Saturday, March 17, 2012

Pakse to Champasak Town - Lost in a Slumbering Paradise (Travel Log 112411)

The idea of Champasak intimidates me for a reason. My mind conjures a place far from mundane civilization: a place dotted by a lazy hum of life; by islands bathed by the Mekong in areas where ATM machines are a figment of scientific fiction; and internet connections are an anomaly or mere non existent. And I am going there today despite a hazy concept of its geography. Lonely Planet alludes to southern Laos as “chill places”, where there’s nothing else to do but hang down your hat, placidly swing on a cot, and watch cows and people go by. The further south you go, the more relaxed and chilled you get; in fact, one is prone to turn to an icicle, or so they say.

Most backpackers rush through Champasak Town on their way to the Angkorian temple of Wat Phu Champasak for a day visit. I had a different plan. I saw maps insinuating to the area as Ancient City. Agoda lists hotels and guesthouses as located at the “Ancient City” and this excites me no end. The contingency of walking on what was once a royal land elicits delectable electricity running down my spine. And I can’t just leave town not experiencing what it’s like sleeping on royal lands, can I?

Champasak is a town in the Champasak province, located south of Pakse. Roughly 3 decades ago, it was a seat of royalty. It is a lazy one-street town, the main road runs parallel to the Mekong then turns inland where a magnificent cascade of mountains serenely stand, gazing down on farm lands. If you go further south, 10 kilometers from Champasak’s Ban Wat Thong (Wat Thong village), you will find the ancient Khmer religious complex of Wat Phu, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. What I didn’t realize after several reads from my LP and wikitravel was that I would have to cross the river, if I come from Pakse, to get to Champasak or Wat Phu, for that matter. This caused a lot of confusion on my part.

My morning in Pakse started with a leisurely walk at the riverside. It wasn’t aimless wandering, as I was looking for a restaurant where I could have my breakfast. Imoun Homestay offers free breakfast, but I couldn’t find Por and I really didn’t want to bother. But every riverside joint was closed. I realized I needed to find one fast, lest I leave for Champasak on empty stomach – a big “no-no”. Never go on trips to strange lands without meals. At 7:15AM, I was back at Imoun disappointed. I gathered my stuff and brought them to the lobby. And like magical circumstance, Por was there. She hastily prepared my breakfast while I was getting ready for my 8 AM bus. Yes, the bus was fetching me from Imoun. I didn’t need to go to the terminal. Isn’t that cool?

By 7:45 AM, the bus unexpectedly arrived. Who says everything in Laos is late? I wasn’t even half done with my food, but people were gawking down their bus seats, looking at me – Caucasians and a couple of Japanese. I was supposed to knock on Teske’s room to say my goodbyes, but I didn’t have time so I asked Por to tell Teske I’ve gone. A few days later, I got an email from Teske. Meanwhile, my bus was headed south. No one talked to me; no one said where exactly they were going to drop me. The bus was marked “Pakse to Don Det”. The bus had a comfortable AC and I was seated comfortably beside a window and no one else.

Just before leaving Pakse, the driver’s assistant asked if anyone needed to withdraw from an ATM machine. An elderly German guy raised his hand and a Russian lady followed. Remember, there are no ATM machines where we were supposed to go.

Restaurants along the Mekong in Pakse

Breakfast at Imoun Homestay

After a 2 hour ride across the Lao countryside through Highway 13 (this major road traverses from Pakse to Savannakhet up north and to the southern islands of the Champasak province, we reached Ban Lak 30. We turned west (right) running on a narrow road. The bus assistant shouted “Champasak” so I scampered and hopped off my bus.


There were small houses, stores selling drinks and fruits, and a seemingly rundown temple (Wat Ban Muang). But I didn’t know where I was. I was lost! Carrying my Agoda reservations form with me, I asked around for “Champasak Guest House”.
The girl from a store pointed south, but after a 5 minute walk, it felt like it was the wrong way. There’s no guest house anywhere near there. I asked again – this time I was bafflingly pointed north, so I obediently walked for 5 minutes and once again, found nothing. After walking back and forth – north to south and back, another girl finally pointed me east! But that’s the river, I said! She insisted I walk towards the river! When I finally did, I saw a makeshift wharf. A catamaran – 2 boats placed side by side by wooden planks – was waiting for travelers who wanted to cross the river! This was the local commuter service. And it dawned on me that I was at Ban Muang (Muang village), the drop off point for travels to Champasak Town. Champasak is located at the other side of the Mekong!

Sleepy Ban Muang where coasters and buses stop for passengers heading to Champasak Town

The wharf (above and below) at Ban Muang. Across the Mekong is Ban Phapien (Phapin Village).

I stepped into the catamaran, placed my backpack on the dry planks and smiled at the little girl and her father with a motorcycle. This was exciting. The river crossing didn’t take 15 minutes, as the river was mild and serenely slicing through the waters, languidly glancing through anonymous isles. Upon reaching the other side, I paid my 20,000 kip ($2.51) fare – and was once again shrouded with the disconcerting feeling of being lost.

If Ban Muang seemed lethargic, this land – wherever this was – felt close to flat lining. Where was its population? There were no signs of activity at close to 12 noon. Do I walk? That seemed like the only option. There were no motorcycles waiting either. I couldn't find anyone to ask. Where the heck was I?

It also dawned on me that Ban Wat Thong, the center of town, was nowhere near. I had to head south, based on the minuscule sketches on a map from my LP. I saw signs and started jotting them down for reference. Just in case… First hand experience is educational, but tiresome as I realized I was in Ban Phapien (Phapin village). It’s a 2 kilometer walk south of Champasak. I didn’t know it then; Only, that I had to keep walking south, since there's a single road to town. The houses looked abandoned – or people were probably asleep? Or hiding? Maybe they wake up and transform when darkness embrace the land? Ohgawd!

Not knowing where I was exactly, I categorized this experience as being “lost”. Carrying a 9 kilogram backpack under the intense sun was no walk in the park. So I found myself stopping under the shade every so often. There were 4 villages to get through: (1) Ban Phapien (or Phapin) where the wharf is; (2) Ban Phoxay; (3) Ban Muangsen (Muongsen/Mungsean); and (4) Ban Wat Thong. Each village has his own temple, named after the village (i.e. Wat Phapien, Wat Phoxay, Wat Muongsen, Wat Thong aka Wat Nyutthitham which has royal association).

A catamaran carrying passengers across the Mekong (from Ban Muang to Ban Phapien in Champasak Town)

The wharf at Ban Phapien

Fruit store in Ban Phapien

One-road town. Ban Phapien and heading south.

Some one is getting married?


Wat Ban Phoxay

Walking on snail pace, I noticed more guest houses as I headed towards Ban Muongsen: Anouxa Guest House and Thavisab Hotel, made familiar by my readings. I was pleased to see them coming to life. The Lao Telecommunications Building looked deserted but I was told that it’s operational. Most houses had typical wooden architecture. Another structure – the Champasak Library – is in a state of disrepair which is ironic because a sign says it’s being renovated by the Laria Foundation of Italy, the Global Heritage Fund of the USA and the Champasak District. Yet people seemingly haven’t set foot near the premises in ages.

Upon reaching Ban Mungsen, I was already breathless. Perspiration was running down my shirt. I saw evidence of life: a girl was standing behind a grill, cooking banana. I bought 3 pieces for 1,000 kip ($0.13) and stood beside the girl who graciously offered a plastic seat. I was grateful for the hospitality and the presence of a living soul. For a while there, it felt like zombies were the only ones populating the land. Right across us was a temple – Wat Mungsen. I left my backpack beside the girl for a few minutes and checked out the temple. It really was my convenient excuse to leave my 9-kg baggage to a friendly stranger. Would she run away with my belongings? I knew where she lives! LOL

After checking out the temple, I continued my foray south. Then I saw the Tourist Information Center, the Post Office, a sprawling Champasak Town Hall, and a roundabout fountain in the middle of the street, a relic of Champasak's royal past some 30 years ago. Across and to its left is my Champasak Guest House. I was overjoyed I left my baggage once again beside the road and jumped towards the fountain. No one was there. Do people hibernate in Champasak? Am I supposed to dig in or ransack the residences to find its inhabitants?

A marker says I was in Ban Muongsen

Wat Ban Muangsen

A store

Lao Telecom

Typical Lao wooden houses in Champasak Town

Thavisab Hotel

Champasak Library is supposedly undergoing renovations as funded by Italy's Laria Foundation, USA's Global Heritage Fund and the Champasak District. It looked pretty abandoned to me.

A nice Lao girl selling bananas. The bananas were very fragrant but when you bite into them, they were tangy and sticky in the mouth, like they were far from being ripe.

Wat Ban Muangsen (above and below)

I made my way to the seemingly abandoned Champasak Guest House and I’ve never felt so victorious for having made it there. This was going to be home for a couple of days. I gradually noticed the sprawl of the riverside Champa Restaurant, owned by the same guy who owns my guest house. The Mekong looked beautiful and oblivious to my presence. It displayed a murmur filled with grace and serenity.

I occupied the huge near-central, river-facing Room 3 in Champasak Guest House which only has 8 rooms. There were no lobbies to speak of, the staff was close to being non existent, but my room had a comfortable bed, glistening floor, and a large bathroom. And no TV. After freshening up, I sat at the bench of the backyard foyer. The great old Mekong once again beckoned like a familiar friend. While reading my LP, it was only then that I learned I had walked 2 kilometers – on a mostly abandoned road - with my 9-kg bag! I knew I had dropped a lot of curses along the way. But I was caught unaware. How can any town not have any means of transportation?

The bright side was: I’m left with a lot of daylight hours to visit Wat Phu and Tomo Temple. But before that, it was time to feed myself.

This is the Eye in the Sky!

Champasak Town Hall is sprawling.

A "fountain" at the roundabout in the center of Ban Wat Thong's main street. Curiously, this didn't have a spout that blows water. It has a stair and the 4 petal-like structures had chipping off paint.

Champasak Guest House and the backyard view facing the Mekong


Distances from Pakse –

Pakse to Ban Muang – 34 kilometers
Pakse to Wat Phu – 46 kilometers
Ban Phapin to Wat Phu – 12 kilometers
Ban Phapin to Champasak’s Wat Thong – 2 kilometers
Boat ride from Ban Muang to Ban Phapin - 10-15 minutes on the river

Transport Rates:

Pakse to Champasak – 80,000 kip or thereabouts
Pakse to Vientiane – 170,000 kip
Pakse to Vang Vieng – 250,000 kip
Pakse to Luang Prabang – 330,000 kip
Boat ride from Ban Muang to Ban Phaphien across the Mekong - 20,000 kip one-way

How to get from Pakse to Champasak Town:

The bus travels south along Highway 13 for 2 hours. Upon reaching Ban Lak 30, it turns west and stops at Ban Muang (village). This is your bus stop. Head to Ban Muang’s wharf (the dirt road is across Wat Ban Muang) and take a ride on a catamaran (two boats placed side by side) to cross the Mekong. You will reach the western village of Ban Phapien. There are supposedly motorbikes or songthaews but if you don’t find any (like me), walk 2 kilometers south from Ban Phapin and through Ban Phoxay, Ban Muangsen and Ban Watthong. The center of town is Ban Watthong. Wat Phu is located 10 kilometers further south. You can rent a bike or hire a motorcycle to get there.

Pakse to Ban Lak 30 to Ban Muang to Ban Phapien to Ban Watthong (Champasak Town's town center).


Ola said...

good pictures, as always! especially from the river!

Life and travelling

eye in the sky said...

Thanks, Ola.

Ramakrishnan said...

Quite an adventure ! And getting "lost" must have been testing & exasperating. Finally finding Champasak must have been such a relief ! Great pics as always.

eye in the sky said...

@ Ram:

It was an unforgettable experience and a physically arduous too. Like scaling a mountain... and you feel you're at the throes of giving up at the last 10 steps because the "flesh is already weak" so to speak. :)