Travel Report Laos

(November 2001)
 

The Mekong River:  The Mekong River is the longest and largest river in Southeast Asia. It is magnificent, running from the Himalayas to southern Vietnam through a landscape (in Lao, anyway) of craggy hills and mountains covered with lush jungle vegetation. It's a wild river, too, bearing names like Lancang Jiang ("Turbulent River") in China and Cuu Long ("Nine Dragons") in Vietnam. There are no large cities along its entire length until the delta area in southern Vietnam, and no bridge was build to cross it until 1993 (there's still only one).

                 
 Riksha Services Huay Xai
 

Huay Xai: I crossed into Laos at Huay Xai, which is a tiny town rapidly growing as a result of cross border trade and the influx of tourists. There is little in this town of note, although the temple is a beautiful spot to relax and watch the sunset over Thailand just across the river. Locals on either side of the river arrange the contact to boat people.

On the river: The only life I saw during the river travel on the first day was in a very few fishing villages. People here fish by suspending nets into the water from poles jammed into the rockes, then returning at the end of the day to gather their catch. I've rarely felt as far away from "civilization" as I did traveling along the Mekong in this area. In fact, all of Lao has less than five million people. Huay Xai, the "city" we just left, with only one main street, is the fifth-largest in the country! Pakbeng is one day down the river by slow boat. We had a relaxing down-river trip with sunbathing on the roof of the boat. But this seems tobe not for all trips. Every day a different boat seems to ply the river, so you never know what kind of boat you will get until you get on. Ours was a big transportation, carrying about 30 travelers and half as many locals, sitting on wooden benches or inbetween the load. Speedboats raced past at breakneck speed while we gently ambled down the river, taking in the relaxed pace of river life of the locals.

After arrival at Pakbeng, to get up to the main street, you have to climb up steep stairs from the river bank. Believe it or not, this is the beginning of Highway 2, which goes all the way up to the Chinese border. Being at the crossroads (of Highway 2 and the Mekong makes Pakbeng quite a busy place with an active street life. Stores dot the sides of the street, and dozens of children play and work from dawn to dusk. At night, though people retreat indoors for their favorite pastime, watching movies. For two hundred kip (about three cents), moviegoers get their choice of about four features around town at video theaters like this. That's the concession stand out front -- no popcorn or Coke, but you can buy fruit jellies, peanuts and other locally-made or grown treats.

                                 

 

At every tiny village by the riverbanks, there was always a group of kids playing in the water, and waving frantically at us. Most of the way the water was relatively calm, but there were numerous parts of the river where it twisted and turned through rocks, creating fast moving eddies that threaten to topple the boat. But our pilot easily mastered most of them, leaving a few until the last moment before powering out, perhaps in training for the future jet boating tourist activities that are sure to spring up in the future.       

                    

Luang Prabang, world heritage site, is a beautiful town enjoying a boom in tourism. There is an abundance of upmarket hotels and restaurants to accommodate the growing numbers of middle-aged and older package tourists (predominantly from France). This was a total shock and was far removed from the Laos we had experienced thus far. But we took advantage of the restaurants to eat good food that didn't involve sticky rice! Luang Prabang has great temples and palaces, and is situated in the confluence of two rivers. There are some very beautiful waterfalls nearby, and there are day trips to caves further up the river. It is definitely worth a visit, but it is far removed from the rest of Laos.

                         

"Luang Prabang is the ancient capital city of the Lan Xang Kingdom. According to the Luang Prabang legend, the first name of Luang Parabang was Muang Swa, named after King Khun Xua around the eighth century, later known as Xieng Dong and Xieng Thong. During the reign of King Fa Ngum between 1354 and 1372 A.D., Xieng Dong, and Xieng Thong cities were renamed Luang Prabang in the name of the gold image of Buddha, the Phrabang. Luang Prabang was the capital of the Lane xang kingdom from 1354 A.D. The capital was then transfered to Vientiane city in 1560 A.D. Luang Prabang is rich in cultural heritage, known as the seat of Lao culture, with monasteries, monuments traditional costumes and surrounded by many types of nature's beauty. Luang Prabang province has a total population of 365000."

From LP, many make their way to Vang Vieng, a few hours from Vientiane. This town is growing at a phenomenal rate, and there were at least 10 guesthouses under construction when we passed through. It is very picturesque, flanked by rugged mountains and limestone cliffs, with a river running through. To get to most of the caves, you must cross the river by means of a makeshift bamboo bridge that will take you over the deep and fast-flowing sections of the river, then the rest of the crossing can be made by foot (it is only thigh deep) or on a tractor-taxi. However, these bridges are not built to last, and when we visited some caves, one smaller bamboo bridge was broken on the return journey, requiring a large leap from the edge to the ground, and the major bridge was swept away after a night of heavy rain (meaning a boon for the small boat owners).

                      

Another popular activity is catching a tuk tuk upriver a few kms, and gently drifting down on a truck inner tube. This is a great way to witness river life, but is hardly exciting in a low volume river. At times it was positively boring as I barely moved at all. This was a nice place to stop, and like us, many stay much longer than originally planned.

Vientiane has to be the smallest and quietest capital city in Asia. But it is also pretty dull, and the accommodation is significantly more expensive than the rest of Laos. The main markets are pretty big, but it is probably not worth buying clothes here if you are going to Thailand as well, as they all mostly come from Bangkok. There are loads of traditional textiles, but unsurprisingly, these can be purchased much cheaper in smaller towns. Do check out the Great Stupa and Patuxai  - they are both pretty spectacular monuments, and are not too far from the markets to walk. The monks at the temple next to the Stupa are very friendly, and we spent many hours chatting with them, and were invited to a meal with them the following day.
 
Special thanks to powdermonkey and Todd Greenspan and Avi Black.