So, $17 for a combined minivan and bus ticket to Champasak seemed like an expensive price to us. We were due to be entering Laos, which was supposed to be the cheapest country in South East Asia. Bus travel in Cambodia though is not actually very cheap and it turns out this is the same in Laos. Travel is relatively expensive. Fuel costs run at $1.20 a litre in both countries.
We got into the minivan outside Star Guesthouse and were off… but soon stopped around the corner to pack two more people in and made everything a tight squeeze. knees and elbows were all digging each other for the 3 hour journey to the boarder. We gazed at the endless stretches or rice paddy fields with brown wooden houses on stilts as protection from flooding of the fields during the wet season dotted around in a similar haphazard way as the palm trees. In Stung Treng we changed to a bus with other travellers on board for the final 20km to the boarder town of Voeung Kam.
This relatively new land port had new roads under construction and new offices being built to cater for the visa application on arrival. This is part of a deal by the South East Asian countries (Greater Mekong sub-region) to improve ease of obtaining a visa, movement between the countries and eventually bring in one visa for all the countries in the region (watch this space). We ended up paying $39, which was $35 for the visa, $2 bribe on each side to process it and then $1 for the agent to sort out all our paperwork etc. We were going to get out and do it ourselves, but had heard recent stories of the officers walking out of the office and not coming back if the bribe was paid and so just went with the flow on this ocassion. It is definately possible to get the right price of $35 visa in Laos though and Lao airlines do that for you if you fly with them. We just don’t have the budget to fly!
After waiting around for ariound 40 minutes we climbed on another bus to 4,000 islands area before changing once again for a bus to Champasak. With 1 minivan and 3 buses, intermediaries on the way it is unsurprising it cost $17. Yet organising that alone would be a real mission and perhaps not worth the hassle. We cruised down the straight paved road past scenery that looked very familiar throughout Cambodia. The only difference was that the rice paddy fields looked more organised and in more distinct patches. There were also far more houses that were made of concrete and finised with paint, even in this fairly rural area. This denoted more personal wealth than in Cambodia, which is true according to the ranking of countries GDP vs per capita income.
We had a bit of surprise when we were dropped off. We were on the ‘wrong’ side of the river. As we had no Lao kip we suddenly couldn’t afford the boat that was needed to take us to the otherside. At first we were quoted 30,000 kip, which after a strong “no” turned into 10,000 kip. Much better we could afford that by paying in dollars, but this cost is worth remembering! Suddenly we were back out on a boat on the Mekong, chugging along on a half raft, half boat contraption reaching Champasak proper. We relished the 2km stroll to the center of Champasak, checking the camera for Lao translations to help us find a cheap place to stay. We were intent on learning Lao, starting immediately, as we planned on staying 2 months and had recently confirmed 3 weeks of work on a school in the north.
After a few places down the one road making up the Mekong river town we found one half under construction. En suite room built around a courtyard, with restaurant overlooking and over the bank itself. We negotiated the room down to 20,000 kip from 30,000- the same price quoted at the port and satisfied, we took the shower we desperately needed. Some guesthouses are organised and offer free transport to their guesthouse, but these often turn out no to be the cheapest available- just good marketing. With time and effort comparing you can generally beat the first price.
We headed down to the other guesthouse to check it out, curious to compare. We secured the better deal in terms of accommodation, but as the food was cheaper here we ate lunch aware we would be spending most time here hanging out, but sleeping at our guesthouse. We spent hours gazing over the bubbling stretch of this amazing river and talked about the different stages we have now seen it in, from the Delta in Vietname, through Cambodia and now in Laos. For such a massive volume of water the Mekong is at peace. Just moomentary chugging of a boat with 2 kids in passing by. We can see nothing much happens in this lifeless tow, just quiet with tree saturated hills towering over the village and river.
We had heard that street food in Laos was ace, yet we tried chicken skewers, which we could only describe as chicken chewing gum, which could not be swallowed and badly cooked corn- not a good start! The rest of the day we whiled away overbooking the Mekong’s maroon brown highlighted in flickers by the sun across to an Island, where there appeared to be a resort comprised of wood and bamboo bungalows.
We slept and woke early to explore and headed back from breakfast then hired some bikes to ride to Than Phou a pre-Ankor Wat temple and city. In doing so we ran into Trevor, whom we met in Kratie with new companions. We touched base and discussed what he had been up to, how much his room cost (always a topic of conversation among travellers!) etc, before they et out ahead of us.
Soon on our way on a clanky, rusted bike, we soon past the 3 temples of the village over the roughly boarded bridge into the countryside. Even here there are concrete/ stone houses, sleeky designed, distinctly Lao that we would be proud to own . It was interesting to see so many not made of wood in comparison to Cambodia, while bumping along pot holed, red clay road that reflected upon the governemt’s lack of income due to its 0% tax rate.
Most of the scene was lush bright green rice paddy fields, with Buffalo lazily grazing nearby. Groups stood in bare fields with traditional bamboo hats, bent over plating the next section. Rice production looks organised and dominating on the landscape with just wild green hills bearing over to give some contrast of this controlled environment.
After 8km negotiating deep holes through tiny villages of just a handful of shack like houses, where people slept in front of their shop counters we reached Than Phou. The ticket was 30,000 (2 pounds 50), which we considered excellent value. Passing the gates we realised we had finished our bottle of water, so Laura smiled sweetly and filled it from the office watercooler, rather than paying the stall and extortionate fee. Being cheeky, especially in countries like Lao, where “no” is not really said really pays off!
The temple itself was the center of an ancient, 10th century capital before Ankor Wat took over in Cambodia and some is still standing. Short columns marking the historic path to the temple, positioned on a hill next to a spring suggested past grandeur for the site. Current restoration work shows promise of reconstitution, but we preferred seeing the real, even if it was in rubble, the sign of civilisation come and gone… there is something more magical about that.
We met Trevor and friends who had been round the site in 1 hour and continued to head out. Up steep stairs made from old parts of the wall and columns in hectic irregularity during a time when the main interest was maintaining access to the temple not its original state (the temple is still in use today). A practical solution that had fraught the restoration work additional work. Two more flights of stairs delivered a grand panorama of the current countryside as well as a past look at the capital’s layout. The temple itself was in good shape, some additions made but old carvings, blocks and grand columns all sheltered by the largest mango tree we have seen. We spent over 3 hours inspecting, exploring and sitting on a massive rock looking out in awe over the country. A leaceful and really interesting place.
A storm curved around the hill we were on and we set off to beat the next rain cloud. En route back to the guesthouse for the cheapest beer in town (8,000 kip or 65p). I stopped on a road with no-one else around as Laura went to shower. Blissful silence arrived as I had to stop to take it all in. With cigerette in hand I watched the clouds creep over the mountain on the edge of a new road pointing towards the fact that Champasak is at the start of its tourism growth spurt. We caught up with the others and spent the night getting tips on the Bolavan plateau- our next stage, chatting and ate dinner together. Trevor was heading our way so we arranged a time and retired, ready for our bus ride to Pakse.
We left at 6:40am in search for coffee. As soon as it arrived so did a late bus. Downing coffee we were soon hauling our bags onto the roof of the large “Songthaw” tuk tuk and squeezed in with 18 others, knees clashing, on the central bench heading north.