Welcome to Laos, Jewel of SE Asia
27.09.2008 - 02.10.2008 27 °C
Laos is an unspoilt, mountainous country of 6m people struggling to survive since their country was literally blown apart by French invasion (and colonization), Siamese and Japanese occupation, the Vietnam war, civil war, coups and chaos. It's estimated that more bombs were dropped on Laos during the Vietnam war than were used during the whole of WWII, with the equivalent of one bombing run every eight minutes for nine years.
Luang Prabang was the capital of Laos when there was royalty up until the 1970's. It is in the north nestled in the mountains on a peninsula between the Mekong River and the Nam Khan River with 12,000 people. It has the feel of a mountain town you might find in Colorado, New York or Vermont. French Colonial architecture, walking town, 30 pagodas, lots of monks, night market, beautiful views of the river. The citizens are living their lifes and it is not a totally tourist town like Hoi An in Vietnam.
I was fortunate that Vietnamese Airways said yes they would put me on the 10:20/AM flight to Laos. I arrived at noon to a beautiful sunny day. The airport is small. Passengers walk down the stairs to the runway and into the terminal. They provide Visas on arrival. So stand in a few lines and then collect baggage and go into the city. I rode into town with two New Zealand women that had spent two weeks in Hanoi and were on a two month holiday. I found a room in the same guesthouse run by a family with two teenage daughters. It was a wonderful place and the people were friendly and helpful. Mama usually brought us things to try from the market in the morning. I had Lao muffins and sticky rice (with coconut wrapped in a banana leaf). All were very good. The room came with all the bananas, tea, coffee, and bottled water we wanted.
The market is every morning with women coming to sell vegetables, meat, live chickens, frogs, crabs, and fish from the river. They have a grill and the most wonderful marinated fish, sausages, and chicken are for sale. I think it is the equivalent of their fast food. There are no McDonald's or Starbucks in this town.
The first afternoon we hiked to the top of a hill in town to see the pagoda on the top with great views of the surrounding area and a wonderful sunset over the Mekong River. The pagodas are very lovely and each are unique. Laos is a very poor country. The French did not invest very much here or in Cambodia. They invested in Vietnam and used the Vietnamese as their administrators, like the British used Indians, in their colonies.
The good news is that some say Laos is a taste of how Asia was 100 years ago. They resist adopting the modern ways of the Thais. They have a silk and weaving industry and several shops in the city promote their crafts. Bicycles and motor bikes are the typical ways of transport. Sometimes I did not see one moving vehicle of any kind on the main street.
I spent several days wandering the streets, one day biking to the other side of the town where the markets were for the Lao people vs the tourists. We rode up a hill to a pagoda and met some 10 years old students who shared their English lessons with us. They spoke very well. I also was invited into a monastery compound by some young Buddist monks. They spoke good English and showed and talked to me about their life. These young boys were here from small rural villages to get an education. They did have email addresses also. The internet is everywhere and makes a profound difference as a vehicle for learning if the people know English. So much of the information that is available on the web is only accessible in English.
One day we took a trip by car to a rural village where we boarded a long boat to a waterfall and elephant camp.
We rode the elephants throught the pools of water often at steep inclines. The mud was deep and the elephants feet went deep into the mud. It was great fun. We then hiked along the falls going over wooden bridges made of poles. Returning we spent the afternoon in a natural pool at the base of the falls before returning via the long boat to catch our ride back to town.
My last night I attended an opera of traditional music and dance at the Royal Palace. It was great. I am sad to leave. The people are very friendly and welcoming. The food is great and it is a wonderful place to relax, enjoy the views of the river and the smell of the Lao barbecue (which is grilling for us).
Photos can be viewed at http://good-times.webshots.com/album/568185789wZuJyz