In addition to their other attractions, the beaches of Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam have long made South East Asia an essential stop for contemporary travellers. Historic Buddhist temples and recent current affairs have added Myanmar to the list for the more intrepid. Yet Laos, an adventure playground centred around the mighty Mekong River, with gorgeous Buddhist temples of its own though landlocked and lacking the obvious appeals of its neighbours, is still often overlooked. This is a great pity, as there is much to see and do.
Easily reached from Bangkok and other neighbouring capitals, I visited the ancient city of Luang Prabang in the far north, where the Buddhist temples and statues are protected by UNESCO World Heritage Status; Vann Vieng, about four hours south, a town on the Mekong where the local caves are a major attraction; and Vientiane, the capital, another 150km further south right on the border with Thailand, for lessons in local culture.
To make it easy, I made arrangements with Laos Travel ([email protected]) to provide me with guides and handle all the logistics. I went at the best time, late October, after the rains but before the peak tourist season when all the sights are overwhelmed with large parties of Chinese and Korean visitors.
Luang Prabang is an ancient city built on a rocky promontory at the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers. The attractions here centre around its Buddhist history, with multitudes of temples and Buddhas, and the mighty Mekong, with its caves and rickety villages. Luang Prabang is also a location for trekking through hills and villages, including tours by elephant. Located in the far north of Laos, it is a good starting point for exploring remoter areas, such as the Nam Ha National Protected Area.
A short drive with my guide Pi takes me to a large guesthouse, very accommodating and only a few minutes’ walk from the town centre. The wifi works and breakfast is excellent.
Having checked in, Pi and a driver take me off to the Kuang Si waterfalls, a picturesque spot where I swim in one of several pools of opalescent water (in full flood the water is blue). The current is remarkably strong, so this is not an exploit for a poor swimmer.
Pi tells me that the government had to step in recently to prevent a local administrator selling this special area to a Chinese entrepreneur. Although the Chinese have invested heavily in Laos, there is a lot of anti-Chinese sentiment. The locals feel that the Chinese are not providing jobs for locals, are buying up land and are forcing up prices on essential materials, such as cement for building.
Luang Prabang is a town of thirty-six temples, all of them active. Each year they compete in dragon boat races on the Nam Kahn, which flows into the Mekong, and on land in the town centre. I missed this year’s races by a few days. Each morning at sunrise, throughout the year, all the monks walk barefooted around the town in total silence with their food bowls. Kneeling townsfolk offer food to each of them in turn. It is an eerie and evocative sight as the line of monks appear through the twilight, with the youngest at the rear, stop to receive each offering, and move on wordlessly. Well worth getting up at 5:30 to see.
I make another early start to take a two-hour trip along the Mekong. The narrow river boats are built to carry twenty or more; but we were lucky enough to have one to ourselves. We stop on the way at a village specialising in “Lao whiskey” – a potent form of rice wine – and the inevitable local handicrafts. Then on to the caves of Pak Ou. Not spectacular in their own right, they are filled with Buddha statues. During the Vietnam War, they were used by locals as refuges from the constant bombing.
Back in Luang Prabang, we explore the palace of the last king, complete with all the regalia intended for his son’s coronation. A small collection of the royal cars, rusting and unremarkable other than from their ordinariness, serves to emphasise how much of a puppet state this was.
An icon of French colonial architecture, Luang Prabang has the mixed blessing of being a UNESCO Heritage site. On the one hand, that preserves the town; on the other, it can get very crowded. Pi makes sure that we get to do all our visits to the temples and museums before the large parties can get there. At one time the royal capital, before the French (referred to as Falang in local dialect) moved it to Vientiane, Luang Prabang was the religious hub, where the emerald Buddha, carved from a massive single chunk of jade, kept watch. It was carried off by the Thais in 1779 and remains a bone of contention between the two nations to this day.
I learned a lot on this trip about the 42 different positions of Buddha statues and their meaning, which was important for putting what I saw into context. One of the recurrent stories depicted in the temples and gardens concerns how Buddha appealed to the Earth Mother when he was attacked by a demon. The Earth Mother responded by wringing out her hair, creating a great flood that killed the demon (and for some reason, his pal, the crocodile).
Sunset at Phousi, the temple at the top of the hill that dominates the town, is spectacular, if mist and a sea of selfie sticks allow. There are two ways up, each of over 400 steps. Pi shows me the one least used, to avoid the crowds. And it really is spectacular, fiery gold that rivals the statues in the temples.
Having got my photographs, I head down to the night market. There is a warmth about this place. No-one hassles you, smiles are genuine, and the only hazard is the young children playing between the stalls.
Early in the morning, we set off for the long drive to Vang Vieng, using the “new road”. Built in 2015, it is already in a dubious state of repair, courtesy of rainy season floods. In parts, it is completely washed away. Traffic is relatively light and our driver cautious, so there is time to take in the scenery as we head up and over a range of mountains. On the way, we buy a supply of exercise books and pencils to donate to remote schools. Every child in Laos is required to attend school for free at least from 6 to 11, but thereafter it costs. Village schools are very basic, so simple gifts like this are greatly appreciated.
Vang Vieng lies about halfway between Luang Prabang and the capital Vientiane; it was founded as a convenient staging post between the two cities and lies on the Nam Song River. The geography lends itself to a wide range of activity sports.
Arriving in Van Vieng, I settle into one of a string of hotels built along the Mekong River. There are newer, brasher hotels, but this one has character. The view to the mountains and along the river from my room is stunning and the room is clean, spacious and in good order. The pool and bar attract old and young alike; it’s a very sociable place, good for a relaxing afternoon after a strenuous morning. This town used to be a hippy paradise, but it has been cleaned up and gentrified to facilitate access to the plethora of local sports, from kayaking to zip wiring.
At the bicycle shop, they only have one size of helmet; too big for me, so I have to stuff it with a handkerchief to sop it wobbling around. It’s quite a while since I last cycled and longer still on a bike with a racing saddle. (The resulting sore derriere took a few days to wear off!) But it is definitely the way to see the countryside.
We cycle first to the Tham Jung caves. These are probably the best-preserved stalactites and stalagmites I have seen anywhere on the tourist trails. It just takes several hundred steps up to the mouth of the cave, which is quite extensive and well maintained.
We cycle back to town over another rickety bridge to pedal several kilometres to the blue lagoon and another cave, Tham Phoukham. This one is more of a scramble to reach: the steps are simply cement inlays to a near 60-degree climb. The centre of the cave is occupied by a Buddha (of course). The lagoon is a small section of river set aside for cautious thrill seekers to don a life jacket and jump from a tree or a swinging rope.
Vientiane is another city on the Mekong, about a third of the way down the country and close to the border with Thailand. This proximity to its larger neighbour makes it distinctly less Lao. Yet to feel once again immersed in the Lao culture, one has only to drive a few kilometres away from the capital.
On the way south from Vann Vieng, we stop at a fish market, an enterprising result of the construction of a dam that created a substantial inland lake. We drive straight through the city and head for Xieng Khuan, or Buddha Park, a garden created to integrate Buddhist and Hindu traditions. It is dominated by a huge golden reclining Buddha and a stupa with three floors; one each for Hell, Earth and Heaven. The entrance to the stupa is through the mouth of a demon. Inside, statues depict life in each of the three dominions. The steps are rough and narrow and you are guaranteed to bang your head at least once.
Most of Vientiane’s temples were destroyed in wars with Thailand in the eighteenth century, but the Wat Sisaket is an exception. It holds 1,136 Buddhas, many of them miniatures. The invaders spared this temple because it was built in a Thai style, and also because they believed that one of the Buddhas would bring bad luck on whoever harmed it (but no-one knew which one it was).
The old National Museum in the centre of town has been sold for development as a hotel and there is no sign of the replacement grand edifice being opened. We finish the morning with a visit to COPE, a charity supporting victims of landmines and other explosives left over from the “secret war”. During the Vietnam War, US bombers dropped an estimated 260 million tonnes of ordnance over Laos, much of it because they could not return to base while loaded with munition. About one third of it failed to explode, making it a constant hazard for farming communities. Prosthetic limbs are only part of the rehabilitation process; repairing the psychological damage to victims and their families is also a major task. Another charity, MAG, clears communities of the danger. The technicians carrying out this dangerous work are both male and female.
My guide here, Mr Mon, arranged an evening cookery class with Madame Phasouk, a retired civil servant, who tells me proudly of having studied economics at university in Russia and how her three grown up children have all made successful careers in banking. She and her husband collect me from my hotel and drive to a local market. Mr P is given the task of holding the basket while Mrs P fusses from stall to stall, choosing with great care a bunch of leaves here, a green papaya there. She constantly checks what foods I like or am familiar with.
The cookery class takes place in their light and spacious brick-built house in an unassuming backroad. Typical of Laos, poor shanties and well-appointed homes sit side by side. There is definitely an atmosphere of being back at school, but Mrs P is very attentive and the experience enjoyable throughout. (Contact her at 020 5601 2458)
Mr P drops me off at the night market, a sprawl of red roofed stalls along the Mekong. It’s a bit like a “pound store” where everything is dirt cheap. There is tourist tat here, but mostly the stalls sell clothes and other goods aimed at locals.
To make sure my early morning departure goes smoothly, Mr Mon is at my hotel at 5am, ready with a breakfast box. In spite of numerous warnings about chaos in the airport, I sailed through. As we take off and head towards Bangkok, I note the difference between the landscapes of these two countries: Thailand with cultivation everywhere, Laos with most of the country away from the Mekong and its tributaries largely undeveloped. How long it stays that way will depend on how effective the government is in preventing corruption and despoilment, especially by its big neighbour. But for now, at least, it remains a country of immense charm and a strength of culture that bodes well for retaining its national identity.