‘Sabidee’ (‘Hello’ in Lao) is how we were greeted everywhere in The Jewel of Mekong: Laos. After shelving plans to visit Laos early in 2014 (after having booked flights! well it was conflicting with my best friend’s wedding!), it was pure chance that a friend mentioned of cheap fares to Laos and I had my flights booked to spend my wife’s Birthday and the New Year in Laos. This was going to be my first trip after getting married.
The Jewel of Mekong, as it is called, Laos is a relatively small landlocked country in South East Asia bordering Burma, Cambodia, China, Thailand and Vietnam. Laos became a French protectorate in 1893 and gained independence in 1953. After a long civil war, the Communist Pathet Lao movement came to power in 1975 and has been in power since then.
A relatively unknown country (I got blank stares from a lot of folks around me when I mentioned Laos to them), Laos was the secret Battlefield in the Vietnam War between 1964 and 1973 and has the unfortunate distinction of the most bombed country ever.
We arrived in Luang Prabang late in the evening via the the Lao airlines flight which reaches Luang Prabang via Vientiane, the capital of Laos. The plan was to spend the night in Luang Prabang and then leave for Vang Vieng early in the morning next day, spend a couple of days in Vang Vieng and then back to Luang Prabang to spend more time and then back to Singapore.
Immediately after checking into our hotel (NamKhan Riverside hotel), we went out to try a couple of restaurants suggested by our Hotel Manager – Mr. Ben. Laos is also famous for its food – the Thai and Vietnam influence in the food is quite apparent.
Next day morning was our 5 hour drive from Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng. Vang Vieng is a very tourist oriented town along the Nam Song river. The most notable feature about the small town is the Karst Hill landscape. The Krast Hill landscape reminded me of my trip to the underground river in Sabang, Puerto Princesa, Philippines in 2014. You can read more about that trip here.
Due to some confusion of the coach tickets to Vang Vieng, we could not take the morning coach so took the 1 pm coach. Realising we had the morning to ourselves, we took the opportunity to visit Wat Xieng Thong (Temple of the Golden City), the temple is built very close to where Mekong and Nam Khan rivers join. Until 1975, the Royal Kings were crowed at this Wat. The below shots are from the morning:
The ride from Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng was around 5 hours, the travel time has reduced from 7 hours to 5 hours after the construction of a new road. We reached Vang Vieng late evening, after checking into our hotel room, we had dinner at the hotel and retired early for the day.
The next morning in Vang Vieng, we hired a tuk tuk (Tuk Tuk’s are the most common form of transportation in Laos, cheap but can get uncomfortable over long distances (lack of suspension)) to The Phu Kham cave, which is around 7 km from the city. The cave also has a Blue Lagoon onsite, it is a small pond with a couple of trees around it for people to climb and jump from in the pond, good for quick dip after the stiff climb up the cave. The below shots are from our trip to Phu Kham cave and the Blue Lagoon.
There were a lot of Korean tourists in Laos, which was really intriguing, on speaking to a couple of the them we realised that these days there is a soap opera playing in Korea which shows Laos and its landscapes and hence the tourist interest. I could not help but think of Switzerland being a top tourist destination in India, made famous by Yash Chopra films. I was fortunate to have visited Switzerland in 2013 and even found rail wagons with Yash Chopra’s signatures on them!
Next day in Vang Vieng was our last and we had the van back to Luang Prabang in the afternoon. We decided to get up early and shoot the early sun from our hotel. Our hotel – Vieng Tara was at a very picturesque location in Vang Vieng, with the river on one side and the mountains on the other. The below shots were taken at our hotel.
After a late breakfast we packed our bags, left it with the concierge and were out for a stroll. First we headed in the direction of The Blue Lagoon. There were a couple of spots, not too far from our hotel that I wanted to shoot. The below are a couple of shots from the stroll.
After spending some time here, we went to take a walk along the river and we were in for a surprise (also a bit disappointment that we had not ventured this side of the river so far), there were bamboo huts erected inside the river for people to enjoy a drink along the river. The huts were appropriately called – ‘Other Side Bungalow’. All this was next to a temporary Bamboo bridge set up across the river.
We spent a couple of hours here just taking in the atmosphere, there was music playing and to our amazement they also played a Hindi song – the remix version of Aao Huzur Tumko. Below are a few pictures from the location. Post our time here, we picked up our bags from the hotel, went to the city and left for Luang Prabang.
After coming back from Vang Vieng we checked into our hotel late in the evening (this was the same hotel that we had stayed for a day before heading to Vang Vieng) and retired for the day.
The next day in Luang Prabang we hired a motorbike (costs anywhere between 130,000 kip to 150,000 kip) and had decided to drive down to the two waterfalls – Kuang Xi and Tad Sae. First off was Kuang Xi waterfall, which was around 45 minutes ride from the city.
The first impressions of the waterfalls are small turquoise water pools where the water gently falls over small limestone ledges. As you move further up the heavily shaded pathways, the waterfall gets even more prettier with bigger falls and lagoons, perfect for a swim. Kuang Xi is a perfect spot to spend half a day or so – with picnic areas, changing rooms and toilets available. At the front gates there is the Asiatic Black Bear Rescue Centre, an added bonus. The below shots are from the Kuang Xi waterfalls.
After spending a few of hours at Kuang Xi, we decided against going to Tad Sae (we had to cross the town and then a further 20 odd kilometers followed by a boat ride across Nam Khan and some walk). Instead we decided to walk up the 300 steps of of Mount Phou Si to reach Wat Chom Si and watch the sunset from there.
On the way up, around the halfway mark, overlooking the Nam Khan is Wat Phou Si, a Buddhist temple. There are a lot of Buddha idols are scattered on the hill, representing the various days of the week. A couple of photos from our walk up:
As we reached up, there were a large number of tourists already seated to watch the sunset. And I must say it was a glorious sunset, just the perfect place to watch the sun go down. The sunset reminded us of our childhood drawings, where we used to draw the sun doing down between the mountains and a river flowing through the mountains. A couple of photos from the evening:
For dinner we went to try our luck at a restaurant named Tamarind, the most famous Lao cuisine restaurant in Luang Prabang (and generally needs reservations) and we got lucky, it was almost closing time but the manager accommodated us at the only empty table in the restaurant. Dinner at Tamarind was an experience in itself, Lao cuisine at its best. My favourite – the Bamboo Soup!
Since it was New Years time, the streets and restaurants were beautifully lit. The below are a couple of night shots of the street along the Nam Khan in Old Luang Prabang.
We got up really early the next day to watch the Tak Bat (alms giving) ceremony, where the Buddhist monks collect food from the locals at sunrise. The ceremony takes place roadside on the Th Sisavangvong (main road to town).We walked from our hotel to the spot and were taken aback by the sheer number of tourists present to watch the ceremony. Having read about the ceremony, we were aware that it is something very religious and we were supposed to be respectful and unobtrusive. But the lot of tourists at the spot were quite the opposite. The below images are from the ceremony, I tried to be as unobtrusive as I could while taking these photos.
We spent the rest of the exploring Luang Prabang. There are temples at every nook and corner of the city. We managed to explore a few. We also had the chance of visiting the Museum, which was a bit disappointing (expect a local Lao story explained through a series of paintings hung on the walls as you walk across the Museum). The below shots are from the day.
The above image is of the statue of Thorani, the Earth Goddess, seen at many temples in Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. According to Buddhist myths, Phra Mae Thorani is personified as a young woman wringing the cool waters of detachment out of her hair, to drown Mara, the demon sent to tempt the Buddha as he meditated under the bodhi tree. Read more about it here.
Next day was our trip to Pak Ou Caves. Pak Ou Caves are two caves – the Tham Ting (lower cave) and the Tham Theung (upper cave) overlooking the Mekong river around 25 kms upstream from Luang Prabang. We took the most commonly uses transport – the slow boat, to the caves and it took around 2 hours to reach the caves.The caves are noted for their miniature Buddha sculptures. Hundreds of very small and mostly damaged wooden Buddhist figures are laid out over the wall shelves. The below shots are from the trip to Pak Ou Caves.
Next day was the early morning flight back to Singapore. The charm of such small cities are also the small airports where you can take photos up close with the planes. The below image of an ATR ends a great relaxing holiday in Laos! Sabaidee!