Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Four Thousand Islands, a Temple and a Couple of Hammocks

So after 2 days of travel and a surprisingly good night's sleep we jumped off a bus in Pakse (southernmost biggish town in Laos) only to jump onto to yet another bus heading further south. We arranged to jump off the bus after about an hour to see the one of the premier archaeological sights of this land - Wat Phou Champasak. Why is stuff usually such a bother? Because it is more interesting that way.

We had pre-arranged a price, but on leaving the bus a very irate bus driver demanded more money from us. It may work on other travellers, but a man angrily grabbing my stuff and shaking his fists in front of my face does not generally convince me of his point of view. In fact the opposite. Dave is the same way inclined and hence we just sat there and the whole bus had to wait for something close to an hour before anything could be settled. Laos is a beautiful country, with wonderful people, but such an influx of tourists and their dollars has undoubtedly spoiled parts of it. Maybe it should not, but the fact is it came as quite a shock that people's desire for the dollar would lead so immediately to violence in a devoutly Buddhist land and I believe it would be irresponsible travel to give into to such brutish behaviour. So the long and the short of it is that a number of people had to wait quite a long time before an English guy helped to solve the situation with some cards. A shout from a Scottish muppet on the bus that it is only 60 pence missed the point. It is not about money but principle. If you can stop people acting like this then you should for everyone concerned.

Wat Phou Champasak

Anyway, it was eventually sorted and we caught a boat across the Mekong and a tuk tuk through the countryside to the sacred hill that foster the dilapidated Angkorean era ruins. The pictures give some idea of the former glory of this temple and palace complex. What made it for me were (i) the peace and quite that came with being the first people at the sight, (ii) the lovely prayer women, (iii) the spectacular view of the Mekong flats stretching into the far distance and, of course, (iv) the funny black lizards jumping around our feet. Some of the carving was magnificent though the site needs significant reservation.

Back on the tuk tuk, across the river and eventually hitched onto a pickup truck. Four or so bumpy, rattly hours later we were jumping on another boat through one of the most special regions of South-East Asia. Just north of Cambodia are the so called 'Four Thousand Islands' (almost certainly less) in the middle of the Mekong. Picture numerous verdant islands poking out the fast-flowing deep red waters of the regions major river. A place to lie back, relax, search for river dolphins and stare at waterfalls – a hard life.

We stayed on one of the most southerly islands, Don Det. A bit of a backpacker hangout but if you stay away from the landing post it is suitably laid back. Thanks to the advice of the guy who aided the bus issue earlier – Charlie – we ended up in a seriously sorted situation. There were 4 little huts on stilts on the edge of the Mekong, each one costing only a dollar and including a swinging hammock on the veranda - paradise. Add the arrangement of Charlie in the far right hut, Dave and me with a hut each in the middle and 2 great Dutch girls who we met in the pickup on the far right and we had very little excuse to move from the hammocks.

So three days were certainly not wasted on the veranda, talking, drinking, reading and simply watching the Mekong rush by. The only series of significant action came on our penultimate night when, after I had just watched a small cat fight a very worryingly coloured snake on the path - I tried to help the cat but made a quick exit when my torch conked out at a perfectly inopportune time - we decided to go for a stroll and Samatha and I ended up walking the majority of the island in the pitch black until the first greys of day burst over the river and we jumped onto a boat bound for the waterfall. We were joined by a funny Czech couple (Dave went home not feeling best) and on reaching the destined river-bank, jumped on top of a bus (literally – a painful experience on Lao roads) and rode to the largest waterfall in South-east Asia.

I say a waterfall, it is more like a colossal rapid stretching before you. I was struck by the noise and force of the churning ochre water. Add sleep-deprivation, a wind-rushed bus ride and an eerie first light setting and the occasion starts to take body. Then back on top of the bus with the locals starting their day's work in the padi fields accompanied with surprisingly white buffalo and even more surprised expressions on the faces of locals as some stupid white people surfing on top of a big bus rushed by.

I liked this place so much that I planned to give up some days in northern Cambodia to stay in that incomparable hammock. But….. life has a way of choosing different paths. I woke up the next day to find Dave with a temperature of 41.2 degrees C (approx 105 degrees F), fever, shakes and aches. So there we were in a malaria hot spot, Cambodia beneath, Laos above and not a decent hospital within 6 hours. Definitely the start of a new story….
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