Serene time-out in Laos

You can drive to Wat Phu, a Unesco World Heritage Site.

LAOS - The charm of Southern Laos lies very much in the fact that it is relatively untouched, which one travel guide even described as "refreshingly raw".

My friends and I found this to be true in the slow, non-touristy pace of life that we experienced. It was possible to wait up to one hour for dinner, but it was worth it when it tasted like home-cooked food, made from scratch. This was Lao-style living in its truest form perhaps.

To reach any point within Southern Laos, it is necessary to use Pakse, the most populous city in the southern province of Champasak, as a staging point.

Champasak is near the Laotian border with Cambodia and Thailand. From there, you can drive to Wat Phu, a Unesco World Heritage Site, or follow the river south to reach Si Phan Don (Four Thousand Islands), which straddles the Cambodian border.

Stepping back in history

Serene. That was the first word that came to mind when I saw the temple complex of Wat Phu.

Even though it is a well-known site that possibly every tourist to Southern Laos visits, there was a sense of peace that surrounded it.

Set against the backdrop of the mountains in Champasak, it took a healthy pair of legs to climb the 77 steps to the top to admire the sanctuary at which ancient kings and queens used to worship.

A temple was built on the site as early as the fifth century although the structures in the Wat Phu complex today date back to the 11th or 13th century.

Originally a Hindu temple, it was converted to Theravada Buddhism and still remains a centre of local worship today.

The most significant period in Wat Phu's history dates back to 1,000 years ago, when it was an important religious and cultural centre of the Khmer empire.

More archaeological ruins such as Phu Asa could be found near the village of Ban Khietngong.

Phu Asa is situated on a hill in the Xe Pian Protected Area, within which this village is located.

It is not quite clear how Phu Asa came about, but one version of the story was that it was used as a base by local ethnic rebels led by King Asa, fighting the King of Champasak's forces, back in the 19th century.

You can get to the ruins on an elephant ride, but my friends and I chose to trek instead.

However, our one-hour trek became a bash through the jungle instead because our path was blocked by a fallen tree. We clambered over fallen logs, up big rocks, and were scratched by branches in the process.

But our tenacity was well rewarded by the view over the Mekong wetlands and the mysterious Phu Asa ruins. Lunching amid this idyllic backdrop was simply surreal.

Kayaking on Mekong River

The Mekong River is a big part of the Laotian's life. It is a life source for food, water for cooking and bathing and a conduit for people and goods.

It is also home to the Irrawaddy dolphins.

Although we could have taken the longboat out to the southernmost tip of Si Phan Don to watch the dolphins, our guide told us that the chances of catching them in action were higher if we kayaked, as we would need to be quiet enough to prevent scaring away the shy creatures.

The first part of the journey down the river was rather adrenaline-packed. There were a number of whirlpools we had to kayak through before we could reach where the dolphins lived.

But once we reached the area where the dolphins could be found, we were drawn in by the quietness of the place as we drifted in our kayak, waiting for the dolphins to surface.

Live like a Laotian

We had the chance to visit an island that only the locals lived on in Si Phan Don. Our guide told us that whatever the islanders needed, they grew it themselves. They also fished in the Mekong River.

The Laotian houses on the island were built on stilts so that the empty area beneath the house could be used for cooking and eating. The house itself was mainly used for sleeping.

Admiring the simplicity of the way they lived, the hour that we spent on the island felt like we were peeping into another world, far removed from the stresses of urban life.

GUIDELINES

- There are no direct flights from Singapore to Pakse. To fly into Pakse, it is necessary to transit via Bangkok or Vientiane using Lao Airlines.

- The more adventurous can take an overnight train from Bangkok to Ubon Ratchathani and then cross the Thai-Lao border with a three-hour bus journey from Ubon Ratchathani into Pakse.

- The local currency is the Lao kip (LAK). It is easier to change either US dollars or Thai baht into kip in Laos. In larger cities and towns, baht and US dollars are readily acceptable at most businesses. S$1 = 6,350LAK.

- One favourite local cuisine is the Laotian version of the steamboat or hot pot. You can order different types of meat such as pork or squid to cook in the soup which tastes a bit like tom yum but less spicy. It also comes with various vegetables and a serving of vermicelli. One plate of meat cost around S$3.

- The Laotian fish soup is worth a try as it is made using the fish from the Mekong River. It has a little bit of the tanginess of tom yum soup but is less spicy.

- Another local cuisine is Laap, a meat dish stir-fried with ingredients such as galangal, fish sauce and basil. However, do ask for less salt to be added, as we found that the Laotians really liked their food very flavourful.

- English is not widely spoken except in places which see more tourists. However, simple phrases like "sabaidee" (hello), "khawp jai lai lai" (thank you very much) and "baw kao jai" (I don't understand) when used with a smile can still get you pretty far.

- www.tourismlaos.org/

- www.travelfish.org/country/laos

- www.xplore-laos.com/


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