A Mekong Promenade Part 2 – South Laos

Jurgen

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Oct 23, 2009
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Excerpt: After a drive along the Mekong's rim in Isan, I stopped in Pakxe before journeying south, toward the 'Four Thousand Islands' and the Cambodian border. The majestic Phapheng waterfalls and the sacred Vat Phou temple are the itinerary's highlights.

A Mekong Promenade
Part 2 – South Laos

First (1st) part: The Isan Rim (A Mekong Promenade - The Isan Rim)
Second (2nd) part: South Laos (A Mekong Promenade Part 2 – South Laos)
Third (3rd) part: Vientiane to Luang Prabang (A Mekong Promenade, Part 3 – Vientiane to Luang Prabang)
Fourth (4th) part: In memoriam of some Mekong explorers (A Mekong Promenade - part 4: In memoriam of some Mekong explorers)
Fifth (5th) part: Xayaboury, Laos west of the Mekong (A Mekong Promenade - Part 5: Xayaboury, Laos west of the Mekong)
Fifth B (5B) part: Pak Lai stopover (A Mekong Promenade - Part 5b: Pak Lai stopover)
Sixth (6th) part: Chiang Khong (A Mekong Promenade - Part 6 : Chiang Khong)
Seventh (7th) part: Along the Golden Triangle (A Mekong Promenade - Part 7: Along the Golden Triangle)

Eighth (8th) part: Cruising down the Mekong river (To be published next

1. Champasak and Vat Phou

Pakxe’s [8] location and regional economic importance are its main attractions, particularly since the inauguration, in the year 2000, of the “Lao-Nippon Bridge” spanning the Mekong. The city's name - “Mouth of the river Xe” - points to its location, at a confluence with the “Big River”.

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This city is a recent dwelling, set up as a French administrative outpost in 1905. Its short royal splendor is attested by the “Champasak Palace Hotel”, Prince's Boun Oum unfinished residence.

Some colonial constructions, charming temples and historic buildings, like the “Residence Sisouk”, or my favorite shelter, the “Pakse Hotel”, make a ramble through the old city enjoyable. Most visitors, however, use Pakxe as a carrefour, a starting point for travels on Route 13 toward the South and Cambodia, or toward Vientiane and the North. Other branches of this crossing lead to the Bolaven Plateau and Vietnam, on Route 16E, and to Ubon, in Thailand, on Route 16W. In addition, a new itinerary, cut along the Mekong's right side, conveniently links to Champasak and to the ancient site of Vat Phou.

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Before calling it a day, I spent a relaxing evening on “Pakse Hotel's” roof terrace, enjoying the French food and wine legacy in a hospitable Lao atmosphere; “fusion” at its best, draped in an enchanting nocturnal panorama.

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After a pleasant breakfast, my day's itinerary would bring me to Champasak, for a visit to Vat Phou and a night in a local guesthouse. I should then cross the Mekong by ferry and drive further down Route 13. Nothing new, as I had called at these places exactly two years earlier.

The novelty, for this trip, was a drive on the recently completed trail, cut on the the “Big River's” west side.

After crossing into Laos, the day before, on Route 16W, I had spotted a signboard pointing toward Champasak. I also noted a large Buddha image overlooking the “Lao-Nippon Bridge”, just before Pakxe. These were my milestones for this day's beginning, a short travel schedule with plenty of time for visits.

My first stop was at the “Big Buddha Park”, next to the 'Japanese Bridge'. Pilgrims are conducted to the hillside Shakyamuni image by an impressive number of stairs; a less meritorious alternative, however, is to drive up the ring road, all around the mountain. The compound was still under construction, but the gorgeous panorama from the lookout made the visit to the unfinished temple still worthwhile.

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After driving another twenty kilometers on Route 16W, I reached the intersection for Champasak. There, my side trip started on an agreeable pavement but, rapidly, ended in the mud. As I wondered if I was at the right place, local people confirmed my mistake: this was the old path, a long unpaved trail only eventually leading to the former royal capital.

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Cruising back toward Pakxe, I finally found a junction with a signboard pointing to Phaphin, a Champasak's hamlet. For whatever reason, the main locality's obvious name had been omitted. At first, I had also overseen the indications „Vat Phou“ and „River Resort“, which should have given me a clue.

The new road affords an enjoyable ride on a race track pavement. It meanders through and enchanting landscape, at the Pasak mountain chain's foot and, eventually, leads close to the Mekong.

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When I arrived in Phaphin, I was disappointed to find out that the regular ferry traffic had been discontinued; only a specially chartered boat could bring me over the river. I also questioned my decision to stay overnight, as the small town seemed to have fallen asleep. I wonder if this is a a consequence of the new road, a shortcut to the Vat Phou temple which might harm, more than help, developments for Champasak's denizens.

As I had any way to drive back, I decided to return to Pakxe for the night; I am probably not the only visitor to make such a choice.

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The old road to Vat Phou, as it crosses small hamlets and follows the “Big River”, is an interesting stroll. Despite an overcast sky, the panorama was gorgeous, it featured tender green fields contrasting with the dark mountains' hue or with the Mekong's silver shades.

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My last visit to Vat Phou, the UNESCO World Heritage old Khmer temple, was exactly two years earlier, when the new road was still under construction. Some infrastructures have been added at the compound's entrance, probably to cope with an increased tourists' flow. Near to a modern ticket office, a small museum is open to the public and large golf carts are now trailing visitors to the mountain's base; a good deal, as I was still dressed in my biking gear.

After driving along the two large barays, the symbolic lakes in front of the hill, the walk starts along a causeway lined with sandstone pillars.

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The first large buildings, at the causeway's end, are two palaces, probably former worshiping pavilions. These sandstones and laterite structures are still impressive, despite the damages inflicted by time and looting.

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Some windows are protected by helicoidal stone rods, typical of Angkor architecture.

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A small hall, dedicated to the sacred bull Nandi, Lord Shiva's mount , is located just above the south pavilion, it is now under renovation. In ancient times a road left south of this place, toward a building devoted to Nang Sida, and, eventually to Angkor; I had partly followed this trail during my last visit (see: https://www.gt-rider.com/thailand-motorcycle-forum/showthread.php/34187-South-Laos-1-Ferry-Tales).

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Further up, the pathway climbs a impressing staircase were a walking Buddha image encourages the pilgrims. Build up by the Khmer as a Hindu temple, Vat Phou was later 'recycled', by the Lan Chang kingdom, into a Theravada worshiping place.

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Thrilled, and breathless after the steep climb, I reached the summit, the terrace with the Shiva temple. This august pre-Angkorian sanctuary, exquisitely decorated with Hindu motives is, arguably, the compound's jewel. Unfortunately, its conversion into a Theravada shrine is clashing. The uncommon Buddha images, built over the sacred Shiva lingam, are not on par with the majestic Khmer vestiges.

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Delicate Hindu carvings adorn all the sanctuary's sides. The front lintel, for instance, depicts Indra riding Airavata, the three headed elephant. Other sculptures represent the Hindu Trimurti, with Vishnu and Brahma honoring a standing Shiva.

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Nagas are omnipresent all along the Mekong, as this river is their favorite dwelling. In addition, Vat Phou, is also decorated (and protected) by “ngu suang” sandstone figures, another mythical serpent, an invisible pre-Ankor man-eating beast and a sacred places' guardian. [1]

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Beyond the Shiva sanctuary, carved stones are photogenic attractions. This is how Natacha du Pont De Bie (in 'Ant Egg Soup') describes the place [2]:

„ I shot through the middle level, as I had read in a guidebook that human sacrifices had taken place on the top terrace. I raced up a series of treacherously crumbling steps, past the 'sanctuary' and the sacred spring, to reach the most interesting part – the crocodile stone, the table of human sacrifice. To find it, I had to locate some tiny carved steps, easily overlooked, that led between two enormous boulders. On the other side was a most gripping sight, a large, flat rock with a beautiful silhouette of a crocodile carved deeply into it. It was primitive and stylized with leg outstretched and a bottle-shaped nose ... It is described as a 'sacrificial table' and was thought to have been used for Chenla Human sacrifices between the fourth and eight centuries but may even have been used by earlier civilization ... „

Such creepy descriptions add spices to the visit, however, although a plausible story, abundant monsoon water has, over the years, washed memories away and eroded the 'sacrificial' stones.

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Behind Vat Phou, the hill's top, is distinctly shaped like a lingam, Shiva's phallic symbol; during my two visits, however, it was always chastely draped in clouds and haze.

An inexhaustible spring drains water from the mountain to the cliff's base, just behind the sanctuary. The flow used to permanently bath the Shiva shrine; nowadays pilgrims still collect the lustral water or put their head under the Naga shaped pipe.

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Vat Phou's interest goes behind its ruins and carvings. The site's perfect integration, linking the sacred mountain top to the Mekong river is an illustration of the Hindu vision linking humanity to its environment.

During a quiet day, it is easy to sense the place's greatness and spirituality. Man-made masterpieces are draped in the nature's greens, while the temple's layout reaches to a fading horizon.

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Since the straight road, at the mountain's foot, was still under construction, I followed again the old, and more interesting link, from Vat Phou to Champassak.

'Pasta' are popular dishes in Asia, and, in Laos, they are produced with rice starches or beans. The drying process, generally entrusted to the midday heat, creates ornamental patterns all around the production outlets, as in the one-man factory found along the way.

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A signboard announcing: “Théâtre d'ombres de Champasak”, seized my attention. The French writing, usual on old placards, did not puzzle me, but the environment felt odd and ramshackle for a cultural presentation.

Under an old wooden house I met people taking care of coffin like boxes containing shadow puppets. Kindly they displayed some characters for me. I read about an initiative to preserve and revive the endangered marionettes' tradition; I am uncertain, however, if this crumbled place is linked to that project.

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Champasak, as I discovered by taking the wrong road, is a hamlets' cluster along the Mekong's rim, on the Passak mountain range's flank. Its center is marked by a circular fountain, in the vicinity of historic buildings from its royal and colonial past, local abodes, a couple of temples and some guesthouses.

Nowadays it is difficult to envision this region's historic importance; it was home to the old city of Shrestrapura's and to sanctuaries dating back to the Chen La and Khmer Empires.

The city was called Bassac by the French Mekong's explorer [7] and served as a temporary base during their expedition, in 1866:

„ Quite without foreknowledge, Lagrée's choice proved excellent. Bassac was scenically striking, set on the western bank of the river with a large, cultivated island before the settlement, and dominated to the rear and west of the long, winding settlement following the river's bank by a series of dramatic mountains.“[7]

Actually, Francis Garnier, the „Mekong River Expedition's“ second in command is credited for publicizing Vat Phou's existence to the Western World.

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On my way back along the new road, I stopped in Ban Khorn Kaen, on the ”Big River's” rim. Like everywhere in Laos, kids were happy and amazed to meet a 'Falang' on a big bike.

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The round trip to Champasak and Vat Phou, including my loop on the wrong road, added only 140 kilometers to my bike's odometer. After checking in again to “Pakse Hotel” and, after a stroll through the neighborhoods, I spend another delightful evening on the hotel's roof terrace.

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2. The Kone Phapheng waterfalls


An overcast morning was a relief, after some rain in the night and repeated bleak news about the tropical storm Gaemi. Starting early, I decided to complete as many visits as possible before the announced downpour.

Every encounter with Route 13 is like meeting an old friend. Laos' communication system's backbone is a French colonial legacy, built to connect Vientiane to Luang Prabang in the North and, in the South, to reach Pakxe and eventually Cochinchina. Nowadays it links Boten (the Chinese border) to Veun Kham (the frontier with Cambodia), at a length of more than 1000 kilometers; an unavoidable trail for touring bikers.

I dislike highways, but Route 13 does not conform to to the usual “national expressway's” cliché. Its Pavement's quality varies from segment to segment and stretches in the South are often straight and flat whilst, in the North, they are winding up and down mountains. Globally, it is more a pastoral road than a speedway and the traffic is usually low.

My first stop, just after leaving Pakxe, was to chat with happy youngsters waiting to be picked up for their daily work assignment. Further down I reached “Ban Lak Samsip” and the intersection with the side-road to the former ferry pier to Champasak.

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More rural than interstate, the Route 13's southern part is a tranquil drive through serene panoramas. The pavement is asphalted, with a heavily granulated surface. Cattle seem to dwell and ramble freely on it and I came really close to some goat meat when such a caprine animal jumped forth and back on a collision line with my bike.

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Compared with its northern stretches, southern Route 13 crosses through little villages. The wide Mekong plain affords enough space to keep the dwellings away from the traffic. It is, however, not a deserted region and, from time to time, small wooden houses punctuate a fertile and bucolic landscape, providing enough opportunities to meet gentle Lao people, always ready to pose for a picture.

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An ubiquitous French legacy, are the red caped "tombstone" kilometer markers. They indicate the Route number and, underneath, the remoteness to a next dwelling. The destinations are listed in rotation and it takes some kilometers before the same city is featured again, giving a broader, hence often irrelevant, distances' overview.

In Laos, many villages' names begin with "Lak". This word's meaning is a stick, a kilometer marker for that purpose. It is followed by a number indicating the distance from a major city.

"Lak Saosee", for instance, is twenty four kilometers away from a large dwelling, and several villages, around Laos, might wear the same name. This is a handy, albeit sometimes imprecise way, to assess distances. Generally and unfortunately, the inscriptions are written in Lao (sometimes romanized), but infrequently in Arabic numbers.

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With less surprise but the same wonder than during my first visit, I starred again at the Khone Pha Pheng waterfall. Draped in mist and with a deafening sound, the once placid Mekong suddenly takes a rocky curse, jumping down a series of grandiose and awe inspiring cataracts.

In his book "Mekong", Milton Osborne makes the following description [3]:

"Despite their limited height, the amount of water flowing over these falls at high water is greater than that passing over the much better known Niagara Falls. Seen at any time, they provide a sense of enormous power"

This depressing sight should have put an end to the French expedition searching for a navigable waterway in China. The adventurous explorers, however, went on and on, mapping the Mekong and publicizing its region to the World.

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Nowadays, the French concept of “Mission Civilisatrice” is at best humoristic; in colonial times it was, however, the driving force and justification for new territories' occupation. This negative connotation, time's erosion and the distance from the former metropolis, faded away the great Mekong explorers' names; many sacrificing their life to slack their curiosity and discovery's passion.

Doudart de Lagree and Francis Garnier, fought their way up the Phapheng Falls, Henri Mouhot preceded them on a northern stretch and Auguste Pavie, through his various “Missions”, rounded up the mapping and knowledge of the vast Big River's region. They all deserve more recollection than Mouhot's modest and decrepit tomb near Luang Prabang; where they can all be traced back.(9)

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The indomitable Phapheng Falls are now a prized destination for Lao and Thai tourists, not only impressed by the ebullient water's strength but also by its mythical power to trap the spirits hanging around people.

Frail bamboo makeshift bridges and ladders are dangerous fishing activities' remnants along the falls. The most sought after and endangered 'Plabuck' (giant catfish), the largest freshwater fish, used to dwell in these streams. Today he is rarely spotted and its fishing is prohibited, since 1996, at least on paper.

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Contented and serene, after a last glimpse to this natural wonder, and hoping that the mighty waters flushed away whatever ghost or phantasm had followed me, I bid farewell to the glorious Mekong's jewel.

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My next destination was Veung Kham's checkpoint, the crossing into Dom Kralor in Cambodia. This time I had no intention to pass the border and just peeked from far at the new building on the Lao side.

The distance from Pakxe to the border is 170 kilometers; starting from Chiangmai, my odometer indicated 1789 kilometers.

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I have never visited Don Det and Don Khon, two popular backpackers' islands, with a road system unsuitable for street bikes. During each trip, however, I drive down to the pier, peek over the Mekong, and watch the small boat traffic, cruising to and fro to trail people and merchandise between the river's rims.

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Further up Route 13, after driving along a side road, I reached Don Khong's ferry pier. Large boats were waiting for a consistent load and the next departure was on a small double pirogue. Cruising on these fragile platforms is a fun experience; when the weather and waters are calm.

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In Don Khong I checked into 'Pon's River Guest House', the same place as two years earlier. It is a convenient shack, with comfortable rooms, cable TV, WI-Fi and a river terrace restaurant; I could not ask more for a relaxed dimming of lights.

At the guesthouse's entrance, the 'GT-Rider Trip' sticker, faded by the years, is still in place.

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My intention was to spend the next day on the island, an interesting region for a slow ramble to various Mekong panoramas and to observe the bucolic local life.

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Fresh markets, with their variety of populations and harvested, gathered or caught yields are picturesque and instructive places; bathed in the dawn's light, they are well worth an early rise.

On an island watered by the 'Big River', the fish catches' range is amazing; I saw many of them for the first time. This reminded me about the fabulous Mekong ecosystem's diversity. With about thousand species, its fish stock variety is just second to the Amazon and its annual several million tonnes' aquatic products' yield provides essential proteins to tens of millions of inhabitants along its rims [6].

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Chicken and other fowl or birds are also a prized exchange commodities, together with a wide vegetables and spices array.

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After a first visit, two years earlier, I recognized many faces, familiar from my former pictures. Unfortunately, this time, I traveled without pictures to bring back to the gentle 'models'.

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The latest news about Gaemi, the sword of Damocles following me since my departure, were gloomy; torrential rain and strong gust wind were predicted for Vietnam, North Cambodia and East Thailand, just around me.

After breakfast, I revised my schedule and decided to head north as soon as possible. Bidding farewell to Pon's guesthouse and to the charming green Khong landscape, I boarded a ferry and crossed to the mainland.

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From the rivers east landing, two trails lead to Route 13. For my other trips I had always driven the link's south branch but, this time, I went up north. It is a short dirt road, without particular hindrances, but, probably, unpleasant under heavy downpour or in the rainy season.

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3. Route 13 to Vientiane.

Once more, I met my old friend Route 13; I would now follow its straight course during several days. Many small tributaries drain the wide Mekong's plain and an equal number of bridges jump over these rivulets. Most crossings possess a small guardian house - usually equipped with a hammock – and a Cerberus warden objecting against taking pictures. It reminded me about my first crossing over the 'Japanese Bridge', in Pakxe, when a policeman chased me for taking a photo. Amazingly, I have only experienced such 'protective' attitudes in Southern Laos.

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Despite South Route 13's low riparian population, enough small dwellings punctuate its otherwise monotonous course. They provide opportunities to stop for amusing and lively encounters.

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East of Champasak, I suddenly distinguished, for the first time, the impressive mountain top Shiva's lingam. Unfortunately, by the time I had stopped at a panoramic viewpoint, clouds draped again the symbolic protuberance.

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Just as my odometer indicated 2000 kilometers, measured from my Chiangmai's departure, I passed the roadstone marking 200 remaining kilometers to Savannakhet. I was already driving north, without having yet completed my trip's first half.

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Two years ago, during a visit to Salavan [10], I envisioned to drive back on Route 15. It provides a nice shortcut from the Bolavean Plateau, but, according to my information, this was only a dirt trail. This time, as I passed its intersection with Route 13, I decided to scout it for some kilometers.

It was a short loop, as I saw only red dirt along the way. After a period of humidity and before the next heavy shower, the trail might be feasible on a road bike. However, as Laos provides enough opportunity to swallow the dust on unavoidable links, I prefer to stay on the asphalt, whenever possible.

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Further north, after Beng village, South Route13 showed its first scars; no heavy destructions - even so a piece was completely under renovation - but still in contrast with the other southern stretches.

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Driving at a good pace, I 'enjoyed' the numerous 'flyovers' crossing small rivers. The 'bumps' built into the tarmac regularly provide takeoff and 'flying over' sensations.

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When entering Savannakhet from the South, it is easy to find the 'Bua Luang' hotel; it offerers huge spotless rooms for 100'000 kip (400 THB), an excellent value.

The day's itinerary, from Kong island to Sawannakhet, measured 380 kilometers.

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Next to the hotel, apprentice torero kids made fun of a tethered bull. Kept at a distance by its cord, the beast only charged sporadically, without conviction.

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Savannakhet's old commercial town, along Si Muang Road, provides an alluring glimpse into a faded colonial era. Eroded French shophouses and the still active St Teresa Catholic Church assert the city's former administrative importance.

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A nostalgic stroll through the old streets, lined up with often crumbled and decaying colonial buildings, produces mixed feelings. It is enticing to witness the vestiges of recent, yet rapidly fading, historic pages, and one might regret the colonial era testimonials' deterioration. On the other hand, Savannakhet's development and its regained strategic position has probably nothing left to keep up and polish the French protectorate's memories.

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Late afternoon I rambled along Savannakhet's riverside promenade, for a glimpse toward Mukdahan, the neighboring city on the Thai rim. From my outlook, I reflected on a question raised by my favorite travel writer, Tiziano Terzani, as he started his cruise on the 'Big River' here, in 1992 (4):

“The Mekong was flat and undramatic, its opaque surface broken now and then by great bubbles of mud. We glided slowly between the two banks that summed up the contradiction I would have liked to resolve: on the left the Laotian shore with villages shaded by coconut palms, dinghies moored below rough bamboo ladders, oil lamps gleaming softly in the silence of the evening; on the right, the Thai shore with neon lights, canned music and the distant rumble of motors. On one side the past, from which everyone wants to tear the Laotians away, on the other the future toward which all and sundry believe they must rush headlong. On which shore lies happiness?”


Nowadays this seems a rhetoric question. People on both rims are from the same breed, divided only by historic contingencies and, after an artificial sealing of the borders, their exchanges are thriving again.

Commodities flow along waterways and through the bridges, while the ubiquitous Thai TV's broadcast unifies the cultural perceptions and languages. It might be difficult to assess happiness, but consumerism is well implemented on both shores.

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I woke up to an overcast, but still dry morning, and headed north, on small trails along the Mekong. I wanted to photograph the “Second Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge” built on Savannakhet's outskirts. Finally the only way to access the river was through a private garden, opened for me by a hospitable Lao lady.

The span over the 'Big River', completed in 2006, is part of the East-West Economic Corridor (Route R9), a 1450 kilometers communication link between Myanmar's Mawlamying (on the Andaman Sea) and Da Nang in Vietnam (on the South China Sea).

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Back on Route 13, I quickly completed the hundred twenty kilometers to Thakhek, my day's destination.

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My shack for the night was the 'Mekong Hotel', an appropriate name, a good location along the river promenade, yet maybe not the best value in town (180 000 Kip, without breakfast). This four-storey building caters particularly to a Vietnamese clientele, the largest ethnic group in this city.

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Thakhek, in its current setup, is a recent construction; a French colonial dwelling built in 1910. An old Mon Khmer city existed on the same site and, as implied by the name “Guest Landing”, was an entry point for Indian and Arab merchants.

The Mekong's relative narrowness puts the Thai border and Nakhon Phanom's buildings at a grasping distance. This proximity and the region's accessibility, promoted the town to an important commercial link, on the road to Vietnam. The new bridge, built some kilometers further north, makes the ferry pier, hence the “Guest Landing” obsolete.

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Thakhek's old town is captivating and, despite architectural similitudes with Savannakhet - its big sister - affords a different atmosphere. The old French and Vietnamese shophouses, residences and administrative buildings seem better maintained or in a more romantic decay stage, while the renovated “Fountain Square” and a promenade along the Mekong river, punctuated with small restaurants, give a more festive and touristic look to this relaxed and attaching city.

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For its food variety, WI-Fi connection and nostalgic lodging, the Inthira Hotel, a refurbished colonial shophouse, is certainly the best deal in town; I spent my evening and took all my meals there. Next time I will certainly consider it also for my abode.

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Nan Thakham is a centrally located temple with a pleasant garden. Young monks and novices had fun to get a grasp on a big bike and to chat with a Falang. Such contacts with the local population are rewarding; I regularly try to put them in my souvenir box.

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Fishing is an essential and ubiquitous activity along the Mekong, one of the worlds most productive water flow. The riparian countries' mainly poor populations are dependent on aquatic supplements to complete meager and uncertain agricultural yields. The fish consumption, in the Big River's Basin, is estimated at about thirty kilograms per person and year, representing more than half the region's animal protein consumption [6]

Such statistics are not indifferent, they help to put idyllic activities and everyday gestures in perspective, in the realistic necessity frame.

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The Mekong is omnipresent in Thakhek, it contributes to the city's sustenance and, in addition to a transportation mean, provides a dazzling backdrop for this ravishing city.

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While the day is slowly closing, a refreshing stroll along the river allows to enjoy a spectacular light show. Reflected by scattered clouds, the amazing twilight's color palette paints dramatic hues along the horizon.

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The next morning, with a clear, yet hazy sky, I hit the road toward the North again, on route 13, with the intention to stopover in Pakxan.

My first call was at the “Third Thai–Lao Friendship Bridge”, opened on the auspicious day of November 11, 2011, at eleven O'clock and eleven minutes. It connects Nakhon Phanom (home village) to the Khammouan province (Veun Tai village) and is a piece of the Asian Highway Route 15 (AH15), a link to Vinh and central Vietnam (through Route '8'). It is also an East-West corridor's component, fostering exchanges with Vietnam and South China.

While driving down on the opposite side, on the Isan rim, I had inquired about the possibilities to drive over the bridge on a motorcycle; the answer was still negative.

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After Thakhek the panorama is enhanced by mountains and majestic karst limestone formations; adding diversification and interest to the journey. The hills' baldness, however, is distressing. It reminds me about Dervla Murphy's comments, while pedaling around the region in 1999 [5]:

“For sixty miles Route 13 ran level – or undulated mildly – through a wide, sparsely inhabited landscape quite recently stripped of its forest. By the wayside lay several groups of giant tree roots, bleached and trimmed and grotesquely beautiful, all neatly numbered with white paint, awaiting transport. These sell well in the Rich World as exotic 'garden features'. The symbolism was painful: forests being uprooted, Lao culture being uprooted.”

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Before Viengtong, the pavement begins to be worn out; some minor destructions only, but a change compared to Route 13's renovated southern part.

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For a short stretch, the road follows the Kading river, affording some refreshing glimpses toward this Mekong tributary. Don Xai, a small temple built on the flow's shore enticed me for a visit; an opportunity to chat with novices and to take amiable pictures.

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After crossing the bridge, in Pak Kading (the Kading's river mouth), the view opens again toward the Mekong, at the rivers' confluence.

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A last ride north-west, and I reached Pakxan, my scheduled destination for the day. Along the town's main road, nothing fancy caught my attention and I drove straight to the ferry pier.

Boats link Pakxan to Bueng Kan in Thailand, a convenient water crossing to escape the bikers passage prohibition, over the Nong Khai bridge, in the Laos direction; apparently this restriction is no longer enforced, making the crossing from Bueng Kan obsolete.

It was still early and, without an incentive to stroll around Pakxan, I decided to drive the additional stretch toward the more attractive Vientiane.

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I have not spent a night in the “Moon City” since more than 15 years, but, as I had recently crossed it on a bike [11], I was unsurprised about the dwelling's changes. My former abode, the Lane Chang Hotel, still exists, but, nowadays and particularly for rambling bikers, a lot more choices are offered, in all lodging categories.

A couple of alumni (from my former hotel school) now own a small, well centered guesthouse, with a nostalgic charm. I happily spent two days there, while discovering the latest city's developments, including its traffic jams.

“Lao Heritage Hotel” recently added a Spanish restaurant “Anda Bistro” [93]

(http://www.laoheritagehotel.com/) and (Facebook)

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The day's itinerary, from Thakhek represented 347 km.

-------------------------------------------------------------------------

Notes:

[1] The Enduring Sacred Landscape of the Naga
Mayoury & Pheuiphan Ngaosrivathana
Mekong Press, 2009

[2] An Egg Soup
Natacha du Pont De Bie
Hodder and Stoughton Ltd, 1988

[3] The Mekong. Turbulent past, uncertain future
Milton Osborne
Allen&Unwin 2000, revised edition 2006

[4] A Fortune-Teller Told Me
Tiziano Terzani
Flamingo editor 1998

[5] One Foot in Laos
Dervla Murphy
Flamingo Editor 2000

[6] Fish biodiversity along the Mekong River
Eric BARAN
MITH Somountha, WorldFish Center
Pdf document

Strategic Environmental Assessment of Hydropower
on the Mekong Mainstream Mekong Fisheries and
Mainstream dams
Eric BARAN (WorldFish Center)
Pdf document

[7] River Road to China
The Mekong River Expedition 1866-1873
Milton Osborne

[8] In addition to the usual Asian scripts' transcription and transliteration problems, Lao adds a French heritage pronunciation layer . This is particularly obvious in the use of 'X' and 'S'. As far as possible, I have written the names in accordance to the GT-Rider map, as it follows an officially recognized transcription and is the reference for most readers of these trip reports. In some cases, I have kept the more common name (like in “Paksé Hotel”) or maybe just overseen the right spelling.

[9] Chapter 3 of this trip report will have a more comprehensive description of the Mekong's exploration and an homage to Henri Mouhot

[10] See: https://www.gt-rider.com/thailand-m...ead.php/35164-South-Laos-2-Around-the-Bolevan

[11] See: https://www.gt-rider.com/thailand-m...3925-An-Easy-Road-to-Laos-4-Back-to-Nong-Khai

Other Internet pages accessed:

Mekong - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Mekong - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Global Mekong information

Mekong River | The Water Page
The water page website has information about the Mekong River and the Countries that border it.

http://www.mongabay.com/fish/data/ecosystems/Mekong River.htm
A list of the species of fish present in Mekong River with detailed information and
pictures of each species.

Mekong River Commission - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
The Mekong River Commission (MRC) is an intergovernment body

http://www.laoheritagehotel.com/
Lao Heritage Guesthouse website
 
Last edited by a moderator:

DavidFL

Administrator
Staff member
Jan 16, 2003
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Chiang Khong
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Wow! A superlative report with breathtaking beauty. I almost thought I was there at Vat Phou.
Jurgen this one is a real gem. You certainly lucked out with the weather & the colours on the trip too.

But back to Vat Phou - I think I need to return & rediscover it again thanks to your report & history.

A zillion thanks for the input & historical cultural journal. Absolutely fantastic.
 

Changnoi1

Ol'Timer
Nov 21, 2010
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Thanks Jurgen for the beautiful photos and great in-between information. I recently made the trip from Pakxan to Lao-Cambo border, but after reading your trip-report I realised that I (or actually we) did not take the time to see more of beautiful central and south Laos. I was already considering to go there again ... now I am not considering it anymore. Thanks.

Chang Noi
 

Azoulay

Ol'Timer
May 25, 2006
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Hi Friends,

Congatulations for this wonderful report, i was delighted to read it and wtch the pictures.

Keep On The Power !
 

King of Jars

Ol'Timer
Feb 27, 2008
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Nongprue, Cholburi, Thailand
Davidfl;288517 wrote: Wow! A superlative report with breathtaking beauty. I almost thought I was there at Vat Phou.
Jurgen this one is a real gem. You certainly lucked out with the weather & the colours on the trip too.

But back to Vat Phou - I think I need to return & rediscover it again thanks to your report & history.

A zillion thanks for the input & historical cultural journal. Absolutely fantastic.
Well, absolutely fantastic. The weather was on your side in the South; never saw such spectacular weather formations. Do you or David have any recollection of the little temple built in 1959 in front of the two Vats of Wat Phou? The last picture I have of that time I took in 1999 but wondering what happened? It was neither eyesore nor wrongly placed.

Thanks again, Jürgen, a very nice reading for Sunday :cool:
 

brian_bkk

Ol'Timer
Mar 30, 2010
2,139
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Lovely report Jurgen and well written as usual.

If this doesn't inspire people to visit Southern Laos I am not sure what will..

I have visited Vat Phou 2 or 3 times.. Reading your report enlightened me to a lot of information I didn't know before.

Keep them coming.. Your trip reports are a treat to read as well as learn about the country we too often whiz through..

Cheers
Brian
 

DavidFL

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Jurgen;288511 wrote:

2. The Kone Phapheng waterfalls

With less surprise but the same wonder than during my first visit, I starred again at the Khone Pha Pheng waterfall. Draped in mist and with a deafening sound, the once placid Mekong suddenly takes a rocky curse, jumping down a series of grandiose and awe inspiring cataracts.

In his book "Mekong", Milton Osborne makes the following description [3]:

"Despite their limited height, the amount of water flowing over these falls at high water is greater than that passing over the much better known Niagara Falls. Seen at any time, they provide a sense of enormous power"

This depressing sight should have put an end to the French expedition searching for a navigable waterway in China. The adventurous explorers, however, went on and on, mapping the Mekong and publicizing its region to the World.

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Nowadays, the French concept of “Mission Civilisatrice” is at best humoristic; in colonial times it was, however, the driving force and justification for new territories' occupation. This negative connotation, time's erosion and the distance from the former metropolis, faded away the great Mekong explorers' names; many sacrificing their life to slack their curiosity and discovery's passion.

Doudart de Lagree and Francis Garnier, fought their way up the Phapheng Falls, Henri Mouhot preceded them on a northern stretch and Auguste Pavie, through his various “Missions”, rounded up the mapping and knowledge of the vast Big River's region. They all deserve more recollection than Mouhot's modest and decrepit tomb near Luang Prabang; where they can all be traced back.(9)

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The indomitable Phapheng Falls are now a prized destination for Lao and Thai tourists, not only impressed by the ebullient water's strength but also by its mythical power to trap the spirits hanging around people.

Frail bamboo makeshift bridges and ladders are dangerous fishing activities' remnants along the falls. The most sought after and endangered 'Plabuck' (giant catfish), the largest freshwater fish, used to dwell in these streams. Today he is rarely spotted and its fishing is prohibited, since 1996, at least on paper.

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Contented and serene, after a last glimpse to this natural wonder, and hoping that the mighty waters flushed away whatever ghost or phantasm had followed me, I bid farewell to the glorious Mekong's jewel.

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An interesting vdo clip on the Mekong Falls & the annual fish migration.