INSIDE STORY

For an au­then­tic taste of Lao life and cul­ture, look be­yond Vi­en­tiane, ad­vises Kevin Donnelly

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel -

AF­TER a one-hour flight from Bangkok and land­ing at Un­don Thani, it is easy to pick my Lao friend Khom from the bustling crowd in the air­port foyer. Be­ing more than 180cm tall, Khom is hard to miss and his wel­com­ing smile shines like a bea­con.

Even though I have been to Laos six times, this trip is dif­fer­ent. In­stead of fly­ing from Bangkok to Vi­en­tiane, I have cho­sen the less ex­pen­sive op­tion of fly­ing to Un­don Thani, in north­ern Thai­land, then trav­el­ling by road to the border and across the Aus­tralian-built Friend­ship Bridge to the Lao cap­i­tal.

This trip is also dif­fer­ent as Khom has con­vinced me the south­ern town of Pakse is the place to be and that the best way to make the jour­ney af­ter a day in the cap­i­tal, Vi­en­tiane, is by overnight VIP bus. Af­ter ar­riv­ing at the ter­mi­nus with Khom, we are shep­herded on to our VIP bus — aptly named King of Bus — and I am sur­prised to find, in­stead of seats, rain­bow-coloured mat­tresses with an as­sort­ment of fam­i­lies, cou­ples and stu­dents in var­i­ous states of re­cline.

The VIP buses are air-con­di­tioned and each mat­tress fits two pas­sen­gers; Khom has booked one mat­tress each and, as I am near the front of the bus, I have a clear view of the road ahead. While the en­gine noise and the sound of tyres on bi­tu­men are ever present, I man­age a few hours’ sleep be­tween watch­ing a pass­ing pa­rade of dark­ened pad­docks and rice fields, in­ter­spersed with wooden, thatched huts sil­hou­et­ted in the moon­light.

In many ways Pakse com­bines the best of Vi­en­tiane and the north­ern town of Luang Pra­bang. The town has au­then­tic, in­ex­pen­sive restau­rants, one of the largest open mar­kets in Laos and cheap ac­com­mo­da­tion, and it rests peace­fully at the con­flu­ence of the Mekong and Se Don rivers.

In ad­di­tion to my room be­ing spa­cious, clean and in­ex­pen­sive, an added bonus stay­ing at the Pakse Ho­tel is the com­mand­ing view from the rooftop bar and restau­rant. In the early morn­ing or late af­ter­noon, a 360-de­gree light show opens up, em­brac­ing the city cen­tre, the Mekong and the sur­round­ing moun­tains.

Like Luang Pra­bang, Pakse has a nearby world her­itage site; in this case, it’s Wat Phu, a pre-Angkor site with stun­ning ru­ins re­flect­ing Hindu and Bud­dhist tra­di­tions. Nes­tled at the foot of Phou Kao, a holy moun­tain, Wat Phu is about 30km south of Pakse and reached by road and car ferry across the Mekong.

The road to Wat Phu passes tra­di­tional Lao wooden huts and cuts through lush, green rice fields; the only con­cern for driv­ers is the num­ber of goats, hens, dogs, buf­falo and oc­ca­sional child who act as if the road is en­tirely their do­main.

Af­ter the smog, noise and con­ges­tion of Bangkok, Wat Phu is a tran­quil oa­sis, vis­ually and spir­i­tu­ally. The cen­tral sanc­tu­ary, on a ter­race at the foot of a cliff, is reached by walk­ing along a cause­way, flanked by stone posts and two moss-cov­ered sand­stone struc­tures weath­ered with age. Af­ter as­cend­ing a se­ries of steps in the shadow of gnarled, frangi­pa­nis trees, vis­i­tors reach the sanc­tu­ary, its Bud­dhist statue sur­rounded by in­cense and of­fer­ings. At the back of the sanc­tu­ary is a spring where holy wa­ter flows and, from the front, the view be­low re­veals a ver­dant plain with ru­ins out­lin­ing the orig­i­nal com­plex.

Trav­el­ling back to Pakse from Wat Phu, two images stand out. One is of an old man on the ferry, dressed in jun­gle green with a rusty, an­ti­quated bike (wheels but no tyres) and a tooth­less, friendly grin. The sec­ond is of a fam­ily stall sell­ing sa­tays: fa­ther squat­ting on the dirt floor cut­ting sticks, mother chop­ping chicken and a small child pound­ing a mor­tar. Both sym­bol­ise some­thing unique about In­dochina and, in par­tic­u­lar, Laos. Com­pared with the West, liv­ing stan­dards are low and pos­ses­sions are few. But there is an ac­cep­tance of what life of­fers and a will­ing­ness to make the most of what is at hand.

While it is a longer trip from Pakse than Wat Phu, an­other must-visit des­ti­na­tion is Si Phan Don (mean­ing 4000 is­lands), about 130km south, ad­ja­cent to the border with Cam­bo­dia. On ar­rival, one has to cross the Mekong, but this time by mo­tor­boat.

The largest is­land, Don Khong, has the re­mains of one of the only train tracks built in Laos (con­structed by the French) and im­pres­sive wa­ter­falls where the Mekong crosses the border from Laos into Cam­bo­dia. Al­though un­der threat, fresh­wa­ter dol­phins are also an at­trac­tion. Like Wat Phou, this is a per­fect place to let the sights and sounds wash over you, be it the en­er­getic and con­stant rush of wa­ter over rocks, or the power and seren­ity of the Mekong where it widens and nour­ishes rice fields and vil­lage plots.

Over lunch, sit­ting and talk­ing to Khom, it is hard to be­lieve Laos has so re­cently been fraught with civil war and that a few kilo­me­tres away across the Mekong lie Cam­bo­dia and the killing fields. Be­neath the ve­neer of Bud­dhist har­mony, res­ig­na­tion and peace, there lies a bru­tal story of vi­o­lence and blood­shed. On the fi­nal day, af­ter break­fast at the Pakse Ho­tel, I am sur­prised when Khom asks whether I have a wa­ter­proof slicker. Once we ar­rive at the Bolaven plateau, I know why. The in­ten­tion is to visit the Tad Fan wa­ter­falls and re­sort, but as we drive up from Pakse a cloud of mist rolls in over the plateau. Un­for­tu­nately, the mist and low cloud ob­scure the view, but judg­ing by the sound made by wa­ter cas­cad­ing and hit­ting rocks, the falls are im­pres­sive. This is also a good op­por­tu­nity to taste the lo­cally grown cof­fee, which is sought af­ter by con­nois­seurs as far away as France.

For those think­ing of trav­el­ling to Laos, make it some time soon and en­sure Pakse is on the agenda. Un­like Vi­en­tiane, where the signs are now in Lao and English, ATMs have ar­rived and an Amer­i­can style-mall has re­cently opened next to the Morn­ing Mar­ket, the south­ern town speaks of an ear­lier, less hec­tic and more au­then­tic time.

Check­list

The De­part­ment of For­eign Af­fairs and Trade’s travel ad­vi­sory for Laos urges trav­ellers to ex­er­cise cau­tion and ‘‘ mon­i­tor de­vel­op­ments that might af­fect your safety be­cause of the risk of civil un­rest and crim­i­nal ac­tiv­ity’’. More: www.smar­trav­eller.gov.au. Travel In­dochina is of­fer­ing a 10 per cent early book­ing dis­count on its 17-day Inside Laos tour. From $3415 (with the dis­count), in­clud­ing break­fasts, three lunches and two din­ners, trans­fers, boat trips on the Mekong River, one do­mes­tic flight and sight­see­ing; in­ter­na­tional flights ex­tra. There are a num­ber of de­par­ture dates next year but only those for April to July are re­duced. More: 1300 365 355; www.trav­elin­dochina.com.au.

Pic­tures: Kevin Donnelly

Real time: Ap­proach­ing Don Khong by boat on the Mekong River, main pic­ture; view from the Pakse Ho­tel, above right; the an­cient site of Wat Phu

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