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We have spent the past week and a half in Laos and we’ll apologize in advance that this will be a long blog with lots of pictures!
A Brief History of Laos
We left Thailand and splurged (using Paul’s birthday money) on flights to Laos. We flew Lao Airlines, which is a bit of a sketchy airline, since they don’t publish their safety records and are rumored to land by sight. But we made in safe and sound to Luang Prabang and right away we could see why travelers can’t stop talking about Laos. You really do utter an “ahhh” when you arrive because it’s such a gentle, slow and relaxing country. Most people would be hard pressed to locate Laos on a map and it is in fact a landlocked country between China, Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand. It has a confusing history in which it was occupied by many of its neighbors, colonized by the French and embraced communism. It is still considered a communist country, although it is mostly a rural, subsistence agriculture, relatively poor country with some of the most friendly people we have met. It also holds the infamous distinction of being the most heavily
bombed country on earth. In the 60s and 70s, while the US was fighting the much more publicized war in Vietnam, they were also fighting a highly secretive war in Laos, one which devastated this tiny country. The country is called Laos to the outside world, but it is actually referred to as Lao, as the “s” was mistakenly added to the spelling by the French.
Luang Prabang, the 2nd largest city in Laos (although the population does not merit a city title) is a stunning little riverside town that UNESCO has put their stamp on. It has beautiful French and Buddhist colonial architecture and live just happens at a low slower of a pace. Everywhere you are welcomed with a “sabaidee” and it is so refreshing to see almost no cars and just the occasional scooter or bicycle on the street. The locals have an endearing habit of riding their bicycles or scooters down the street holding a sun umbrella, as do the monks in their vibrant orange robes and matching umbrellas. The food is Laos is similar to Thai food, with its own distinct Lao dishes and baguettes and croissants are left over from the
French period. Laos is also famous for their beer, Beer Lao, which is the best beer in all of South East Asia. It is also the first country that we have visited in our whole trip that drives on the right side. Laos is a very simple country, where most people are subsistence farmers – the road system is very poor, there are no ATMs and their currency is not accepted outside of Laos. The first day we rented one speed bikes and toured around the town. They have a great night market here and you can see the gentleness of the Lao people even when they bargain with you, in a quiet, peaceful way. Next day, we took a slow boat trip up the Mekong river to view the Pak Ou caves, where a variety of Buddha images are crammed into a limestone cliff. Also stopped in a Ban Xang Hai (Whiskey Village) to see Lao Lao, the homebrew wiskey brewed. It’s interesting to see how they put snakes (including cobras and green vipers) into the bottles with the whiskey – lovely! It was our 2 year wedding anniversary on June 26, so we treated ourselves to
2 nights at a lovely boutique hotel in Luang Prabang, Maison Souvannaphoum. Unfortunately no Hiltons in Laos! It was great to spend some time by the pool, on our balcony or watching our own TV! On our last day, we visited the Kuang Si Falls, a beautiful wide multi-tiered waterfall falling into turquoise green pools. I think it was the most beautiful waterfall I had ever seen.
The river journey between Luang Prabang and Nong Khiaw on the Nam Ou river is said to be one of the best river journeys in Laos, so of course we didn’t want to miss it. It was a 8 hour journey in a tiny slow boat, with kindergarden sized chairs. But it truly was beautiful with limestone peaks and cliffs that touch the river. We passed lots of kids playing in the water, people bathing, fishing and it reminded me of how reliant these people are on the river, just like the Nile in Egypt. We spent a night in Nong Khiaw and then continued an hour further upriver to the village of Muang Ngoi. Muang Ngoi was recently a simple fishing village and although it is seeing tourists visit, it
has remained a simple village. The only way to access the village is by the river and for that reason it has remained the small village. There is only electricity for three hours in the evening, chickens, pigs, dusks wander the village freely, no modern things like refrigeration, the shower is the river and people subsist by fishing and working in the rice paddies. It really felt like one of the most remote places we had visited on the trip since Africa. We settled into a hut overlooking the too beautiful to describe river, cliffs and mountains. We had become friends with a Dutch couple and an American and we each had huts beside each other with a balcony area with hammocks. We had planned to only spend a couple of days there, but we ended up staying much longer. We decided to do a 2 day/1 night trek to visit some hilltribes with our group, which had now expanded to include a Russian and a Scot. I guess we hadn’t got enough punishment from our Chiang Mai trek! We first visited a large cave, where the village residents had lived during the Indochina Wars. We walked for
a long time through the rice paddies balancing on the walls between the terraced fields. You can see why they call rice cultivation back breaking labour. By this time, we were realizing our “guide”, was not a very competent guide and in fact, this probably was his first trip. We walked uphill and of course were covered in sweat when we reached the village where we would be spending the night, after walking for six hours. The village, Ban Phone felt extremely remote and since it was high up in the mountains (only accessible by the 6 hour walk) it was quite untouched. The villagers lived very basically in stilt huts and the locals were very curious about us, but also shy. For the most part they ignored us and went about their regular lives, playing Siamese football, tending the babies, collecting firewood. The children were the most interested in us and greeted us with lots of “sabaidees”. They loved having their pictures taken and then shown the image and I would get swarmed with children trying to view the camera. I’ve said how remote this village was, but they did have satellite TV in a couple of homes fed
from a generator. After dinner and chatting with our host family, the boys watched the first quarter final game of the World Cup – what a place to watch the game! After a hard night sleep of floor mats, we spent a couple of hours watching village life go by. All of a sudden we saw a dog being hung from a balcony by its hind legs and saw a man begin to castrate the dog. It was agonizing to watch (the knife was quite dull), although after the dog just ran away whimpering. Like most places we’ve been, there is an overpopulation of dogs and I suppose this village was simply doing what Bob Barker is always suggesting and helping to control the pet population. But it was not a pretty thing to see. It is the wet season here and as a result there are torrential rains almost every night. We had to walk down from the mountains in the rain, making it quite slippery. We also had to continually walk through streams, so eventually we stopped taking off our shoes and walked right across. We also were in extreme leech territory and had to continually
pull the damn things off our legs and feet. After six hours of walking, we made it back and were very excited to be done with the trek. It was a great experience visiting the village, but it was extremely hard going and our guide was really not great. But we had really bonded with our group of seven. We ended up staying the next few days in Muang Ngoi in our great little huts with our communal family room with what we came to call our “family”. We laid in the hammocks and spent most of our time playing cards and dice, and eating yummy Lao food. It’s the most time we’ve spent with the same group of people since our truck trip in Africa and it was a great few days. We were sad to split up our little group, but we headed back to Luang Prabang. It was funny to be back in civilization, with internet and shops, even if Luang Prabang is hardly civilization. From there we headed south to Vang Vieng, where we currently are.