Laos Champasak 2002.02.15 - 02.17

Wat Phu

Wat Phu is the most important ancient historical site in Laos. Constructed in the 9th century, it was a holy site for Hinduism and later Buddhism. Today, the temple is in considerable disrepair relative to historical sites in other countries. But for Laos, it's in better shape than most.

Coming from Bangkok by night bus, we reached the Chong Mek (Thailand) - Vangtao (Laos) border at 08:00. A 200 meter walk leads through Thai and Lao immigration to a parking lot where trucks collect people traveling to Pakse, 45km east. Exiting Thailand was straightforward. Upon entering Laos, however, the immigration officer demanded 50 Thai Baht to return our entry-stamped passport. Guarded behind a sheet of glass, we couldn't refuse the bribe and snatch our passports from the officer's hand like we did at the Indian-Nepali border. Masami tried her best. "I already have a visa, and I intentionally came to the border during working hours when no overtime charge is levied." The bribe refusal simply resulted in a returned passport with an annulled entry stamp. The Lao immigration are staunch. Pay us or go away. We had no choice but to pay.

Just beyond Lao immigration is a money exchange that gives a 1% worse rate than the Lao bank rate. It's worth noting that on the Thai side in Chong Mek, a money changer gives a slightly better rate from Thai Baht to Lao Kip than the Lao bank. The trouble is, he's often out of Kip.

50 meters beyond the Lao money exchange counter is a parking lot with awaiting trucks. The standard fare from Vangtao to Pakse is 5000 Kip, but 7000 Kip is normally demanded from each tourist. If staying in Pakse, the arrival time is inconsequential. The supply of Guest House rooms outweighs the tourist demand. If wanting to travel beyond Pakse, arrival before 13:00 is best. The last bus for Champasek is 13:30. The last bus for the southern islands in the Mekong River on the Cambodian border is sometime just after noon. The last northbound bus departing from a different bus station 10km east is around 15:00. Boats heading south from Pakse only depart in the early morning.

We made the mistake of investigating the bus schedule from Pakse to Vientiane without confirming the time of the last bus departure from Pakse to Champasak. By the time we returned to the South Bus Terminal (a dirt lot in front of the New Market) from the North Bus Terminal (a 10km distant dirt lot in the middle of nowhere), the last bus for Champasak had already left. Asking the locals for alternatives, the first 9 people said, "No more." Fortunately on our 10th try, someone pointed us to a blue truck. Sitting in the back were a woman and boy. Groceries covered the floor. They confirmed we could get near Champasak on this truck. "Champasak no. Baan Muang OK. Boat Baan Muang Champasak OK." We waited in the back of the truck, dusty and sweating, for 90 minutes for the driver. The 20km drive to Baan Muang took another 90 minutes. Evidently, the other passengers were still grocery shopping. Our first stop was at a water purification factory. Empty 10-liter jugs were discarded from the truck and filled jugs took their place. 5km further, the truck stopped near a watermelon market. The women jumped out and strolled off, returning 30 minutes later with a tiny melon. Eventually at the ferry port, we paid our 4000 Kip per person truck fare and boarded a haphazardly constructed barge (2000 Kip per person). Disembarking at the opposite ferry dock, a 2km walk brought us to the section of Champasek with guesthouses. Checked in at 18:00 and absolutely exhausted, Wes slept to morning without dinner.

We came to Champasak to see Wat Phu. Bicycles rented from the guesthouse for 5000 Kip each helped us reach the 8km distant temple in reasonable time. Paying a 5000 Kip entry fee and 500 Kip bicycle parking fee, we were finally there, only to discover there wasn't much there. One exterior wall retained some carved Buddha and Garuda guardians. The remainder was in near shambles. We did like the other tourists: glance at Wat Phu for half a minute, mutter, "That's it?", and quietly read a book under the shade of a tree.

That night, the event of the year occurred at our guesthouse. Villagers from afar gathered in a large crowd to gawk. The roof of one of the guesthouse buildings burst into flame. As we and the other guests were quietly eating our dinner, electrical power was lost. "Strange that lights in the surrounding houses are still on," we thought. "Must be a fuse," another guest reasoned. Minutes later, the guesthouse wife squawked in Lao while running to and fro. That's when we collectively realized, "Something's wrong." We ran to our room in the adjacent building, turned on the water tap to fill the toilet-flush-bucket. We also packed quickly and moved our belongings to a neighboring guesthouse. Guests and guesthouse owners worked in unison carrying buckets of water from each bathroom as others scooped water into pots and pans for throwing in the air at the flames. It was hard work without much gain. The guesthouse husband scaled a tree to the burning roof and threw sheets of burning palm leaf material to the ground. With the roof disassembled and blackened support beams doused, the husband returned to the ground with burned arms. And as in many places around the world, the neighborhood policeman arrived after the conclusion of the biggest event in town.

A warped stone stairway with a flowering tree canopie leads up to the remains of Wat Phu, an historic temple 8km southwest of Champasak.
A small Buddha figure carved into the Wat Phu exterior wall lintel attests to the beauty Wat Phu must have exhibited in times past.

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