Overland crossover from Vietnam to Laos
01.11.2012 - 01.11.2012 37 °C
Pleiku city and Kontum had left many unforgettable travel experience in me. These part of Vietnam in the central highland region are some of the most beautiful places that Vietnam has to offer to travellers. The people who live in here are blessed with awesomely stunning and marvelous landscapes of mountains, green valleys, lake, rice fields, coffee and sugar cane plantations. It is also this part of the central highland of Vietnam that the largest coffee plantations are located that offer some of the best coffee in the world. Being in Pleiku to take a closer look at how the city goes by the day itself is something worth trying to experience. Surely, you should not missed trying a sip or two of the traditional coffee by the roadside while enjoying the scenes of the city life of Pleiku city and also never forget to also sample some of the local food including the pho, Bun Bo Hue (spicy and sour soup noodle from Hue with beef briskets) and also the Bun Mi (french loaf stuffed with salads, butter and meat fillings). Kontum is a province north of Pleiku city but Kontum city is a much smaller city in comparison to Pleiku which is the capital of Gia Lai province. This city is such a peaceful city and should be what I believed the city with most number of churches within Vietnam. Arriving at Kontum from Pleiku city, I was caught in a shock that the city is so much quieter than its other counterparts in Vietnam that I had been to including Ho Chi Minh city, Hue, Danang and Hanoi. The wooden church, the Seminary Museum and the Rong House are three of the most significant highlights of Kontum. The wooden church is such a wonderful chapel with great architecture design. It stands so magnificently beautiful in a very quiet section of a street in Kontum city. The interior of the chapel is also worth the admiration while the surrounding of the church is so peaceful with a sizeable garden within the boundary of the church. The Rong House in the hilltribes community villages is yet another not to be missed sights when stepping foot in Kontum. This is a unique traditional hilltribes home of the central highland rural communities. The structure of the house is made fully from natural resources consist of screw-pine leaves for the walls of the house, dry paddy leaves for the roof, sticks and woods for the structure of the roof and huge log woods to support the base of the house as well as for the staircases to get to the house which is a few metres high from the ground. The Seminary Museum should also not to be missed when one is in Kontum. This Seminary Museum building itself is something that draws attention due to its traditional architecture where parts of this building is built from wood. It has a chapel in the middle of the long building with several number of rooms that are being used as classroom to provide education to the children in Kontum. The building also housed a museum on the 1st floor which displays on some history facts on the spread of christianity in Kontum, historical items such as the gongs, wooden casket, replicas of Rong House and city of Kontum, map of Kontum, collection of bibles and the past and present fathers of the chapel of the Seminary as well as old photographs of the communities of the Seminary. Another highlight in Kontum is also the distinctive coffee house of Eva Cafe, which display the creative works of the owner by using the wood as his theme to come up with the interior and exterior of the cafe including the furnitures. The tour to Kontum over a day has been so worthwhile and would provide a truly unforgettable memories. I thank my guide for making the tour of Kontum possible. He has been a great guide throughout the tour and even invited me over for dinner at his restaurant under joint ownership with his partner in downtown of Pleiku city. The restaurant serves some of the delicious Vietnamese food in particular rice with dishes. The name of the restaurant is Quan Dua Tre or Kitchen of Chopsticks. Later, I was invited to a nice coffee outlet overlooking a small lake. Most youngsters patronised this modern coffee joint with couples on motorbikes seen intimately cuddling each other at the edge of the lake leading to the coffee house. The name of this coffee house is Cafe Thuy Ta. After some casual and relaxing chat over cup of traditionally prepared vietnamese aromatic coffee, its time to say goodbye.
The next morning, I left Vinh Hoi Hotel for Duc Long Bus Station to board the bus from Pleiku city to Pakse. It was still very early when I reached the station and the station was rather quite without much movements of buses noted. My Linh Express has its own platforms at one section of Duc Long Bus Station and the passengers waiting area is a small room within its office building. After about 45 minutes of wait, a lady from the My Linh office came calling for me to go over a still Mai Linh green minibus. There was no any announcement at all to passengers to board their bus but I thought even if there is one, it would be as good as without as surely, the language used would be no other than vietnamese. So, I was a little surprised that it was a small minivan rather than a big bus that would be heading to Pakse. Nevertheless, I believed Mai Linh Express do have buses (minibus that is) for the Pleiku-Pakse route as I witnessed this while the minibus travelled on the opposite direction from Pakse-Pleiku. Such vehicle size being used probably due to small number of passengers on this route which made it more feasible to use a minivan and minibus rather than big buses. The journey from Pleiku to the border of Vietnam and Lao PDR has been rather smooth and pleasant with most of the road conditions within satisfactory level. The international border checkpoint in Vietnam is Bo Y (pronounced Boey) while the one over at Lao PDR is Phoukeua. Crossing the Vietnamese and Lao border was without much hassle with the Lao PDR immigration officers being friendly, attentive and courteous. However, the road right after Phoukeua was never been thought being one of the most challenging border crossing I had ever encountered. As this area within Lao PDR is a heavily surrounded by large mountains and hills, the roads that cut through this section of Laos are very much steeped, difficult with many sharp bends ahead. But thanks to good driving skills and behaviour of Mai Linh drivers, the overall journey travelling through this difficult route had been safe. Even this is a small minivan, they do have 2 drivers on board which I believed is to ensure the safety of the passengers, where a rotation of drivers would ensure the alertness of this key person who manouvre the vehicle would never be compromised. Travelling within the Attapeu province, the minivan stops at various locations to drop off passengers and goods as well as picking up incoming passengers. There is one lengthy stop at Duc Loc Restaurant cum Guesthouse which is a Viet-Lao eatery outlet which also provide accomodation services as well as money exchange facility. In fact many shops, restaurants and guesthouses within Attapeu or any other provinces bordering Vietnam would have such establishments owned by Vietnamese which proven on how well vietnamese are when it comes to enterpreneurship. The journey within Attapeu province is one of the most beautiful journey encountered with great landscapes of mountains, rice fields, local villages and agricultural lands as well as rivers. Reaching Pakse, I took the tuk-tuk to look for a place to stay and ended up at Thaluang Hotel which is located at a secluded and quiet street at the edge of Pakse town. This hotel looked very much like an old mansion converted into a hotel facility with the structure of the building, rooms and interior of the hotel being in a very rundown condition. Room with air-cond charged at 80,000 kip. Other than Thaluang Hotel, I also checked into Sala Champa Hotel which is being featured in the Thai-Lao movie, Sabaidee 2. What makes this hotel unique is that it has open concept lobby which also served as a place for travellers to gather up for chatting as well as for breakfast apart from being a waiting area for guests prior to pick-up arrangement to the bus stations or anywhere else. The furniture at this lobby consists of those used during the olden days where the structure of the furniture being made from rattan. There are multiple rooms on several blocks of white buildings within the hotel compound. The buildings have designed that look very much like french architecture design.
I had been to Pakse for few times and visited some of the wats downtown and also experienced the hospitality at the historical Champasak Palace Hotel, which formerly being a palace of the Lao royal family before the collapsed of the royal monarchy in the 70s. Pakse town itself is a charming town which has many historical buildings which occupy the heart of the town. Taking a walk around the town would be rewarding as one would be able to experience the great old traditional building architectures as well as the easy going traffic condition, which still not being congested with high vehicles volume though this is fast changing with increasing number of tourists as well as the developments that are taking place within the town and surrounding areas. Surely, travelling is also always associated with food and I think one of the best eating experience would be that of sipping some good Lao coffee from Bolaven Plateau while enjoying a plate of french bread stuffed with hot omelette and fresh tomato for breakfast or some Beer Lao with hot french bread stuffed with chicken cube meat for dinner.
The highlight of my travel to Lao PDR this time around is to visit the UNESCO World Heritage site of Wat Phu. This is one of the most crucial itinerary in Laos for travellers and should not be missed while in Pakse. The structures of Wat Phu has been so magnificently, stunningly and awesomely heart capturing within the setting of a massively huge open flat lands with the background of a beautiful big mountains at its backdrop. I booked my tour to Wat Phu with Pakse Travel & Air Service Co Ltd with a private minivan. The journey to Wat Phu took less than an hour from Pakse town with great natural landscape of mountains and open lands. Entrance fee to Wat Phu inclusive of a visit to the museum costs 30,000 kip. One can choose to either take a walk of about few kilometres to reach the Wat Phu area or could pay additional ticket fee for a return trip with transport service provided. Well, I prefer to walk to the wat though the distance may be far as its not metres away but few km away couple with the scorching hot sun, this may be a discouraging choice but would provide rewarding experience as it opens opportunity to take a good look at the stunning natural landscapes of mountains, lakes and trees. The pathways leading to Wat Phu consists of natural laterite soil surrounded by trees on the left and right of the long straight road with a large lake located on the right side of the road. As I walked through the pathways, I could feel the calmness and how close the nature is to my mind and soul. The area from the ticket office to Wat Phu is a massive open land with a background view of large mountains. At the edge of the lake nearing the entrance to Wat Phu, there is a long structure which appear to be a wall to signify the start of the boundary of Wat Phu. From here, there are multiple pillars lined the left and right of the long walkways that lead to the main area of Wat Phu. At the end of this walkways, there are 2 building structures on the left and right known as South and North Palace. Both the building structures are undergoing major conservations reconstructions due to parts of the walls and the side door entrance had been damaged and collapsed. From the rear of the South and North Palace, as I entered to have a closer view of how it looks inside these buildings, it can be seen that the rectangular shape building is a wide open space without any particular structures or pillars with the ground filled with grass. There is another narrow and lengthy area next to this open space which is separated by a wall and also have side door entrance from this open space area to this lengthy narrow area. There is also a large door from the outside to enter to this lengthy narrow area. The walls of these 2 palace have multiple windows with pillars and these walls are also carved in various ancient Khmer arts. Walking further up from these 2 palace, there is a small structure on the left behind one of the 2 palace which should be a temple but signboard stated that it is being constructed as a training for workers of the conservation reconstruction on the 2 palace. From here, as I progressed further, there is an uneven walkways where the ancient concrete bricks filled the walkways have been what seemed to be uprooted possibly due to change in soil condition and weather in the area. At the end of this walkways are steep staircases to get up to the main Wat Phu area where a temple or wat is located. Arriving at the top of the hill where the wat building is located, the view from here is amazingly awesome and stunning and no words could describe how beautiful and scenic the whole view of the 2 palace and the surrounding landscapes could be. Only snapshots of photos would be fairest of all to describe and tell the truth of such great gift of nature by God. The structure of this main wat building of Wat Phu is still overall kept intact apart from the roof top which had collapsed. The frontage of the wat has 3 doors with the middle one being the main and larger in size while the other 2 on left and right are same in size. There are also 2 side door entrance on each left and right of this wat building and the walls of the wat have multiple windows as well, which very much similar to the earlier 2 palace structure on the basement area. Also noticed on this wat are the great Khmer arts crafted on the walls and the structure of the doors. Inside the wat, there is a huge Buddha sculpture in sitting position with 3 other small sculptures with an altar for praying purpose. Walking a level up from this wat, there is a big rock with a image of an elephant seen clearly on the surface of this rock. My summary on Wat Phu is that, the trip is a very worthwhile one though the heat and the distance within the wat boundary coupled with the hilly geographical landscape may take a toll while touring the great wat. The structure of the buildings with Khmer styles design and architecture deserved much admiration from visitors and can never be denied to be placed under the UNESCO World Heritage recognition. The mountain at the backdrop of Wat Phu also known as Phu Khao is yet another great natural landscape experience while the stunning view from the peak of Wat Phu would capture the heart of those who appreciate nature and even those who don't would still find it too hard not to appreciate the greatest gift by God.