Of all the locations on our itinerary, Laos is probably the one we knew least about and had done nearly no advance reading on. The only land-locked country in S/E Asia, Laos doesn’t have an obvious wow factor to poach tourists from its neighbours. No Bangkok or Saigon, and while it certainly doesn’t lack interesting ancient temples, it has nothing in the scale of Angkor in Cambodia.
However, therein lies some of its charm. Laos feels calm, relaxed and is certainly less hectic than its Vietnamese neighbour. On arriving it had more in common with Cambodia – although the capital Vientiane is much smaller than its Cambodian counterpart Phnom Penh, which is no bad thing.
Vientiane has to be the smallest and quietest capital city we have ever visited. Sitting on the banks of the Mekong, you can view the northeast border of Thailan. The river was high when we visited, but in the dry season we were told there are numerous mud flats meaning you can actually make the journey across on foot for part of the year. Being so compact it’s quite easy to visit several of the main tourist attractions of Vientiane in a few days: a smattering of temples; a beautiful reclining Bhudda;
French colonial architecture; a rather endearing but tired version of the Arc de Triomphe; and a very grand Presidential Palace which seems strangely incongruous in what is one of the only Marxist-Leninist Socialist Republics in the world…
Nice pad comrade!
Sam and I are trying to avoid the travellers affliction of getting “templed-out” on our trip by visiting other sites, museums and attractions. In Vientiane this led us to a fascinating but shocking discovery about the legacy of the Vietnam War that Laos continues to live with over 40 years after the last shots were fired.
While we knew that the USA had bombed Laos and Cambodia as part of their efforts to disrupt the Ho Chi Minh trail, we didn’t appreciate the scale of the bombardment or its nature. We discovered more when we visited a medical centre that provides artificial limbs and treatment for the victims of land mines in Laos.
Incredibly, the USAF dropped more bombs on Laos than was dropped by the allies in Europe in WWII – 2 million tonnes of ordnance between 1964 and 1973; 580,000 missions, equivalent to a bombing raid every eight minutes 24 hours a day for nine years. Laos had more bombs dropped on it during the Vietnam war, despite having nothing to do with the war, than Vietnam itself. As a result, Laos continues to hold the unwanted record of being the most bombed country in the world per capita.
If that wasn’t bad enough the “bombs” contained millions of small bombs known as “bombies” – the size of a tennis ball. 30% of these failed to detonate, leaving 80 million bombies scattered throughout the country at the end of the war. In turn this led to over 20,000 people being killed or injured by the unexploded bombs between 1975 and 2011.
A model of “bombies” at the COPE Centre
These bombies, which lie dormant for decades, are still being detonated today by farmers digging their land, the heat of an adjacent cooking pot, or commonly children discovering and playing with one. Having swathes of agricultural land, where farming can kill or maim you, prolongs the deadly legacy and poverty in Laos. Poverty also leads some to hunt for the scrap metal left from the war – a dangerous game of Russian roulette. The good news is that real progress is being made on bomb clearance making areas safe again, although this work can be undone in rainy season when mudslides and landslips mean that areas already declared safe once again become dangerous and need to be surveyed once again. It is a thoroughly depressing story that continues to create casualties today. The devastation caused by the USAs so called ‘Secret War’ is an epitaph to the war crimes of LBJ and Nixon.
Our visit to the COPE centre in Vientiane displayed not only the terrible consequences of the bombing, but the remarkable rehabilitation work to supply victims with new limbs and physiotherapy – a really inspiring effort in the face of what must seem like insurmountable odds. If you are interested in reading more about their work it can be found at: http://www.copelaos.org
A short flight took us north to Luang Prabang, a Unesco World Heritage site. On landing we immediately knew we had arrived somewhere special, with jungle and mountains bordering a gorgeous town that sits as a peninsula between the Mekong and Nam Khan Rivers. Both rivers were high, topped up by rainy season and full of mud gorged from the fields and plantations that usually form their embankments. The speed of the rivers, especially at their confluence was an amazing sight.
Go on, push him in..
Despite the surrounding geography, the centre of Luang Prabang is pancake flat – perfect for pottering around on bicycles, especially ones that have no brakes, gears or lights (though they did come with baskets). We spent our first day gently rolling around the town, getting our bearings and making several pit stops for delicious homegrown banana smoothies.
Beside the Nam Khan River we came across a sign inviting us to a lovely riverside cafe – one catch: it’s on the other side of the river only accessible by a small boat. We parked the bikes and gingerly stepped onto the boat, sitting down among the liberally distributed life jackets. Off we went battling the current when suddenly the engine stalled and for a moment we thought we might be making another unscheduled trip to the Mekong Delta.
Happily after a few moments the engine spluttered back into life and we made it to the other side, rewarding ourselves with sublime crepes while perched precariously above the river.
Luang Prabang as well as being wonderful to pronounce is a delight, certainly comparable to Hoi An in Vietnam. The night market is full of stalls selling local goods – (no fake designer tat like the other markets) and totally hassle-free – Laotians don’t do hassle; fab street food, excellent restaurants in beautiful wooden French colonial buildings, temples with bhudda’s galore, and the two stunning rivers regularly popping into view as you glance down a street one way or the other.
During one of our cycle trips we came across an old iron bridge only accessible for motorbikes. We weren’t entirely sure if it was meant for cycles but decided to go for it. The wooden slats wobbled as we peddled our way nervously across facing the oncoming motorbikes just inches from our wheels. We became increasingly aware of the queue of motorbikes patiently building up behind us as we pootled our way across, as illustrated by the stubborn tricyclist below…
On returning we found a narrow section of bridge which we thought might be intended for pedestrian access and thought it might be a safer option to push our bikes along this quieter, but considerably narrower route….so began the terror. This part of the bridge was made up of planks of wood, most of which were loose, and in one or two spots had disappeared altogether into the Nam Khan River below which was a long way down, very deep and fast flowing. Every now and then the front wheels of our bikes would slip down a gap between the planks, and we had to yank the wheel out causing the wood to creak and shake. Neither of us uttered a word during the crossing, a sure sign we were both properly scared and just wanted it to be over. It probably took us 10 minutes to cross, but it felt an awful lot longer.
When we eventually stepped back onto terra firma an elderly gentleman stood looking at us bewildered by our antics. “Good afternoon” I said in my best Hugh Grant voice, while Sam plonked herself down in the kerb and tried to regain some composure. I don’t know why but at no point, not even a few yards in did we ever consider stopping and going back, as if forward was our only option.
Smiling through gritted teeth
Luang Prabang is also a great base to visit the surrounding countryside that offers waterfalls, caves and elephant treks. We adore elephants (who doesn’t) and took a trip to a sanctuary where they have been spared a life of logging. Being with an elephant up close never fails to be a jaw dropping experience, their size, strength, and beauty overwhelming the senses.
After feeding them bananas we hopped on their necks for a ride through the jungle to a watering hole. It’s a strange sensation feeling yourself rock from side to side as your elephant lumbers forward, with nothing to hold on to. Despite being given some basic instructions (forward, left, right, stop….stop, PLEASE STOP!!) they regularly wander off the route to find whatever food they can forage to feed their voracious appetite.
You just have to hope that you aren’t going to be decapitated by overhanging branches or launched into the mud head first several feet below! Riding an elephant into a watering hole is exhilarating and terrifying, watching your elephant slowly disappear into the water leaving you marooned on her head and back, trunk sloshing about joyfully. We can’t get enough of elephants and will be staying in an AirBnB located in an elephant sanctuary in Thailand next week – can’t wait!
Another must see is Kuang Si waterfalls – famed for their bright blue water. However in rainy season the falls are a gushing torrent, milky coffee in colour, and are an absolutely drenching spectacle.
With waters high and wild lots of the paths and viewing platforms are closed or actually under water.
In the park area we unexpectedly came across a sanctuary for Moon Bears – much smaller than black bears, but looking equally adorable. These bears have been rescued from farms where their bile is extracted for “health benefits”. Sadly many have spent years in cages and can’t be released into the wild, unable to fed themselves and at the mercy of poachers. The sanctuary they are in is spacious, but it is sad to see fences keeping them in. The lesser of two evils.
On our last day in Laos we found that the Mekong had calmed and we took the opportunity to take a boat trip out to see it close up – beautiful and serene. When we set off we didn’t think about how often we would meet the Mekong and what an incredible river it is, sustaining so many communities and lives on its path from the mountains in the north, right through to the Delta.
The River isn’t without controversy, with Laos building dams along its course with the aim of being the hydro-electricity powerhouse of the region. However there are real concerns about how that will affect the rivers’ ecology and sustainability downstream, particularly for Cambodia and Vietnam.
Laos, the quiet relation of S/E Asia has been a very relaxing leg on our journey, and Luang Prabang will be one of our highlights of our travels.
Next Week – 10 years on we return to Chiang Mai in Thailand: same same but different.