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Laos: The survival instinct

Serene and spectacular, Laos has a riveting tale to tell: of remarkable survival as the most bombed country on earth; as an endearing oddball home to the peculiar Plain of Jars; and as a tranquil haven where the peace is disturbed only by the clucking of chickens and clacking of traditional weavers’ looms. For now that is...

Laos: The survival instinct
Colonial-era railway bridge over the Mekong, Don Det. Image: Richard James Taylor/Four Corners.

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As the sky begins to sieve through enough light for the mole-like eyes of the early risers to open properly, the hushed call goes up: “They’re coming.”

A polite, eager mass-shuffle breaks out. The multinational honour guard on the pavement attempts to adopt the correct kneeling position while craning to see the orange-clad procession in the distance.

The dawn alms-giving procession in Luang Prabang is a tradition that’s morphed into a spectacle. The monks and novices emerge from their wats (temples), then walk down the street in formation, carrying large woven baskets. The bystanders — or, rather, bykneelers — roll up balls of sticky rice and drop them into the baskets as they pass.

Kneeling down is theoretically about respect, but there’s a practicality to it as well. Most of the robes walking past are draped around boys in their early teens. Religious calling is ostensibly the reason for becoming a novice, but many boys are ushered — often temporarily — towards the wats because the free accommodation and food eases the burden on their cash-strapped parents.

Luang Prabang is not the sort of place where such realities dawn. It’s a demure town of orderly handicrafts markets, teak-drenched boutique accommodation, lovingly restored, colonial-vibe cafes and air-conditioned riverside cooking schools. In a way, it belongs not to Laos but to a mythologised version of Indochina; a genteel French colonial utopia isolated from harsh reality and the rest of the world.

For all the temples, shrines and opportunities to drink good coffee in suitably riff raff-free surroundings, Luang Prabang’s slowly intoxicating magic comes from its setting. The course of the Nam Khan River as it flows into the monstrous Mekong creates a slender finger of land that this Tricolore-brushed fantasy is squeezed onto. The lapping waters of the rivers tell of another world, however. One in which the rhythms of life are dictated by the seasons. Buildings are built high on the banks of the Nam Khan, ready for the dramatic swelling of the rainy season. But when water levels are low, people grow rice in the patches of silt below their houses, and fragile bamboo bridges are reconstructed from the ruins of the last one to be washed away. It’s a glimpse of the Laos that exists outside of Luang Prabang’s curious, sepia-filtered bubble.

The road out of the city doesn’t take long to get beautifully, cloud-piercingly dramatic. The women sweating away in the rice fields and lumbering ox carts soon give way to a succession of hairpin bends. Laos is a country where normal equations involving maps and journey times can be safely discarded. Two places may look close, but they’re more than likely separated by mountains and linked by roads that can be charitably described as pothole showcases.

The mountain villages sporadically lining the zigzagging suspension bridges are simple affairs. Mothers herd their children under outdoor communal taps for a shower, roadside stalls offer up fruit and rice, scrawny dogs scuttle underneath laundry hung out to dry in the gaps between stilted houses. There’s little beyond them. Laos is a sparsely populated land, where many of the forested mountain gullies are probably accessible with a bit of effort, but no one feels any pressing urge to find out.

The lack of competition for resources and space makes its presence felt in the Lao character. It’s a laid-back, low-hustle kind of place where working more hours than you strictly have to is seen as a bizarre lifestyle choice. Coming from neighbouring Vietnam, it’s as if the intensity dial has been turned right down.

Geopolitics plays an important part too. Laos knows it’s the regional minnow, sandwiched between powerhouses China, Vietnam and Thailand. In such circumstances, humbly keeping your head down becomes a survival instinct.

Brave new world

After hours of corkscrewing through the mountains, the landscape changes dramatically in Xiengkhouang Province. It all gets a bit Hobbity, with gently rolling, grass-covered hills. Noticeable by their absence are the trees that dominate the mountains; a few hardy pines and the occasional grove of imported eucalypts are all that remain.

The look is an unwanted gift from America. Between 1964 and 1973, US raids turned Laos into the most bombed country on earth. Two million tons of ordnance were dropped on the country — much of it in Xiengkhouang. It was the equivalent of one bomb landing every eight minutes for nine years. The dirty, secret war was largely aimed at disrupting North Vietnamese supply and transportation routes through Laos, but long-term effects have been horrendous. Herbicides stripped the land bare, and one in four Lao villages are cursed by the plague of unexploded ordnance.

The disgraceful tale is told at the MAG (Mines Action Group) Centre in Phonsavan, the provincial capital. The videos shown inside induce sadness and anger, hammering home tales of children having limbs ripped off after playing with ‘toys’ they find, and good farming land going to waste because it hasn’t been cleared of unexploded shells. It’s hard to comprehend how you can deal with the psychological damage of waking up knowing today could be the day you’re killed or maimed after stepping on the wrong patch of grass.

Meanwhile, Phonsavan has a utilitarian feel, but it’s growing fast and offers an exemplary case study in what’s happening to Laos. Within five years, the former facility-free backwater has sprouted ATMs, free wi-fi and a smattering of hotels that aim higher than basic guesthouse standard. It’s indicative of a country on the cusp of urbanising and globalising.

The area’s greatest lure is Southeast Asia’s equivalent of Stonehenge. Nobody can explain the Plain Of Jars. Spread across a number of sites — some properly excavated and some not — are thousands of stone jars, reaching up to 8ft in both diameter and height.

At the main site, they’re peppered across the brow of a hill. There’s no particular pattern or formation, but there’s a broad sweep following the elevation. Some have weather-worn stone lids on top, others have standing water, spider’s webs and tadpoles inside the thick rims.

There’s an eerie silence about the site. The leaves of the trees don’t rustle and nothing moves across the once bomb-strewn plain below. All there is to do is question why.

The truth is that nobody knows. Researchers date most of the jars to between 500BC and AD500, and human ashes have been found in some of them. This has led to the theory the jars were for ceremonious burial — the bigger the jar, the more important the person interred.

Guides tend to prefer the whisky storage explanation of local lore: the jars were where people kept their precious lao-lao (rice whisky, the rural firewater of choice for centuries) safe.

The truth — whatever that may be — probably isn’t nearly as much fun as the mystery. That shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise in a country where most information you’re given should be taken with a hefty fistful of salt. Triangulating rumours is usually the best way of getting an approximation of accuracy. This applies to everything from bus departure times to large-scale development projects. Ask 20 people about the plans to build a highway from the Chinese border in the north to the Cambodian border in the south, or the mooted hydroelectric dam projects that should turn Laos into the ‘battery of Southeast Asia’ and you’ll get 20 different types of raised eyebrow.

Biking & bakeries

The epicentre of most tall tales and ghost projects is Vientiane, the Laotian capital. Wildly fanciful images of what’s to come are plastered over the fences of construction sites. The promised land of the World Trade Center shopping mall has names such as Versace, Dior, Boss and Chanel splashed over the artist’s impression.

Given that the only indent international chains have made on the country is the solitary Swensen’s ice cream outlet opposite the Lao National Museum, this does seem like the stuff of daydreams. For all the new buildings and general smartening up of Vientiane rushed through before the city hosted a regional government conference last November, the lack of familiar names is one of Laos’ delights.

Vientiane is yet to be McDonald’sed-up, and for a capital city, it’s endearingly un-frenetic to amble around in. Flitting between temples and cafe-bakeries seems an agreeable way to tackle the city, although death-trap, rust-bucket bikes can be hired from guesthouses for the equivalent of £2 a day.

Rattling round on one with no particular goal is a marvellous method of comparing the projected brave new world of designer shopping and a Starbucks on every corner with the reality. After a few wrong turns, a directionless cyclist will soon find himself clattering along pothole-ridden dirt roads, stopping for lunch at somewhere with a ubiquitous yellow Beerlao sign outside and an unwritten menu consisting of noodle soup and sticky rice or sticky rice with noodle soup.

Vientiane — like Laos — is changing, and villages are being swallowed up as it expands. But it’s changing with timid baby steps rather than sweeping gusto.

The country’s languorous, unflustered spirit is best felt in the south, however. Champasak Province moves with the aggressive vigour of an old, fat Labrador waddling up a hill after a good feed.

Pakse is the main town, and it’s one that has clearly been earmarked as a key tourism hub of the future. By the Japanese-Lao Friendship Bridge spanning the Mekong, a couple of utterly incongruous high-rise hotels have sprung up. But it’s the seemingly never-ending string of unfussy, shack-like bars along the rest of the river bank that best capture the town’s character. They’re simple, local hangouts with marvellous views of the sunset. And sometimes you don’t need any more than that.

Adventures further afield tend to be organised on a seat-of-the-pants basis. Most tours are booked by people walking into a travel agent’s the night before and seeing what options there are. Even then, you’ll never be quite sure what you’re getting. The itineraries are muddled together between tuk-tuk drivers and boatmen, who swap bemused passengers around without really explaining what’s going on.

Still, the air of mystery adds an extra fizz to the slow chug down the Mekong, sat on a plastic chair in the middle of a motorised longboat. The sun lulls me towards a contented semi-sleep as the boat pootles past fishermen, monks hitching a lift on a car ferry, and fluvial islands where the peace is disturbed only by the clucking of chickens and clacking of traditional weavers’ looms.

A scramble up a muddy river bank and another wordless tuk-tuk transfer leads to Wat Phu. It’s a temple complex for the understandably jaded hearts who are sick of trawling around Southeast Asian temples. The buildings are Angkorian, albeit not as impressive as their Cambodian cousins, but it’s the setting that’s truly extraordinary. Wat Phu is built into the side of a mountain, with the path to it between man-made lakes clearly designed to intimidate anyone approaching. Each step towards the looming majesty of the complex makes it seem bigger, more powerful. The steep stone stairs require huffing, puffing effort to tackle, as if they were dreamt up to make you feel small and humble.

The climb to the top isn’t a hurried, jostled pilgrimage, however. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Wat Phu is there’s virtually no one here. As such, it’s a completely different experience to that offered by Angkor; personal, meditative and eerie.

Further down the Mekong, just before the border with Cambodia, are the 4,000 islands, of which Don Dhet is currently the gathering pen of choice for backpackers who enjoy lolling in a hammock for a week.

A more physically demanding option is a trek on the Bolaven Plateau. A short drive to the east of Pakse, this highland region is merely hot, while the rest of Champasak is threatening to test what temperature skin boils at. It’s also coffee country.

Walking between the plantations, tour guide Pon stops to pluck a bean from a plant overhanging the red-earth track. He peels the skin off. “Try it,” he says.

It’s surprisingly fleshy and even more surprisingly sweet.

“It’s like candy for the children here,” he says, strolling past houses with tarpaulins laid out outside, covered in drying beans. The houses wouldn’t look out of place in a well-to-do satellite town of a major European or US city — there’s clearly decent money in growing coffee. Pon says many of the villagers on the Plateau have formed cooperatives and work with Fairtrade, but the key is focusing on the high-grade Arabica beans, rather than churning out the cheap Robusta variety. Quality over quantity is paying off.

For the less caffeine inclined, waterfalls are what the plateau does best. Getting to the Champi Falls requires a barefoot wade through a fast-moving river, shimmying down a mud-caked wooden ladder and teetering across a particularly infirm-looking bamboo bridge. But it’s worth it. Three main cascades thunder down into a banana plant-flanked pool that has ‘swimming hole’ written all over it.

Less accessible is Tad Fan, twin falls daintily plunging 394ft to create a tributary to the Mekong. You hear them before you see them; the distant rumble combines with hissing spray as the water pours down into the chasm.

Pon suggests walking to the top of the falls, something that’s not possible in the wet season. “It should be fine now,” he says. It’s an interesting definition of fine; the ‘walk’ essentially consists of falling down a steep, muddy bank for 45 minutes, grabbing on to tree branches and vines in a desperate attempt to avoid an uncontrollable death slide.

It’s a messy, bruising reminder that, for all the proposed power plants and development dreams, Laos is still a relatively untamed place. Like the buses trundling along the mountain roads, change is coming eventually. But until the sweep of globalised familiarity arrives in earnest, Laos remains gently, imperfectly, adorably odd.

ESSENTIALS

Getting there
There are no direct flights to Laos. It’s best to fly to Bangkok from Heathrow with British Airways or Thai Airways, then connect to Luang Prabang with Bangkok Airways or Vientiane with Lao Airlines. ba.com  thaiairways.co.uk   bangkokair.com   laoairlines.com
Average flight time: 17h30m, including Bangkok stopover.

 

Getting around
Car rental is expensive and buses are painfully slow — but they do cover most spots of interest. Tours and internal flights with Laos Airlines are perhaps more expedient options. laoairlines.com

 

When to go
November-February is the prime time to visit. Humidity and rainfall are at their lowest, with temperatures around 28C.

 

Need to know
Visas: UK passport holders can get visas at major land borders, plus Luang Prabang or Vientiane airports. It costs $35 (£22) plus a $1 (63p) or $2 (£1.27) service fee, depending on entry point (payable in US dollars).
Currency: Lao kip. £1 = 12,563 kip. US dollars and Thai baht accepted too.
International Dial Code: 00 856.
Time Difference: GMT +7.

 

More info
tourismlaos.org
travelfish.org
MAG Centre. Route 7, Phonsavan. maginternational.org
Green Discovery’s Bolaven Plateau day treks cost from $107 (£68). greendiscoverylaos.com

 

How to do it
Peregrine Adventures offers a 13-day Laos Encompassed tour, taking in Luang Prabang, the Plain of Jars from Phonsavan, Vientiane and Champasak Province. From £2,529, including accommodation, flights from Heathrow, internal Lao Airlines flights and an overnight private Mekong cruise. peregrineadventures.com

 

Published in the Nov/Dec 2013 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)