In the south of Laos, we climbed a World Heritage Site called Wat Phu and relaxed on river islands in the Mekong. We said goodbye to this beautiful land.
Pakse to Wat Phu to Si Phan Don | Champasak Province | Deep Deep South Laos
The ancient Khmer site of Wat Phu
It was a pleasant 45 km scooter ride south of Pakse to get to the little-known world heritage site of Wat Phu. The 900 year old ruins are on a site 1.5 kilometres up a mountainside, spilling across seven terraces.
Many invaders have controlled Laos, the Siamese, the French, the Burmese have all had their time. About a thousand years ago, the Khmer, who came from Cambodia, controlled parts of Laos; they are most famous for creating Angkor Wat in Cambodia, the Hindu temple complex dedicated to the Hindu god Brahma. In Laos they built a much smaller temple, Wat Phu, which predates Angkor Wat, which they dedicated to Shiva.
The site was relatively sparse of tourists, and we passed two man-made lakes, went up a series of stone steps, each flight getting steeper and steeper and each step getting narrower (I do get the feeling that ancient people had very small feet).
We saw carved stone stairs, stupas, a crocodile, snakes and elephants. It takes a stretch of the imagination to recreate how the temple ruins might have looked in its heyday. The chanting, the drums, perhaps sacrifices, priests, fires, ash smeared holy men, who would have come from thousands of miles away, elephants and prostrate devotees.
Every year a huge festival called Boun Wat Phou celebrates Lord Shiva (India’s Shivaratri) and there are prayers, music games and dance. It is still a living temple and it’s fascinating that the Laotians can juxtapose different faiths, Buddhism, Hindu beliefs, and local spirit worship, without any incongruity whatsoever.
It was sweaty work climbing those steps in the heat, but as we ascended the final flight, we saw a small girl with her dad both holding ice creams. That spurred us on. We knew what lay in store for us on the seventh terrace and soon we were having strawberry cornettos, sitting on a thousand year old carved step, 100 metres up looking eastwards towards the Mekong.
At the top was an altar, fed by a spring, which today is dedicated to Buddha, but 900 years ago, it would have been a Hindu temple for Shiva.
The spring water would have passed over a phallic symbol (linga) and flowed down stone canals. The mountain behind the temple, Phu Khao, is said to represent the phallus too and was probably the reason for the Khmer choosing this site.
In 2001 Wat Phu became a world heritage site and we witnessed the conservation work in progress with a crane lifting stones in to place and a group of archaeologists excavating fallen steps and lintels.
A brief side note: How does a place become a UNESCO World Heritage site?
There are over 1,000 World Heritage Sites and we’ve been lucky to have visited three of them on this trip (Kaziranga National Park, Luang Prabang and Wat Phu).
So how exactly does a place get listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site? Supposing you had a special place in mind, let’s say for arguments sake, you wanted world heritage status for your back garden because of its excellent collection of garden gnomes, unparalleled in terms of rarity, colourfulness and quality.
The first thing to consider is why do you want your back garden to be a World Heritage Site? Might you become the victim of your own success? Some places, when they become a world heritage site change their complexion forever. Tourists and tourist dollars might come flooding in but that little quaint English village feeling of your little fishing, wheel-barrow pushing gnomes might be gone forever. Not only that, but any modernising work you may want to do like painting your garden gnomes a new colour, or a adding a new gnome, forget it. Everything will be strictly controlled once by the suits at UNESCO once you get your garden of gnomes listed.
So, assuming you’re okay with this, your garden and its gnome collection will have to be a national landmark in your country as a pre-qualifier, and your government will have to make the case to the World Heritage Committee as to why your garden of gnomes should be held at the same level of ‘outstanding universal value’ as the Taj Mahal, Macchu Piccu and Angkor Wat.
The World Heritage Committee meets once a year to assess applications for which they have set criteria. Is it a masterpiece of human genius? Is it an important interchange of human values? Is it a unique testimony to a civilisation. In the case of an application for a garden gnome collection the latter is perhaps the most robust argument).
Critics of the World Heritage Site application process claim it is too Eurocentric and the process favours richer countries which are able to invest in lobbying groups to navigate the application through the various stages.
South to the river islands of Si Phan Don (the 4000 islands)
A three hour bus-ride and a short long-tail boat and we’d arrived in Don Det one of the Four Thousands islands.
The Mekong, at the southernmost part of Laos, splits in to multiple channels. At 14km wide, it’s at its broadest here at any point in its 4350 km journey from Tibet to the South China Sea.
It goes through rapids and waterfalls and carves 4,000 small islands, some 20 kilometres wide, some 30 feet wide, idyllic, lush and cooling in the river breeze. This is the Si Phan Don archipelagos.
Even as we sat in the long-tail boat and sank to the level of the river, I knew it would be a relaxing final few days in this amazing country. We visited waterfalls, cycled around the countryside, saw sunset from a 20 foot wide island to ourselves, and when it got too hot we’d just sit at a riverside restaurant on stilts and enjoy the breeze. (Or one of us would feed random cats.)
For the more adventurous, and less middle aged, there are all sorts of activities on the 4,000 Islands, from zip-lining to tubing and kayaking.
Nights are early on the islands. There’s bugger all to do. By 7pm moths and flies gather in their millions around any light making restaurant al fresco dining a competitive and vigilant experience.
On our final night we determined to stay up a little later than normal by playing bad pool at the Adam’s Bar in Don Det. I mean we played pool really badly. It was so shocking it took half an hour for one of us to pot something that wasn’t the cue ball. Some of our shots didn’t even hit another ball. Obviously it was the sweaty cue that was causing the issue.
Luckily the people in bar were all gap year backpackers on space cakes and space shakes so were rather disinterested in how incompetently we ‘played’ pool.
In the room at the back, overlooking the river, more fallen gap-year backpackers were lying around on blankets and recliners. drinking their space shakes. It was like being in an opium den except there was a TV playing Friends on loop.
One of the advantages of being a middle aged backpacker is that you feel no peer pressure to participate in such illicit intoxicants. For our final night we just ordered pizzas topped with herbs and ate them next to people dozing from the other sort of herbs.
Goodbye Laos, you beauty
It’s been a privilege to have travelled down Laos. Over the last 16 days we’ve visited beautiful places, caves, national parks, pretty towns, we’ve felt the peace of its temples and gasped at its stunning natural landscapes.
But more than the land, it’s the Laotians that are really very special. We were always treated properly, never saw a scam or even got short-changed, we were never overly quizzed about our nationalities or photo requests. I never once saw a Laotian speak in a temper or even adopt a brazen, cocky tone. They have such a laid back charm. I loved the way they interface with people, head slightly bowed, or give you your bill with both hands. That ready smile, that quick sabadee!, the genuine humility and the centred, cool-mind. And this from the most bombed, one of the poorest nations on earth.
(Author’s note: The above paragraph does not apply to Laos Traffic Police)
Next stop: Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.
This post is part of the series called 90 Days in South East Asia and was written on-the-road.