We set off for Laos at the end of September with probably the minimum amount of preparation necessary for a self-planned visit. We had booked rooms in Vientiane, Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang which we identified as the most important places to visit, given that we had only eight days. Based on the advice of previous travellers and our own reading of the topography as shown on Google Earth, we decided to catch the bus up north and fly back. Expensive, but well worth it, given that the bus ride back to Vientiane would be between nine and twelve hours or so in possibly cramped conditions. We are so glad we did, we had an extra day to scout around and we could still walk! We arrived in Vientiane nice and early in the morning and went straight to our hotel. Although our room wasn’t ready, we were able to leave our bags before going off to explore. Vientiane is really like a large country town, despite being the capital city of Laos. You can walk everywhere although it would be hot in mid-year. Not a major problem as there are tuk-tuks everywhere and you can negotiate the price downwards, or if you prefer, cool down with a cup of excellent coffee in one of the many coffee shops dotted everywhere. Or even better, cool off with the country’s most famous export – Lao beer. We contributed to the Lao economy in that area. As we wandered past the Presidential palace (undergoing the final touches of renovation for the upcoming Asean/EU meeting), the statue of the last King of Vientiane and the beautiful temples (Wats or Vats) we were shaded by lovely old trees, which all have labels telling you what they are. The King looks out over the Mekong river, towards Thailand, a stones-throw away. I had my wish, sitting on the banks of the Mekong sipping coffee with a bonus, the most delicious almond croissant. Then it was off again. You don’t have to worry too much when crossing the road anywhere in Laos – there’s very little traffic, even at ‘rush hour’. In the evening we wandered through the night market. Like night markets everywhere, there was the good, bad and simply awful. However, some of the gems were the stall selling spoons and other items made from bombs, and the art student selling her work, lino prints on handmade paper. Breakfast the next morning was at the most wonderful Cafe Le Banneton. They do wonderful set menus of bacon eggs and croissants with good coffee. Or you can do a la carte if you prefer. Lunch we ate at the Tucky Noodle shop before booking our tickets to Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang. A tip to fellow travellers. Don’t book both legs in Vientiane – you will pay less in Vang Vieng for the next leg. The morning spent at the local markets was well worth it, so much colour and we managed to buy some tasty bananas (i.e. not the commercial sort of tasteless ones from the supermarket) and sweet pomelo. After lunch it was off to the museum. The two museums we visited in Laos could not be more different. You can’t take photos inside, so I’ll have to describe what I mean. The museum in Vientiane is a lovely old colonial building which has seen better days, but would be good for many years if it could be ‘done up’. Sadly, I read in the local paper while we were there, that it will be torn down in a couple of years to make way for a high rise building and the museum will be relocated. The exhibits are an eclectic mix of archaeological, historial and propaganda with a lot of old photos of the war years which are really interesting, but they’re not well presented and the descriptions are a bit spotty. There are some fine examples of Bronze ware, particularly beautifully decorated drums and a selection of jars from the Plain of Jars. The different ethnic communities are also highlighted, with a good display of artifacts and costumes. But the display I liked best was the one in a heavily barred cupboard, secured by a couple of tiny locks. The items exhibited were some gold religious models and apparently they were stolen some years ago but fortunately recovered. The response was to lock them in this cupboard. I can’t recall if the cupboard itself was fixed to the floor, but there must be a better way to display what are rather beautiful items, so that people can admire them and remember them, rather than the ugly case that’s protecting them. The Palace Museum in Luang Prabang, however, is a study in contrasts. Reclaimed from the last king of Laos when he was deposed in 1975, the building was both a palace and a home, and it has been lovingly protected as a national treasure. While the whole museum was beautiful and well maintained and annotated, I specially enjoyed looking round the palace garage at the back. The cars, sadly have not been well cared for, but if you want to see a genuine Ford Edsel – there is one here! Luang Prabang is a lovely city, a mix of elegant French and Lao influences. You can wander around and feel safe and we were lucky to go just at the end of the low season, paying about a third of what we would pay even a week later apparently, for our rooms. To get into the town we walked over the ‘Old bridge’, built about 40 years ago and restricted to pedestrians and bikes. It’s really high but we felt quite safe as the rails are high and you can look out, rather than down. The bridge crosses the Nam Khan river, a tributary of the Mekong, which joins the big river just around the bend from where we stayed. Out along the Nam Khan are a number of waterfalls where you can swim in amazingly clean cold water and ride elephants. Everywhere in the city you are not far from the most important landmark – That Phousy, the golden stupa on the highest hill. The climb up the many steps is well worth the effort, and when you reach the top, you can pay a small amount for a small basket with a pair of birds (starlings perhaps?) who fly straight up to the tree above, no doubt to be ‘re-caught’ for the next round tomorrow. I’d call this a win-win situation. You feel good, the operator makes money and the birds are well fed. Our other great find in Laos was the sticky rice. Not sticky in the way we’re used to, but when you scoop it out of the little cane basket it’s served in it’s sticky, but the grains hold their shape when gravy is poured over. Delicious. We really enjoyed mealtimes. Breakfast French, lunch and dinner, Lao. Mention must be made of Vang Vieng. We were very glad we took advice to break our journey there as the mini bus ride is not for the faint hearted. It’s not dangerous, the roads were pretty quiet, apart from the funny long wheelbase local transport and once in a while convoys of trucks from Kunming in China. It’s more that they are rather windy and the 151km Vientiane – Vang Vieng journey took us around three and a half hours. Vang Vieng to Luang Prabang (250km) took nearly 7 hours.
Our hotel was just over the road from the hospital and it apparently sees lots of visitors, some who leave in body bags as a result of accidents and other misadventures. Vang Vieng is a party town. As we walked from the bus to our hotel we passed numerous bars and shops selling t-shirts proclaiming that the wearer had indulged in one or more of a range of rather adventurous activities while in town. One of the favoured activities is to ride the river in a large inner tube, stopping off at the bars you pass on the way. We stayed at our hotel, the lovely Ban Sabai Resort, but we did help catch one hapless girl who didn’t stop in time. She had to walk all the way back feeling sheepish and carrying her tube. We were happy to just bounce around in the tiny pool and watch the dragon boat crews practicing in the river, the fishermen casting nets and the kids bringing the cows home before the sun set behind the karst hills over the river. In the morning, we watched the children going off to school in the long boats and a red hot air balloon gliding along the river. Back in Vientiane, we spent the afternoon and evening exploring the Patouxay park and monument, the Lao answer to the Arc de Triumphe in Paris. The area was already well decorated in preparation for the upcoming international gathering, with many flags and lots of beautiful lighting. A quick trip down to the night market for some t-shirts and other little trinkets and breakfast the next morning at the Cafe le Banneton while collecting the pre-ordered almond croissants rounded of what proved to be a too short look at Laos.