the lintel are ancient….

Sanctuary, Wat Phou
 ….while the Buddha image inside is modern. The sanctuary is still in use.
Modern Buddha image, Sanctuary, Wat Phou
From here we climbed to the base of the cliff, the oldest part of the temple where water from a spring is channelled to fall over a Shiva lingam.

Lynne cools off in the spring water channelled over a Shiva lingam, Wat Phou
There are several carvings along and around the base of the cliff, including a Buddha footprint, which appears to be modern, …..

Buddha footprint, Wat Phou

…an elephant of great antiquity….

Ancient elephant carving Wat Phou
…. and a mysterious carving, reputedly of a crocodile (though I struggle with this), which is definitely pre-Angkorian and may have been the site of human sacrifices. All sources say this – and all include the crucial ‘may’.
Crocodile carving, Wat Phou

From here the view over the temple complex, the reservoir and the plain, with the silver strip of the Mekong in the distance was spectacular….
Looking over the Wat Phou complex with the Mekong in the distance
 …as was the view of the well shaded route back down. Ging had gone ahead and we found him in the shade of a shrine with some under-ripe mangoes and a pot of chilli sauce. He invited us to join him. On its own the mango was not particularly pleasant, but loaded down with the sauce, the spiciness and acidity worked together wonderfully. He kept advising us to use less chilli sauce, not because there was any shortage, but because it is well known that all Westerners fear chillies. He soon learned otherwise, which took us up a notch in his estimation. [We were reacquainted with the combination in Munnar in Southern India in March 2016. We also discovered that chilli does nothing for fully ripe pineapple]
The shaded route down, Wat Phou
 Back in Champasak we said a final goodbye to Ging, who returned to Pakse. It was coffee time but cold drinks felt more appropriate and as we drank our elevenses we watched the children of the town walking or cycling past on their way home from school.

Afterwards we took a stroll through the heat to look at a couple of local temples and visit a small general store. My new shoes, bought at Thakhek after the Kong Lor incident, were rubbing and I needed plasters. They were sold by the individual plaster and as I needed two to encircle a toe, I bought eight which the shopkeeper thought an immense extravagance.

Temple, Champasak
 We had the hotel restaurant to ourselves for lunch; beef pad thai (me) and bruschetta with tomato, basil and onion for Lynne. We were impressed, any Lao cook should produce a good pad thai, but I have seen far less convincing attempts at Italian food considerably closer to Italy. While we ate we watched the children of the town walking or cycling past on their way back to school

We relaxed for a while in the shade by the river, thankful for the good fortune that had brought us to such a beautiful place. Then we went for an amble around town.

Relaxing beside the Mekong
The Kingdom of Champasak established its independence from Vientiane in 1713 and ruled southern Laos and chunks of what is now Thailand and Cambodia with varying degrees of autonomy until 1946 when the French merged the Kingdoms of Luang Prabang, Vientiane and Champasak to create the Kingdom of Laos.

Its former capital is now, according to Wikipedia, ‘very small, consisting mostly of guesthouses along the riverbank.’ There is a little (very little) more to it than this, along the main road 100m back from the river.

We walked that way past the hospital, a grubby, broken down looking place that we would rather avoid, even in an emergency.

Near the junction with the main road was a duck farm, the residents becoming very excited when they saw us.

Duck Farm, Champasak
 The school was on the main road, a two storey building from which more childish noise was issuing than I thought appropriate for lesson time. The upper storey windows were barred, which prevents kids from falling out, but we hoped there was a contingency plan in the event of fire.

There was little else on the main road and it was unshaded and unbelievably hot so we returned to the road by the river. It does indeed have many guesthouses though none seemed to open to non-residents so we would dine at our hotel again tonight, which was fine, but a change might have been good.

Apart from the guesthouses there are a number of French colonial mansions, one of them built for the ex-king of Champasak. I cannot be sure it was the one in the picture below, a nice house spoiled by the ridiculously overlarge portico, though the garden was spectacular.

Colonial Mansion, Champasak

We arrived back at beer o’clock (though Lynne had a coffee). As we drank we watched the children of the town walking or cycling past on their way home from school. If they had noticed us, and there was no reason why they should, they might have thought we had sat there all day.

Later Lynne ate pad thai chicken and I had pork and ginger, though for once no school children passed by.


We wiled away the next morning in similar fashion, sitting by the river and writing diaries or blogs. The Mekong flowed steadily, we saw a couple of people fishing and a ferry working its way slowly across, but largely all was quiet. An upright reed floated past and we speculated as to whether there was a spy below it breathing through the stem – it used to happen regularly in stories in our childhood.

We lunched on pork laab with parsley and mint, long beans and lettuce and as it was our last meal in Laos followed it with caramelised pineapple with coconut cream – just my sort of thing.

Another one of Champasak's French colonial mansions

In the afternoon a new guide and driver turned up to take us to Thailand. We were sorry to be leaving Laos, we know few places so relaxed and friendly.

We drove north along the Mekong as far as Pakse, then turned west towards the Chong Mek border crossing. Leaving the van we crossed on foot while the driver endured his own formalities. We spent the last of our kip on a big bag of Bolaven Coffee to take home and some taro crisps to eat on the train.

The border crossing was quiet and took only minutes. Soon we were back on the road, though now driving on the left, heading for Ubon Ratchathani.

When you have a first class ticket on Thai railways they certainly look after you. As soon as we reached Ubon Ratchathani railway station we were escorted to the first class waiting room and plied with tea, coffee and cake. At the appointed time they led the twenty of us, largely Thais as few tourists find their way here, to the train and showed us to our compartments. Diminutive Thai girls struggled to manhandle our cases, but offers of help were not welcome, first class passengers should not lift their own luggage, even if physically better equipped to do so.

Unusually it was a two berth compartment. This gave privacy, but at half the size of a four berth it felt cramped, and the lower bunk was too low to sit comfortably. We left on time, as darkness fell, so there was nothing to look at. A cheerful women brought a multilingual menu and late returned for an order. The cabbage and tofu soup, duck curry with plums and chicken with cashews were very good. We drank orange juice - Thai railways are sternly dry.
First class sleeping compartment, Thai Railways
We read for a while then a flunky arrived and made up our beds - you usually have to do that for yourself. Our arrival in Ayutthaya was scheduled for 4.30 so we retired to bed.

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