Laos, land of Wats and wonder

In August 2018 I ventured to South East Asia for the first time, ready to conquer the wet season. My first destination was Laos, more precisely Luang Prabang, one of the tourist hubs of the country. Luang Prabang acts as a base for many adventurous activities, such as hiking, biking, kayaking etc. I have another post describing the 3 hikes I did around Luang Prabang, leading me through wet and muddy jungles to mighty raging waterfalls. So I will not be going more into these aspects of my stay in Luang Prabang in this post.

My way to Luang Prabang began in Copenhagen, taking by far the longest duration flight I had ever done up to that point, at more than 12 hours going all the way to Singapore. It was also the first time I flew with a big aircraft with 3 columns of seats, free snacks, free drinks, multiple meals and superior service to what I’m used to on my other flights. It was a great experience. From Singapore I immediately hitched another flight going to Luang Prabang, another 3,5 hours away by flight. Approaching Luang Prabang gave us amazing views of the Mekong river, bloated at this time of year. Definitely the largest river I’ve seen, and it was absolutely awe-striking seeing this behemoth from above.

In 2018 Laos had their “Visit Laos Year” in which visa restrictions were relaxed for many nationalities, which also meant I got a visa on arrival freely without any issues. After clearing customs I found a mini bus taking myself and other tourists into town, which lays a few kms from the airport, across the Nam Khan river. Luang Prabang, especially the old town with all the temples, is located on what can best described as a peninsula, with the mighty Mekong river on one side, and the lesser, but still impressive Nam Khan river on the other side, until it joins with the Mekong river.

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The mini-bus took me to my hostel, and at this point the rain had already begun. Before I had settled in my bunk-bed, after the long flights, it was pouring down. Not wanting to let this stop me, and also being under time pressure, because the next 3 days I would be doing all-day tours, and after that I would be heading off to the capital Vientiane, I had to head out into the city and sight-see as much as possible. So I put on my rain-gear and set out. At this point it was about 2pm. My hostel, Vongprachan Backpackers Hostel, was located very centrally, in a small alley with a traditional restaurant next door. Needless to say, I dined there quite a few times over the coming days. Just across from the alley was a nice little temple, that I would come back to later.

My first mission was to find the old bridge crossing the Nam Khan river, which is only open for two-wheel vehicles and has walk-paths on the outside of the bridge for pedestrians. The path being made up of mere planks of wood, creaking suspiciously much, and just appearing to be a tad too make-shift. Right under the bridge ran the mighty Nam Khan river, which is also bloated at that time of year, with rushing mud-brown water. The thought of the walking-planks breaking leading to my falling into the river did follow me the entire walk over the bridge. Quite a scary experience, but also quite awesome. From the middle of the bridge you have a clear view of the Phousi mountain with the golden temple on top, which sticks up in the otherwise flat scenery of Luang Prabang city. That coupled with the river and all the old houses peaking up through the canopy of the lush trees makes for quite the view. All of this of course occurred while the rain was still pummeling down.

My end-goal for the day would be the aforementioned Phousi-mountain, which is the best sunrise/sunset spot in Luang Prabang – a fact which sadly also attracts a horde of tourists. More on that later. Sunset was still hours away, so my next goal was to make my way to the old town and see the various temples there. On the way there I ventured into the grounds of the Wat Aham, the small temple near the hostel. Here I had my first experience with monks. Watching them standing in cover from the rain on the stairwell to their dormitory.

Wat Aham is a small temple so I quickly moved on. In the old city I visited the Royal Palace, various wats, including Wat Xiengthong, Wat Xieng Mouane and many more. All of them incredibly beautiful, and serene. I won’t go into details about the Wats here, the pictures speaks for themselves. The rain had also halted by this time, which was a relief.

Along the walk on north side of town towards Wat Xiengthong, you walk alongside the Mekong, which does offer magnificent views. As I reached Wat Xiengthong, it also turned out that there was a boat-harbor with longboats taking tourists along the Mekong river. I approached some of the boats to have a look, and take pictures, and was immediately approached by a kind man offering me a 1 hour tour up and down the river at 5 euros. That was a great offer, and I accepted. I had expected we would await other people, but nope, off we went. A big boat with just me in it. The boat was equipped with loudspeakers and the sailor blasted random covers of western hits. For some reason he had multiple covers of “My Heart Will Go On” from Titanic that he kept playing over and over, which did seem not so fitting for this boat trip. To my surprise I was also offered Lao beer and some unspecified stronger alcohol. It turned into the quite the booze-cruise. But I was mostly just busy taking in the sight of the river, the shores on both sides full of life and splendid nature. We also passed by many houses and people in smaller boats, getting a tiny glimpse into the life of Laotian people. It was a most wonderful experience. After about an hour we returned without any issues. I ventured into the Wat Xiengthong complex and explored it.

At this point sunset wasn’t too far away anymore and it was time to slowly make my way to the top of Phousi mountain. The rain was still gone, but there was a thick cloudcover, so hopes of actually getting to see the sunset were quite sparse, but in any case the view from the top of the mountain should be worth it all. The way to the top went through several staircases, passing through many smaller shrines to various buddhist gods and idols, and a few monk dormitories. I was just dressed in a tshirt, shorts and a thin raincoat but still sweated buckets making my way up the mountain because of the ridiculous humidity. In the end I made it up there, just to realize that there was already a horde of tourists standing at the top waiting for the sunset and taking in the view.

I took a bunch of photos myself and just took in the surroundings. Green mountains on all sides, all the wats down below, the traditional houses peeking up, and the mighty Nam Khan river making its way through the landscape. The view was nothing short of epic. It became obvious that the sunset wouldn’t be discernible, and I was very tired at this point – it having been a very long day. So I made my way down from the mountain, making my way back to the hostel, passing through the preparations for the night market on the street just down below the mountain. It goes up every night and comes down again in the morning. It is quite fascinating watching this busy road turn into a big market every night.

At the hostel I rested a bit, had a shower, and then went into the restaurant next door to have dinner. Being all kinds of unoriginal I went for a delicious fried rice with chicken.

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In the evening I walked back to the night market, watching all the things on sale, such as Lao Lao – rice whisky in big bottles with dead snakes and scorpions and other creepy crawlies inside the bottle, fermenting. I just stuck with some refreshing dragon fruit milkshake, and had some some noodles from a street vendor. I didn’t stay at the market long, since I was exhausted at this point at had the first hike the next morning.

Read about my first hike, out to the Tad Sae waterfall, concluding in kayaking down the Nam Khan river here.

After coming back from the hike I ventured into the night market again, drinking even more dragon fruit milkshakes, people watching and just soaking in the great atmosphere. Not surprisingly I got dinner at the restaurant next to the hostel again. This night I retired to bed early, as my plans for the next morning was to get up early, prior to sunrise, and venture out into town to watch the monks alms giving ceremony.

Sadly the day had quite a unfortunate start for me. As my alarm rang and I sneaked out the dorm trying not to wake up the others, I immediately stepped into something warm and gooey as I exited the room. I looked down and to my horror realised I had stepped into some cat-poop, that one of the many cats roaming the hostel had decided to leave right on the mat into our dorm. Goddamnit! Jumping along on one foot while also holding back many raging screams, I made my way to one of the bathrooms and used the shower-head to clean off my foot. Not the best start to the morning for sure. But at least I could now proceed out into town with only a minor delay.

The alms giving happens every day, and while it is not unique to Luang Prabang, it is especially known and practiced here, and it attracts a huge crowd every morning. The alms giving in all its simplicity is the monks from all the monasteries of town heading out at sunrise to collect alms in the form of rice and fruit from the locals (or even tourists who wants to participate now). They do this every day, and they only have the food that the collect during the ceremony to eat for the rest of the day. All monks of all ages does this. It has happened here for centuries, but with the influx of tourists chasing down the poor monks, getting all up in their faces with their cameras – despite this being clearly extremely disrespectful – is slowly destroying this tradition unfortunately. I fully admit that by getting up to witness the ceremony I’m also part of the problem. I chose to believe that by keeping a respectful distance, using long zoom and not getting near the monks I at least take all the respectful precautions as possible.

When the sun rises, all the temples around town come to life, and gongs are banged to signal the daybreak. Slowly all the monks come out of their dormitories, preparing for the daily walk. They all, obviously, wear their saffron orange robes, even while its raining. Then they form a line and head out. This happens at every temple in town, and it is quite the sight watching all the monks flooding into the street. Quite a spiritually enriching event to behold. Sadly ruined by the people getting all up in the faces of the monks to take the perfect photos.

Just as quickly as the town came to life, the monks just as quickly return to their temples leaving the city in a in-between time, before the morning market is being set up. Luang Prabang returns to peace for a little while.

When I returned to the dorm, I – much to my relief – noticed that the cat shit door mat had been removed (I had just pushed it away from our door, not knowing what to do with it). Soon the second hike of the trip, the one out to the infamous Kuang Si waterfalls followed. Again, you can read about that hike here.

That night after returning from the hike, I stayed in my bed, relaxing, catching up on social media and resting for the big hike the next day.

The next day I slept just until I had to go on the hike. That hike was out to 3 small hmong and khmu villages, following some horribly muddy, wet and steep paths. And it poured down for a while of it. As before, you can check out my other post to read more about this particular hike.

Returning from this hike, the third long tough hike in just as many days, and with a flight to Vientiane the next morning, I decided it would be a really good idea to go out for a massage that evening. Luckily there was a nice little massage place nearby the hostel run by the red cross. The massage really did my dead legs good, and I was now ready to head onwards the next day. But of course not before having yet another dinner at the same restaurant. I’m a loyal customer, haha.

The next day, to save on time and not risk being stuck on the way due to mudslides I caught the short flight from Luang Prabang down south to the capital Vientiane, rather than taking a bus. Here I would have 3 days and 2 nights. But before heading to the airport, I took a small trip out to the local UXO visitor center. UXO stands for UneXploded Ordinance, and it refers to the hundreds of thousands of unexploded bombs scattered across the Laotian landscape, especially in the east. These bombs were thrown by the USA during the vietnam war, bombing the Ho Chi Minh trail, and many of these bombs – especially cluster bombs never exploded, and to this day still cripple and kill laotian people when they accidentally step on one or just come into contact with it, especially while farming the land. It is a travesty like no other. In fact, more bombs were dropped over Laos than all the bombs used in World War 2. Laos is the most bombed country in the history of the world. The visitor center has an exhibition explaining more about the history behind this problem, and the efforts being done to remove the bombs. Furthermore there’s information on the destructive power of cluster bombs, and also a big exhibition about the victims of the UXO. It is brutal, but quite necessary to witness.

After this reality check, I went to the airport and flew to Vientiane.

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Vientiane is a large city, and it has a lot more european influences than Luang Prabang. It is much more like any other big city, and doesn’t have the same charm as Luang Prabang, despite also being full of wats and stupas. The Mekong river also runs through the south of Vientiane, actually making up the border between Laos and Thailand.

Better yet, Vientiane isn’t as heavily hit by the wet season as the far north of the country – in fact it didn’t rain once in the 3 days I was there. It was a nice change for sure.

My hotel was located a little outside the city center, but closer to the airport (which itself is also a bit outside the city). My hotel was the Sengdara hotel. For the price its a decent hotel, but the staff wasn’t particularly good with english, but that didn’t really cause problems. I just arrived and dropped off my luggage before heading out into town, heading out to the main site of Vientiane, the Pha That Luang stupa, a giant golden stupa surrounded by big majestic temples and shrines. It is one of the holiest places in Laos, and also hosts a big reclining buddah within its perimeter. The site is big and you can spend a while just walking around aweing at all the golden splendor.

After checking out the whole complex, which lays at the end of the main street going from the presidential palace in one end, and ends at the Pha That Luang complex at the other end – albeit the street doesnt go in a straight line between these two. In between these two sites, is another big landmark, the Patuxai arch. It is a indochinese version of the Arch d’ Triomph. It is not as big or beautiful as the one in Paris, but it still has a certain charm, and the indochinese style does fit into the overall style of the city.

Continuing down the street towards the presidential palace, you pass through numerous other famous Wats and stupas. I checked out multiple of these most noteworthy Wat Sisaket. On the way back to the hotel I also checked out the exterior of the presidential palace from behind the fence surrounding it, and walked along the Mekong staring across to Thailand on the other side.

That evening, being tired of noodles, I craved for some sushi. Google maps told me about one place nearby the hotel, and so I went there with high hopes. But those were quickly crushed. The sushi was more based on vegetables than fish, and it was of poor quality. Each piece was also very large, and the whole thing was very expensive, almost comparative to the prices in Denmark. All in all, quite a let down of a dinner.

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The next day I started out the day by checking out several other Wats that I had missed the previous day, due to them closing rather early. After visiting a number of Wats I took a bus out of Vientiane to a nearby place called Xieng Khuan, also known as the Buddah Park. It is located 20-30 kms outside Vientiane, but it is rather easy to reach with a direct bus going from the central bus station in Vientiane. The Buddah Park is a huge complex located next to the Mekong River, and as the name might suggest, it is a park that contains a lot of buddah statues in all sorts of poses and sizes. There is a giant reclining buddah there amongst others. But it is not just buddahs, but also other mythological beings from buddhism. There is even a big structure looking like a big space-ship that you can climb for a great view of the whole park. It is a fascinating place to wander around, and the photo opportunities are plentiful.

After wandering the place and taking a ton of pictures, I settled down in the cafe at the entrance to the park and got a refreshing coconut. In the late afternoon I took the bus back to Vientiane. Back on Vientiane I went to the COPE center, which is another place that exhibits the consequences of UXO in Laos. The COPE center besides being a museum, is also a rehabilitating center for people who has lost limbs due to UXO. Here they can get prosthetics and being taught to live again as an amputee. You obviously don’t get to see the clients. The museum is very emotional, having a whole wall made up of old prosthetics, as well as more visuals on bombs and cluster bombs.

The COPE center is another spectacularly necessary museum, that is worth visiting, even though- actually exactly because – it is so gut wrenching.

After the COPE center I ventured back down to the Mekong to see the sunset. I had not expected there to be too many people, but the place was packed with locals enjoying the sunset, singing, dancing, doing yoga collectively, eating from the various street food stalls, and shopping in the big night market that had popped up nearby.

This particular sunset was quite magical, as the sky was colored in shades of red, the sky being mostly clear. The sun setting over the Mekong was definitely a highlight of my time in Laos.

After the sun set, I went and found myself some dinner. After a few restaurants that were absolutely packed, I found a small place, that doubled as a computer store run by a family. Inside the store, some tables had been put up, for diners. There wasn’t many people there, and the hygiene was definitely sketchy, but it was a very authentic experience, and the food was delicious (I went for noodles again).

The next morning, the trip continued on to Bangkok for a small weekend stay before going to Myanmar. So with this, we’ve reached the end of my journey in Laos.

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