Land-locked Laos

And 3 more ‘L’s at the end

I chose February to make my tour of Laos, hoping the weather would be perfect for what I had in mind. With the exception of a single day (on the Mekong River), it was.

Having toured all other South East Asian countries, I was experienced enough to be aware of the long flight time from the UK – the time difference – the temperature – not to mention the jet lag effect. So, as usual, flew into Bangkok first, spent three days acclimatising and preparing for what I expected would be quite a ‘punishing’ schedule. I used Thai Airways new A380, which was quiet and comfortable for the 11 hour + direct flight.

Taking a domestic flight from Bangkok to Chiang Rai is easy enough, with a choice of airlines, both full service and budget. Mine landed in the late afternoon so I could spend one night in a hotel reasonably close to the Thai/Laos border at Houi Xai, where I was to cross into Laos at 8 am the following morning.

Not having bothered to obtain a Laos visa in the UK, I, along with many others, queued patiently for about 30 minutes, presented my passport, together with an easily completed entry application form – plus the appropriate fee ($40 in my case) and passed through seamlessly.

A note of caution: Only NEW unfolded US Dollar bills are acceptable here and throughout Laos. I easily obtained mine, online in the UK.

Travelling solo, I was using the services of a reliable and knowledgeable tour operator (Asia Tour Advisor) who had been happy to arrange an itinerary based upon my individual needs. This meant that from the moment I crossed the border, a guide plus driver would accompany me throughout the next 14 days. This worked perfectly, ensuring that I maximised every experience. I might add that the overall cost was only a fraction more than taking the tour as part of an organised group. Flexibility is the major factor for me when visiting a country for the first time.

Specifically for this tour, my central aim was to sample what I hoped would be what the majority of the more mature and independent traveller would enjoy most and then produce this article based upon what I found.

Specially designed boats So, once firmly on Laotian soil, my driver opened the car door, I climbed in and off we went the few miles to the Houi Xai main pier, where I was to board one of the specially designed boats, some 150 foot long, for a two day cruise southwards on the mighty Mekong River.

As the scheduled departure time was 9 am and being the first passenger to arrive, I had the opportunity to stroll around the pier area to compare boats operated by other than the one booked for me (Nagi of Mekong). I was quietly content to note that the ‘Nagi’ craft seemed to be of a higher class. That observation proved to be correct.

On time, now being joined by 15 other passengers (the boat could cater for twice that number) we cast off and our journey began. On board were comfortable seats, a lounging area with padded benches, refreshments ready and waiting, an English speaking guide and of course, a toilet. Alcoholic drinks were available at a surprisingly low price.

This first day, the boat sailed for 7 hours, with the current, at a relaxed speed of about 10 knots covering a total of 150 kilometres, before docking at Pak Beng in the late afternoon. This section of the river snakes between rock formations of many sizes and around every bend a new vista emerges to attract camera lenses. We made one stop en-route at an ethnic Laos village, a primitive and extremely basic way of life for sure, yet smiles were everywhere, with children frolicking both in and out of the river.

Back on board, the captain’s wife prepared us a hot lunch, fruits and desserts. Both coffee and tea were available at all times.

Pak Beng is a small, isolated spot located on the east bank of the river. Hotels and all other tourist accommodations are built on the hillside overlooking it. Getting to yours means a lung-puffing climb up a rugged road, so, not surprisingly, I (and everyone else apparently) welcomed the line of local men wearing bamboo ‘harnesses’ on their backs, who, for an appropriate sum of Kyats, humped passenger’s luggage to their chosen hostelry.

The Mekong Riverside Lodge was where I was to lay my head. Here, the wooden bungalows had been built on the very edge of the hillside, affording spectacular views westward across the opposite countryside as well as north and south vistas of the Mekong. Perhaps my favourite memory here, was, after showering, donning a clean T-shirt and shorts and having ordered an ice cold BeerLaos to be brought to my balcony, watched the sun set – its rays glistening on the river’s rippling surface and flickering through the branches of faraway trees, while I sipped and savoured the local brew. Hmmm.

The management are of Bangladesh origin, so it came as no surprise that beautifully cooked Tandoori dishes were on the dinner menu. Every guest I spoke with gave the place a ‘thumbs up’ both for the standard of accommodation and the food on offer. The only ‘downer’ was the renovation  and additions being built, with, of course, the inevitable noise and smells during the daytime. When those are completed, that slight irritant will disappear.

Marks – 8 out of 10

Day two saw us board at around 8 am to cruise further south for 180 kilometres. Unfortunately, according to our guide, unusually the sky turned grey, the wind increased, the waves grew in size and the temperature dropped. Down came the boats transparent side-blinds and out came the lovely and soft blankets. We sang songs, joked (because by this time we had kind of ‘bonded’), played cards, tapped away on our tablets and mobile phones, welcomed the hot, freshly prepared food, drank a beer or two, snoozed on the comfy benches and watched the scenery through the flapping plastic.

Laos All was not gloom and doom though because by mid afternoon the sun appeared just as we arrived at the famous Pak Ou Caves. They are accessed by flights of steep stone steps which should be used with extra care. Inside, as one would expect, are statues of the Buddha and many religious relics and offerings. Although the caves are of historical importance, they seemed to me to be somewhat neglected. Overall, this experience ranked quite low in my opinion.

An hour or so after leaving the caves, we arrived at our final destination, Luang Prabang, said our goodbyes, climbed into our respective cars for the short drive into this small, compact but thriving city and to our hotels.

Mine was the Lakhangthong Boutique Hotel. This was a great choice. Down a side road but only about a 15 minute walk to the city centre and its unbelievable Night Market, which is a Mecca for tourists and locals alike, to see, examine and buy from an absolute plethora of goods. I was to stay in Luang Prabang for three nights, which would give me ample opportunity to explore some of the city’s well-advertised attractions, as well as those hidden away.

As for the hotel, small, personal, really excellent rooms, bathtub, snugly comfortable bed, breakfast brought and served to your room’s veranda, well-trained, helpful and friendly staff. The combination which always satisfies.

Marks – 9 out of 10

Over the three days, I planned to visit the following places:

Wat Visoun with its stupa and shrine – interesting but not impressive.

Wat Xieng Thong where the Tree of Life mosaic structure is a clever example of what can be done with tiny bits of glass and ceramics – a good place to compare old workmanship with new.

Xieng Mane and Charn Villages by boat across the River Khong, where the local inhabitants make and display their artistic talents in throwing pottery and weaving cloth – well worth the effort of trekking for about an hour and meeting such nice, simple people.

Wat Chompet – for its great view of the city.

Traditional Hill Tribe Ethnology Art Centre. Housed inside a modern structure where photographs and examples of Laos hill-tribe living are displayed plus the odd basket making demonstration – of fair but of limited interest.

Kuang Sii Falls. Really magnificent. Not at all difficult to reach by car, followed by a gentle stroll. The waterfalls are in separate tiers within a forest area, where one can swim in the light green but sparkling water, loll under a ledge and let the water shower you or merely sit and let it cool your feet. It’s a photographers dream location which gives many variations of light and shade mixed with both vibrant and soft, colourful hues – Don’t miss these!

Black Hmong Village. Somewhat chaotic where the tribespeople vie to sell their handmade souvenirs. Unfortunately, I found this to be salesmanship at its very worst, a feature that I noticed was unwelcome by the many tourists who were given little or no chance to examine, or even stop for a second to look, without being harassed to buy. Trying to be helpful, I, with my guide who translated for me, spoke to the head woman to pass-on a little of my hard learned selling skills (not yet forgotten – even after 25 years of retirement). With some trepidation, I waited for her reaction. It was a big smile, a series of approving nods. We shook hands and I left her to perhaps coach the villagers to modify their selling techniques – Go and find out!

Night Market. Already mentioned but needs a bit of elaboration. The entire main street of the city is closed to traffic after nightfall. Then hundreds of stalls are erected under tarpaulins and canvas. I went into sensory overload trying to absorb the quantity and diversity of the offerings. European backpackers seemed to dominate numerically among tourists from around the world. The feeling of anticipation and stimuli was certainly obvious.

Add to this the many choices available as to what and where to eat and it becomes obvious just why the magnet of Luang Prabang’s night market creates such an attraction – this is definitely a ‘must’.

Leaving the city on the morning of day four, I elected to sit in the front passenger seat of the car, which would be driven for 7 hours up, down and across various mountain ranges to reach Xieng Khuoang, the area during 1964 and 1973, which was devastated by American bombing. More munitions were dropped here per head of population, than anywhere else on Earth.

Laos The drive itself was electrifying, the words ‘hairpin’ ‘bend’ and ‘steep’ can hardly describe what my driver had to negotiate. The experience of driving, up, over and down the other side of Hardknott Pass in the English Lake District, pales into insignificance when compared to navigating these Laotian mountains.

Once back on level ground, we headed for The Mulberry Organic Farm, an ‘extra’ to my planned itinerary very kindly suggested and arranged by Mr Thoon of Northern Travel Agency in Luang Prabang. This visit turned out to be educational and enlightening. I had little or no idea just how versatile the Mulberry bush could be or how important it was for the production of silk and the extraction of coloured dyes. I was shown around the whole establishment from the fields of cultivation, to the feeding of silk worms and the intricate manufacture (by hand!!!) of beautifully crafted silk cloth and garments – most definitely a stopping place.

The Plain of Jars. Certainly an odd name and on arrival a similarly odd scene confronts the visitor. Across areas many times larger than football pitches, are randomly placed, historically old ‘concrete’  structures resembling stone jars varying in height from around 3 feet to 5 feet and around 2 feet in diameter. A few had ‘lids’ made of the same material and all were sunk into the ground by approximately a quarter of their height. There did seem to be an aura of tranquility enveloping the place, with visitors noticeably speaking in soft tones.

No specific data as to the exact reason for these Jars to be made and sited where they were, was available in historical books. The most educated ‘presumption’ by archaeologists, is that they were constructed to store the bones of the dead once their flesh had disappeared, similarly, I suppose, as todays practice of placing an urn of ashes of a deceased person in a cemetery – Whatever the reason, it is a most interesting excursion.

My lodgings for one night was the Vansana Plain of Jars Hotel. A corporate hotel with a corporate feel. Its location was fine, being built on a plateau overlooking the town and surrounding countryside. Accommodation was bungalow style with a small balcony to the rear.

However, these were its only redeeming factors. The bed was hard and most uncomfortable and no hot water was available to the bathroom’s basin. The small TV set was of the ancient box style with limited reception and programmes.

The worst bit about this place was the so called ‘breakfast’. Simply awful. Every so-called hot dish was warm at best and cold at worst. Variety was limited indeed. Coffee stale and bitter, fruit almost non existent. I made do with a piece of white, flowery bread spread with raspberry jam and a cup of warm tea without milk, as that latter substance smelt ‘off’. My advice … book elsewhere.

Marks – 3 out of 10 (merely for the location)

Mid afternoon the next day saw me in a small building at the local airport. It was the departure ‘lounge’, the arrival ‘lounge’ the ticket ‘office’ and the immigration centre, where about 70 passengers were gathering for the flight to Vientiane. Laos Airways operates ATR 72’s, which are turboprop aircraft with a high wing configuration. I used this aircraft 3 times on my tour and didn’t have a single complaint. They were clean, on time and comfortable. The cabin crew were courteous and efficient and, what was a surprise to me, served tasty refreshments even on flights taking less than an hour.

Two nights booked in the capital city, where I would be based at the Vientiane Golden Sun Hotel. Being under recent new ownership, this quite large hotel has a disjointed feel. The staff seem unsure of their responsibilities, are poor in communication and sloppy. The swimming pools are not very welcoming and certainly not squeaky clean. No staff, or phones are available to request service, guests are left to fend for themselves. The road entrance and impressive view of the hotel’s front is in stark contrast to what’s inside.

Breakfast was a dismal affair. Choices were very limited and certainly not well prepared. Fortifying the inner man for a day’s exploration of the city, was unavailable.

To cap it all, on the morning of my departure, I was to have received a wake-up call at 0400 hours to prepare for my 0630 flight to Pakse. The call never materialised. However, my ex army training had kicked-in the night before, when I repeatedly instructed my memory to awaken me at the correct hour. It obeyed. Luggage packed, the elevator used to the ground floor and me hauling it into the reception area, I was met with NOTHING! A snappy search found the duty porter/receptionist asleep behind a desk. At that precise moment, my guide and driver arrived dead on schedule. I tossed my room key to the sleepy eyed man and left.

Marks – 2 out of 10

There are many better hotels available – choose one of those.

Vientiane itself is an interesting city. Of course the French influence is evident, wide roads and many colonial style buildings and even traffic lights! I had a busy schedule to fit in to the time I was to spend here, so, as with Luang Prabang, I will merely list the places visited and underline the highlights.

Khualao Restaurant. This is an evening time hot spot for tourists but cleverly managed within the environment of French architecture. Only one dinner session, which is 99% pre-booked. As guests are served, a quintet of musicians play local favourites to a delightfully high standard, sometimes accompanied with singing. The sound system is such that normal conversation is possible, that is of course, if you can drag yourself from concentrating on the performances. Add to that entertainment a number of man and woman classical dance sequences and the evening comes to an end much too quickly – Book and go!

Wat Sisaket. This is Vientiane’s oldest temple housing thousands of miniature Buddha statues – well worth visiting.

That Luang Stupa. A very sacred place for Laotian people. It’s a large, gold-covered Buddhist stupa sited in the centre of the city. First built in the 3rd century, it has undergone a number of reconstructions and renovations. Nonetheless, it is an imposing structure. Unfortunately, on my visit, more work was underway which prevented entry.

Patuxay Monument. There’s no doubting what was in the mind of the architect, as this structure is very reminiscent of the Arc de Triumph in Paris. Built in an area of wide boulevards, immaculately kept gardens and open spaces, sightseers wander around, cameras pointed as guides deliver their scripts and vendors ply their wares – A really nice spot to relax and take-in the scenes as they unfold.

Buddha Park. Absolutely NOT religious or in anyway pious, this ‘park’, located alongside the Mekong River and the impressive Lao-Thai Friendship Bridge, was the brainchild of a mystical monk. Sculptures of Buddhist and Hindu origin have been created and placed over a large area of grassland. Some are grotesque, others semi-realistic and yet more creations purely of the mind. All are made of concrete castings, some mindbogglingly huge (like the massive ‘reclining’ Buddha), some small and intricate. I know of no other place on Earth where such a display has been created – Funny, clever and highly entertaining.

Tad Fane Waterfall After an early morning flight, I arrive at Pakse a little after 7 am to be greeted by another guide and driver. Chatting for a few minutes and having studied my planned itinerary again on the plane, we decided not to go to my chosen hotel there and then but instead, drive to Saravanh Province, via the town of Tateng. Reason?…the tumbling water and lush vegetation around Tad Fane Waterfall, would be almost devoid of tourists at such an early time and that would allow me the maximum flexibility I always wish for. Before getting to the falls, we made a stop at a small roadside ‘farm’ where coffee and tea are made. Naturally we took advantage of the hot brew offerings, sat and chatted with the locals for a short time before being escorted around their village for a look-see.

Pushing on, we took a turning off the main road onto a dirt track, finally arriving at a seemingly dead end. Without words, my guide simply pointed to my camera and opened the car door for me to exit. I followed him along a narrow soil-impacted trail which twisted this way and that through dense woodland until we came to a gap in the trees.

The sight which confronted me was indeed impressive. There, on the other side of a steep-sided valley (which, incidentally I was perched less than a foot from its precipitous edge) two waterfalls plunged over 300 feet to the river below. Neither are wide and certainly nothing like the Niagara Falls, but for sheer wonder, they are certainly ones to ensure one takes plenty of photographs to remember such a stunning display of nature – Do make sure this place is on your itinerary.

Back on the main road our next stop was to be at the Tad Lo Waterfalls. There are three of them, all very different to the ones seen earlier. Probably the most popular is the one first encountered. It’s about 60 feet high and drops vertically over a rocky outcrop into the river below. Fortunately for me, the ‘dry’ season had only just begun so there was plenty of water cascading. Visitors could – if extremely daring – step across large boulders from the riverside and out to the very edge of the fall. Certainly not for the feint hearted, but for the local youths, a chance to show their ‘daring dos’ as they leapt out, arms flailing, to slice into the pool below feet first – A great place to both admire, wonder at and photograph.

Nearby is the Tad Lo Lodge providing accommodation in 14 rooms. I did walk around the grounds and viewed the rooms from outside. Being near to the waterfall, its location cannot be faulted. The American manager, with whom I held a short conversation, showed what I would call ‘over enthusiasm’ for his establishment but guests I spoke with were much less satisfied with their stay. One couple, were quite scathing about the poor staff morale and lack of skills.

The issue which upset yours truly was not about the Lodge, as I had not personally experienced a stay there. It was the state of the two captive elephants, chained to the ground ready for tourists to mount them for a 90 minute ride. Even a little knowledge of these magnificent animals should tell us that the sign of an elephant’s distress, is when it constantly sways to and fro – and when it needs water to drink, it raises and lowers its trunk repeatedly. Both these animals displayed these symptoms. I did ‘waylay’ the mahout and questioned him about the situation. His answer was to the effect that management decided how many hours the elephants would be tethered ready to ride and he added a ‘rider’ that every evening he took them to a stream to bathe. I also asked where the drinking water trough/tub was, as none was in sight. All I received in reply was a shrug.

My chosen accommodation for my two nights in Pakse, was aptly named the Pakse Hotel. Its location could not have been better, being in the city centre, close to the market, shops and restaurants. Managed by a Frenchman and his wife, their influence is manifest. Excellent rooms with all the needed facilities, highly trained staff and a rooftop restaurant serving both European and Laos dishes as well as an extensive choice of wines. I ate there twice and each time every table was occupied. A pre-dinner drink as one watches the sun drop slowly beyond the horizon, is certainly an opportunity not to be missed – A really excellent place to stay to explore the city, its environs and countryside attractions.

Marks – 9 out of 10 (only because it lacked a swimming pool)

The car once more, driven further south to Don Khong, where I was to have an overnight stay. Mid morning and we stopped at the World Heritage Site of Wat Phu. This is totally different to any other temple to be found in Laos.

During the Khmer civilisation of the 9th – 12th centuries, they built this wonderful site, to become the centre of their operations. War and continuing strife made the leaders desert the area and move across the border into Cambodia, where they then built the now famous Angkor Wat City of temples. The ruined architecture is a masterpiece of craftsmanship. It is little wonder that this site is on most people’s agendas. Built on a hillside, the entire area is almost barren of trees and shade against the fierce sun is at a premium. A sun hat or parasol is a ‘must have’ accessory, as well as a pair of reasonably fit legs, if you are to explore all of this site’s secrets – Take it slow, take it easy and take your cameras.

Another long drive and I finally arrived at Don Khong, to stay at the Pon Arena Hotel. A mile or so drive along a potholed local road, which follows the river bank, and the hotel is reached. My room had direct access to the small infinity swimming pool…the first thing I headed for after opening my suitcase and rooting out a pair of trunks. With the air temperature exceeding 33 degrees it was a relief to let the cool water ease away the stiffness of certain muscles.

Laos As for the room, large patio window overlooking the pool and the river was a bonus when sitting inside with the AC set low. The kingsize bed with its very comfortable mattress was the reason I overslept my original thought about wake-up time. A flat screen TV, fridge and beverage making facilities summed up the main room. The bathroom was fitted with modern kit including a full size bath. I dined in the evening and was totally satisfied with the menu choices as I was with the ‘beer battered’ fried fish.

The only negative during my stay was the standard and quality of the very limited breakfast buffet – but that can be offset by the benefits of the hotel’s location.

Marks – 6 out of 10

From car to boat (the ‘long-tail’ variety) for a delightful cruise downriver towards the Don Khone area. I did a quick check-in at the Sala Donekhone Hotel (more about it later) because my guide wanted me to maximise the daylight hours to visit the ‘Corridor of the Devil’, known officially as the Liphi Waterfall. “Oh, no”, you might think at this point, “not another waterfall?” Well, yes because each is so very different. At this one you can watch the local fishermen demonstrate their prowess as they stand at the very prow of their flimsy looking canoe-type boats to cast and haul up their nets. Those that shun this method use handmade wicker baskets strategically placed where only their owners know the fish await. Much larger (width wise) these falls follow the more traditional ‘horseshoe’ pattern and are hundreds of yards wide. A number of paths and trails lead to different sections of the falls so, those of a stronger constitution than mine can venture further for even different viewpoints.

As promised, I relate more details of the Sala Donekhone Hotel. Timber chalets built on stilts, which the owner has named Floating Studios, really do float, rising and falling with the river’s mood. Although basic in construction, they are comfortable, functional and quite delightful. Each has a private balcony and lounger, so what better place to relax and watch the world go by. Sunset is a sublime time…time being the operative word, as it passes without notice, until one’s stomach grumbles to be replenished.

A real treat for me, was when, in conversation with the owner, a passionate believer in nature and the creatures it supports, he told me that he had rescued a golden Gibbon baby from certain death when its mother had been trapped and taken away by poachers. He’d built a very large enclosure bordered with wide sectioned wire mesh, installed natural climbing  structures, trees, ropes and swings to give the now fully grown Gibbon the maximum freedom and exercise possible.

Gently introduced to it, I was entranced, when, after a short time of eying each other, it came to me and allowed me to ‘groom’ it, stroke its head and hold its hand…magical! – If you wish to explore the 4000 Island region (as it is known) this is the place to stay.

Marks – 8 out of 10

Somewhat reluctant to leave after only one night, my itinerary made it necessary to move on. This meant taking a very pleasant, small boat ride back to the mainland at Ban Nakasang. The size of the craft allowed it’s helmsman to cruise near to the riverbank and that gave me the opportunity to observe many things which were not visible when in a larger boat needing to navigate the middle of the river, which in this area is perhaps a half mile wide.

From boat to car we set off further south again to reach the Khone Phapheng Waterfalls – yes, another one – but this time to experience South East Asia’s largest and most impressive one. Sited not far from the border with Cambodia, it’s surrounded with lush vegetation and teeming with wildlife. Each of my guides, as well as a number of hotel managers, had told me that it was one of the loveliest destinations in Laos – and I can vouch for that!

A mile wide with thunderous cascades of water which finally come together to form a torrent that funnels itself into the already majestic Mekong, it is certainly a sight to remember. Laos Local fishermen again pit their wits against nature and to watch them jumping from rock to rock to attend their cone-shaped baskets as the water roars and swirls around them, did, in my case, make me feel very apprehensive for their safety.

Everywhere one looked, sightseers stood in awe, their cameras aimed – but those closest to the edges were forced to use hand signals as a form of communication due to the number of decibels the falls were emitting.

There was no doubting the spectacular nature of the place was the highlight of my tour. Once having absorbed most of the different facets of such a landscape, I went back over them but this time with my cameras at the ready. Such a ‘once in a lifetime’ experience just had to be recorded.

The camera’s 64GB memory card was almost full after two weeks touring this country of contrasts – and having downloaded and edited both video and stills, the images are preserved and ready to trigger fond memories.

The heading of this article reads (and 3 more ‘L’s at the end). I’ll explain.

They stand for ‘Land of Linear Litter’. Throughout the tour, from north to south, on water and on land, in the streets of towns, on the tracks in villages, on roads, verges, jungle paths, sightseeing viewpoints, fields, carparks, pavements – around temples, pagodas, stupas, restaurants and cafes, outside homes, shacks, shops and museums – there it was.

Plastics of every conceivable kind floating downstream of the Mekong and being swept in large quantities to the river banks, especially where boats moor and their passengers alight. It was indeed a depressive sight to witn

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Brian Fisher

World traveller & keen observer

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