Saturday, 28 March 2009

The Sun

I'm so glad that I left North Laos. As beautiful as Louang Prabang is, and as comfortable as I felt in Vientaine, I have discovered that the South is the Laos I had imagined.

I decided to travel VIP bus because for £10 more you get a large bed, though you have to share with a complete stranger. I was lucky to share with Marcus, a 32 year old German and not one of the drunken crowd that was only interested in the price of Beer Lao. We couldn't believe it when we were woken up by the conductor having arrived at our destination, fresh and rested. I am now in Champasak Province and you can't imagine how different it is to what I saw up North. The skies are piercing blue, pristine forest covers the mountains and even the Mekong seems cleaner.

Travelling with me now are Marcus and Catherine and Alnort, another French couple (they seem to be everywhere these days). Once again we crossed the Mekong, over to Champasak, a small enclave that was once the seat of Royal Laos but is now no more than two streets that cross at a grand fountain. However it's a lovely place, the remaining French colonial style houses mixing with traditional Lao wooden ones. The main reason though to come to this town is to visit Wat Phu Champasak.

Although small in comparison to the grandiose Angor Wat over in Siam Reap (Cambodia) this is the largest and most important Khmer site after Angor Wat and its importance has been recognized by UNESCO who have now declared it a world heritage site.

Walking up the very narrow uneven steps the sweet smell of the Monoi trees in bloom overwhelms your senses. And looking back there is a great view. Beyond the Baray, the ceremonial lake, a mixture of paddy fields and forest carpets the land as far as the eye can see. One of the great things about the site is it's location.

The lower slopes of Phu Pasak, colloquially known as Mt Penis, set the complex among beautiful heavily forested mountains with not one single fire in sight. We decided to go there by bicycle but soon discovered that cycling 10 kilometers under a smoke free scorching sun is not the best idea, especially as we had agreed to take a French Cambodian lady with us who didn't feel strong enough to cycle the whole distance. Nonetheless she repaid us with a great guided tour explaining the meaning of many of the sculptures. Cycling back we were treated to the most amazing sunset.

As the sun set behind Phu Pasak the clouds circled the mountain, like the ring of Saturn. Time seems to have slowed in this place. I am bewildered by the pace of life, by how no one ever seems to be in a rush and will not want you to rush them. This seems to be particularly true down here, but it may just be the heat. And I am loving it.

After all my time in London this is so refreshing, though I'm sure I will want to kill someone if I need something urgently and they go at their own pace. I once read something the French use to say about their colonies in Indochina. 'The Vietnamese plant rice, the Cambodians watch it grow and the Lao listen to it grow'. Although I am certain that they didn't mean it as a compliment, I can see how appealing this way of life can be. If you ever wanted an antidote to the rat race, I have found it.

We are all going down to the 4000 islands for a few days. They may not be the highlight of Lao culture, but I am in the mood to just relax and while away my day in a hammock, reading my book and drinking fruit juices.

With the occasional lao lao thrown in for good measure of course...

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