After a short 65 minute flight to Ubon Rachathani form Bangkok, our voyage continued overland for two hours to the Thai-Laos border at Chong Mek near Pakse, where we were to join our boat for the first time. Our home for the next 3 days. Originally a working boat, a ferry that carried teak wood between Vientiane and the south of Laos, in 1993 the Vat Phou was converted into a luxury floating hotel, cruising the Mekong river.
The Vat Phou is 34 metres long, and powered by diesel engine, with 12 cabins (each with air conditioning and private bathrooms) and 15 staff aboard. Oriental in style, I particularly enjoyed relaxing on a comfy chair on one of the two open decks — one forward and one astern. The forward upper deck with rattan armchairs, sofas and lounges, was perfect for me — lying back to read a book or check my emails (WiFi onboard), taking photographs of life along the river or just having 40 winks. I so enjoyed the ever changing river scenery and a peak at life as we passed leisurely by, cold Lao beer in hand.
After years of isolation, Laos is now one of the most laid back SE Asian destinations. With a well-preserved culture, stunning natural environment and friendly people. Life in Laos still revolves around tradition and we experienced riverfront life unchanged over generations.
The Mekong opens up at Si Phan Don (meaning literally ‘four thousand islands’). It’s an archipelago of tranquil islands popular with travellers for cycling, swimming, boat cruises, kayaking, and dolphin spotting. The Mekong is truly one of the great rivers of the world, stretching 4,352 kms (2,703 miles) from Tibet to the South China Sea. The meandering Mekong links Indochina’s rich cultures as it flows through six nations China; Myanmar (Burma); Laos; Thailand; Cambodia and Vietnam.
One of the highlights of the trip was a visit to the UNESCO World Heritage site, the Wat Phou temple at Champasak. Wat Phou (temple-mountain) is a ruined Khmer Hindu temple complex in southern Laos. It is located at the base of mount Phu Kao, some 6 km from the Mekong river in Champasak province.
Wat Phou is considered one of the oldest archaeological sites in Laos. One temple in the site was constructed around the 5th century but most buildings found in the complex are from the 11th to 13th centuries. Like other notable Khmer architecture in SE Asia, it was constructed using sandstone, laterite and bricks. The temple has an ancient and direct link to another famous landmark and UNESCO site – Angkor Wat to the south west.
Wat Phou has been an active temple for more than 1000 years. Buddhism replaced Hinduism in Laos, in the mid 13th century. The temple has a unique structure, in which the elements lead to a shrine where a linga (representation/sign) dedicated to Lord Shiva was bathed in water from a mountain spring, believed by many to be holy water. (During our visit we saw local women collecting the water in plastic bottles). The site later became a centre of Theravada Buddhist worship, which it remains today.
Off the main walkway a path leads up to smaller temples and stone carvings on the rocky outcrops and boulders. An elephant and crocodile carving are very distinct.
The crocodile stone has acquired some notoriety as being possibly the site of an annual human sacrifice described in a 6th-century Chinese text in pre-Angkorian times.
The story is lent some plausibility by the similarity of the crocodiles dimensions to those of a human.