2000 Indochina – Laos

The flight from Phnom Penh to Vientiane, the capital of Laos, took an hour and a half and a short taxi ride brought us to our guesthouse. After we checked in we were ready for the second part of our adventure. We decided to breath some atmosphere and leave the sightseeing for later so we went on a stroll without a fixed goal. Immediately we felt comfortable in Laos where the atmosphere was really laid back. Vientiane was a cozy city, with lots of green and wonderful terraces along the Mekong riverside from where we had a view on Thailand. We found a wonderful food garden close to the city’s fountain square and enjoyed a delicious meal. In the evening we treated ourselves on a traditional Lao oil massage. 

The next day we took a bus to Luang Prabang, which took us over 8 hours. Not a boring trip at all as the landscape we traveled through was of an almost unearthly beauty. Rice fields, small villages and every now and then we had a glimpse of the Mekong. The mountains were absolutely stunning. Somewhere in the evening we arrived at our destination where we relaxed after the long trip. After a good night of sleep we were fresh again so we could start our exploration. The first temple we visited was Wat Aham Ontama Thany, a relatively small temple which once was the housing of the Sangkhalat. We continued our walk to Vat Visounnarath which was in the same neighborhood. It’s high peeked roof overhanging roof which sloped over the terrace was of an extreme beauty.

While we were enjoying the peaceful street atmosphere in Luang Prabang we arrived at the foot of a small hill in the center of the town. We climbed the hill via the dragon stairs up to Wat Thammothhayalan. Even a bit higher Wat Phu Si was built. From here we had a magnificent view over the city and the Mekong river which laid 100 meters below us.

Once we descended again we enjoyed a terrific lunch in one of the many fabulous restaurants (Luang Prabang is really a delight for a traveler’s stomach). Totally satisfied we walked to Wat Xieng Thung, the temple of the golden city. It was built on the spot where the Mekong and Khan rivers joined and is one of the most beautiful temples in town. We had some nice conversations with some of the young monks who were eager to practice their English. One of the monks showed us a letter in which he described his wishes for the future. He wanted to study at the university and after that to become a fisherman, like his father. However most of all he wanted to marry a slim and sexy girl! (So who said that monks don’t appreciate earthly pleasures…)

It was impossible not to see any temples in Luang Prabang as every street seemed to have at least a couple. Wat Nong Sikkiumnuang was the next one we happened to pass by. At the riverside a friendly man offered us a boat ride over the Mekong river so we could visit some places out of town. His English was perfect and he seemed to be trustworthy so we booked a tour with him for 2 days. 

The first day we headed south. Our first stop was at a small village where jars were being made. It was great to see the process where tops were made by hand and afterwards baked in a large underground oven. We continued our trip through fantastic landscape. Beautiful mountains were beside the river and every now and then we could spot a small village between the numerous shades of green which covered the land. The scenery alone was worth it. 

We stopped at a picturesque village called Ban Tha Bean where a truck was waiting to bring us to the Kwang Xi waterfall. Rice fields and palm trees wherever we could see. Stunned by the breathtaking landscape around us we hardly noticed that we arrived. Now, I have seen a lot of waterfalls during my travels but this one was surely special, not to say it must have been one of the most beautiful ones I’ve ever seen. Water poured down  in layers over several terraces in to a turquoise pool. The air was like a curtain of moisture. Stunning. We followed a small path to the top of the waterfall and after we crossed it we descended again on the other side. Halfway down were a couple of pools where we could go for a swim. This was really paradise. Neither of us wanted to go back but we still had to travel 32 km. upstream, back to Luang Prabang so we really had to force ourselves to go.

On the second day we went northwards. It was still early in the morning but not to early to taste some of the homemade whisky we were offered when we visited Ban Xang Hai, a small village which was specialized in making several types of whisky out of fermented rice. It was interesting to see the distillation. The taste of the whisky? Well, a bit strong but not bad at all… 

Our main destination of that day however were the Pak Ou caves. Thousands of Buddha images were placed in 2 small caves in the limestone mountains next to the Mekong. Although the site was not particularly big we were impressed by it’s simplicity and beauty. We had lunch in a small village before we headed back home. 

On the way back we still had one more stop at a small village where paper was made by hand. It was fascinating to see the different stages of the process and I was happy to find a beautiful paper lamp which would fit perfectly in my living ( I even managed to bring it home in one piece…). Totally satisfied we returned to Luang Prabang. The last two days had been excellent.

During the night we woke up because of noise. Rain was pouring down and how… tropical rainfalls can be pretty tough and this was one of them. It continued to rain the major part of the next day so there was nothing much we could do beside shopping and eating. Well, with all the splendid restaurants around that was an easy task, we ended up having lunch twice followed by an extensive dinner while we watched traditional Laos dances. After that we went for a herbal sauna followed by a traditional Lao massage (something which we got really hooked on and ended up doing on a daily basis). How bad can a day of rain be?

The next day we woke up extremely early (and this was Silvia’s idea, not mine) because we wanted to witness the offering of food to the monks by local people. This ritual happened every day at 5.30 in the morning. In the darkness of the morning (or should I see night) we already saw locals sitting on the side of the streets with a bowl of rice. A bit further down the streets a long row of monks arrived and when they passed the villagers each of them was offered some rice. It was a great sight. Slowly the sun woke up us well and light filled the streets. We went for an early breakfast and then headed back to the guesthouse for a bit of extra sleep (and yes, this was my idea).

When we woke up again we started our last day of exploration in Luang Prabang. Our first goal was the local market. Meat, fish, vegetables, fruit and of course baguettes (one of the good things the French left behind in Indochina) were on sale on a small alley. It was a colorful scenery and ones again Silvia and I were delighted, markets being one of our favorite spots to hang around. 

After having spent quite some time at the market we headed on to Wat Mai Suwannaphumahan, the new temple, which was inoculated in 1928, although other sources say it was already built in 1797. The gilded decorations and pillars were a treat for our eyes. 

Not far away was the Royal palace which since the revolution in 1975 is in use as a museum. The palace, locally known as Wah Kwam, the golden hall, was built in traditional Luang Prabang style with French beaux arts elements. It was interesting to see some old artifacts, walk through the throne hall and see the private quarters of king Sisavang Vong and his wife.

We continued to Vat Choumkhong Sourintharame (I think I already mentioned that Luang Prabang is mainly a city of temples). Over here we saw monks busy with the decorating the exterior of the temple. It was heartwarming to see how precise they were and with how much love and tender care the work was done. Another temple we happened to pass by was Vat Sensoukharam, after which we spend the rest of the day shopping, a good meal and of course a herbal steam bath and massage.

We could hardly believe it was already the 6th of October. Another early rise. Today we had a flight to Phonsavanne with Lao Aviation. Now this was an adventure by itself, a small plane of Chinese make, seats which looked more like picnic chairs and lots of noise made us worry more about our safety instead of enjoying the magnificent landscape below us. Anyway we arrived without any incidents in Xieng Khuang (Phonsavanne). The city itself was dirty, dull and totally uninteresting, a bit of a disappointment after Luang Prabang. 

However, it was not the city itself we came for so we quickly arranged a taxi which brought us to the plain of jars. The landscape around us was definitely strange. In a way it looked like a giant golf course, nothing grew on the hills, just grass. Perfectly round holes were shattered all over the place. This could not have been natural… Indeed it wasn’t. The whole landscape was the result of the American secret war in the early 70’s. The area around Phonsavanne had been heavily bombed and saturated with agent orange and napalm which even almost 30 years later could be witnessed this macabre scenery. As a matter of fact the USA dropped more bombs in Laos during the “secret war” than they did worldwide during world war II. The Lao people became victims of a war that was going on in the area where they were unwontedly became drawn into.

So why did we come to this place, to see a dreadful city, to witness the remains of  horrible war crimes? No, the appealing attraction in this area were the mysterious plain of jars. The jars are approximately 2000 year old and nobody seems to know where they came from and what they were used for. Each jar weights between 600 and 1000kg. It was an amazing sight. We visited the plain of jars 1,2 and 3. In total there are more than 80 places in the area where jars are found but UXO’s (unexploded ordnance) make it unsafe to go there. Still victims are made on a weekly basis because of these unwanted gifts from uncle Sam (Thank you Mr. Nixon).

On our second day in Xieng Khuang we visited several Hmong villages which were located in the middle of breathtaking rice fields. The people were a bit shy but friendly in general. We had some great encounters with the local kids. Everywhere junk became integrated in local architecture. Empty bomb shells were user as pillars for houses, to make fences or just as decoration. It was a weird experience. We were supposed to go for a swim in mineral springs in the area but they turned out to be a bit disappointing so we skipped the swimming part. Our last visit of the day was the Than Pin Pot cave. During the war a full rocket hit killed between 200 and 400 people in the cave. Depending on the sources you believe it could have been villagers hiding over here or Vietnamese soldiers being treated in a field hospital which was built in the cage.

The next day another 35 minute Lao Aviation adventure brought us back to Vientianne, the capital. Condensation filled the cabin during the flight, safety lights were broken and neither Silvia or I felt very comfortable during this short city hop. Anyway, we survived and were happy to have both our feet safe on the ground again. 

After we left our luggage in our guesthouse we took a motor trishaw to Xieng Khuan Buddha park, which was located 25 km southeast of Vientianne. In a rather kitschy environment a large collection of Buddhist and Hindu sculptures were gathered. Still we had a great time in this strange place. Back in Vientianne we saw the That Dam black stupa and spent the rest of the day shopping. We ended the day with another massage and an exquisite meal in “our” food garden (Now that was something we really needed after three days of fat fried rice in Phonsavanne). 

On the 10th of October we took the bus to Vang Vieng, a scenic little village 4 hours north from the capital. In the afternoon we rented a big tube, took a bus ride and the next two hours we drifted back to Vang Vieng while we intensely enjoyed the breathtaking scenery around us. When local kids saw us drifting by they swam to us and went for a short ride. It was an awesome experience. The next day we went on a tour in the region. We visited a Hmong village and a cave. In order to go in we had to wade through water which reach till our middle, the only light being the weak light of candles that everybody took with them, the atmosphere was great though. After a nice picnic by a small pond we went to another cave with beautiful stalactites and stalagmites. Our guide helped us seeing several figures in the strangely shaped rocks, this time we stayed dry since we did not have to wade through water again. We ended the tour with a walk through rice fields and a visit to the elephant cave, a small cavern where a humble Buddhist temple was built.

In the morning of the following day we repeated our tubing experience which was once again great fun. In the afternoon we traveled back to Vientianne.

The 13th of October, our last day in Laos!!! We could hardly believe that time had passed by so quickly. Three weeks were gone like in a flash, but then when we looked back we had done a lot of things and gathered some real amazing experiences. One more day and there were still some places we wanted to visit in Vientianne. We started at Wat Si Saket, the oldest remaining temple of the city. It was built in 1818 in Siamese style and in the wall surrounding the place we could see over 2000 small silver and wooden Buddha statues, a beautiful sight On the other side of the street was the Haw Pha Kaew, a former royal temple, which was now turned into a museum.

We took a motor trishaw to Pha That Luang, Laos national monument. It’s official name is Lokachoulamani, which means monument of the world. Also we visited two neighboring monasteries which were the only two left from the four which were originally built next to Pha That Luang. On the way back to the center of Vientianne we stopped at the Patuxai monument, Lao’s own Arc de Triomphe. Local people also refer to it as the vertical runway as it is built with concrete paid by the Americans which was originally meant to built the new airport from Vientianne. 

Since we were hooked to it so much we once again ended the day with a 2 hour massage and partied until late with some new friends in the food garden (Wonderful Korean BBQ by the way). 

When we woke up the next day we knew the common part of our adventure was all over. It was the 14th October and it was time to say goodbye to Silvia. We went together to the airport where I had to catch a flight to Hanoi and Silvia was heading back to Bangkok on her way back home to Switzerland.

Ending this part of the story would not be complete without a big THANK YOU to Silvia! In 1999 we met on a rainy day in Mandalay, Myanmar. We could get along very well and we noticed that our ideas of traveling were very similar. A wonderful friendship built up during the trip and in the year after so we decided to join on yet another adventure. Once again it became a tremendous success. After having traveled alone for years in a row it was nice to share thoughts, ideas and experiences with somebody else. The three weeks together were weeks of joy and harmony. I must say that I never had a better travel partner than Silvia, things just worked out so well that neither of us could believe it.

Silvia, thanks for sharing this experience with me and being such a fantastic travel partner and wonderful friend. Also because of you it has been a journey to paradise!

Continue the journey in VIetnam