|The planes get ever smaller as I move through Laos, and the last looks like a toy plane on the runway. It’s a MA 60, built in China and has wheels fastened not to the fuselage, but to the wings, of course they retract into the wings after take off, there’s an odd tripod quality to it. Though the 70 minute flight is smooth. We land in Pakse, and from there a taxi to the hotel in town.
It’s a small town, like many places in Laos, the infrastructure here is minuscule, a few buildings, a market, open air restaurants along the Mekong River, a hotel in the town center, school, church, many Buddhist temples and government buildings. Not decrepit, but provincial outpost written all over the place. From town I arrange a visit to the Champasak ruins. I assume one vehicle will take me there. Early next morning I get into a van, with several others foreigners, all of whom are going to different places. Drive for 30 minutes, then they hand me and a few others off to a kid who we follow to the Mekong River, hop in a long skinny boat, and 10 minutes later we’re on the other side. Up the steep bank and onto the grounds of a guest house. A few stay there, another fellow motions to me and I get into a tuk tuk, a motorcycle pulling an open air wagon, 2 seats facing each other, covered top and open sides. One of the nicest and most fun ways to travel in Laos. I always choose the tuk tuk option for short distances. It’s 9 kilometers the driver says, or maybe 8 or 10 he then modifies. Across mostly flat country, rice fields all brown from recent harvest, the rest of the country green, forest and small farms. The road full of motor scooters and kids on bicycles, wicker baskets holding live chickens everywhere, and piles of vegetable for sale in front of each building. Many houses, bigger than elsewhere in Laos, still the after effects of French colonialism show in the architecture, so the houses all attractive 1 story concrete structures with tile roofs and pleasing proportions. What the French left here is probably most intangible, but baguettes, good coffee and pretty houses are seen or tasted daily. Tuk tuk driver has small command of English, (and I have miniscule command of Lao) but friendly and chatty and we manage to have a conversation, though I’d be hard pressed to tell you any words. All the while there’s a mountain getting ever closer.He drops me at 10:00 a.m. by the base of the mountain, motions to museum, and then another wave of his hand to the ruined city complex. See you at 12:30 he says, motioning to his watch to make sure I get it. I’ve just been handed off like a baton from a series of people, and different modes of transport, and I’m ahead of schedule, as I arrive in Champasak. Always easy to feel secure in the hands of the Laotians, ‘don’t worry’ ought to be the country motto.
Champasak Ruins, of in Lao Wat Phu Champasak is my destination. Built by the same people who gave the world the phenomenal Angkor Wat in neighboring Cambodia. Like Angkor is was built over a series of centuries, beginning in the 5th century and probably ending in the 16th century. One thousand years of habitation. And like Angkor, the early kings were Hindu, with architecture and religious imagery to reflect this. As Buddhism took root in the 12th and 13th century new imagery prevailed, much like in Angkor, making an intruguing bend of the 2 religions. One need not be an archaeologist to see the many simlarities in architecture between Angkor and Champakak. The orientation of the temples is rigidly rectangular and symmetrical, with square and rectangular artificial lakes surrounding square and rectangular temples. Eveything is constructed of stone block, quarried and then fit together with elaborate precision and unlike Angkor which sits on flat level ground, these begin at the base of a mountain and march up the mountain. Meaning you have to work to see these, a self administered sweat bath as you climb the hills in tropical heat. On the other hand, it’s really beautiful, the walls are leaning and some fallen over, but pretty damn good for 1000 years old, plus or minus a few centuries. And unlike Angkor (which is very impressive) with its crowds and at times carnival atmosphere, here there are just a handful of foreigners, plus another handful of locals and I feel the magic of the place in a more intimate way than in Angkor. And though abandoned as a city at least 500 years ago, it’s still sacred to Lao, and fresh offerings of incense and flowers sit on all the altars and in front of all buildings. It feels in fact, surprisingly alive, and to call it a ruin disrespectful.
By early afternoon I’m chowing down to a meal of larb, ground and cooked chicken, mixed with unknown tasty spices, and eaten with sticky rice (everything is eaten with sticky rice in Laos). The rice comes in a woven basket, sometimes warm usually room temperature and with your hands you make a ball (it sticks together, yet leaves no sticky residue on your hand, how cool is that?) and I wash it all down with a Beerlao, the country’s only brew, but thankfully a really tasty one.
My tuk tuk driver materializes, the morning’s journey is repeated in reverse, and by late afternoon, I’m in a sidewalk cafe in Pakse (another effect of French colonialism?) Beerlao in hand.
by John Leupold
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