Our trusted Lonely Planet guidebook told us that the bus from Pakse to Champasak departed at noon. We wanted to be sure to have seats, so we flagged down a tuk-tuk a bit early and arrived at the Pakse Southern bus station by 11:30.
The odd thing about the bus station was the troubling fact that we didn't see any busses there. The "station" is a large dirt field populated with vendors, a bunch of trucks, and a few permanent buildings. It really looks more like a market than a bus station. Our driver dropped us off next to a sawngthaew (a pickup truck with rows of seats lining the truck bed and a roof over the bed to protect passangers from rain and sun) and indicated that this was our ride to Champasak. We were told that it would leave at in about 1 hour. Two things didn't seem right about this: 1) A pickup truck is not a bus. We aren't picky, and will pretty much ride in anything these days, but we didn't want to be taken to the wrong place, or pay a "tourist premium". 2) Although the bus wouldn't be leaving for an hour, there were about 10 people already seated in the back. We couldn't figure out why they would be there so early. We decided to be safe and double-check.
Gregg found the information desk at the station, and was pointed right back to our sawngthaew when he asked about transport to Champasak. During the walk, he did see 2 or 3 busses, but most of the vehicles around the station were converted trucks like ours. We loaded our bags on the roof of our "bus" and Gregg sat down to reserve seats. Carrie set out for food and came back with fresh spring rolls and meat sandwiches made from baguettes. While Carrie was out, Gregg tried to make friends with our fellow passangers. It didn't take long to discover that Gregg's Lao (all three words of it) was more comprehensive than their English. The guidebook has phrases written out in Lao, but the older women sitting near Gregg didn't know how to read the Lao language either. Finally, Gregg got out the small photo album we brought from home and shared pictures of our friends and family. That seemed to warm up the group.
While we were waiting to depart, vendors continually came by and offered to sell us anything from kitchen knives to baby toys. We bought a bag of candy and passed it out to our fellow riders. People took handfulls and there didn't end up being enough to go around. We wondered if the same thing would happen at home.
Our "bus" left close to 12:30, and after a brief stop for gas (always the first stop on any trip here), we were on our way. Two hours later, we arrived at a ferry to take us across the Mekong. Our vehicle, as well as four or five others, drove onto a small platform spanning across two hulls. Women selling soup, crickets, and other foods boarded along with us and did a brisk business during the short crossing. 15 minutes later, we arrived in Champasak.
After checking in to our guesthouse, we set out to explore the town. We quickly learned that there just wasn't that much to explore. A total of 12,000 people live in the area. There are a handful of restaurants and guesthouses, but not a lot else to see or do. Everything seemed to operate at a slower pace here. There really is no hurry. We relaxed, read, and napped for most of the afternoon.
We did see one exciting thing in town. While we were walking down the main drag, two guys on a moped passed us. The guy in the back held an elevated IV bag. We weren't sure if it was for him or the driver.
The next morning, we rented bikes (about $1/day) and pedaled about 10 Km out to the ruins of Wat Phu Champasak. The first temples were constructed on this site somewhere between the 6th and 8th centuries. Later, more elaborate structures were constructed under the Khmer Angkor empire in the 9th to 13th centuries. The site is situated on three levels assending the side of a mountain. At the top level there is a freshwater spring that emerges from the rocks. The views are breathtaking.
The temples of Angkor Wat in Cambodia are linked to Wat Phu Champasak by an ancient road between the two. The architecture is similar, but the mountain setting of Wat Phu Champasak makes it a unique site well worth visiting. While Angkor Wat had bussloads of tourists, there were only a few people here. After a few hours in the 105+ degree heat, we biked back to town.
Later that evening, we settled down to dinner and were joined by travelers we had first seen in Pakse, then out at the ruins earlier in the day. There were about 10 tourists in town, do it didn't take long to start recognizing people. Tom and Tatiana introduced themselves and we had a nice evening getting to know each other. We all planned to head south the next morning, so before we said good night, we finalized plans for the next leg of our journey together.