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Published: April 10th 2011
What to make of little Laos, the country that runs the length of the greatest part of the Mekong River, but is sandwiched between and dominated by the SE Asian giants of Vietnam and Thailand? Without the drawcard attractions of its neighbours, like the ruins which attract so many people directly to Cambodia, or the funds to promote itself to the outside world, it is one place that many people seem to either skip completely, or dash through quickly on their way to better publicised and grander attractions. In fact we didn't really give it a lot of thought at all in planning our route through this part of the world, all we knew in advance was that we didn't want to miss it completely. Think of it like a sympathy vote in the Eurovision song contest for the likes of Belarus, where France would rather give them "un point" than award it to someone like the UK...
Island life along the Mekong
The bar was set fairly highly in terms of Laos' natural beauty on our first stop in the country, arriving on to '4000 islands', a collection of islands dotted on a wide stretch of the
Li Phi Waterfall at 4000 islands
The Mekong River is funnelled through this narrow stretch to dramatic effect
Mekong River, a few of which are inhabited. The fact that one of these islands, Don Deth (unfortunately pronounced Don Death) has a small beach is enough to attract backpackers who are feeling withdrawal symptoms, having travelled for too long in the land locked country. While nowhere near a Thai beach in terms of beauty, it is packed daily with people unwinding, while the bars nearby are packed at night, doing a brisk trade in BeerLao, the local brew that does what it says on the tin. Maybe Fosters should rebrand themselves as AussieSewerwater?
We found the vibe really strange on Don Deth - tourists and locals alike seemed really miserable - and swiftly moved on to the nearby island of Don Khone, a much more relaxed and quieter place, where we managed to snag a simple hut sitting on stilts right out over the river.
The journey there wasn't quite as relaxing as we might have hoped however...a picturesque 20 minutes by dugout canoe was lovely until we got to the riverbank at Don Khone. As we attempted to keep our balance as we moved to pick up our rucksacks at the front of the canoe, Helen
Helen relaxes on our terrace
Don Khone on the Mekong River
heard a thud beside us. On looking down we realised that beside the coiled up rope and touching Mike's foot, a bright green snake had fallen 15m from the palm tree hanging over us and into our boat. Not knowing our snakes particularly well, we work on the simple philosophy that all are probably poisonous, so we both duly freaked out, the panic not helping us to get our bags off the unsteady little canoe. With much stamping of feet and encouragement to each other to "get a move on" (insert your own expletives to more accurately flesh out the conversation), we managed to get ourselves out of the canoe as the snake raced off under the wooden boards. The boatman seemed highly amused at the whole situation, until he seemed to realise as he pushed the boat back into the river that he was left alone in a canoe with a (potentially) poisonous and very startled snake on the loose. His smiles turned to concerned glances as he lifted the wooden planks in a hunt for the reptile. We left him to it, trying to allow our heartrates to drop below racing!
Luckily the rest of our time
Travelling between islands by canoe, 4000 islands
Just after this photo was taken, the snake fell into the front of the canoe....and we freaked out!
on Don Khone was significantly more relaxing as we spent a few days lazing about on the hammock on our patio over the river, taking an easy bike ride across the island and catching up on some reading. It was a truly wonderful place to unwind and relax, with some beautiful sunsets in the evening across the river.
Exploring the Boloven plateau
We finally did manage to drag ourselves away from Don Khone and back onto the mainland in an effort to discover a little more of Laos. From our next stop north along the Mekong, the town of Pakse, we decided to rent a motorbike for a few days to head eastwards and onto the Boloven Plateau. This plateau of basalt lava flows forms a high area above the Mekong river with a cooler climate and lots of waterfalls that tumble through thick forest towards the Mekong river below.
We were keen to get off the bus route, and make the most of the flexibility and freedom a motorbike would allow. So we hired a little 100cc Honda (the motorbike that moves SE Asia it seems) for us both, shed the large backpacks in favour
Tad Fane waterfall
The highest waterfall we saw on the Boloven Plateau
of day sacks, and off we went.
We soon felt the benefit of our new found freedom as we moved at our own pace through increasingly gorgeous, lush mountain forest, stopping at waterfalls or little villages as the urge took us. We were popular objects of interest to the many children, usually quick with a 'sabaidee' (hello) as they stopped and stared at the side of the road. At night, we stayed in huts overlooking waterfalls, the second of which was in a really secluded spot down a little dirt track.
As luck would have it, this basic but perfect little spot for the second night coincided with Helen's birthday. It initially seemed like it would be a quiet night with just the two of us, until a group of 6 Germans showed up on motorbikes around sundown, the only other residents at our waterfall viewpoint. By even more chance, it turned out two of them were also celebrating birthdays, and even greater luck had it that one was a DJ, and he managed to connect his iPod to the speakers in the eating area of the huts. With no neighbours for miles to disturb, what better place
Tad Paxuam Waterfall
Boloven Plateau near Pakse
to turn up the music, have a few Beerlao's and dance the night away, which we duly did. It was a really great (if late) night out in the middle of nowhere, with the view of a secluded waterfall nearby to set off the scene. A good night was had by all!
The following day we set off for the final day of riding before returning to Pakse. Not too far into the route, the road turned from the smooth asphalt we had been riding along up to then to a dusty, bumpy track. The going got significantly slower as the road condition deteriorated. Luckily through this, the scenery continued to be spectacular as we rode between towering basalt cliffs. The potholes got bigger and more frequent, until one eventually got the better of us and sent the bike one way and us the other, depositing us on the road, a bit battered and grazed and extremely dusty.
We managed to dust each other down and got back on our feet, but despite being quite shaken by our tumble, we were still 25km from the nearest small town and had no option but to climb back on the
bike and drive ourselves to some medical help. We were quite the talking point when we arrived at a clinic, bloody and disheveled, and attracted the attention of every doctor and nurse in the place as they all came to have a look at the foreigners. They duly gave us both a clean up, bandaging and a few stitches, and on we continued back to Pakse in time to get the overnight bus to Vientiane (not the most comfortable night of our lives, it must be said!)
The remainder of our activities in Laos were rather more subdued as we took it easy for a bit to allow our injuries to heal, incorporating regular visits to the local medical centres to clean and re-bandage our wounds. Due to only the most basic medical supplies being available in Laos, combined with the poor training of the people who treated us, bandage changes were a painful ordeal (which we eventually just did ourselves), and our wounds took longer than necessary to heal - in short, it was with relief that we eventually crossed the border to good medical care in Thailand, after which we healed up quickly.
As everyone knows, the capital of Laos
Despite now sporting large white bandages on our right sides, and moving a tad more gingerly than we normally would, we did manage to take in some of Laos' capital, Vientiane. A world away from the SE Asian standard of large, chaotic cities, Laos's capital is by far the most relaxed one we have visited to date. The wide boulevards are lined with pretty French villas, traffic is fairly non-existant and people seem to have a very relaxed air about them. There aren't really a lot of must see sights in Vientiane and sitting in a cafe and watching the world go by seems to be the best way to appreciate the city, which was absolutely fine by us in our present condition.
Many wats (Buddist temples) dot the city and monks in flowing orange robes serenely roam the streets. Laos is an incredibly religious country where monks are revered. It is quite telling that all the main sights listed in guidebooks to visit in Vientiane are wats, in particular That Luang, a huge "gold" painted stupa that is surrounded by many wats. It is so revered of course that tourists
With partners in crime, new friends Sam and Scott
What do you get when you mix an Aussie, a Canadian, an Irishman and an Englishwoman? A good evening ;-)
aren't allowed inside to view it, so the walk up a long, gradual hill in the heat of the day gave us the opportunity to simply walk around its grounds. It has been through many reincarnations from its birth as a Khmer temple in the 11th - 13th centuries, being repeatedly raided by neighbouring invaders over the years and having most recently been rebuilt in the 19th century. Even the "gold" paint has been replaced by bright yellow paint, making it now look like a huge, upturned birthday candle holder.
The sole non-religous sight of interest is the Victory Monument, built by the communist leaders of Laos as a replica of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. It is set in the middle of a roundabout, with some fountains adjoining it, but the most memorable part of the arch is the Laos take on it, which kind of reflects the Laos reserved, humble personality. A sign attached to the monument reads "From a closer distance, it appears even less impressive, like a monster of concrete". Well, they said it! The story goes that when it was being built in the 1960s, the Laos government ran out of money for
That Luang, Vientiane
Certainly far too holy for tourists to enter
cement before its completion. In order to finish it, the regime diverted a large chunk of money from a US Aid package that was meant to help with the construction of the runway at Vientiane airport, to allow further aid to be flown in. Way to go! No care parcels from the outside world, but at least the Laos people now had a concrete monstrosity to look at and honour their war dead.
The most beautiful town in all of SE Asia?
Luang Prabang was our final stop in Laos, a 10 hour bus journey over some stunning but ultimately very twisty roads that, despite the "VIP bus" service advertised, still tested the levels of padding in our behinds. Luang Prabang would be the main 'must see' destination on most people's visit to Laos, if indeed Laos actually has one. It is set on the edge of the Mekong River and is a former royal capital city. The most obvious visual aspect about the town is that it must have more wats than any other town we have ever visited. It is certainly the most picturesque town in the whole of Laos, if not the whole of
SE Asia. A walk along the main street in town will yield around a dozen different temples, all ornately decorated, with incense wafting from them and bells gently ringing in the light afternoon breeze, while monks mill about doing light chores in their grounds. It's a really relaxing atmosphere to wander through slowly and take in.
Of note in Luang Prabang is the morning alms ceremony, when the monks leave their wats and pass through town at dawn every day, collecting alms or offerings from the local families. These are collected to help with the running and upkeep of the wats and to provide sustenance for the monks. The monks in Laos are always dressed in long, flowing orange robes and make quite a distinctive sight, often holding an umbrella to protect them from the sun. We had heard that this is now a bit of a tourist circus though as foreigners shove cameras in the monks' faces, hoping for the perfect picture, therefore we decided to stay in bed and give it a miss.
But at the opposite end of the day, the main street through town (there really only is one main street in town) is
How many monks can you fit in the back of a pickup?
Quite a few it would seem! No HSE inspectors in sight!
closed off in the early evening and a huge night market takes over. The number of stalls and numbers of people viewing the beautiful handicrafts on sale means getting anywhere at night takes quite a long time. The stalls, set up on rugs on the street, are each stocked with vibrantly colourful goods, perfectly aligned, each stall holder trying to outdo the next with the perfection of their presentation, hoping to attract additional custom. In true Laos style, though, the traders are so chilled out though that by 9pm they are mostly lying sleeping at their perfectly arranged displays and the whole thing is packed up and everyone has gone home by 10:30pm!
We stumbled upon the food part of the night market on our penultimate night in Luang Prabang, which was a delight. A narrow winding street was lined with stalls heaving with fabulous choices of salads and vegetables, pastas and rice. Fresh Mekong river fish stuffed with lemongrass was grilled on a barbeque which I think was the most tender fish we have had anywhere to date. It was so amazing we had to return on our final night for the same again.
We really enjoyed
our few days in Luang Prabang which really is a very picturesque town. The relaxed attitude of the Laos people is very infectious and it is impossible not to get into the vibe of taking things easy and relaxing. A particularly pretty part of town is on the northern bank of the peninsula, where the Mekong river is edged with outdoor restaurants and cafes. With generally quite simple food, the location was really just perfect to sit back and take in this beautiful part of the country.
We found Laos to be a beautiful country to discover with a natural beauty to rival anywhere else in SE Asia and a heavenly town in Luang Prabang. We would particularly love to have had more time to explore the more rural northern and eastern areas of the country. However, at no time did we ever feel as welcome in Laos as we had done in Cambodia and we still feel like we don't have a good grasp of what Laos is all about. The people are more reserved, and almost appear nervous in their dealings with foreigners, without the outward warmth and friendliness of their neighbouring countries, which really limited our
interactions with anyone. They are laidback sometimes to the point of apathy, which is strangely alienating. Without this dimension to our visit, we found it hard to feel enough of a connection with the country to really love it. Having said that, we saw enough to tempt us back, and would definitely be happy to try and get to know its story in greater depth.
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