Sunday, February 19, 2017

Discovering Vat Phou in Laos' Champasak province

I’ve been privileged to twice visit Angkor Wat and several other temple complexes in the vicinity of Siem Reap, Cambodia, but am somewhat embarrassed to admit that I’d never heard of Laos’ Vat Phou until I went there in December.

The surviving ruins of the Khmer Hindu temple complex in Champasak, in the southwestern part of the country six kilometres from the Mekong River and at the base of Phou Khao mountain, were built from the 11th to 13th centuries — making them around the same age as those around Angkor Wat. Although the site is still used for religious worship, it’s been opened to tourists who pay approximately eight dollars to visit. Lao people receive a 60-per cent discount while monks, those under 18 and disabled persons are admitted for free.

An electric vehicle takes you from the entrance to the base of the complex, which is accessed by a long central walkway flanked by phallic symbols. Two reservoirs called barays, and formerly used for bathing, are on both sides of the path.

The walkway to the temple complex.
The first two buildings you encounter are the north and south palaces, which sit on terraces and feature interior courtyards. It’s not known what they were used for, though they may have had a religious purpose. While in disrepair from age, the detail of many of the sandstone and volcanic rock carvings on them remain beautiful. 

The south palace.
Stairs lead up to other terraces with small buildings until you reach the top level, 100 metres up. You’ll find the ruins of a sanctuary (in which more recent Buddha statues have been placed) and a small library, as well as rock carvings of crocodiles, elephants and snakes. 

The sanctuary.
There’s also a “sacred spring” that brings water from higher up the mountain.

The "sacred spring."
Perhaps the most striking aspect of this top level, however, is the view it presents of the rest of the complex and the surrounding countryside.

The view, and the author.
Caucasian visitors must still be relatively rare, as I was stopped by three different groups of Lao teenagers who wanted to have their pictures taken with me as I was descending the stairs.

The electric vehicle returned me close to the site entrance, where a museum houses a collection of recovered objects, architectural elements and sculptures, with explanations of their use and importance. There’s also a shop with products made by local artisans and a tearoom, where I was able to quench my thirst on a hot day by purchasing my first Beer Lao Gold for $1.60.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

My introduction to southern Laos

Entering Laos was forbidden to non-essential visitors during the period I was travelling through southeast Asia in 2004, and I’ve always wanted to return to visit the country. In December I had the chance to do just that.

I thought that the nation of 6.8 million people bordered by Cambodia, Vietnam, China, Myanmar and Thailand might still be holding a grudge against me, however, when I arrived at the only Cambodia to Laos border crossing from Dong Kralor to Veun Kham and found out that Canadians had to pay more than any other nationality to obtain a visa. I paid $42 U.S. while people from other western countries were charged $30 or $35.

The Cambodia-Laos border crossing.
The crossing itself was rather surreal. While large buildings have been constructed and it looks quite grand, the duty free store was deserted and the 15 folks on my bus were the only ones heading into Laos while three people walked across the border going the other way. But after getting through that bureaucratic process, I found the Laotian people to be very friendly and welcoming.

It was a short drive to Don Khong, the largest of the 4,000 islands in the area on the Mekong River, and Pon’s River Guest House in the small town of Muang Khong.

The guest house was centrally located for walking, bicycling or boating. The room was fairly basic but clean, with two beds and a washroom with a toilet and shower with hot water. I was able to change money at the front desk. It was all I needed.

The view from the riverfront restaurant.
The guest house also operates a restaurant directly across the street, right on the shore of the Mekong, which provides great views of the river, the far shore and a few of the 4,000 islands. The food was fine, the beer was cold and inexpensive, and the staff was friendly and helpful.

Southern Laos is the least visited part of the country and its laid-back style is perfect for relaxing and soaking in the atmosphere. After checking in and having a large tuna sandwich and large bottle of Beer Lao for less than five dollars while enjoying the breeze off the Mekong, the guesthouse proprietors arranged a late afternoon longtail boat tour that included a 45-minute stop to walk around a smaller island that was home to about 500 people.

The small island.
There were no vehicles on the island and it was pretty poor and backward, but the people seemed happy — especially the children, who start school at age seven. I high-fived several of them and played soft toss with a few others using some nuts, although they had no concept of catching and didn’t manage to hang on to one after five minutes. But they laughed hysterically when I showed them the photos I’d taken of them.

The children.
We returned to the boat and continued the tour, stopping to watch a lovely sunset, before docking, having a couple of more beers and preparing for dinner at Pon’s affiliated but more upscale Pon Arena Hotel a short walk away. Fifteen dollars got me a traditional Laotian fish and rice dish, garlic bread and another large Beer Lao.

The sunset.
The next morning I elected to walk around the town for a couple of hours, which involved passing three schools and playing with more smiling and laughing kids. I visited two monasteries with ornate architecture, carvings and stupas, and came across a memorial monument to a man who was 115 when he died. 

The 115-year-old man memorial monument.
It was time for lunch, and eight dollars got me a plate of pad thai with chicken and two large Beer Laos at Pon’s riverfront restaurant to pass the time while waiting for a 2 p.m. bus to take me on to the next destination.