05/04/17 – Laos, Part 1: Biking Through Wat Phu and the Bolaven Plateau

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Tad Fane – waterfall on top, crocodiles on the bottom!

I’ve mentioned it in a few past blog posts, but for all of those who don’t know, I’m taking a nine day vacation away from my survey. I needed to get a new Cambodian visa anyway (and had no desire to do the daylong roundabout at the Thai border again that I did in early March), but I also need to write one of the more important grant applications of my PhD career: the Wenner-Gren, the vicious and meticulous application that will guarantee funding for my second season of survey in Cambodia. If I get it, my expenses are taken care of. If not, then…well…let’s see how many TA-ships they’ll let me do.

Digressing, I initially thought that I should be in the thick of things at Angkor when I start to write – you know, to be in a place where I’m living and breathing my data – but I’ve come realize that the best place to gather my thoughts is actually far away from my fieldwork. Getting away from Siem Reap for a bit has proved a miraculous change thus far, and I’m about 2/3 done my first draft of the proposal after only three days of real writing and research. Plus, it’s given me some time to reflect on my cataloguing and ground-truthing, and made me realize that I actually like the work I’ve done over the past seven weeks despite a few bouts of Impostor Syndrome along the way.

I’m spending my nine days away from Siem Reap (ten if you count my travel day back to Siem Reap on the 11th of April) between southern Laos, Kampong Cham in Cambodia, and Phnom Penh; the latter is only to secure financial settlement for my lost check-in bag, otherwise I’d be heading straight back to Siem Reap across the north of the country or I would’ve headed north in Laos to Luang Prabang. Right now I don’t mind the stop-off that much – I’m happily lazing in a hammock on a sunny afternoon on the sleepy island of Don Det, a newly-established backpacker Mecca, on the border of Laos and Cambodia. I’ll talk more about this gem amongst Si Phan Don (the 4000 Islands) of the Mekong River in my next entry, but for now let’s recap the two days before that.

For anyone who has never been to Laos, it’s both a) as rural and subsistence-based as Cambodia and b) as French as Cambodia. It was part of the same geopolitical body of colonial property as Cambodia and Vietnam (French Indochina), and slipped into communism around the same time as well. Today, Laos is still a purely communist country (unlike Cambodia that scared the bejeezus out of itself between 1975-1979), with the hammer and sickle on red cloth flying proudly beside the national flag on most hotels and restaurants (photos coming in the next entry). Laotian communist forces heavily mined along the Cambodian and Thai borders in response to civil unrest in both countries, and for this reason much of the famous Plain of Jars in the central-west of the country is still inaccessible. The roads until recently were deplorable as well, and based on first-hand experience the number of potholes could still use some work.

But unlike Cambodia or Thailand, which is overrun with both East Asian and Western tourism, Laos is a little more off the beaten path, especially away from Luang Prabang. The backpackers reveal themselves slowly, and on Don Det come in droves, but the one thing I’ve begun to notice is that April really marks the end of the tourist High Season – everywhere I’ve gone has been almost entirely empty and only the hardiest of backpackers (and foolhardiest of archaeologists) brave the scorching temperatures of March to May.

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Not a soul in Wat Phu to spoil my shot.

Pakse, an hour from Siem Reap by relatively cheap flight, was my gate in, and I got a fancy-new one page Laotian visa-on-arrival on my passport to go with all of the one-page Cambodian visas that are currently suffocating it. Lao Airlines, which has a really odd way of introducing itself to the world…

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So…you weren’t ready before?

…was my flight in, and for anyone interested the daily flight to Pakse leaves at 10:45 (or sometimes earlier – we left at 10:30) and gets in an hour later.

Pakse is a gateway town to everywhere else: highways to the Lao capital of Vientiane, the majestic Bolaven Plateau, the Khmer temple of Wat Phu, and Si Phan Don both stem from Pakse, and there’s really not that much to see unless you like walking around old colonial French architecture and have never seen a Southeast Asian temple before.

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A French corner-house with multiple generations of moto-grime.
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Wat Luang, Pakse – one thing the Laotians mastered compared to the Thais or Cambodians is fuenerary architecture.
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Pakse from the balcony of the Alisa Guesthouse – you get the sense that not much has changed in 40-50 years.

So within two hours of being in Pakse I’d managed to quickly cleared customs, arrived at my two-day accommodation at Alisa Guesthouse, realized that there was only wifi in the lobby, ate a dim sum lunch, and secured a scooter to get me down to Wat Phu. Bikes are easy to rent in Pakse – scooters, not so much, because most foreigners rent them early in the morning. But I found one relatively quickly after lunch, and zipped southbound out of town along the Mekong River.

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The bridge connecting the airport to old Pakse over the Mekong, Southeast Asia’s longest river.
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A pond off the highway facing the mountains near Wat Phu…very likely Khmer in origin.

The drive down to Wat Phu, a 10th century Khmer temple (with 5th century origins) marking the very eastern end of what is thought to be the Royal Highway from Angkor, is one of the most scenic drives I’ve taken in recent memory and definitely the most scenic I’ve taken on a scooter. Pakse is surrounded on all sides by mountains, some of which make up the Bolaven Plateau, the highland remnants of an ancient supervolcano. If I’d planned better in advance, I could’ve spent three days biking around various national parks and waterfalls in the Bolaven Plateau, but I decided to come down to Don Det instead so honestly I lost nothing in terms of life experiences by making that decision.

Wat Phu is nothing like any other temple I’ve ever been to. It’s not the only Khmer temple in Laos, but it’s definitely the grandest, and is one of only three Khmer temple-complexes in the entire world to have been granted UNESCO World Heritage status (the others being the Angkor Archaeological Park, Preah Vihear, and if you really nitpick you can count bits of Sukhothai in Thailand). The majority of the complex is built in the form of terraces and temples gently ascending a mountainside in the shadow of Phou Kao Mountain, thought to be the home of Shiva due to the natural lingam at its peak, with all structural elements leading to a lingam bathed in the waters of a natural spring.

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The lingam peak is visible over the top of the mountain in the centre.

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DSC_0581.JPGToday, it’s a Theravada Buddhist sanctuary that has been in sole possession of various Lao kingdoms since the fall of the Khmer Empire in 1431, so I can’t quite use it as a comparative study of how Khmer sites were converted into Theravada monuments.

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I’ve always found Laotian buddhas kind of dopey.
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A modern monastery has set up shop up here…or by modern I mean 19th century when French archaeologists stressed its importance enough for construction of a modern monastery to begin.
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Thought to be a pre-Angkorian human sacrifice area or a very odd carving of a crocodile, I’m thinking this looks more like an early carving of a Krasue/Ahp ghost. Look it up – they pop up in a lot of modern Cambodian horror movies. But regardless of what it is, I’m still not seeing a crocodile.

The reason Wat Phu is so unique is that the terraces and temples are built in relation to the mountain, not as a centralized temple-complex – the sacred area at the top of the long path of stone steps is the end of a path, not the center of one. It is similar to scaling a temple-mountain, but you can’t go down the other side.

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Come to think of it, nothing is particularly easy to climb here.
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I guess this makes it a sacred site – the physical toll.
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I mean, talk about trying to climb steps to your central sanctuary!

The ruins lie 20km south of the 18th – 20th century capital of the Kingdom of Champasak, a small independent principality stretching from Pakse to the modern Cambodian border that held out against French colonial power for a surprisingly long time and incited more than one rebellion between the 19th and 20th centuries. There’s not much left to denote Champasak as more than a sleepy village on the Mekong these days, and to tell you the truth I drove right through it on my way back to Pakse without knowing it!

 

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So instead, I’ve supplemented this Champasak-less section of the blog with a typical monks-on-ruins shot at Wat Phu. The monks could’ve been from Champasak, right?!

The next day I did something similar on my way to Laos’s most scenic waterfall at Tad Fane: I drove right past it and ended up in Paksong, the town over. I eventually found my way back, but because the highway is under construction they’ve taken all the signposts out – the only way I was even on my way to Tad Fane (heading east) was by using the compass on my phone.

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That, and this sign that pops up very subtly on the side of the highway saying “Tad Fane Resort”. I drove by it because I figured “Tad Fane” would actually be further along than its resort. Nope! Laos is new to capitalism so whoever owned the land directly opposite the waterfall immediately got to work monopolizing the viewpoint. 15,000 Kip to get in, and the restaurant isn’t even up and running yet!

There’s other waterfalls all along this stretch of highway, but the photos I’d seen of them were kind of “typical” in comparison to Tad Fane. Plus, there’s plenty more along the Mekong between Don Det and Don Khone where I’m staying now. I wasn’t missing anything going to only one of the three waterfalls along that stretch of Bolaven highway.

This one though…I’d seen photos online research Laos but the sight of a two-stream waterfall is truly something else.

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It looks like two rivers meeting at a cliff but it’s really just two streams of the same river.
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It’s no Victoria, Iguazu, or Niagara but it’s sure as hell scenic.

And I took some video, too! It’s not much and was filmed with an iPhone, but it gives you an idea of the echo and volume of water crashing one hundred meters down a sheer cliff face.

Hearing the roaring and crashing waterfall across the valley is one thing, but what truly serves as the icing on the cake of the entire experience was the deafening screech of the insects and birds with short monkey-calls interspersed. You couldn’t see anything making the noises, but you knew that all around you was an ecosystem flourishing regardless of the tacky resort being built in the surrounds.

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Ah, if only you could get to the bottom without dying!

And that concludes the events of my first two days in Laos, which I had to cut short because I had to go back to Pakse for the afternoon to start work on the Wenner-Gren grant. I have no proof or image to say that I was actually on a bike for two days because I wasn’t dumb enough to try to grab my phone out of my pocket nor stop on the side of the highway for a selfie.

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Although if I did do something stupid like die taking a selfie, you can custom-order urns relatively easily in Laos – there are funeral stores with little makeshift stupas in every small town, and most of them look like they were designed by Liberace. These ones on Wat Phu don’t look older than a century.

Laos is a fun place to scoot around, though, and because most things are paved there are a few potholes to contend with but you’re not bumping around on rural dirt roads (unless you want to) on a regular basis. If I was to do it over again I’d have planned out a three day trip circling the Bolaven Plateau, but again, Don Det has thus far proved its merit and I’m just as happy to be hanging out in a backpacker town on the Mekong with a beer in my hand in the late afternoon typing up mind-numbing paragraphs on archaeological theory.

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The view from the balcony of my guesthouse, meters from the Mekong’s edge. A great place to relax for a few days while stepping back from Angkor to evaluate everything I’ve done thus far.

More to come on Si Phan Don in my next post.

Andrew Harris

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