Which Wat? Where?

My list of must visit travel destinations is – as you might expect – long and detailed, however there are a number of clear similarities between the destinations that I long to roam. If I were to complete a detailed assessment of my plans we would probably find that they fall in to four categories. My interests are, of course, shaped by both geographical constraints (Australia, particularly Perth is a long way from pretty much anywhere) and my interests, which form the basis of my travel urges. When ranking travel experiences in order of importance I like to consider Landscapes, architecture, Culture and opportunities for adventure.


The opportunity to view a Western Australian sunset, or a Pacific sunrise over sea, or any number of other photographic vistas often factors into my planning of a trip and I have found on a number of occasions that I seek these out from very early in the planning of any trip. Cultural experiences are also an area that helps to isolate me from the crowded thought processes that are a part of my normal life and I relish that feeling of insecurity that goes with being thrown into a situation where my usual social and language skills are sub-par.  Adventure is a significant driving force, particularly for shorter trips where I can saturate my synapses with adrenaline. While all of these obviously work together to create an ultimate trip, it always seems to be architecture that underpins my initial decision to travel.

I’m not talking about modern architecture for the most part (although Dubai is a notable exception), but the architectural footprint left, and collected by various ancient and enduring cultures. The sociocultural identity of many of the places I visit are often tied inexorably (at least on a global awareness scale) to the monuments for which that locale is renowned. There are many examples of monument travel as I’m suddenly deciding to label it, such as Egypt which was really about Karnak and the Nile for me at first (although it rapidly became more about felucca sailing, Sinai, Sahara and Philae Temple – more on that in a future post). Similarly, Cambodia has always been a journey centred around the Angkor complex, where all other experiences – at least in the planning – would be either on the way to or on the return from that overall goal.

In Laos, however, my perception changed less than a day into my journey. This may have been helped by the fact that I had a far less defined thematic goal for the trip which was largely because the travel was planned with my partner and in the hopes of having an ultimately flexible trip where we planned on the run (https://einsteinsbarbershop.wordpress.com/2015/03/21/how-travel-is-supposed-to-be/). The moment that threw my future trip to Cambodia into turmoil was visiting Vat Phou (Wat Phu), a Khmer temple in the south of the country, about two hour’s rickshaw ride from Pakse.


Escaping the Toyota centre of Laos (we saw no less than three brand new, or under construction Toyota dealerships and almost 60% of the vehicles on the road were late model Hiluxes or Hiaces) we enjoyed a bumpy, yet scenic drive through the rural country one might expect in a country landlocked by Vietnam, Thailand, China and Cambodia. While the trip was slightly longer than expected, I found the trip itself both relaxing and enlightening, which was a welcome change from the impatience that overland trips engendered in my twenties. Each scrawny dog and basic farming hut was a window into Laos culture and life in a place that could not have been further from my experiences in middle class Australia. This is not some transformative story about a change in the way I view the world, it was simply an enjoyable and more importantly, relaxing trip into the countryside.


My partner, having visited Angkor Wat before was able to explain the difference to me. Wat Phu is much smaller and, in areas, less complete. The temple structure makes up the bulk of the ruins and the surrounding structures are either lost or absent. The draw of Wat Phu, however, is the fact that the grounds wind up the nearby mountain. Wandering through the remains of what was clearly a significant site for the Khmer was every bit as sobering as it would have been in Cambodia, or anywhere else and the isolation of the site coupled with the lack of other tourists (we arrived around 3pm and had the place virtually to ourselves) made the experience more special. We spent the greater part of two hours wandering around the site and investigating grottos and vantage points and we would have been content to remain for some time longer had we not been aware of the trip back to Pakse.




Despite this, we had seen almost all there was to see at the site, which is not something that could be achieved in the same amount of time at Angkor. On our drive back to Pakse I once again enjoyed the scenery and did not think any more of this experience (which would have been far more fitting an end for a travel story), but thinking back on the day now, it was this trip that was the catalyst to the shift in the way I perceived the planning for future trips. The planning for our upcoming trips, including my impending trip to Tasmania has changed in two main ways. Firstly, there is a lot less to do now that we are confident in making the itinerary up as we go, and perhaps more importantly, I’ve (at least partially) let go of the need to structure my trips around a particular theme because you can safely bet that you will be more likely to find an unexpected highlight when your eyes are not fixed on a preconceived goal.


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