Published: October 20th 2011October 3rd 2011
Laos is a beautiful country. Fertile, flooded landscapes set against a backdrop of misty mountains, raging waterfalls, caves full of Buddha statues and winding roads past weathered limestone cliffs are natural treasures waiting to be discovered. Laos' location on the edge of the tropics has resulted in a rich biodiversity that changes as you travel northwards through the country. The south of the country is hemmed in by a wall of mountains on one side and the mighty Mekong on the other, which have naturally created the Viet and Thai borders.
Laos has comparably good roads by South-East Asian standards and it's easy to get from one town to another...although it's never as quick as you would imagine/hope! The Laos philosophy seems to be 'we'll get there when we get there' and there's nothing you can do to change that! As a nation they are very laid back and the word 'rush' is just not in their vocabulary.
In terms of development, this country is trying hard to catch up with the other nations of Indochina. Electricity pylons are scattered across the fields like praying mantises bestowing power to even the most remote villages. Everyone has a mobile, most houses have
cable TV, the Internet is becoming more and more widespread and, unlike most of Cambodia, hot water is common without having to pay a premium for it. But there is still something rustic and undeveloped that makes Laos stand apart from those other nations.
The remnants of French colonisation are prevalent in all towns in Laos. You can see buildings, often abandoned and run down, that wouldn't look out of place 'dans une petit ville'. Staples of French cuisine; steaks, cordon bleu and the obligatory baguette, are easy to find, although not always as cheap as local Laos cuisine. Laap, the national dish, is a salad of fiery chili, fresh mint and fried rice mixed with whichever meat is available and is really flavoursome. It's generally served with sticky rice, a Laos specialty, and to eat it properly requires a mastering equivalent to the Indians eating curry with their hands. This involves moulding it in your hands until malleable and then dipping it in your food without spilling a morsel. Not easy.
We arrived in the capital, Vientiane, after another epic bus journey, not our last in Laos by any means. A bustling place, quite different to the
sleepy towns we've stayed in so far in Laos. There is a lot of history here and most of it is of the kind that you don't have to pay 20,000kip to see. The streets are laid out in a systematic grid, and often more like avenues lined with French-style houses, coffee shops and commanding, overhanging trees. All the road names begin with 'Rue' just to emphasise the French's impact on the Lao culture. Vientiane is more a place you 'feel' than a place you 'see'.
We spent a few days here just relaxing and recharging before we got on an overnight 'VIP' bus to Phonsavan up in the Annamite mountains, to visit the mysterious Plain of Jars. This is just beautiful countryside to behold, and well worth the torturous bone-shaker bus ride.
We organised a tour with Mr Kong through our guesthouse to visit several worthwhile sites around the area, including bomb craters left over from the unforgivable war that the USA brought to Laos, for no good reason. The 'secret war' is one of the world's true unspoken atrocities that even to this day the US government won't admit to, let alone apologise for. They razed whole, innocent
provinces to the ground with napalm and cluster bombs, 30% of which are still embedded in farmland, forests, rivers and trees. All unexploded, all ready to maim and kill an unsuspecting villager. NGO's and governments from across the world (apart from the USA of course) are working to rid areas of 'bombies' that would be most useful to local people for farming or fishing, but at the current rate it will take hundreds of years to rid Laos of this loitering menace. I don't normally try and influence you, lovely readers, but please have a read of the website of MAG, the main group helping Laos, and others, to change it's future and fortune. http://www.maginternational.org/laopdr
Our next and final destination in Laos is Luang Prabang, and to get there we had to get another 8 hour local bus. But this time was different. This bus ride needs to be ridden by everyone. I cannot emphasise enough how stunning the landscapes that we were driving through were. Twisting, weaving, narrow roads, passing through villages above the treetops. Each bend releasing a new endless vista of green peaks with coffee plantations on their slopes and rivers carving out the valleys below.
The bluest sky, the freshest air, a real feast of Eden.
Best bus ride ever.
Arriving in Luang Prabang, I didn't really know what I was expecting. No real preconceptions apart from there would be quite a lot of tourists here (It's a Unesco World Heritage Site). But after just one day of walking around the peninsula that the town sits upon, I could see why. It's a beautiful place, with untouched Sino-French buildings never above two storeys. Golden-roofed wats are scattered amongst the houses, still in full use by Laotian monks, dressed in bright orange robes and not a hair on their heads. We took many a peaceful walk alongside both rivers that encircle the town, dotted with coffee shops and terraced restaurants, and shaded by palm trees the whole length.
One one such morning of sunshine and peacefulness, we jumped in a jeep and headed 30km out of town for a ride on elephants!!! It was such an awesome experience, wading through the pools of the nearby Tad Sae waterfall. Our wise old elephant seemed in a bit of a 'not today' mood, blowing his trumpet in disgust at having to take these falangs
on it's back, the
mahout trainer had to earn his money to keep us on track! We also got to feed them their favourite snack, bananas. Their trunks are so powerful nearly taking Rhian's hand with the banana! We also got to spend a while swimming in the waterfall (not the same part as the elephants had been in...) which was extremely cold but I had great fun throwing myself off a tyre swing with the local guides!
It is festival season in Luang Prabang around the October full moon, signifiying the retreat of the rains. On the day before, we crossed the river with a local guy who'd invited us along to watch the dragon boat racing along the Mekong River. Contested by 20 or so teams, all competing for ultimate bragging rights for the next 12 months. The atmosphere was amazing on the banks of the river and in the makeshift bars setup, full of locals consuming BeerLao and dancing the evening away. We may have had a few beers with them....
The main part of the festival were the 'fire boats'. Temples and schools in the area all build and decorate 30ft wood and paper boats and line them with
candles (or BeerLao bottles with parrafin inside). They then parade them, after dark, along the 2km main street, all the way down to the largest temple in Luang Prabang, Wat Xieng Thong; the people dancing to the soundtrack of singing, drums, cymbals and chanting. Once at the temple the boats line up and people set off fireworks, bangers, chinese lanterns and the noise just escalates to a symphony of fun. Then everyone goes down to the riverside with small candle reefs and lets them float off on the water, creating a chandelier on the Mekong. It was a magical experience to be a part of, truly spectacular!
Laos might just be in contention with India for my favourite place so far...