A Travellerspoint blog

Laos

Laos 2018

Route: Luang Prabang – Nong Khiaw – Muang La – Luang Prabang – Pakse – Tadlo – Khone Island – Don Daeng Island – Pakse - Vientiane

sunny 35 °C

FEBRUARY 2018

Four hours flying time north from Singapore got us to the city of Luang Prabang in the country of Laos. Luang Prabang is a UNESCO protected city that sits on the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers. The city has an old world charm, with 33-gilded Wats all attended to by monks in saffron robes, faded Indochina villas and a mix of French and Asian cuisine. This would be home for 5 nights, in a very comfortable hotel right near where the two rivers meet.
Our time in Luang Prabang was spent exploring the cities Wats, colonial building, back streets and museums. All helping us get a feel for the country before we travelled further afield.

Luang Prabang main road

Luang Prabang main road

Temple at the Royal Palace Museum

Temple at the Royal Palace Museum

Wat Roof

Wat Roof

Laos_021.jpgLaos_015.jpgWat Xiang Tong

Wat Xiang Tong

Night Market in Luang Prabang

Night Market in Luang Prabang

View of Luang Prabang from Phu Si

View of Luang Prabang from Phu Si

Foot Bridge, rebuild every year after the rains

Foot Bridge, rebuild every year after the rains

Old TVs become boundary wall, initiative recycling

Old TVs become boundary wall, initiative recycling

Laos_006.jpgLaos_014.jpgLaos_010.jpg

However, on one of the days we did venture out of town to a place called Mandalao. Mandalao is an elephant conservation project supported by visitor fees, the Lao Government and the WWF. Their aim is to rescue elephant from the logging and tourist industry, educate against their use in these industries and provide support and funding to reverse the decline in Laos wild elephant population. How they achieve this was explained to us and made good sense, which is why we supported the project with a visit. The rescued elephants need to be feed and exercised each day, as they have never learnt how to be independent whilst in captivity. We spent a very enjoyable morning assisting in these tasks.

Mandalao

Mandalao

Laos_033.jpgLaos_036.jpgLaos_038.jpg

From Luang Prabang we took a boat up the Mekong River to a tiny village called Ban Muangkeo. Here, just 29 families make a living from the land and river, plus selling homemade rice whisky (Lao Lao) and textiles to tourist. A short trek through the forest outside the village brought us to the fascinating caves of Pak Ou. The Pak Ou caves house over four thousand Buddha statues of all sizes, left there by travels over the past 500 years. We then left the water and were driven to our overnight accommodation in the town of Nong Khiaw.

Our private transport on the Mekong

Our private transport on the Mekong

Life along the River Mekong

Life along the River Mekong

Arriving at Pak Ou Caves

Arriving at Pak Ou Caves

Pak Ou Caves and it's thousands Buddhas

Pak Ou Caves and it's thousands Buddhas

Laos_075.jpgLaos_074.jpgLao Lao Whisky distillery

Lao Lao Whisky distillery

Laos_064.jpgLaos_065.jpg
Navigation on the Mekong River can be tricky. This unlucky vessel go too close to a sand bank and we went past the crew was frantically trying to salvage the cargo. We were told by our guide that the accident had only recently happened.

large_Laos_080.jpg
Sunset over the Nam Ou river at Nong Khiaw where we stop for the night.

Our next day was a beautiful boat ride up the Nam Ou River, as we headed further north in the country. This allowed us to get a real feel of rural life in the north and how important Laos rivers are to its population (see Laos-China Relationship below).

Laos_087.jpgLaos_088.jpgLaos_099.jpgLaos_101.jpglarge_Laos_107.jpgDigging for Gold on the Nam Ou

Digging for Gold on the Nam Ou

large_Laos_090.jpgLaos_092.jpgLaos_093.jpgLaos_094.jpgLaos_095.jpglarge_Laos_096.jpg
En route up the Nam Ou we broke our journey at a rural village which specialised in weaving. We also met a guy who showed us his rice store that should feed his family for the whole year. Laos people cultivate rice for their own consummation and don't sell it on markets. They only sell vegetables and fruits.

large_Laos_104.jpg
Because of a dam construction on the river we had to change boats. Our luggage had to be carried up and down the steep banks of the river. We were obliged to let local porters carry our bags of 20kg at least for us. However this provided a degree of concern when we realised one of those porter was a frail looking old lady. Fortunately she seems to handle the task better than I (Anne) would have. Our guide insisted we had to let them do it as it is the only way they can earn some money. The lady was paid 5000 kip which is less than 50p.

Public transport between Vietnam and Laos

Public transport between Vietnam and Laos

Hmong lady

Hmong lady

For the next three nights and two full days we were based at the very posh Muang La Resort. This was a real treat for us and we loved every minute.

Laos_139.jpgLaos_135.jpgMuang La Resort evening meal

Muang La Resort evening meal

Muang La Resort Not the dentist but a beauty salon

Muang La Resort Not the dentist but a beauty salon

Our first day activity was amazing. We took a short jeep ride with a guide, to a mountain track, were we started a hike up to a Khamu (one of three main Laos ethnic groups) village. On route we learnt about the various wild fruits and plants the Khamu use in their every day life, and how they cultivate the land to be almost self sufficient. Upon reaching the village, we were able to see how they live and be introduced to some of the residents. After a picnic lunch by a waterfall, we returned down the mountain following a stream through a tropical rainforest. We felt very privileged to have witnessed this way of life.

Early morning mountain hike to Khamu village

Early morning mountain hike to Khamu village

Ban Phavie

Ban Phavie

Khamu girls

Khamu girls

Broom plant drying

Broom plant drying

Drying nuts in Khamu village

Drying nuts in Khamu village

Ban Phavie a Khamu Village

Ban Phavie a Khamu Village

Waterfall

Waterfall

Broom plant collection

Broom plant collection

What NOT to use when fishing

What NOT to use when fishing

Mountain scenery

Mountain scenery

large_Laos_146.jpg
During our hike through the forest we saw a number of these animal traps (bamboo pole across the river). This one was designed to catch either a rat or a squirrel. Hunting is still common amongst the tribal community as it has low impact on the wildlife is allowed in non protected areas.

One thing we were expecting in the forest and mountains was more bird life than we had seen so far. But, although you could hear them, we saw very few. What we did see however, were many large and brightly coloured butterflies.

large_Laos_142.jpg

Day two was equally amazing and even more informative. This time we ventured further up into the mountains, to visit another Khamu village together with those of the Hmong and Akha communities. The whole day was spent meeting local tribal people and understanding how they live. Once again we felt very privileged to have such an opportunity.

Drive up into the Mountains

Drive up into the Mountains

Laos_153.jpgLaos_158.jpgKhamu Village

Khamu Village

Khamu Lady kitchen

Khamu Lady kitchen

Khamu Lady cleaning broom plant

Khamu Lady cleaning broom plant

large_Laos_155.jpglarge_Laos_156.jpg
A Popular game in the villages that we visited was to hit a plastic bottle and spills its contents using a flip flop. This is a game plaid only by boys or young men. The contents of the bottle for the men was money and appeared to be involving a bit of gambling.

Ikhor Sacred Gate at the entrance or exit of the village

Ikhor Sacred Gate at the entrance or exit of the village

Hmong Village

Hmong Village

Hmong Lady sewing

Hmong Lady sewing

It should be noted that our local guide for the two days was exceptional, and without his knowledge and his acceptance amongst these remote communities, the experience we enjoyed would not have been half as good.

The next day we travelled back south to overnight in Luang Prabang once again. On route we got to see and understand more about modern Laos today. Back in Luang Prabang, we just had time for the night market and the purchase of a few souvenirs.

Rice Paddy

Rice Paddy



Our journey now took us away from the northern mountains to the much flatter land in southern Laos. This was courtesy of a 1hr 45min flight with Lao Airlines from Luang Prabang to Pakse.

The city of Pakse immediately felt busier and looked more modern than anywhere in the north. Our new guide explained that this was because it is at a strategic point for trade passing to and from Las, Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand. Today we were heading up onto the Bolaven Plateau that overlooks the Mekong valley. The Bolaven Plateau is famous for growing coffee, and on route to our overnight stop we were shown the process from bean to powder at a small family run plantation. But before that we stopped at the impressive Tad Fan Waterfall.

Tad Fan waterfall on the Bolaven Plateau Southern Laos

Tad Fan waterfall on the Bolaven Plateau Southern Laos

Removing the husk from coffee beans

Removing the husk from coffee beans

Coffee plantation owner sharpening his knife

Coffee plantation owner sharpening his knife

Coffee beans drying

Coffee beans drying

Ban Bong Neua an Alak Village in Southern Laos

Ban Bong Neua an Alak Village in Southern Laos

Making gun powder in an old bomb shell in Alak Village

Making gun powder in an old bomb shell in Alak Village

Alak Village petrol station

Alak Village petrol station

large_Laos_212.jpg
Tapioca is the latest craze from Thailand and is commanding a high price in the local produce market. Consequently more and more Lao farmers are now growing the crop in place of their more traditional but lower valued produce.

We had two nights on the Bolaven Plateau, staying at a lovely place right next to the Tadlo River. The location was also ideal for visiting the tribal communities that live in the area, which with the aid of our guide, we duly did. Again, many hours of fascinating insight followed as we got to understand the way of life for the Alak, Katu, Nge and Souy tribal communities. Once again the knowledge and approachability of our guide made this experience all the more rewarding. At times we felt that we weren’t only observing but being involved in the daily lives of the people we met. Even though our only Laos words were “Sabaidee” – Hello and “Korp jai” – Thank You.

No age restriction to pipe smoking in a Katu Village

No age restriction to pipe smoking in a Katu Village

Village vegetables gardens

Village vegetables gardens

Village mailing address

Village mailing address

Nge Village Elder

Nge Village Elder

Nge village basket weaver

Nge village basket weaver

Alak Village girl crushing cow pats to sell as fertiliser

Alak Village girl crushing cow pats to sell as fertiliser

Houses and boy on stilts

Houses and boy on stilts

Alak lady weaver

Alak lady weaver

Coffin under the rice store

Coffin under the rice store

Traditional Alak house

Traditional Alak house

Tadlo Waterfall

Tadlo Waterfall

From the Plateau we headed back down to the Mekong River, and to the far south of the country, very close to the border with Cambodia. For the next few nights we stayed on two different islands in the middle of the Mekong River. Both of which are part of the 4000 island chain.

Crossing the Mekong river to Khone Island part of 4000 islands

Crossing the Mekong river to Khone Island part of 4000 islands

Fishing in the Mekong

Fishing in the Mekong

Khone Island road

Khone Island road

Sunset over the Mekong

Sunset over the Mekong

Khone Island scenery

Khone Island scenery

Water Buffalo cooling off and feeding

Water Buffalo cooling off and feeding

Fish trap on Mekong

Fish trap on Mekong

Young entrepreneur

Young entrepreneur

Mekong by dusk

Mekong by dusk

The first, Khone Island, was made famous in colonial times, as the French used the island to transport goods, machinery and armoury past the waterfalls that block the access to the upper river. During our stay on the island we were able to see many of the old French Colonial buildings, some in better shape than others, two of the old locomotives used for transportation and the very impressive Liphi Waterfall that blocked their route.

Liphi Waterfall on Khone island

Liphi Waterfall on Khone island

We were also very lucky to see the rare and endangered Irrawaddy Freshwater Dolphins in the deep water of the Mekong River between the Laos and Cambodia border.

On the Mekong looking for fresh water dolphins

On the Mekong looking for fresh water dolphins

Mekong Dolphins

Mekong Dolphins

Road side restaurant

Road side restaurant

Public Transport

Public Transport


Along the main roads there are transport hubs where all the public buses stop and local provide food and refreshments for those who want it.

Khone Phapheng Falls the most powerful waterfall in South East Asia

Khone Phapheng Falls the most powerful waterfall in South East Asia

Laos_276.jpgLaos_277.jpgLaos_301.jpglarge_Laos_303.jpg
Between Islands we made a stop at the most powerful waterfall in South East Asia: Khone Phaphen Falls. This also is a very sacred site for the Cambodian, Thai and Lao people. A tree used to be growing in the middle of the Falls. The fruits of the tree had the power to bring you a better future life as the legend has it. Unfortunately a big flood in past years destroyed the tree. Because of it's sacred importance the government funded a rescue plan for what remains of the tree and it is now displayed in a glass cabinet with a shrine build around it.

The second Island, Don Daeng, was about 100km further up the Mekong, but was very different. It was quite idyllic, still a working island where locals fish and cultivate the land, be it seemed to have a slower pace of life and much quieter. What helped of course was our accommodation, quite luxurious for us. We had a day and a half here, which was mostly spent enjoying the lodge, although we did manage a half island circuit (15klm) by bicycle on morning before it got too hot.

Laos Tractor

Laos Tractor

Cyle ride around Don Daeng Island

Cyle ride around Don Daeng Island

Temple at Don Daeng Island

Temple at Don Daeng Island

View from Don Daeng Island

View from Don Daeng Island

Our final destination in Laos was the capital, Vientiane. This was the first time on our Laos journey that we had encountered a busy city, and allowed us to see another dynamic to Lao life. Our first day in the city turned out to be very powerful and extremely thought provoking, as we spent several hours at the COPE visitor centre. COPE stands for “Cooperative Orthotic & Prosthetic Enterprise”, and is the main source of artificial limbs, walking aids and wheelchairs in Laos. But the visitor centre does so much more than just explain the amazing products they supply, it takes you on a journey to understand why their work is so important. It graphically explains how the country became littered with UXO’s (Unexploded ordnance), part of the millions of tons of bombs dropped on Laos by the USA during the Vietnam war, how those UXO’s are still killing and maiming rural residents today, the work being done to clear the UXO’s and the on-going care for those injured by UXO’s. If any reader want to know more, this can be found on their website https://copelaos.org. To finish this story, it has to be said that this organisation, along with all their partners, are doing an amazing job. But on a less positive note, the UN agreement to stop the production and destroy the stockpile of cluster bombs has not been signed by some notable countries, USA, Russia & China for example.

Sculpture made from 500kg of UXO including cluster bombs

Sculpture made from 500kg of UXO including cluster bombs

Sculpture of clusters bombies

Sculpture of clusters bombies

COPE prosthetics sculpture

COPE prosthetics sculpture

How a Cluster Bomb works

How a Cluster Bomb works

Unexploded Cluster Bomb

Unexploded Cluster Bomb

Bombing statistics on Laos during the Vietnam War

Bombing statistics on Laos during the Vietnam War

Our second day in Vientiane was one of exploration as we set about a self-guided walk around the city. This was mostly concentrated around the old city centre and allowed us to get a good feel for how Laos capital functions by day. As usual we found ourselves visiting many Wats plus a few other interesting buildings, before retreating back to the hotel room as the heat of the day set in. One thing that was obvious though, was Vientiane is very different by day than by night. During the day it feels very business like, but at night there is a party atmosphere when people come out to shop, eat and socialise.

Wat In Paeng

Wat In Paeng

Nyak Gardian Giant

Nyak Gardian Giant

Presidential Palace

Presidential Palace

Burst the balloon for a cuddly toy keeps the Vientiane locals amused at night

Burst the balloon for a cuddly toy keeps the Vientiane locals amused at night

Road closure at night for motorbike parking

Road closure at night for motorbike parking

Vientiane night scene

Vientiane night scene

And that was Laos, the three weeks seemed have flown by. Next stop Singapore and two nights later we should be in Malaysia.

Personal Observations & Interesting Facts

Laos
Laos is a bit smaller than the UK but only has a population of 7 million. It is a landlocked country, surrounded by China, Thailand, Myanmar, Vietnam and Cambodia, and is therefore dependant on them for trade routes. China in particular is having a big influence on Laos, and unsurprisingly not always in a good way.
Being a landlocked country, the Laos people never see the sea. Therefore, if one goes on holiday abroad, they are asked to bring back some seawater in a bottle.

Caged Birds
Next, a bit of a rant. It was disappointing to say the least to see ill-informed western tourists buying little birds in tiny cages, and then rushing off to set them free. The seller was telling them, it would bring them good luck, which of course is very unlikely and definitely not what the bird was getting. In fact, because of the way they were being handled, the bird would most likely be dead or injured by the time it reached its release site. Don’t these tourist know, that for every bird they pay to release another one is caught and the suffering starts all over again. Its rather surprising that this practice still exists in this Buddhist country, as harming any creature is against their beliefs. However, people are poor and need to make a living. What is needed is for tourist to stop buying, and then the practice will not be profitable, and will stop.

National Museum – Luang Prabang
On a more light hearted note. On a visit to the national museum, we managed to have our entrance ticket stamped, pinched and scanned by three separate individuals all within 10 metres of each other. Still, it does provide employment.

Laos-China Relationship
Throughout our travels in Laos we found no one who had a good word to say about the Chinese. We heard stories of people losing their land, with little compensation, to allow a train line to run through the country, so as to connect China with more southerly Asian countries. We witnessed rivers in Laos that have been dammed, so as to provide hydropower to China, but at the expense of the Laos people who depend on the river for their livelihood. We were told that China now rents a lot of land in Laos to grow fruit and vegetables, but does not care that their pesticides are polluting the rivers the locals use for drinking water. We also learnt that China brings its own workforce into Laos, so these projects don’t even provide jobs for the locals. However, we did see many Chinese tourists, so this must bring in some income. Sadly no, they generally stay at Chinese run hotels and eat at Chinese run restaurants. So we asked, why is this allowed to happen? The answer hinted at government officials doing very nicely out of it.

A Chinese built dam for China needs of electricity

A Chinese built dam for China needs of electricity

One of 7 dams on the Nam Ou

One of 7 dams on the Nam Ou

The Laos Government
With the exception of the above, the communist government of Laos has a lot of things to be commended for
Firstly, they are trying to safe guard their forests by creating vast areas of protected land, where no logging or cultivation can be done and where wildlife can flourish.
Secondly, they provide subsidies for the poorer rural population, in respect of electricity and water costs.
Thirdly, they are building schools everywhere that they are needed. Not an easy task with the remoteness of some communities. They are also trying to provide healthcare in those same locations.

Laos_176.jpgLaos_177.jpglarge_Laos_178.jpglarge_Laos_179.jpg
Also this building appeared to be almost derelict, they are still serving as a functioning school. The day I took the photo was a Sunday, which is why there was no one around. The government has plans to build new schools for all rural communities but this will take time because of lack of funds.

Laos & France
It seems that the Lao people don’t see France as the old colonial rulers, but more as their liberators. Before France took an interest in Indochina, Laos was under the control of Thailand. Numerous attempts had been made to free the country from its oppressors but all had failed. Then the French arrived and decided that the Mekong River would be useful to control and also they wanted a foothold in South East Asia before the British took it all. Hence, modern day Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos came under the control of France and was known as Indochina. However, before this could be achieved the area now known as Laos needed to be secured from Thailand. Not messing about, France sent some gunboats to Bangkok and persuaded the Thai king to give them the land along the Mekong. In the end, France took the eastern side of the Mekong, which ultimately became independent Laos and Thailand retained the western side. So without the French intervention Laos would still only be a region of Thailand, not an independent country. It is also why Laos only has a small population today, circa 7 million, as the majority of Lao people lived or were relocated to the western side of the Mekong River, which is in Thailand today.

Borne Kilometrique French Road signs still used in Laos

Borne Kilometrique French Road signs still used in Laos

TV
What was one of the most noticeable things about a visit to a tribal community was the number of satellite dishes we could see. It seemed that every house had one. When we pointed this out to our guide, he explained the following. The communities regard having a TV to be more important than easy access to portable water or good sanitation facilities. Therefore, as soon as electricity arrives in the village, the first thing everyone wants is a TV and satellite dish. Especially as a government subsidy makes the TV channels and the electricity to provide them, almost free of charge.

Satellite Dish on every house but not much else

Satellite Dish on every house but not much else

Satellite dish everywhere but still have to collect the water

Satellite dish everywhere but still have to collect the water

Watching TV is more interesting than watching weird tourists

Watching TV is more interesting than watching weird tourists

Religion in Laos
Most people would think that almost all Laotians are Buddhist; especially with the number of Wats you see everywhere. However, this is not the case, only about 60% of the population follow the Buddhist teaching. Of the rest, 30% are Animist (the belief of good and bad spirits), with the balance made up of Christians, Muslims and others.

Very early morning Monks alms procession in Luang Prabang

Very early morning Monks alms procession in Luang Prabang

Village central ceremonial building

Village central ceremonial building

Buffalo sacrificial altar

Buffalo sacrificial altar

Local markets produce

Laos_190.jpgLaos_191.jpgLaos_192.jpgLaos_193.jpgLaos_194.jpgLaos_195.jpgLaos_196.jpgLaos_197.jpgLaos_198.jpgLaos_200.jpgLaos_201.jpgLaos_270.jpgLaos_271.jpglarge_Laos_199.jpgBuffalo Skins, a Laos delicacy

Buffalo Skins, a Laos delicacy

Laos Flora

Laos_071.jpgLaos_072.jpgLaos_145.jpgLaos_258.jpgFrangipane flower the National Flower

Frangipane flower the National Flower

Posted by MAd4travel 00:20 Archived in Laos Comments (1)

(Entries 1 - 1 of 1) Page [1]