Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Touring around Pakse

Pakse is the capital of Champasak province. There are a couple of attractions which make Champasak one of the most visited province in Laos. Most of the foreigners come to see Wat Phu Champasak, the Bolaven Plateau and the Mekong river islands of Si Phan Don.
We decided to cover all these attractions in two days before we crossed into Cambodia on May 10. Wat Phu Champasak would be half a day trip from Pakse. The next day, we would be spending the morning at the Bolaven Plateau. After lunch, we would backtrack about 30 km to Highway 13, then go south to Si Phan Don.. We planned to stay a night on one of the islands called “Don Det”, if we could find a secure parking place for our car. Otherwise we would stay in a town close to Si Phan Don and visit the islands the next morning.

May 8: Wat Phu Champasak, World Heritage Site

Wat Phu is situated at the junction of the Mekong plain and Phu Phasak, a mountain. In relation to Pakse, it is on the opposite side of the Mekong river. The Mekong river is the natural border for Laos and Thailand from Vientiane to around Pakse. After that it turns southeast into Laos territory. According to our map, there were two routes we could have taken from Pakse hotel to Wat Phu Champasak, i.e. either cross the French Bridge towards the Thai border and south to Champasak or take Highway13, turn right at Lak 30 to the riverside and take the car ferry across to Champasak. To be sure, we asked the hotel reception how to get to Wat Phu. We got the same answer twice Please take the ferry route. Thinking that time would be wasted waiting for ferry crossing, we wanted to take the bridge route. The hotel reception was surprised and shook his head to show his disbelieve but because of the the language problem he could not explain why. So off we went. An one hour car ride turned into 2 hours rocking journey. Since we were on a free and easy tour, time wasn’t an issue. We gained pretty good off road experience but it was tiring. We even had to stop and take a break somewhere along the route. We do not recommend this route for going to Wat Phu Champasak from Pakse in a saloon car.

We walked into a restaurant at Champasak for lunch. We were the only two customers. This area also took the toll of financial downturn. To our relief, the lady owner spoke good English. We ordered fried rice and she recommended Mekong river fish steamed in banana leaf. We had the same dish before in Vientiane and we liked it. Her steam fish was much better, more fragrant and tasty. She told us it was a kind of local leaf she used to wrap the fish before the banana leaf. Try this dish when you are in Champasak.

Wat Phu was declared a World Heritage Site in 2001. It is located about 15 Km from Champasak town. The admission fee is 30,000Kips (S$6) per person Stretching 1400m up to the lowere lower slopes of the Phu Pasak range, Wat Phu is small compared to Angkor Wat near Siem Reap in Cambodia. This was the day for exercise. Wat Phu was divided into 3 levels, about 1 km long and up the hill. We did it after lunch, under the hot sun. It was tougher than playing a 18 holes golf starting at 12 noon.

After the visit to Wat Phu, we returned to Pakse by crossing the Mekong and Highway 13. It took about an hour which is considerable shorter.

May 09: The Bolaven Plateau and the Mekong river islands of Si Phan Don.

We had been capturing sunset scenes at various cities because we always arrive at a new location late in the afternoon. For safety reasons, we do not travel after sunset. We would arrive at new location by late afternoon or evening and always manage to catch the sunset. This might give the impression that we are late risers. In fact, we are always up around 6.30 am. which is not a good time to watch sunrise. Finally we managed to take a picture of the morning from the balcony of our room at Pakse Hotel.

For the price of 25,000Kips (SGD5), the car looked really clean. First, they used high power water jet to wash away dirt and mud, including under the mudguard. This preliminary washing took about 10 minutes. As we thought the car was done, they sprayed the liquid soap over the entire car, including the car roof. Then, they scrubbed the car, washed it with the water spray and wiped it dry. While the children were drying the car, the father was cleaning the interior with an industrial vacuum cleaner and liquid wax to clean the leather surface. And all this was for S$5. We noticed that they all worked very hard and had good teamwork. The most important thing was that this car washing family did it with pride. Neo Chian and I thought that If we could “import” this family to Singapore for the car wash business, it would give Singapore car washers a run for their money. We were very impressed and Neo Chian presented a cap and a key chain to the boss as a token of appreciation.

Paksong is a town on the Bolaven plateau, 1000 meters above sea level. It is 40 km east of Pakse. The Bolaven plateau is famous for high-grade coffee plantations and waterfalls There are two waterfalls close to each other at Lak 38, a couple of kilometers from Paksong. First we planned to visit Tat Fan waterfall but we missed the turning. The signage was not clear enough. We ended up at Tat Yuang waterfall which is about one km away. We went off road just after Lak 38 for a kilometer or so. Entrance fee was 5,000Kips, S$1, per person and 5,000Kips for the car. We entered at the top of the waterfall. Wanting to get near to the edge of the waterfall, we took off our shoes and walked close to the edge but not dangerously so. The drop from where we stood to the bottom of the waterfall would be at least 40 m. There were no warning signs at all to remind the visitors of the danger of going close to the edge. If they have, it was not in English. Because we have earlier planned to take a dip in the waterfall, we changed into our swimming trunks, carried out chairs and headed for the trail down to the bottom. As we got down and near the waterfall, the water vapor saturated the surrounding air. The handle rail was slippery and difficult to grab. No one else was at the bottom of the waterfall except these two crazy guys. We found a flat landing and opened up our chairs. We sat there and enjoyed the sounds and sight of this waterfall. We figured out it would be dangerous to swim in the waterfall as we were not familiar with the under current. Neo Chian went into the water first to show me the way. Well, we achieved our goal of dipping in the waterfall. After a quick dip, we climbed back up to the top of the waterfall. Many local visitors looking at us and must have wondered what we were doing at the bottom of the waterfall.

We continued our journey to Paksong for lunch. Paksong is a small highway town. It only took us a couple of minutes to go from one end to the other. We spotted this hotel high up on the hill and it seemed that this is the best place in town. This town is about 1100 m above sea level. The air was cool just like Cameron Highlands. We drove up the hill to the hotel. The place looked deserted. Reluctantly, we parked our car and walked towards the restaurant. Inside the restaurant, there was no customer. A lady came out and greeted us. In the past week, we released that the Chinese in Indochina were mostly Teochew. Neo Chian proceeded to ask in Teochew if they were opened for business. True enough, she responded in Teochew in return. So, we knew we could get food here. After chatting for a few minutes, following her recommendation, we ordered a steamed fish, vegetable and toufu soup. With no other customers to serve, it took them 20 minutes to serve us. The fish didn’t look appealing and it was tought to the touch but nonetheless edible. We were told later that this was the best fish from the Mekong river. We had our doubts though.

While we were taking our lunch, some uninvited guests come into the restaurant.

After lunch, we back tracked to Highway 13 and turned southward to Nakasang, a town opposite Don Det (Det Island). We turned off Highway 13 to Nakasang. After 10 minutes ride on bumpy red earth (laterite) road, we arrived at this riverside town. There was a public car park. We asked about parking the car there over night. Mr. Kham Panh, the owner of the car park directed us to park next to his drink hat. He assured us that the car would be safe as it was next to his bedroom window for 20,000 Kips (S$4). We carried a overnight bag, camera and took a short walk to the riverside. The ferry (sampan) fee was 15,000 Kips per person. Neo Chian looked so relaxed on the sampan.

When we arrived at Don Det, there was no jetty landing. This long tailed boat just went for the sand beach. Then you just walk up the shore. We stayed at Little Eden for US$12 for a double room. We took two rooms as no twin room was avaliable. These room are fan cooled. The room was large and comfortable. Only drawback was
Electricity supply. It was only available from 6 to 11 pm. After 11 pm, you could not even run the ceiling fan. I wouldn't recommend for those who are used to aircon.

We woke up early the next morning, After breakfast, we rented a bicycle each and rode to the bigger island, Don Khon. We took a picture at the bridge linking Don Det to Don Khon. French built a narrow-gauge railway across the two islands. One of the locomotive was left behind on Don Khon. After two hours of cycling, we went back to Little Edens, checked out and retuned to Nakasang by sampan. We had another chance of viewing these little islands scattered in the Mekong.
There was one more waterfall on our agenda. We planned to have a panic and cook our lunch at the Khon Phapheng waterfall to save time. We would like to be at the border after 1.30 pm.
We arrived at the waterfall around 11.30 pm. We brought along our portable stove, maggie noodles and our chairs. Enjoyed the view of waterfall while we had our lunch. That was so nice. What a great lunch it was.

As you can see, we left nothing behind. W took out everything in order not to pollute this natural environment.

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