I am a firm believer that there is not a country on this earth in which I couldn’t find something to fascinate me, or even just some small part that would endear itself to me. We live on an amazing planet and I for one am endlessly delighted by the people, places, birds and animals I come across.
There are however, from time to time, places that just capture my imagination and steal my heart. Lao is one of those places. It was not very far into our journey through this beautiful land that I knew that this place was special, and that it would take residence in my heart as one of the truly enchanting corners of the world.
When the first taste you get of a new land is the capital city, it can be a somewhat confusing indication of what the rest of the country is like. Cities by their nature are usually large and often bustling metropolises that jam into their interiors the most flashy, grand, and exhibitionist aspects of what their culture has to offer. Cities are of course always a reflection of the culture at large but not always the culture of the small. By that I mean, one needs to sometimes get off the road most travelled and into the countryside to the places where people live out their lives away from the tourist lens. Then you may have the chance to really breathe in what a country is all about.
Nonetheless, my first taste of Lao was the capital, Vientiane. Capital yes, city no. At least, not in my terms of a city. Vientiane has a languid and peaceful air about it that beguiles you as you wander the well kept riverside streets. I am aware that this is a capital undergoing rapid change and that it looks markedly different on the waterfront to what it did only but two years prior. But for now, it has a wonderful slow, relaxed and friendly atmosphere that is so much more fitting of a big country town than the capital of a nation. With attractive streets lined with inviting guesthouses and restaurants, I was charmed. I whiled away three lovely days dining on some of the best food I ate in Lao, sipping great coffee in cafes and sampling world class wines in a wine bar.
Vientiane was a capital that actually in many respects was a good indication of what the rest of the country was to be like… at least in terms of the relaxed and friendly approach people here have to life. Lao is not a wealthy country in an economic sense, but I did feel time and time again that in other ways they were indeed very wealthy. I was struck by how there was a real sense that people work when they need to work and rest when they don’t need to work. I doubt you would find many a Laotian dying from a heart attack brought on by endless hours slaving overtime at the office in the eternal pursuit of trying to keep the worries of the future at bay. In fact, I get the distinct impression that this is a culture that may have possibly mastered the art of living in the now. At least, better than I feel people in the West have. So many Westerners spend the majority of their time either ruminating about the past or fretting over the future. Aren’t we as humans supposed to spend our time in the present? I for one have really started to see for myself that as the days go by this year, my own personal capacity to live in the present and less in the worries of the past or the future has increased. If I am honest with myself, I think this is the first time in my life since I was a child, that I can recall, where I can really understand what it means to live in the present. Our fast paced lives in the West just don’t seem to allow a human to be a human in the way that our souls intended.
I do not want to sound like I have bathed my whole picture of Lao in some rose coloured hue and that I am blind to the challenges that exist for this country and its people, but this is my love letter and I want to focus on what I loved about Lao.
I loved that when you would go through a village you would see families sitting together on square wooden decks, sharing food, combing one another’s hair or just chilling out in the heat of the afternoon, content to lie and watch the sun slip down the sky. This relaxed approach to living seemed to permeate the whole country from people to animals. I would often see groups of cows huddled together, lying on the road and cars and buses would need to simply drive around them. Why should they move?! I think that was the thought of both parties – the cows and the drivers! Taking a snooze on the road was not just the domain of the bovines though! I am not lying when I say that I saw a person having a snooze by their motorbike on the road as our bus went cruising on past. And I do mean lying on the road.
I think if you go through life expecting to find horrible people, you will find horrible people as easily as if you approach life with the belief you will find nice people, nice people you shall find; the world over. But some countries seem to have more nice people than others! Lao is a country that I found nice people in abundance. Lao people are gentle, have a great sense of humour, are giving of their culture and eager for you to learn but similarly they are genuinely interested in you as a person and where you come from. I met a wonderful guy by the name of Hien when we were in Luang Prabang and he ended up spending two days with Damien and I when we were in that town. Hien was studying to become an English teacher and came from a village in the North of Lao. He was very happy to share his knowledge and thoughts about his country and enthusiastically invited us to come back next year to visit him in his home town.
Cities and towns and human made structures can be truly fascinating and I always appreciate visiting such places in my travels. I am a nature lover first though and Lao has an abundance of natural beauty. I was continually dazzled by the sights I saw. It seemed to me that every time I left one place I would enter yet another that made my jaw drop. The first place to set the standard for the awe inspiring countryside I would experience was Vang Vieng. Magnificent karst cliffs rise up from the flat ground below. Staying in the town you are treated with the additional eye catching scene of the Nam Song flowing past the sheer mountain backdrop. It was a sight that I could not tire of, and every time I chanced to look away and then glance back up at a later stage I was hit with the full force of its beauty.
But as I said, man made things can be beautiful too and the next town I went to, Luang Prabang, is a sterling example of this. I must add though that it is nestled in a valley between two rivers so it has a pretty special natural setting too! Luang Prabang is a monastic town that is like no other town I have been to in Asia. Unique is truly the right word to describe this place. It is such a pleasure just to stroll the streets, or sit in the cafes and restaurants and watch the world go by. But you would be doing yourself a massive disservice if you found yourself lured by the town and forgot to venture out into the countryside to the Kuang Si Falls. These are hands down the most breathtaking waterfalls I have ever seen. The falls are a series of impossibly aqua pools that tumble down several different levels, each lovely and different in its appearance. One particular level has a series of flat pools that look as if they are slices of a turquoise crystal complete with white crystal fringes. This is truly one of God’s masterpieces. Every plant, rock and crevice seems to have been placed in a way that maximises the wow factor. Its picture perfect quality leaves you feeling that something this good could almost have been designed this way by someone drawing their fantasy land.
I would require many more pages than a blog post would allow to fully detail all the amazing sights I encountered during the three and a half weeks I had in Lao, so I am going to have to restrict myself to just a few more highlights.
One of the places I was very keen to see was the Plain of Jars. This area of Lao contains what is thought to be old burial jars that are apparently thousands of years old. We visited two of the numerous sites and it was more fascinating than I think either of us expected the experience to be. However, what was even more unexpected was how intriguing we found the town of Phonsavan and the province it is in, Xieng Khouang. I was aware that Lao had been extensively bombed by the Americans during the Vietnam War but visiting the town of Phonsavan and its surrounds really brought this home to me. The town is literally strewn with ordnance “memorabilia” (if I can be so crude as to call it that). Everywhere you go there is evidence of the carnage that was inflicted on the Lao people for all those years. Old bombs are used as structural supports for awnings, bullet casings for key rings, bombs are halved to use as fireplaces. But I got a sense that all these visual reminders of this dark time are more about the Lao people owning the situation they are in now and making the best use of the materials at hand.
However, the disastrous legacy this bombing has left was evident in the highly visible work that MAG (Mines Advisory Group) conduct in the fields around the town. We saw teams of locals working in the fields to clear the area of unexploded ordnance. As if to highlight the reality of the situation, whilst we were at the first Plain of Jars sight an extraordinary loud noise like massive thunder boomed into the air. It rumbled and reverberated for quite a long time and so we asked our guide what it was. He responded ever so casually (as you would I guess when you hear this all the time) that they were just detonating a bomb. Right. Yes, I think I will stick right between those markers (indicators on the ground of safe areas) for the duration of our time in the Plains, I thought.
This is a sad story to tell, I am aware, but I for one was glad to have first hand experience of what the Lao people had to endure (and still have to endure) because they were neighbours with a country America was at war with. I was also glad to have seen this part of Lao because the landscape was so different to anything we had hitherto experienced in the country. It was such a beautiful area with large, rolling hills covered in eucalypts and pine trees and it was so unnervingly like country NSW that at times I had to remind myself what country I was in! The echo of home was lovely!
One place Damien wanted me to see was Kong Lor Cave. He said that it was like nothing I would have ever experienced before. So off we set to Ban Na Hin, a village not far from the cave. An amazing cave I was anticipating, but not the gorgeous drive to Ban Na Hin! We drove through beautiful rainforest with plants of giant red flowers and heart shaped leaves. Rising out of the forest though was the most unusual rock formations! They were sheer walls that at their summit ended in extremely sharp looking jagged edges. I am sorry to say that I didn’t get any photos of them, but they are definitely another reason why I loved our trip to Kong Lor. Once you leave Ban Na Hin you then are treated to a further sensory delight. The drive to the National Park that the cave is in is via a gorgeous valley whose cliffs seem to meet at the apex where the Park commences.
But the cave! Wow! This cave is 7.5 kilometers long and goes straight through a mountain. You must go through on boat via the river that runs underneath the mountain. Inside, the cavern is enormous and the roof reaches a height up 100 meters at points. The river winds through the cave, past sandy underground beaches and stalactites and stalagmites. Lao had done it again! I was in awe of this latest amazing spectacle!
Last, but certainly not least was our final stop in Lao – Si Phan Don (4000 Islands). We rested on Don Khon (Khon Island) and had four mellow days cruising around on bikes, watching the Mekong swirl and bubble it’s way past out bungalow and just luxuriating in this amazing island gem. There were no waves like other island holidays I’ve had. Instead there was the large brown expanse of the Mekong, the heat, the palm trees, a lack of other tourists and just the villagers going about their life and I really felt that this was the quinetessential island experience. In fact, it was the perfect and fitting finale to what was one of the most chilled out and memorable countries of my trip so far.
Khop chai lai lai, Lao xoxo