Liking Laos

There are very few countries I have visited that I would say I hate, but top of the list is Laos. This was based on a trip in 2007 with my son to the island of Don Khong. After 2 relaxing days, we asked the hotel proprietress for help getting us to Siem Reap in Cambodia. What ensued was an hours long negotiation about price between the proprietress, a restaurant owner and us, the former in cahoots with each other. In the end, they promised us a single vehicle, one day ride to Siem Reap for $35.

What followed was an hour ride to the border with a demand by the border guards to pay the Sunday overtime charge ( it was Monday at 8:00 am), a change of vehicles to some town in Cambodia where the driver told us no further ride would be available until the next day. Me, and a mass of other Westerners, protested and eventually a rickety mini-van was produced which ferried us to Phnom Penh, but only after I forced Stefan to sit in the stairwell for lack of seats. At the outskirts of Phnom Penh, we were met by a bunch of scooters, anxious to take us into the city. Given our heavy suitcases, motorcycles were out of the question. Finally, a taxi took us to a hotel on the Mekong, where the next door’s discotheque pounded music until the wee hours. It was one of my worst days and the duplicity of the hotel proprietress left a bad taste in my mouth about Laos.

Time made me realize it was unfair to condemn an entire nation based on the lies of two people, so I decided to give Laos another try. My arrival without the necessary visa was met with a few shrugs by the immigration officer who pointed me to the visa line where one was quickly obtained and I was welcomed to Laos.

I was in Luang Probang, the ancient capital, Laos’ second city and a magnet for tourists seeking a relaxing, meditative experience. Its peacefulness, compared to Thailand, was palpable. Motorists did not honk horns, there was no garbage strewn about and the sidewalks were wide and regular.

Some history is in order. The Laotians are generally regarded as a subset of a Thai tribe that migrated from the Chinese highlands in the 13th century and settled in the area that is now Laos. Its greatest kingdom governed from the 1350s to the 1700s with Luang Probang as its capital. Suffice to say its borders contracted and expanded depending on the outcome of battles with the Thais, Vietnamese, Burmese and Chinese. In 1750, the Siamese took over until 1890, when it ceded Laos to the French in exchange for Siamese independence.

The French period is regarded as “ soft colonialism”, with the Laotian people mostly being used as cheap labour for French projects in Vietnam. Cries for independence started following WW2, but was only granted in 1965 following the defeat of the French in the French/Indochine war. During the Vietnam War, the USA carried out its secret war in Laos, covering the country with bombs in an attempt to halt Vietnamese arms transport along the Ho Chi Minh trail. The USA left a trail of destruction, death and land mines which still explode occasionally today.

Following the North Vietnamese victory in 1975, Laos, too, was taken over by a Communist party, which has retained control through to today.

Luang Probang offers a number of sites and experiences for the tourists and I engaged in most of them. First off, the requisite sunset cruise along the Mekong River aboard my private boat:

It was a bit cloudy, so I’ll spare you the not so spectacular sunset photos.

Next up, seeing the temples, of which there seemed to be hundreds:

Quite frankly, after the first dozen or so, they all started to look the same and, really, how many photos do I need of pretty, gold coloured temples.

The night market, along a Main Street blocked every evening, has the usual array of local crafts and tacky souvenirs:

Luang Probang has one unique experience high on every tourist’s list and that is the march of the monks. Every morning, before dawn, the orange robed monks leave their dorms and walk down the streets toward the temples as locals and tourists give them rice- their sustenance for the day. It is highly recommended and I wanted to see it, but…,

The bane of my time in Luang Probang was this bridge:

To get from my hotel to the center of Luang Probang, I had to either call a taxi tuk-tuk and pay $16 to go the 15 minutes via the new bridge or I could walk over the old bridge’s planks for free and be there in 5 minutes. The problem is I get vertigo and have a strong dislike of rickety old bridges so every time I had to walk across it was an unpleasant chore.

I finally compromised and decided I’d walk across the bridge in daylight, but use the taxi after dark. And since there were no taxis waiting at the hotel at 5:00 am, no amount of promised fantastic experience could convince me to walk across the bridge before dawn, so I didn’t see the monk’s march.

I couldn’t leave Luang Probang without visiting one of its many nearby waterfalls. An hour’s drive away is Kuangsi waterfall, a popular picnic point for locals and tourists alike:

Pretty, but quite busy. More serene was the the nearby butterfly park and, while there were many beautiful butterflies there, getting a decent photo was near impossible.

Vientiane is the capital of Laos and to get there from Luang Probang involves a $150 flight on Lao Airlines, a 9 hour minivan ride through mountains and winding roads or a $35 ( after commission) ride on the newly built Chinese railroad. The problem is that train tickets go on sale only 3 days before and require personal attendance to buy them.

I opted for the train ride and happily paid the commission for the agent to stand in line at 4:00am 3 days prior. My hoped for business class ticket wasn’t available but a regular seat was procured. On the appointed day, I arrived at the stark, newly constructed station and settled in ( after 2 passport and 1 security checks) for the ride. I’d read the scenery was spectacular but the first hour was filled with so many long tunnels it was hard to see much, but what was visible was quite pretty:

Vientaine is considered a quiet, relaxing capital, which it was. I hired a private driver, found a list of top things to see and crossed most of them off in two hours. They included a few temples, a few temple museums and the Patuxai Monument, commemorating those who died fighting the French and later, the non-Communists:

I could bore you with descriptions and photos of more temples, but I will spare you and move on to my Vientaine highlight, Buddha Park. It’s a built for tourists park containing in excess of 150 Buddha and Hindu statues. Here are just a few:

I appreciate this may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but after enjoying the monument park in Budapest ( displaced Communist statues), I couldn’t resist another one. Yes, it’s kooky and slightly irreverent, but it was jolly good fun seeing all these Buddha statues poking up everywhere.

And thus ended my time in Laos. It had mostly redeemed itself ( until I went through the security check at the airport but that’s for the next blog). I didn’t love Laos, finding it a bit too laid back for my liking, but it is no longer on my “hate” list.

Next: Vietnam

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