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Published: November 30th 2007
Our next station in the Southeast Asian cherry-picking tour brought us directly from Siem Reap to Luang Prabang in Laos. You think that Laos is remote and that few travelers would spend their dollars in this obscure country? Forget it... it is almost as packed with tourists as every corner of Southeast Asia! There are less tourists than in Thailand and because Laos is landlocked you won't find the beach tourists here but sometimes we wish these governments would never had softened visa regulations... this would vastly reduce tourism! Nevertheless, don't believe we are not enjoying our trip or that we would not encourage you this visit this part of the world... just be prepared to bump into your neighbour! ;-)
The town of Luang Prabang is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site (by the way did you count how many of these we have visited so far?). The historic part of the town is beautifully set between the mystic Mekong and smaller Nam Khan river building a small peninsula. Hence, water is never very far and one thing we observed during the last weeks is that the people in this corner of the world organize very much of
their live around the water of the surrounding rivers. The town is very pleasant and peppered with magnificent temples. In order to activate other mussels than those used to walk we went biking for one day in the forest where we met with an elephant baby and took a bath in cool waterfalls. After a traditional Lao massage and a visit of the educative Royal Palace Museum it was time to leave...
We made a beautiful boat-trip from Luang Prabang to Nong Khiaw 8 hours upstream on the Mekong and Nam Ou river. It was definitely an unforgettable ride and most probably the best transport we had during the whole trip. It was a slow-boat with only five passengers, not overcrowded like other trips in the region - we were lucky. Actually it would have been faster (3 hours) and cheaper in minibus but the tranquil rhythm of the slow boat allowed us to take the time to appreciate the beautiful landscape and observe the many activities of people living next to the water. We passed tons of small villages and couldn't stop waving back to the smiling and waving kids.
Nong Khiaw is small village on the
Nam Ou river surrounded by limestone mountains. A very peaceful stop. On our exploration tour we bumped into a wedding and were promptly invited to take seat and many glasses... it was just noon and the lao-lao (local rice whisky) was really strong! The simplicity of the people and the welcoming of strangers to such a party was a great experience. Later that day we went to explore a cave that we never reached... some kids intercepted us and showed us the way to another small cave way up the hill. We knew that they will ask us for some kips and they deserved it!
Two bus rides and many bumps and hills further lies Luang Namtha. We didn't actually see the village at daylight, but it is not really known for its beauty but for its trekking possibilities. We made a two-day trek with the provincial tourism organization and were mostly satisfied. The Luang Namtha province was the first province with an Eco-tourism project with community based tours where profits go back to the hill-tribes. This was especially important for us knowing that these treks are focused on hill-tribes. There are about a dozen of different hill-tribes in
Laos and Northern Thailand each one with a different language and customs. During our trek we visited Khamu and Lanten villages. These encounters are very unique and make only sense (if at all) with a knowledgeable guide (we can't complain). To describe our encounters with Khamu and Lanten people in words would be to difficult but it was for sure overwhelming. Laos is the poorest country in Southeast Asia and the conditions of most of these minorities are the worst in the country. But what made us feel more uncomfortable was the permanent feeling that our group was disturbing their privacy. That's why we still have much mixed feelings with regard to hikes to hill-tribes. Their traditional way of life and culture is very rich and interesting and it would have been tempting to do more treks and visit other tribes. However, we believe that even if tourism has without doubts increased the economical situation of many of these villages too much tourism has negative impacts on these tribes. Especially in Thailand there are many for-profit-only-oriented operators that do not treat the tribes with enough respect (notably concerning the Karen "long-neck" tribes). So one hike and two tribes was enough
A quick bus ride on a brand-new road that connects China and Thailand (through Laos) brought us back to the Mekong river. This (trade) road was heavily financed by China and Thailand and is of Western standard. It is a bit bizarre to sit in a flying bus while outside quite Lao life is going on! A boat-hop and we were again on Thai ground. It's a pity that the time left on our trip didn't allow us to discover more of this interesting, not overdeveloped and easygoing country...
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