Whilst we’re not all (currently) still in proper lockdown, travel is still a risky business, so let’s continue with L – which is for Laos, one of the three countries we visited in 2013 as part of our Indochina tour. A gentle, spiritual, welcoming country with some fascinating secrets.
So what do you think of, when you think of Laos? Do you actually think of anything?! Maybe this:
Young novice monks, seen everywhere – but more of them later. We started our five days in Laos in the capital – Vientiane.
Of all the world’s capitals, this must have the least traffic. The statue of Chao Anouvong, the King of Vientiane from 1805 – 1828, welcomes you from his plinth alongside the Mekong.
This is where the President, Bounnhang Vorachith, lives. Laos is a one-party, Communist state, but you wouldn’t really know it from day-to-day life. Not as a tourist, at least.
In the centre of a roundabout is a stupa, which many believe is inhabited by a seven-headed nāga (a snake deity) who tried to protect them from an invasion by the Siamese army in 1827. If it gets in your way you can refer to That Dam Stupa – which is exactly what it’s called.
Our tour took us first to Buddha Park, 25 km out of town, which is a somewhat bizarre place. Opened in 1958, and with so many proper temples around, one wonders why they felt the need to create a kind of Disneyland to Buddha. None of the buildings is sacred.
Weird. But they do sell great barbecued bananas.
Back in to Vientiane, and time to see some temples. Pha That Luang is a reconstruction of a temple that was destroyed in the Franco-Thai War and was rebuilt after the Second World War.
Nearby is the Lao Tripitaka Research Centre, another temple/library where the monks learn and study.
and the temple at Wat Sisaket – built in the early 1800s.
In the centre of the city is the Patouxi Gate, built in the 1960s to commemorate the country’s struggle for independence from France. Amazing view from the top!
Then we had a trip around the food market. At times you needed a strong stomach…
Our final sight in Vientiane was the fascinating – and sad – COPE centre. This is a museum/visitor centre relating to the prevalence of the use of prosthetic limbs in Laos due to the amount of unexploded land mines. It makes for a sobering visit.
The next day we flew to the beautiful city of Luang Prabang for three fantastic days. We stayed at the wonderful Xienthong Palace hotel, which was perfectly located by the banks of the Mekong – and why not, it was the last residence of the Lao Royal Family!
The centre of Luang Prabang is very small and everywhere you want to go is easily visited on foot. Our first port of call was to visit Wat Ho Pha Bang, a Royal Temple completed in 2006 to house the Phra Bang Buddha image.
It’s stunningly beautiful.
With ornamental nagas
and picturesque views.
Next we went out of town to visit a silkworm factory – here are the little blighters
and this is where they make clothes and material out of the silkworms’ hard work!
Back in town, we visited the Wat Xieng Thong, a very striking Buddhist temple that’s now over 450 years old.
I particularly like the ornamentation on this pink wall!
One of the fun aspects of Luang Prabang is that there’s a good variety of bars and restaurants for an enjoyable night out!
and I can definitely recommend:
The next day was mainly devoted to a delightful Mekong River Trip. I could bore you with hundreds of photos of the Mekong. Here are just a few.
During the trip we visited the Pak Ou Caves, and had lunch nearby. The caves are full of miniature Buddhist sculptures, and make quite an extraordinary sight in that particular location.
At sunset, we did what all tourists to Luang Prabang do, and that’s to ascend Mount Phou Si and watch the sun go down over the city.
After the sun has descended, so do the tourists, into the waiting arms of the stallholders of the Night Market.
and our favourite watering hole, the Opera Bar. (This, however, is the Xieng Muan Garden Restaurant, also very nice!)
On our final day we got up early to offer alms to the monks. You do this by giving them lumps of sticky rice. Sounds neither appetising nor healthy, but it’s a tradition that goes back a long way. The rice is cooked like this
Then dried like this
And then the monks all file out of the temple
and collect the rice, that has been given to them by the people, in their shoulder bags
It is then taken back to the temple kitchens for the monk chefs to prepare it into something pallatable for breakfast.
This particular temple houses an Emerald Buddha.
It’s actually made of glass but I don’t suppose that matters.
I caught this boy looking wistfully out of the window. I often wonder what he was thinking. I’m not sure he was happy with his lot. I wonder what has happened to him.
There’s a school nearby, which looks surprisingly modern in comparison with the simple lifestyle of the monks.
Later we took a trip out to the Kuangsi Waterfall Park
which also houses the To Tat Kuang Si Bear Rescue Centre
and those bears have a great, safe time!
The waterfalls are beautiful and are a great place for people to relax.
Coming for a swim?
At the end of the day we headed to the airport to get our flight to Hanoi, more of which in a few weeks time! On the way we stopped at a rather sad little craft village where desperate villagers made all sorts of desperate attempts to sell you their rather desperately underwhelming products. Wasn’t a great experience, to be honest.
Mind you, it was worse for the rats
And there you have it – Laos in a nutshell. I remember its beauty, its tranquillity, and its sense of humour, which you could see everywhere!
This is where you go for remedial treatment for venerteal disease – nasty!
I didn’t fancy the testes of tea
Two more things – incredible spiders!!
and the usual quirky sights – novice monks everywhere
vintage cars outside restaurants as a promotion feature
egg delivery by moped
beware of the bridge!
Thanks for accompanying me on this lookback of a few days in Laos. Next regular blog will (probably) be back to the theatre programmes and some shows I saw from November 1982 to March 1983. Stay safe!
Digging out the digital photo album, we’ll never forget our amazing tour to Indochina seven years ago – Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia. More of those countries as we go further down the alphabet, but today C is for Cambodia and its capital Phnom Penh, an extraordinary contrast between the beautiful and the ugly, a city of amazing resilience and the dignity to look its awful recent past straight in the eye. Please bear in mind that among these pictures are images from the Genocide Museum and the Killing Fields, if you’d sooner not see.
So what do you think of when you think of Phnom Penh? Probably not the Mekong, but that was our incredible introduction to the city, as we entered Cambodia from Vietnam on a speed boat, and, when you see the Phnom Penh skyline for the first time, it takes your breath away.
One’s overwhelming memory of Phnom Penh is of the exquisitely decorated buildings that form the Royal Palace.
Internal decorations are stunning too. This is Wat Phnom temple, built in 1373.
And of course, you can ask for a blessing… from a statue…. for cash!
The city is a mix of bustling commercial streets
where health and safety is always scrupulously observed…
and the Highway Code is king.
And after all that hard work…
There’s always time for a nap.
It’s a city of modern architecture too, with the University of Medical Science
The Railway Station
And modernistic office blocks
Combined with the Old World Grandeur of the Post Office
Sadly one can never, and must never, forget the horrors of the past. This was Pol Pot’s detention centre and is today the Museum of Genocide.
The cells contain exhibits of the dreadful past, and many of the floors bear the bloodstains that won’t ever get clean, no matter how hard they are scrubbed.
Photographic memorials to some of the fallen make tragic viewing. You can only admire the defiance and insolence on some of the faces as they refuse to submit willingly to their deaths.
And you can get plenty of awful insights into daily life here in the 70s, with the gibbets still on display
There weren’t many survivors – just a handful. But one, Chum Mey, spends almost every day at the centre selling and signing his book, giving talks to local children, in the hope that this genocide never recurs.
Visiting the Museum is harrowing enough, but nothing can really prepare you for a visit to The Killing Fields. But it’s one of those awful places that you feel you should see, so that you can bear witness to the agonies of that past generation. This is the central monument, if you look closely behind the glass, you’ll see that inside is just racks and racks of human skulls.
The bark of this particular tree has barbs so sharp that it was used to execute victims.
Everywhere are mass graves.
But I think the most pathetic and saddest thing of all is the collection of victims’ clothes
which in places you can still see peeping through the surface of the ground, along with remnants of bones. A fragment of shirt here, a piece of underpant there. It’s truly horrifying.
But life goes on, fortunately. The market is a bustle of colours and smells
Kids go to school
And men go to work
You can do deliveries with the motorbike
Or you can potter about on the Mekong
And I, of course, integrated with the locals and never stuck out like a sore thumb once.
If you’d like to read a little more about our adventure in Phnom Penh here is the original blog post I wrote at the time. Tomorrow it’s back to the old theatre trips and reminiscences of shows I saw in 1976-77. Stay safe!
Our early morning flight from Vientiane to Luang Prabang was courtesy of Lao Airlines. To be fair, they don’t have a great reputation, and just a few months after we flew with them, one of their aircraft was involved in a crash with no survivors. There didn’t seem anything particularly wrong with our flight, although it was delayed, which gave me time to take this amusing photograph of a sign that encourages you to keep the toilets clean at Vientiane airport. Let’s just say, it’s not an airport where you’d choose to linger.
Driving to the hotel, the auguries were good. The town has a lovely relaxed atmosphere, like a Buddhist version of a clean mountain spa, with good walks, lots of temples and plenty of places for après ski. We couldn’t wait to investigate. Our hotel was the Xiengthong Palace, and entering it felt like heaven. It was such a beautiful sunny day anyway, and the place looked fabulous. The rooms are beautiful, the staff are friendly and the restaurant, the “Kitchen by the Mekong”, is just superb. A perfect place to dine on the terrace overlooking the river, with exquisite food and immaculate service – that highly sought after blend of politeness and friendliness that many attempt but few achieve.
We did a little independent recce before our guide, KL, came to take us on our afternoon tour. Luang Prabang feels like a wealthy, well-to-do village. It’s like a Lao Cotswolds, except that everywhere you walk you see groups of novice monks. We were instantly entranced with this beautiful place as we wandered about, and decided that this was definitely a place to come back to. We had to find somewhere for lunch, and we discovered the Tamnak Lao, which had some free places upstairs, not on the balcony (which looked really nice) but inside. Although we lost out on the view, it was still very comfortable and the food was great. I particularly relished my thirst quenching bottle of Beerlao.
Our afternoon jaunt started with a visit to the National Museum. It’s a stunning complex, with its opulent highlight being the Wat Ho Pha Bang, built to house the most sacred of the town’s religious icons, the Pha Bang. Its reconstruction had only been recently completed a short time before we were there which is probably why it looked so beautiful. The generous daubings of gold on a rich red background are enough to make Laurence Llewellyn-Bowen jealous. The complex also houses inter alia the Royal Ballet theatre and a statue of King Sisavang Vong. From the Wat Ho Pha Bang you take a stately walk down the broad path that leads to the National Museum itself, which features French and Lao architectural styles and royal apartments. Sadly they don’t let you take photographs, so you’ll just have to imagine it. To be honest, a lot of the exhibits were a bit on the – dare I say it – boring side.
To take a break from the lavish religious buildings, we then visited the Ock Pop Tock weaving centre. Here you can see the traditional textile work of the Lao people created by modern artisans as well as watching them at work. You can also meet the silkworms, which is always an enjoyable, if slightly itchy, experience, as they wriggle and munch their way through their mulberry leaves getting fatter and producing more silk. Ock Pop Tock’s products are lovely, and it’s a great setting, but we thought it was all a bit on the expensive side.
Back to Luang Prabang, our final visit of the day was to Wat Xieng Thong, a magnificent monastery with several highly decorative outbuildings, which feature mosaics on the external walls, depicting Buddhist scriptures. Despite some scaffolding inside, it’s still a fascinating place to walk around, and I found the boats, in the form of nagas, particularly interesting. Many of the Lao kings were crowned here in the ordination hall. It’s also got the most elaborate gong you’ve ever seen in your life – J Arthur Rank, eat your heart out.
After a much needed rest, we had dinner at the Kitchen by the Mekong. Mrs Chrisparkle’s concerns for a gluten-free meal were easily put to rest by the chef coming out to meet us and to discuss her precise requirements. That’s what I call service. Dinner took the form of a multi-coursed banquet, and it was sumptuous. Afterwards we decided to stroll back into town again to see if we could find a suitable watering hole for late night wining – the dining had already been catered for. By night the town is brightly lit with fairy lights and warm glows emanating from bars and restaurants. A nearby restaurant parked vintage cars outside its doors, just because it could, to make it look cool. I think they moved them again in the morning. We then discovered the Opera House Wine Bar, amusingly named as I don’t think there’s an opera house anywhere near. But the wine was classy and the atmosphere welcoming. We loved it. A fantastic place to people-watch and while away the final hours of the evening.
Next morning, after a spiffing breakfast, we joined our party for a Mekong river trip. There’s a place you pick up boats just across the road from the Kitchen by the Mekong, and our little group headed off north east up the river out of town. The boats are very comfortable, with nicely varnished wood and rather plush airline-style seats. It’s a very relaxing experience, just watching the world go by, and a very rural world it is. Water buffalo and other cattle, fishermen alone in boats and fisherwomen wading into the river with baskets, kids running around, it may feel like the middle of nowhere but there’s a lot going on. In some places the forest comes right to the water’s edge and you see these massive exposed root formations, looking like some unruly wooden stalactites.
Our first port of call on the river trip was the Pak Ou Caves. About 25km from LP, the boat moors up and you climb some steepish steps to discover two discreet little caves that contain a big surprise – they are thronging with tiny Buddhas. Every available spare inch of surface will have a Buddha on it. Some wooden, some bronze; standing, reclining, some with orange sashes; but none of them are in good condition, as this is where the locals take broken and tatty effigies for it to be their final resting place, as it were. It doesn’t matter though – in fact their condition makes the place seem even more unworldly. On the opposite side of the river is a restaurant, whose name I’m afraid I can’t remember, set up to provide buffet lunches to hordes of tourists. It was very nice, but we were both amused and alarmed at how the toilet is basically an overhang into the river. Imagine “walking the plank” on a boat except that the plank is enclosed, until you get to a hole at the end… I’ve probably said too much already.
The leisurely route back to LP was via Ban Xang Khong. It’s a very attractive little village, known for its crafts stalls and shops, where you can see the skilled local artisans creating their textiles and their art. Naturally, you can itch at the sight of silkworms doing their thing too. The village’s speciality is the creation of a highly textured paper from mulberry bark. They make excellent pictures and greetings cards, and I confess Mrs C and I spent a few thousand Kips (that’s the rather cute name of the Lao currency) on some very arty cards. We were the only people wandering around the village – we did wonder how on earth those people actually make a living. But, to be fair, it looked very neat and well maintained so I’m sure there’s money in them there mulberry bushes.
A minibus returned us to LP late in the afternoon in time for a freshen-up and then a walk up Phou Si hill to watch the sunset. Phou Si (pronounced “pussy”, to general childish amusement) means “Sacred Mountain” and there are 328 steps up to a viewing station where you get a fantastic view of the town and surroundings. There’s a Buddhist temple (naturally) halfway up, complete with resplendent nagas, and also a splendid Tuesday Buddha in his reclining state. Yes there is a Buddha for every day of the week. It’s worth the climb up Mt Pussy to see the sunset, even though there was quite a lot of cloud that night. Get there early if you want a good view – every single tourist in LP will be there as well.
From there we walked down the other side and into the Night Market. As the name suggests, every night Sisavang Vong Road becomes an open-air market. It’s a fun walk, and I bought a Beerlao T-shirt, which made me look like a Lao Lager Lout. Not bad quality, actually. A lot of the stuff is tourist trash, of course, but they also stock all those arty artifacts that you can find in the craft villages, and it’s a pleasant way to spend a pre-dinner hour or so.
For dinner we went to the Three Nagas. It looks quite posh, and the food was excellent, as always in Laos. They had an extensive wine list, with some fairly pricey options, so I started at the cheap end until I found something suitable. Smilingly they went off in search of my first choice (didn’t have any) and then my second choice (didn’t have any). Before I made my third choice I asked them which wines they did actually have in stock. All the expensive ones, quelle surprise. Still, we were on holiday, and the occasion cried out for a decent vino. Afterwards we wandered back to the Opera House bar again, for something equally palatable and this time a darn sight cheaper.
The next morning we were up with the lark to participate in the traditional offering of alms to the monks. KL, our guide, used to be a novice monk himself, and had great insight into the daily lives of these people. You can give whatever alms you want to the monks as they wander past you, but the usual practice is to give them a piece of sticky rice. All round the town you see people preparing sticky rice cakes for the next day’s alms. KL bought us a clump of it (that’s the most suitable word I can think of for sticky rice in its “dried in the sun” format) and we sat by the kerb, pulling bits of it off and offering it to the endless queues of monk-men and novice-boys shuffling past us. The offering was placed in a metal bowl, encased in a cloth cover, that each monk had attached to a strap that they wore over their shoulders. For all the world it looked like they were showing off their new man-bags. It was a curious procedure; there was hardly any eye contact from the monks as though there was a sense of embarrassment to it, although I expect that’s not the reason. Maybe they were bored with the same ritual every single day. Mind you, I wouldn’t be happy with a main meal of clumps of sticky rice accumulated from dozens of hands; you found yourself hoping they’d had all their inoculations because I can’t think of a more sure-fire way of spreading disease.
Once they’d gathered alms from all the tourists (and to be fair, plenty of locals too) the monks trooped back to their temple – in this case the Wat Xieng Mouan – and we followed them. Wat Xieng Mouan means “Monastery of the Amusing City” so some translator, somewhere, at some time, was having a bit of a joke. It’s a smart temple, with a very lavish emerald Buddha that looks like it’s been dunked in Listermint. I wondered what life was like for these monks and novices. The monks are presumably used to their lifestyle, but some of the novices are very young and must have been removed from their home life – who knows if willingly or not – to live a life of religious devotion. I caught this one boy looking out of a window in the temple with a look part wistful, part sad. I think back on him and hope he’s ok. Back outside, we walked round the temple and from the side we watched the senior monks preparing all the food they had been given and handing it out for their communal meal. They are very quiet, dignified, peaceful people, as you might expect, so we left them to enjoy their sticky rice in privacy.
We got back to the hotel at about 7.30am to pack, check out and enjoy a final leisurely breakfast in the Kitchen by the Mekong. We even had enough time to return to the centre of LP for one last look at the rickety footbridge that spans the river. If you dare you can get halfway across and then start swinging it a bit, much to the disapproval of the locals, unsurprisingly. We were too scared, to be honest. Then it was on the bus to the airport via another major sight – the Kuangsi Waterfall Park.
This is a beautiful park, notable not only for its eponymous waterfall, but also for its magnificent bear sanctuary. These big brutes, who would tear you apart as soon as look at you, frolic innocently in this huge compound where they are rescued and looked after. You can spend ages (we did!) watching their antics. I’ve never seen so many bears in such perfect surroundings. The waterfall itself is stunning, and falls down onto terrace upon terrace upon terrace of beautiful blue pools. It’s a very popular site, with lots of hiking and swimming opportunities, and some very enterprising locals have set up a kind of picnic restaurant overlooking the waterfall, where Mrs C and I enjoyed the lunch that they’d brought in big chiller bags out of the boots of their cars.
Relaxed and fed, it was on to the airport for our final leg but we had time to stop off at a Hmong village, and I have to say, this one wasn’t so clean and wealthy as Ban Xang Khong. Instead of feeling welcomed we felt quite threatened by the place and there was a lot of “heavy sell” tactics going on. Unfortunately, the items for sale were rather poor and shoddy, but we did end up buying something from a little girl who was obviously going to burst into tears if we didn’t. My most memorable mental image of the place though is two boys sat by the roadside, doing nothing in particular, but with dying rats suspended by their feet from the boys’ bike handlebars. The village rat-catchers, I guess. Food for thought.
And that was it; goodbye Laos, and a one hour flight later we would be in Hanoi. Being Lao Airlines, it departed about forty minutes before it was due. Flight schedules in Laos are a bit like serving suggestions.