Indochina Day Fifteen
16.02.2020 - 16.02.2020
Buffalo by the Mekong, Done Deng Island
After a good night's sleep I awoke refreshed and ready for the day. Just as well, as the morning was to prove quite taxing, albeit in a good way!
Our bungalow at La Folie
Before that though we enjoyed a very good buffet breakfast at the hotel's restaurant overlooking the pool and Mekong beyond. We then boarded the pre-arranged tractor to ride down to the water's edge, where a few locals were out fishing and the buffalo had come down to drink. Because of the size of this beach and width of the river I kept forgetting that this was fresh water not salty sea, and was continually surprised during our stay at La Folie to see the cattle, cows as well as buffalo, so happy to drink the water
Fisherman in the Mekong
We then boarded the hotel’s catamaran that was to take us across to Champasak on the opposite side of the river. It was 8.00 am and already very hot - over 30 degrees.
From the catamaran to Champasak
~ the dot of turquoise on the steps is Hom waiting to meet us
Hom was waiting there for us with our driver to go the short distance to Wat Phou, a pre-Angkorian Khmer Hindu temple at the foot of Mount Phou Khao. Hom explained that the Khmer chose this site because the unusual shape of the mountain peak seemed to them to resemble a Shiva linga, a short cylindrical pillar-like phallic symbol of Shiva - although today it was so hazy that the peak was hard to make out.
We took an electric shuttle from the entrance gate to the start of the ruins, passing two large pools or barays which Hom said were sometimes used for boat races on festival days.
Hom explaining the layout of the ruins
We then walked along the paved avenue lined with columns topped with stone-carved lotus buds. In the past only the king would have been allowed to travel along this path - everyone else would use lesser paths on either side. Today not only all of us, but cows too, are permitted on this formerly forbidden ground. In fact, arriving this early we seemed to have the ruins to ourselves apart from the cows!
At the start of the first avenue
Cows among the ruins
At the end of the avenue were two buildings, either side of the path. The northern one is often referred to as the king's or men's palace, and the southern as the queen's / women's palace, but there is no evidence to suggest the structures performed those functions. We explored part of the northern hall, which is in better condition (a joint Indian and Lao project is undertaking some restoration on the other).
Northern hall or 'King's Palace'
We saw a doorway above which was a carved image of Shiva and Parvati riding a sacred bull, Nandi. This bull is the deity who guards the gate to Kailasa, the abode of Lord Shiva. On the frame of another doorway Hom pointed out a small carving of a shaman.
Part of the so-called 'King's Palace', and the carving of a shaman
Close-up shot of the carving of Shiva and Parvati riding a bull
We then followed another shorter avenue, the entrance to which was framed by nagas. Originally this avenue was lined with roofed galleries which are now in ruins. Partway along, on the left, we saw the remains of a small temple which is said to have been dedicated to Nandi, the sacred bull. From near here an ancient road once led all the way to Angkor.
The second avenue
Naga at the start of the second avenue, and temple dedicated to Nandi part way along
This avenue brought us to the first of several sets of steps in the complex, at the top of which we were on a stone terrace with good views back to the ‘palaces’.
Looking towards the southern hall or 'Queen's Palace'
The next set of steps, leading closer to the sanctuary, would have been protected by stone guards or door keepers known as Dvarapala. The bodies of two lie on the ground while another has been restored to stand in front of the steps (Hom told us that that the body of this one is a modern copy but the head is original).
There were various offerings left here, mostly at the feet of the standing Dvarapala whom some identify as the legendary king, Kammatha, credited with founding Wat Phou.
Climbing this next set of steps, in baking hot sun by now, we were rewarded with wonderful views back over the complex to the pool where we had started and over the landscape beyond, although it was very hazy.
Views from the middle terrace
The final staircase
Further steep steps led up to the temple itself, but the heat had beaten me by this point, so I decided to rest in the partial shade of some lovely frangipani trees while Chris continued to the top. He of course took some photos there of the sanctuary which I have his permission to share. The main sanctuary is of sandstone, carved with more door keepers and small devata / apsaras.
Sanctuary at Wat Phou (by Chris)
Carving on the sanctuary (by Chris)
The sanctuary, like the rest of the temple complex, was built as a Hindu shrine, with the natural spring from Mount Phou Kao bathing the linga at its heart. That linga is no longer there and instead the sanctuary houses statues of the Buddha. At one point when Chris was exploring a small cow wandered into the shrine and his photo of this makes clear the scale of the statues.
In the sanctuary (by Chris)
Outside are more stone statues, rather worn but still the object of veneration. There is also a newer Buddhist shrine which the leaflet I picked up in the entrance area tells me is in the process of being removed.
Buddha near the sanctuary (by Chris)
Unfortunately perhaps, as Hom had insisted on staying with me (I would have been fine on my own but perhaps he too was glad of the break!), Chris had no guide with him to point out one of the temple’s most famous features which is known as the Crocodile Stone after the carving on it. It is famous because some say it was the site of human sacrifices, but this is disputed by many experts so maybe Chris didn’t miss much after all!
Meanwhile I enjoyed creating some interesting images with the fallen flowers of the frangipani trees, aided by Hom who entered into the spirit of my endeavours, climbing over the stones to place the flowers in a few spots I would have found it harder to reach.
I also took some more of the wonderful views over the ruins to the hazy Mekong valley beyond.
Southern hall and view
When Chris returned, we started to retrace our steps back through the complex, taking more photos of course as we went - here is a selection ...
Visiting monk and local
Part of the southern hall or 'Queen's Palace'
We travelled back to the entrance area on the electric shuttle and stopped there for a cold drink in the coffee shop.
Local's motorbike - clearly a Liverpool fan!
Our drive back to the river took us through Champasak, which proved to be not so much the single community I was anticipating but rather a series of small villages, the borders between them blurred but obvious to those that lived there.
Hom explained that each village had its own temple, and we stopped to take some photos at one of them, I think Wat Phone Pang. The main sim was closed and lessons seemed to be in progress in one of the other buildings, so we focused mainly on the pretty gardens with rampant bougainvillea and several Buddha statues.
Temple in Champasak
Buddha and bougainvillea
A painting on the wall reminded me of our time in Luang Prabang as, like some of the temples we had seen there, it depicted quite graphically the fates that awaited sinners, including being sawn in half it seemed, like some badly gone wrong magic trick! If you look closely you'll also spot a body cut off at the shoulders but with the face now bizarrely on the chest.
Painting of the fates awaiting sinners, and more Buddhas
A lazy afternoon / evening
We took the boat, and tractor, back to the lodge and arrived a little before lunch. After cold showers we had a light meal in the restaurant and then spent most of the afternoon by, or in, the pool.
Another afternoon by the pool
We returned to our room in time to take some photos of the sun setting behind Phou Kao, the linga-shaped protuberance that had inspired the building of Wat Phou now much more clearly visible.
Sunset over the Mekong and Mount Phou Kao
In the evening we repeated last night's pattern of drinks on the terrace followed by dinner, but it was even hotter tonight and I found it a struggle to enjoy my meal as much as I had then; I was glad to get back to our room, even though the a/c remained stubbornly weak. But as it had yesterday, it eventually did its job and cooled the room off sufficiently for us to have a comfortable night.