Today I was able to fully appreciate what a magical place Champasak is. In the morning I took a tuk-tuk to the temple Vat Phou, spectacularly situated against the backdrop of high mountains.
The Vat Phou Temple is older than Angkor Wat. In fact it was the earliest of the Khmer temples and was dedicated to the god Shiva. As noted by UNESCO: Wat Phu “was shaped to express the Hindu vision of the relationship between nature and humanity, using an axis from mountain top to river bank to lay out a geometric pattern of temples, shrines and waterworks extending over some 10 km.”
The setting is extraordinary. The crumbling stone structures are tucked between the mountain and a vast plain that stretches off to the horizon.
There were far fewer tourists than Angkor Wat but I would not say that it was deserted.
It was a steep climb to get to the inner sanctuary. The steps were narrow and high. This is the easy part:
Everyone was huffing and puffing, plus it was sunny and hot. I’m glad that I did not follow the hotel’s advice which was to take a bike for the 10 km. I would not have had any legs left for the climb! Before reaching the sanctuary, there are the remains of a palace. Probably a palace. Its function remains uncertain.
In addition to the finely sculpted figures from Hindu mythology, there was also a spring and outlines of three elephants carved into a rock.
I spent about two and a half hours there and then headed back to the hotel for lunch in a rest. The road that led to the temple passed villages and a number of interesting sites that I decided to explore later by bike.
The bike ride at the end of the afternoon was simply enchanting. I had a better bike today, without a flat tire that is to say, so biking was a lot easier. I passed the typical Laotian houses which are In wood and on stilts. Underneath the living quarters is always a large space between the stilts, which is where locals live when it gets too hot. There are often tables, wooden platforms that could be used as beds, hammocks. People smiled at me and said hello as I bite down the road which did get some trucks rolling through but traffic was light enough that they were long quiet stretches. The houses were interspersed with rice patties, fields where water buffalo and cows were grazing, plus temples. Every so often I caught a whiff of incense or the sweet perfume of a Frangipani tree.
There was a school outside of which was perhaps the most beautiful and soulful tree I’ve ever seen; its branches spread for at least 50m end to end.
There were a few spots to contemplate the Mekong River but not too many.
In a way, life here is both too easy and too hard. It’s easy in the sense that there is plentiful food and water. The villagers can grow their own rice, pick fruit from the trees, keep flocks of chicken and eat their eggs, keep cattle for meat. You have pretty much everything you need to live but the problem is that there is little to no health care. Children are short, and you see very few old people. I don’t know what the life expectancy is here but I suspect that it’s not very high.
It was just beautiful biking at the end of the afternoon when the heat of the day had passed and people were busying themselves with tending to their stalls and their shops,gathering rice, grilling meat, children playing.The road was quiet with only an occasional motorcycle.
It’s amazing the kind of things that can go wrong in a developing country. Way back in Siem Reap last week I returned to my room and discovered that my key had broken off in the door. You can say it was a very cheap and thin key. Then just a few days ago I was taking a shower in Don Khone and the shower head simply broke off. I told the manager about it but then let it go. So today I inadvertently shut the door and locked the key in the room which you would not think would be a problem. It turns out that was a problem because the wife of this husband-wife team couldn’t find the key. She wound up getting into the room using a long knife which was sensible and afterwards made very clear that was her husband’s fault. “He’s always taking keys”, she says “and he puts it in his pocket or puts it any old place and then I can’t find the keys. I’m on my own here! I run the place and he needs to do things to make it easier for me!” I couldn’t agree more. The husband is a big Belgian guy that was probably good looking in a very Nick Nolte way when he was younger. He swoops in from time to time and is very charming with the guests and very solicitous. He’s very interested in knowing how things are going: did I like the meal (the meals here are absolutely fabulous by the way), what am I doing next, can he help etc. But his Laotian wife clearly seems to run the place or at least thinks she does! It’s quite funny.
Except tonight when I went down at about 8:30 to have a bite to eat and a beer and found that the entire place was shut up completely. All was dark, the garden was fenced off and it was not even possible to get out because the outer gate was locked.
I finally found Jack was relaxing in his quarters watching TV, and politely asked him to please open the gate so I could stroll down the road and find a place to eat.
It worked out well because it was a beautiful walk with hardly any cars or motorcycles on the road. It was breezy and cool, there was a full moon and all was quiet. The only place open was the appropriately named Riverside Restaurant where I got a plate of noodles and a beer as I watched the stars over the Mekong River.