The River Less Traveled

Imagine a world where you are not using GPS. Now imagine a straight road. We are about to get lost on it.

The plan for my ever loyal travel companion Stefanie and me was to visit Unesco World Heritage Site Vat Phou Champasak that morning. We had grabbed a map from the hotel’s brochure stand and hopped across the street to have breakfast at the Indian restaurant. And while a hearty dhal isn’t my primary choice of breakfast food, I find it hard to say no to a good Mango Lassi.

Morning in Pakse – don’t mind the clouds.

“It’s just driving straight” said Stefanie after giving the map a look.

I sat back in my cheap plastic chair and let the sun shine on my face. Even this early in the morning it was already sticky and hot, and I was eyeing the back of the restaurant for signs of my Lassi. I needed something cool.

“We drive over the bridge, head South for about an hour and we should be right there.”

I leaned on the table and looked at the route she was pointing out. Yepp, it was that simple. Take the bridge, drive South, visit temple.

“Okidoki” I said.

I felt confident in my recently asian-ized moto driving skills. After the crazy narrow market we accidentally drove through on Phu Quoc and several tours that involved trying not to fall over in the mud this would be a breeze. Lassi time.

Moto skillz
Moto skillz – very much needed in South East Asia.

An hour later we were on the No. 38 road. As the capital of Laos’s southern province Champasak and second largest city in the country, Pakse is framed by two rivers: the smaller Xe Don in the North and West, and the large and famous Mekong in the South. We were following the Mekong.

The road was surprisingly wide and well maintained. In the usual division of labor, I was driving, concentrating on not getting us killed and finding the right turn we needed to take on to the bridge. Stefanie’s job was to find landmarks and navigate, and occasionally tap my shoulder in panic when I was getting too close to another car or moto.

Neither of us spotted a bridge.

A tap on my shoulder.

“Should we ask for directions?” Stefanie yelled in my ear, her voice only slightly muffled by the cotton masks that we were wearing against the dust and dirt.

I nodded and started looking for a sensible place to expose ourselves as clueless tourists. Another tap and a point showed me the tiny shop/gas station up ahead. Stefanie jumped off the bike and waved the map at the young men lounging in front of the house.

“Vat Phou?” she asked.

Lots of nods all around, a general waving of hands in the direction that we were already traveling. Oh, that was easy.

We nodded a quick thanks and were off again, confirmed that we were not entirely oblivious to the geography around us.

We continued.

And continued.

Still no bridge.

“Aaaaah!” came the sound of realization from behind me.

“What?” I yelled into the wind.

“We must have missed the bridge. But there is an alternative route, we just cross the river further down.”

Yeah, okay, that made sense. Or at least it did for the next 20 minutes. Then the road ended.

I slowed down. We were driving into a small village. The people working outside looked up at the sound of our engine. Every head turned in curiosity and delight to see foreigners so far outside the big city. Everyone waved, so happy and cheerful!

“Vat Phou?” I asked with my voice raised, competing for volume with the noise of the moto.

The laughing continued, joined by nodding. The waving changed direction, pointing off the road and down a very steep sand dune, about 100m long.

“Where?” I asked confused. I looked to the side again. The only thing past the sand was the river. The very wide river. But still no bridge.

Okay, _how_ do we cross exactly?
Okay, how do we cross exactly?

The waving intensified. So did the laughing. We were pretty hilarious.

“Err, Stefanie… do you mind running down there and checking what he’s pointing at? If I drive down that sand dune, there is no guarantee we’ll ever make it back up again.”

Apparently she had come to the same conclusion and started making her way down to the water. I sat on the moto, studying the village and wiping dust off my face. The guy in front of me was having the time of his life. I was pretty sure that I was not the first tourist to park confused in front of his house. I did spot a sign saying “Vat Phou” though. The smallest marking in road signage history, for sure, but it also pointed towards the river. At least we were on the right track. Somehow.

Some shouting of my name from below and more waving, this time from Stefanie. Okay then, I guess I’m driving down the dune.

With much wobbling and no throttle I walk-slid the bike down to the river bank where I was greeted by another happy villager.

“We’re taking a ferry” declared Stefanie and nodded towards the man who was stood near a floating wooden platform roughly the area of a king-sized bed. Only the two narrow constructions underneath it defined it as some sort of boat. A plank made up of two boards, half submerged in water, was connecting it to the beach. It did not look trustworthy.

The skipper signed impatiently for me to bring the bike up on the raft.

I gave the arrangement another look and then signed back: “I’m so gonna drop that bike in the water, you do it.”

He took the bike and with the certainty of a thousand transports pulled it up on the deck.

A truly alternative river crossing in Laos.
Yeah… no. I would have dropped the bike in the water…

And so we crossed the Mekong on a wooden raft. One kilometer of water way, trees lining either side of the river banks, and mountains reaching into the clouds in front of us. The sun was beaming down on the water and the headwind was in our faces – as well as our arms and legs, because there was no railing or any other sort of safety installation to keep us from falling into the water. But we just held on to the motorbike and enjoyed the view and listened to the giggling of the handful of school children that had also crammed on the float with us, very excited to encounter such incredibly tall people. We waved at a slightly larger wooden float that was crossing the river the opposite direction and that somehow had managed to fit a car on top of it.

We found the Khmer temple 15 minutes after walk-sliding the moto up the opposing sand dune. It was a temple worthy of the trip, with a heatstroke-inducing ascend and a grandiose view over the ruins and the area we had just ventured through.

Worth the trip! View from the staircase into the valley.

It was my most memorable travel experience to date.

Nevertheless, we took the straight road on the way back.

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