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Flying south

Indochina Day Fourteen

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We had planned to get up quite early for our flight south from Luang Prabang to Pakse, but not that early! But the sound of drumming from the nearby temple at 4.00 am, presumably calling the monks to their morning meditation and chanting, ensured that we both awoke at that time. Luckily it only lasted about twenty minutes and in a way, I rather enjoyed hearing it, as I do the dawn call to prayer whenever we visit a Muslim country. For me these sounds are part of the flavour of a country and to be savoured rather than cursed!

When we did get up, around 6.30, we sorted our bags and had an early breakfast in the Villa Chitdara's dining area overlooking the pretty garden, before going over the road to see if our laundry was ready. It was, and all for the princely sum of $25,000 kip or just over £2. The catch was, that price didn't include ironing, but since most of our clothes are usually permanently creased when travelling that wasn't a big issue!

Flight from Luang Prabang

Lee and Mr Ha were already at the gate of the hotel when we went to check out, so we were on our way to the airport by 8.20. It was only a short drive to Luang Prabang's attractive new terminal, and then it was time to say our goodbyes to the two guys who had looked after us so well on our few days in northern Laos (Lee’s error over our flight time notwithstanding).

We checked in and then had nothing to do but sit in the small domestic departures lounge, with a few souvenir shops to browse, lousy internet access and a little café.

Our plane at Luang Prabang Airport

Time to board

We boarded a little late but took off on time. The plane was small, a propeller driven AT7. I had great views of Luang Prabang's old town peninsula as we took off, although it was hard to photograph through grubby windows and the morning haze.

Taking off over Luang Prabang
~ the Villa Chitdara is among the trees right in the centre of this shot, and the bamboo bridge near the bottom
~ the river at the top of the shot is the Mekong and below is the Nam Khan

Taking off over Luang Prabang
~ you can see the Royal Palace and Haw Pha Bang in the centre, and Mount Phousi towards the bottom of the shot

We then flew over some beautiful karst mountain scenery and what I assumed was the Mekong, far below.


Flying over Laos

Although the flight was less than two hours, we were served a drink (tea, coffee, soft drink or water) and the same Joma Café pack of a sandwich and choc chip cookie that we had been given on our flight to Luang Prabang from Siem Reap.

As we approached Pakse Airport we descended over the Mekong and could see some of the many islands that dot the river here, one of which (Done Deng) we were to stay on.

The Mekong near Pakse

The area of Laos to the south of Pakse, reaching down to the border with Cambodia, is known as Four Thousand Islands - ‘Si Phan Don’ in Lao. Whether there really are four thousand islands is arguable, and many are no more than uninhabited sandbanks, but certainly island life predominates, with a laid-back, almost tropical vibe. While Done Deng lies a little north of the main Si Phan Don region, we were assured that we would experience the southern Laos island lifestyle here.

Arrival in Pakse

We landed ten minutes early but had to wait a while for the bags to appear on the luggage carousel. While we waited my eye was caught by the rather clever pun in an advert for the ubiquitous Beer Lao.

Advertising poster at Pakse Airport

There was a friendly welcome from our guide here, Hom, and a car waiting right outside. The weather felt hotter than Luang Prabang and much stickier.

We drove south out of Pakse along a good road, past the former royal palace and several temples. As we got into more rural areas there were roadside stalls selling watermelons and other fruit, and quite a lot of tractors on the road.

Wat Tomo

Hom asked if we wanted to stop for lunch but we said no, as we had eaten on the plane. But we did make a sightseeing stop at Wat Tomo, a UNESCO World Heritage site on the east bank of the Mekong.

Carved pedestal and lintel at Wat Tomo

Wat Tomo, also often referred to as Oum Moung, is a late 9th century Khmer temple, now in ruins. Hom told us that UNESCO were keen to investigate the ruins properly and maybe do some restoration work, but the forest is considered sacred by local people so the trees can't be touched. He pointed out the wooden spirit house used for animist ceremonies.

The spirit house

Another recent building, this time in concrete, seemed to be in use for storage but also carried a sign with information about the site. According to this sign the French archaeologist Étienne Aymonier found a Sanskrit inscription here describing the foundation of a monastery dedicated to Rudrani – one of the names by which Shiva’s wife is known (more commonly called Parvati). The sign tells her story, in sometimes halting English but beautifully hand-written:

‘Shiva decided to retire in meditation in a very far away place (Himalaya Mountains) to become a brahmin. He left his wife, promising her to go back after few months. She waited him more than thousand years and when a bad god said her that Shiva was died she went into fire and died. When Shiva back home, very slim and with a long beard, he knew her wife suicided. He became sad and without peace for his lost love.

One day he met a beautiful girl and he recognised she was the reincarnation of his wife; her name was Rudrani is for the Indian woman the symbol of wife fidelity.’

The sign goes on to explain that the inscription also provided useful information about the monastery and the organisation of both the monks and the wider community at that time.

Sign at Wat Tomo

But to be honest there wasn't a lot to see here apart from some scattered stones, some of them carved - we saw several nagas for instance. Only in one place was there anything substantial and then only a wall with a doorway looking towards the river.

Ruins and carved naga

Carved nagas

Someone with more expertise in Angkorian construction techniques and religious practices would no doubt get more out of a visit here than we did – and indeed I might have got more out of it had I not been struggling in the much more humid heat of southern Laos. As it was, a short stroll around to get a sense of the atmosphere and take a few photos was enough for both of us.

La Folie

A combination of that early afternoon heat and pesky insects (I had unthinkingly packed the repellent in my suitcase) meant that I wasn't sorry when Hom suggested we should carry on to the lodge where we were to spend the next three nights, La Folie. We drove down to the Mekong again at a spot a little north of the ruins and Hom led us to a small black catamaran and introduced us to the boatman before saying goodbye until tomorrow.

Departure jetty for our ride to La Folie

It was about a twenty minute ride to Done Deng island; the weather was humid and there seemed to be rain on the horizon (which never reached us) so it was good to be out on the water.

On the boat to La Folie
~ with rain on the horizon

Temple on Done Deng Island

La Folie from the water

When we reached the island the boatman beached the catamaran and helped us ashore. He then became tractor driver to take us the final short distance across the sandy beach to the lodge.


Arriving at La Folie by tractor

The journey to La Folie

We were welcomed with cold towels and cold drinks on arrival before being shown to our attractive wooden bungalow overlooking the river.

Our bungalow

View from our room
~ the water buffalo are following the path of bamboo across the beach laid out for the tractors

Given the heat it seemed wise to spend the rest of the afternoon at the pool, which we duly did. We loved the cool but not cold water, and the beautiful setting with views of the Mekong and mountains beyond.

Pool at La Folie

When we went back to the room we enjoyed the views of Mount Phou Khao on the far side of the river, although it was really too hot to want to spend much time inside.

Late afternoon view

Through our window

There is little choice here but to have dinner in the hotel restaurant, although meals other than breakfast weren’t included in our stay. Fortunately we found it both excellent and not exorbitantly priced, given that monopoly. We had drinks on the terrace, then shared fresh pork spring rolls, followed by Mekong tilapia in a sweet and sour sauce for me and stir-fried beef for Chris. All very good, and I even managed some ice cream for dessert.

The only catch really was the heat. When we got back to our room it was still 30 degrees inside and the a/c seemed incapable of making much difference, even when reduced to its lowest setting of 19.5 degrees! However, by bedtime the cooler air had started to win the battle and the room felt much more pleasant, so we were able to get a good night’s sleep.

Posted by ToonSarah 01:04 Archived in Laos Tagged mountains boats islands temple history ruins views hotel flight airport river laos mekong wat_tomo Comments (17)

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