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Published: August 4th 2012
Greetings from Laos, country number 70, and what a stunningly beautiful country to be writing from. Right now I am just slap bang in the lap of luxury, writing this one from the balcony of my stilted wooden bungalow overlooking the Nam Khang River, Mekong tributary, with nothing but the sound of birds and jungle insects, and the sight of the occasional local dugout canoe silently paddling by – tropical bliss! I believe the last one I wrote came from the middle of nowhere on an island in Halong Bay – this place is even further into the depths of rural wilderness, and off the tourist-beaten track – just perfect, and as Mr McDonald would say, I’m lovin’ it!
Since my last update I spent one more night in Hanoi, having taken to the city quite a bit to be honest, and also having moved to another top-floor room in the same hotel whose air-conditioner was actually working, which was a nice treat! But alas, Tuesday morning I said goodbye to Vietnam, although I almost didn’t… The small propeller-driven plane which was to take me and a handful of other travellers to Luang Prabang, in northern Laos,
had arrived the previous day en route from Siem Reap in Cambodia to Luang Prabang, and had to land in the Vietnamese capital instead due to bad weather in LP. The passengers were put up for the night in Hanoi, and had turned up the next morning to catch the same flight as me. After thinking the worst (either a delay in my journey, or a heckuva turbulent ride) we were fortunately only delayed half an hour due to the bad weather, which I was able to check online as thunderstorms for the whole week in northern Laos, and a slightly bumpy (but not nearly as bad as the Saigon landing…) hour later, touched down in this amazing country.
What a breath of fresh air – both literally, in that although still hot and humid up here, it feels more tropical mountainous weather rather than tropical coastal as in Vietnam. Laos is a mountainous country, which is still mostly jungle-clad and humid, but very mildly cool at night which is nice. And also figuratively, in that this country is just so laid back. Compared to the frenetic energy of Vietnam, in which the people really seem to be driving
the country at high speed into the 21st
century, Laos is at least two-gears more relaxed. There are motorbikes, but they don’t clog the street, and the people seem to be some of the most gentle and good-natured people I’ve ever met on my travels – smiles and greetings abound, all very heartfelt, and so far the scenery is just spectacular.
Ended up my first night in a beautifully converted French colonial villa on the banks of the fast-flowing Mekong River in the peninsular town of Luang Prabang, located at the confluence of the Mekong and one of its many tributaries, the afore-mentioned Nam Khang. Spent the rest of my first day and much of my second just wandering around the lovely town, albeit touristy, but very gentle and relaxing. Compared to Vietnam’s current 5 million tourists per year, Laos only gets 2.5 million, and that’s easy to notice (compared with Thailand’s 20 million, and of course looking very much forward to Burma’s less than one million…!). The town has some splendid temples and a former royal palace, being the former seat of Laotian monarchical power for 650 years until 1975, when the last King of Laos gave way
to the superior communist forces of the Pathet Lao, Marxist-influenced political party, and the country today being one of the last bastions of communism in the world. However, as with Vietnam, the country appears to have embraced a form of capitalist-driven socialism which attracts international business and tourism. While the country is certainly not rich by any means, being one of the poorest in Asia as a whole, the people seem happy and content, further consolidating my opinion that happiness comes not from economic wealth and prosperity, but rather good community and general satisfaction with one’s place in life – the Laotians seem to have this sorted.
So my trip around Luang Prabang included a visit to the former Royal Palace, a few temples including the Wat Xieng Thong, and a sweaty climb up the Phu Si hill in the centre of town for commanding views of the Mekong and surrounding mountains. This was finished off perfectly by a Laos beer at a very peaceful riverside terrace overlooking the Nam Khan.
My visit also included a 2-hour boat ride upstream to a Buddha-filled cave called Pak Ou, overlooking some splendid karst scenery, and meeting a fantastic Spanish fellow
Crazy Vietnamese Building Style
Traditional Hanoi planning law has it that tax is paid on the street width of a building, and thus the city ends up with these crazy, tall and long "tunnel houses"
solo traveller called Adrian. We got along really well, and on Wednesday evening took a tiny and rather scary paddle-boat ride across the fast waters of the Nam Khan after dusk for a delicious Laos fondue meal, and back again.
Thursday morning met up with Adrian again and hired a motorbike for the day, taking it in turns to drive 30km west of town and uphill to the splendid Tat Kuang Si series of waterfalls. The highest drop was a majestic 25m, but the best thing about it was a perfectly situated rope swing, in which you climb a perfectly situated tree jutting out into the waterfall pool, swing from a rope a few metres out, then drop a few more into the ice-cold emerald waters – delicious! (check the photos for these, they still tickle me some!).
But yesterday, made the (again) excellent decision of getting off the tourist-beaten track to stay at another eco-lodge in the wilderness, this one the afore-mentioned Mahout Eco-lodge, with just 3 other travellers last night sharing a total of 19 stilted bungalows on the banks of the river. Last night was just a dream, as is writing this right now listening
to the evocative Avatar soundtrack on my laptop with such a splendid view (check the photo of this too). Although this has been my first place so far without air conditioning, and originally thinking it was going to be a long sweaty night last night, I managed to borrow the industrial-strength fan from the canteen to sleep in fan-cooled luxury last night, along with a fluffy duvet and numerous pillows and cushions. Hoping no-one will notice the fan’s absence again tonight…!
And finally, this morning, a ride up the river to the eco-lodge’s very own elephant camp, and an hour’s ride on the back of one – wow! I have done elephant-riding a couple of times in India and Nepal, but here I had my very own elephant with its mahout (elephant driver), and we swapped places on the elephant’s head a couple of times as she climbed and descended through the luscious Laos jungle on a great trek. Great experience!
So, right now I’m looking forward to another very blissful afternoon and evening on the terrace of my stilted bungalow, and a couple more delicious meals at the eco-lodge’s restaurant. Tomorrow, my peace and quiet might just
end as I get an 8-hour “VIP” bus southwards to Vang Vieng, notoriously known as “South-east Asia’s party capital” and apparently full of alcohol- and drug-fuelled river shenanigans of hundreds of school-leaving first-time backpackers – sounds dreadful, but the place I’ve booked into is a couple of kilometres out of town, and I’m hoping not to have to be burdened with this sight of copious embarrassment (what must Laotians seriously think of westerners in a place like this…?). Anyway, I guess I mustn’t pre-judge till I get there, but I’m not expecting much to be honest – just a convenient stopover on the long route to Vientiane, the country’s capital.
So, it’s been a pleasure updating this one from Laos, and I hope the photos I’m about to upload do this amazing place the justice it deserves. I’m really having a great time!
Until the next time!
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