"Laos: A Southeast Asian Gem"
Newspaper story & fine art photographs by: Brad Carlile
In the cool of the morning the clouds cling to the hills surrounding the lushly green city. At 6AM, I kneel on the sidewalk next to an old woman who shows me how to place tiny sticky-rice offerings in the brass pots of the swiftly passing orange-robed monks. The woman's only English is the word "monk". The remainder of her instructions are done in pantomime. Participating in their daily ritual is how my first morning started in the city of Louang Phabang in Laos (pronounced Lao, without an "s").
Many well-seasoned travelers will tell you that Laos is one of their favorite places. What is it about this land-locked country between Thailand, Myanmar, China, Viet Nam, and Cambodia? Is it the beautiful waterfalls, the emerald hills, the majestic rivers, the graceful temples, the vibrant culture, relaxed pace of life, delicious food, or the friendly smiling people? It is the subtle combination of all of these and so much more that make Laos a southeast Asian gem.
Now is a great time to explore and enjoy Laos. Laos is a tropical Asian country that is about twice the size of Illinois. There are many different things to do and see here. For those worried about foreign travel, there are few post 9-11 issues for travelers. Laos is predominantly Buddhist and there is a lack of American symbols to attack.
"Sabaidi" (pronounced sa-buy-dee) is the Lao greeting that is always accompanied with a smile. Much like aloha it means "hello"," good bye", "I'm well", "welcome", and much more. A wonderful part of the culture is the smiles and enthusiasm the Lao have when they greet anyone. This warm spirit goes beyond greetings and their hospitality makes visitors feel welcome. I found everyone to be very friendly.
Life moves at a slower pace in Laos. Time is always made for smiles, conversation, and news about families. At social gatherings the love of conversation and fun is clear.
The first part of my trip was an 11-day loop through the towns and villages of northern Laos. Visiting smaller towns are a great way to experience the more traditional life. In addition, I heard that a once-a-year festival was soon to occur in one of these towns called Muang Sing. I adjusted my plans to participate in the festivities.
I used the same transport as the locals to get from place to place. It was easy to learn how to get around. Roads in Laos range from smooth modern roads to bumpy dusty-red dirt tracks. Sitting on hard benches while bouncing down a rough road in the back of a covered small truck is not always comfortable, but it gives one time to get to know your fellow passengers. This more than makes up for the slight discomforts. Other more comfortable transportation options are available, but they also insulate one from the local culture.
Nam Ou River Journey to Muang Sing
My first stop was the lovely town of Nung Khiaw which overlooks the Nam Ou river. In this mountainous country, rivers provide many important things like irrigation, food and transportation. For the next leg of the journey I opted for the slow boat up the Nam Ou River. Slow boats allow one to soak in the changing views of the country-side. The boat moves upstream in water that is sometimes smooth as glass and sometimes covered with rapids and whirlpools.
The boat makes stops at several small villages to pick up or drop off people and produce. Each stop and every interaction provides more opportunities to learn more about Laos.
Laos has its share of problems typical of the Third World. These problems also include a nasty legacy of the Viet Nam war. Signs still hang in villages throughout Laos giving diagrams of various bombs so the people can recognize them and avoid them.
During the Vietnam War, the Vietnamese and later the Americans violated the Geneva accords. In a "secret war" from 1964-1973, Laos was the most heavily bombed country per capita. A sortie was flown on average every 8 minutes around the clock during those years. About 30% of these bombs did not explode. With an average density of 7 tons per square mile, Laos is literally covered with unexploded ordinance (UXO). UXO is a huge barrier to development in Laos and bombs still kill one person every 3 days. For more information see www.undplao.org (UXOLao). The towns and tourist sites are free of this problem, so this is not an issue for tourists staying on the beaten path.
Muang Sing and Full Moon Festival (That Xieng Tung)
My loop eventually brought me to the northern town of Muang Sing, in time for the festival. This area has many distinct ethnic groups each with their own traditions. Culturally-sensitive guided treks can be hired to take one through ethnic Hmong, Akha, Yao, and Lu villages. Arriving a day before the event allowed me to explore many of the ethnic villages nestled in the surrounding hills. Life is simple in these farming villages and the woman all wear beautiful traditional clothes particular to their ethnic group.
At the invitation of a couple of Akha men, I took a turn using a two-man handsaw to saw a plank from a log. They thought it was pretty funny that I actually helped. They only see westerners visiting and never doing anything resembling work.
Many villagers are reserved with outsiders, but become very friendly especially after we start joking around. I show the children the illusion of pulling off the thumb that my dad taught me as a kid. That trick got them all laughing.
The full moon on the 12th lunar month heralds the start of the "That Xieng Tung" festival in Muang Sing in northern Laos. More than 2,000 people come to enjoy this festival from throughout the province and even nearby China.
This festival is a wonderful blend of Buddhist ceremony and county fair. A highlight of this festival for me was a chance to see the wide range of traditional attire. As with people everywhere, parties bring out the most beautiful clothes.
A golden Buddhist stupa on a prominent hill is the site for the festival. Three clockwise trips around the stupa guarantees some of my karma for a while. Anyone with an offering of flowers, incense, and candles can take part.
Like any festival, there are all kinds of activities including carnival games, music, dance, and fireworks. I joined in on several carnival games including the dart game and the bingo but unfortunately I was not skillful enough to win the coveted prizes.
To finish off this loop I traveled to the Mekong River (pronounced" May-kong") which forms the border between Thailand and Laos. For many tourists the two-day trip down the Mekong river to Louang Phabang is the first introduction to Laos. This trip is also a highlight for many travelers.
Louang Phabang is the defacto cultural capitol of Laos. It is now a world heritage site and many efforts are being made to preserve both the dozens of Buddhist temples and classic French-colonial architecture that are spread throughout the city.
At sunset gardens and the tree-lined streets give Louang Phabang a tranquil feeling. Majestic panoramic views abound from the Buddhist temple perched on top of Phou Si hill in the center of town. Day trips to beautiful waterfalls and nearby villages make Louang Phabang a great base for several days of wandering.
Louang Phabang is known for its centuries of cultural contributions throughout Laos. These have taken place in the form of art, dance, textiles, its prized food, and many more.
Laos Cusine - Food & Beer Laos
Lao food is delicious and can be spicy. It similar to Thai cuisine although coconut milk is rarely used. Another difference is that most dishes are eaten with a tasty sticky rice that is balled up with the fingers in quarter-sized balls that are used to soak up the juices of the dish. Spoons and forks are preferred over the rarely-used chopsticks. Food is filling and cheap with complete meals costing less than $2.
Coffee from Laos is prized throughout Asia and is known as one of the world's best. It is typically served with sweetened condensed milk but is wonderful when served black. I've become a fan of "coffee Lao" in the morning. This is high praise from a non-coffee drinker. Many well-traveled tourists find the 22 oz. "Beerlao" to be one of the best in Asia. At 70 cents Beerlao is a quality bargain. This is even higher praise from a micro-brew beer drinker.
Beerlao is especially good at the small riverside snack bars that one can stop at during a 4-hour inner tube float down the Nam Xong river. The Nam Xong river is particularly beautiful at Vang Viang where it meanders around stunning jagged limestone karsts and the green valleys. A fellow traveler remarked, "if I get any more mellow, I'm going to be pulse-less."
Vang Viang is a popular spot owing to its magnificent scenery, its location between Louang Phabang and the capitol Vientiane, and its plentiful outdoor tourist activities. Here one can explore caves, kayak, hike, rock climb, cycle, or simply relax. A constant flow of travelers make this a cheap and easy place to stay with plentiful restaurants and bars.
East of the southern regional capitol of Pakse is the coffee-growing eden of the Bolaven Plateau. The beautiful Tad Lo waterfalls were certainly a non-traditional location to celebrate Thanksgiving, but that mattered little as there was much to be grateful for in Laos. While well-fed turkeys can be seen in many villages, they never seemed to appear on menus. A nicely-seasoned duck with sticky rice was a nice stand-in for a regular Thanksgiving dinner.
The bungalows that overlook the Tad Lo falls combine wonderful views with the peaceful subtle roar of the water. In this area, one can take elephant rides, swim, or just enjoy the nice village. Si Phan Dam is another idyllic spot. Si Phan Don is in the southern most part of Laos and is on the border with Cambodia. Four thousand palm-covered islands are created by the spreading of the Mekong.
Mekong River to Si Phan Don and onwards to Cambodia
The island of Don Khon has many guest houses at the waters edge. Many guest houses are basic, but who really needs more than a stilt house, a porch hammock, and friendly neighbors? At $1 a day my room was half the price of a normal budget accommodation in Laos.
At Si Phan Don the Mekong river leaves Laos and heads toward Cambodia. In a grand gesture of daily farewell, the sun creates magical sunsets over the rock-studded Mekong. The last sunset was no exception. From here I headed toward Cambodia, with a 3-day expired Lao Visa and an uncertain border crossing. But that is another story...
Details for Traveling in Laos (SE Asia)
When to go: November-January is best. The diverse geography means that evenings in the mountainous areas can sometimes be very cool and require a light jacket. Temperatures climb to their peaks in April. The rainy season begins in May and will last until September in Laos and many other countries in SE Asia.
Hotels: In Louang Phabang, I opted for Pa Phai Guest House in the heart of the old city (011-856-71/212752). It is a budget accommodation which is located opposite Wat Pa Phai. It's a two-story historic French/Lao house with a small garden patio in front. Phouy, the owner and a former American trained Royal Lao pilot, is very friendly and helpful.
In Nong Khiaw I stayed at the Sunset which has excellent restaurant on a two-level sundeck that overlooks the Nam Ou River. Power is not available all night.
Tad Lo Falls offers several choices in accommodation, such as the pleasant Saise Guest House just below falls, doubles are about $12. The Tad Lo Resort has (011-856-31/212105 x3325) rooms that are in the $15-$40 range. The resort also has a nice open air restaurant. Elephant treks ($4 for 2hr) can be arranged at the resort.
Restaurants: Vientiane offers a wide variety of budget and upscale restaurants. For cheap excellent food and a nice sunset views try the riverside food stalls along the Mekong on Fa Ngum Road. Eating is outdoors or under tents.
In Vang Viang on the main street is the Organic Farm Cafe that serves a variety of excellent meals. Many of the foods used here are produced at their experimental organic farm north of town. The mulberry pancakes are wonderful.
Getting Around: Tuk-Tuk is the term used for a variety of inter-city transport and pickups. Bus stations are centralized in each town. Transportation primarily runs in the morning, and can be difficult to find after 11AM.
Tours: Muang Sing Guide Services Office (GSO) in the center of town, offers a variety of tours through the nearby ethnic villages. Not all trips are available every day as they try to limit the impact on the villages. English-speaking guides with good knowledge of the variety of local traditions also provide a nice lunch.
Louang Namtha Guide Services Office (GSO) opposite the Kaysone Monument, (011-856-86/312150) offers a variety 1,2, or 3 day treks at about $10 per person per day
Visas: 15-day Visas are available at the Vientiane or Louang Phabang Airports for $30 plus two passport size photos. 15-day Visa extensions are also easy to get. $5 per day is charged for overstays. For the latest see www.laoembassy.com
More info: "The Rough Guide to Laos" (Rough Guide, $17.95, 412 pages) is very helpful and provides useful info on cultural sensitivities.
Also see www.visit-laos.com travel information.
Latest news can be seen at www.vientianetimes.com for English language news.