You probably would not go to Champasak if it was not for Wat Phu but the town – more a village – has a subtle charm that will hold you for a couple of days.

It is, much of it, rotting away: the French legacy of pre-1940 houses, with their once-fashionable decorations that can be seen all over French Indochina, fading and cracking, green mould and brown stains.

Between them on the long main street are wooden buildings, tortured out of shape, shattered, rotting but still there, still home to the people, still a backdrop to the water buffalo parked in the flooded monsoon ditches outside.

Off the main road, the homes are more recent, in good repair, and even in the main street there are some newer buildings, including guest houses and rooms for travellers.

The secondary school, on a parallel unmade road between the main street and the stretching agricultural land, is square and functional but the children are bright and eager, well-dressed, and with a smile and a wave for passing falangs.

Their younger brothers and sisters go to the infants and junior classes in the grounds of the biggest and best kept wat – Wat Thong, once used by the Lao royalty and still containing the ashes of a king, princesses and princes.

Just out of the town, the tiny homes of people who live on fishing in the Mekong and its tributaries, stand neatly against the sky and the unseen drop of 40ft into the river.

But perhaps the strangest and most beautiful place to see is an old, poor wat at the Wat Phu end of Champasak: there, more than anywhere, the beautiful colours of the living death of fading glories and new natural growth grips the senses.

You can walk the length of Champasak but it is more fun hiring the clapped-out old motorcycle and sidecar that plies for hire; and the tuk-tuks will take you anywhere. One nearly took us to our death (see On The Road: Champasak).

And there are plenty of reasonable places to stay, though only one good eating place was open when we were there in the early storms of the May 2001 monsoon season. It is near the fountain at the entrance to the town, a little open shack of a place on the right by the T-junction. They can rustle up an English speaker and a very good meal, including a few vegetarian options.

A thousand years ago, according to academics, Champasak was a kilometre wide and two kilometres long, on a site a few miles away from its present location.

It was a thriving, bustling nerve centre of the Khmer empire, a place of intellectual and religious fever in an optimistic culture.

It's not like that today. But the people are friendly and interesting, and the place is great for a couple of days. You can hire bikes, take river trips to nearby places, explore the temples, watch the fishing and the work in the rice paddies.

And it is very handy for a visit or two to Wat Phu.


Get to Champasak by bus or river from Pakse; bus links to Si Phan Don See, also, On The Road: Champasak


On The Road: Champasak

Wat Phu

Si Phan Don

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