Friday, January 25, 2008

Cafe Lao, Khmer ruins, and freshwater dolphins

We've followed the Mekong all the way down to the Lao-Cambodia border. Our first stop along the way was Pakse, the southernmost city of Laos. Pakse is 30 to 40 kilometers from the Bolaven Plateau, home to fertile soil, dramatic waterfalls, and high-grade coffee plantations. The plateau has always been farmed, but when the French arrived, they started planting coffee, rubber trees, and bananas. Eventually, the French left the plateau when Laos gained independence and the Vietnam war brought massive bombing as the plateau was seen as a strategic area to control for both Northern Vietnam and Americans. Still today, some land on the Bolaven plateau is being cleared of unexploded ordnance and is not farmable. However, for the land that has been cleared, Lao people are hard at word producing great coffee.

The plateau covers a large area and has some dramatic drop-offs formed by water. Among the most spectacular is Tat Fan, parallel streams plunging 120 meters down to a pool. The Tat Fane resort is conveniently located at the best overlook of the falls so one can enjoy a Cafe Lao, listen to crashing water, and enjoy the natural scenery.

There are so many worthwhile waterfalls on the plateau, it is overwhelming and a bit costly (each charges an entrance fee). We visited Tat Yuang.

I took a dip in the waterfall pool where the powerful water had eroded any land my legs might have reached. The current produced from the dramatic 40 meter falls was equally impressive. These two facts combined with the frigid water made for a short-lived dip. Above the falls, a picnic area was set where we enjoyed some tasty Lao oranges.

The following day, we traveled to the small town of Champusak. It is located 30 kilometers south of Pakse across the Mekong river. Previously, the town was home to Lao royalty, it was an important French colonial town, and it was home to a large Khmer-era temple. After crossing on a river barge to the town, we found a quiet village with a single paved road following the Mekong, a splendid location to spend a couple of days. Our first morning, we rented bicycles at our guesthouse and rode 9 kilometers to Wat Phu Champusak, an ancient Khmer temple and now a UNESCO world heritage site. The temple is thought to date back to the 5th century with lots of additions, renovations, etc. throughout the years. The entrance walkway was recently restored to a semblance of its previous glory.

The temple rises from the base of Phu Khuai (Mount Penis); it can be divided into three sections with steep stairways separating the sections. At the base of the mountain is the main causeway to the temple flanked by two nearly dry ponds. The second level contains two incredible pavilions. The lintels, carvings, and pillared windows of the pavilions put visitors in awe.

Unfortunately, the ruins are quite unsafe for entry;

there was only one entry point to one of the pavilions. A steep, long staircase up the mountain leads to the final level where the main sanctuary is located.

The view from the sanctuary encompasses the temple grounds, the surrounding villages and rice fields, and the Mekong river.

Located at the top is a sacred cave spring that even today provides fresh water. Unfortunately, one of the canals that once directed the water has collapsed and water erosion now threatens to destroy what is left of the wat. Archeologists, UNESCO, and locals are attempting to resolve this before it is too late. The danger was very noticeable between the perfectly healthy southern terraces (see photo left) versus the crumbling northern terraces (see photo right).

Besides the sanctuary and the spring, a trail led to rock carvings of elephants, a crocodile, and a Buddha footprint on the third level.

After a fantastic visit to Wat Phu and Champusak, we continued South to Si Phan Don (the 4,000 islands).

The area has three major tourist islands and many of the other islands are so small, the single tree shouldn't qualify as an island. We stayed on Don Det, an adjacent island to Don Khon which is a jumping off point to view the endangered Irrawaddy dolphins (estimates say there are maybe 300 worldwide and 100 living in the Mekong). During the dry season, the dolphins are primarily found in two deep water pools of the Mekong river. The pools are at the Laos-Cambodia border and just north of Kratie, Cambodia. Our guide book warned us that the best time for viewing the dolphins was early morning and late afternoon. This prompted us to set a 6 AM watch alarm which was completely unnecessary when your bungalo already comes with a 4 AM rooster alarm. We crawled out of bed, eyes half open, and arranged bicycle rentals to travel to Don Khon. Upon arrival to the northern tip of Dong Khon, I explained to Laura that we should travel the eastern shore of the island to reach the southern tip where boats awaited ambitious dolphin tourists. For kilometers, we weaved through gravel roadways, Buddhist wats, former railways, and rice field walkways until we finally came upon an unpassable river ravine. We re-examined my map more closely to realize the pathway abruptly ended before reaching the island's southern tip. Disgruntled, tired, and breakfastless, we returned to the northern tip and went towards the western shore. There, we found signs leading us to the dolphins and a well-known waterfall. At this point, it was too late for dolphin-viewing, but we did take in the powerful Tat Somphapit waterfall.

We grabbed brunch and renewed our strength by stretching out in our bungalo hammocks before taking a late afternoon boat ride to a rock island overlooking a Mekong river conservation area. This was the dry season home of the freshwater Irrawaddy dolphins.

Their appearance was unspectacular when compared to other dolphins, no aerial somersaults, no leaping through hoops, no flipper-like cackling; however, their brief appearances were magical nonetheless. Hopefully, the species will recover to delight future generations.

After a brutal bike riding day, Laura and I took a day to recover at our riverside bungalo.

Since we were leaving to Cambodia the following day, we had plenty of spare kip to splurge on Beer Lao and remain properly hydrated while swinging in a hammock!

Now, a break from the travel blog to discuss more random thoughts. First, the bicycles. This post had a bunch of bicycle rentals and these bicycles are like nothing I've ever ridden before. They have a single gear with a basket up front and a metal platform above the rear tire for carrying stuff. The brakes NEVER work, neither front nor rear. It is impossible to adjust the seat in a manner such that my knees do NOT hit the handlebars. The bike weighs so much that I can't lift it without two hands and my knees bent. To top all the common issues off, each bicycle has its own special issue. One had a pedal nearly falling off. Another had a chain so loose that a bump would pop it off. For two people who haven't seen a treadmill or weights for eight months, these bicycles feel like a tank. The roadways haven't helped us much either. Most have been more rugged and bumpier than any Colorado mountain bike trail I ever rode (I admit an unfair comparison since I did have suspension on my mountain bike). The one consolation prize all the bikes rewards us with, a thicker-than-my-sofa-cushion seat which means my bottom's just red, not black and blue, after a ride. Anyway, next time I write "We rode 9 kilometers.", that should be the equivalent of "We just completed running a marathon."

Spiders. I never thought any insect would scare Laura more than a spider. One spider scared her out of a squat toilet. Another tortured her while perched atop our mosquito net. But, today, we had our first cockroach and wow, did that ever stir up some action. I was daydreaming in bed when Laura stepped out of the bathroom, spotted our new roommate, and shrieked. As she backed into the corner of our room, I followed her stare to a large cockroach who had taken center stage in our room.

"Jeremy, what do I do?"

"Pick up my shoe and smash it."

Laura slowly hunched down to grab the nearby shoe. As she moved towards the visitor half-step by half-step, my grin moved towards my ears. Before she was within striking distance, Johnny Cockroach took off full speed under Laura's toiletries bag. The search was on. With shoe raised in striking position, toiletries, pants, and backpacks flew from the other hand. The floor was clear and the only place Johnny could have escaped was under the immovable armoire. Johnny lived for another day! Without television, it's great to get an episode of Tom and Jerry once in a while.

All of our Thai and Lao busrides have Thai love songs played at near max volume through just-functional speakers. I was trying to think of how one might simulate this experience in the US and I think I've got it. First, download that "Near, Far, Wherever you are" song from Titanic. Set the IPod to repeat playlist and make that the ONLY song on your playlist. Find an open-bed truck and install an unpadded wooden chair into the truck bed; secure it well. Next, hire an aggresive, redneck driver who will take the truck anywhere. Fasten yourself to the chair, tell the redneck driver "Pop me outta this chair or I'll tell everybody that you watch Oprah.", then crank the IPod volume. Enjoy the ride! This experience is being a bit too harsh; you can understand the words to the song.

Kilometer 8 has a whole new meaning now. We were at the southern bus station in Pakse, nicknamed the Kilometer 8 bus station, multiple times due to circumstances back home. The bus station is a huge dirt parking lot, half of which is market stalls and the other half is songthaew parking. The first time we arrived there, men grabbed our bags and us from the tuk-tuk and put us into the songthaew. This was 8:30 AM. We were attempting to make the 30 kilometer trip to Champusak. We proceeded to suffer in extreme heat and dust for hours. Each half hour, the driver would start the vehicle, beep the horn frantically, and adjust the vehicle enough so that more sun entered our side of the vehicle. Finally, the vehicle left at 11:30 AM and we arrived in Champusak at 1:30 PM. Five hours to travel 30 kilometers; that's hard to do! We had a total of three visits to the Kilometer 8 bus station and we logged six hours waiting in blistering heat and dust. Luckily, the dust made for a great sunscreen. If you ever want to make me cringe, just mention the words "Kilometer 8".

1 comment:

Laura said...

Where are those cats when you need them to take care of Johnny Cockroach? Either one of them would have had a field day with him!!