Khmer Ruins and Butterflies in Champasak

Traveling any distance in Laos can be both frustrating and fascinating. Unless you are connecting to or from Vientiane, the majority of buses are of the “local” variety – no a/c, hot, dusty, uncomfortable, arduous journeys that rarely make speeds over 45 kilometer an hour. My goal was the quiet town of Champasak.

On Thursday I woke with the rooster’s crow to catch the first bus out of Savannakhet to Pakse. If you want to beat the heat and ensure a seat to sit in, the earliest bus is always the best option. In Laos, the early bird really does catch the worm….of significantly less heat exhaustion. By seven we were chugging out of town.

Six hours, 3 bottles of water, several stops for food hawkers to sell beverages and quail’s eggs through the windows, and one mid-way pit stop to pee in the bushes later, and we arrived in Pakse. I spent most of the ride listening to the ducks complaining from their massive basket cage and sharing my tunes with the Laotian grandpa who sat next to me. (He is especially found of Johnny Cash and Norah Jones.)

For nerves and health reasons, I overnighted in Pakse. Pacing yourself when you have a chronic health condition is always essential. Yesterday morning I finally arrived in Champasak, carrying my luggage down to the informal cluster of rickety wood boats beached on the sand of the Mekong River from where the bus dropped me off in a tiny village. My boat captain helped me toss my pack into the boat, then waded us off the sand, revved the longtail motor, and off we glided across the river in the cool of morning. The mountains rose behind the opposite shore as a raft-like boat ferried a truck the opposite direction.

Here at last was Champasak.

I’ve also finally reached the Laos I dreamed of. We all carry pictures of what we expect when we travel to a new destination. The Laos of my imagination is apparently this string of quiet villages on the banks of the Mekong.

There’s not much to life in Champasak except to relax and interact with the friendly people, sip beer on the river, and nap in the heavy heat of the afternoon. The town is really several small villages that merge into each other. Most of the houses are still stilted, although a few have recently bricked up underneath to make a modern first floor. Life carries out in full view of the neighbors – people nap in hammocks underneath the house, families eat on the porches or on raised platforms, tiny shops operate out of the first floors selling cold beverages, soap, and snacks, and laundry dries on suspended bamboo poles. As I walk around, I am constantly greeted with a smile and curious questions.

This morning I biked 10 kilometers to a unique Khmer-era ruin – Wat Phou. I left by sunrise when the air was warm, but still new and sweet. Somehow I arrived before the gates opened and well before any other tourists. For 30 minutes it was just me and a handful of locals carrying incense and flowers up the tumbled, but steep ancient staircase into the mountain. At the top they slipped out of their flip-flops and padded the worn stone steps into a small temple adorned with carved lintels and a stern Buddha. I found a rocky perch to gaze out across the valley as the gong inside the temple resonated out across the newly dawned day.

Wat Phou is unique. Unlike most Khmer temples, this one is set up like a series of terraces, slowly rising up the mountainside. The grand road down the center is flanked first by twin ponds, then by twin palaces, before pitching up a stone staircase that quickly ascends up and kills your knees. Flowering trees line the path and the delicate white flowers were cascading all around me like heavenly rain.

Maybe it was the dance of butterflies that engulfed me in their whirlwind at the fresh stream trickling out of the caves or the incense wafting in the sunlight through the crevices of the ancient stone, but I feel light as air today, despite the heat.

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About chronictraveler

Chronic Traveler starts as a dream, one that I thought I had lost, but that has slowly changed into a mission to realize and live that dream every day. In December 2007 I became seriously ill and the doctors did not know what was causing my illness. I had to stop teaching as my life tumbled into a never-ending nightmare of doctors, hospitals and tests. Finally, in May 2008 I was diagnosed with a chronic condition - fibromyalgia. I was only 26 years old at the time. I have had to give up teaching, and now work part-time at a performing arts center as I learn how to manage my condition and improve my quality of life. What helped me through the months of uncertainty and sickness, and continues to inspire me, was a new focus on what truly mattered to me: family, friends, gardening, the arts, and especially travel. I have always fed my soul by traveling, ever since I first stepped off the plane at age 16 in Kathmandu, Nepal to help with an orphanage's building project. Meeting new people and experiencing how they live and how they view the world infuses my life with a richness I was so afraid I would lose when the doctor first said, "You have fibromyalgia". This blog is my story, as I begin to forge a new path. I am embracing my life as it is, with the fibromyalgia pain and fatigue, and learning to do what I love regardless. It may mean I have to go slower and take more naps or breaks! But I am determined to learn how to travel and experience the world, and hopefully what I learn will help others like me who believe their medical condition stands in the way of their travel dreams.
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