My first major stop in Laos was the gorgeous town of Luang Prabang. I had done zero research about it (or Laos, or any of this trip really) and was happily surprised to discover that its old city is listed as UNESCO World Heritage. Laos was a French protectorate when the territory was still Indochina, and the colonial influence is definitely visible in the old town. As a French person especially, I found I was recognising French touches everywhere in the architecture: the balconies, the shutters, the colours, the front steps… It felt very much like it was out of an old French film.
It’s all in French everywhere
On our second day, some friends I met on my boat trip and I woke up at dawn to go experience the giving of the alms. In many towns of Laos, monks walk the town centre at sunrise to receive small donations of food from the locals. While curious to watch, it was the first time on this trip that I really wondered where the line should be drawn between respectful tourism and plain old twattery. I can’t imagine the monks, or the locals, being thrilled to see tuk-tuks full of tourists coming down on their streets, hastily putting on the required scarves to be able to pose for photos as they give out little morsels of sticky rice. Our group chose not to participate in giving out food, but then again, we were there taking pictures… I can’t decide what’s best or worst – or if there is a solution to what’s a much larger problem, for that matter.
After a quick two-hour snooze, we regrouped and decided to head to the local attraction, Kuang Si waterfall. Another reason taking the slow boat is so good is that it allows you to meet tons of people who are pretty much on the same route as you. So 13 of us packed ourselves into a couple minivans to go check out Kuang Si.
Fady and Sylvia are one of the couples I met on the boat and travelled to Luang Prabang with. Luckily for me and the blog, Fady is a dedicated GoPro-owner and videographer and he captured the day better than my pictures can…
We finished the day by heading up Mount Phousi to go watch the sunset. It’s another of the main things to do in Luang Prabang, and it’s worth the however-many-steps to the top. There’s a story associated to it. You’re supposed to count the steps on your way up and on your way down; getting the same number each way brings good luck. My talent with numbers means I got confused after about 12 steps.
These picture-perfect aspects of Laos are just one side of the coin, though. The colonial influence that makes the beauty of Luang Prabang contrasts with the realities of the wars that are still a threat to the Lao people on a daily basis. During my time in Luang Prabang I visited the UXO Visitor Centre. UXO stands for unexploded ordnance: bombs that fell onto a land without exploding, but still could. They still kill around 100 people each year in Laos, mostly in the countryside, where children stumble upon them while playing or farmers dig them out accidentally. But there is also a growing scrap-metal trade, with more and more people going out of their way to find scraps of bombs and explosives to sell.
It was a tough story to hear. Laos is the most bombed country in the world, and I felt ashamed and self-centred that I had no idea about any of it. This, especially considering Laos’s past history with my home country. You can donate to UXO Laos, the national programme for the search and destruction of UXO, via World Without Mines, or COPE, the Vientiane-based Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise that provides support and rehabilitation for disabled people in Laos, including victims of UXO.