A Bus, A Truck, A Boat, A Bike and Ruins

Greetings from a very small, sleepy river town called Champasak. I’ve covered a heck of a lot of ground in the last 12 hours, which you can see on the map on my homepage! Last night, of course, I was in Vientiane, about 850km to the north, where I boarded my so-called “VIP Sleeper Bus.” Clearly, I had been spoiled by the wonderful sleeping bus in China. I never should have expected a similar experience in Laos!

This sleeping bus actually required that you share your bed with another person. Great care seemed to have been taken to not mix genders. There was a very tall British fellow next to me (next to me being amazingly close and I am about the max height requirement for those beds!). Fortunately, I hit it off quite well with my seatmate, as he had spent a year living right across the Hudson River in Newport, NJ while doing an internship in midtown Manhattan!

I’d like to interject real quick with a note about differences in personal space out here. The short version is, it does not exist! A prime example is the Lao fellow sitting in the aisle between Luang Nam Tha and Luang Prabang who fell asleep on my arm! There just aren’t personal boundaries here, which would explain the bus.

It was a pretty miserable bus ride that put us into Pakse right around 6am. But I had no plans on staying in Pakse as I had to return there to get to Thailand anyways. Instead I was heading straight for Champasak, which, fortunately, almost nobody else seemed to be going to! I set out walking with this French girl I met on the bus (who was also on the bus from Vang Vieng to Vientiane) and after a few kilometers, a songthaew pulls up full of Lao folks with one Westerner who asks, “Are you going to Champasak? It’s only 20,000 kip (about US$2.50).” I was, so big adieu to my French friend and hopped in.

It didn’t take long before I realized that I knew this western fellow. We had shared a tuk tuk to go tubing in Vang Vieng, and it turned out he was from Seattle.  We got to chatting a bit, and before we knew it, we were the only two left, as the songthaew slowly dropped off our Lao compatriots at their respective backwater villages. After about 90 minutes (mind you , I’d had very little sleep, no breakfast, and no bathroom), we came to a stop at the mighty Mekong River.

From there, it was onto a boat that brought us quite a ways down the river to Champasak. A bit exhausted and hungry (he had also come from Vientiane, just on a different bus), we decided to share a little bamboo bungalow at the first place we got to for 25,000 kip a piece (US$3).

There isn’t  an enormous amount to do in Champasak itself, but it is the gateway to one southern Laos’ prime attractions…the ancient Khmer site Wat Phu, which actually predates their kingdom at Angkor in Cambodia by a few centuries.

Not wanting to waste any time, we ate, took showers, and then hopped on some rented bikes for the 8km ride to the ruins, the second World Heritage Site of my trip. This temple was constructed on the side of a hill and retains three levels. Much as in its much larger cousin Angkor Wat, the stairs up to the highest level were immensely steep (perhaps similarly indicating “heaven?”).

The ruins were quite impressive, though they certainly cannot compare to the sites seen at Angkor. As it is older, it is in a greater state of disrepair, though an effort was underway to reconstruct some of the structures on the lowest level. The upper level structures were mostly intact, including a building that originally housed a Shiva phallus before the Khmer’s shift to Buddhism, when it was replaced with a “Buddha footprint.” The upper level, as well as boasting phenomenal views, also featured stones carved as an Elephant and a crocodile. Of course, nagas littered the grounds and the doorways and windows shared many similarities to their Angkor counterparts, even down to the intricate carvings above, including one depicting the “Churning of the Ocean of Milk” also known as the Samudra Manthan.

Prior to heading back to town, we stopped in at the exceptional museum, which featured many interesting artifacts from the site.

Now, there is nothing left to do but kick back in a hammock and relax. That will be a theme over the next few days, as tomorrow we will head south to Si Phan Don (4,000 Islands).

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