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Dec 29

Written by: chris
12/29/2016  RssIcon

Laos – Land of a Million Elephants


Until 1988, tourists were banned from Laos. It was a closed country that has opened gently in recent years, like a lotus flower, and it remains the peaceful backwater of Southeast Asia. I happily agreed to host this trip with Senior Discovery Tours as I had heard such glowing travellers’ reports of this ‘Land of a Million Elephants’. As we journeyed through this serene land and met its kind people, I understood why all who visit Laos become entranced with the place. The itinerary started with the capital city of Vientiane and moved northwards through the backpackers’ mecca of Vang Vieng to the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Luang Prabang and its surrounding mountain-and-river landscapes.  

 

Vientiane – City of Sandalwood


Our Senior Discovery Tours group flew in from frenetic Hanoi to Zen-like Vientiane, the small town capital of Laos, whose names derives from the sandalwood used in many of its temples and palaces. This is a devoutly Buddhist country, so our first stop was the golden stupa of Pha That Luang – the most important national monument in Laos. Its importance is as the site of a stupa built in the 3rd century BC to protect the breastbone of the Buddha himself.

Our experience was enlivened by the annual national festival of That Luang which attracts tens of thousands of monks in saffron robes, nuns in white and pilgrims from all over Indochina.  The Great Stupa was resplendent with restored colours, in honour of a recent visit by President Obama. There was a party atmosphere, with stalls selling flowers, local snacks and Buddhist charms, and rickety tuk-tuks disgorging smiling groups of monks with ancient sacks on their backs. Boy-monks skittered everywhere and played pranks – one distracted an ice cream vendor on his bicycle so that his accomplice could ring his bell. A giant Reclining Buddha oversaw this joyful chaos with a serene smile. It was the perfect entry into Laos.


Patuxai is a great triumphal arch that dominates the centre of town. We climbed up 197 steps and a spiral staircase to parapets that overlook Vientiane in every direction. Grand thoroughfares, the Presidential Palace, fountains and gardens shimmered below. 

 


Wat Si Saket is the city’s oldest surviving temple and the only one to have survived the Siamese colonization of Laos. In the mid-morning heat, it was a sleepy place, quiet and calm, with a sun-filled courtyard surrounded by colonnades. Ten thousand statues of Buddha fill the shaded walkways that surround the temple, some just a few inches high and stretching as far as the eye can see in niches in the temple wall.


Wat Ho Phra Keo was originally constructed in 1565 as the Lao royal family’s personal chapel, and as a home for the Emerald Buddha after it was snatched from northern Siam. This sacred jade statue was seized back by the Siamese in 1778 and now sits in Wat Phra Kaew in Bangkok. But even without the Emerald Buddha, Ho Phra Keo is majestic - it’s the only part of the old royal palace that has survived.

The Temple of the Emerald Buddha, as it is known in English, is now more museum than temple. Outside, the cloisters feature great bronze Buddha statues, magnificent 16th century lacquered doors and, numerous Khmer stone carvings. The stone balustrade of each of the temple stairs features a Naga dragon with its head facing the grounds, guarding the sacred building. The shady garden is an oasis of calm, offering a quiet place to meditate and rest.


The colour, vibrancy and joyfulness of Wat Si Meaung was utterly memorable. It’s one of Vientiane’s most popular places of worship, offering a fascinating insight into how old animist beliefs have blended seamlessly with Theravada Buddhism. According to local legend, when the temple was being built in 1563 a young pregnant woman named Si Muang volunteered to sacrifice herself to appease the angry spirits. She threw herself into a hole in the ground where the building’s central pillar was to be placed, and was crushed when the massive pillar was lowered into position. This central pillar also formed the centre of the town that was springing up around Wat Si Muang, which to this day is revered as the ‘mother temple’ of Vientiane.

The temple is one of the focal points of the That Luang Festival celebrations, and Si Muang is fêted as a guardian of the city. Wat Si Muang attracts crowds of local Buddhists who want to benefit from its ‘good luck’ powers and it was teeming with pilgrims, monks, flowers and flags. Inside, Buddhist monks were giving blessings to pilgrims. Monks were tying cotton threads as a bracelet on the faithful to provide protection and good health.


Lunch was at Makphat Restaurant. Hidden up an alleyway, this delightful little place not only serves great Lao food (mango salad and red pork curry to die for), but it supports street kids by taking them in, training them and employing them as staff. It was also my first taste (of many to come!) of the local brew, Beerlao, which uses local rice as well as malt. On to the Morning Market to taste the fried crickets and be dazzled by the bright fabrics for sale. After a traditional Lao massage in the afternoon, I came back from heaven for a visit to Kualao, a restored villa from French Indochina days, where we were treated to elegant and languorous traditional Lao dancers and musical performances over another splendid meal of Lao cuisine. 

 

Lao Countryside – Part 1


We hit the road bright and early today in Laos – travelling northwards from the flat river valley of the Mekong River and into the mountains of the North. We stopped at a salt field in Ban Keun where we were met by a sight that could be from Medieval times. Brine is pumped up to the surface into great stone vats where it is covered with sawdust, then lit to boil and precipitate crusts of white crystalline salt. Local children played hide and seek among the vats, which belched smoke and flames and pungent smells.

Our lunch stop was Lake Nam Ngum where we boarded a covered barge for a peaceful cruise and lunch on the largest lake in Laos. The festival of That Luang was being celebrated here too, with dragon boat races on the lake and a carnival atmosphere ashore


Heading northwards again, the roadside was punctuated by local villages of all kinds. One, close to a mountain lake, was lined on both sides of the road by vendors selling fermented, pickled and dried fish. Seried ranks of fish were hanging in rows from racks at every stall. Another featured a fish farm in the murky waters of the Nam Ngum River. Road side stalls sold fast food Lao style. Mats covered with drying chilies added colour to many passing villages. Spirit houses, like bird houses, provided small offerings to household deities outside most huts to keep evil spirits at bay. Soon the dry rice fields gave way to the limestone mountains that create the impressive karst scenery of northern Laos. Our last stop of the day was a local organic farm where I bumped into a massive spidery local!


Vang Vieng – Song in the Heart


Our destination of Vang Vieng is known as the most picturesque town in Laos. It’s situated on the Song River, beneath imposing serrated limestone ridges. It’s the backpackers Shangri La of Southeast Asia due to its beauty, its soft adventure activities and to its cheap lodging and food. Precarious long-tailed boats ferry people up and down the fast flowing river, whilst above, colourful hot air balloons float serenely over the landscape. A rickety wooden suspension bridge somehow manages to support both people and vehicles. Both sunset and dawn here were magical moments as the light seemed positively incandescent. It’s a place to file away in the memory banks to bring out as a vibrant recollection on dreary northern wintery days…


Lao Countryside – Part 2


The next day was a chance to see some truly spectacular Laos landscapes.  We travelled from Vang Vieng to Luang Prabang through what used to be bandit country. It’s hard to believe that there were no paved roads here until recently! Improbable limestone peaks soar straight up to over 2,000 metres along the way.

We stopped at Tham Xang Cave which is a limestone grotto across another sinuous suspension bridge beside the River Song with a Buddhist shrine. Having made an offering I chose a straw that determined my fortune. Kham, our guide, translated my future. Apparently there are lots more Travel Shows in my stars…. The road north continued through Ban Pha Tang, a village on the Song River that has a colourful temple complex nestled beneath towering mountains.


Rivers wind around densely forested Karst peaks. And in amongst this amazing scenery are villages, each with its market selling not only fruit and veg but pigs eyeballs, live bamboo grubs, songbirds on sticks, mud crabs and more! Our lunch stop was at a spectacularly sited mirador at Phoun Khoun with views over mountain ranges in all directions.

As we drove on through the red dusty villages, I glimpsed fleeting vignettes of everyday life: saffron-robed monks resting on steps; tiny kids playing in the red dust; old men laying on sleeping benches beneath thatch roofs to escape the climbing temperature; dirt lanes leading off into the hills; hedges bursting with vermillion hibiscus; coffee coloured fish ponds; brightly hued village temples; village shops stacked with repetitive goods; old wooden houses on stilts; and rice paddies carved out of every available piece of flat land. We finally arrived at Luang Prabang at sundown.


Luang Prabang – Shangri La on the Mekong


Luang Prabang – just the name itself sounds beautiful and exotic. And this town in Northern Laos does not disappoint. The entire town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site – famed for its 33 temples and palaces dating back to the 16th Century. All these temples are contained within a small area on a peninsula formed by the confluence of the Mekong and the Khan rivers. Where they join, the greenish waters of the Khan flow side by side with the coffee coloured waters of the mighty Mekong.

A good starting place to immerse yourself in this treasure chest of a town is the Royal Palace Museum. We toured the rooms of this palace built for King Sisavangvong, including the magnificent Throne Room, Reception Rooms and the royal children’s rooms. Wat Ho Pha Bang on the palace complex houses the Pha Bang, an 83 cm high golden Buddha statue, the greatest individual treasure of Laos.


I went on a temple crawl – golden buildings gleaming in the sunshine with sweeping roofs, stunning mosaics and statues of Buddha of all shapes and sizes inside. Wat Wisunarat was originally built in 1513 and features a massive Buddha surrounded by “Calling for Rain Buddhas”. Outside, an ancient stone stupa is quite the contrast to the ornate temple. Wat Xieng Thong is a sumptuous monastery with perhaps the most beautiful temples in the country, dating from 1560. Its great courtyard encompasses a rich mix of chapels, stupas and monasteries.


After lunch at a restaurant overhanging the Khan River, our temple trail continued with Wat Sibounheuang and the adjoining Wat Syrimoungkoun Xaiyaram. Chapels, courtyards and a school for young monks brought these temples to life. Wat Sensoukharam was surrounded by white crenellated walls within which were tall chapels, great wooden gongs and drums, and stone stupas.


The crowning glory of this temple trawl is Mount Phu Si in the centre of the peninsula, atop which sits Wat Chomsi and its 24 metre high golden stupa. The 355 steps from the southern base rise from the streets below to the 150 metre peak whose views around the base of Wat Chomsi stretch in all directions. We bought a songbird in a bamboo cage to release at the top. As the bird flies free, it brings good fortune to its releaser. We descended via more stone staircases on the north side of Mount Phu Si under a blessedly shady forest canopy, with pauses at reclining and teaching Buddhas along the way. Then back to the hotel for a recuperative Lao massage that was well earned!


In the evening I wandered around Luang Prabang’s famous night market. Innumerable stalls are lit by single bulbs and they sell an amazing array of merchandise. I bought T shirts for $3 apiece, locally woven silk scarves and ornaments made from aluminium from recycled Vietnam War bombs.

 

The Mekong and More


The Mekong is one of the world’s mightiest rivers. It starts in the Himalayas and runs through 6 countries: China, Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. We took a river trip upriver on the Mekong from Luang Parbang. The river continues to be the life blood of the country – the riverside scenes are unchanged in hundreds of years. The river is also plied by local ferries which connect each bank and the villages along its shores. In addition cargo boats battle the currents to bring lumber down the river and goods against the current.

We stopped at the Tham Pak Ou Caves, which are limestones grottos in cliffs rising sheer from the Mekong River. Here generations of pilgrims have left countless figures of Buddha so that the dark recesses are full of an army of statues. The faithful believe that they will be protected during their river journeys due to their offerings. On the journey back we stopped in the village of Ban Xang Khong, famous for its handicrafts. Silk weaving is still done on old wooden looms like this shown in the picture.


The Tat Kuang Si Falls are 30kms southwest and down river from Luang Prabang. These 50 metre cascades in the jungle are ridiculously picturesque and a welcome respite from the tropical heat. The river falls into a series of travertine dammed pools that provide cooling swimming holes in the forest. I climbed up a steep and slippery trail to the top of the falls where there is an oasis of peace under a treed canopy, more turquoise pools and a breathtaking view through the trees. Bamboo bridges lead over streams and pools under the jungle canopy.

At the base of the forest trail is the Kuang Si Sun Bear Sanctuary. Sun Bears are the only indigenous bear species in Laos and they are being rescued from the hands of poachers to live in these serene surroundings.


Laos is a country in which to rediscover your soul. It exerts a calming, gentle influence over its people and its visitors. For me, this was most exemplified by the giving of alms to the monks in a daily ritual that stretches back many centuries. Kham our Local Guide with Senior Discovery Tours here in Laos had himself been a monk for 12 years and so was able to explain the ritual and facilitate our participation in this age old custom. He did so in his charming English, which was a glorious mix of Aussie-accented South London idioms.

Giving alms to the monks is a daily ritual in Laos. It begins just before dawn as alms givers line the streets with baskets of sticky rice. Lines of saffron clad monks pad silently by in their bare feet holding out a bowl for offerings. The local people place a small portion of rice in each monk’s bowl. Travellers can join in this humbling ritual as well as we did one pre-dawn morning in Luang Prabang. It was a moving and a humbling experience which was a fitting way to close our trip to this most beguiling of countries and peoples.


Planning Your Trip 


I travelled with Senior Discovery Tours, a leading tour company specializing in trips for the mature traveller. Their website is www.seniordiscoverytours.ca and their telephone number is 1-800-268-3492. I am pleased to wholeheartedly recommend them. Their truly all-inclusive tour used the finest accommodations in Laos and sourced the best local restaurants to sample the Lao cuisine. The itinerary was comprehensive without being over-busy. Their Tour Manager Lucia was superb, as was Kham their local guide.

 

Accommodations


I would recommend the accommodations I experienced on this trip:

Green Park Hotel

248 Khouvieng Road, Ban Nongchanch, Vientiane Lao People's Democratic Republic 011-856-21-264-097
www.greenparkvientiane.com

Riverside Boutique Hotel

Ban Viengkeo, PO 360, Vang Vieng, Vientiane Province 011-856-23-511-726 www.riversidevangvieng.com

Luang Prabang View Hotel

Phou Meo, Thai Lao Friendship Road, Luang Prabang 011-856-71-260-560
www.luangprabangview.com

Thanks


Grateful thanks to Lucia Biason, the Tour Manager on our trip and to Oedile Daniels who made it all possible back at Senior Discovery Tour’s base in Toronto. Also to Kham, our local guide in Laos – and to all our fellow travellers who made the trip such a delight.

Copyright ©2016 Chris Robinson


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