Another country closer to 40, another hour closer to Sydney.
As I move onto the next destination of my journey I’m taking the time to reflect back over my last week in beautiful Laos.
Humidity (and associated excessive sweating) aside, Laos like Cambodia was a hidden gem, a country I feel privileged to have been lucky enough to visit.
Not dissimilar to Cambodia in it’s vibe, it’s culture and it’s people.
Vastly different in it’s landscape from Cambodia’s flat open landscape, Laos is home to many lusciously green and flourishing mountains.
Border control between Cambodia and Laos could most definitely do with some refinement. Approaching window number one to hand over my passport, my £35 (local equivalent) for my visa and the separate $2 payment to the same man to enable him to stamp my passport and allow me to pass to window number two, approx one metre directly to the left of window one. Here I pay an additional $2 for the next stamp to allow me to pass to Laos. That’s ‘border control’ at it’s finest right there.
Our first stop took us to Don Khong Island to our rustic guest house where activities were aborted once again as a result of torrential rain, our very own tsunami. There was only one suitable course of action, copious amounts of BeerLao (rude not to at 40p a bottle), a million games of cards and a good few hours of watching the storm across the Mekong.
Next stop, Don deng island where we had our home stay experience. It sure was an experience. The island is only accessible by boat with only 3000 inhabitants across 8 villages.
We were hosted by the largest of those villages, two families each hosting four members of our group for the night. We slept in wooden huts on stilts, open to the elements. No aircon this time and an outside loo! We were at least lucky enough to get the western toilet in our house, the other half of the group were less fortunate with their squat.
We were cooked a delicious local meal and on our walkabout the village before dinner got soaked once again in the storm. Damn you wet season!
A surprisingly comfy sleep had by all, nestled cosily in our mosquito nets on mats on the floor.
Obligatory fried rice for breakfast (standard) and we were on our merry way back to the boats and back across the river for the next leg of our journey.
My biggest reflection from our home stay experience was how basic a life these local people live, few possessions, the clothes they wear are of little importance, few even wear shoes! If they have a television in their home it will be in the kitchen where they’ll sit on the hard floor. Few home comforts, by our own standards that is, to be found here but they all seem so content with the lives they live.
Hosting for tour groups is how they earn their living but they strike the right balance between hospitality and retaining that personal, local and homely feel about the place.
En route to Luang Prabang our next stop, we visited Wat phu Champasak, a historic temple nestled deep in the hills. I’m pretty over temples by this point to be honest but this place blew me away with it’s tranquility and beauty and the stories of how the local people would trek to the top (as did we) to bless themselves with the holy water from the waterfall, more a trickle to be honest whilst making a wish. They’d then take some back to their families to give them good luck and good health.
Of course I made a wish, who says it’s just a story?
Next we took a flight from south Laos to the North to one of my favourite spots of the trip, Luang Prabang.
North Laos won my heart, but particularly Luang Prabang, a fairly small city with a whole lot going on.
We spent three nights here, so nice to actually unpack for a change, do some laundry, sleep in the same bed more than once etc and that’s before I even talk about what this awesome city had to offer.
Luang Prabang is home to Kuang Si waterfalls, a stunning place where we swam in the falls plunge pools, well when I say ‘we’ I had a dip which for anyone who knows me well enough to know about my crazy water fear was rather a big deal for me. The swim came with a free fish pedicure as the fish would nibble you.. not remotely comfortable with that I tell you!
The falls was also home to the black bear sanctuary where they re-home orphaned black bears. Super cute, I’d have loved to have popped one of those little fellas in my rucksack to bring home.
More storms.... boooooo.... so rude not to shelter at Utopia bar whilst we dried out and drink gallons of BeerLao. Such a cool little bar, my favourite bar by far on my travels so far. Lots of nooks to hide out in and lounger cushions on the floor to laze about, great music, great food and of course great company.
The following morning was an early start. Up with the monks for the Alms Ceremony.
As the sun rises in Luang Prabang, approx 200 Buddhist monks depart their respective temples in a quest to gather their daily food. The tradition dates back to the 14th century but still today locals prepare sticky rice and gifts and quickly wait by the road side to hand them to the monks. The ceremony was very peaceful and spiritual and we felt honoured to see this up close, only a stones throw away from our hotel.
As we were up super early, we took advantage of the cooler temperatures and set off to scale Mount Phousi (which I confess turned out to be more of a hill than a mountain) but the views from the top were spectacular.
After a walking tour of the city straight after that, all before 8:30am we felt we’d earned ourselves a relaxing day of nothingness. And that exactly what we did... bliss! Evenings in Luang Prabang mainly involved perusing the night market with a cheeky Laos massage thrown in for good measure. Laos massage was a much more pleasurable affair than Thai massage so we made sure we got our quota.
Up next was Vang Vieng, the adventure capital of Laos. I was quite excited about this place with the promise of mountains to climb and kayaking.
The bumpiest bus ride yet transported us the 4 hours from city to city with a stop for lunch at the top of a mountain with the most spectacular of views, the most ginormous moths and a toilet with no wall that gave you a view as you poo!
Vang Vieng did not disappoint, the weather on the other hand!!! Rain stopped play on day one and couldn’t climb the maintain... booooooo!
Day 2 was fun fun fun though (if a little terrifying in places). We went tubing and kayaking. Tubing was not what I was expecting. A drift down a lazy river in an inner tube I thought. No siree! Tubing involved posting ourselves through a teeny tiny gap into a pitch black cave and guiding ourselves around said cave by torchlight, using only a rope to find our way, whilst spending excessive amounts of time imagining what might be lurking in the water beneath my bottom. Still, I took some man up pills and just got on with it. The rest of my tour pals were rather concerned about me though, apparently the fact that I didn’t speak for a good hour was a little unnerving.
I lived to tell the tale thankfully and was much more comfortable to jump into a kayak for a tranquil paddle down the river back to our hotel.
Our time in Vang Vieng was short and sweet. Shame really as so many fun things to do there and we barely skimmed the surface. We did find an Irish pub though and I thoroughly enjoyed a dose of roast chicken, mash and gravy - a welcome break from fried rice three meals a day!
Last stop, Vientiane the capital of Laos. Again a whistle stop tour, just the one night here. A farewell dinner for the tour group as we all go our separate ways but first, a little people watching from a roof top bar overlooking the river that separates Laos from Thailand.
On the riverside locals gather at sunset for outdoor exercise classes, it’s quite the spectacle.
Seeing the local culture of a country and local people just going about their daily business is one of the things I enjoy most about travelling.
One last visit for us the following morning before the impending doom of the overnight train from Laos to Bangkok, back to where we started two weeks earlier. It seems impossible that we’ve seen and experienced so much in just two weeks.
Our last stop took us the the Cope visitor centre. Since it’s creation in 1996, Cope’s work has helped thousands of Lao people with mobility related disabilities. So what? Many of the people they help are UXO survivors. This is an important part of Laos history that Laos people are still affected by every single day.
From 1964-1973 the US dropped over 2 million tons of bombs over Lao, the equivalent of one plane load ever 8 minutes, 24 hours a day for 9 years. 10-30% of these bombs are thought to be unexploded. Heartbreaking to think that Lao people were nothing to do with the conflict of the Vietnam war, Lao was simply a drop zones where planes emptied their unused loads before heading back to base.
The result of this selfish act is that Lao people live in fear every day that as they farm their land to feed their families, or light a fire to warm their homes, or as their children play outside, one of these bombs could (and do regularly) explode, killing or severely disabling them. I can’t even comprehend living with that fear every single day. Men than can’t work because of their disabilities and who have to watch their wives spend every hour of daylight out in the fields just to farm enough food to feed themselves, whilst also caring for their children and living with the fear that their families too could at any moment be killed or permanently injured by one of those bombs.
COPE have changed the lives of so many of those people by providing them with prosthetic limbs and rehabilitation to enable them to cope better with the everyday challenges that life presents for them. Truly inspirational.
Onwards to Bangkok where our tour will end and we say goodbye to new friends and bank a whole host of amazing experiences and memories.
Laos was a little gem of a country, still somewhat untouched and unharmed by tourism. I’m so happy that I’ve been lucky enough to see it this way before tourism does to Laos what I’ve already experienced it do to countries like Thailand. I’ll hold fond memories of Laos and the people I’ve been lucky enough to share the experience with.
Travelling has brought so many friends into my life and I have no doubts that somewhere, at some point in the future our paths will cross again.
Till next time.....