It may have been only a bus ride from Vietnam but laid-back Laos feels a world away from its hectic neighbour. It’s a country of golden temples, tangerine-robed monks, jungle clad mountains, and some reserved but very friendly people. It almost feels like the earth spins a bit slower in Laos and, for us, it has been the perfect place to change down a gear as we approach the end of our trip – we’ll be home in a couple of weeks!
We spent our first couple of days in Laos in its capital – Vientiane, which could possibly be the quietest capital city in the world. There are lots of examples of its French colonial history with wide boulevards, cafes, and architectural refinement. There’s even an ‘Arc de Triomphe’, albeit a concretely replica built in the 1960’s!
Pride of place though is a the ‘Pha That Luang’ (Great Sacred Stupa), which is the most important national monument in Laos, a symbol of Buddism and the country’s sovereignty. Images of the stupa appear on all official documents and bank notes. It’s about 4km out of the city so we rented bicycles and leisurely pedalled out to it, and to be fair it is pretty impressive.
They must use a lot of gold paint as nearly every Buddist monument is covered in it, as was demonstrated by numerous statues and buildings that surrounded the stupa – including the architecturally impressive national history museum (we didn’t go in). Besides the Budist monuments and the Arch there’s not too much to see in Vientiane, but nevertheless we enjoyed lazily cycling around its quiet streets and enjoying a coffee or two in some of the cafes.
With the Euro 2012 footy tournament on at the moment we have to plan our long distance bus trips carefully. For example we wanted to take an overnight but to the northern town of Luang Prabang about 12 hours away, but because England were playing France that evening we decided to break up the journey and stop in the infamous town of Vang Vieng (about 150km north) to watch the game. We didn’t really want to go to Vang Vieng, it has a reputation as a place where young backpackers go to indulge in booze and drugs. Sadly this is exactly what we discovered. Having said that when we first arrived we were pleasantly surprised as the view of the surrounding misty mountains from our guesthouse, at the quiet end of the town, was lovely.
Most people are here to go tubing, which is floating down the river in an inflatable ring stopping at the numerous bars along the river bank to down shots of Whisky or indulge in magic mushroom shakes. Of course taking getting totally wasted whilst playing in a fast-flowing river is not a good mix and on average 40 backpackers a year drown here – an incredible statistic that had us wondering why the place hasn’t been shut down, this newspaper article sums it all up if you want to know.
We went into the town to have some food, a very big and tasty burger, and watch the game. It wasn’t a great atmosphere, but watching it with my drunken compatriots was painful and we couldn’t wait to get back to the tranquil hotel. Unfortunately this tranquillity was ruined when we realised that we were sharing our bed with a load of bed bugs. Thus, first thing in the morning we were on the bus travelling north to Luang Prabang. Lesson learnt – if somewhere has a bad reputation, give it a miss!
It was only a few hundred KM’s but the journey took six hours on a very bendy road up and down mountain passes, which gave us some fantastic views although there were some pretty scary drop offs!
Thankfully we arrived safely in timeless Luang Prabang, which we liked immediately. Lying on the banks of the Mekong River surrounded by mountains the town has a scenic setting, which coupled with some lovely colonial buildings, Buddhist temples, and a easy-going atmosphere make it a lovely place.
Of course this hasn’t gone unnoticed and the town is firmly on the tourist trail, but unlike Vang Vieng it hasn’t had a negative impact. There are numerous guesthouses, restaurants, and European style cafes – you can get a good coffee here – but it all somehow seems to fit in with the vibe of the town. We stayed at the cheap but nice Mao Pha Shok guest house, which had a room with a balcony overlooking the river.
This was a contributing factor that has seen us stay in Luang Prabang for 6 days, which we have taken at gentle pace, this is not a place to rush about, mainly due to late nights watching the football! There are numerous temples dotted around the town, which are all similar, but it was interesting to see what the monks (there are lots of them in Luang Prabang) get up to at the towns main temple, Wat Xieng Thong – pretty much anything that needs doing it seems, including a bit of decorating.
There were other interesting temples across the river, which we crossed in a long thin ferry boat, and it’s fair to say that there’s quite a difference on the opposite back from the town. In Luang Prabang you can get a cappuccino and a croissant in a French style cafe, whilst over the river people live in simple huts on dirt roads – I guess you could say this is the ‘real’ Laos.
We walked a couple of KM’s along the river bank through villages and found several simple temples along the way. Again there were several monks resident and we learnt that parents (especially those from poor backgrounds) send their sons to be educated in Buddism as they cannot provide for them. The monks live a simple life with few possessions but they are highly respected. The most interesting temple was surprisingly in a big limestone cave, Wat Tham Xieng Maen, which we found with the help of a young girl (approx. 10) with a torch who unlocked the entrance doors set in the hillside.
Once inside we were surprised by how large the cave was – the girl couldn’t speak much English but it seemed like they worshipped it as Buddha’s burial site, and we saw lots of broken Buddha statues lying around. It was quite a bizarre experience walking around a dark cave with a child as a guide – of course she insisted on a tip! Another temple, Wat Chom Phet, was set at the top of a step staircase up the hillside, and on climbing it we had a good view back over the river towards Luang Prabang.
The ferry driver picked us up and took us on cruise along the river for the sunset, which was a leisurely trip during which we saw several fishermen working with their nets. We enjoyed the sunset whilst sipping on a can of the local Beer – Beerlao – very relaxing.
We had initially thought Laos’s food was similar to Thai, but this is because many restaurants serve Thai food to tourists as it’s more popular. Traditional Laos food is based on sticky rice, which is served up anytime of the day. We found a restaurant called Tamarind, which specialised in introducing tourists to local food with a menu full of detailed descriptions it really aided our understanding. We tried the tasting platter, which consisted of river seaweed, stewed bamboo shoots, spicy jungle vegetables, a Luang Prabang sausage, buffalo rind chilli paste, and of course sticky rice. An interesting experience with some pretty intense, and new, flavours!
We had a look around the Royal Palace, which was built relatively recently in 1904 for the Laos king and his family. The palace served as the residence for three successive kings until 1975 when a revolution saw the royal family exiled to a cave in Northern Laos, since then the palace has been a museum. As you might imagine it’s grand building with large airy rooms and a golden decor, and includes the Pha Bang Buddha statue that gives the town its name.
For another sunset we climbed the 400 steps up to the summit of Mt. Phu Si where a golden stupa, That Chomsi, sits high overlookinig the town – at night it’s lit up and looks very spiritual from below. In the humidity it’s a sweat inducing climb but the views over the town and river are well worth the effort.
At the top we met some local teenagers who wanted to practise their English and we enjoyed talking with them and learning about their culture whilst taking in the views. After climbing down the steps we had a wander through the picturesque night market, which is setup every evening on the main road through the town outside the Royal Palace. Friendly traders sell some delightful souvenirs, and because in Laos the people aren’t pushy, as is common elsewhere in Asia, there’s a really nice atmosphere. The market is surprisingly long and it’s hard to walk through it all without being tempted to buy something!
After another late, and frustrating, night watching England at Euro 2012, we decided to stay up to watch the Morning Alms ceremony at 5:30am. This is a centuries old tradition where the monks walk through the town to receive food offerings, normally sticky rice, from the town’s residents. For the residents it’s a sign of respect to the monks and for the monks it’s an important source of food. There’s a lot of etiquette involved, such as you should never be higher than a monk (everyone kneels down), which makes it hard for tourists to get involved without causing offence. After much debate we bought some sticky rice from our guesthouse, which Lisa joined in with the locals to hand out (literally) to the Monks who carry a large pot for receiving the donations. It was all over really quickly, twenty or so monks walked past single file and received the rice without speaking or any eye contact – quite a strange experience.
Things happen early in Luang Prabang and at 6am a morning market starts where people from rural areas come into the town to sell their produce. There are no supermarkets in Laos so this is where the locals go to do their grocery shopping, by 9am it’s all finished. Despite it being a rainy morning the market was colourful and vibrant – albeit in the laid-back Laos way!
After the market we were gasping for some sleep so slept for the rest of the morning, suitably refreshed, in the afternoon we visited the nearby Kuang Si waterfall. The waterfall is tiered over several levels with turquoise pools at each level that are ideal for a refreshing swim – although the water was surprisingly cold!
The following day was my birthday and Lisa’s present to me (and herself!) was a 2-day ‘Mahout’ (the driver and keeper of an elephant) experience. There are several companies that offer these experiences near Luang Prabang so she did some research to find one that cares for the wellbeing of elephants and settled on the ‘Elephant Village’ who focus on rehabilitating elephants from the logging industry. Laos’s is described as ‘the Land of a million elephants’ so it seemed only right that we spend some time with them whilst we were here. It’s located about 15km out of Luang Prabang, down some bumpy dirt roads, on the banks of the Nam Khan River.
Our day started by learning the basic commands of driving the elephants “Song” commands the elephant to lift its leg to help you get on, “Bei” is go, “Hau” is stop, “Si” is right, and “Huay” is left. Of course this went in one ear and out the other, but thankfully we had a real mahout on the elephants with us (most of the time!). Next we learnt how to get up on to the elephants neck – use the elephant’s left leg as a step up and grab hold of her left ear and pull yourself up – easy? No, to the unitiated it’s an undignified scramble up and I couldn’t help feeling sorry for the elephant as I yanked at her ear!
Thankfully the elephant, ‘Me Wah’, was patient and didn’t seem to mind – they only use female elephants as they are more gentle. Once up on the neck you then have to fight a bit of vertigo as it’s very high up there! You move as far forward as possible and wedge your knees in behind the elephant’s ears to grip on, and then before you know it you’re off ambling around the field.
After this short practice ride we feed ‘Me Wah’ a load of bananas, which she eagerly reached up for with her trunk.
Later, on a different elephant with a seat strapped to its back, Lisa and I, with a friendly mahout walking alongside, rode out through a village down to the river taking it in turns to ‘play mahout’ along the way. I have to say it was more comfortable riding in the padded seat rather than on the prickly (they have lots of sharp hairs) neck but hey that’s not what we were here for!
It looks like I know what I’m doing eh? Looks are deceiving as I felt the elephant did exactly what it wanted, usually stopping to pull up a bush to chew on, except when the mahout gave her some commands. It was fun though and we had a lot of laughs as the elephants, thankfully, plodded along at a relaxing pace.
After a bit of lunch we checked into a lodge on the banks of the river in a very scenic spot where we would stay overnight. Then we rode an elephant each up into the mountains where they are left to their own devices, on a long chain, in the jungle until the next morning.
Afterwards we visited a waterfall up river, not too exciting as it was pretty much dry, and then cooled off in the lovely swimming pool at the lodge, which had quite a view.
We then relaxed the evening away with a few Beerlaos’s whilst overlooking the river – it had been a very different but fantastic birthday! Next morning we were up early as we had to trek up the mountain to help the mahouts collect the elephants, which we then rode down to the river for a bath – I’m not sure what they had been doing all night but they were filthy! To say the elephants liked the water is an understatement – they couldn’t wait to get in! I have to say I was a little apprehensive going into the water on the back of a several ton animal – the river was fast-flowing, chocolate brown, and pretty high thanks to a load of overnight rain – but you grip on and get on with it!
The elephants were splashing water all over the place and ducking under the water so naturally we got totally soaked, thankfully the water wasn’t too cold, but it was a load of fun. We brushed them off, which they seemed to like especially behind their ears, and after 15 mins or so the elephants emerged looking lovely and clean – what an amazing experience!
There ended our training and we were then told we could now consider ourselves ‘Mahouts’! It was then our turn to have a wash (not in the river!) followed by a nice breakfast before we went back to Luang Prabang. I would thoroughly recommend the ‘Elephant Village’ if you are looking to spend some time with elephants whilst in Laos.
We spent the rest of the day chilling out in a cafe by the river, where I enjoyed a gorgeous ‘Cookie Sundae’ as a belated birthday ‘cake’.
In the late afternoon we sadly, we didn’t want to leave, boarded a bus that would take us overnight out to the Thai border. It was an arduous and bumpy 12–hour trip in a cramped mini-bus along some very bumpy dirt roads – not the best overnight bus trip we have taken – but arrived at the border around 6am. Laos and Thailand are separated by the Khong river, so we got stamped out of Laos and then took a little boat across the river and got stamped into Thailand – as far as border crossings go quite cool!
It was then a nice and smooth, it was obvious immediately that Thailand is much more developed, four hour bus ride from the border to the city of Chiang Mai where we arrived late yesterday afternoon. We were shattered so after a bit of Khao Soi, a delicious noodle soup with coconut milk that is a speciality here, we went to bed. I set an alarm and forced myself to watch the England v Ukraine game last night, which thankfully England won!
So now we are in Thailand, the last, and no means least, country of our 15 month trip – we’ll spend two weeks here. We were pretty sad to leave Laos, it’s a lovely peaceful country with some really lovely people – there’s so much more to it than ‘tubing’ and we would definitely go back there again.
There’s a load of photos from our trip through Laos here.