The Lao PDR is a landlocked country in Southeast Asia. Laos may lack some of the charms of its neighbors, such as the islands of Thailand, the beautiful landscapes of Vietnam, the mysticism of Burma, the monuments of Cambodia, but has its own, unique beauty. A former colony of French Indochina, was declared an autonomous state in 1954 after a long civil war that ended monarchy, now is ruled by a one-party socialist military republic.
Most visitors in Laos are concentrated in the two largest cities of the country. The capital Vientiane and Luang Prabang with its relaxed atmosphere, numerous Buddhist monasteries and the great Mekong River that flows across the country and serves as an important transport route in a country with the worst roads I’ve ever encountered. Still Laos holds many secrets to discover, challenging your patience and physical strength.
On the secluded north of the country many hill tribes are located. They have moved there about two centuries ago from the highlands of Tibet, maintaining their own language, religion, costumes and lifestyle. We had to do a three-day masochistic hike to find the villages of the Akha tribe, staying in their huts, with minimal amenities in the villages that have no electricity, running water and toilet, carrying the weight cameras, necessities, water etc. Τhe hospitality of the Akha is exceptional and they honor the visitor offering the best of their tasteless cuisine while the tea and local rice whiskey flows in abundance. Akha women are the heroines of this place. These women do the toughest job in the fields, the opium poppy crop is still their main source of survival since the government bans do not reach this area. These women also make the cooking, take care of the children, weave and dye their beautiful costumes. And they wait for their men and their guests patiently, to finish their dinner after they feed themselves, in their reserved corner of the hut.
A city without many attractions is a starting point for some rather “touristy” trips to villages of traditional tribes.
Phongsali is the northernmost city of Laos, with a strong Chinese influence and serves as the last town before the demanding treks to the remote hill tribes. Just reaching here needs great patience and endless hours ordays in local buses. In our case, we had to convince someone with a 4×4 vehicle to make a shortcut dirt road that even locals don’t use (they are allowed to shortcut through China). So from Luang Namtha, we ended in the remote town of Phongsali to begin a tough three-day hiking uphill on muddy paths, through rivers, surrounded by the dense, leech infested vegetation of northern Laos.
A gem-city on the Mekong River, is characterized by its colonial architecture and numerous Buddhist temples. One of the most fascinating cities in Southeast Asia, hosts many tourists in its relaxed atmosphere.
The impressive rocks that surround the small town and the many river activities offered, acted as a magnet for young tourist crowds getting drunk and substance abused. Many riverside clubs have now closed and the city is in a calm decline.
The capital of the country, just a step away from the Thailand border, keeps alive traditional and colonial elements with many attractions for the visitor.