Asia | South East Asia | Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Laos) | Far South | Champasak – Day 36 – The Bus to Champasak, Laos
Having left the idyllic and idle isle of Don Det I am a couple of hours into my first foray north. I am sitting on a bus loaded with people, baby chicks, sacks of rice and, directly beside me, a family is transporting a red plastic basket half full of major league irridescent green beetles, each over 2cm long and half as high at the peek of its humped back. The beetles creep and crawl over each other trying to find that comfortable position (I suppose). Not much different than the human passengers all around me, come to think of it.
Marc of Belgium is sitting beside me and he just launched himself roof-wards claiming a huge spider had just crawled across his flip-flop fitted foot. Upon closer inspection, he realized it was actually a small crab (much better!) and upon even closer inspection, he noticed that there is a small canvas sack full of the critters, just beneath his seat. However the sack has a small hole in it and the crabs are doing their best rendition of ‘The Great Escape’. Discovery of the sack of crabs also explains the hitherto mysterious and pungent odour which seemed to be accompanying us.
Such is the scene inside as repairs are currently being made outside to the engine of our vehicle. The necessity of repairs is not a surprise given the engine’s snorting baritone harrruummphh for the entire time it has been pressed into service.
We happen to be stopped in a twenty-shack town when the engine abdicated its duties. Of note when we stopped here is the fact that our bus was converged upon by numerous food hawkers who seemed to appear out of the woodwork which is, in fact, exactly what happened given that all the road-side structures are wooden. All the hawkers were women and all of them were calling out their wares as they shoved them even with our faces at window level. All had their wares displayed on or hanging from wooden skewers. Let’s see: skewered splayed, under-cooked chicken parts, skewered barbequed corn and, of particularly delicious temptation were the sticks stacked with vertically pinned barbequed grasshoppers. Not many people went for the latter item although at least one little girl, a couple of rows ahead of me, was treated by her parents to the crunchy snack, snapping the legs off and then breaking them in half before popping them throat-wards. ‘It’s not only good, it’s good for you’ kept running through my mind; or ‘Mmmm, good’; or ‘Barbequed grasshoppers: they’re not just for breakfast any more.’
Presently, after a sweaty and cramped half hour the motor is rasping again and I think we’re about to make some breeze which will be a relief to my rivulet-tickled torso. Now we’re moving. Later!
Um, about 30 seconds later actually: splutter, cough. Full stop. The bus itself has to be at least 30 years old. It is framed by clackety tin plates fastened by rust spots which were likely rivets at one time. One other note: women’s equality extends fruther in Laos than in Cambodia, evidenced by the several women puffing on cigarettes during our delay here. I did not see a single woman smoking during my month in Cambodia. Ah, the motor is grunting again and we’re moving…
It is now 10:40pm and Champasak’s sweet night calm floats. The Mekong, under partly gauze skies and a full moon looks like a sheet of purple silver glass, as if it has actually stopped its flow. Such is the scene from the back patio of our guest-house.
Night’s calm is actually not tremendously different from Champasak’s day-time beat along what I like to call Main (or Only) Street. Mid-afternoon Champasak presented a few bicycles pedalled unhurriedly by locals, the occasional sawng-thaew (a motorcycle which pulls along a small two-bench covered passenger section) and the odd double-side-saddle contraption, similar to a sang-thaew but suitable only for two passengers. The most apparent feature of Main Street was the pods of gorgeous, almost edible, smiling, ‘sabaii-dii’ children sparkling greetings as we passed. (Sabaii-dii is Lao for ‘hello’).
‘We’ is Wendy from Brisbane and me. We met as we both stepped off the rattle and roar creature-carrier at the turn-off which leads to Wat Phu (Mountain Temple). Wat Phu is just south of Champasak. We caught a sang-thaew from the turn-off which took us to the Mekong river’s edge and there boarded a ferry to take us across to Champasak. The ‘ferry’ consisted of two elderly, boxy canoe-like pontoons beneath a simple wooden platform which bridged the two and was powered by the usual long-tail motor. Once in Champasak we found rooms here, dropped our packs, rented bicycles, and pedalled off the eight kilometres or so to the temple, sabaii-dii serenades smiling at us all along the sealed but vibratory road.
Wat Phu is built at the base of, and up the lower slope of jungled mountains, afternoon silhouettes tracing sharp edges above misty swirls. At the bottom of the site sit precariously tilted ruins which display some fine bas-relief carvings. The structures look like a still photograph of an ancient temple caught in the act of collapsing during a major earthquake: pillars and displaced stones at jumbled and unlikely angles. Here and there, wooden braces have been added in recent times to stabilize things. We ascended the mounds at the entrance to the ruins, wandering in and about the relic buildings. We then continued up steep stone steps and soon had an inspring view of both the mountain hillsides and the plain and river below. We splashed our sweat-streaked faces with the cold spring water that drips out of a cleft in the rock behind the upper-most shrine. This earth-fed spring and the mountain setting are likely the reasons this site was chosen for a pilgrimmage place some 1400 years ago. The afternoon was fading, dull grey, and only a few local Lao shared the silence of the site with us.
We cycled back to town, supped and let the peace of the patio sink in. It’s now time to sink into sleep.