Sunday, February 14, 2010

Don't believe the hype

After weeks in northern Laos it felt like a leap to suddenly come south but at least I did so in a way to remember: aboard a sleeper bus. On one of a fleet of these double decker-sized, luridly coloured vehicles - some with ‘King of Bus’ emblazoned across the windshield - I made the ten-hour journey from Vientiane in a comfortable upper berth, which I had to share with a young man from Sweden.

It was quite a pleasant mode of transport actually, though not one I expect to take off in the UK any time soon. If one of them rolled over into a ditch there’d be carnage, and you can’t exactly wear a seatbelt when you’re lying in bed.

It’s amazing how health and safety considerations don’t apply so much here. You see teenagers riding three to a motorbike, without helmets or any kind of protective gear, and not one headline screaming Something Must Be Done. I’m not advocating that we should adopt a similar attitude to risk, though. For one thing, I’ve no idea what their accident statistics are, and for another, I can't tell yet whether there’s some Buddhist brand of fatalism at work.

Anyway, the bus rolled into Pakse, in the far south, at 6.30am (I’m skipping south central Laos because transport options and the tourist infrastructure are limited). That was two days ago. I considered staying in the city awhile but a couple of hours of wandering around, getting hotter and more exasperated as I realised there were few real sights and no budget accommodation, convinced me to go to the town of Champasak instead.

I walked to what my guidebook described as Pakse’s ferry landing. It was a man with a long motorboat moored right next to the shore, about to set off with some other travellers. Our destination, a 90-minute ride away, was a regional powerhouse many centuries ago but is now little more than a 4km-long settlement along the banks of the Mekong. Sorry, did I say 90 minutes? About an hour into our journey, we had to add another ten to allow the boatman to bail water from the bottom of the boat.

These days Champasak attracts an increasing number of backpackers because it is just 8km away from one of southern Laos’s few tourist attractions, the ancient temple of Wat Phou. There are very few facilities in the town but it’s unspoilt, friendly and cheap. I stayed in a family-run guest house owned by a very affable guy who I found yesterday morning pottering around in his garage, with a row of bikes standing ready to be hired to tourists. If he has enough visitors to make his business viable - and it looks as though he does - I imagine he has quite a nice, relaxed life.

In 40 minutes I’d reached the Lingaparvata mountain, where the Khmers (ancient Cambodians who venerated Hindu and Buddhist deities) chose to base their temple. Why? Because it supposedly looked like a phallus.

Hmm. Can’t see it myself.

Although the site dates from the sixth century, most of the ruins are from the 12th, including these two segregated palaces for male and female pilgrims.

After climbing quite a few steps - and boy, was climbing a lot easier in my 30s (about 18 months ago) - I came to a temple decorated with stone lintels depicting scenes from Hindu mythology. These are the most exquisite in Laos and predate the Angkor Wat complex in Cambodia, blah blah blah yadda yadda yadda etcetera etcetera etcetera.

It was all very interesting, but if I’d known what it was like in advance I’m not sure I’d have gone out of my way to come here. Call me cynical (heh heh), but sometimes I think that when guidebooks rave about such places for page after page, it’s because the alternative is to write: “You know what? It’s not all that great. But come on, we have to describe something as ‘top of your southern Laos must-see list’. The alternative is to skim over the mediocre stuff, which might comprise most of a country’s tourist attractions, and to make the book half as long.”

Perhaps I’m being unfair. The temple was fairly Indiana Jones-ish, being at the top of a flight of steps halfway up a mountain in the middle of a jungle. And Champasak is a nice place, if you can stand the humidity and the insects, particularly at night when you‘re sitting in a restaurant and swatting them away from your face. And I did enjoy the cycle ride back, as it gave me another of those ‘ooh, I do love my travels’ moments (maybe riding a bike in southeast Asia releases my endorphins or something).

Also, there’s a place called the crocodile stone that may or may not have been used for human sacrifice at one time.

With that small rush of pleasure that accompanies being a smartarse, I decided I’d rename it the crocodile rock for my own amusement.

Now I’m somewhere else, on a tropical island just north of Cambodia - but that’s another story. In the meantime, happy Chinese new year!

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