Passage to Indochina: Laos
Welcome to the People’s Democratic Republic of Lao. The military-style uniformed immigration officer offered the friendliest, warmest welcome I can ever recall at an arrival post.
See more about Laos travel guide at here.
Part 3: Viet Nam - Laos
Text & Photos: Barry J Atkinson
Capital city Vientiane is a “frontier town” and administration centre. Located on the banks of the Mekong River, it’s a small city and the ideal arrival point to get your bearings and embrace the relaxed laid back daily routine of Lao Life. This passive remote country has a population of over 6.5 million residents.
Pha That Luang
Vientiane and there’s a number of sites to see, with the most iconic being That Luang or the Great Stupa. Only fifteen minutes from the town centre, it’s a good idea to visit early morning to avoid the masses.
In Chao Anouvong Park, along the Mekong River banks, stands an “outstanding” statue of King Anouvong. Constructed in 2010, during Vientiane’s 450th Anniversary, it commemorates the King’s pre-eminence as he struggled to fight against the Siamese invasion.
King Anouvong statue
The Patuxai Victory Monument is situated at the end of one of Vientiane’s grand avenues. This archway is reminiscent of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris with great views of the city to “scope the scene”.
+ Something of an insight planning my sojourn to Lao PDR. Airfares are volatile and can range from USD $350 to $470 return trip ex-Vietnam. These rates can fluctuate within 24 hours and ridiculous as the actual flight time is only sixty or ninety minute’s ex-Hanoi or HCMC.
+ Having pre-booked my first night’s accommodation with a ‘reputable’ Vietnam travel agent for USD $60, I arrived in Vientiane only to find booking direct in country is actually USD $32 per night. Some dubious transactions between Laos based travel agents and across the border and I learn it’s best to book all travel direct online and as often as possible, service provider direct.
Traveling overland by mini-bus took three hours heading North en route to the riverside town of Vang Vieng. During the wet season it’s very quiet and a perfect way to break your trip if your ultimate destination is Luang Prabang. A full day’s drive from Vientiane to Luang Prabang is ten hours, so journeying in two stages is certainly more comfortable.
During the wet season (July to October) the river current is extremely strong and runs only metres from the town’s high-street. Historically this is a soft adventure destination with caving, kayaking, tubing and more on offer for the adventurous types. Needless to say Vang Vieng is a favourite backpacker retreat!
Patuxai Victory Monument
Set amidst a dramatic, moody, lush tropical and remote mountain range, you feel like you are in a forgotten land that time forgot. The adult villagers carry out their daily rice farming from sunrise to sunset. Meanwhile the local kids play in their river – bathing, fishing and jumping repeatedly off bamboo bridges for hours on end.
I decided to stay overnight at the stylishly comfortable Riverside Resort. From here I trekked the muddy tracks, through the local village, to visit the rice farmers and oxen working the land. Explore the winding paths and savour the smells of home-style wood-fire cooking. Organic, natural, traditional & culturally lost in time.
The next day I took another mini-bus from Vang Vieng to Luang Prabang. It’s a spectacular, inspirational seven hour drive. On long road trips, I often pay for two seats, ensuring more space and comfort “for my camera bag”. This is a good travel tip throughout Indochina!
Driving through these mountains is one of the World’s best “unknown” road-trips. Amazing scenery with cliffs above and below you and rice paddies with organic farming on every available terrace. Here you drive past remote and traditional mountain tribes, living in their bamboo huts & houses alongside the cliff road.
Arrived 8.00pm that evening to find it’s only two hours before the local cafes, bars & restaurants close. Yes – it’s an early night for Luang Prabang locals and visitors alike – 10.00pm lights out!
Luang Prabang is the “Shangri-La” of Indochina. Surrounded by lush tropical jungle with dramatic, rugged, untamed mountains, it’s also the spiritual centre of the region.
This town is picturesque, clean and architecturally fascinating. The lay-people are not “in your face” (unlike many other Asian towns) and following in the footsteps of hundreds of resident young & old Buddhist monks, everyone here seems to “go with the flow”.
Wat Xieng Thong
With a distant French history, their legacy throughout Lao is the architecture. Here the pagodas are lived in, studied in & worked daily. As the town runs its normal day to day business, so do the monks and their daily monastic routines.
I stayed at the Villa Santi Hotel which is centrally located, well priced with excellent food & beverage service on the balcony restaurant. After a long cross-country drive, the riverside Peninsula Sauna & Massage Centre is also recommended with a variety of treatments including traditional Lao massage, sauna, reflexology and acupuncture.
The most notable Wats or pagodas are Vat Vixoun and Vat Xieng Thong. You can spend days wandering through the temples here; peaceful, relaxing, spiritual and inspiring.
As a sign of cultural respect, when entering a Buddhist pagoda, remember to keep well covered (shoulders/arms/knees), remove your shoes and always have your feet facing backwards, away from the Buddhist shrines and Monks.
This far North the Mekong River is not tidal as such, but affected more by the Chinese dam controls coupled with the contrasting wet and dry seasons. China’s domestic requirements dictate how much water is released and therefore influence the boating operations, fishing and farming communities throughout the entire course of the River. The Mekong River flows from the Tibetan plateau through China then traverses Lao, Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia & Vietnam. The Mekong’s water levels are said to impact on 60 million people in the region.
+ To get your compass bearings and a decent workout, climb Mount Phousi for panoramic views of this UNESCO World Heritage listed city. Located in the city centre, climb 300 steps to the summit where the Golden spired Wat Chomsi sits.
+ Take a Tuk Tuk out of town to the Kuang Sil Watefalls to cool down with a swim in the tropical rain-forest, rock-pools and waterfalls.
+ The Royal Palace is also a “must-see” with the original Royal family residence now converted to an interesting museum
+ Throughout Lao, each morning the Buddhist monks conduct the Alms Giving Ceremony. This commences between 5.30 and 6.00am (times change seasonally). Monks still rely on receiving alms for most of their food. They leave the temples early morning and walk single file, oldest first, carrying their alms bowls. Laypeople await the Monk’s on the streets and then, in a kneeling posture, place food in their bowls. No words are spoken; the giving of alms is considered a spiritual connection between the monastic and lay society. It’s a symbiotic relationship.
+ Luang Prabang is situated on the banks of “The Mighty Mekong”. The only way to explore the upper reaches of the river is with Mekong River Cruises. Launched in 2005, this Laos-German cruise operation has two vessels, the MV Mekong Sun based in Luang Prabang and the MV Mekong Explorer in Vientiane. Accommodated overnight cruising in these parts is definitely a soft adventure experience. Various itineraries are available for independent or small group travelers. Seasonally, Mekong River Cruises also ventures into the Kingdom of Thailand, so this adds another exciting dimension to your travel planning.
Luang Prabang is surely the ideal way to conclude your South East Asia sojourn. It’s authentic, enlightening, stimulating yet relaxing and a wonderful lasting memory of your “Passage to Indochina”. Bon voyage!
See more about Laos travel guide at here.