Thoughts from Laos

A Lao bus ride is not for the faint-hearted. It’s a mountainous country, with narrow winding roads and fearless drivers bordering on frankly reckless. But the view! Oh boy, the view.

laos

Driving from Luang Prabang through the mountains of northern Laos to get to Vang Vieng was spectacular. We passed small settlements along the road. The villagers were there, sitting outside their houses, walking to the nearest small market, the kids playing outside. I saw women washing clothes at a tank producing the thinnest stream of water I’d ever seen. The houses were simple, made of plain wood with hay roofs, or entirely of sheets of corrugated iron. They were never built on the ground, but always on stilts. I learnt later this is part of a religious tradition that believes stilts bring houses closer to heaven. It’s not without its practical uses, though: depending on their heights, I saw ground floors arranged with tables, cookers and hammocks. Countless hammocks. The always-open house doors showed little to no furniture inside; with shoes lined up outside the front step. Laundry was drying outside, sometimes getting a second wash from the frequent showers.

laos

In the background, mountains. Tall, lusciously green mountains, with dark tops wearing clouds for necklaces. The road snakes around the peaks, with minuscule streams of rainwater running either side. From time to time, a landslide reveals piles of red argile. Occasionally the pouring rain will turn them into muddy nightmares. It took five men, half an hour and a very valiant engine to get our minivan through one of those. Then the road continues, with a small waterfall adding a soundtrack to it all. That, and motorbikes wheezing past. Even in the most remote of places, where houses would be barely standing, there’d always be a motorbike or two parked outside.

laosI climb a mountain and turn around

The sheer majesty of the Lao countryside makes you feel really small, like a little kid staring at a tall Christmas tree. Sparkles in your eyes, questions and the feeling you’re seeing the prettiest, most precious thing in the whole world. Because of this, it didn’t surprise me much to find out that in spite of the omnipresence of Buddhist temples in Laos, many in the country are of animist belief. My bike tour guide in Luang Prabang told me about the beliefs of his people, the Khmu. They live mostly in the northern mountains of Laos, and they believe in nature, praying only to ancestors in times of sickness or need.

laos

To me, that’s what Laos is: a country of contrasts. Relatively developed towns, attracting heaps of backpackers and tourists, from quaint, darling Luang Prabang to the wildly beautiful (and alcoholised) Vang Vieng. The capital, Vientiane, reminded me of Bangkok: tall, square and busy, with suburban arteries filled with endless streams of cars and motorbikes. The Mekong riverside had the looks of a French seaside resort on the Atlantic in the off-season. But in the country, lives are modest, and nature completely takes over.

laos

I’m sorry this post lacks a lot of photographic evidence for what I wrote about. It’s difficult taking pictures from the window of a bus, especially when the road is full of potholes (which is all the time). And sometimes, sometimes I do make an effort to let go of the camera and just… be there.

Luang Prabang and Kuang Si waterfall

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.

luang prabang

luang prabang

luang prabang

luang prabang

20160924-img_0luang prabang848It’s all in French everywhere

luang prabang

luang prabang

luang prabang

luang prabang

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.

luang prabang

luang prabang alms

luang prabang alms

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.

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kuang si waterfall

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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.

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luang prabang sunset

luang prabang sunset

luang prabang sunset

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.

Sailing the Mekong to Laos on a slow boat

Taking the slow boat down the Mekong from Thailand to Luang Prabang is the preferred way for travellers to get into Laos. It takes about 16 hours spread over two days, but that’s two days you spend on a boat rather than on a bus or at airport customs. And so I left Thailand behind after nearly three weeks – including a full one spent in Chiang Mai – headed for Laos.

I chose to travel with an organised tour that left from Chiang Mai and first stopped in Chiang Rai for a quick visit of its White Temple, Wat Rong Khun.

white temple

A privately owned temple, it’s reknowned for its completely wacky exterior. This stuff looks like it’s straight out of Alice in Wonderland. It’s a huge space albeit with a small temple: the surrounding garden includes a pond, a bridge whose sides are intricately carved and topped with rather scary-looking statues, overlooking a pit of begging hands and skulls – all this all white and silver. It’s a sight that’s hard to do justice in words. It’s just mental, if I’m honest.

white temple chiang rai

white temple chiang rai

white temple chiang rai

I wasn’t able to take photos inside, but the walls of the temple are covered with a painting which I interpreted as representing God, heaven (praying Thais floating on lovely purple cloudy volutes) and hell: a fiery land that contained Kung Fu Panda, Michael Jackson, mobile phones, Pikachu, Neo from The Matrix, Elvis Presley and more… All evil things, I suppose.

Once again, mental.

white temple chiang rai

chiang khongA riverside house in Chiang Khong

After spending the night in the banal town of Chiang Khong, we headed to immigration. A $30 visa on arrival later, we boarded the slow boat and set off for seven hours on the Mekong. All I can really say about the river is that it’s got a strong current, is very brown and damn long.

slow boat mekong laos

slow boat mekong laos

slow boat mekong laos

slow boat mekong laos

slow boat mekong laos

The first night we spent in Pakbeng, a small town that seemed to pretty much live off the traffic it gets from the slow boats. Every other house on the main road was a guesthouse; every other one was a restaurant or little food shop. Like everywhere in Asia, it seems, there were plenty of people waiting for us on arrival to offer tuk-tuk rides, cheap rooms and the like. The like being weed and opium, this time: turns out Pakbeng is at the heart of a large drug-production area, with drugs being transported down the Mekong from Myanmar into Pakbeng to get to Laos and the rest of south-east Asia. How picturesque.

pakbeng‘Taste my wife’s cooking and you’ll understand why I married her’

We did survive the night (in spite of a late night encounter with a snake) and boarded back the second day. But it was a smaller, less comfortable boat for that second leg of the journey – logic, eh. It was long. Really long. And yet, I wouldn’t have done it any other way. The view of the Mekong’s banks, the surrounding hills and forests, the villages and fishermen is spectacular. Plus, two days of relative calm and doing nothing can be most welcome while travelling. It proved the perfect setting for me to finish reading Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix for the millionth time.

slow boat mekong laos

slow boat mekong laos

slow boat mekong laos

slow boat mekong laos

slow boat mekong laos

Then we arrived in Luang Prabang and w o w. What a beauty of a town. More about it, its nearby waterfall and its sunset in the next post…

slow boat mekong laos