Of course it was raining.
We seem to have a knack for visiting major sights only when it’s a downpour. (See Machu Picchu and Torres del Paine.) But on we went. It’s rainy season, after all, and the best we could ask for was for the rain to stop just as we arrive at the temples.
We were biking 10 km from our guesthouse in Champasak, a town that’s more like a village in southern Laos, to Wat Phu Champasak, a three-tier religious complex that was originally Hindu before it was converted into a Buddhist worship site.
After a few days in Pakse, relaxing at the very much palatial Champasak Palace Hotel, we headed by songthaew — like a big rickshaw with benches in the back — to Champasak. We didn’t have accommodation set, but decided to choose between Anouxa, a simple, authentic and well-reviewed guesthouse and a cushy, modern new hotel upon arrival. (OK, sue us if we don’t love rough living anymore.) When the driver of the songthaew turned out to be Anouxa’s owner, we took it as a sign.
And as it turns out, we loved his place so much that we changed our one-night stay to three and nixed plans to go to Si Phan Don, or Four Thousand Islands, further south. (A wise decision, according to a French traveler we met, who said Si Phan Don was a bit dirty, less charming and not as relaxing.) Anouxa is set by the Mekong River, with spotlessly clean, often spacious rooms, air-con and TV in some, and a sleepy riverside restaurant that was a prime example of mellow Laos. His staff and family were always smiling and so sweet, and their dogs were a riot. I fell in love with one in particular, who was nursing some serious wounds after he was hit by a car.
Happy to be without TV and WiFi, we spent our days sitting on our porch (unfortunately the hammocks were littered with red ants), fishing in the river (no loot) and cycling around the village. Food was generally so-so; Anouxa did serve amazing pho, but the second time I ordered it, it was filled with dead ants. You win some, you lose some.
Here in Champasak were some of the friendliest people we have so far encountered in Laos. Men, women, kids — all shouting “Sabaidee!” with a huge grin on their faces. It was the tranquility we had been searching for in Asia.
But back to the rainy ride. We gave in and bought some garish polka dot ponchos before plodding onto the site. I thought about turning back, but I’m so glad we didn’t; it made the reward that much sweeter.
When we arrived, we did our best to ignore the loud Thai tourists and the music blaring from their VIP tour bus. It was just us and our cameras — in our minds anyway.
Wat Phu is magical. It felt a bit like Machu Picchu, cascading up the mountain, which on that morning, was grey and misty, making for an even more romantic visit. It’s incredibly serene, thanks in part to landscape but perhaps more to the fact that it’s still under the radar. Go as soon as you can; this place will be big.
If we could go back in time, we probably would’ve spent the whole day there, bringing along a lunch and eating it hillside. But we had spa appointments awaiting us.
Yes, there’s a fantastic spa right next to Anouxa run by a French expat, Natalie, who has lived in Laos for four years. She started the project out of her love for spas and as a way to give local work opportunities to Champasak women, who would otherwise have to leave for Thailand.
Champasak Spa, as the Lonely Planet guide says, is as much worth a visit as Wat Phu. The whole operation is admirable. Natalie constantly referred to her and her staff as a team; you could tell she truly wants them to succeed.
Goodwill aside, this is a professional, tropical resort-style spa at dirt-cheap prices with all organic ingredients sourced from Champasak. Eaman treated us to a five-hour spa day with a facial, coconut oil scalp treatment, body scrub (much needed for us travelers!) and coconut oil massage with tea and snack breaks in their beautiful garden. Grand total? $55. We even walked away with a parting gift: a local Lao soap bar made in Vientiene. It was a surreal experience.
After our massage, Natalie took the time to tell us about her journey to Laos and all the struggles she faced in opening a spa in a Third World country. She taught us a lot about just going for what we love, no matter how hard or how impossible it may seem. It’ll be interesting to look back on this year and pick out the life-changing moments. This may have been one of them.
It was hard leaving Champasak. We really connected with its people and pace of life. Laos has been amazing, but I think we will always feel a little different, a little more emotional about this tiny on-the-surface-nothing little place.