Country number: 77
Territory number: 84
When? January 2005, coming from Thailand, going on to Vietnam
How? Boat, bus, cycles
Who? Group Tour
‘The progress that Laos has made is quite momentous when we consider that until the mid-1990s, it was the third-largest producer of illicit opium in the world.’
Antonio Maria Costa
We cross the border into Laos from peaceful Chiang Khong and board what is termed a slow boat, for the two-day journey down the mighty Mekong River to Luang Prabang. It is a very slow boat indeed. We’re not going to miss any of the breathtakingly scenery and can appreciate the correspondingly slow paced village life, but at times I envy the long tailed river taxis speeding past. Although they’re going at such a speed that they look a little scary, the bows out of the water and all the passengers receiving instant face lifts. The river boat is billed as basic in nature and this is entirely accurate. It has a toilet, a covered roof, and open sides, which are probably welcome when the weather is warmer. As it is we are so cold we bundle ourselves in every blanket we can find and lie on the floor of the boat sardine like huddled together for warmth. After eight hours, we emerge looking as if we have been sitting in a freezer, to dock at the small town of Pak Beng. It’s muddy and undeveloped here. The polite word is probably rustic – we have a local and also very basic guesthouse for the night.
Back on the boat we cruise to the Pak Ou Caves. This is an important religious site overlooking the river at the junction of the Mekong and Ou Rivers. The two sacred limestone caverns are filled with Buddha images of all types and sizes that have been brought by devoted villagers over the centuries.
Then we continue to the atmospheric World Heritage-listed city of Luang Prabang. This is a UNESCO recognised gem, nestled in the hills of northern Laos, where the Mekong and Khan rivers meet, claimed to be ‘the best preserved city in South East Asia. Luang Prabang is endowed with a legacy of historic red-roofed temples and French-Indochinese architecture and is utterly atmospheric and gorgeous (I’m not biased at all by the fact that we’re now in a comfortable hotel). There’s also an eclectic mix of restaurants, cafes and bars. South of town we drive out to the beautiful Kuang Si Falls, a picturesque, multi-level cascade that offers fantastically blue pools. They would be perfect for a mid-afternoon dip if it were warm enough. In the evening there’s the buzzing Night Bazaar to visit.
The highlight of the visit here, for me, next day, is the procession of monks undertaking the ritual known as Morning Alms or ‘Sai Bat’. At dawn, the locals stand or squat to offer food to the monks who line up for their for their daily meal, carrying their begging bowls.
South from Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng along an extremely hilly highway. Situated on the Nam Song River, Vang Vieng is surrounded by towering limestone karsts and the scenery (especially the sunsets) is stunning. Here there are rambles along the river, cattle swimming alongside, and more caves to scramble up to. Most of the canoes tethered along the banks are created from old mortar shells. Reminders of the CIAs ‘Secret War’ on Laos are everywhere, with the locals forming all manner of goods from speed boats to saucepans out of metal remnants. Thirty percent of the bombs dropped were unexploded and still remain, which makes for careful wandering and all too common tragedy.
Onwards by bus to the Laos capital, Vientiane. It’s more spread out than Luang Prabang and not as charming but, nonetheless there are markets, monuments and temples to visit. Serendipitous then that a native Indian American appears with his motor bike and offers to take me on a tour of the city. We zoom along the, tree-lined boulevards and past faded colonial mansions to Wat Si Saket, the oldest temple still standing in Vientiane. It’s home to almost 7,000 Buddha images. also not to be missed is Pha That Luang, a gold-covered large Buddhist stupa right in the centre of the city. It is generally regarded as the most important national monument in Laos and a national symbol.
Finally, overland in a bus, past cliffs and rivers, over the border to Hanoi.
Laos is the only landlocked country in South East Asia.
Laos is also known as “the land of a million elephants”. This phrase is a translation of “Lan Xan”, the name of an ancient Lao empire from the 14th century.
From 1964 to 1973, the U.S. dropped more than two million tons of ordnance on Laos during 580,000 bombing missions– making Laos the most heavily bombed country per capita in history.
Laos has the highest per-capita consumption of sticky rice in the world, eating over 345 pounds a year.
The national language is known as Lao, and is closely related to Thai. Speakers of either language can understand the other – is a tonal language. French is also commonly used, a reminder of the country’s colonial past.
To see more of my photos of Laos, visit this page.