|Inthira Hotel, Champasak|
In the morning Lynne opened the shutters on the bedroom window and a gecko dropped onto the top of her head. I am not sure who was most surprised, but neither party came to any harm.
Ging had suggested we leave at eight so we had breakfast at seven, choosing the same pavement table where we had eaten dinner. Even this early sitting in direct sunshine proved uncomfortably hot and we soon moved inside. While eating we watched the children of the town walking or cycling past on their way to school.
Wat Phou (7km from the Mekong and about the same distance from Champasak) is a UNESCO world heritage site. It was originally a Hindu temple built in the 5th century at the base of Lingaparvata Mountain, a hill with a natural lingam on the summit and thus, obviously, the home of Lord Shiva. The excitement of 5th century man when he discovered a hill with a willy on top can only be imagined, but sadly the organ was lurking in the haze, so I have no photograph.
The area later came under the control of the Khmer Empire based in Angkor and the surviving buildings are mostly 11th century Khmer. When the Khmer Empire converted to Theravada Buddhism so did the temple, which remains an active shrine.
We reached the site after a short journey through farmland dotted with hamlets and temples. Apart from the hills and an artificial lake (the last survivor of several) there is little to see from the entrance where the museum concentrates on artefacts showing the transition from Hinduism to Buddhism.
Leaving the air-conditioned museum, a buggy took us round the lake to the start of the ‘Royal Road’ an avenue leading to the temple and the cliff beyond, once the holiest part of the complex.
|The Royal Road up to Wat Phou|
Along the avenue and up the first set of steps are the North and South Palaces lying on either side of the path. Built of laterite in traditional Khmer style, both are currently closed for stabilisation work.
|Lynne and Ging continue up the next section of the avenue|
Khmer temples were traditionally built on an east-west axis, which was easy enough in the plains of Cambodia, but the lie of the land here means Wat Phou is 8° off, which may be religiously imperfect, but at least meant photographs did not have to be taken straight into the morning sun.
|Looking back down the Royal Road to the reservoir from the first level|
|The next section of the path was in poor condition, Wat Phou|
|Sanctuary, Wat Phou|
From here the view over the temple complex, the reservoir and the plain, with the silver strip of the Mekong in the distance was spectacular….
|The shaded route down, Wat Phou|
We had the hotel restaurant to ourselves for lunch; beef pad thai (me) and bruschetta with tomato, basil and onion for Lynne. We were impressed, any Lao cook should produce a good pad thai, but I have seen far less convincing attempts at Italian food considerably closer to Italy. While we ate we watched the children of the town walking or cycling past on their way back to school
Its former capital is now, according to Wikipedia, ‘very small, consisting mostly of guesthouses along the riverbank.’ There is a little (very little) more to it than this, along the main road 100m back from the river.
We walked that way past the hospital, a grubby, broken down looking place that we would rather avoid, even in an emergency.
Near the junction with the main road was a duck farm, the residents becoming very excited when they saw us.
|Duck Farm, Champasak|
We wiled away the next morning in similar fashion, sitting by the river and writing diaries or blogs. The Mekong flowed steadily, we saw a couple of people fishing and a ferry working its way slowly across, but largely all was quiet. An upright reed floated past and we speculated as to whether there was a spy below it breathing through the stem – it used to happen regularly in stories in our childhood.
We drove north along the Mekong as far as Pakse, then turned west towards the Chong Mek border crossing. Leaving the van we crossed on foot while the driver endured his own formalities. We spent the last of our kip on a big bag of Bolaven Coffee to take home and some taro crisps to eat on the train.
The border crossing was quiet and took only minutes. Soon we were back on the road, though now driving on the left, heading for Ubon Ratchathani.
When you have a first class ticket on Thai railways they certainly look after you. As soon as we reached Ubon Ratchathani railway station we were escorted to the first class waiting room and plied with tea, coffee and cake. At the appointed time they led the twenty of us, largely Thais as few tourists find their way here, to the train and showed us to our compartments. Diminutive Thai girls struggled to manhandle our cases, but offers of help were not welcome, first class passengers should not lift their own luggage, even if physically better equipped to do so.
Unusually it was a two berth compartment. This gave privacy, but at half the size of a four berth it felt cramped, and the lower bunk was too low to sit comfortably. We left on time, as darkness fell, so there was nothing to look at. A cheerful women brought a multilingual menu and late returned for an order. The cabbage and tofu soup, duck curry with plums and chicken with cashews were very good. We drank orange juice - Thai railways are sternly dry.
Thailand and Laos
Part 1: Bangkok and the Train North
Part 3: Across Isan to the Lao Border