Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Less Visited Khymer Temples, Part 1

With a bit less than two weeks available, I blitzed solo through Northeastern Thailand, South Lao, and Cambodia trying to visit Khymer temples somewhat off the main tourist track.

29-30 March 2006

I started with my usual SFO-NRT-BKK sequence on United. The upgrade from Y to C had cleared NRT-BKK 10 days or so before departure, which was a big surprise to me since I’ve generally found the NRT-BKK segment tougher to clear than SFO-NRT. The SFO-NRT upgrade had cleared 3 days before departure. The flights were uneventful, with less than a one hour layover at NRT. Around 18 hours elapsed time from the takeoff roll at SFO, I lined up at Bangkok immigration with the rest of the sheep to get my photo taken. Then on to one of the exchange counters, with a rate of somewhat less than B40 to USD $1.

Then exit right to find the Quality Suites representative to get a ride on the hotel shuttle. (Hotel booked through Asiatravel. Unfortunately the cheapo pre-paid rates seem to have been discontinued and it’s now pay at the hotel.) Somewhat surprisingly the rep wasn’t around, but one of the helpful uniformed guys hanging around pointed out that the van was outside. So after a while I went and sat in the van, which of course delayed the whole process since the rep apparently was looking for me inside. The lesson learned is to cool it inside until the rep shows, while keeping an eye on the van.

So, 10 minutes or so after the van leaves we pull into the Quality Suites by Laksi Plaza for my umpteenth visit. At the reception desk I am “upgraded.” Since the room is on the West side, away from the runways, I am happy. Ok, the room does have a separate shower tiled in some-kinda-stone, so I guess it’s a mild upgrade. I dumped my things and went downstairs. I noticed that the restaurant/karaoke bar was dark, which was too bad since I’ve grown somewhat accustomed to a beer after arriving while listening to some badly sung Thai songs. Anyway, I cruised around the corner to the Family Mart and picked up a DTAC SIM with international capabilities for B199 with B50 call credit for my unlocked phone. I resisted loading up on Thai snacks, went back to my room narrowing avoiding getting nailed by a speeding moto as my welcome to amazing Thailand, tried out my new Thai phone number calling home, and conked out around 1AM.

31 March 06

Up for a 5AM hotel shuttle ride to the Bangkok domestic terminal for a 6:30AM flight on Thai to Ubon Ratchathani. It was too early for breakfast at the hotel, which was included in my rate, too bad. The shuttle left right on time, stopping first at the International terminal to drop off a couple on their way to Beijing on Sri Lankan Air.

Well, the van dumped me off at domestic and I entered the usual scrum of people traveling with their entire household belongings. The self serve check in kiosks were only for people with carry on bags and, while I was traveling pretty light, I hate dragging a bag into the fast food restaurant, which is built for teeny tiny people.

I lined up at the Thai Air Star Alliance Gold counter only to find that two guys with the world’s most complex transaction were queued at the counter. The agent handling them was talking on the phone, always a bad sign. The other lines were even longer, so I just waited. In the fullness of time their issue was resolved and they left, presumably to go irritate someone else. The Thai check in agents were nice, as always, and confirmed that I was to get a window seat on the right (so I could see the Thai Cambodia border area as we flew East) and a nice fruit plate as specified in my Thai profile so I could avoid the sandwich Thai serves for breakfast with some weird, anonymous filling. I had bought the e-ticket in the US online for US$60 or so, complying with Thai’s irritating rule that you have to buy at least 3 days in advance. The Thai website was mostly unresponsive for days just before the deadline to buy the ticket, so I was lucky to score it. I see that the miles and segment from this trip didn’t hit my United account and, come to think of it, I don’t think my frequent flyer number was on the boarding pass. A loose end.

Off to the terminal’s Thai cuisine fast food restaurant. Another B199 later I had my Bird Flu special of chicken and noodles with kai lan and Coke. Nothing tastes better at 5:30, especially with plenty of hot sauce. I see that there are a couple of coffee options now past security in the gate area, which is an improvement.

The 1 hour flight to Ubon on a 737 was full, with pax loaded by a bus from the terminal, and uneventful. I got the fruit plate as well as something close to coffee, which was the envy of my row as my seatmates turned over their “meal” in their hands, looking vainly for signs of food. At Ubon we went down the stairs. As usual for upcountry Thai airports like Ubon we were the only commercial plane on the ramp. My bag came out pretty quickly and then it was time to find the reputed Thai shuttle to downtown. Well, the shuttle had been discontinued and, apparently, there’s no public transport to/from the Ubon airport into downtown, so I paid B70 for a taxi to the Tourist Authority of Thailand (TAT) office. I got there in less than 10 minutes and waited for them to open at 8:30.

The TAT representative was very helpful and told me that, if I planned to go to Wat Phu in Laos, I should use the international bus to Pakxe, Laos, which went directly from the Ubon bus terminal. Also, the best way from where I was to the Ubon bus terminal was by city bus. He gave me a map of Ubon, showing the bus routes, as well as two maps of Northeast Thailand, one in English and one in Thai. The two maps almost matched, so not quite as good as a single bilingual map, but probably ok.

The Ubon city bus stop was just a block East and a bit North, on Luang road. It wasn’t that different than a stop one might find in a major US city, with a few seats and a sun/rain shelter, though there was no signage that said anything about buses serving the stop. After a couple of minutes it dawned on me, contrary to guidebook information, that the “buses” were really pickup trucks, painted in the color of the route they served, with (sometimes) a large Romanized number of the route displayed in front.

After a few minutes a number 3, Pink bus, showed up and I flagged it down. The Ubon map I had been given at the TAT office was bilingual, so I pointed at the bus terminal designation and asked if the bus went there. It did and I piled in the back. (Ubon buses are pay on exit.) After about 15 total minutes, we arrived at the fairly large bus terminal. Eight baht to the driver, a nod of thanks on both sides, and into the terminal.

Immediately in front of me was the sign “International Bus Thai—Lao,” with the schedule. With my unerring sense of direction I went to the wrong counter and was directed to the first counter on the left on the main entry aisle. It took a couple of minutes, my passport, and B200 to get a ticket with an assigned seat on the 9:30AM bus. I found that the bus was to leave from stand 1, first on the right as one continues down the main aisle toward the bus stands.

At this point I was interested in: putting my carryon sized backpack/suitcase into the bus luggage compartment; getting to the toilet, thereby hoping to avoid the dreaded Asian bus toilet; finding a bilingual “PN” Northeastern Thailand regional map; and getting something to eat. It was a bit too early to get rid of my backpack, it seemed. Toward the back of the terminal was a not-too-bad toilet, B3. This being Thailand, a bit further back yet was street food paradise, with the usual Thai selections. None looked that good at 9AM and I ended up with some drinks and some rolls. None of the stands seemed to have PN maps, though the selections of video games, magazines, and so on were pretty extensive.

Around 9:20AM I turned up at the bus and got my backpack underneath. The bus only had about 15 people on it, so assigned seating wasn’t going to matter and I tried to get a decent seat that wasn’t going to be in the sun as we headed East.

The road is sealed and in good shape the whole way and about 11AM we arrived at the Chong Mek border crossing point. There’s a lot of construction on the Thai side, though it didn’t seem to disrupt traffic. Clearly the border crossing is being upgraded to accommodate more commercial traffic. A Thai immigration agent got on the bus and told us that we would all need to get off and go to the immigration office to get stamped out. This took about 15 minutes. We then all got back on the bus and the bus moved about 100 meters forward into Laos, where it stopped again.

Everyone got off the bus and people sorted out their visa on arrival and immigration. I handed in a passport photo, one of a 20 or so I had printed at home on crappy Xerox type paper; two US$20, expecting $10 change; and the Lao visa form through a window to official #1. The other pax had the usual border crossing problems. For instance, one guy had no US dollars for a visa, only Euros and Thai baht, as well as no photo.

Inside, official #1 passed my passport to couldn’t-be-more-uninterested official #2, who passed it to even more uninterested official #3. Eventually my passport with Lao visa stamped in, taking up the usual whole page, and $10 change emerged. I then headed around the building’s corner to the immigration Arrival window. I got stamped in, paid a B20 entry fee, and I was ready to get back on the bus.

It was pretty clear that we were going to be delayed as the others sorted themselves out, so I wandered around the building a bit. I don’t bother changing money into Lao kip anymore since I once got a wad of kip about as big as a brick and everyone accepts US$ and Thai baht at an ok conversion. US$1 = Kip10,000, which is pretty easy to remember or things are priced in US dollars or baht anyway. I generally take a lot of US$20s, 5s, and 1s in good condition with me, so I was pretty set. There was a free, not too bad toilet at the back of the building. One of the urinals more or less drained onto the floor because of the great plumbing job, welcoming you to Lao PDR.

Eventually everyone got stamped in, including the guy with no dollars and no photo. Apparently all it took was an additional fee (surprise) and he got his visa. He also had absolutely no cash now in any currency and was counting on finding an ATM once in Pakxe. I wasn’t too confident about this, but he seemed to think he had been told it was possible. My guess is he may have been able to get a cash advance. I didn’t run into him again, so who knows. The whole border process took about 45 minutes. It probably could have been done in 30 if there had been fewer complications. Keep in mind this was for a bus with only around 15 pax. You’re more or less at the mercy of the people you’re with. I did see a couple of Western backpackers at the border; presumably doing the trip in stages. It actually costs just about the same on the bus as the much longer elapsed time journey from Pakxe in pickups, or tuk tuks or share taxis, so I’m not sure there’s a point in the old method of doing the Ubon-Pakxe journey by stages anymore now that the international bus is available. Of course, the backpackers’ route may have been different.

We got back on the bus and rolled into the pretty new Pakxe international bus station, off Highway 13, about 12:30, 3 hours after leaving Ubon. As usual, each of the pax got swamped by drivers of one kind of vehicle or another. I stupidly over paid B50 for a ride to the Pakxe Hotel, which looked pretty good from a couple of guidebooks in terms of location and “Mekong view,” in a tuk-tuk. The ride took about 10 minutes.

Well, the prices at the Pakxe Hotel had gone way up since the guidebook had been written. The more affordable “view” room overlooked rooftops more than the Mekong, so I got my bag and walked around the corner to the Hotel Salachampa, a converted colonial villa. The manager said they had rooms for US10 in the building in the courtyard. The Lonely Planet guidebook said that better rooms, though $15, were in the main building, so I asked to see one of those. The manager showed me an ok room on the ground floor, but I asked if anything was available on the 1st floor. The manager clearly thought I was nuts, but he showed me a great room, #6, with high ceilings and wood floors and a pretty good view of the Pakxe street life. The bathroom was fine, with a Western toilet and hot water shower. Air con and TV. No breakfast included, but otherwise I was totally set.

I decided to scout around the area of the hotel and to get some lunch. A recommended restaurant, Xuan Mai, was on a corner, across the street. I looked at the menu and plopped down in some outside seating, since the bugs weren’t bad. I ordered up some chicken fǒe, the Lao version of chicken soup, and a pineapple shake, deciding to chance the ice. This came to Kip15,000, or US1.50. Although I had a lot of drinks with ice in Laos, Thailand, and Cambodia this trip, I didn’t have any problems, which leads me to think that ice problems may be largely a thing of the past.

Off to @d@m’s Internet on Highway 13, a 15 minute walk, for 30 minutes using the Internet that cost $.60 for a pretty fast connection. It’s always surprising to me how good the Internet connections are in Laos, even in more rural areas, such as Vang Vieng, North of Vientiane. As I was finishing, and on cue, the afternoon rain began, so I sloshed next door to the Kemany restaurant and had some coffee to fight off the jet lag. $.50.

The rain stopped in an hour or so and I went walking around Pakxe a while, taking the odd photo, and trying to get oriented. The big decision was how to get to Wat Phu. I asked a tuk tuk driver near my hotel. He wanted $30!, claiming gas was expensive, it was a long way, and so on. The alternatives seemed to be:

  • going with a tour such as the one run by the Sabaidy 2 guesthouse on Street 24. (Actually, mentioning the street names, except for Highway 13, may not be all that useful except for spotting on a map since there aren’t any evident street signs.)

  • taking a tuk-tuk

  • renting a moto (100-125cc small motorcycle).

The Sabaidy 2 guesthouse was close by, so I walked over and asked about the possibility of a tour to Wat Phu for the next morning. The tour needed a minimum number of people to go and I was the only one so far that had expressed an interest. The guesthouse manager thought it wasn’t likely that the tour was going to happen for the next day. Instead, he suggested renting a moto for $8/day, including insurance. Driving a moto in Lao, insurance or not, wasn’t my idea of the most fun I could have. The visions of SE Asia traffic accidents, traveling alone, and imagining the type of local medical care available all made it seem like not the best idea. The cost was certainly attractive though. I decided to come back fairly early the next morning and see if the tour was going to happen and decide then.

I walked around central Pakxe for the rest of the afternoon and watched the sunset and what was happening on the Se Don river at the (naturally) Sedone River guesthouse.

The next thing to do was organize dinner, so I walked along Highway 13 and found an ok Indian place, Nazim’s. I over ordered and got enough food for 3. Cost: $4. Pakxe isn’t the most happening place on the planet for nightlife, so eventually I went back to my hotel to read and watch football games at 3AM.

Let me backtrack a bit and say a few words about what the goals of the trip were and how my plans had evolved. It may make the blitz city and country hopping of the trip seem more reasonable. Also, my sense is that this sort of trip is rather different than what people here end up doing when they come to Asia and it may make this alternative way of traveling in Asia more approachable. Or, I suppose, it may clarify for some why they’d never in a million years want to do anything remotely like this.

I’ve done a fair amount of overland travel in SE Asia of the Lonely Planet type for some time. In the last few years I’ve been using, somewhat in preference to Lonely Planet, South-East Asia, The Graphic Guide by Mark Elliott, Trailblazer Publications, UK, 2003, ISBN: 1873756674. This book lays out, in line drawing format, the overland routes one can take throughout much of SE Asia, as well as providing practical tips on cheapo lodging, how to decode signs in Yet Another Non Roman Letter script, food, and even where to swan in and score happy hour drinks at places like the Strand Hotel’s bar in Rangoon.

My original concept for this specific trip and what I ended up doing were quite different. I’d been in touch with a Khymer friend of mine in Siem Reap, Cambodia, the accommodation base for Angkor, and we’d been hatching various crackpot money making schemes—a hobby for me, but real life for him. So, I definitely wanted to stop off in Siem Reap. However, I definitely did not want to fly into Siem Reap, even if I had to go overland like a Cambodian pig lying crosswise on the back of a moto, since I object to the air cartel and the exorbitant airport fees. I also wanted to visit a couple of beaches in southern Cambodia before the rest of the world got there.

So my initial planning was to start in Bangkok, then take a bus from the Ekamai, Eastern bus terminal to Trad, located 5 hours to the Southeast. Then take a 1.5 hour minibus to the Hat Lek border point and cross into Cambodia, getting a visa on arrival. From there I would take the boat 4 hours from Koh Kong to Sihanoukville.

If Snookyville, the first more of less developed beach opportunity, was decent, I’d stay there a bit. From Snookyville then take a share taxi to Kampot, staying at least overnight to visit to Bokor and Kep. Then go from Kampot to Phnom Penh by way of Takeo with some side trips to minor temples. After that figure out what to do and where to go while wandering around Phnom Penh, seeing if it still was as dissolute as I remembered. Some of this planned itinerary was sparked by watching the movie City of Ghosts, set in Phnom Penh, Kep, and the Bokor hill station. I’d recommend this movie at least for the taste of Phnom Penh that it gives, though the music is also pretty good, including a cover of Joni Mitchell’s Both Sides Now sung in Khymer.

So I got the air ticket for SFO-BKK-SFO, departing 29 Mar 06 and returning 10 Apr 06. Somewhere along the way the book A Guide to Khmer Temples In Thailand and Laos by Michael Freeman, River Books, Bangkok, 1996, ISBN: 0834804506, surfaced. I’ve been sporadically using this to try to figure out how to get to Preah Vihear, a large temple site on the Cambodia/Thai border.

To make the trip more interesting, I also wanted to try to leave or arrive in Siem Reap not overland through Poipet on Highway 6, but overland through one of the northern border crossings. Crossing in the north seemed feasible, if not necessarily straightforward, after reading through the various traveler websites such as www.talesofasia.com and http://thorntree.lonelyplanet.com.

But it’s helpful to start with some specific target sites in mind that you then link with non-killer overland travel. That way you’re actually going somewhere instead of having the journey be the destination. (Leaving out all discussion of travel philosophy.)

Freeman’s Guide lists several not to be missed temples, “worth a special journey,” as the saying goes. It turns out that, in addition to Preah Vihear, there were four other sites in Lao and northeast Thailand, each roughly one day from the other going east to west. They are Wat Phu, near Pakxe, in Lao; Preah Vihear, near Kantharalak, Thailand, just across the border in Cambodia; Phnom Rung, near Nang Rong, in Thailand; and Phimai, near Korat, also in Thailand.

The problem was that Phimai was fairly out of the way north if I wanted to get to Siem Reap without a lot of backtracking. Also, traveling overland in Lao can be a bit wearing (and I didn’t know the details about the Ubon-Pakxe international bus, though I had seen a publicity blurb about it some months ago). So it seemed to make sense to do the long reach first and go from Bangkok to Wat Phu in Lao and, from there, work back west, at least to Preah Vihear, which was somewhat close to a couple of the northern Cambodia border crossings.

If these crossings seemed infeasible given my time constraints, I could head east to Phnom Rung and, possibly Phimai, then go south and cross into Cambodia at Toilet, I mean, Poipet. I had heard that the Thai government had been making Thai-Cambodia border crossings less straightforward in order to discourage Thai travelers from visiting the Cambodian border casinos. The word was that even the relatively simple border crossing at Poipet (if you don’t count hordes of beggars, amputees, and general chaos) was a lot harder since the Thai government had sacked the head of Thai immigration and had generally made it a pain to cross. If you have lots of time to kill, like a lot of backpackers, it’s not an issue, but I didn’t have the time to burn (but I still wasn’t going to fly in to Siem Reap, thank you very much). Just to alleviate any suspense, all my border crossings were fairly painless, without undue delay.

The added attraction of targeting Wat Phu, Preah Viehar, and Phnom Rung was that, as Freeman’s Guide nicely shows, each of these is laid out axially. This is quite unlike the temples in the Angkor complex. Well, except, in a sense, Angkor Wat if one’s view is focused just on the journey from the entrance to the central sanctuary. So, for Angkor Wat, one first crosses the moat on the first causeway, and then walks along the second causeway, traveling to the inner temple while leaving the material world behind. These linear temples offer a similar experience. One starts out on a lower level and ascends stairs and traverses causeways, from terrace to terrace, towards progressively higher sanctuaries, ascending to heaven. Well, that’s the concept, anyway.

So, the first step, which I’ve described previously, was to get from Bangkok to Pakxe.

1 Apr 06

So, now it’s the next morning in Pakxe, Lao PDR. I had the usual non-restful night’s sleep, which allowed me to get up to date on Thai soap operas on TV as well as a certain amount of football. Just after dawn I looked out the window and saw monks processing around Pakxe, getting food offerings from the townspeople. This was far different, more authentic, I guess, than the Luang Prabang monk procession, where the monks will wait, patiently queued up, until the tour buses show up.

The Restaurant Sedone, on a corner past the Pakxe Hotel, around 5 minutes walk, opened pretty early and supposedly had a decent breakfast. I was the only customer and got a reasonable resemblance of breakfast for $1.50 or so. For calibration, this restaurant offered sticky rice for $.30, Lao sausage for $1.50, coffee for $.30, and BeerLao (not sure of the size) for $.80. The person helping me was nice and the food was ok. I made some trip notes while eating and tried to think if I wanted to buy the Beerlao 2006 calendar that was on the wall. Well, it was too big and really would have been dumb to buy. I really like the Beerlao stuff like bottle openers and such, however, so I offered the waitress $1 for a genuine, official Beerlao napkin holder (no bargaining. I probably could have got it for $.50.) She actually put it in a plastic bag, which probably made it seem less likely that I had just plain stolen it.

Back to the hotel and I checked out. The manager let me store my bag, basically by putting it on the floor next to the reception desk. I had the usual second thoughts about security, but, well, what are you going to do.

I walked over to the Sabaidy 2 guesthouse and got there somewhat before 8. As predicted yesterday, there wasn’t going to be a tour to Wat Phu today, so I could either get a tuk-tuk; take a tour from some place else, assuming I could find someplace that was running a tour; or rent a moto. I had scoped out the moto rental scene and the Sabaidy 2 rate of $8/day with insurance was better than other places. And, well, I was there already.

I was a bit concerned about navigating to Wat Phu. The front line manager at the guesthouse assured me it was no big deal. 32km of sealed road through rural Lao. What’s the problem? I must have come across as pretty skittish so the manager brought out the owner who spoke excellent English. He gave me a map helpfully annotated with the road signs, in English, I should look for and told me the price of the ferry across the Mekong. He left. Well, let’s do it. I signed a lease, as the document had it, and was given a helmet. No, no one asked for a driver’s license. I did have to leave my passport. (I should have brought an expired passport just for this purpose.)

One of the guesthouse staff brought a decent looking moto into the guesthouse courtyard and we looked it over. Ok, the brakes worked. It had gas. I was supposed to bring it back full of gas. Of course, I had absolutely no idea how one gets gas in Lao, though I had seen gas stations. I tried to ask if I could just bring the stupid moto back and pay them extra for the gas. I never take this option at car rental counters, but it seemed like a good idea at the time for this situation. Let’s just say that I didn’t get the point across with the owner (and his excellent English) gone, so I was committed to getting the gas.

Now the fun really began since I couldn’t start the stupid thing. Or, actually, I could start it, with the kick starter (no electric starter), but I wasn’t used to a motorbike without a clutch, so I kept killing the engine when I put it in 1st gear. At first the guy helping me thought it was amusing. After a couple of tries, he clearly thought I was hopelessly incompetent. I thought so, too. Eventually I got the moto out on the road and practiced starting, stopping, turning—the usual kiddie level driving tasks. I felt exceptionally dumb and was quite glad that I was doing this solo without someone on the back of the moto.

I somehow got out to Highway 13 and stopped at the, no kidding, traffic light. You drive on the right side in Lao, so I made a left turn and somehow got into an ok place in the traffic flow. I thought as long as I didn’t have to stop, turn, avoid something smaller than me, and not get nailed by something larger, I’d be ok. Warning: this is not necessarily the best mindset when driving.

Of course, before long I had to stop and, then, of course, start off in 1st gear. Somehow enough reptile memory had kicked in by this time that I was minimally ok with this elementary task. I stayed in an ok part of the traffic flow, avoiding pedestrians and other vehicles and actually starting getting comfortable. Well, overconfident would be a better term, I suppose.

Right about then it started to rain. Great. Luckily it was a passing shower rather than a SE Asia downpour, such as yesterday afternoon, so I just plugged along. Along the way on Highway 13 I passed the Champasak Historical Heritage museum, which had been recommended, as well as the Champasak Palace hotel, also recommended. The Champasak Palace hotel, though quite a bit out of the center, looked nice. Certainly it was big enough. I had this fantasy of stopping by both of these places on the way back, assuming I hadn’t become roadkill earlier.

After motoring along a while, getting a few stares, since I was clearly, even with the helmet, not a local, I started to get worried that I had missed the first turnoff, which was claimed to be at KM 8. Ok, I wasn’t going all that fast at this point, but since I was passing the occasional local on their own moto, so I wasn’t too much slower than the traffic flow. Just when I was starting to think I had missed the turnoff, there it was. Talk about relief. I can’t lay my hands on the map, but I’m pretty sure after turning I was continuing on Highway 13. It was a lot less heavily traveled than closer to town, though, so that was some relief. Rain showers were intermittent, but nothing really too bad.

I was looking out for gas stations and tried to see how people handled refueling. Just to get over this bit of suspense, there are real gas stations in Lao, as well as the stands in the more rural parts that will slurp you some gas. You just pull up and the “service station attendant” (remember those?) puts the gas in. Paying is, uhh, interesting. I found having them write down how much I owed worked pretty well, which is one reason why I carry a note pad and pen all the time. I had plenty of gas, according to the gas gauge, which agreed with my visual inspection, so thought I’d fill it up on the way back. I kept an eye out for gas stations, though, since I wasn’t sure how much gas the moto would use.

So, I’m going along at a pretty good clip, getting waves and smiles occasionally. Some surprised glances occasionally. (I saw no other Westerners on motos the whole day, so that sort of diverting sight may be still somewhat unusual in the area, though Pakxe is the second largest city in Lao with, I believe, 70,000 residents.) After 20+ km I come to the next turn, a right that’s marked with a sign saying, helpfully, Wat Phu. This side road is sealed, too, which is a blessing and somewhat surprising if you’ve traveled overland in Lao or Cambodia, where side roads tend to be fairly terrible. But this was a nice road, with just the occasional rough spots, even less traveled than the last, except for the occasional pickup going about a zillion km/hour, though they were nice about giving plenty of room.

So I’m pretty (over)confident about this time and I see that there’s a settlement up ahead. At the settlement, which is on the bank of the Mekong, the sealed road gives out and become not only the pot holed dirt road I had hoped to avoid, but it’s pretty sandy (not the best for traction or stability, if you’re not familiar with 2 wheeled vehicles) and it descends pretty steeply down to the ferry at the river. Ok, “descends pretty steeply” is a relative term, but the thought did cross my mind how stupid the situation would be if I really screwed up and dumped the bike in the river.

Now, you have to understand that a Mekong river ferry in Lao isn’t the most sophisticated water craft on the planet. It’s basically a couple of hulls with boards bridging the hulls. The larger ones, such as I was aiming for, carried vehicles, but the transition between “road” and ramp wasn’t the smoothest one might imagine. I ended up getting on the ferry without making a complete fool of myself and without running into anyone or anything else, which was pretty unbelievable at the time. The usual vendors wanted to sell drinks or Unidentified Food Objects (UFOs). And, as I had been told, the fare was $.50. Change is made, but have small bills.

The ferry departed when full. Luckily it was almost full when I got on, so it was only a couple of minutes before departure. The ride across the Mekong took around 15 minutes and was thoroughly pleasant. After my rather rough arrival on the ferry I had some concerns about getting off and getting up the road on the other side. As we approached the opposite bank I could see that the incline wasn’t too bad and the road surface, while dirt and bumpy didn’t seem fatally awful. As we arrived and the boatmen let the ramp down I could see that the road surface had some sand, but not a lot. So, after the passengers on foot got off and the ramp was fully lowered, I motored off the ferry and up to the where the sealed road began without making a complete fool of myself.

A tour van without any evident tourists aboard had zoomed off in front of me, so I had the idea I could try to follow it, since it may have been going toward Wat Phu. After a couple of minutes the road came to a T junction. From the guesthouse map I knew I had to turn left, south, at some point, and this seemed to be a main road. The van then turned left, so I did, too. Following this road was very pleasant. The day was beginning to really warm up (April is the hot season) and I was glad to be getting a relatively early start. In retrospect I should have left even earlier since the morning light is much better for photos.

After another 10-15 minutes of riding, during which I passed two gas stations, which I noted for the return, I arrived at a turn off that veered a bit to the right that was signed as the way to the temple complex. In just another couple of minutes, at 10AM, I arrived at the entrance where I was charged $3 for admission. Freeman’s guide says that there is a charge for cameras, but no one asked me. So, the Wat Phu site is about 1.5 hours one way from central Pakxe.

The Wat Phu complex extends for approximately 1.5km including the artificial water basin, the baray, at its base. It’s in an exceptional setting, located at the base of a 1400m mountain with a natural monolith at the top, forming what must have been thought to be a natural linga—an important feature in Khymer religious tradition. In the morning the mountain was shrouded in cloud. By midday on the day of my visit, the clouds had dissipated.

One first comes to the Middle baray, which is still filled with water. I initially misjudged the size of the site and parked my moto at the eastern end of the baray and started walking around the baray, heading generally to the west. After a couple of minutes it became clear that the best thing to do was to get back on the moto and ride counter-clockwise on the baray’s perimeter road to the west end. To give you an idea of the scale, the baray’s size is given as 600m east-west and 200m north-south. There is parking for cars and motos near the ticket checking booth as well as a restaurant at the west end of the baray. Once your ticket is checked at the desk, you may proceed either along a path straight ahead from the desk that parallels the 250m causeway or walk to the causeway itself and walk along its border. At the time of my visit, one couldn’t walk on the causeway itself since it was being restored.

Continuing on and bearing generally west, one next comes to two large buildings, one on either side of the causeway. Each has galleries that enclose a large courtyard. At the time of my visit the buildings were posted for no entry, though a few local kids were wandering around in them. The stairs off the causeway for each building as well as doorways and lintels were in severe disrepair, not much different than the sandstone blocks tumbled all over the place in sites like Angkor’s Preah Khan off the main passage.

Next one comes to a flight of stairs with frangipani trees on both sides. When I visited the trees were in bloom, which was quite nice. There are a succession of inclined causeways and staircases ending at a natural terrace about 30m above the lowest level. On this highest terrace is the main sanctuary as well as the sacred spring, some interesting carvings on some of the larger fallen rocks from the cliff face, and an active Buddhist wat (and some pretty passive vendors). The sanctuary is relatively unimposing in size compared to some of the Angkor sites. The water from the sacred spring is being channeled into a pretty ugly culvert/plastic pipe plumbing of modern construction. One of the carvings on a fallen stone is quite fascinating. It’s a stone with a deep carving of a man sized crocodile like animal, just the right size for human sacrifice. Michael Freeman in his guidebook mentions that Chinese visitors described such a ceremony in the 6th century.

On a clear day it’s claimed that one can see the Mekong in the distance from the upper terrace, but I couldn’t make it out on my visit. There are several shady spots on the upper terrace and it’s a good place to rest before heading down. Of course, it’s easy to get a drink from one of the vendors. It was pretty crowded up there with, perhaps, 8 Western tourists, total, being guided. It was quite a difference from the hordes visiting Angkor Wat..

Close to the site entrance is a decent museum with nicely displayed artifacts with English labeling. No photos allowed in the museum.

How does Wat Phu compare to any of the Angkor sites? It’s very different. My summary would be that it’s well worth the effort to get there. The setting is really quite nice, especially with the frangipani trees in bloom, which is apparently from February to June. When the clouds over the neighboring mountain clear, it’s quite majestic when viewed from the lower levels. Ascending the stairs, steep and tricky like the Angkor sites, one does get the feeling of passage from the material world. (You have to ignore the vendors luring you back, of course.)

Let me stray again from the ever so riveting, “There I Wuz,” account and give the high level summary of what happened. I’ll backfill later. There’s some hope I’ll actually crank out the whole story since my stupid passport is off getting more pages and it is now apparently a long term guest of the US Postal and Storage Service.

While on the Ubon-Pakxe bus I had considered just blowing the whole planned itinerary of visiting temples in favor of going south in Lao from Pakxe and crossing into Cambodia at the Veun Kham, Lao/Stung Treng, Cambodia border crossing. It was claimed to be authorized, but not quite legal, in the way that warms the traveller’s heart. However, I’ve been trying to get to Preah Vihear for so long that putting it off yet again wasn’t that compelling. These are the kinds of decisions that are best worked through over a lot of generally aimless conversation and good natured argument. Since I had only myself to argue with though, the opposing arguments to dump the temple itinerary were pretty lame as I worked them through on the way back to Pakxe from Wat Phu.

So, that meant I would get on the afternoon bus to Ubon and then catch the next bus to Kantharalak in Thailand, which was the accommodations base for Preah Vihear. So, the rest of the trip was then pretty much determined, except for the issue of whether to include Phimai.

In any event, to summarize of the rest of the trip, I got back to Pakxe and caught the 3:30 bus to Ubon. From Ubon I caught the bus to Kantharalak and arrived there after dark in the rain. I took an overpriced moto taxi to the Kantharalak Palace hotel where I got a decent room and had a great, inexpensive dinner across the street.

The next morning I got a moto taxi to Preah Vihear and the site was every bit as good as I had heard. I left about 11:30 and got back to the Kantharalak bus station in time for lunch and the last bus of the day to Nang Rong, the accommodation base for Phnom Rung. Uh-oh, this was a through bus from Ubon to Khorat. It was packed. So, I had the chance to build up karma by standing for the entire trip of 3 ¾ hours. All right, not every aspect of travel is total ecstasy.

At Nang Rong it was, surprise, raining, so I took a taxi to the Honey Inn guesthouse. My stay there was one of the highlights of the trip and I ended up staying two nights. More about this place later. The next morning I rented a moto from the guesthouse for B250 and went to Phnom Rung and the nearby Muang Tam. Both sites were really interesting and well worth the trip. I had lunch out by Muang Tam while watching various avian critters wander about, giving one pause about how bird flu would be handled in the provinces, regardless of what propaganda one reads in the press.

After two nights in Nang Rong I took an early bus, having learned my lesson about taking late buses, south to Aranyaprathet to cross the border into Cambodia at Poipet (visa on arrival). On the way to Poipet I linked up with a couple and we took a share taxi to Siem Reap, accommodation base for the Angkor sites, where I ended up staying three days, which was longer than I had anticipated.

Siem Reap has transmogrified over the years into something pretty stinky though there some remnants of pre-Sofitel here and there. I stayed in a guesthouse on a remaining dirt road run by the guy who runs the Tales of Asia web site, ate at Soupdragon, rode around on a moto driven by my friend, and even managed a day out at the temples.

From Siem Reap I took a morning bus to Phnom Penh that arrived, just my luck, too late for the last bus to Snookyville. Since I stayed too long in Siem Reap, mostly because of sloth, I couldn’t really afford the time to stay overnight in PP, so I got a share taxi to Snookyville. The ride turned out to be one of the highlights of my travels, ever. More on that later.

We got to Snookyville around 8PM and I found a great guesthouse, the Apsara, just a block or so from Ochheuteal beach, where I stayed for the night. The boat to Koh Kong and the border wasn’t until 12, so I had a fair amount of time to get breakfast, explore the beach, and swim in some of the warmest water I’ve ever been in.

The boat to Koh Kong took 4 hours. After the first hour or so I got tired of being inside and reading, so I decided to get toasted to a crisp on the roof. (Ok, I had sunscreen, so I only got cooked medium rare.) We went north along miles and miles of undeveloped coastline with (what looked like) white sand beaches.

At Koh Kong I took a share-truck to the border where, after screwing around for ½ hour at Cambodian immigration, I walked across the border and reentered Thailand. I easily missed the obvious car park where the minibuses to Trat were parked, but after a couple of minutes walking in the rain, I found them. The minibus leaves when full and it took about 1 ½ hours to get to Trat, where I got off at the market.

It was only 5 minutes or so to the guesthouse I had in mind, the Garden Home, where I got an ok room for the night. Then, back to the market for dinner.

Pickup truck to the bus station the next morning, after breakfast at the Pop guesthouse restaurant, and off on the 5 hour trip to Bangkok. The bus stopped at the Eastern, Ekamai, bus terminal, which is right next to the Ekamai BTS station.

Off to the Holiday Mansion hotel on Wireless road, about 2 minutes from the Ploenchit BTS station. Although I had arranged a cheapo single room through Asia Travel, I got upgraded to a suite, which was quite nice given that the hotel has seen better days.

Up for the early morning flight from BKK and, wonder of wonders, I found an honest taxi driver who used the meter to the airport. This positive, totally unexpected gift capped a great trip.

Now that the summary is done, I’ll get back to the blow by blow.

1 Apr 06 – Continued

So far I had hopped by air from Bangkok to Ubon Ratchathani. Then by aircon bus from Ubon to Pakxe, Lao. And, last, I went by selfdrive motorbike from Pakxe to the Wat Phu temple site.

While riding back through the town of Champasak, which abuts Wat Phu, I came across several Western tourists on bicycle presumably going either to Wat Phu or returning from it. I suppose they were staying at guesthouses in town. Champasak is strung out for several km along the road that borders the Mekong on the west side. I see that one guidebook says that Champasak proper is 4km north of the temple site, but that must be just the formal city limits, since there were dwellings and shops all along the road to Wat Phu and continuing past the Wat Phu turn off. A bicycle would be a good option if it weren’t essentially frying hot outside, which it was at the time I started off to return to Pakxe, around 12 noon.

As I rode back, I ran through some trip planning considerations. Now that I had visited Wat Phu, I was anxious to get going west, though this would mean I would spend just one night in Lao on this trip. Not the best use of a $30, 15 day visa, to be sure.

Many of the people I had talked to on the Ubon-Pakxe bus the previous day were heading down to Si Phan Don, the Four Thousand Islands. There aren’t any special sights down there, except, perhaps, the river dolphins, but lots of budget travelers use the 4,000 Islands as a place to just plain hang out. I couldn’t do it this trip, because of the other temple sites I wanted to visit, but it certainly was attractive after blitzing without significant downtime to this point.

I should mention that I was also missing one of the minor Khymer temples in the area, Houay Tom or Huei Thamo. It's on the other side of the Mekong from Wat Phu and can be reached by boat from Champasak or Pakxe. This site is reported to be unrestored and overgrown, but in a nice setting. This temple is also reported to have an unusual carved linga with four large faces at its tip. I'm guessing, however, that this artifact has been snarfed up by either the government or thieves. A quick search doesn't confirm this one way or the other.

The ride back to Pakxe was uneventful enough. I seemed to have plenty of gas. The rain had stopped and I didn't expect the afternoon downpour until around 3PM. I was hungry, but I decided to get back to Pakxe before having lunch. I was frankly concerned about having some sort of moto problem and being stuck. Riding a moto around rural Lao makes you keep thinking about exactly what you would do if the moto broke down. It’s not like you can call AAA for emergency road rescue. The brute force approach, of course, would be to flag down a pickup and pay for a ride, moto and all, back to the guesthouse where I had rented the moto.

I was thinking of getting gas at one of the two stations before the ferry since they seemed less busy than those in the more densely populated areas. If I needed extra time to figure out how to actually get the gas into the moto, presumably one of the more rural stations would be less frenetic, though somehow “frenetic” and “Lao” don’t really belong in the same sentence, since most of the country seems to be in a deep slumber. Just as I got to the first station a couple of trucks were pulling in, so I passed by. After riding a while more I guessed I must have been distracted when passing the other station, because I never did see it. The gas gauge read fine, so I wasn’t all that concerned.

Then I noticed that the gas gauge was reading fine because it hadn’t budged since I left in the morning. The stupid gauge must have been broken. I stopped and checked the gas level in the tank visually and I apparently had enough to continue on without backtracking to the last gas station I passed. I’d get gas at the next reasonable opportunity, though. I couldn’t remember exactly where the gas was on the other side of the Mekong, but I was hoping it wouldn’t be too far.

The next concern was taking the correct side road to the ferry. While there were signs for Wat Phu on the way from Pakxe, there weren’t any signs showing the way to Pakxe that I saw while on the way back. I began to wish I had brought a GPS or a long string instead of relying on memory. Well, from the main road, at Ban Phabin village, to the ferry landing was just a couple of minutes, so the worst that could happen was that I would have to backtrack and try another likely side road. As it turned out, a familiar looking T junction was the right one and I got to the ferry landing ok.

At the road above the ferry landing I got a signal from someone under a tent at the side of the road to come ahead, so I made my way down the dirt road and got onto the ferry ok. It was empty except for me, so I figured on a wait. Then I found out why it was empty—I was on the wrong ferry. The next ferry to go and being loaded was downriver 50m to the south. I had driven straight ahead instead of looking to see if there was another possible ferry. Dumb.

Not quite as dumb, though, as trying to traverse what was essentially sand to get to the right ferry. I should have gone all the way up and come down the road instead of slipping and sliding in the sand on the incline of the hill to get to the other ferry. I somehow didn’t dump the bike and finally got on the right ferry.

A fairly large, heavily laden truck was the last vehicle to get on. I guess the boards forming the deck were more sturdy than they appeared. The truck was enough to fill the ferry and we departed for the other side. For some reason the fare this direction was $.80.

At the other side of the Mekong I drove off and up the dirt road and got stuck behind some large trucks that were maneuvering on the inclined part of the dirt road. At this point I had become pretty comfortable with the moto, so I just crept along until I could pass and then zorched off on what's shown on the map as Highway 140 to the village of Ban Muang at the Highway 13 junction.

Back on the main road, Highway 13, I saw a rural type gas station before long, the kind that's just a roadside stand with some gas in jars with a rubber hose for gravity dispensing, and decided just to wait for a station with pumps. A station with pumps turned up in another couple of km. I got gas for $1.60 from the very helpful and friendly attendants, no self-serve here, and felt pretty good about the whole trip so far. I don't think I paid the foreigner price for the gas, but I have no idea how the pricing worked, so who knows.

Traffic picked up as I got closer to Pakxe and the sky started looking pretty threatening. There's no law that says that the afternoon downpour waits until 3PM and I was hungry, so I decided to give the museum and the Champasak Palace hotel both a miss. After about 1.5 hours I got back to the guesthouse and dropped off the moto. For $.50 the guesthouse let me take a shower in the shared bathrooms in the back, which were reasonably clean. The shower was a real pleasure since it had been actively hot for quite a while.

I walked back to the Xuan Mai restaurant, since I had left my bag at my hotel just across the street, and tried another bowl of soup since I had had such a good meal the previous day. Soup + Pepsi $1.50. Today they must have had a different cook or something, since it was edible, but not much more. Some travelers from Singapore were at the next table and they had some questions that I was able to answer based on my vast knowledge of Pakxe. Well, they were pretty simple questions. A tuk-tuk guy tried to get them interested in taking a tour around town, but they had other plans. Since the tuk-tuk guy was right there, I asked about getting a ride to the bus station.

Well, he knew the border station at Chong Mek, an intermediate destination of the international bus, and he knew the concept of bus station, but with my best phrasebook Lao, I couldn't get across the idea of the bus station for the international bus on Highway 13. The station seemed pretty new with parts still under construction, so I assume he wasn't that familiar with it. I got him to walk with me across the street to my hotel, where I explained where I wanted to go to the manager, whose English was very good. Even then it took a couple of minutes for the driver to understand that, no, I didn't want to go to Chong Mek, just to the bus station. We settled on $1 for the ride. I had zero confidence in the driver finding the bus station by himself, but, since I had passed a big sign for the station on Highway 13 earlier that day, I was pretty confident that we could get there with some appropriate pointing and grunting on my part.

So, we're driving down Highway 13 about 5 minutes from the station, as far as I can judge, when there's a loud BANG from underneath the tuk-tuk and we lose power. Of course we're in a busy, for Pakxe, traffic circle at the time. The driver makes it to the side of the road and looks underneath. He makes some mysterious adjustment and, surprisingly, before long he gets the tuk-tuk on the road again. We continue driving down Highway 13 and I see the sign for the bus terminal turnoff. Of course, even after pointing it out, the driver misses it (it's in English and Lao). He does a U-turn and makes the turnoff. We arrive, once again thwarting the travel demons, and I pay him off, glad that I had allowed extra time to get back here. As I walk away I see the driver rooting around underneath the tuk-tuk again.

The Pakxe bus terminal is much less busy than the one in Ubon, but I understand there are several in Pakxe serving different areas. This one may only serve the buses to Vientiane and Ubon. I pay B200 and provide my passport. I'm given a ticket and my passport back in a couple of minutes and I'm set. It's around 3PM and, sure enough, the afternoon rain starts. At this bus station there isn't any evident food, though there is a toilet.

Right at 3:20 we pile on the bus for the trip to Ubon. Once again, there are only about 15 passengers, allowing easy seating selection out of the sun. We grind along to the border, pass through in about 30 minutes in a reverse of what I had done the previous day, without the visa processing, and we pull into Ubon bus station around 6:30PM, again about 3 hours transit time.

The bus to Kantaralak, accommodation base for Preah Vihear, the next temple I want to visit, was a 1.5 hour journey for B40. I have an ok seat near the front and can watch the Thai music videos, which I find fun and diverting. It starts to rain as darkness falls. We stop from time to time, at first fairly often while still in Ubon and its immediate outskirts, then less frequently. The bus fills up and there's some standing in the aisle.

I'm estimating that we are getting close to Kantaralak and I start wondering if I should get off before the bus station to avoid backtracking to the hotel area. Ideally I'd like to get off at the market and then I'd be only a block or so from the hotel I want to try--another guidebook special. We drive along and people start getting off in twos and threes. We're definitely in Kantharalak now and I'm trying to figure out where the market is among the shops that are still open in the dark. It's about 8:30PM, so many shops are closed. The guidebook shows that the bus will turn right just past the market, so that's a brute force clue, if it's accurate. A couple of people get off at a cluster of shops that could be the market. Or, it might be just a cluster of shops. A minute later we turn right and I start to move to the front of the bus. A bit later some other people want to get off, basically in the middle of nowhere, but on a main road and I decide to get off, too. It probably would be easier to get a ride from the bus station, but where I wanted to go didn't look that far a walk from where I was getting off. The bus assistant gets me my bag from underneath and I start walking back toward the market area. Of course it's raining.

I cross a wide street and try to walk under some cover to stay out of the rain. A bunch of motorcycle taxi guys are playing cards or the equivalent along the road and one of them hails me. I get across that I want to go to the Kantaralak Palace hotel. The moto guy says B100. It's raining about medium heavy. I'm beat and I agree without negotiating, overpaying again. It's probably really a B40 ride, maybe B50 for a foreigner, maybe less.

The Kantaralak Palace hotel is more of a motel than a traditional hotel. It has exterior access to rooms, at least the block where I get a decent room for B400, aircon, no breakfast, ensuite bathroom with squat toilet, TV. And, yes, from what I could tell, it didn't appear to be a short time hotel. After getting settled I head out for dinner. Conveniently just across the street is a noname restaurant. With a combination of pointing, English, Thai, and some smiling I get prawn soup, chicken with kailan, rice, and a big Beer Chang. B180 for the whole thing. This takes some of the sting out of the cost of the mototaxi ride.


After dinner I go back to the hotel and call home with my mobile phone with the Thai DTAC SIM and sleep as well as I can. Of course, there's always football at 3AM and Thai soap operas to watch, even here in the sticks of Thailand.

Resources:

Thailand telephone country code: +66. For international calls to Thailand or Lao, delete leading zero from number

Lao PDR telephone country code: +856.

TAT Northeastern office : Region 2
Areas of Responsibility : Ubon Ratchthani, Amnat Charoen, Si Sa Ket and Yasothon
264/1 Khaunthani Rd., Amphoe Muang, Ubon Ratchathani 34000
Tel. 045 243770, 250714
Fax. 045 243771
E-mail Address : tatubon@tat.or.th

Hotel Salachampa
Tel: 031 212 273
Fax: 031 212 646

Bilingual maps, Thai/English: Before leaving the US I had read on the Golden Triangle Rider site, www.gt-rider.com, that the best maps for navigating Thai roads in the area bordering Cambodia were the so-called “PN” maps. These maps turned out not to be easily available in the US, but I had thought that they would be readily found once I was in Thailand. (I should have printed out the name and description of the PN maps while still in the US and then, once at the TAT office, asked the TAT representative to write down the information about the map in Thai, so I could try to get them at a Thai bookstore.) As it turned out, I only found the maps on my last full trip day, while in Bangkok.


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