By Andrew J Wood
I never tire from exploring this region where there are new discoveries aplenty. I was to travel aboard Mekong Cruise’s river vessel Vat Phou for a three-day, two-night journey on the mighty Mekong River.
After a short 65-minute flight to Ubon Rachathani, my voyage continued overland for two hours to the Thai-Laos border at Chong Mek, near Pakse, where my friends and I joined the boat for the first time – it would be our home for the next three days.
Originally a working boat that carried teak wood between Vientiane and the south of Laos, in 1993 the Vat Phou was converted into a luxury floating hotel to cruise the Mekong river.
The Vat Phou is 34 metres long, and powered by diesel engine, with 12 cabins (each with air conditioning and private bathroom) and 15 staff aboard.
Oriental in style, I particularly enjoyed relaxing on a comfy chair on one of the two open decks – one forward and one astern.
he forward upper deck with rattan armchairs, sofas and loungers, was perfect for me to lie back and read a book or check my emails (there is Wi-Fi onboard), take photographs of life along the river or just catching 40-winks.
I so enjoyed the ever changing river scenery and taking a peak at life as we passed leisurely by, cold drink in hand.
After years of isolation, Laos is now one of the most laid back SE Asian destinations. With a well-preserved culture, stunning natural environment and friendly people.
Life in Laos still revolves around tradition and we experienced river-front life that has remained virtually unchanged over generations.
The Mekong opens up at Si Phan Don (meaning literally ‘four thousand islands’). It’s an archipelago of tranquil islands popular with travellers for cycling, swimming, boat cruises, kayaking, and dolphin spotting.
The Mekong is truly one of the great rivers of the world, stretching 4,352 kilometres from Tibet to the South China Sea. The meandering Mekong links Indochina’s rich cultures as it flows through six nations – China; Myanmar; Laos; Thailand; Cambodia and Vietnam.
One of the highlights of my trip was a visit to the UNESCO World Heritage site, the Vat Phou temple at Champasak.
Vat Phou (Temple-Mountain) is a ruined Khmer Hindu temple complex in southern Laos. It is located at the base of mount Phu Kao, some 6km from the Mekong river in Champasak province.
Vat Phou is considered one of the oldest archaeological sites in Laos. One temple in the site was constructed around the 5th century but most buildings found in the complex are from the 11th to 13th centuries.
Like other notable Khmer architecture in SE Asia, it was constructed using sandstone, laterite and bricks.
The temple has an ancient and direct link to another famous landmark and UNESCO site – Angkor Wat to the southwest.
Vat Phou has been an active temple for more than 1000 years. Buddhism replaced Hinduism in Laos, in the mid 13th century.
The temple has a unique structure, in which the elements lead to a shrine where a linga dedicated to Lord Shiva (the linga is seen as a symbol of the energy and potential of Shiva himself) was bathed in water from a mountain spring, believed by many to be holy water.
During our visit there I saw local women collecting the water in plastic bottles.
The site later became a centre of Theravada Buddhist worship, which it remains today. Off the main walkway a path leads up to smaller temples and stone carvings on the rocky outcrops and boulders. An elephant and crocodile carving are very distinct.
The crocodile stone has acquired some notoriety as being possibly the site of an annual human sacrifice described in a 6th-century Chinese text in pre-Angkorian times.
The story is lent some plausibility by the similarity of the crocodiles dimensions to those of a human.
Andrew J Wood has been a long time resident of Thailand for two decades. A lecturer, writer and former hotel General Manager, Andrew is a Director of Thailand by Design a division of Worldwide Destinations Asia Co Ltd, and past President of Skal International Thailand.