Asian Oasis Vat Phou Mekong River Cruise (with the Blanks!)

Champasak Travel Blog

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The Vat Phou Riverboat, our lovely home for three days on the Mekong

9/19/06

Everything was going fine in the minivan as we drove back to Pakse to get on the boat until I said something to Cindy about my camera. She reached in her daypack fumbling around as I watched the panic on her face grow, realizing that she had left her camera back at Saesi. Luckily we weren't to far down the road and so Mee said we had time to go back and get it. Not an auspicious way to start our river cruise, but it seemed ok and we retrieved the camera, even managing to avoid running over the goats and dogs lazing in the road.

When we got to the coffee shop in Pakse where we were to start our trip, we found out that Hans and Alice from Holland, the third and only other couple on the cruise, were delayed at the Thai border.

Houses on the River on Don Ket Island
This gave me enough time to run around the corner to the Pakse Hotel and grab a room for Thursday night (having read their itinerary, this is where Brent and Rosemary are staying so of course we wouldn't dream of staying elsewhere) and to quickly pop into an Internet cafe.

I checked email and, as expected, Bhutan is out for our extension since it is their high season and they severely restrict the amount of tourists.

At the coffee shop we met our guide Mr. Van who was educated as a teacher but because of the poor economy and communist government, after the war from 1972 until 1990 when Laos relaxed the restrictions on tourism, he made more money as a bicycle mechanic than a teacher. He is quite the character, tall and very thin with coke bottle glasses and a strange accent but a great personality. We all kept trying to surreptitiously snap a picture of his smiling face with bugged out eyes and questionable dental work.

"We service tour-group in country and out side with delicious multi kind food in group's price and one dish price you can rather have it indoor enrichment "air condition" and outdoor feeling nature touch."
Hopefully Rosemary will email me the one she snapped and I can upload it here.  New!  this should launch in a separate window but if it doesn't hit back after viewing the video. Mr. Van the Tour Man

We all piled into another mini-van wondering when we would get to the decadent looking Vat Phou Boat we had seen in the brochures and drove to the Khon Phaphaeng waterfall which is the biggest in SE Asia by volume but really not too pretty. In Rosemary's words "AFWF" (Aussie to US translation "Another Fucking Water Fall" - no wonder we get along!).

Boatman on the Mekong
I really liked the blue sign in the picture below.  

After a marginal river-side lunch, still wondering when we would see the luxurious Vat Phou, we all climbed aboard a longtail boat to cruise to Don Ket Island and then go see the ruins of the French built steam railroad from Colonial Times. Suddenly we were spinning in circles in the middle of the Mekong (possibly Brent's Fault since he had commented on how simple the engine and steering mechanism were - basically a steering wheel pounded into a tree stump with ropes leading back to the rudder via some blue PVC) and eventually we limped into the tiny harbor at Don Ket Island with a mortally wounded boat. Rosemary commented that "bad things come in threes" so we figured we were finished with troubles for the day (the camera, Hans and Alice's Border crossing and now the dead longtail boat).

Vat Phou forward salon

Mr. Van pretty much disappeared trying to wangle a deal on a replacement boat so we all wandered around the island which reminded me of 1980's Koh Samui Island in Thailand. It looks like a very laid back, backpacker place. This whole area is known as Si Phan Don or the 4000 Islands at the base of the Mekong River.  After a bit, Mr. Van returned and had located another boat to take us to our next stop, the ruins of a train the French built. As a group we had already decided to bypass the railroad in order to finally make it to Vat Phou boat by sunset/Happy Hour. Mr. Van, very nervous and apologetic, checked with the manager of the cruise company and was told he must "respect our program".

The infamous Mr. Van, our tour guide on Vat Phou
We finally convinced him that we would not complain later about missing the French train (seems to me they suck at trains anyway - look at Panama) and would rather take the two hour longboat upstream to Vat Phou in the daylight.

We spent the next two hours lumbering up the muddy Mekong River, passing many islands, some large and some small but on the banks of each every 5-10 minutes there would be a small group of children, half of them naked, frantically waving and screaming "Sabadee" and Bye Bye!" Too cute - I have a video if you are ever in town. New!  Here is the video on Youtube Screaming kids on the banks of the Mekong River in Laos

We finally picked up the Vat Phou boat at Houyphai and climbed aboard.

Kids on the banks of the Mekong
Luckily it was just as nice as in the pictures with ten nice berths on the lower deck and a huge, open aft deck with a bar as well as a huge fore deck complete with comfy pillows up top. We convinced Mr. Van to comp us beer Lao's since we missed the train which he happily did (including one for himself).

Mr. Van then did his best Laotian interpretation of Marty Feldman, removing his glasses and bugging his eyes out two inches away from the map as he pointed out our route up the Mekong. It was hard to keep a straight face and later, when I asked Mr. Van to show me the villages on the map for which I had to don reading glasses, Rosemary sneakily snapped his photo which will hopefully do him justice.

The six of us had a nice dinner with a couple bottles of red wine with Brent and Rosemary (budget travel seems to be becoming a distant memory - we could get used to this). They have a boat at home and Brent told a very funny story about telling Rosemary to go to the left of the rope which she thought meant that she should keep the rope left of herself - maybe that's why nautical people use port and starboard.

Little kids in Ban Duata School
 

Later that night at the bar, Mr. Van was deeply involved talking with one of the girls who works on board (and who happened to have, in the infamous words of Firesign Theatre, "a balcony you could do Shakespeare off of") and we are still trying to figure out if Mr. Van got lucky.

9/20/06

The next morning we stopped at a small island with a grade school called Ban Duata School. We waded through the partially flooded village and watched the kids (grades 1-6) studying and mostly giggling at us.

New!  My lame attempt at video humor Apocalypse Now Redux - Laos

At one point, Hans walked in and sat down with some of the younger kids which made them squeal and laugh with delight.

Kids playing in the river
We splooshed back through the mud and rice paddies, one village lady proudly showing us her sack full of toads, and eventually made it back to the safe confines of the boat. Luckily we made it just in time to be greeted by the world's largest grasshopper who quickly became the Vat Phou mascot. Lunch and an excellent nap on the foreword deck, occasionally interrupted by the screams of "hello!" and "bye bye!" from the kids on the banks, and the afternoon was done.

Our afternoon trip that day was to Oup Moung temple, hidden in the forest and largely overtaken by it. It was a nice walk through a village and then out into the forest where all of us were paying more attention to the dirt and mud path than the surroundings since Mr. Van had warned us of leeches which we did indeed see.

The temple ruins were small but nice and covered with bright green forest moss and the walk through the small village was nice and full of smiling kids. 

Another nice night and dinner on the boat (red wine included) sent us all off to bed early and ready for exploring Vat Phou ruins tomorrow.

The luxurious berths on Vat Phou

9/21/06

After breakfast we climbed ashore and hopped in a tuk-tuk with Mr. Van and the water man, an older, tiny little barefoot guy more agile than any of us and headed off to Vat Phou.

We stopped first at a museum where Mr. Van explained in detail various intricacies and mythologies of Hinduism (which was the original religion of Laos) and Buddhism which Laos converted to in the 13th or 14th century. There were lots of cool stories, many from Indian Hindu tales about Ganesha the elephant god, Garudas (mythical half bird half man) and one about why the Lingham (a.k.a. what men have and women don't) is so important in their beliefs.  At this point, all I can remember (and this is no doubt confused and wrong) is something about Brahma and Shiva fighting and Vishnu appearing between them causing his Lingham to shoot out in both directions (which sounds somewhat painful).

Vat Phou temple
Brahma became a boar and dug deep in the earth to find the end of Vishnu's Lingham and Shiva transformed into something else and chased the other end up. Talk about obsessive penis envy.

Anyway, we headed off to the Vat Phou ruins which are now a World Heritage site and they were very impressive (perhaps foreshadowing Angkor Wat). There is a long causeway leading up to the ruins lined with four foot high carvings of lotus flowers on each side. Amazingly, one of the Lao princes had the rough road made from giant stones paved with asphalt to make his ride more comfortable. UNESCO is now paying to restore it.

There are a series of levels accessed by very steep, narrow and uneven steps with picturesque but hazy views of the ruins and the ponds below. Mr. Van explained how there were similar temples built every forty Kilometers between Vat Phou and Angkor Wat which is exactly how far an elephant could carry passengers in one day.

We all hiked up the very steep Vat Phou steps, some of which were so steep and narrow that you had to hold on to the steps above.

Krishna killing the demon Kamsa
This temple, similar to many in Laos, was originally Hindu and then converted to Buddhist and has symbols and carvings of both.

Some of the lintels (the thing above the top of the door frame) are incredibly ornate and well carved. The one in this photo (ok in the photo that I will eventually upload when I am not in dialup Laos or Cambodia) is a story about Krishna (the 8th incarnation of Vishnu I think) who is challenged with killing the two headed demon Kamsa who is half white and half black and made from two hairs of Shiva. The legend is that he cannot be killed inside or outside, during day or night and not on earth or in heaven. Krishna, being a smart guy, ends up splitting him in half at dusk (neither day nor night) in the doorway (neither inside nor outside) over his knee (neither heaven nor earth) - simple but smart.

Further afield there were some old Animist ruins that pre date the pre-Angkorian Vat Phou ruins including a huge elephant carved into the face of a rock and a crocodile outline.

Very steep steps at Vat Phou
  The view of the Mekong was nice but a bit hazy again.

Mr. Van had told us that a large French group was joining the boat for the down river return, but that the boat was "ours until 2:00 p.m." and that they would have lunch downstairs in the air conditioned lounge until we disembarked for our two hour Longtail boat return to Pakse. Unfortunately for us, this was not the case and we were invaded by a group of mostly older, overweight, smoking, bad face lift people - we all wondered how they would manage the steps at Vat Phou. Luckily, Hans and Alice as well as Brent and Rosemary all share my views on the French - nuff said.

We bid farewell to Hans and Alice who were off to Phuket then Kota Kintabalu and Rosemary, Cindy, Brent and I headed to the Pakse Hotel which was not a bad place.

After a somewhat bizarre dinner where the four of us were hidden from the rest of the customers behind a curtain dinner at Tour Lao Restaurant, we returned to the Pakse hotel to have a farewell cocktail.

The roadway to Vat Phou
  

Once again, we were waited on by the funniest, most fawning, obsequious waiter on the planet. This guy could not possibly smile or bow any more or any harder. Funniest of all, he kept referring to Rosemary and Brent as Mother and Father which had us howling. We are pretty sure that this was really an honorific thing, but from now on Brent and Rosemary will affectionately be known as "Mother and Father".

Meanwhile, shortly thereafter Angelica and Stephanie from our kayak trip in Luang Prabang showed up and they are having fun and healed from the rigors of our class one rapids adventure.

Sadly, we had to say good bye to the Blanks who are back to Bangkok and then off to Hanoi tomorrow.

The view from Vat Phou Ruins
We are sure we will see them again (perhaps Bhutan in March - feel free to contribute to the cause!)

We are off to Siem Reap Cambodia to see the temples of Angkor tomorrow and really looking forward to it.

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The Vat Phou Riverboat, our lovely…
The Vat Phou Riverboat, our lovel…
Houses on the River on Don Ket Isl…
Houses on the River on Don Ket Is…
We service tour-group in country …
"We service tour-group in country…
Boatman on the Mekong
Boatman on the Mekong
Vat Phou forward salon
Vat Phou forward salon
The infamous Mr. Van, our tour gui…
The infamous Mr. Van, our tour gu…
Kids on the banks of the Mekong
Kids on the banks of the Mekong
Little kids in Ban Duata School
Little kids in Ban Duata School
Kids playing in the river
Kids playing in the river
The luxurious berths on Vat Phou
The luxurious berths on Vat Phou
Vat Phou temple
Vat Phou temple
Krishna killing the demon Kamsa
Krishna killing the demon Kamsa
Very steep steps at Vat Phou
Very steep steps at Vat Phou
The roadway to Vat Phou
The roadway to Vat Phou
The view from Vat Phou Ruins
The view from Vat Phou Ruins
The boatride back to Pakse
The boatride back to Pakse
The infamous Mr. Van Vat Phou Gu…
The infamous "Mr. Van" Vat Phou G…
Champasak Sights & Attractions review
Vat Phou River Cruise For our twelfth anniversary, we decided to splurge and head to Southern Laos for a three day cruise up the Mekong on the luxuri… read entire review
Champasak
photo by: Stevie_Wes