SOUTHERN LAOS

Bill and Bessie Too puff and pedal into Laos
Pakse, People's Democratic Republic of Laos
2 December 2002—Lao National Day

Has a government employee ever asked you for "overtime"? Well, today being a national holiday, the Lao immigration fellow demanded 80 Thai Baht ($2) as an extra fee. Welcome To Laos!

Lao National Day commemorates the communist victory over the pro-western monarchist forces in 1975. Probably not an event that's celebrated in the Pentagon! The Lao government has been described as a pragmatic socialist system, and is closely patterned after Vietnam's.

The last few days in Thailand had some enjoyable stops. Before pedaling out of Ubon Ratchathani, I rode north to visit Wat Phra That Nong Bua, which features a replica of the Mahabodhi stupa in Bodhgaya, India. The exterior has elaborate reliefs of the Buddha's past lives, along with many Buddha statues and mythical figures. A smaller stupa and more Buddha statues stand inside. Nearer downtown, 150-year-old Wat Thung Si Meuang has a beautiful traditional library with a multi-tiered roof; the building stands on stilts over a pond to protect it from wandering insects. A worship hall has some wonderful old paintings of Thai life.

From Ubon, we wandered east to the Mekong River and visited some groups of prehistoric paintings, 1000-3000 years old, at Pha Taem National Park. Today we headed south through rolling forested hills to the market town of Chong Mek, then crossed into Laos P.D.R. Only mad water buffaloes and cyclists were out in the hot mid-day sun. I nearly melted in the heat except for the cooling breeze from cycling and my insulated helmet. A Lao-Nippon bridge spans the immense brown waters of the Mekong, just before the regional capital of Pakse. Giant billowing clouds finally let loose a rainstorm after we had settled into a hotel.

I couldn't resist asking for an air-conditioned room. The price, however, was 70,000 kip! I peeled off the 5,000-kip bills until reaching the vast sum, actually just US$7. Yes, if you'd like to be a quick-and-easy millionaire, come to Laos and change US$100! You'll get a thick stack of two hundred 5,000-kip notes (the biggest the bank had).

I'll take a rest day tomorrow, visit the museum, and walk around town. Next, a few hours to the south and a ferry ride across the Mekong, is Wat Phu Champasak, a major Khmer temple site. A long ride farther south will take us to Si Phan Don (Four Thousand Islands) for some island life in the Mekong near the Cambodian border.

 

Bill and Bessie Too have a hot time in the far south of Laos
Savannakhet, Laos
17 December 2002

We've been wheeling along in Laos for two weeks now—the days have just whizzed by!

From Pakse, we first headed south 30 km, ferried across the Mekong River, cooled off over lunch at a riverside restaurant in Champasak town, then continued to the Khmer site of Wat Phu Champasak. Unlike the meticulously restored Phanom Rung site that we visited in Thailand, this one has a very atmospheric tumbled-down appearance. From a huge pond, a promenade flanked by stone lotus bud columns (most lying on the ground) leads to a pair of large rectangular worship pavilions, the most impressive buildings here due to their size and detailed carvings. The pathway continues west past a Nandi pavilion, now empty, and climbs past some guardian figures and a Ganesha to the main sanctuary. This structure of stone blocks has many detailed carvings of Hindu epics and gods. Originally it housed a Shiva lingam continually bathed in water from a nearby spring. Now it shelters several folksy Buddhas.

Yes, it was hot and humid. The calendar may have said "December," but the sun wasn't thinking of taking a rest. The next day we moseyed south, with many drink and shade stops, to Si Phan Don—"Four Thousand Islands." The Mekong, 4350 km from its source in the Tibetan Plateau, had spread out to a width of 14 km with many islands. Our destination for the day was the largest island, Don Khong ("Island Mekong" in Lao). Crowds had gathered in the main town of Muang Khong for the carnival and boat races. Six long canoes (like in Hawaii Five-O, but no outriggers.) and two shorter canoes came out for the final events. Boatmen paddled furiously in perfect synchronization along a one-km course in the river. The excitement peaked for the final run when all eight boats speeded along toward the finish line.

Next day, we pedaled south almost to the Cambodian border and stopped at an overlook of Khon Papheng Falls. Here the mighty Mekong plunged in a fierce cascade of mist and foam. This wasn't good for boat navigation, but back around the early 20th century, the French had built piers and a 14-km railway on the nearby islands of Don Khon and Don Det. We went over in a motorized canoe past lush green islets well above the falls. The islands were the sort of palm-fringed places where travelers would laze the days away swinging in a hammock and sipping cool fruit shakes. Life was simple—no cars, no electricity, no telephones, no alarm clocks. We visited another section of the falls on the west side of Don Khon, here just a set of rapids among dense foliage, then bumped our way south on the railroad bed to the enormous concrete pier where goods and even whole boats were once hoisted onto the trains. Pieces of a locomotive rusted nearby. WWII bombing by the Japanese had put a permanent end to the train ride.

The next morning, change was in the air—literally. A cool breeze now came out of the northeast, which, although a headwind for the long ride north, felt good. After an overnight at Champasak, I pedaled north and east to the hills of the Bolaven Plateau. Each day of our three-day loop on the plateau had a different waterfall. The first was the best—a twin cascade of 120 meters fell into the head of a verdant canyon. Roadside vegetation ran riot with tall weeds decked in yellow or blue flowers.

Back in Pakse, we continued north on Hwy. 13, a smooth paved road with little traffic. Lots of friendly kids calling out "Sabai Dee" or "Hello." The scenery alternated between villages and forest—not exciting, but pleasant enough.

Savannakhet has a crumbling charm; old French colonial architecture surrounds a neglected plaza. The solid St. Teresa Catholic Church stands at one end, and the Internet cafe I'm using at the other. A block farther west the Mekong glides gently southward. The Thai town of Mukdahan lines the other shore.

Life in Laos has many similarities to Thailand—food and language have much in common—but the Laotians are keen to preserve their identity despite the presence of vigorous economies in neighboring Thailand and Vietnam. The Lao like their laid-back lifestyle! One odd aspect of Laos is the scarcity of newspapers and the even rarer sight of someone reading one! The government has no need of criticism, so there's no reason to have a free press. There is Thai television, though, which most Laotians watch; even little bamboo shacks in the rural areas commonly sport a TV antenna pointed toward Thailand.

If you'd like to see a map and read more about Laos, try Lonely Planet at www.lonelyplanet.com/destinations/south_east_asia/laos/ A great site about cycling in this part of the world is Felix Hude's www.mrpumpy.net

Some people think the two pavilions had been used for gender-segregated worship.North Worship Pavilion of Wat Phu Champasak. The site has two worship pavilions flanking the path to the main temple. The Khmers may have started construction of the sandstone buildings as early as the 6th century and continued work as late as the 13th.

Stone pipes once carried spring water to bath a Shiva lingam inside this sanctuary.
Showing its age, the main temple stands on the highest level
A Buddha statue swathed in yellow sits unperturbed nearby.

Originally the boat racing festival marked the end of the three-months rains retreat of the monks in October. Now it's held as part of the National Day Celebrations in November.
Racers dig into the Mekong with their paddles in the boat racing festival on
Don Khong, the largest island of the Si Phan Don ("Four Thousand Islands").
An official and policeman monitor the race from the motorized canoe in the foreground.

The khaen, a reed instrument with the bamboo pipes, carries the melody. Its sound has been compared to a calliope.
Lao musicians and an enthusiastic crowd cheer on the boatmen.

The falls stretch 13 km across the Mekong and its islands. These on the eastern shore the falls are the most impressive.
Farther downstream, the Mekong roars over Khon Phapheng Falls.
The drop is only about 10 meters, but the water volume is huge.
Cambodia lies just a short distance farther downriver.

Motorized canoes like this one take visitors on excursions to Irrawaddy dolphins.
A canoe takes shape on idyllic Don Khon.
Rapids of the Mekong rush by the beach here.

Swivel-mounted petrol engines have a long shaft and small propeller to better navigate the shallows.
Our boat taxi weaves through  Si Phan Don archipelago as we leave Don Khon.

Forest trails here were almost too slippery to walk!Two days later we climbed up onto the Bolaven Plateau and saw Tat Fan, twin waterfalls plunging 120 meters into the head of a canyon.

That smooth pavement was not to last--we took a very rough "scenic route" to our next waterfall, Tat Lo!
Yellow flowers and thick vegetation line the roads on the Bolaven Plateau.

a great picnic spot
Whitewater plunges over black basalt at
Phasoume Waterfall on the Bolaven Plateau.

St. Theresa's Catholic Church in the distance is still in use and has a seminary.
The sleepy plaza lined with French colonial buildings in Savannakhet.

On to Central Laos and Vientiane