Wat Phou in the dry season: not for the faint of heart

Thursday 7 December 2006

Back in Pakse, we saved the most famous historical site for last.


We crossed the river by ferry to get to Wat Phou Champassak.  At the docks, we found ourselves surrounded by women selling radishes. They were more aggressive than the peddlers to which I was accustomed, and as we boarded, they followed us. I felt bad that everyone ignored them, but the truth is, I didn’t want any radishes. I do not care that they only cost 10 cents.

(You will never find me on an episode of Extreme Couponing.)

In fact, I still had a trunk full of water bananas, 20 pounds for 50 cents.  We bought them from a 100-year-old lady who carried them for several miles on her back, uphill, and I thought she deserved a hell of a lot more than 50 cents.  She probably took the price because she didn’t want to carry them anymore. Someone in our company heard I like that variety of bananas and haggled her down. I was mortified.

The awkwardness of being shoulder-to-shoulder with people thrusting radishes in your face was exacerbated by the extremely long loading process.  It seemed as though they were trying to fit in as many cars and people as they could before the craft capsized.

I sweated buckets while waiting for the ferry to move.  Finally, just when I thought I couldn’t bear it anymore, we started the crossing.  The breeze stirred up by the ferry’s movement was like waking up to a dog panting in your face.  No relief from the heat.  Once on the other side, we piled back into the car and continued on the long road that takes you up the mountain.

I read somewhere that the period between November and February is an ideal time to visit Laos.  Theoretically, you escape the monsoon season and the oppressive heat of March through May.  I say theoretically because the day we climbed the stairs to Wat Phou, I think I nearly died from exposure.

My cousin Lan tried to evade the sun with a broken umbrella. Loosely translated, she declared the umbrella

“limp as a duck’s penis.”

Wat Phou is a World Heritage site.  The complex is over 1,000 years old and includes a former Hindu temple and the ruins of two cities, which were originally part of the Khmer empire.  The temple was later converted during the Theravada Buddhist movement in that region.

Blazing hot sun. Scarcely any shelter. One small bottled water. Endless stairs.
The Universe was setting me up.

If you think the hikes up to Wat Phousi and Tham Ting are bad, you might as well start training now for Wat Phou.  Or just live vicariously through others.

I lost count of the steps somewhere between 75 and delirium.  But the treachery of the staircase doesn’t end with just the sheer quantity of steps – oh, no; it was also the ridiculous incline and the uneven spacing of the stones.  At certain places, the steps are so narrow that you have to balance on tiptoe.

The hike started out like this:

Tra la la…so idyllic.

And halfway up, I looked like this:

That’s not boredom on my face.

But the view at the top was well worth it.  As you can see, many of the rice fields are still cultivated today.

***

There is a fresh spring in one of the mountain caves. The water from this spring reportedly cures a multitude of ailments, spiritual and physical. The water was so cold on my skin, I thought I would cry from joy.  (Mom fails at photography, hence the fuzzy photo…sorry.)

Hall of relics
Unfinished rock carvings…I think this one was an imprint of a lizard or crocodile.

On the way back down, there was an Italian archaeological dig underway. Either I was too heat-stroked-out to notice, or they weren’t there during the climb.

In all seriousness, if you are going to climb Wat Phou, make sure you have plenty of water and rest often.  A trip to Champassak would not be complete without seeing this landmark.

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