Monday, August 4, 2008

Tat Lo and Pakse

We picked up in Tat Lo where we left off in Si Phan Don - relaxing on the front porch of our hut overlooking the river. Except now we had traded the sweltering heat of the valley for the cool breezes of the Bolaven Plateau, and the wide, slowly meandering Mekong for a more agile network of rivers that tumble over the highlands in a series of waterfalls.

Although we were joined by a handful of travelers on the long and sweaty bus ride to Tat Lo, the place seems to have retained much of its traditional character. There are no Internet cafes or western-style restaurants - just a few local shops, a collection of huts for travelers and a small temple, which was blasting music at all hours of the day and night for a local festival while we were there.

The area is famous for two things: waterfalls and coffee. In our short time there, we got a small taste of each. There were two waterfalls within walking distance of our hut, where we could take a refreshing dip or watch the local boys slip down naturally carved water slides into swirling water below. A short hike beyond the waterfalls brought us to small tracts of farmland clear-cut from the thick forest. In addition to growing coffee, the local tribal people plant a wide range of other crops to support their small villages.

The Plateau was an incredibly pleasant detour and we wish we had more time to explore the area, but we now had a flight to New Zealand booked and not much leeway in our schedule. So, we headed back to Pakse to try to arrange transport up north. It worked out that we had an extra day in the city, so we rented a fantastic hotel room (a big splurge at $17 a night!) and took advantage of "big city" amenities, like an ATM.

There isn't too much to do in Pakse, but it's a pleasant enough place if you can find somewhere to hide from the mid-day sun. We picked a local "healing center", where we got traditional Laos-style massages laying on mattresses on the floor. It was a far cry from a spa-like setting and the masseuses kept laughing at us, but at least there was air conditioning! This riverside city also boasts a few pretty temples, a small market and, of course, a couple of excellent coffee shops. By 10 pm we were exhausted and ready to sleep the night away on our overnight bus to Vientiane.

Sunday, August 3, 2008


The town of Champasak is on the west bank of the river, the opposite side of the paved "highway" that runs north to south along the Lao/Thai border. This means you need to board a rickety old ferry to get across the river, and then walk (or flag down a ride) another couple of kilometers south to the town. Its a bit out of the way, but your efforts are rewarded with a quiet and peaceful village and some gorgeous views over the river.

The area was once the capital of the Lao Kingdom and Wat Phu Champasak is set in kingly fashion on the side of a mountain about 5 kilometers south of town. The ruins are relatively humble in comparison to those at Angkor, but beautiful their own right.

We walked along a narrow causeway skirted by two rectangular reservoirs until we reached two crumbling pavilions and finally the stairway that leads up to the main temple. The climb to the top was brutal (April is the hottest time of the year in Laos!), but we were emboldened by the laughter of the Buddhist pilgrims who accompanied us and comforted by the shade and delicate fragrance offered by the pretty yellow and white frangipani trees lining the steps.

The temple at the top exhibited an interesting mix of Hindu and Buddhist influence and there were a couple of fascinating rock-carved sculptures in the surrounding thicket, including a table shaped like a crocodile that archaeologists suspect may have been used for human sacrifices. We dipped our hands in the spring water that emerged from a cave in the mountain, hoping to benefit from its reputed magical properties. After drinking in a few last glimpses of the golden countryside that unfolded below us, we headed back to our motorbike and enjoyed a tranquil ride home in the soft light of dusk.