I rubbed the gunk from my eyes and stepped off the overnight sleeping bus in Pakse, Laos. A pack of cutthroat taxi drivers instantly surrounded me, jostling and jockeying. “Where you go?” shouted one. “I give you best price,” insisted another. “Sinouk Cafe,” I answered groggily. The taxi drivers exchanged a knowing look that should have tipped me off. Fortunately, one use of the filthy, overflowing toilet in the bus during the night had convinced me to wait until morning and I was squirming to find a bathroom. By the time I returned, not a taxi driver was in sight, so I hefted my backpack and asked directions to the cafe where I was supposed to meet up with my fellow passengers for the Vat Phou Cruise to 4,000 Islands. It was less than two blocks from the bus station, an easy walk that would undoubtedly have cost me dear if I’d hired a taxi.
With two hours to wait, I cracked open my laptop and settled into an easy chair with a Cappuccino and pastry. Other passengers trickled in and gathered in groups, all chatting in French, and it was soon apparent that I would be the only English speaking guest on the cruise. Though languages come easy to me, French is not among my repertoire and I wondered how I would get through the next three days, since none of my fellow passengers seemed to speak English.
After a briefing (in French) I followed the Mekong Cruises representative down to the river where we boarded a longtail boat that would carry us to the Vat Phou cruise ship. Having been reassured that an English speaking guide would join me on the boat, I tuned out the unintelligible French chatter and focused on the scenery. Unlike the mud-churned, rapids-laden Mekong River I had experienced during the Luang Say Cruise in northern Laos, here the river ran glass-smooth and emerald green. Fish jumped, sending concentric circles racing across the mirrored surface, and hawks screeched overhead, putting us on notice that we were intruders in their domain. Rather than jutting rocks, the southern reaches were pierced by innumerable sand islets that appear and disappear as waters rise and fall with the seasons, earning the area its nickname of 4,000 islands.
Around a final bend, the Vat Phou boat came into view. Originally a ferry that carried teak wood between Vientiane and the south of Laos, in 1993 the steel-hulled teak barge was converted into a luxurious floating hotel. As we slid alongside I registered my initial impressions. Frilly. French. Like a giant, top-heavy wedding cake. Could this boat possibly stay upright? I climbed aboard, deposited my shoes on the lower deck for the duration of our cruise, and climbed to the upper deck for another briefing, also in French.
We enjoyed a gourmet lunch as the captain motored toward Champasak township and the Vat Phou Ruins, a majestic pre-Angkorian 10th century temple complex regarded as the most important ruin in Laos. Just as we were finishing up he eased the giant vessel out of the main channel and gently bumped the sand embankment, allowing us to disembark and climb aboard tuk-tuks for a 30 minute ride to the ruins. This particular site was chosen because it sits at the base of a curiously shaped mountain topped by a 45-foot high monolith that was revered as a natural lingam (phallic symbol) of the Hindu god Shiva. The Chenla Empire, a great civilization stretching south into Cambodia, north and west into northern Thailand and as far as Burma was responsible for the building of the original temple between the 6th and 12th centuries. Nothing remains of the once great city of the Chenla Empire, since all but religious sites were built of wood.
Between the 11th and 12th centuries, Khmer architects restored and rebuilt many sections of the temples and they now have many features characteristic of the ruins at Angkor Wat in Cambodia – stone causeways, decorative lintels and many carvings. Today, the two large palaces on the valley floor are slowly being repaired and restored through the UNESCO World Heritage project, one by a team of French archeologists and the other by an Indian team, each of which has employed vastly differing Continue reading