THE MISSING POST – this is the missing post from Francesca’s writings on her laptop. The laptop died and I have only just recovered the data – here it is!
Spend any time in Laos and it quickly becomes clear that tourism has the potential to ravage this beautiful culture. Travelling through the Laotian hubs is to see history in action. Starting with Luang Prabang; the epitome of French colonialism, forever been preserved for the future by UNESCO. Then comes the hedonistic delights of Vang Vieng; embracing wholeheartedly the wanton desires ‘twix tourism and Bacchus. Confident and casual Vientiane is a capital that strives for progress and modernisation and yet has a totally inherited European attitude; all relaxation and good food. Southern city Pakse is the strange child. It appears untouched by the 21th century and is rooted in the 1980’s.
Here is our journey…
Luang Prabang – UNESCO
Nestled beside the now golden river of the Mekgong, with temples scattered over the surrounding hills, Luang Prabang is an idyllic setting. Arrival at sunset is beautifully romantic and melts the heart of even the most hardened of travellers. As we disembarked up the river bank towards town the warm low-light danced around us. The air was thick with tuk-tuk drivers laid in-wait. With 7 of us in our travelling group we had bargaining power on our side and Bobbits slickly negotiated a driver for the hostel trawl. J&I had pre-booked a room and so the troop piled into the guesthouse opposite.
We honestly fell in love with this place almost instantly. Laotians are very warm, friendly people and much more relaxed than their somewhat pushy neighbours. This relaxed vibe is so easy to slip into with the grand ex-colonial houses adorning the streets, which infuse each new turn with beauty, character and charm. I’m happy to report that the UN shares this view and has protected it from the ravages of modernisation by adding it to the World Heritage List thereby protecting its charms.
The city is based around a large Buddhist temple atop a hill in the centre. It has a richer, more classic area at one end of town, which is filled with some amazing and ancient temples. This then gives way to two streets adjoining this lush area to the more down market west end. One street runs through town and is lined wall to wall with shops and travel agents of all types. Some of these shops are very high end and charge accordingly, where as others offer more basic fare, with the night market being at the far west end holding all the bargains.
The other street follows the eastern curve of the river and is made up, mostly, of bars and western gift shops. It was on this street that we found the excellent Kop Noi fairtrade shop and its counterpart bookshop/cafe of L’ettrager. The European influence of this area is vivid and it could quite easily be a continental riverside from anywhere in the union. Once past these streets you are into the main accommodation areas, still nice, with large buildings full of character and gentile sophistication. It was here that we stayed and all in all were very happy with the room.
One of the main attractions, apart from the alms and the river, is the ancient temple. This has a small cost to enter, but the money was well spent. The temple is a majestically old building that exudes an ancient character all of its own. The architectural style of the Laos branch of Buddhist temple building is very peaceful. Darker and more Japanese almost in its colour choices, the temple belies the bright and garish colours of its Thailand and Malaysian cousins. Aside the main hall is a number of other buildings. One contained the remains of hundred-year old Buddhist icons, statues and paraphernalia, all in an advanced state of decay.
The upshot was that walking around here made one feel the hand of history most clearly and the half faded, broken faces of the Buddha statues made for eerie but moving images. The main building itself is painted all over with gold figures in outline. The sight of these shining in the sunlight, passing through slotted windows framed in wooden relief, made for some of the most memorable photos from my entire time in Laos.
We spent a good hour in the main hall finding all the interesting angles to shoot all this from and not ignoring the gigantic statue of the man himself in the centre of it all. Recommended!
By day street vendors tempt you with Laotian delicacies like ‘meat on a stick’, sugarcane juice, fresh coconuts and for the less adventurous; French baguettes filled with ‘La Vache Qui Rie’ or Nutella. Nightly, the market comes to life full of accessories and ornaments galore. All this is crowned off by the seduction of the life by the river.
I could have stopped here forever.
Part of my journey through Asia has been taken up with learning about Buddhism. It was therefore a real pleasure to see the Monks here wandering between their many temples in town and the surrounding hills. Their simple, beautiful robes of rich orange cotton adds a vibrancy to life and its daily rituals. Each morning, just before dawn breaks through the darkness, alms are collected by monks in exchange for a daily blessing. Monks process along the pavements to greet kneeling devotees for a blessing. For me this was a beautiful moment to admire the devotion of these people and think of the gift that Buddha bestowed upon everyone by showing us the path to enlightenment.
Alms traditionally constitutes the gift of uncooked rice that is then cooked by the temple chef. Buying cooked rice from dawn street sellers is discouraged due to the quality of their provisions. Better to buy uncooked rice in advance from the local market. It is worth remembering that Monks are generally vegetarian when selecting your provisions. It is not respectful to be higher than a monk and look down on them, so it usually pays to follow others by adopting the kneeling position.
Anyone wanting to participate in alms-giving should take careful consideration to respect this sacred proceeding. Ensure you remain at a respectful distance when taking photographs especially when using flash photography. I chose to stay on the opposite pavement and use my zoom despite the limitations this brought to my photography. I was saddened to witness many onlookers make no such consideration as hoards of cameras encircled like vultures around the processing monks. This was distasteful to the monks, the alms-givers and others forced to watch. I wish people would consider putting any self-interest aside in this moment.
During our time here Tony got his doctors position in Byron Bay Australia, Galloway nearly blew his weeks’ budget on a single frosted Duvel, and we were fortunate enough to stumble upon an all-night temple party!
The temple party – the only photo taken
The temple party was a big event with Laotian and western music passionately played to a mixed audience dancing in front of the temple. The Laotian way is to dance only to Laotian music and to empty the dance floor at the end of each song. This made for an interesting vibe with the ‘half-cut’ foreigners dancing to everything no matter how bad it seemed to our western ears! After a few hours of jumping around we joined a large gathering of candle bearing Laotians and proceeded through town and back to the temple to pray and see a fireworks display.
Venturing out of town we enjoyed jumping in for a swim at the local waterfall and caught a glimpse of a few brown bears.
A quick swim and then a dangerous climb
We then climbed to the top of the falls for fantastic views of the valley. Back on the low ground we viewed the countryside from a tuk-tuk and got a real sense of daily life. Farming is still the primary occupation with ploughing done by water-buffalo and elephants used for logging. Children smiled and waved from their shell-like homes as we whizzed by.
It was hard to know where to begin to help
Vang Vieng – tubing and party central
Having begun with a cultural and very beautiful entrance into Laos it was now decision time. The question lay ahead, “do we follow our new found crazy friends to debauched Vang Vieng or follow the educational path to the Plain of Jars?” After much deliberation about whether we were too old for tubing we decided, “You’re only as old as you feel,” and headed to Vang Vieng.
Above the clouds journey to Vang Veing
Vang Vieng is essentially a party town for young travellers who love nothing better than to get battered and recover watching endless back-to-back episodes of ‘Friends’ while slumped on a couch in any of the central restaurants. For ‘Team Galloway’ this was heaven. Enthusiastically they arrived the day before the rest of us who decided Luang Prabang deserved us to ‘Stay Another Day’. The coach journey was long and very beautiful above the clouds, though the undisputed highlight was seeing a King Cobra on the road (thankfully from inside the coach). J saw it through the window and it then reared up to its full height. Everyone on that side of the coach went wild with excitement- it was a massive snake. Only five minutes previously our group had stopped for a pee break with some people venturing into the undergrowth!
On our arrival Colin was as excited as a jack rabbit and instantly jumped at the invitation from some random fellow Irishmen to go tubing immediately. We, however, settled into sunbathing on platforms over the river; periodically jumping in for a dip between games of cards and mojitos.
The view of the steep caste-shaped mountains created a wonderful backdrop and the sun glistened on the water.
That evening our Spanish contingent (Mariluz and Mariona) were getting increasingly concerned about Colin’s whereabouts. The Irishman had gone off without a word to them and they were not happy as it was now dark. As we discussed his disappearance Colin’s new-found Irish buddy arrived at the table and delivered to us Colin’s wallet and personal effects. Now nothing could calm or reassure Mariluz and the girls departed to check his room again for any signs of his return. With that Colin was spotted stumbling up the street. I have not seen someone so messed up in a long while. Sporting only Bermuda shorts his torso was covered in red drawings and his legs were torn to shreds.
We hollered to him, “How was tubing?”
“It’s the best fun I’ve EVER had EVER and I’m not joking!” Was his reply.
There is nothing funnier than a battered Irishman!
From there on in the night was a done deal, Colin was just too far gone to understand anything of the worry he caused and Mariluz couldn’t help but laugh at the state of him. We all decided to cut him no slack and went out drinking and dancing all night.
We decided to join in the fun
As morning dawned it was the rest of the group’s turn for tubing.
The definition of tubing is the strapping of oneself into a lorry inner-tube and floating down the river like a horde of misdirected ducks. Laotian tubing is nothing like this at all. The tubing part is really only used to get across the river from one outrageous bucket-bar to another. At these makeshift mud banked bars, drinks only come it buckets with added M150 (super Red Bull). After the first bar we were plunging into the river from swings and wrestling in mud pools between dancing like crazy-things and it lasted all day long. Mariluz demonstrated how to get really quite drunk the redress the balance with Colin.
J, of course, took a waterproof video camera and later made a YouTube of the day which is here:
It really took us a few days to recover down by the river, and there was hardly a wrench strong enough to prise us out of our hammocks, but eventually we moved on.
Vientiane – The Capital
Vientiane has a charm about it that grows on you quickly and belies its nature as a third-world capital city. Vientiane’s old quarter oozes with post-colonial charm and is home to some of the most beautiful and oldest Buddhist temples. It is also easy to get sucked into the relaxed European-style cafe culture; popping out for a long brunch of croissants and excellent Laotian coffee, sightseeing by bicycle in the afternoons and enjoying a delicious evening meal of crispy spring rolls, morning glory and Mekong fish wrapped in banana leaves by the river at sunset.
The river view / a fish supper! / Biking around town
There is no shortage of fun and different things to do here. Having melted for the best part of two months in Asia it was finally time to don our bathing suits again and go to a water park. Have you ever been to a water park where there were no queue for any of the water slides?
In fact we had the whole park to ourselves as although it was over 30 degrees in Laos it was still winter!
Vientiane’s water park would probably be closed down in Europe due to EU safety regulations. None-the-less, foam mats securely beneath us, arms firmly bent and legs straightened we launched ourselves down slides and dark twisted tubes into the waters below. This was topped off with some sunbathing and a delicious Turkish lunch.
The lovely nightlife of the capital
I felt ready again for a night’s antics and the cry went up to find a nightclub. Clubbing and Laos are not something that naturally mix. The Laotians notion of dancing is incredibly reserved and akin to line dancing. Thus, our team’s attempts to find a real nightclub induced some very funny moments including being driven halfway across the city only to find, whilst standing bemused in an empty hotel car park, that the nightclub was inside the hotel and didn’t open until the wee hours. Embarrassed we took the drivers recommendation of where to go next and wound up in a line-dancing hostess bar, where the waiter insisted on pouring our beers into glasses and Lenin got an all-male shoulder massage in the gents! Finally after one beer, and a quick line-dance, we departed.
We finally found a solitary bar with the sign of the bat on the door. This place was a last resort but was playing some great live music, including a brilliant rendition of Pink Floyd.
The next day, J and I explored the city by bike. Biking in Laos was not the smartest thing we ever did, as the roads are madness, but we enjoyed visiting the amazing temples and sights of the capital at our own pace.
Capital delights and a great break from the norm
Our final stop in the capital was to visit the inspiring and amazing MAG (Mines Action Group) and COPE. These two are covered in other blog entries, but I cannot stress enough the brilliant work they do for this wonderful country.
Pakse – southern regional town
Initially chosen as a stop-over on our way through to the 4,000 Islands we ended up here for four days.
As we waited for our pickup for the night-bus to Pakse, Bobbits and Lenin came to see us off. Little did we know they were planning a ruse. As we said our goodbyes they launched their surprise by announcing that they were coming with us! Sadly though events conspired against us and we ended up on separate buses!
The night-bus was a nightmare.
J and I squeezed ourselves into the ‘double’ bed with feet dangling into the aisle and my face pressed against the window. Moving was not an option. Topping off the physical torture was the ear-bursting cacophony of Laotian music screeching out at full blast from the bus TV. God-bless ear-plugs and eye-masks.
Smiling through adversity on the night bus to Pakse
We arrived at dawn in Pakse in need of a good nights sleep and a chiropractor! It took several hours waiting to secure ourselves a very basic room in a nice hostel, sorted. Rooms, we found out, were like gold dust; unbeknown to us the Laos Games (their version of the Olympic Games) was being held here and the following night was the Opening Ceremony. As it turned out our friends had skipped town and gone straight to the 4,000 Islands. In all honestly we felt a little cheated and jealous at the news, but soon events turned back in our favour.
Next afternoon ‘Team Galloway’ arrived in town after a disastrous journey via Savannahket (involving a small bus fire!) The Opening Ceremony was today and absolutely every room was full. We helped as much as we could, but eventually advised them to skip town and head onwards to Champasak. Begrudgingly they clambered into another tuk-tuk. Without a word uttered between them, we waved them goodbye.
That was the last we saw of them, until we met in Bangkok 2 months later!
That night J was very unwell and so I watched the celebrations complete with parachutists, traditional performances and fireworks exploding into the nights sky, without him; only accompanied by some locals. We later learned that some people ended up sleeping in temples that night, so bad was rooms’ situation in town.
Opening ceremony fireworks at the Laos Games
The next day, as we planned our escape to the islands, Bobbits and Lenin sent us a message, “We’re coming back up to Pakse tonight as there are no ATMs down here!”
How we laughed!
We fixed them up some gold-dust rooms (now a few had come available) and they arrived the next morning. So on our final night here we partied hard at the local funfair.
We were more bouncy than the bouncy castle and more dodgy than the dodgems. After the obligatory ‘meat-on-a-stick’ dinner our Pakse adventures were complete and the 4,000 islands were yet to come!
From here we had one last adventure on the Mekong before departing for Cambodia. For this please see my post on Laos PDR – Mekong Meanderings.