West of Pakse, much of what we explored was farmland. On the northeast corner of the town, which is essentially enclosed by forking rivers, a massive bridge spans a fatter segment of the Mekong.
It actually crossed my mind just now that it was in these waters that a small plane crashed in October 2013, while Teresa and I were just finishing up our travels in New Zealand. A very sad event, and a flight a buddy of mine actually took while he was traversing this area a few months after us. We were on a total of 13 flights while on this trip. But despite the recent calamities regarding Air Asia and Malaysian Airlines, both airlines that we flew with, I would still willingly travel by plane in this part of the world.
My ultimate association with Pakse, though, is one of fond longing. We loved cruising across this bridge with the elevated view of the Mekong and surrounding landscape on either side of us. There was actually something pastoral about it, the notion of a quiet, simple lifestyle, but embedded in an exotic, tropical environment that made it that much more special for us to be immersed in.
As we finished crossing, a small mountain was before us, forcing us to bank right around the bend of it. We parked up our bike, and a little girl who couldn’t be more than 7 or 8 gave us a ticket as she held out her hand for payment.
We were about to trek up the side of this mountain where, at the summit, sat a massive golden Buddha whose serene image we could see in the valley from the town of Pakse. The initial set of steps, numbering in the hundreds, were very steep. The area to place our feet was extremely narrow, sometimes forcing us to turn our bodies sideways in order to awkwardly work our way upwards. Upon finishing this set, the land flattened out briefly until a new set of steps, this time wooden and rickety, emerged before us.
More climbing, more sweat, all delightful with our plastic bag full of Pepsi and ice (we were used to this with coffee or sweet tea, not soft drinks). When we finally made it to the summit, the golden Buddha gazed upon us. Behind it, a temple was in the midst of construction. I remember wishing that it was already completed, another structure to explore. We turned to face outwards and absorbed the peaceful, placid surroundings below us.
Not a lot of people make it out to this part of the world, even if they make it to Southeast Asia. I want as many people to experience it as possible, but at the same time, it wouldn’t be the same if we were all there at once. Part of what made Pakse so special is that we only saw a handful of other travelers there with us, and by that I mean literally less than 15. That’s in 5 days. I don’t know how long it’s possible for something like that to last for in our increasingly globalized world.
The big Buddha was right around the corner from Pakse. There was much more territory to chart, mainly south east of the small riverside town. This was when we really discovered how far these little bikes could take us on a single tank of gas, and when I began to hit speeds that I wasn’t use to on a two-wheeled vehicle. Probably sounds stupid to anyone used to riding a real motorcycle in North America, sometimes ripping it in excess of 200km/h. For me, though, 90-100km/h was exhilarating, liberating even. My boundaries felt limitless and I could feel the eased, relaxed state of Teresa as she clung to me from behind. It was a special feeling that I need to feel again.
Wat Phu was what we wanted to see, the residence of the wooden Buddha. The lush countryside made way for a small village here or there, until we came upon the sizeable town. Wat Phu lay on the peripherals, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the largest archeological site in Laos. Created by the ethnic Khmers, the same culture that fashioned the famous Angkor Wat, this site was once focused solely on Hindu deities before including many Buddhist elements as well. A museum holding the preserved remains of temples, stone carvings, and other artifacts found here in southern Laos serves as a historical educational tool prior to embarking on the short journey to the base of Mount Phu Kao.
After reading about the history of Hinduism and its correlation with the Buddhist tradition, we gained a better understanding of the cultural antiquity that connects Southeast Asia with neighboring India and China, a true cradle for human civilization and the launching point of some of the most enduring traditions of humanity. It’s easy, having grown up in Canada, to think about Western Europe’s influence on the New World, the Americas and the way of life I’ve known since birth. It should’ve been obvious, simply from a geographical standpoint, how much Eastern Asia influenced, and was influenced by, prominent adjacent nations like India.
Near the museum, several kindly gentlemen operated long golf cart-like vehicles that took you the kilometer or so to the mountain base.
After passing by two long, seemingly man-made lakes, we were deposited at a length of stone pillars that led to the ruins of two ancient Khmer palaces.
We walked through the crumbling stone entities, mostly alone and free to enjoy the solitude of this amazing historical site.
Climbing further upwards, we got to see more of the stone carvings in their natural settings, where they were found and left to be.
And of course I can’t forget the wooden Buddha, cramped inside Wat Phu, or Vat Phou, itself. It was very interesting to see this in a Hindu temple complex and it really underscores the integration, both culturally and geographically, of these two prominent Eastern religions.
When I write these articles, I can’t help but add thoughts here or there when I start browsing the pictures because they consistently, unfailingly, bring my mind to a time and a place that changed me forever. They’re a vivid reminder that I am a lucky man to have done this.
That day in Laos, the air was palpable, one of those hot, tropical days that just opens up your pores and allows you to literally absorb your atmospheric surroundings.
From higher up, we got to see Champasak province, spanning before us, as lush and beautiful as anything we’d seen in Asia. Above all, it was extremely peaceful, having the wind caressing our skin and our hair, easing the saturating humidity that hung in the air.
Some locals were behind us, knocking mangoes out of a tree with a pole about 15 feet long. Two rolled towards the edge of the mountain, threatening to fly off the cliff’s edge where Teresa and my legs lay dangling as we gazed outward. I ran to stop them, and returned them to their owners. An old lady smiled at me, telling me simply “keep”. I smiled back and thanked her as best I could, sharing the first green mango with Teresa and bringing the other back with me on our motorbike. A part of me wishes I took more pictures with locals, but during the trip, something held me back a lot of the time. Often, I felt like I didn’t develop enough of a relationship with them to warrant a picture. To clarify, I felt that there were some travelers who took pictures of locals as though they were part of the scenery, something novel to look at. I didn’t want to be that person. I wanted to develop a true friendship first, and I was really lucky to get to do that with people from many different countries. I mentioned a set of guidelines posted about Lao customs as we crossed the Thai-Laos border from Chiang Khong to Huay Xi. One of them declared that taking pictures without permission is an unacceptable practice. Maybe subconsciously, it made me feel a need to be reserved in that regard. Not that I never ended up taking pictures with people as we went along, but I think I certainly held back more than I normally may have. I think that was a bit of a mistake, one I will never make again when traveling.
Champasak, though. It was something special that will stand out vividly in my memories, always.