Travel Stories

Pakse and Vat Phu - Laos

Loren and I flew out of Vientiane, as fast as we could from my perspective, there being very little of interest to me there except an authentic Italian restaurant, Aria, with white linen tablecloths and imported cheese (a welcome relief after 4 weeks of noodle soup), and landed in Pakse, Laos, where we found a good internet connection, checked in with the world outside of Laos, read about the demonstrations in Egypt and Yemen, found a hotel, rented motorcycles (I’d never driven a motorcycle before in my life), and headed out of the city. 

We stopped and separated at Ban Muang, about 40 km south of Pakse, where the ferries cross the Mekong to Champasak and the road to the holy site of Vat Phu. Loren headed another 100 km further south to the 4,000 Islands, Muang Khong, and the Cambodian border and I crossed the Mekong to the relatively small and unique strip of land on the west bank of the Mekong that belongs to Laos, all the rest of the territory west of the Mekong belonging to Thailand and the Mekong itself generally marking the Laos Thailand border.

“Ferry” it definitely is, but not necessarily like any ferry I’ve seen before.  What these ferries are is two metal hulls bound to a plank deck that is approximately three van lengths long and three van lengths wide, with wooden car and truck ramps that are lifted and lowered no more than eight inches controlled by hand operated chain pulleys attached to the far corners of the ramps and tall posts secured to the decking.  The ferry is moved slowly through the water by an eight cylinder automobile engine with one gear and a modified drive shaft that powers a small propeller.

On the other side of the Mekong are a series of lovely peasant farming villages in the Mekong Valley where the living conditions seemed cleaner than elsewhere in Laos, although the poverty was still quite apparent.  At the end of the road is Vat Phu, a spectacular temple complex actively being excavated and restored by Laos in cooperation with Italy, whose interest in monument and archeological preservation is renowned.  The city in which the site is located has been dated back to the first century, although the bulk of the buildings connected with the temple complex were built by Khmer kingdoms of the sixth to thirteenth centuries (as I understand it) and have Hindu origins and some Hindu iconography, although at its peak the temple was, and still is, a Buddhist center.  The reverence in which the Lao people (and government) hold the site is very obvious and immense attention has been paid to cleanliness, minimization of signage, keeping out autos and motorcycles, and archeological integrity.

As one of the few non-Asian tourists at the site I drew a fair amount of attention, all of it friendly and warm, including lots of kids calling out greetings to me, a Chinese family that insisted on having their picture taken with me, and Lao women who enjoyed putting small “blessed” woven bracelets on my wrists.  I was actually quite moved by the site, and by my overall experience of the day, filled as it was with awe, wonder, newness, adventure, and, at the risk of seeming a bit too impressionable, reverence.

At the exit from the Vat Phu site the Lao Ministry of Information and Culture Heritage has created a wooden archway on which it is written, “The Preservation of Antiquities is the Duty of All People.”  I like that instruction, repeated it to myself like a mantra I was trying to memorize as I motored back toward the Mekong and Pakse, and intend to apply it very personally.