We were very lucky to get away before ‘Lockdown’ and got back home just in time. Heathrow seemed surprisingly normal with a few sanitiser bottles dotted here and there. I don’t think at the time we were ready for what was to come …
Our holiday started off as we flew into Bangkok and then after quite a wait in the airport we boarded a ‘twin-prop’ plane to Pakse in Southern Laos. Although we’d been to Laos a couple of times this area was new to us. Our hotel, Residence Sisouk was built in the colonial style with an imposing teak staircase weaving around the building up to the bar and breakfast room. It’s a small, family-run hotel and was perfect for us. It’s true, there’s not a lot to do in Pakse but we enjoyed wandering round and found a lively bar/restaurant just down the road for our evening meal. Lao Beer, was in much demand! It’s definitely the national drink.
For our first full day we hired a tun-tuk to take us to the small village of Ban Saphai on the edge of the Mekong – very sleepy and that included the cows. It’s described as a having a Handicraft Centre which is definitely nothing to get excited about, not much activity there! We then took a short boat ride to the island of Don Khon which did live up to the description in Lonely Planet. It’s a weaving village and yes almost every house has a loom. We stopped and chatted to one lady who was working away and of course I bought something. Interestingly whenever I wore the skirt, it was much admired.
Back to Pakse for lunch and a siesta before getting the same tub-tuk to Pakse’s main tourist attraction, Wat Phou Salao. There is a road up to the giant Buddha and temple but there’s also scores of steps to the top. We like a challenge especially when the taxi driver looked at me and asked if I was sure I wanted to do it! Blinking cheek! If there’s steps to climb, then we’ll always go for it.
When you get to the top there’s great views over Pakse and the mighty Mekong. The Buddha is striking and also the rows of smaller Buddha statues all donated by the people of the town. There are hundreds of them. The best time to go up to the summit is either sunrise or sunset. Unfortunately the smog was pretty thick that evening so there was no sunset, but a nice golden glow. We enjoyed our walk around at the top and were especially pleased to receive a blessing and buddhist bracelets from a monk in the Wat (Temple). It’s always good to be blessed when you’re starting your holiday.
The next day we travelled by boat along the Mekong to the village of Champasak. It’s not on the tourist trail although it has a certain charm with its traditional Laotian houses and colonial villas. Our hotel was right by the river and we were luckily enough to be given the best guest suite in the place. Nakorn Cafe Guest House was excellent and the food, superb. It was a great find.
After a late lunch we explored the village which was very sleepy. Maybe it’s always like that? The handicraft shop run by a French lady was the one and only interesting shop we came across. School was out so we chatted to some children who were playing in the grounds of one of the many temples dotted along the main road. My man was asking the children the name in Laotian for elephant but every time he tried to pronounce it, it just sent the children into fits of giggles. One thing though, they loved having their picture taken which was great for me.
The next day we started early to try to beat the heat of the day. It’s hard to walk around ancient sites or anywhere else for that matter in 35 degree heat. Most tourists staying in Champasak are there for one reason and that is to visit the world heritage site of Vat Phou complex and temple and we were aiming to do that but it wasn’t our first stop.
It just so happened there was a festival starting that day at Wat Muang Kang. The older ladies were decorating the temple whilst children were trying their luck on various sideshows – much the same as home really. I’m sure if we’d gone there any other day it would have been a peaceful tour round this ancient temple but this day it was just manic. Great to see everyone enjoying themselves.
Our next stop over very bumpy back roads was to a ruined 11th century temple which is undergoing extensive restoration. Basically Hong Nang Sida Temple is a building site. We had to sign a form as visitors although frankly there was little opportunity to to explore the temple ruins. We chatted to a couple of workers who were from South Korea. This country is working in partnership with the Laotian cultural heritage department. Slightly disappointed that our driver had brought us along miles of dusty track as apart from a buddhist shrine there wasn’t much to see except piles of stone slabs. It’s going take some time to re-build this temple!
And then it was on to Vat Phou, the ruined Khmer Temple complex and the main tourist attraction in Champasak province.
This is a vast site at the foot of the Phou Lao mountain built along similar lines to Angkor Wat. By the time we arrived here it was almost midday and 35+ degrees and no shade. Fortunately you get a mini bus to the start of the first complex of temples. After walking through the first section you’re faced with the Phou Lao mountain in front of you …it’s uphill all the way from now on.
I’ve already mentioned that we like a challenge and getting up to the top wasn’t going to be easy but we had to go for it. Steps to each terrace are tricky; apparently there are seven tiers to the top although we didn’t count them. The views of the Mekong and surrounding countryside are stunning and at each terrace there are shrines to both Hindu gods and Buddha. So much to explore at each level and take pictures of course. Reaching the top we certainly weren’t disappointed. Water from a nearby spring comes down the mountain where there’s a makeshift channel so you can cup your hands and drink the wonderfully cold, water. You need reviving after this climb! The covered area by the side of the cliff is recognised as a spiritual place and the buddhist monk in front of us waiting in line to drink made the experience even more special.
Climbing down the hillside wasn’t too bad until we got to the flat area where the sun was at its harshest. Our water by this time had got very warm so we were thankful to arrive at the excellent Visitors Centre where a peculiar green drink revived both of us. The moral of this visit is …avoid going to a large temple complex in the heat of the day.
I’m going to end this Blog here as from Champasak we travelled by bus, boat and motorcycle to the southern-most tip of Laos, a spit away from Cambodia. There are more stories, more pictures to go into the next Blog and it probably won’t be quite as long as this one! I hope you stuck with this first account of our holiday in Laos and thank you if you did.