Laos (pronounced Lao) PDR (People’s Democratic Republic) is a landlocked country and the Mekong river is its soul. I entered Laos in Huay Xai crossing the Mekong river at the very north of Thailand near Chiang Rai.
Laos looked considerably less developed than Thailand at the very first sight. Thai people abbreviate the PDR (of Laos PDR) as Please Don’t Rush and quite rightly so – things looked relaxed and slow right as we crossed the river. After going through the visa process, we started our boat ride (commonly known in the backpacker circle as the 2 day slow bo’) along Mekong River and made our way to Luang Prabang.
I was lucky to be with a great group of people who would accompany me through Laos to Cambodia. However I would write here about my thoughts about the locals and places I had visited and hence skip my interactions with my companions.
I wanted to jump into the Mekong river and go for a quick swim as we headed out of Huay Xai but the current was too strong to do that. So decided enjoy the view and take a nap. The boat ride was relaxing and in a weird way, spiritual. We reached Pak Beng just before sunset.
Pak Beng is a small town of only 200 people (with at least as many backpackers). Laos was a French protectorate since late 1800s. French influence across Laos is overwhelming especially in their culinary traditions. In the small town of Pak Beng you can find decent croissants and French pastry – was a pleasant surprise after eating Pad Thai as staple diet for more than a week.
Ok – first night in Laos came with some hard facts. Laos is a part of the Golden Triangle for drug trafficking – many locals as well as tourists died of drug overdose (and also doing stupid things like jumping head first into the shallow bit of the river). Here is a trivia: More Australians died partying in Laos than in Vietnam war – sums it up. The local government (at the behest of the Australian government I was told) is quite strict in controlling drugs in Laos. There is also a drinks curfew starting at 2330 – there is police patrol enforcing that. In spite of all these measures, it is very easy to buy drugs in Laos. The problem in Laos is two fold – not only there is/was a lot of drugs but also the healthcare framework is non existent. Pak Beng is about 8 hours away from the nearest hospital and there are quite recent stories of people dying of aforementioned antics.
Next morning we set off for Luang Prabang – the boat ride as pleasant and soothing as ever. We reached the town around mid-day which left us with plenty of time to check it out.
Luang Prabang is located in the peninsula of Nam Khan and Mekong rivers. It is a pretty little town of 50,000 people with lots Buddhist temples as well as cute French colonial buildings – the whole town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In my trip so far, it was definitely the prettiest place I had been. Went on a quick bicycle ride around town to check out Wat Xieng Thong, a local temple. Then just before dusk climbed up the Phou Si hill to watch sunset over the Mekong river – although touristy, it was a pleasant experience. Many people around the world and Laos itself come to Luang Prabang to become Buddhist monks – independent of your religion you can experience being a Buddhist monk for a period of time. Many foreigners become monks for periods as short as 2 weeks to a month; many locals choose to become monks after retiring. As a monk you learn about Theravāda Buddhism and lead a disciplined life as dictated by their code of conduct (227 rules). The idea of becoming a monk for a month did cross my mind … I will probably become one at some point of time in my life but it was not possible then. So, monks have to shave their head (and eye-brows) once every 2 weeks (probably more frequently for a hairy mofo like me) … if you indeed decide to become a monk make sure you grow your eye-brows back before you head to the border control.
The Kuang Si falls near town is a fun place to be. There is a big waterfall and there are many small ones in front of that. You can jump off a small-ish waterfall and do a rope swing to dive into the pond in front of the falls. It is very good fun and if you are not an absolute idiot like me, you cannot hurt yourself (doing something like landing on your back). There is a bear rescue centre on the way to the falls which is worth a visit.
Back in town, the night market in Luang Prabang needs mention. I had said before that I am not a huge fan of night markets in general but somehow the one in this town had a charm and I could not resist myself but roam around. The more fun bit was helping some of my co-travellers to bargain … my Indian genes came back to life there. The night food market was cheap, clean and delicious. You could always top-up your already full stomach with some street-side desserts – crepes and other French pastries are widespread everywhere in Laos. With a full stomach I had headed to Utopia bar by the Mekong River both the evenings that I stayed in the town. It is quite a sweet spot with a good view and pleasant breeze to cool you down after a hot and humid afternoon (depending on when you visit Laos). However, the curfew held in this town too … so we tried to find spots to head to after 2330. As per some recommendations, we ended up in a bowling alley just out of town. Quite an odd spot – they served alcohol but the ambience was non-existent as it was a huge well-lit hall with no music. I had no intention to prove my bowling skills to the intoxicated back-packers out there so I started talking to some of the locals who work there. It seems the Chinese (yes, the Chinese) had found ways to circumvent the local laws to find a loop-hole that would allow them to run the spot past the drinks curfew deadline. They served only Chinese alcohol there and stuff like the welcome sign etc were all in Chinese – odd as no one, neither the tourists nor the locals could read the language. Anyway, I got the feeling that it was generating employment albeit breaking laws (most of the employees there were students working part-time) and not causing any environmental or any major cultural damage … and the Chinese whiskey that they served was not bad either. The fun, however, ended there around 1-ish but there were other (less-legit) places to head to after that if one wanted to carry on.
Next stop was the small town of Vang Vieng which was first settled in the 1300s as a staging post between Luang Prabang and Vientiane (the current capital of Laos). The ancient Laotian way of life has not changed but just have been taken over by backpackers. The nature there was beautiful – the shallow Nam Song river winding past tall misty hills. There used to be lots of parties along the river and you could tube down floating from one party to another – all that is shut down because of this. I was not very lucky with the weather in Vang Vieng to make the most out of it. I had gone kayaking along the river and it was good fun – first time I had done this and it will not be the last. The town was dotted with hippy-esque joints to cater backpackers – food was cheap and people friendly. But playing beer-pong in one of the local bars was not the best of moves – I had fallen sick there and it took me out of action for about 2 days.
Vientiane is a short bus ride from Vang Vieng. It is the capital of Laos – a small tidy town of 800,00 people which feels very cosy. It is located on the Mekong river – Thailand on the other side. The town has quite a few tourist attractions – best described pictorially.
COPE and some history
One thing that needs separate mention here is COPE in Vientiane and the related history about bombing of Laos. Laos formed a vital part of the Ho Chi Minh trail for transport of weapons and other materials from communist North Vietnam to the US backed South. From 1964 to 1973, the U.S. dropped over 2 million tons of ordnance over Laos in 580,000 bombing missions, the equivalent of one planeload every 8 minutes, 24 hours a day, for 9 years. At least 270 million cluster bomblets were dropped as part of the bombing campaign; approximately 80 million failed to detonate. Every year 100s of men, women and mostly children lose their eyes, limbs and even lives as they come across these unexploded bombs, locally known as bombies. COPE helps these innocent victims of a war that’s long over. You can donate money to help the victims – buy a limb, educate local doctors etc. It was a humbling experience – I donated some money for an artificial limb, sent a postcard to my mom with the details and moved on. If you are ever in Vientiane, you should make it a point to visit this centre …
Laos is a fascinating country – idyllic and peaceful. Most Laotians have gone through a lot in their lifetime and still their past haunts them as bombs explode out of the blue. But, they have not taken up arms against their past oppressors like many others would. They have forgiven them and moved on with their lives. They welcome everyone to their country from Indians to Australians and Americans with the same kindness and generosity. This forgiveness is the essence of this beautiful country and its happy inhabitants. If most citizens of this world will think and behave like a typical Laotian, I believe that the world’s going to be a very peaceful place.
A lot of their calm, I found, is down to their Buddhist way of life. I want to come back to Laos again and be a Buddhist monk for a period of time … don’t know when this will happen but I have noted it down in my bucket list.