BootsnAll Travel Network

Champasak: Give me a V (for visa)

The bus stopped, it was 5.30am and still pitch black outside.

“Is this Pakse?” I asked Bec, as though she should know. “Not sure. I’ll go outside and see what’s going on,” she replied drowsily, while I tried hard to keep my eyelids from falling. A few minutes later, she called out to me, now wide awake, “This is our stop, you have to get off!”

I stumbled off, grabbed my bag out of the pile of backpacks forming on the dirty ground next to the bus, and we headed for the nearest tuk-tuk. For we weren’t staying in Pakse, our plan was to head 40km further south to the little town of Champasak, where a millenia-old ruin, like a mini Angkor Wat, sat at the foot of the nearby hills.

We bargained the guy down from $4 each to $3 each, jumped in the back along with the New Zealand guy from the bus, Duncan, and we were away. The tuk-tuk screamed through the pre-dawn darkness, the driver leaning constantly on his horn to alert the motorbikes, other tuk-tuks, and young kids running about on the side of the road. He even tooted at some nuns who were about to peacefully cross the road. He overtook whenever he could, racing through the town and out into the countryside, swerving to get around a slow tuk-tuk, then cutting back in front as a truck approached the other way.

He was the greatest tuk-tuk driver Laos had ever seen. Had Buddha himself been sitting peacefully cross-legged in the middle of the road, this guy simply would’ve blasted his horn and swerved around him.

The cold morning air rushed through our hair and over our exposed legs and arms. I never thought I’d be cold during this trip around Asia, but it was freezing in the back of that tuk-tuk. Slowly, the veil of darkness lifted, and the colour began to ooze into the passing landscape. The sky over the fields and mountains started turning from grey to pink, growing ever brighter as the sun inched its way up from behind the horizon.

And then, as we turned off the paved road onto a pot-holed dirt path, the sun appeared from behind a group of trees. It was the reddest of reds hanging low in the sky; a perfect red disc glowing proud and strong. The air around us was warming up, and I couldn’t help but smile at Bec.

After half an hour, we arrived at a tiny village, no more than 10 or so shacks lined along the dirt road, on the banks of the Mekong. The tuk-tuk driver jumped out and raced around to help us with our bags. “Champasak?” we asked.

“Yes yes. You go across the river to Champasak. On the big boat there.” He pointed down to the water where a small barge waited, a truck and two other tuk-tuks had driven on and some other Westerners stood around on the flat deck waiting. We smiled thank-you, paid the driver his money, and watched as a frenziedly hurried off to a nearby shack where a traveller stood with a backpack. It was the sort of frantic trot I’d only seen previously on crazy maths lecturers; he was like some nutty genius tuk-tuk driver.

Unfazed, despite not having a clue as to what was going on, the three of us walked down to the water’s edge and onto the barge. “Chapasak?” we asked one of the young Laos guys winching up the end of the barge so it could begin its journey across the river. He nooded, and we relaxed.

Soon we were out in the middle of the Mekong. It is the mightiest of rivers; here it was at least a kilometre across. The sun was now golden, but still low in the sky, reflecting brightly off the water, and sillhouetting the small fishing boats that drifted past us.

We made it to the other side, “Ok, we go up here, there should be a fountain where we turn left, and not far up the road there’s a decent guesthouse”, I said after checking our guidebook. We walked up the dirt path, turned left onto a paved road and began walking. It was getting close to 7am now, and alongside the road, groups of two or three women sat on the ground holding wooden baskets full of cooked rice. From up ahead, we saw three orange-robed monks approaching; an older monk, followed by two younger boys, perhaps 20 years old. It was the daily ritual, the giving of the alms. Eah morning, the monks peacefully stroll through town, accepting offerings of food from the townspeople. I believe this is their sole source of food, although I may be wrong in that. Either way, it was a wonderful sight, seeing these bald men walk so slowly yet purposefully through the dust at the side of the road, the early morning sun illuminating their colourful attire, stopping to bend over to the women and receive the gifts of food being presented.

After stopping to watch the monks go past, I rechecked the map in the guidebook. We should’ve been there by now, and come-to-think-of-it, there hadn’t even been a fountain back where we got off.

“Uh, hate to say this, but we may have gone the wrong way. Maybe the boat dropped us at a different spot. We might have to go back and see if that fountain is the other way.”

We headed back in the direction we’d come. Again passing the women and the monks, no doubt standing out like the drongos we were. For 10 minutes we walked back, finding no fountain.

“Hang on, are we even in Champasak?” I asked. “That sign there says something else.” I again looked in the guidebook. “Shit. Says here we get dropped in some other town, and Champasak is 2km that way,” I pointed the way we’d originally walked.

Our backs were getting sore, and the sun was starting to really heat up. We found a tuk-tuk driver resting in the shade, agreed a price to get to Champasak, and squeezed into the tiny vehicle. It was, essentially, a dodgy old motorbike with a side car that had been converted into an upright seat with a roof. Fitting two arses and two backpacks into that space wasn’t exactly comfortable, but thankfully it was only a couple of kilometres up the road.

Finally, we made it to our guesthouse, at around 7.30am.

And then, it hit me, like a Joe Frasier left hook. We were yet to get our Cambodian visa. We had meant to do it in Vientiane, but it had taken a day to get our Laos visa extended, meaning we hadn’t had time. “You know, I’ve got a feeling we can’t get our Camboian visa at the border.” I said after we’d washed the dirt from our feet. “I think we’re gonna have to go back to Pakse.”

Bec looked at me with tired eyes. She was laying down on the bed, and if she closed her eyes, I have no doubt she could’ve slept for hours. “I’d go on my own,” I offered, “but you’ll probably have to sign something, which means we both have to go.” She knew it. So with little sleep, no breakfast, and still covered in dust from the journey so far, we headed out to the guesthouse reception and asked about getting back to Pakse.

“Bus leaves at 8am, from out the front.” He said. It was 7.50am. We wandered out to the road, where a French couple with backpacks were waiting.

“Do you know if you can get Cambodian visas at the border?” we asked.

“Definately not.” Came the reply.

A few minutes later, a truck came along. When the guesthouse guy had said bus, I think he meant truck. It tooted its horn and pulled up in front of us. It was packed with Lao, old ladies, young guys, and little kids. The French couple got in the front seat with the driver, and we folded ourselves into the back with the crowd. Back at the river, the truck simply drove onto the barge. As we crossed the river, Bec began to nod off; her head dropping down to her chest before she’d catch herslef and restore it to upright without opening her eyes. Two old Lao ladies sat next to her. They looked over to me with big smiles on their faces; they got great joy from Bec’s fatigue.

Eventually, the barge docked at the other side, and the truck began the journey back into Pakse. Then, after half an hour, we pulled into a little market in the dirt beside the road. Everyone got out. “Where the hell are we?” Bec asked.

It was frantic. Tuk-tuks and motorbikes were parked everywhere, some rolling through the dust, some filling up with locals. Young kids ran around chasing chickens. A little girl walked past carrying a machete with a blade as long as my thigh. A tuk-tuk driver approached us, “You go to Pakse?”

We walked over to his tuk-tuk, it was already full of locals. He walked around to the front, where, beside the driver’s seat, one on each side, were two tiny seats, and motioned for us to get in. With little other choice, we again squeezed in; my legs hanging out the side, as we pushed out of the market and back onto the paved road. We would soon learn that the market was in fact the southern bus terminal, situated 8km from Pakse.
I looked past the driver’s shoulder to the controls. The rev counter didn’t work. The speedo didn’t work. And the petrol guage said we werebone dry.

This tuk-tuk dropped us at another market on the outskirts of town, the morning market, from where we had to organise another tuk-tuk to take us into the centre of town.

Finally, we made it into Pakse.

Once there, our task was to actually find somewhere that could organise our Cambodian visa; we weren’t even sure if such a place actually existed. We were still looking at the possibility of having to go back to Vientiane, back on the Laos karaoke disco on wheels, to get our visas. Trying not to think of that, we trudged through the town from travel agent to travel agent with no luck. We found a hotel where our guidebook said a travel agent was. Upon entering we were informed the agent had moved down the road. We were given directions, and, as we turned to leave, the helpful receptionist informed us, “You must hurry, it closes at 11am.” It was now 10.50am. It didn’t matter, we couldn’t find it anyway. We did, however, come to a small place that confirmed, yes, they could arrange a Cambodian visa. For more than double the usual price, mind you, $50 US instead of $20 US. But we didn’t care. We handed over our passports, paid the money up front, and stumbled out in search of breakfast, it now being close to midday. We also didn’t care that we’d just spent nearly all our money, and that it was a Saturday. It would be two more days before we could get any more.

We relaxed, we could finally afford ourselves a rest. In no rush to get back in a tuk-tuk, we spent an hour or two on the internet, before deciding to make the journey back out to Champasak at around 2.30pm. I checked the guidebook, buses stopped running at noon, and the last truck headed for Champasak left the southern bus terminal, 8km from town, at 3pm.

Bloody hell.

We walked back outside, the sun now beating down; the sweat on our bodies causing the dirt to cake onto our skin. We’d both left our hats back in Champasak, and were paying the price now.

Walking along the side of the road, we hailed down a tuk-tuk and asked about getting out to Champasak. It’d only cost us $3 that morning, but at this stage we thought we’d be willing to pay a little more; if we missed that last truck, we’d be stuck in Pakse with nothing but the clothes on our back.

“15 US dollars,” he said, “each.”

“What?!” we exclaimed together. “We paid $3 each just this morning. Forget it.”

We continued walking along the side of the road. After days of having tuk-tuk drivers constantly asking us if we need a lift, now when we really needed one they had all disappeared. We were headed for the market on the edge of town where we’d been dropped that morning; there had been tuk-tuks everywhere.

Arriving there hot, dusty and bothered, we found some tuk-tuk drivers. Problem now was, none of them spoke English, and our battle was trying to explain we needed to get to the southern bus terminal. If we mentioned Champasak, 40km away, they’d all shake their heads.

“No, we want to go the the market, the southern bus station, to get to Champasak,” we tried explaining.

They would look confused, then reply, “This is market.”

It was hopeless. Our saviour was a young girl of about 7, who spoke just enough English to understand our predicament and translate to the tuk-tuk drivers where we wanted to go. She smiled, asking shyly where we were from. “A pleasure to meet you,” she said with a smile.

I thanked her profusely as Bec bought a bottle of water, and we were off to the southern bus station. The tuk-tuk we took there (gee, starting to sound a bit like a bad Dr. Suess book there, isn’t it) was barely held together. It putt-putted along like an old lawn mower. The sound I heard was that of an old engine choking to death. I looked at the clock, it was almost 3pm.

As the bike sputtered along, we stopped at a fruit stand. The driver called out to the guy at the stand, who appraoched with a bottle of BeerLao. It was filled with fuel, which he poured into the tank between his legs. 5 minutes later, he pulled into a gas station. The bottle had been just enough to get him there. The attendant walked out, and shook his head. No fuel today, he said. Closed.

I sighed. Shit, I almost cried.

We pulled back out onto the road. Where the crazy tuk-tuk driver early that morning had been fast, this guy was slow. I could’ve walked faster than that bike. Up ahead was another petrol station. As it came into view, I smiled with relief, only to see it pass us by as the driver continued straight on. C’mon, what have you got against Shell?

Somehow, the bike got us to the bus terminal slash dirty market. I couldn’t see any trucks around, but before we’d even come to a stop a young guy had rushed over and before we knew it, we’d paid $3 each to get us to the river.

10 minutes of travelling in the back of this tuk-tuk (I’ve lost count of how many that is for the day), and we pulled over to the side of the road. A few wooden huts rested in the dirt. A man and a women approached us. The man carried 3 ducks, their legs tied together. They swung upside-down beside his thigh as he sauntered over. The woman, she carried 3 chickens upside-down, they also with their legs all tied together. They threw them at our feet in the back of the tuk-tuk, and the woman got in, while the man walked back to the huts.

Oh, and all the birds were alive.

We laughed with fatigue. There was nothing else for it.

We made it to the river, having dropped off the woman and the birds along the way, caught a barge across, and then walked the 2km back to Champasak. By now we’d realised how short of money we were. If we wanted to eat the next day, we couldn’t really afford the tuk-tuk.

It was just after 4pm when we made it back.

After a BeerLao and some food (c’mon, there’s always money for BeerLao), I don’t believe I have ever slept so well.

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