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.