ive years ago Maarten already traveled around in Laos, while Kate was conscientiously at her desk hoping she would soon be able to join Maarten again. Maarten skyped her almost every day to tell her his wild Laos-tales, about time that we explored it together so Kate could see it for herself.
We are not doing exactly the same tour, for instance we skip Wat Phu Champasak, the Bolaven plateau and the Loop. We sometimes just prefer making new memories together than taking a one-sided trip down memory lane, but Kate loves to listen to Maarten’s stories about the good “old” days when tourism was still a trickle here.
Going from Cambodia to Laos we start of with a literally bone-shattering ride. Even for Cambodia, where building and maintaining roads is not exactly a strong point, this stretch feels especially neglected … you would think that they don’t want you to leave the country. With bumps and bruises we finally reach the border and get some new stamps in our passport.
Once we have officially made it into Laos, our first stop is the 4000 Islands or Si Phan Don. These islands have become somewhat of a party destination for young backpackers, but luckily there are quiet stretches and bends where we – oldies – feel more at ease. A little cabin at the waterside, hammocks on the porch … just perfect! And the only nightly noises we hear in this corner of Si Phan Don are those of waving palm trees, the occasional passing longboats purring away in the distance and the clicking calls of the resident gecko’s.
Si Phan Don is made up out of “thousands” of little islands (what’s in a name) and sandbanks enveloped by the lazily flowing Mekong. You can hang around in your hammock in the shade of a palm tree or bike on little sandy paths winding through rice paddies, past waterfalls, alongside the riverside, while crossing many haphazardly constructed little bridges … Cows lazily chewing away, water buffaloes bobbing their smooth heads out of the water. As you might have guessed, Si Phan Don is an extremely relaxing place…
After some serious lazing around from island to island and hammock to hammock, we decide to explore the French colonial past of Laos. Some of the best places to do this, are the capital Vientiane and Luang Prabang. The French colonial past of Laos’ capital Vientiane still permeates the city center, and that means we are able to start our Sunday perfectly with a good cup of coffee and croissants.
In Vientiane we also get to know more about one of the biggest problems in rural Laos today thanks to COPE. COPE is a center that trains local people to make prosthetic limbs and strives to provide local rehabilitation services to Laos’ many amputees. It also tries to raise international awareness about the UXO (unexploded ordnance) problem in Laos.
During the Vietnam War the USA dropped over two million tones of bombs, mostly cluster-bombs, on Laos, turning it into the most heavily bombed country, per capita, in the world. A large percentage of these bombs never detonated and are still a very real risk to the Laotians. A lifetime would not suffice to track down and disarm all the UXO in Laos. Having UXO strewn all over the landscape means even the simplest things like ploughing your land, gathering fire wood, building a house or having your kids play outside, have a potentially lethal dimension. Furthermore, as long as all these UXO’s are lurking beneath the surface, the affected areas cannot be economically developed and new victims keep being made every day. As long as this has not been dealt with (the chance of this happening any time soon seems pretty remote) COPE’s focus on prevention and continuing care of the maimed victims remains crucial.
As far as old world colonial atmosphere goes, Luang Prabang is the top spot in Laos. Luang Prabang is a quiet place at the confluence of the Nam Khan and Mekong rivers – previously a favorite posting of the French colonial administrators – filled with old low rise villas and shop houses. The perfect languid river town to spend some time in, strolling through the cozy streets, drinking a sundowner at the edge of the river and feasting on the delicious local cuisine e.g., fried river weed with a dried buffalo skin and chili dip, Luang Prabang watercress, and the local Or Lam stew…
We visit the former Royal Palace with its ruby red walls and all sorts of graphic images built out of little reflective and colorful pieces of Japanese glass. This mosaic-style is repeated extensively in the most important temple in town, Wat Xieng Thong. On the back of the temple they even puzzled together a whole tree of life guarded by two blue-green peacocks, whose colors seem to change depending on the way the light hits its little glass pixels. Absolutely stunning!
Even for Laotian standards Luang Prabang is filled with temples, which also means a lot of monks with shaved heads and robes in all shades of orange, sometimes carrying an orange-hued umbrella as a portable reprieve from the stinging sun. Their sheer number and the scenic setting of Luang Prabang make the traditional monks’ morning alms collecting round especially atmospheric. Every morning at the crack of dawn, hundreds of monks walk the city streets barefoot to collect food from the faithful. The local Buddhists sit on the ground next to the monks’ usual route and each drops a tiny amount of food (mostly freshly cooked sticky rice) in the begging bowl of the monks that shuffle past them.
Sadly a bunch of tourists have decided to ruin this solemn procession completely by sticking their camera lenses up the monks’ faces to get the best possible shot. Some even participate in the food offering (more often than not with inedible or spoiled food sold to them by savvy local entrepreneurs) not because they follow the way of the Buddha but rather as a way to the get the best possible facebook picture. This makes it a pretty sad spectacle at times. A bit like if hundreds of Japanese tourists would crash a Christian midnight mass and start taking pictures at point blank range while snacking on holy wafers. We considered skipping it all together, but ended up going to some of the quieter parts of town where you can still witness the ancient tradition as it is supposed to be and take pictures from a respectful distance.
It is not only the Laotian monks that are colorful dressers. Laos is also the home of countless hill tribe minorities, often with handmade and colorful distinguishing garb with matching elaborate headdresses. Typical for the traditional clothes are the black and blue cloths, embellished with colorful little pompoms, ribbons and silver ornaments often made from old French Indochine silver coins. This elaborate headgear, especially the silver-laden ones, are not for esthetical purposes only, often (e.g. with the Akha people) they literally show of their wealth and tell the onlooker something about the status of the woman and her family.
If you are looking for entire villages dressed up in this garb, as some tourists seem to do, you will be disappointed as most of these minorities are no longer wearing their traditional clothes as a day-to-day outfit. Granted it is not the same for the photographs, but you don’t see many Europeans sporting their traditional national dresses on a day-to-day basis either.
Rural Laos, as with Cambodia, is best explored on the back of a scooter. We go swimming in milky blue waterfalls surrounded by white karst rocks. We visit Udomxai, a city on the road to China, that is being Chinese-fied at a rapid rate. Maarten particularly enjoys getting his hands on his favorite Chinese noodles again. From Udomxai we ride out to Muang La, a tribal village with a very important atmospheric temple, Pha Chiao Sing Kham, where the gongs resonate till the marrow of your bones. A bit further North-West of Udomxai we alight in Luang Namtha, where they have a great nightly food market (which we will revisit in a later blog). Here we ride out to Muang Sing and the hills around it, which is one of the most authentic hill tribe areas in Laos but fell a bit of the tourist radar in the past decades.
Before we get there, we have to scale the mountains in the morning chill. After two hours on the road, we arrive in Muang Sing slightly frostbitten, and we are happy to get plenty of nourishing nosh at the traditional hill tribe morning market to heat us up. A steaming bowl of noodle soup for breakfast is pretty normal here, which suits us fine! We continue on little sandy roads through tiny hill tribe villages, rubber plantations, banana farms (with bananas already packaged on the trees), wooden stilted houses, playing children, children doing their household chores, drying foodstuff, an old lady still weaving on the traditional weave and, yes, the occasional old folks in traditional costume. You will have to imagine it for yourself as we refrained from taking drive-by pictures.
In sum, Laos is a very diverse country: chilling on the islands between the palm trees, strolling past old colonial houses, colorful temples and riverfront promenades, and going on amazing discovery tours through the countryside and the mountains. Have a look here for our pictures!