Champasak and the Bus Ride from Hell

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Leaving 4000 Islands was not easy, but Yvonne was keen to get moving, already the end of the trip was starting to weigh on us, months from now. We went down to the beach, waiting to catch a water taxi back to the mainland and to catch a minibus. There was a fair amount of people leaving, so the beach was crowded. Different boats were heading to different spots, some actually heading up river. It’s a lot faster to take a bus, so we opted for that. This being a party spot, there were still some drunks on the beach passed out, or still partying. Seemed like it was a good night. There was a young American kid with his bag confused as hell, and pale as a ghost. He was not sure what boat to get on, but was stressed he was going to miss his bus and flight out of the country. Mid-sentence he just starts spewing from his mouth, not even turning away. Oh boy, I hope he was not on our bus. Well, of course, he was. He puked on the other side of the river too, but managed to keep it in for the bus ride. He was apart enough to have a roll of toilet paper hanging off his bag like a dispenser, must of been an Eagle Scout.  An hour in to this ride, one of the girls on the bus started screaming FIRE! at the top of her lungs. The driver did not understand English, French, or German, but soon everyone was screaming. Sure it got a little hot on the bus, but thats what happens. Finally the driver pulled over and everyone pulled out. A German guy said it felt like the air conditioner was not venting out, and sure enough, the same girl who started it had accidentally kicked the fan off on the Air-conditioner. Disaster averted. Our young friend used this opportunity to puke some more.  Ahh to be young again.

Our bus dropped us off at an intersection with just a shack on the side of the road. There was no real town here, but at the bottom of the hill you could see one boat next to a shack. Not having any other options, we headed down the hill. The Mekong was lovely here, with rock formations in the river that melted mounds of ice cream. An Indian girl was following us with a suitcase on wheels, a highly impractical way to travel in Laos to say the least. I actually had no idea where we were, Yvonne had read about some cool ruins here, but I never followed up on it. One thing was for sure, we were in the middle of nowhere. It felt a bit like being in a desert, very little vegetation. We got to the boat and said Champasak a few times, and we were given a price. We all joined together and headed across the river. Did I mention how much I love being on the water, so much nicer than a bumpy shitty bus.  Again we were dumped with no translation to the other side of the river, where we walked up the cliff. For the first time no one was trying to hustle us. There were a few buildings, but there really was nothing going on. A minibus dropped off some old people, so I went over and talked to the driver, asking where to stay. After a bit he offered to drive us to his place, not even trying to get more business from us.

We all jumped in, and I was glad we did, cause the town was still ten minutes away. His place was not all that nice, so I went in search of another place. The Indian girl turned out to be from Michigan, and joined me on our search. There were a lot of guesthouses, but most were filled, or no one was there to ask, or too expensive. The whole town seemed to be about 20 buildings up on a cliff over looking the Mekong. There was some nice architecture, but nothing crazy. It was a small frontier town for sure, at some point it had more significance, but now guesthouses for the ruins keep it going.

So we ended up where we started, and had lunch with our new friend. She was going to check out the ruins this afternoon, then leave at 6 am to check out some cave in the center of Laos. No thank you, I am not getting up that early, there are buses all the time. We planned on spending the morning there because it gets to be so damn hot in the afternoon. We did not feel that relaxed at this odd hotel, so in the end we waved her down as she was about to leave with the owner’s brother in his tuk tuk. Might as well split the cost we decided.  The ruins were only 10 kilometers away, and it felt great with the wind in our hair, even with the heat. Funny thing is I actually knew nothing about these ruins, it was a big city in Laos as some point, but after seeing a lot of ruins I was not expecting much, well let me rephrase that, I was not expecting to see anything we had not seen before.

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We pulled up to Vat Phou and there was a small museum and visitor center. We checked that out, but the signage was not that great, and we were eager to get out and see. Sometimes I like to stop by museums first to learn more about what we are going to see, but this museum just had random broken ruins, with detailed descriptions, but no over site on the whole deal. There was a bus system to get to the ruins, but we chose to walk, seeing how it was only a kilometer away. There is a large beray, or reservoir to our right, and then we hit the main road to the ruins. It’s all cobble stoned, and there are railings along the way going directly to the mountain. The thing that makes these ruins unique is how it is built on the mountain, and the ancient Khmers believed that Shiva actually lived on the mountain because of a rock formation that looks like a Linga on the top. Lingas are the phallic like symbol that is related to Shiva that usually works with the Yoni or female representation. There are two temples at the beginning of the road, but they are being worked on and off limits.

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At the bottom of the mountain the road turns into a crazy staircase that only a 1000 years of gravity could produce. There were twisted trees lining the path going up, it was really awesome looking. The steps were a bit deadly though, not meeting any modern standards for safety, more like mountain climbing. It was hot, but we managed to climb all the way to the top, sweating like pigs as we went. At the top were two temples with absolutely amazing friezes on them. The detail on them is uncanny. They love the image of what looks like a crazy cat to me, though I am sure it is some kind of demon. It looks a lot like the Cheshire Cat from Raven Gregory’s Wonderland comic strip. In addition there were some great battle scenes. I can’t believe that these are still in such great shape.

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At the back of all the temples is a spring, which has a temple built on to it. The spring used to run into the temples and keep the Linga constantly bathed, but that has disappeared over time. The water is still considered sacred.

Some other interesting features was an elephant carved into the side of a boulder and a crocodile carved into a stone. The crocodile is really interesting because it is thought that there might have been human sacrifice done there. The crocodile is the same shape of most humans. This would have been pre-angkor.

As a group we all decided we had cooked enough, so we headed on out. At the bottom of the mountain there were two lotus ponds. One is completely dry, while the other one is being drained. It seemed like the entire town had shown up for the event, and were stomping around in the mud. Kids were covered head to toe in mud, carrying bags. They were smashing anything that moved with sticks and shoving them into their bags. Catfish, frogs, and turtles were not safe, and were about to become dinner.

The next morning we woke up to the sound of everyone packing and rushing. Ahh, its so nice to not rush. The entire hotel cleared out by 8:30. We headed to inquire about a bus out that day and were informed that we had just missed the last one. Hummph. We both decided this was a one-day stop, so we asked if there were other options. Public bus, just go to highway, and one would pass. So we packed our bags, and headed out. We sat on the side of the road for an hour and a half, and gave up. This was the beginning of the bus trip from hell. So we headed to the fancy hotel, figuring we might have better luck. Well we were told no, then yes by boat, then by minibus, and then leave right now. No information is accurate, because there is no schedule. But clearly they had a friend who was heading to town, so they gave us a ride for a premium. But we did not care, we were on our way.

An hour to the main town, and we were dropped off and loaded instantly onto a large bus. This was supposed to be a 7 hour trip to Thaket, but what we did not know was that we were going to have a 3 hours stop at a bus station, then drive around the town for an additional half hour filling every nook and cranny of the bus with people, including the isles on small stools. But know, its time to fill up the bus with illegal lumber, and boy were they not happy when I took a picture. We finally arrived to our destination or 12 hours later, exhausted, beat down, and ready to crash. But not till we spent another hour looking for a hotel. We learned our lesson that day, if the hotel is emptying out; there is probably a good reason.

You can check out an illustrated version of this bus trip at A Typical Bus Ride in Laos below is the first page.

 

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