Laos is one of those countries I had no clue about before our brief visit. For those in the dark:
- Laos is landlocked and surrounded by Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Myanmar and China.
- Population is almost 7 million.
- Religions: Buddhist 67%, Christian 1.5%, other and unspecified 31.5%.
- Has been ruled by a Communist government since 1975.
- Considered the most heavily bombed country in the world – from 1964 to 1973 more than 580,000 bombing missions were launched over Laos by the U.S. Air Force, in a war that most of the Western world didn’t know about.
- Movies you may have seen – Rescue Dawn and Air America.
- Strong Vietnamese and Thai influences with a French colonial past. You can read a nice history lesson here.
- Visa on arrival for $35USD.
We decided to make a single stop in the city of Luang Prabang on our way from Thailand to Vietnam. Until the Communist takeover in 1975, it was the royal capital for the Kingdom of Laos. The old town centre with its French colonial architecture is a UNESCO World Heritage site and sits at the banks of both the Nam Khan and Mekong rivers.
It is fair to say that Luang Prabang is not representative of the entire country. Critics may say that it is too touristy or complain that there is nothing to do beyond a two or three day visit. While it’s hard to argue against, it doesn’t change how fun and relaxing it was to spend eight days here cycling around town, eating very tasty (and cheap) food, visiting the local sights, not to mention spending time at the hotel pool when temperatures were in excess of 35C (95F).
Many people traveling from Northern Thailand will take a ‘slow-boat’ along the Mekong river from Chiang Khong to Luang Prabang. It takes about two days to complete which includes a night in a hotel at the midway point.
Having heard mixed reviews from people who had taken the journey, we decided to take the relatively cheap one hour flight. I had prepared Alina in advance for our first trip involving the French built ATR-72 aircraft which is very common on short-hop routes in this region.
Great flight, friendly service, and surprisingly very quiet in the cabin. Massive props to Lao Airlines!
Our hotel, My Dream Boutique, proved to be an excellent choice, especially with its location across the river in a quieter part of town. We encountered a very friendly staff who went out of their way to make our stay as comfortable as possible. Even the onsite restaurant was reasonably priced (for a hotel) and they offered a nice selection of lunch and dinner options when we didn’t feel like going into town.
Cycling across the bridge…no pressure!
There are two bamboo bridges for pedestrians that offer a shortcut in and out of town. Both are dismantled before monsoon season to prevent them from being washed away in the raging river! A small fee is charged to use the bridge before 6PM in order to pay for its construction and upkeep.
Luang Prabang has over 80 Buddhist temples and in a tradition going back many centuries, they leave their monasteries very early in the morning (between 5AM and 6AM) to receive alms from the locals.
In single file, eldest first, the monks will walk in silent meditation through town. Locals get up early to prepare fresh sticky rise and wait for the monks to walk by. Bananas, flowers, incense sticks may be offered too. Whatever the offering, it is placed directly into a small bowl carried by a strap on the shoulder of each monk.
This is a beautiful tradition. Unfortunately many tourists, perhaps some unknowingly, treat the event as an interactive cultural show rather than a spiritual ritual. We were happy to sit on the opposite side of the road, to observe, and take a few pictures discretely but apparently that is not how some people behave. Some more reading here for those interested.
There is an abundance of restaurants serving International cuisine in town, many of which are very highly rated on TripAdvisor. On our first night we sat down at one, looked at the menu, became overwhelmed by the choices (Italian, American, Japanese, Indian etc.) and prices ($6 for an entree?!) and promptly left for the hole in the wall next door. It’s hard to beat $1.80 for a bowl of noodle soup. Suffice to say, we did not regret our decision.
Our hotel food…
Next to the Night Market you can find lots of street food stalls…
While the buffet food looks great, you just don’t know how long it has been sitting out in the heat and how many hands have touched the serving spoons etc. Street stalls are a safer bet!
Tasty coconut dessert…
Iced coffee in a bag and a meal derived almost entirely from rice!
The small side dish is jeow sukee – a peanut-style dip for the green beans. Super tasty!
We did splurge on traditional Lao at the well renowned Tamarind Restaurant which also runs a very good cooking school. It came highly recommended by those we met who had taken the course. Lao people use their hands for eating and sticky rice is the central component of all meals. There are no ‘courses’ so all food (soup, vegetables, fish, buffalo meat etc.) arrives at the same time and is eaten ‘family-style’.
Pumpkin and custard deliciousness…
While out cycling, we encountered a food stall selling the best street dessert we’ve had since Colombia. Let me introduce you to roti-style pancake with banana (or chocolate) sauce.
The cart has a little charcoal oven under the hot plate which has to be stoked before each pancake is made.
The night market is unlike similar markets we encountered in Thailand in that it is very calm and a relaxing experience. Who knew having personal space made walking and shopping more enjoyable?
Many of the items on sale are locally produced fabrics, arts and crafts, though there is a fair share of counterfeit merchandise too. Lots of Levi’s, Nike, Abercrombie & Fitch with “Made in USA” labels – as if anything is manufactured in the USA anymore!
Living Land Farm
We were picked up from our hotel at 8AM by moto taxi and driven directly to the farm. Even at this hour in the morning it is blazing hot, so we were glad to receive a cold reception – ice cool water bottles and traditional hats to keep the sun off our heads. Fortunately we had a small group of 8 people which meant our guide Laut, who is also the farm manager, could take us slowly through the production process and allow everyone to get their hands dirty. (Yes, I was that person asking questions!)
Laut explained that the farm is a co-operative venture amongst a group of local families with the visitor program being used to supplement their income. Not only do they harvest rice, they also grow vegetables and fruits, and the men produce bamboo crafts for sale too. Not surprisingly, all members of the family, from the youngest to the oldest, have some role to play.
In what is a growing trend (!), the youngest generations no longer want to work on the farm in searing heat, and performing back breaking work, preferring instead to drive a Tuk-tuk or work in a factory. The few hours we spent in the field made us appreciate those reasons.
I don’t think either of us will ever take for granted the amount of manual labour required to produce a small bowl of rice again.
It should be noted that all of the work is done by hand except for the ploughing which is where the Water Buffalo slips and slides in. We watched one struggle in the mud with the plough and enquired about its care and treatment. Laut gave us a good story of treating them as family, having pet names, giving a funeral and not eating it for meat. We would like to believe that!
I’m glad to report that the living land project lives up to all the hype. And that’s not just the fermented rice wine talking either!
The Royal Palace is where the King and Queen of the Lao monarchy lived until they were ousted by the Communist takeover in 1975. Today it is a museum preserving the bedrooms and living quarters, displaying various diplomatic gifts received from countries around the world. There is even a gift from the United States – a miniature Apollo lander on a fragment of moon rock (or something from the Mojave desert!).
The museum was a little expensive ($3.70) for what it offered and photos were prohibited. I got through it in 30 minutes while Alina waited outside having been refused entry for her scandalous display of shoulder skin. Temples will generally loan a small shawl for free, while this museum was charging a ridiculous price ($0.60 cents) to cover up. You can’t put a price on Alina’s principles.
As mentioned earlier, the city has over 80 Buddhist temples. And having seen quite a few in Thailand we were very selective on which ones we visited, especially as many had an entrance fee. Charging to visit a religious shrine: who do they think they are? Catholics?
Mount Phou Si
Right in the middle of town is Mount Phou Si which offers great views of the city below. On top is, you guessed it, another temple! This is a very popular spot to catch sunrise or sunset. With a single ticket giving access for the entire day, we hiked up once in the morning and again at sunset. Not the most spectacular view but there were some nice Buddhist monuments along the steps up.
Each day of the week depicts a Buddha in a different pose. It would be no surprise to my mother that “Tuesday”, my day of birth, is in the reclining pose. She always said I was lazy!
Tat Kuang Si Waterfalls
Our friends Kina & Anders recommended we take a private Tuk-tuk to the waterfalls rather than an organized tour from town. We really didn’t want to spend $30.00 so Alina made inquiries and found a couple who had already made arrangements. Thankfully they agreed to let us share the ride and we had the place to ourselves for a few hours before the tourist buses arrived.
We spent a wonderful morning in the company of Lorilyn & Allen; hiking to the top of the falls in flip flops (Alina’s favorite type of hiking) and swimming in the pools.
Located just inside the park is the Free the Bears sanctuary and houses bears rescued from captivity or illness. It was sad to learn of another large animal being hunted, killed or captured for supposedly medicinal purposes. It is quite common in Asia to extract bile from the gall bladder of bears to treat hemorrhoids, sore throats, sores, bruising, muscle ailments etc.
Captured or farmed bears are milked for their bile everyday and live a miserable existence. You can read more here.
Though intended to inform visitors about the plight of bears across the world, it looks to me like these bears are facing a firing squad. Perhaps that was the real intention…
I can’t really finish the blog post on such a depressing note so here are monks on a bridge next to a waterfall…
And here playing Kator – the national pastime in Laos…
One of my favorite places thus far and I would highly recommend a detour if you are in the region.
Next stop Hanoi, Vietnam!