Friday, March 23, 2012

Champasak Tales - The Ruins of Tomo Temple and the Buddhas of Wat Muang (Travel Log 112511)

After arriving in sleepy Champasak, I readily asked my guest house’s owner if he could get me a motorcycle ride to Tomo Temple and Wat Phu. I had the whole afternoon to check out the temples and I was looking forward to discovering these Khmer temples. While calling his contact, I went to Champa Restaurant beside my guest house for my lunch. I was the only customer; one of the few who gets to enjoy these seemingly solitary site. Beautifully placed beside the Mekong, I had a wind swept table as I greedily gobbled on my fried pork with garlic and pepper on rice (20,000 kip/$2.50) and a bottle of Coke (5,000 kip/$0.63). It had been a long and strenuous 2 kilometer walk from the wharf and I was in dire need of sustenance.

With my meal done, I hastily checked out the Tourist Information Center (beside Champa Restaurant) where an accommodating guy welcomed me with a huge smile. Unfortunately, the center couldn’t offer me any tangible material. They were out of maps or leaflets about the town or Wat Phu. At least, Savannakhet had a scribbled down map as give aways. Champasak had none but a smile, though the guy offered: “I could book your onward transportation from here… or a bike tour to the temples.” I thanked him for his hospitality and said goodbye.

Tourist Information Center

Champa Restaurant (above and below)

Fried pork with garlic and pepper on rice: sinfully delicious (above and below)

Back at my guest house, my motorcycle ride was waiting for me. The driver was an amorous guy in his 60’s named Somphone. He was perky and would intermittently regale me with his French as though I’d find him a sophisticate for his special skill. Heavens bless him, but I didn’t care. I was told that the motorcycle tour would cost me 90,000 kip ($11.30) for a ride that starts and ends here and includes Tomo Temple first, then Wat Phu Champasak, and a few temple stops along the way. I’d have to pay for my boat ride as well because Tomo is located at the eastern side of the Mekong – 40,000 kip ($5) return.

Before heading back to the wharf at Ban Phapien, we passed by a petrol (gasoline) shop. I was surprised when Somphone asked 60,000 kip ($7.50) for the gas. Tour rates anywhere in the world are always inclusive of gasoline. This tour accumulates to a total of 190,000 kip – or $23.85. I could huff, puff and balk but I didn’t feel like kicking ass for something I could comfortably afford. What’s a few kip really? As long as he stops and goes when I tell him to, I am cool with my ride.

We crossed the Mekong from Ban Phapien to Ban Muang, then we went east until we reached the highway (Route 13, Lak 30), then we went south. Somphone stopped at the Tomo Bridge, which was fine as I wanted to see the Tomo River, a tributary of the Mekong. We kept riding until we passed by Uodomphan, Phaosamphan, then the town of Pathounphone (Somphone wrote it down as “Pathoumphone”). To my left, across the road, was the town hall which, like other Lao Government Hall, looked deserted.

Upon reaching Lak 40, we turned right (west) and traversed a dry, dusty road – the condition was reminiscent of the road to Palawan’s Underground River. It’s potholes galore, we had to snake through ridges and craters. When it rains, this road becomes an impossibility. Tomo Temple is about an hour away from Champasak, and is said to be 45 minutes away from Pakse. The dirt road stretches for 4 kilometers from the highway.

Champasak Town's Ban Phapien road - Start of the journey to Tomo Temple (Uo Moung).

Petrol station in Ban Phapien

Another ride crossing the Mekong from Ban Phapien (west) to Ban Muang (east)

A bigger catamaran transports vehicles.

Women bathing and washing beside the Mekong

Tomo Bridge

Tomo River

Pathoumphone Town Hall

Bad roads to the Tomo jungle

More bad roads

Shaded forest


Tomo Temple – or Uo Moung – is thought to have been built during the reign of Khmer King Yasovarman I (an Angkorian King, 889 to 910 AD) sometime during the late 9th century. It’s believed to be a religious complex with regards to its orientation towards the holy mountain of Phu Pasak and Wat Phu. It rises in the heart of a shaded forest, beside a Mekong tributary (Tomo River?) and an algae-infested marshland. The trails are almost ambiguous. I was the only one there. My driver would walk a few meters behind me, making sure I didn’t get lost. But the walk into the forest was dim and cool, with towering canopies of diptocarp trees.

The ruins were mostly unpreserved and if this keeps on, there would be no Tomo Temple to visit in the next 10 years or so. I found the border markers and ornate entrance ways (gopura). A sandstone lintel stands carelessly beside some block of concrete. Crumbled walls have fallen into disrepair, and there was really nothing much to see but the nebulous concept of a receded civilization. No one seemed to care anymore. In fact, the entrance office was closed and I had no one to pay my supposed $1 (8,000 kip) fee. As mentioned earlier, I was Tomo’s lone visitor this afternoon.

The ride back to Ban Muang was leisurely. My driver tried to ask some questions, and though I welcomed the chat, I didn’t like his attention straying away from the road ahead. I told him I wanted to check out the temple at the eastern wharf – Wat Ban Muang. I’ve been acquainted with it during my arrival from Pakse, but I didn’t have time to roam. There was a congregation here earlier in the day, but they’ve all but left.

Tomo Temple or Uo Moung



Faces have been carved at the gopura which is unusual since most lingas don't have faces at all.

Distance markers

A white Sukhothai-style Buddha is in place at a building near the Tomo Temple ruins.

Wat Muang at the eastern side of the Mekong.(above and below).

It was time to head back west. We crossed the Mekong. I paid my 20,000 kip ($2.50) boat ride. My driver didn't. Were locals free? Probably. I was with a fully outfitted French bicycle rider who asked how much this ride would cost him. As English isn't their strong point, the boatman signaled “two” with his fingers. It wasn't. By the time we had to pay, the biker was flabbergasted when he was asked more than his expected 2,000 kip. He was being taken for a ride, he thought. But common sense would have you consider the amount - $0.25 or P10 for a 10-15 minute boat ride across the Mekong?

My afternoon tour wasn't done. It was time to check out the more important part of the itinerary – Wat Phu! I have saved the best for last! It’s a mere 12 kilometer ride from Ban Phapien (and 10 kilometers from Watthong). And I couldn't wait to go!

Go south, Somphone!

This is the Eye in the Sky!

Wharf at Ban Muang

Somphone, my French-speaking driver. The French biker was still on the boat.

The way to Tomo Temple.


Ola said...

your pictures from the countryside look very interesting, as always. Keep dicovering places like this!

Life and travelling

eye in the sky said...

Thanks, Ola. They are interesting. :)

Ramakrishnan said...

Tourist info center & Champa restaurant look charming.The food looks delicious.Imagine paying thousands of kips-they should consider revaluing the currency :)The forests are beautiful.The name of King Yasovarman sounds very Hindu - must be due to the influence that the Cholas from South India had over this region.

eye in the sky said...

@ Ram:

So true re: value of the kip. But the people of Laos are absolutely some of the friendliest, most charming I've ever had the pleasure to meet. Yup, food was delicious! :)