Seeing the world, one country at the time

Laos in a Nutshell

Laos is a country of smiles, derelict French colonial relics, unexploded bombs, waterfalls, caves, rice paddies, bomb craters, Buddhist temples and orange-clad monks. The Mekong runs its length from north to south, separating it from its rich neighbor Thailand. Being so close to a modern and bustling country with extensive tourism, it’s amazing that Laos has managed to keep such a low profile, avoid exploitation and retain its quiet, its tranquility and its pristine landscapes. For backpackers it’s ideal because it’s so cheap. Everywhere we went we imagined what it would be like in ten years and felt lucky to be here now. Even if it has already changed a lot since 1989 when it opened to foreign tourism, it is still so far from where it could be, from where Thailand is. It has a timeless quality and its laid-back atmosphere forces you to slow down. There is no point in rushing, no point in stressing out. Stress is bad kama, which leads to pukka and gets you no closer to nirvana. This thinking will change as more and more western-educated Laotians return to their homeland from their self-imposed exiles during the political turmoil of the 60’s and 70’s. We met a few of them, clear-thinking individuals with vision and a mix of ambition and nostalgia for their pre-war homeland, who will be the future of this country and will try to preserve what is unique and special about it while modernizing it.

We deviated from the usual “falang” (foreigner) path by entering the country near Vientiane instead of from Chiang Rai in northern Thailand and were immediately struck by the difference between Thailand and this quiet capital that seemed more like a small town. Even when looking out at it from its tallest monument Patuxay, a Chinese gift with the communist stamp of size and lack of style, you can only see a few vehicles driving down the main road that splits the city. The roads were often unpaved and the riverfront is undeveloped. Food vendors set up metal tables with candles at night for the locals to enjoy cheap delicacies. There are ancient temple and museums hidden here and there, but the whole city can be seen in a couple days. We were there at the right time to take part in a Hash, arranged by a worldwide social running club, which I consider the best way to see the heart of a city, as it takes you to the places you would normally never go as a tourist and lets you meet the locals and the expats who know the area.

From Vientiane we went to Vang Vieng, an aberration of a town, which caters to partier backpackers who flock there to “escape” the hardship of the real Laos and to get drunk or stoned on “Happy” pizzas or shakes and then sit and watch “Friends” reruns all night. Almost every bar offers reclining seats in front of TVs and they are often full. We managed to avoid those, but did opt for the traditional tubing trip down the river combined with hiking and visiting caves, a favorite tourist pastime in Laos. It was a great day and we had a fun group including Paula from Northern Ireland who we would meet again. Vang Vieng was a good stopover on the road from Vientiane to Luang Prabang, the jewel in the Laotian crown, not least because it was the seat of the Laotian monarchy until the last king was deposed.

Luang Prabang is so lovely that it was difficult to leave, so we were there for five days, exploring the city and drinking in its enticing colonial flavor. Even if public affection is frowned upon, Luang Prabang is a very romantic city with its restaurants on the Mekong, emerald green views and classy restaurants. Every traveler to Laos ends up there so we met and bumped into many great people. We saw Paula often and hung out a lot with Giovanni, Paula and Andrea from Italy, all of whom we hope to meet again. We spent many days cycling around the city to visit the myriad “wats” (temples) and talk to the novices and monks who are eager to practice their English. We managed a trip to an impressive waterfall Kwangsy, where we swam in the pools before a torrential downpour chased us away. We visited the impressive Royal Palace and saw the national ballet perform traditional Lao dance. I spent a lot of time in a French jewelry store where the French owner and I formed a fast bond and I picked up some gorgeous pieces.

From Luang Prabang we made a detour north, toward Vietnam, to Phonsavan, to see the Plains of Jars, an archaeological mystery and site of a major US offensive during the “Secret War” of the 1960’s and 70’s. Next to huge two thousand year old stone jars are gaping bomb craters that frankly embarrassed me. Hundreds of Lao villagers were killed when US bombers returning from missions in Vietnam dumped their bombs over Laos because they were required to unload all bombs. They dropped one and a half tons of bombs per person in Laos. It was the USA’s most expensive war on record. Now the unexploded bombs also referred to as UXO, have been the cause of thousands of civilian injuries.

Unable to continue straight south in this rainy season due to impassable roads, we returned all the way to Vientiane to get back on the main north-south road, Route 13, which would take us all the way to the Cambodian border at the end of the month. We decided to go it alone using local transportation instead of joining the tourist buses, which made for real tests in patience and flexibility, as nothing is scheduled or on time and there are no connections. We wanted to do elephant trekking in a national park, but there was no information and no easy way to reach the park. With no one to speak with, some plans lose their appeal, so we continued south to see Kong Lor, a cave that was recommended. Getting there was a big challenge and required about three transfers between a local “sangthaew” (converted truck taxi) to a local bus to a delivery truck that had obviously just transported some raw meat. We were going to stay a day to see the cave, but intense rain stranded us for four days and we were the only foreigners they’d seen in days. With nothing to do, we explored the area on motorbike and discovered a town where American torpedoes are now used as boats. The cave itself was incredible and unique. A river runs through it for over seven kilometers in pitch darkness, which made for an exciting ride. The family we stayed with adopted us and performed a ritual called “baci” to ensure our safe travels before we left.

With the earth spirits looking after us, we headed south to Thakek, another city with French colonial influence. Not having gotten enough of caves, we rented a motorbike and braved the disastrous roads to visit two more interesting caves. One had over two hundred Buddha images in it and had been found in the last decade by a local man looking for a bat cave. We also attempted to visit the famous “Great Wall” of Laos, an impossible task, as there are no signs to indicate where it is. Finally a nice gas station attendant took pity on us and brought us to a hidden chapel built by the French in the middle of the forest next to a 16-meter high natural stone wall that runs for seventy kilometers.

Just south of Thakek is Savannakhet with even more architectural influence from French colonialists. It, like Thakek, lies on the Mekong and just over the water you can see the modern glitter of buildings in Thailand in stark contrast to the dilapidated dirt roads of Savannakhet. There is good trekking, but only in the dry season, which is what we typically find anywhere we go. So after seeing some of the deteriorating buildings and subjecting ourselves to the most painful massage I’ve ever had, we continued south to Pakse, a big city with little charm but a lot to offer in its surrounding areas.

The first night we met Alex and Sally, a young British couple who became our companions for the next three days as we did some sightseeing. We visited the Bolaven Plateau, known for its tea and coffee plantations (Lao coffee is the most expensive in the world) and dramatic waterfalls, then rode elephants to the Phou Assa temple ruins and finally visited a weaving village and bought the traditional “sin” sarong skirts for ourselves. After three weeks of squatter toilets, rock hard beds and cold water, we decided to treat ourselves to a night in a fancy hotel with cable TV, western toilet, soft mattress and normal shower. We thought we had died and gone to heaven when we sat and ate pizza and drank beer while watching HBO for hours on end.

We stayed another night locked in our ivory tower before heading further south to Champasak, a city across the Mekong where Wat Phu, the Lao answer to Angkor Wat lies, abandoned since its heyday during the Khmer dynasty. We joined a Dutch couple Herbert and Margreet, to bike to the ruins of this mini-Angkor Wat. It was really impressive, but then again, we haven’t seen the real thing yet. Margreet and Herbert would become our travel mates for the rest of our time in Laos and into Cambodia. The next day we all headed back over the Mekong river and down to the 4000 Islands, a little primitive paradise where hotel rooms are bungalows overlooking the fast-flowing Mekong and the electricity only comes on for a few hours a night. There was no beach and no swimming in the high river and it was unbearably hot. We lazed there for three days in our hammocks and only managed to walk to the next island to see a waterfall and a local funeral before our Laotian visas ran out and we had to head into Cambodia, just a few miles away.