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.
Where opium blossoms…
From Chiang Rai, Thailand, I travel with my fellows towards the 4th “Bridge of Friendship” that leads to the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, connecting the banks of the famous Mekong River, which is the natural border of the two countries. After visa issued and entrance, we will only find tuk-tuk transportation until the small border town of Huay Xai. Most visitors have this as starting point for a 2 day slow boat cruise to Luang Prabang, or alternatively by high speed boat in just six hours but with the risk of drowning, amputation, deafness, or all of the above. But we have a different direction and we’ll wait for a bus to finally arrive in Luang Namptha within the day. The relatively uninspiring small town with Chinese influences, had enough visitors making accommodation scarce. The interest grows in the surrounding area where one can browse for a taste of the Laotian lifestyle, but also participate in activities such as zip-lining, visits to local tribes, tree-house stay etc. Organized excursions are not our preference, so we rented scooters to self explore the secrets of the beautiful mountainous area. The routes were really impressive and self driving was the best way to get around the small settlements and interact with the local population. Through the cloudy mountains, forests, paddy fields and rivers with hanging bridges were exposed. The road often stopped and was followed by hiking trails leading to the villages. The kids, unused to visitors and curious, were following us everywhere and taking part in our play and photos. In one of the villages a small festival was set up, which would probably get more lively in the evenings. A few women of the local tribes still maintained their traditional attire in their daily lives. We arrived near the town of Muang Sing but decided to return so that we’d not drive at night, especially with these unreliable vehicles. This choice was reinforced by a small farce of village children, who mad fun by secretly disconnecting the spark plug of our parked motorbike.
At Luang Namptha’s night market we will enjoy local delicacies and of course I will not miss a few crawling and flying ones from the insect kingdom. Some elderly ladies approached us and asked for our chicken leftovers, but they refused the insects!
Our stay in Luang Namptha will not last long, as we are looking for something more authentic. Given the limited time, we are looking for the shortest route to our goal, which is the northernmost part of the country around the town of Phongsaly. All travel books and online information were frustratingly wrong and misleading. The only route mentioned was by taking a bus to Udomxai, overnight there and then another bus which was described as “a welded metal monster” to cross what is known as the worst road in Laos, often closed by landslides. The locals have the choice of a shorter route that passes through China but we cannot cross it. My search on the map had marked a shortcut, alongside the Chinese border. Whoever we asked, either ignored this road or considered it impenetrable, lacking maintenance. Eventually we managed to convince a pick-up truck owner to dare the unknown route at a relatively lousy price. The road was really bad, full of mud and potholes, rattling wooden bridges of questionable strength for the weight of the car. At one point a truck was submerged in deep mud and partially overturned closing the crossing. Our capable vehicle and driver managed to overcome the obstacle. On our stops we met quietly isolated villages, remote places that seem to operate normally without any need for modern civilisation goods.
The map of the area, as well as travel guides, is full of errors, but it is certain that at the Boun Neua junction, if you go left, you will meet China, and if you go right, after countless turns on a muddy dirt road, you will finally find Phongsaly. The character of the city definitely makes you wonder if you have accidentally got into China! The streets of the small town are decorated with portraits of Mao, the main dialect is Chinese and in the few restaurants the menu ranges from nothing to some unsavory dishes. What I definitely recognized was a bowl of worms in a prominent position on the fridge window. The accommodation was awkward as expected in this remoteness.
Fortunately, however, we were able to find the “Tourism Center” of the city that had not responded to any of our emails. It was nothing more than a warehouse with two people who would become our guides. We chose the most remote, 3-day hiking route to the minority villages.
We start with a small public bus aged more thn 80 years old, above the cloudy massifs, and then dive into the clouds until we meet the Nam Ou river at the point of a hydroelectric dam that cuts off its flow. From there, we take motor boat, in a landscape of unparalleled beauty, till the beginning of a path. Here begins the exhausting but beautiful trek of the next three days.
The deep mud of the steep uphill trails made the climb particularly hard, the many river crossings and the weight we carried made it worse. Passing through bamboo forests, leeches cling to clothes and find their way to our veins, usually in the area of the ankles where they sucked our blood even over socks. Removal should be done carefully so that their teeth do not stay in the wound causing infection, and bleeding is inevitable as saliva contains anticoagulants. By the time reaching the first of the Akha tribe villages, the available drinking water we could carry was already finished in the heat, humidity and fatigue of the journey. We will not risk drinking the running water of the villages, especially since one of our guides was suffering from severe stomach problems and eventually returned back. For the rest of the trek, we will quench our thirst with tea that’s abound in the area, or at least some boiled water. The region’s main crop and income source is… opium. Although its cultivation is prohibited, these areas are so isolated by road connection that the government is unable to control cultivation.
The women are all dressed in elegant traditional costumes, with the dominant color being black or the dark blue of indigo, decorated with colored embroidery and coins. On the head, striking hats with metal beads and chains, silver bracelets and other accessories complement the Akha women’s outfit in their daily routine. Minority women are shy, skeptical about the photographic lens, especially those in opiate poppy crops.
The Akha women are heroic in this land, doing the toughest jobs in the fields and the opium cultivation that are still their main source of survival. They cook, raise children, take care of domestic animals, weave and dye their beautiful costumes. And despite their busy schedule, they wait patiently for the men and their guests to finish their dinner and then eat separately in the corner of their hut.
We will rest our bodies from masochistic hiking in the villages of minimal amenities, without electricity, running water and toilet. The Akha’s hospitality is exceptional and honors the guest with everything they can offer from their dull-taste cuisine, while tea and local rice whiskey flow abound. In the evenings we will experience unforgettable moments in the kitchen room of the women cooking on wood fire and in the circle of men’s dinner room, serving sticky rice and unknown vegetables and bulbs to us. The men would continue drinking and smoking opium through bamboo pipes till late, being noisy and disturbing our sleep in the already uncomfortable hut. At some point they even started vomiting on the dirt floor.
In spite of the hardship, I would not change my experience in the minority villages of northern Laos, some of which had six years to be visited the westerners. The time and effort spent in this place gave meaning to my whole trip in Laos, which I would otherwise describe as a moderately interesting country of Southeast Asia.
On the third day, we head downwards the muddy trails again until we reach exhausted the river and follow the route back to Phongshaly, to catch a bus to Luang Prabang, which in contrast to the available info, was quite comfortable, with reclining seats. The accumulated fatigue made us fall asleep and the journey of about 11 hours seemed insignificant.
Luang Prabang is the former capital of Laos and today is the most important cultural center, recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, built at the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers, with a variety of sights, palaces and Buddhist temples. The relaxed, exotic atmosphere of the city and the many points of interest, make it the most touristic destination in the country. We will to rent scooters here as well, for our transportation within and out of the city. Quang Si and Tad Sae waterfalls are among the places of interest. At the latter, one can enjoy an elephant ride in the jungle and the even more unique experience of swimming with them. It should be noted that choosing such activities with wildlife should take into account the well-being of the animals. From personal witness and confirmation from various sources, these centers do indeed care for the conservation of these species while respecting their well-being. Another activity full of excitement is zip-lining between the tops of the rainforest trees.
In terms of things to do within the city, the list is long. A wake before dawn will bring you to a row of hundreds of monks and novices, walking barefoot, dressed in the distinctive orange robe, roaming the city’s main street in a daily ritual, receiving food and essentials. We will meet the novices in all monasteries that are scattered throughout the city. Children of poor families, dedicating for some years of their life in Buddhist teaching, gaining benefits that include housing, food and education. Kids who have dreams of a better future and are happy to converse with the visitors. Local architecture with gold-plated pagodas and dragon-shaped aprons follow most monasteries such as Vat Xieng Toung, Vipassana Temple, Haw Kham Royal Palace. Climbing the steep steps of Mount Phou Si you will find temples, sacred caves and a panoramic view of the city from top. A boat ride in the Mekong at sunset is definitely not to be overlooked and we were also lucky to attend night prayers in one of the temples. In the evening the city gets even more lively with the street markets fully operational, offering countless dining and shopping options.
The next bus will take us to Vang Vieng. It is a tiny settlement on a riverside, amidst impressive limestone geological formations. A few years ago, it was a major spot for backpackers in South East Asia region, looking for alcohol, unknown drugs, and partying till drop in the bars buzzing along the river. But there have also been many literal falls on the rocks of the coastline, drownings and dozens of other fatalities with tourists, which have resulted in government shutdowns and the sealing of many businesses. In 2011 alone, 27 people died. At the time we visited Vang Vieng, there were at least 5 bars open with loud music and plenty of alcohol of unknown composition. The most typical activity in the river is tubing, that is, swimming with tube tires and drifting with the river flow. So we picked up our tubes too and left excited in Nam Song’s flow, admiring the incredible scenery and making short stops at the bars til the end of the 3-4 hour journey.
The capital city of Vientiane, also built on the north bank of the Mekong, which at this point is a natural border with Thailand, is a small quiet town with just 200,000 inhabitants, not at all reminiscent of any other Asian metropolis. Its interest is limited to some monuments such as the Government Palace, the triumphal arch of Patuxai, and the golden Buddhist stupa of Pha That Luang, which is also the national symbol. There are still many smaller temples and we were lucky enough to follow a religious overnight ceremony with a large number of pilgrims. The New Year’s Eve of 2016 was a spectacular celebration with many fireworks in the city’s main square and small parties going in some bars of the city that generally lacks of particular nightlife.
We will leave Laos, crossing by land into Thailand to the city of Udon Thani, from where we’ll fly to Bangkok and from there back home. Although time did not allow us to tour the southern part of the country, the exploration of the remote, isolated minority villages of north Laos, made the visit a most memorable experience.
©Alexandros Tsoutis 2016
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