Thursday, May 10, 2012

Journey to A Temple on a Hill - Wat Phu Khao Kaew

Don Khong, Siphandon – The heat of the sun permeated through the island’s clayish lands. I’ve done most of what I wanted to accomplish here, but one. During a late lunch at Don Khong Restaurant, I leisurely asked my waiter if he knew where I could hire a motorbike with a driver for a visit to a temple on a hill west of Muang Khong. He nodded and vigorously sealed the deal by asking for 100,000 kip ($12.50) for a couple of hour’s ride. In most of my travels in Laos, a tourist pays after completing the trip, even in nearby Champasak and Pakse. In Don Khong, the system changes. Pay first, travel later, which somehow gets your red flags up. Even my visit to Khone Phapaeng was similar, i.e. I had to pay first.

I wanted to see the temple, Wat Phu Khao Kaew. Otherwise, I’d regret not having gone to the party-island of Don Det. It was half past 1 PM, and the waiter suggested the trip to take place at 3 PM to avoid the harsh sun until it has invariably mellowed down. With some trepidation, I agreed, and paid for my lunch.

At 3 PM, I went back to the restaurant to meet my driver. In this sun-kissed island, I could hardly find other tourists walking around town. I saw my waiter serenely dozing off where I left him almost two hours ago. My meal’s plates and utensils were still there gathering dust beside an imprudent Mekong. I nudged Kham, the waiter, and reminded him about my motorbike ride. He excused himself to wash his face and came back wearing a new shirt and carrying a helmet. Kham would be my driver as well, who would have thought? 

We left Muang Khong with a gentle breeze blowing west and the hanging shells making melodic tinkering. I sat behind Kham as we easily glide south of the highway. The road was paved beautifully and the ride was smooth and unhurried. I noted the villages we passed by – Kangkhong, Phoxay, Na – then we turned west that spanned 8 kilometers until we reached the western villages of Hinxiao, Sentai, Sennua, and Houasen. We were in Muang Saen, the western village. This boasted of more local banter, an unmistakable hustle not found in sleepy Muang Khong where most tourists converge. Here, I saw a gas station, several houses, schools, and a busy market selling local produce. But there were no visible guest houses that typified the eastern block of the island. That early, I was pleased to see most of the villages I mentioned from last post.

From Houasen, we trudged further north, passing through Senhat Tai and Senhat Nue, turning eastward. We have practically circumnavigated more than half the island. At this point, the terrain turned desolate until I could hardly see homes. There were a few Caucasian bikers slaving the roads and I didn’t envy their persistence. But I know there must be some form of triumph in their undertaking; something that’s subjective in manner or form.

We reached a clearing that bore no signs at the left of the road, and I specifically remember what LP wrote: “entrance through a strand of frangipanis”. There were none, but huge boulders of dark rocks that rose and lead to a hill. Between these stony excrescences were wild grass and their flowers all in bloom, bathing the terrain with a delectable reddish hue. Kham signaled where he would wait. There was a degree of trepidation. What if he left during my walk up the hill? After all, he already got the payment. On the other hand, I knew where he lived. The girl from the restaurant knew where we were going. That should suffice. Besides, I was in Laos where people could, generally, be trusted. I breathed a sigh of relief in spite of myself, and started my ascent up a hill. I was in the middle of nowhere! I could shout and no one could probably hear me until I lose my voice. Wild thoughts really.

Then I saw the temple. I heard barks of dogs. Darn! I have hated the sound of their barks since I almost got mangled in Savannakhet the first time I was in Laos. I saw a 4-feet long bamboo stick and carried it like a cane. It would come handy – just in case.

The ground had three structures, an ordination hall that’s closed to visitors; a seemingly unfinished pink building with one-sided wall; and a wooden house that rose on stilts and walled by mats. There are a couple of Khmer relics in the vicinity, the bigger mound stood 3-4 feet from the ground.

The temple is visually disappointing. East of the small “wat” was a house with an open window, but I couldn’t see anyone. The barking persisted until I saw where it came from. Staring directly at my direction, a dog was indeed honoring my presence. I raised my stick and repeatedly swung the pole on air. If this was war, I was gonna wage a good one a la Jacky Chan. Haha. The dog intensified his barking, but backed off until I couldn’t see him anymore.

The open temple was small, with thin posts painted in pink. I noticed a lone monk, probably in his mid-twenties, lying prone on the tiled floor, reading a book. I see studying monks wherever I go in Laos. He took one glance my way and briskly decided on my inconsequential presence. I nodded and smiled. Sometimes you don't know how to behave in front of them, but a smile was universal. I kept walking around the grounds and saw the row of frangipanis (champa trees or kalachuchi) at the other side of the hill. Where was the pathway through these flowering trees? Could it be a more convenient, albeit easier entrance? I hardly think so.

Wat Phu Khao Kaew was built on the site of Khmer ruins and I found three mounds of such relic. Unfortunately, you could hardly make out anything from these remnants, except the figment of antiquity and imagination. The temple grounds sit on a plateau up a hill littered with soot-covered boulders and lush vegetation on one side. To its west , it slides down into the Mekong. What lies beyond, I was curious. I have so far, not read of journeys further afield.

On my way down the same slope, I saw an elderly monk peek his head from the house’s window. It was time to head back “home” – to my hotel room in Pon’s River Guest House. The journey back would be more relaxing since I knew I would be alright. My motorbike driver didn’t leave me after all, and little did I know that there would be a little bonus along the way. But that’s for another post.

This is the Eye in the Sky!

Flowering wild grass interspersed with a rough and rocky terrain going up the hill.

Three structures on top of the hill: two temples (center and back) and a wooden house (right).

Pink temple with unfinished structures seen inside.

A monk is studying.

Gongs in the temple hallway.

A beautiful ordination hall ("sim") is closed to visitors.

The bigger of three Khmer relics found at the temple grounds; this one is at the back of the ordination hall.

Khmer mound up close.

Dramatic view of the western Mekong and the land beyond. 

Wooden house with mats as walls. I saw an elder monk from its window. (above and below)

Chicken shed

Wild flowers

A stupa on the hill.

I was going to sit on the ground to enjoy the view of the western Mekong when I noticed these giant yellowish ants! Scary!

Wild grass with small reddish flowers that blanket the grounds with a dramatic sweep. 


Motorbike with driver to Wat Phu Khao Kaew and back - 100,000 kip (2-3 hours)
Day tour to Don Det  and Don Khone from Don Khong (Pon's River Guest House rate) - 60,000 kip (all-day tour with a group)


R.Ramakrishnan said...

Nice adventure well narrated spiced with charming pics !

eye in the sky said...

Thanks Ram. :)

Ola said...

nice to be able to comment on your blog again:)

Blog about life and travelling
Blog about cooking

eye in the sky said...

Thanks, Ola. :)

Bali Hotels said...

Very nice post

eye in the sky said...

@ Bali Hotels:

Thank you. :)