I had very little knowledge about Laos prior to this trip…the little that I did know left me uninspired but hey…it was right next door and we would be crazy not to go. We hopped off the plane and cabbed it to a really nice hotel where we settled in for he next few days. Now Laos was a former French colony and (at least in Vientiane) it has benefitted from this in the usual manner. Waterfront esplanades, cafés, coffee shops, baguettes, cheese and some pretty damn fine architecture.
Possibly one of the first things we should mention is that Laos has more western tourists than almost anywhere else we have been so far. Everywhere you look. Vientiane has a small town feel about it rather than that of most of the other Asian capitals. We relaxed through the heat of the day and headed out to the Mekong riverfront esplanade and markets for a lovely stroll followed by the hunt for a local restaurant for dinner. A few beer Lao’s, a bowl of soup and some spring rolls, all for next to nothing, our introduction to Laos had begun.
So the next day we plotted our course on the map and set off on the journey to hit the usual tourist haunts. The heat was high…about 38 degrees… but unlike the last few places, the humidity was low. So despite high temperatures it was quite pleasant walking around doing the tourist schlepp. We hit the usual haunts, temples, monasteries, museums, markets, stupas and yet some more temples. Possibly the most impressive was the Laos version of the Champs Elysees on the street leading up to the Palace. Having blitzed the town we found we had done 90% of the tourist thing in about 4 hrs…there really isn’t too much here.
The things they call museums are really just old things…the actual museum was saved for the next day. We found the local delicacy on day one and went back the next two days for more. It was a baguette filled with pate, cheese, vegetables, mystery meat and mystery sauce and cost a total of 10,000 kip (about $1.30). The next day we hit the actual museum which enlightened us to the war history of Laos…something that I at least was unaware of. These guys have been systematically smacked by almost everybody. Starting with the Chinese, then the Thai’s, the French, the Brits, the Japanese and then the French once again.
While there was not massive amounts to see or do, there was a relaxing atmosphere about the place. The traffic was calm, there was no honking, the esplanade alongside the Mekong river was nice, the food was pretty good and was cheap. We hit the esplanade for a sunset walk along the banks of the Mekong river and just generally relaxed taking in the sights, sounds and smells of a new country.
Vientiane did spark the conversation of who was the rudest nationality when it came to tourists. It came down to a split decision between three different nationalities and this varied entirely depending upon the circumstances. What we did determine was the factors that made a rude tourist…this was essentially those that are ignorant and arrogant, ignoring those around them at all costs. I am sure that using this criteria the First Nation that pops to mind for most of you will be he USA…but they do not rate in out top three as there are many worse examples of ignorant and arrogant tourists, ignoring those around them.
Our pick of the worst three tourist nationalities that we have come across are… The French, the Russians and the Israelis. The French seem to have a sense of colonialism to them where they seem to think that this is still a colony and the locals are here entirely for their subjugation, and that other tourists are irrelevant to their particular needs and wants. The Russians have had their tourist doors closed for too long so a Russian tourist is (generally) either oblivious or totally disregarding of other people trying to experience the same things.
The Israeli tourists you tend to meet are all around 25 years old and have just finished their national service. They are young, brash, fit and cashed up. They will drink, dance, party and listen to their doof doof at any volume they see fit, at any time and to hell with anyone around them.
Our three favourites would have to be the Dutch, the Germans and Canadians. These three are generally quiet, reserved, respectful and genuinely interested to learn about and experience other countries and cultures.
We hopped a flight from the capital to Luang Prabang, the former capital and a UNESCO listed town at the junction of the Nam Khan and the Mekong rivers. Our first impressions were quite similar to those we had in Vientiane…it was a tourist centre filled with foreigners and with very little to see or recommend it. Add to this the fact that prices were jacked up high for the tourists and I was expecting to not enjoy the experience…I am happy to say that my initial impressions while technically accurate…were wrong.
On day two we toured the local sights and saw everything that there was to see in town in about 3-4 hrs. This tour included Haw Kham, the former royal palace and now national museum, Vat Xieng Toung, the oldest monastery in town which was a stunning wooden temple with inlaid mosaics everywhere you look, a few of the minor temples and finally a trip up Phou Si/Chomsy Hill the main hill in the city. Thankfully we climbed this hill from the palace side which meant we only had to climb about 250-300 stairs. We went down on the other side which was about 900 very steep stairs.
Once at the top you had a nice view of the town and surrounds. We wandered along the river banks to get back to the other side of the hill passing expensive shops, hotels, restaurants and what appeared to be some very impressive cooking classes set up for the tourists. That evening we visited the Main Street which turns into night markets each evening. They sell the usual tourist trinkets, handicrafts and snake and scorpion infused booze.
Still fairly unimpressed, we booked a day trip into the surrounding areas and all of a sudden Luang Prabang was incredible. We were picked up at the hotel and driven to a local traditional village (highly focused on the tourist dollar) where you can watch them distilling the local hooch and weaving the clothes and materials that are sold in the night markets. You get to see and buy bottles of local whiskey with snakes, scorpions, bears feet, geckos, lizards and just about any other critter you can imagine inside the bottles. I thought about buying these for the nieces and nephews etc but there is no way Australian customs or quarantine would let them in the country. From here you set off to the Nam Ou Elephant Farm which is a Sanctuary for Asian elephants. And the day got fun as went for a one hour elephant ride through the jungle.
There were 5 elephants and 4 of them were perfectly behaved while our one on the other hand had personality. It started with going bush to retrieve food by pulling leaves and branches off trees mid way along the trail, intensified when it stopped at a stream for a drink and sprayed Jill with the trunk/water thing you see in all the nature shows. The poor little mahout was pulling on the flimsy string but our flump had his own thoughts. At one point he stopped and held trunks with the girl elephant behind then they entered into a trumpeting session with their trunks in each other’s ears. We were having visions of two horny elephants going for it…all of this with us seated on their back.
A bit later on our flump spied the banana trees and decided a snack was in order. So off the track, up the hill and into the banana trees he went…out little mahout was doing his best but had no chance. The flump started with a couple of banana leaves but they would not rip off the tree…so he took the whole tree…ripped it out of the ground…and carted it along behind us, munching away, while he walked along…all of this with us seated on his back. From here we popped out to the Pak Ou and Tham Ting caves and back to the elephant joint for lunch.
It was not included in the package we paid for…but the elephants were due a bath in the river and we happened to be there at the time…so they offered us to wash the elephants. We all got changed into out swimmers (a waterfall and swim were planned for later in the day) and climbed aboard the flumps. At this point I need to confess that bareback riding of an elephant is not for me. On my first attempt I had my legs in front of his ears, so when he flipped his ears forward (as they do to cool themselves) my legs flew forward and I started sliding off his neck. The second attempt he decided to put his head down to grab some sugar cane and a-sliding I went again…I gave up and walked along beside him instead.
Jill on the other hand was in her bikini, mounted on her flump, and off. Down the hill, into the brown murky waters of the Mekong and splashing around in the water with her flump… she was grinning the entire time. I and the others in the group who were not mounted upon a flump had an awesome time watching, photographing, and laughing as the elephants dropped water mines that floated downstream towards the others who were frantically trying to splash the huge piles of elephant dung away from themselves. A good time was had by all.
From here we headed to the Kuang Si Waterfall park and the Tat Kuang Si Bear Rescue Centre, which is contained within the waterfall park. The park is a series of waterfalls and rock pools, the water is cool (cold), clean, and full of tourists dipping in the ponds. Most of the tourists were great but the usual suspects, as identified in the earlier post! Decided that their enjoyment would occur at the expense of the others who were there. After an hour here our time was up.
If we had our time over and knew a little more about this place…the waterfall park really deserved a full day…and the elephants did too. There are longer tours you can do and, if it suits you, you can do a one, three or five day mahout course where you get to learn to be a mahout and hang with the flumps for your chosen period. This includes the washing, feeding, riding and general care and maintenance of the elephants. My bareback elephant riding skills deficit considered… this would be awesome.
While Luang Prabang has very little to see, is full of tourists, is about twice the price of Vientiane and my initial thoughts were accurate…we ended up loving the place. It is set amid the mountains (hills really), is pretty, the people don’t hassle you and it is generally a nice place to be. You will be overcharged for everything you see, do, eat or try to buy…but by home standards it is still cheap. And the elephant experience is not to be missed.