(written by Dave)
Last night for dinner we tried a restaurant that we had read about in Lonely Planet – Frice & Lujane restuarant. A bit odd for this part of the world but it is a traditional Italian trattoria using 19th century family receipes. It was actually very delicious food – I had gnocchi and Nancy had lasagna. We then shared a piece of apple struedel. I tried to speak to the little girl waiting on us in my limited Italian but she finally said she did not speak Italian, could I please speak English to her?! Funny, but very cute. We would recommend the restaurant to anyone passing through here.
We were up early to beat the heat on our tour of Wat Phu. Our crazy overpriced guesthouse had a nice breakfast, making us feel a little better about value for money and also giving us good sustenance. The food was so good we didn’t quite make our planned departure time for the ride out to the ruins. This worked out fine as there were very few people anyway. December is part of the peak tourist season so we keep expecting to find hordes of people. I’m not sure if the lack of fellow tourists is due to SE Asia floods, European fears over GFC2 or perhaps big crowds just don’t come here. We’d certainly never heard of Wat Phu before this trip and would not have considered a trip there had it not been for our wandering cycle trip through Laos. Whatever the cause, we are enjoying seeing the sights in a more peaceful way.
The ride out to Wat Phu is pretty bumpy. We took our own bikes and basically followed the road right in front of the guesthouse. While the road is sealed, it is also very pot-holed. On our bikes we travel about as fast as most cars and scooters. No one gets a head of steam up on this kind of road, except the young risk-taking boys who never slow down on any road. Guess that doesn’t change anywhere.
Wat Phu and Champasak are thought to be about 1,500 years old. This was the capitol of the Mon-khmer Chenia Kingdom. To be honest, keeping track of the kingdoms that have come and gone in SE Asia is very difficult. The site of Wat Phu was used by many of the Kings of the day regardless of what political or religious beliefs they happened to hold. Originally Wat Phu was a Hindu site, but it was converted to Buddhism after about 600 years. There are still lots of remains of both religions. Most of the really well preserved items are in the museum just near the entrance. The trained eye would be able to spot these items on the site. Nancy and I benefited greatly from the English descriptions we found in the museum. The museum is a good place to start when visiting the site as it gives you some idea of what you are looking at.
The site starts on the flat and then through a central stairway goes 1,400 meters up the slope of a hill. There are many buildings but few that are actually still standing. They are rebuilding a couple galleries (using new stones but cut in the appropriate shapes). This is clearly a slow process but it was not clear if this was due to lack of funding or it is just slow. The main sanctuary is in pretty rough shape and has lots of wooden supports and a modern roof. The very top of the site has a natural spring which is believed to be why the site was chosen – the water is thought to be sacred. Unfortunately, the spring is also causing major problems with preserving the site. Over a long period of time, the whole hillside would slide down due to natural hydrology. 1,500 years ago they planned for and managed water movement but even with this and some modern technology thrown in, gravity is slowly winning – there are not many straight walls left on the site..
We were glad we made the trip here and visited Wat Phu. It may not have the wow factor that Angkor Wat does but since we came here first, our expectations were not too high. You have to keep reminding yourself when you walk these sites that it is not just “no power tools” but whatever tools they had, they had to make themselves. Even something a simple as a steel stone chisel meant they had to find, dig up and process iron ore before even thinking about what deity to carve. Pretty amazing really.
We spent about three hours at the site, having our stay delayed slightly when we ran into our cycling friend Rene as he was coming in. Later as we got back to town, we also ran into cycling friends Lieneke and Hans. We met Rene for the first time 5 days ago and continue to cross paths. Lieneke and Hans we met for the first time on our last day in Thailand on the 13th of November. It’s quite amazing that we continue to cross paths with the same folks. We don’t stay at the same hotels, we don’t ride the same routes or speeds, yet we keep seeming to meet up. Tonight we’ll probably have dinner with Rene. Lieneke and Hans have gone a little further down the road. We may not see them again until we stop in at their beach house in Holland next summer (yes guys, we’ll be taking you up on that offer).
Tomorrow we have a short day, most likely. We have to ride back up river a bit, then we take a ferry across the Mekong. From here at least, the river looks very calm. Putting the bikes on a ferry can be stressful but there is a car ferry and Laos pace probably means no jet-cat ferry. It should be a calm ride. It has been a nice restful stop at Champasak – treating your wife to a nice hotel every so often on a long trip like this is important [Editor’s note – okay, I added that last bit but it’s true!]. We think we will cross the border into Cambodia in 3 days, depending on how far we get tomorrow.