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Published: September 27th 2017
Welcome to Laos...
Rice fields and mountains go leor!
As the crow flies our journey into Laos's Luang Prabang was a mere 220 km however thanks to the Luang Prabang Mountain Range, it was in fact closer to 500 km. With the never ending twists and turns as well as the frequent potholes an incident was inevitable. At 3:30am we woke with a jolt as the bus clipped off one of the concrete barriers by the mountain's edge! Luckily the damage was limited to a warped wheel and a punctured tyre, and on we ploughed.
A UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1995, Luang Prabang is nestled between the lush green mountains at the meeting point of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers. The French influence has been retained from the colonial period and is clear to be seen with the architecture on the streets and the fresh baguettes and croissants in the cafés!
The town is very religious with a large number of temples and Buddhist monks. One of the highlights of our stay was the "Alms giving ceremony" that takes place every day at sunrise. We awoke early one morning to observe the ceremony which involves hundreds of monks walking in procession around the town to collect
food donated by locals for their single meal of the day.
There are many hikes that can be booked in Luang Prabang, however we decided to follow our noses instead. We crossed the Mekong River by local taxi boat with the locals and enjoyed a solitary hike around the Chomphet area. The temples and the village weren't as affluent here and served to remind us that despite the tourism and consequent economic bubble that exists in Luang Prabang, the reality for many other Lao people isn't as fortunate.
Hopping on a scooter (not pink this time!) we also visited the nearby Kuang Si Waterfall. Having googled the falls before we visited, we were convinced that the photos of turquoise blue water were the result of photo shop but the falls were picture perfect in real life too.
Having being spoilt for the past few months with the standard of English spoken by the locals we met along the way, Luang Prabang and Laos in general proved a little more difficult. Breakfasts were a constant struggle for poor Mau as she tried to communicate that she wanted her fried eggs soft. She didn't help matters by shaking a
bottle of soy sauce one day whilst trying to explain soft. Or banging a wall with her fist whilst shaking her head another day to illustrate "not hard". The poor locals didn't know what to make of her and alas the eggs always arrived hard.
Our next base in Laos was the riverside town of Vang Vieng. The constant hairpin bends taken at speed by our bus driver nearly finished off poor Donal, and he was glad of the travel sickness tablets donated by other fellow travellers to make the 6 hour journey bearable!
The town is set against a backdrop of beautiful limestone mountains. A dream for avid hikers like ourselves. The hike up to the view point on one of the mountains (Pha Ngeun) was grueling. With a very steep climb up the last 100 meters or so, there were mutterings along the lines of "...if the Mammy's only knew..."! The views from the top were simply incredible. Worth. Every. Step. We had the summit and the views all to ourselves which was even more special. Except for two local girls who run a small drink and snack stall up there. You have to admire their
industrious nature which is typical of the people here in Laos.
Our final stop in Laos took us to the capital Vientiane. A small but modern city with wide clean streets, many thriving businesses and a beautiful setting by the Mekong River. One highlight was the Patuxai monument - the Arc de Triumphe of Laos. The grand streets leading up to it from the Presidential Palace mimicked the Champs Elysees.
The Mekong Shore Boardwalk is a real focal point for tourists and locals alike especially at sunset with the nearby night market and outdoor aerobics classes for the locals. We decided to join a class one evening. We were going great until half way through the class when the style changed from aerobic to hip hop dancing and Donal made for the hills!
Our visit to the COPE (Cooperative Orthotic & Prosthetic Enterprise) Visitor Centre in Vientiane was educational and emotional. Here we learned that Laos is the most bombed country in the world. 270 million cluster bombs, from 580,000 bombing missions, were dropped on Laos during the Vietnam war. Approximately 30% of these failed to detonate which has resulted in thousands of deaths and casualities since
Mountains as far as the eye can see
View from Mount Phousi in Luang Prabang
the end of the war in 1974. COPE was founded in 1997 to rehabilitate the living victims from these explosions. The stories were heartbreaking. We learned about a young boy called Hamm who was seriously injured when a bomb he and his friends discovered exploded. His family had to hire a truck to take him to two different hospitals, neither of which could treat him as they had no oxygen or blood. Knowing that they couldn't make it to a third hospital his parents had to bring their son home to let him die. Current efforts to rid Laos of unexploded ordnance and to rehabilitate those injured were truly inspiring.
Having done very little research before entering Laos, we have been blown away by the landscapes, the culinary delights, the heritage and the friendly locals (in spite of all the hard fried eggs). After a bit of a battle with the Vietnamese embassy here in Vientiane (no organisation skills with random opening hours), we finally have our visas sorted and are ready for all that Vietnam has to offer!
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