Laos - Sunsets & Smiles

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Asia » Laos
November 23rd 2008
Published: December 31st 2008
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We floated across the mighty Mekong river in about 2 minutes flat, hey presto, we were in Laos! A big deal really because we have both been looking forward to traveling through Laos for ages. Without further ado we took a wee Songtheaw (tuk-tuk) ride to catch a bus to the north of Laos to a town called Luang Nam Tha, where we hoped to go trekking into the jungle for a few days! This long twisty and grueling bus journey was our first taste of Laos. We were surrounded by locals, only another couple of falang (tourists) on the bus and it took us every higher into the mountains. As we went the scenery seemed to improve, with great green vistas overlooking primary jungle which stretched as far as our squinting eyes could see. We couldn't wait to get out there!

The town itself was a nice sort of place and we found some comfortable digs. We had already chosen which company we wanted to trek with, the very highly regarded and ethically sound Green Discovery. Laos is somewhat unique in South East Asia because tourism has basically come last to them, they have been lucky and blessed with
Heres Looking at LoasHeres Looking at LoasHeres Looking at Loas

Karen still in Thailand, behind across the Mekong river you can see Laos...
some foresight to try and control the negative effects and to promote sustainability, which is a real joy to see. Green Discovery is at the forefront of much of this, with branches in several places throughout Laos, they work with local communities and tribes people to spread the wealth and benefits well.

Sadly after all this build up and anticipation Karen was struck down with a serious case of squidgy bum syndrome! For several days we were holed up in the wee town, waiting, hoping, praying for Karen to get better, please please we thought, don't take this away from us, these few days in the jungle visiting the indigenous tribes and the wild life, Tigers have been seen here for pity's sake! Surely Karen would recover... But it was with heavy hearts that we had to say goodbye to Luang Nam Tha and the promise of some of the best trekking South East Asia has to offer anywhere. We simply could not afford to delay any longer, we have a schedule to keep roughly to, if we spend too long in one place, no matter how much we may like it, we risk missing out on other equally
Play Time!Play Time!Play Time!

Nong Kiaw - some kids play by the river. Check out the tunnel they've built!
great experiences elsewhere. We know, it's getting to be a recurring theme lately. But hey ho, we cannot do everything can we! Thankfully the little chemist in town had some antibiotics and Karen was better within a few days of leaving.

So off we set on another long bus ride, two in fact, because we caught a crowded wee minivan for the second leg of this particular journey. The minivan was an experience in itself, chickens on the roof, dead birds and rats bought at the side of the road for the driver's dinner, and gun toting locals walking past us on the road. But once again the scenery was great and when we finally arrived in the small village of Nong Khiaw we were rewarded with some magnificent scenery indeed. Massive limestone karsts rise high above the sleepy village. These limestone cliffs are slightly different from those we saw in Thailand because they are not rising out of the ocean, they rise out of the jungle instead. We found a basic wee bamboo bungalow overlooking the river Nam Ou, which makes its muddy way through the village cutting it in two. A large bridge connects the two halves of Nong Khiaw and from one side you can relax and watch as the villagers across the river go about their daily business on the river banks. Kids playing and jumping in the water, farmers tending their land and animals, families washing themselves and their clothes, boatmen coming and going with their cargo and passengers. We could see that the river is a lifeline for these remote communities. It all felt rather idyllic and provided us with a lovely few days of relaxation. Not to mention a tasty Indian meal cooked up by a friendly chap who runs a fantastic restaurant! While the place does not offer much to do other than goggle at the scenery watching the world float by while the sun sets, we did have time to take in a wee bit of culture as well! We went for a nice walk out of town for a few hours to a large cave network called Tham Pha Thok, set high up in a massive limestone mountain which rises almost vertically from the rice paddies below . Reached originally via a rickety bamboo ladder which still clings to the stone, there is now a concrete stair way leading right up to the entrance perhaps 30 odd metres above the rice fields. While the green stained stairs are a bit of an eye sore they were a welcome alternative to the bamboo ladder! Once inside the extensive cave network it was cool and dim, with a little light falling in through small openings providing glimpses of the outside world. These caves were used by the local populous and government to shelter from the bombing during various wars. As we clambered deeper into the caves we could imagine the people huddled up, scared and cramped together, it was a sobering thought. During the years of 1964 to 1973 Laos was subjected to extensive and devastating carpet bombing by the USA as Laos was dragged into the widening Vietnam conflict. Caves like this saved the people. One statistic says that more bombs fell on Laos than fell in the entire 2nd world war. A disgraceful and angering statistic.

Moving on to pastures new, we made our way to the small city of Luang Prabang, but this time went the whole way by a large Songtheaw! Crammed into the back with perhaps 14 other folk with the wind blowing and dust flying it was certainly a novel way to travel such a distance! Similar to some previous journeys, although often painful and cramped they provide us with excellent opportunities to snatch glimpses of rural life in Laos not to mention a good bit of people watching! One of the nice aspects of traveling by songthaew is that you are outside, there is no window shutting you off from the world around so we could soak up the sounds and smells of the villages as we pass through. It also allowed us to interact easily with the locals, waving and shouting a hearty 'sabaidee' (hello) at the children as the tuk-tuk driver dodged the chickens, pigs or dogs. Compared with Thailand and Malaysia, Laos is a very poor country. Almost 80% of Lao farm households are self-sufficient in rice, therefore we saw many people out at work in the paddies, or drying their grains in the villages. People live in basic wooden houses (often on stilts) with very few possessions. It seems that people live very closely, extended families all living in one small area, with the neighbours nearby and the animals running amok amongst them! Many rural areas are still without
Floating MonkFloating MonkFloating Monk

Luang Prabang - the river Nam Khan
electricity so as the evening light fades we saw families and friends huddled around little fires at the edge of the road and the air is incensed with lovely wood burning aromas.

Finally reaching Luang Prabang was like a breath of fresh air after our trip. It was a far more modern place than the villages we had been in so far with old French colonial architecture evident everywhere. And the French influence does not end there, with bakeries, cafes and restaurants all with a distinctly European influence. The humble baguette can be found on most street corners and can be purchased packed full of goodies, a delicious and cheap meal! The city sits on the banks of the Mekong river at the confluence with the river Nam Khan, sandwiched between the two. It is filled with innumerable temples and stupas (temple statue type things) and is something of a religious centre for Bhuddism with a large population of resident monks. We spent a nice day wandering the temples but really the highlights of Luang Prabang are two fold and for us don't include the temples at all! There are several impressive waterfalls near by and choosing one, the
Kuang Si FallsKuang Si FallsKuang Si Falls

Luang Prabang
Kuang Si Falls, we sped off in another sawngtheaw for a pleasant drive, taking us through the rural countryside. It is worth mentioning that there is a Spectacled bear sanctuary here at the start of the water fall valley. They are all rescued from poachers and tourist attractions and the goal is to rehabilitate them and release where possible back into the wild. From viewing platforms we were able to watch as they lazed about in the late afternoon sunshine. It was a surprise to see this and another first for us! The falls themselves were extraordinary and like nothing we had expected at all, we were suitably impressed! Rising up through the jungle clad valley in tiered levels the falls provide several splendid swimming areas before finally arriving at the tumbling main waterfall itself. We had a great time because having timed things perfectly, we arrived in the early evening just as the crowds were leaving allowing us to swim and marvel at the scenery in solitude and peace as the light faded. Taking the plunge into the milky turquoise water was not as cold as you may imagine, it was refreshing if a bit disconcerting because the water
Mekong SunsetMekong SunsetMekong Sunset

Watching the sun slowly set in a bar by the Mekong, Luang Prabang
was so very milky that you could not see anything below you at all!

One evening sitting on the river front, overlooking the Mekong below us we sipped on a cold Beer Laos and watched in awe as the sky turned a deep blood red with the sun setting slowly behind the mountains. Without a shadow of a doubt this is one of the most beautiful spectacles we have seen so far. Well worth the visit to Luang Prabang alone and topped off our visit magnificently.

Our next stop was the capital of Laos, Vientiane. While as you may expect it is a step up in modernity, traffic and business in general, it does not stop the place from being strangely relaxed, something we were getting happily used to in Laos. Upon arrival we had a rather annoying walk around town at night looking for a place to stay, being turned away by countless guesthouses and hotels that were all full, but we finally found a place with a room! Phew. There is not much to report about the capital, we made a few visits to some of the sights, opting to miss out on the expensive tours

Vientiane's very own Arc d'triumphe!
to those sights which are further afield, but perhaps more worthy of a visit, a shame but basically we decided to move on promptly, if only for our wallets because it was an expensive city! There was time for one more glorious sunset before we left, you must be getting sick of them by now! Well we are not and this one was as spectacular as those before. A familiar scene, sat by the river Mekong, looking out across the water at neighbouring Thailand, we sipped at our cold beer Laos, and gazed at the sky cycling through every colour of the rainbow, before darkening through a myriad of reds, the sun set and we were happy.

Further south our final destination was the town of Tha Kek, a bit of a dust bowl with not much to look at in itself, but further afield wonders abound making this town and our activities there stand out head and shoulders above the rest of the already impressive places we have visited in Laos so far. So much so that we have decided to cover matters in a separate blog. Watch this space...

Additional photos below
Photos: 30, Displayed: 29


Tony at the BorderTony at the Border
Tony at the Border

Laos is in the background accros the Mekong river...
Crossing the MekongCrossing the Mekong
Crossing the Mekong

A nice way to cross the border into Loas!
Nong KhiawNong Khiaw
Nong Khiaw

Banks of the river Nam Ou.

Enjoying a fruit shake in the cafe above our bungalow/shack in Nong Khiaw
Nong KhiawNong Khiaw
Nong Khiaw

River Nam Ou
Nong KhiawNong Khiaw
Nong Khiaw

The village from across the bridge, with some karsty goodness in the background!
Mekong River BoatMekong River Boat
Mekong River Boat

House, cargo ship, ferry, all things at once
Kuang Si SwimmingKuang Si Swimming
Kuang Si Swimming

Kazza takes a dip in the cool waters
T Shirt SuntanT Shirt Suntan
T Shirt Suntan

Tony hesitates before taking the plunge Kuang Si Falls, Luang Prabang

2nd January 2009

It looks like you'll have a good range of t-shirts by the end of this trip Karen! Good to see the beard has returned Tony.
2nd January 2009

great shots and blog... I'm so looking forward to my own in SE Asia sooner or later... I knew those were Canon photos.. I use a s3 is. :)
5th January 2009

Superb!!!!! Cannot wait for the next instalment.
6th January 2009

Laosing around
I was particulary looking forward to your blog on this country given the American "involvement". It looks like a lovely place and well worth the visit. I look forward to your next blog.
6th January 2009

Sunsets to rival those seen from Stonebank last week. Only joking yours were mega. Enjoyed your sights and smells from Lao. Enjoy your remaining time in Bankok before the long journey home. Keep safe. Lots of love Ed & Marion xxxx
7th January 2009

Looks like a stunning place. Cant wait for the next installment.
8th January 2009

The intepid travellers do It again
Great blog fantastic pictures - very artistic. That waterfall was just asking to be swam in. Laos sounds like anteresting place. Lots of Love xxx

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