You must have a heart of stone if you’re not charmed by this country, its spectacular scenery, and the friendly people. Although I arrived in Laos only six days ago, I immediately knew I would like this place, and I soon found out what my fellow travellers, who had visited Laos before, were raving on about.
In early history, Laos was known as Lan Xang, or Land of a Million Elephants. A former French colony, Laos gained independence in 1953, after which years of civil war followed. The US started carpet bombing eastern Laos extensively during the Vietnam war, with the aim of eliminating the North Vietnamese army and the Viet Cong, who were taking refuge in Laos and used the Ho Chi Minh trail, which ran partly through Laos, to supply their troops in Vietnam. It wasn’t until 1975 when Laos saw relative peace (and also the end of the monarchy), with the foundation of the communist Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Sathalanalat Pasathipatai Pasason Lao), or Lao PDR. Both tradition and language are very similar to those of Thailand, and the majority of the Lao are Theravada Buddhist, with animism and ancestral worship among the tribal minorities scattered around Laos. Sadly, it is also one of the poorest countries in the world.
I entered the country by taking a ferry (capacity: 6 people) across the Mekhong river, and spent the night at the sleepy village of Huay Xay, where I would take a long-distance ferry further into Laos the following morning.
The 16-hour trip was spread out over two days, on a boat that could seat about 60 people, mostly tourists. Traffic on the wide and murky brown Mekhong was not that busy, only a handful of cargo ships, while I watched the scenery of Laos on my left side and Thailand on my right, their different flags posted clearly visible on several buildings along the way. As we went further down south, and then east, the Mekhong brought us deeper into Laos, leaving Thailand behind. The scenery was quite pretty, the banks littered with rocks, further up thick forests and green hills, small villages with huts, an elephant carrying large logs. Buffaloes were grazing or taking a bath, fishermen waved their nets through the water, children were swimming. The boat stopped several times at tiny villages to let Laotians on or off. Meanwhile on the boat, a group of Irishmen and -women were celebrating Saint Patrick’s Day, consuming quantities of alcohol that would instantly kill people of other nationalities. Occasionally, a small speedboat would go by, most of its occupants wearing helmets, its 40 hp engine was so incredibly loud that your eardrums hurt.
I spent the night at the small village of Pakbeng, in the western province of Udomxai in Laos, where electricity was provided by generators to a handful of houses, while most of the small restaurants and shops only had candle light. Around 9 pm, it got quieter in the village as the locals prepared to go to bed, brushing their teeth by the side of the single road that led through the village. Generators were shut down, and after that, the only sound was that of the many crickets and geckos.
Early the following morning, our boat departed on the foggy Mekhong, for its second leg, to Luang Phabang. As the temperature rose in the morning, the fog soon cleared, and the terrain around us became more rugged, with hills and occasionally steep rock walls. In the late afternoon, we arrived at Luang Phabang, the former capital of Laos during the monarchy, and now a UNESCO World Heritage site. It is a small town, and its old center is situated on a peninsula that is formed by the Mekhong and the Nam Kham rivers. It is a charming town. Colonial villas are next to rows of old houses, with many shops selling all kinds of souvenirs, although they seem to specialise in handmade, decorated paper, and silk. There are many restaurants and cafes with delicious Laotian coffee and French croissants or baguettes. The names of the establishments are embossed on large wooden panels, elaborately decorated, the letters painted gold, hanging above the entrance. In the center of the old town is the National Museum, once the royal palace, an impressively objective exhibit of the quarters of the former kings and queens, together with a collection of ancient Buddha statues found at ruined temples all over Laos.
The Phu Si hill in the center of the town offers a beautiful view of Luang Phabang and the Mekhong and Nam Khan rivers, especially during sunset, when the Mekhong turns to an intense red, just before the sun disappears behind the mountains. Floodlights then illuminate the golden Wat Chamsi stupa on the top of the hill, providing a beacon that can be seen anywhere in the town.
The temples in the town itself are quite different from the Thai ones, mostly wood, with large patterns on the walls and columns. Inquisitive novices ask where you are from, they want to practice English with you. They are fifteen years old, but still have five years to go before they can become monks. One of them has a girlfriend, he tells me. “I love her, but only looking", he quickly adds, while he looks shyly at the ground.
While the men wear trousers or very occasionally shorts, most of the women in Luang Phabang wear long silk skirts in the brightest of colours, with a gold embroidered band at the hem, and the uniform of the primary school girls is the same, in bright blue. Even the only woman in a group of army officers, in a visit to the National Museum, wears a similar skirt, in khaki.
A one and a half hour boatride on the Mekhong river, with its occasional treacherous currents, brought me to the Pak Ou caves, at the base of a steep rock wall, plunging into the river. The caves reminded me of the ones I had seen in Thailand’s Petchaburi, but the Buddha statues here were older and more numerous. Hundreds of them, small, large, in different shapes, postures, from different materials. Inside, it was dark and cool. It had been a site of worship and prayer for over centuries.
I have spent quite a couple of days here in Luang Phabang, enjoying the relaxed atmosphere, dinner along the Mekhong, scouring the day- and night markets. But soon I will leave, to go further south, in the direction of the capital of Laos, Vientiane.