2017-04-04 11:45:03
Explorer: Along the Mekong River, a Timeless Place Where Time Marches On

Deep in the folds of the hill, up steep stone stairs flanked with frangipani trees, stood the inner sanctum of the ancient Khmer temple of Vat Phou.

We faced the mountain ridge, our backs to the waters of the Mekong River, looking for the chamber. From this angle, it was hidden. But other parts of the temple had begun revealing themselves to us. Down here, along the rutted stone path leading to the stairs, we watched as a construction crane lifted a block onto the wall of one of the outer chambers.

To our right, a few carvers chipped away at other blocks with small tools. Through their hands flowed the tales of Hindu mythology, the millenniums-old narratives of gods in love and war that had originated on the Indian subcontinent and traveled to distant Java and to Khmer temples across Cambodia and Laos. Now that transmission of stories and beliefs and ideas was continuing here, like the flow of the Mekong, in the shadow of one of the most beautiful of those temples.

Built more than 1,000 years ago at the high point of an axis stretching from a range of mountains down to the Mekong, Vat Phou is one of the most sacred temples of the vanished Khmer kingdoms. The Khmer ruled a wide swath of Southeast Asia from the ninth to the 15th centuries, and their dedication to art and architecture is best embodied in the famous temples of Angkor Wat in Cambodia. Lesser known and distinct from Angkor in its intimacy is Vat Phou, sometimes written in English as Wat Phu, which has been designated a World Heritage site by a United Nations agency.

To see the temple and this stretch of the Mekong, my wife, 3-year-old daughter and I based ourselves for three nights at a new riverside hotel outside the town of Champasak. This was the middle leg of a three-country whirlwind trip through Southeast Asia that we regarded as our farewell to the region.

I had been reporting in China for The New York Times for eight years, and we had plans to leave in the coming year. We had a special attachment to Southeast Asia — my wife, Tini, is Vietnamese American and worked for seven years for The Associated Press in Vietnam before moving to China. And while in China, as a couple and then a family, we had spent much of our vacation time exploring the region. For many foreigners and Chinese ground down by living in China’s polluted, crowded and clogged megacities, the beaches, rivers and hills of tropical Southeast Asia provided a much-needed escape hatch.

Neither Tini nor I had been to southern Laos before, so it made sense to choose it as the centerpiece of our final Southeast Asia vacation on this tour. Even if Laos was an authoritarian state, it was still the land of the Mekong, with palm trees lining the riverbanks, freshwater dolphins swimming between islets and fishermen casting nets over the side of skiffs. The pace of life was slower, much slower, than that of Beijing.

But it would have been wrong to think of the region as timeless. The restoration of Vat Phou that we witnessed belied notions of ancient ruins lost in eternal mists. And it was there, near the entrance to the temple complex, that we discovered we were not the only escapees from the rush of development in China. As we set foot that morning on the eastern end of the pathway leading up to the inner sanctum, we met a Chinese couple from Shanghai who were in the middle of a monthlong trip through Laos with their 6-year-old daughter.

Our daughter, Aria, instantly began following the older girl around. We told the family we were fleeing the notorious Beijing pollution.

“The situation is very bad in Shanghai, too,” the father said.

It was rare to see a Chinese family traveling alone in this corner of Southeast Asia, and I wondered whether they were a harbinger for a new wave of tourists. French travelers were ubiquitous here and had been so for more than a century, given France’s colonial history in so-called Indochina, but Chinese travelers were rare, even though China bordered Laos.

We had begun our two-week trip with a flight from Beijing to Chiang Mai in Thailand to visit friends there, then entered southern Laos with a plan to spend one week before meeting other friends on a beach in Vietnam. We crossed the Thai-Laos border near the Laotian town of Pakse. There, on a sleepy street (towns in Laos only have sleepy streets), we had lunch at Dok Mai, a restaurant run by an Italian, Corrado. He told us he had tried living and working in India, but that had been tough.

“Pakse chose me,” he said.

A young man sent from the River Resort then drove us the half-hour from Pakse to the hotel, built along the Mekong.

We found ourselves in the middle of nowhere, but that was the point. The River Resort consisted of two-story luxury buildings along the west bank of the Mekong, with a large room on each floor. There were two riverside swimming pools on the grounds. We had a balcony room overlooking the river. The entire wall and door facing the river was made of glass.

We could wake up in bed gazing across the waters to the sunrise. At sunset, a golden light bathed the river and trees and stones. It was one of the most stunning hotels in which we had stayed in Southeast Asia. We would have enjoyed spending an entire day just on the riverbank, but Khmer civilization beckoned us. In the mountains looming to our west, hidden by jungle, lay Vat Phou.

The next morning, we hired a taxi to drive us the 15 minutes to the temple. Along the range of hills, we could make out one peak that stood above the others. The builders of Vat Phou had noticed this and proclaimed it a natural lingam of Shiva.

A hotel employee, Taiy, told me of the importance of rituals at the temple. “I’ve been to Vat Phou four times,” he said. “My family goes once a year. Because I have to work, I usually don’t go. I don’t have much time, so I would only be able to go at night.”

“There’s a big festival once a year,” he said. “I remember there were many people. This year, there will be a big one, and maybe I’ll have to go.”

After we met the family from Shanghai, we walked between rows of trees and up the stone steps to the inner sanctum. Along the main walkway, we passed a seven-headed naga statue draped with yellow garlands. A bell rang somewhere.

Inside the inner temple, a Thai family made offerings to a statue of the Buddha. They had bought incense sticks from a woman outside the temple. They prayed with the lit sticks. Sweet smoke drifted through the temple.

On our walk, Aria had picked up a white frangipani flower, and now she placed it on a wooden table, atop dried candle wax. It was her offering.

Around the sanctum were lintels carved with ornate scenes from Hindu mythology. One showed the god Indra atop a three-headed elephant. Another depicted deities taking part in the churning of the Ocean of Milk, an image that I had also seen a decade earlier at Angkor. Then there was the scene of Krishna tearing his uncle Kamsa in half.

Outside, more worshipers were arriving. We walked along the slope of the mountain behind the temple. On the site were the ruins of a small library, a sacred spring and a cave shrine. At a cistern, Laotians anointed themselves with water that flowed from mountain springs.

The Shanghainese girl told us to follow her, and she showed us a crocodile-shaped rock that our guidebook said might have been used for human sacrifices before the age of Angkor.

It was the wider natural surroundings that cast a spell on us. Atop the hill, staring down the axis and toward the Mekong to the east, I could see the many frangipani flowers below, bursts of white on the brown landscape. The temple commanded the scene, as its cousins at Angkor did in the Cambodian jungles.

After we walked down the stairs, four women holding umbrellas approached us. They went straight up to Aria and said “sabaidee,” or hello. She said it back, pronouncing the syllables carefully even if she did not know what the word meant.

The next morning, we arranged with our hotel to take a boat over to the island of Don Daeng, in the middle of the Mekong.

We had brought bicycles with us, and I strapped Aria to my back with a baby sling. A herd of water buffalo wandered languidly down the sandy beach to drink at the river.

We biked along dirt paths to villages. There were five main ones on the island, with a total population of 3,000. Locals walked from one to another or sat on the rear of trundling tractors. Outside their homes, women fried up rice cakes in pans.

At lunchtime, we stopped at La Folie, a French-run colonial-style lodge. While our hotel was all modernist glass and concrete, La Folie had polished wooden panels on the floors and walls. It overlooked the river and faced the spine of mountains to the west. We could see Vat Phou in the hills.

Top, a smiling 29-year-old man from Pakse, was working in the dining room. He had just started there one month earlier. When he found out I was from the United States, he asked about the Ultra Music Festival in Miami — Had I heard of it? Had I been there? I shook my head. “I really want to go,” he said. “My favorite D.J.s from around the world go there.”

He said that was his goal, to be a D.J., and that there were two bars in Pakse where D.J.s played.

Timeless Asia, indeed.

That evening, we took a sunset boat ride on the Mekong with a Dutch couple. Over canapés and bottles of Beer Laos, we spoke with Kanh, a 25-year-old hotel worker accompanying us. He had begun working at River Resort three months earlier.

He was from Pakse, he said, the son of a Vietnamese mother and a father who was Laotian and Chinese. While his mother had been born here, her parents were from Hue, the old imperial capital in central Vietnam. They had fled the fall of South Vietnam to Communist forces in 1975, only to eventually settle in another Communist country.

“He’s the original mixed Southeast Asian,” Tini said with a laugh. Her ancestors, too, were from Hue, and she and her family had also fled Vietnam in 1975. They ended up deep in the American South. So went the vagaries of history.

The next morning, we took a ferry across the river, followed by a bus to a river port to the south, where we hopped on a wooden boat crammed with backpackers for a ride to what is known as the Four Thousand Islands area, or Si Phan Don, on the border with Cambodia. This stretch of the Mekong was filled with small islets and rocks. Waterfalls abounded. It was here that French colonists were unable to navigate ships up the Mekong to southwest China without building a small railroad across Don Khon and Don Det.

We stayed for a couple of nights on the northern side of Don Khon. We got a riverside room at Sengahloune Villa, a more rustic place than the River Resort. The narrow waterways, wooden skiffs and palm trees swaying among the islands reminded me of the backwaters of Kerala in southern India and the Mekong Delta in Vietnam, where the Mekong emptied into the South China Sea.

We spent our days biking around the island and watching the sunset from the old French railroad bridge next to our hotel.

One afternoon, we hired a small boat off the southern tip of Don Khon, near the old railway tracks, to see the area’s famous freshwater dolphins. As we strained from our boat to catch a glimpse of the dolphins, we saw a group of monks in saffron robes sitting in a skiff. They had come over from Cambodia. Their boat flew the Cambodian flag, with an image of the main temple at Angkor Wat.

They sat there with umbrellas to shield themselves from the sun and pointed whenever the head or back of a dolphin poked above the water for a few seconds. The river flowed onward, passing around their boat and continuing for hundreds of miles to the ocean far away.