Posted by: HelenRortvedt | 6 March 2007

Southern Laos

Juxtaposition.

Well, time has managed to escape me once again–an easy thing to do in a place where a commonly asked question is: “What day is it again?” Our final days in Laos seemed to be even more chill and relaxed than their predecessors…and that is certainly saying something!

Vientiane’s own Arch de Triounfe. French colonialism, anyone? Ironically, this was built in the 1960s, with American funds which were originally intended to build a modern airport. Some of Vientiane’s finest lovingly refer to this “concrete monster”as their “vertical runway”.

Pha That Luang is Laos’ national monument and appears on all things officiall Lao…visas, money, beer labels….you name it. It presides gently over Vientiane.

Sunset in Vientiane.

On our last day in Vientiane, we hopped a local bus about an hour outside of town and headed for the “Buddha Park”. A very bizzare place, built in the 1950s by a Russian-trained [I believe] architect. Dozens of concrete renderings of Buddhist and Hindu deities litter the grounds and a massive structure that resembles a soup bowl turned upside down dominates the grounds. You can crawl through the narrow tunnels of this structure to see even more bizzare statues, bathed in a wash of horrible flourescent lighting. Bizzare. It’s not a word I use all that often, but I can find no other word to describe this place.

At the Buddha park, we were met by a group of young monks, one of whom was quite the impressive English student. We had a great conversation–exchanging stories and traditions and ideas…even digital photographs! These monks were better wired than I am. Digital cameras, cell phones, the works! I must say, it was the first time I have ever exchanged emails with a monk. He actually scolded me for not using the internet calling program, Skype! What a world full of misconceptions this is…

Monk Somboon shows us the pictures he’s snapped of us at the Buddha Park.

This sign near Vientiane’s central bus station both warms my heart and makes me laugh. 🙂

We moved on from Vientiane in style. We were suckered into taking the “VIP” bus for the 10 hour overnight journey down south to Pakse. Rumor had it, the local bus was to take 16 hours! I have never experienced such a posh bus in all my life. Dinner on board, after dinner mints, free water, bathroom, karaoke, a fresh hand towel, blankets… It was hard to remember I was in Laos.

We arrived in Pakse in the morning, and ended up piddling the day away by napping, running errands (there was a Vietnamese consulate there, where Jess was able to get a new visa for her return flight from Saigon) and avoiding the blistering heat. Pakse is quaint, but there isn’t a whole lot in town.

The next day, we left town on a sawngthaew [covered pick-up truck bed with benches] headed for Champasak. A quick journey brought us across the Mekong to the small village, best known for the Angkor-era ruins that lie just 8km from town. We checked into our guesthouse and rented bikes and rode through the midday sun [only mad dogs and Englishmen…] to the site. Covered in sweat and desperate for cold water, we arrived about 30 minutes later. The site was small, but thoroughly impressive to the archaeology geek in me. It was a wonderful warm up for Angkor itself. Anthropologists and Archaeologists say that Wat Phou Champasak served predominantly as a religious pilgrimage site, and there was once a road from one of the smaller temples that led directly to Angkor itself. The bike ride back to our guesthouse as the sun was dropping lower on the horizon was far more enjoyable…

The ruins at Wat Phou Champasak.

The main temple of Wat Phou Chamapasak sits shrouded in the shade of plumeria trees.

The temple at Wat Phou Champasak used to house a linga, a monument for Shiva. It now houses several placid looking Buddhas.

We left Champasak early the next morning and arrived a few hours later on the island of Don Det by means of: a tuktuk, a “ferry”, a sawngthaew, a public bus, a motorbike, and yet another “ferry”. It was pretty hilarious. Don Det is a travelers pitstop in the Si Phan Don, or, Four Thousand Islands that stretch across the Mekong River at its widest point on it’s journey from Tibet into Vietnam and into the South China Sea.

There isn’t a lot to do on Don Det, which is precisely why most people end up there. One last bit [or one fisrt taste if you’re traveling North] of relaxation and complete tranquility before moving on. We swam, we walked, we ate, but mostly, we read. And it was wonderful. But we tore ourselves away from it yesterday morning and began a 36 hour journey to Siem Reap, Cambodia, where I find myself right now. A long, and at times, confusing/frustrating journey that involved push-starting the bus on multiple occasions…but we arrived, 36 hours later.

Sunset in Don Det over the Mekong River. I know, enough with the sunset pictures. I just can’t stop…everything is more beautiful at sunset.


These remote border posts are all that stops you from skipping the country or overstaying your visa! [Cambodia on the left and Laos on the right.]

Tomorrow morning, we’ll meet our tuktuk driver at 5am and will head for the ruins to catch our first glimpse of the largest temple complex on earth at dawn…

I have decided to extend my stay here in SE Asia by a few weeks in order to give some real time to Cambodia. Who knows what’s in store. There is much to be discovered. I am now scheduled to return home in early April, as opposed to mid-March.

Be well.

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