Laos: Exploring the World Heritage Site of Luang Prabang
Heading to Laos is not something most people 'choose' to do for a trip. Let's be honest, most people go there because they are passing through from Thailand on their way towards Vietnam or vice versa. Nonetheless, I defy anyone to miss Laos out because it has a unique charm and friendliness, almost a sense of innocence compared to her more dominant neighbours. If entering from Northern Thailand, there are three ways in which to enter this strange landlocked country. There's the slow boat, fast boat or the over night bus. I did the bus once, only because the Mekong River was in full flood. The slow boat is most peoples preferred option as it's easygoing, sleepy and gives you a decent view as you travel down river. It takes two days and stops in the town of Pak Beng, halfway down to Luang Prabang.
Finally, this leaves the risky but thrill seeking option of the 'fast boat', a.k.a 'rocket boat', taking around 5 hours. I did this back in 2004. I am not denying it that I found this a buzz, but there is a moderate risk of an accident. You risk a high speed crash which could result in hitting some shallow rock or floating debris. I recommend you research this heavily before taking the 'plunge', pardon the pun! The year I took the fast boat down the Mekong River I was on pins the entire 5 hours wondering if I'd end up like Donald Campbell in his Bluebird rocket boat on Lake Coniston (I dare you google that one yourself!)
The photo above shows that very fast boat I took which is 10 foot long, 3 foot wide and has a motor which propels you to 50mph. You wear a life vest, crash helmet and ear plugs to avoid losing your hearing. Yes, seriously have a good think before you take this option! If you have the time, probably value your future and take the slow boat to Luang Prabang which stops overnight en route to Luang Prabang.
What about the history of this country, Laos, which is the size of the UK but with just 6 million people? It has a mixed history of being annexed by the Siamese in the 1700s, then being a French colony in the late 1800s to 1953. This shaped the current borders we see on the map today. Since the 1950s, Laos was highly troubled during the time of the war in neighbouring Vietnam. Indeed, North Vietnam used the 'Ho Chi Minh Trail' to transport weapons down through the eastern side of Laos to South Vietnam. It eventually resulted in the Americans carpet bombing Laos to smithereens. It is often quoted that more bombs fell on Laos than was used in all of WWII. The Indo China Wars left Laos with a long road to recovery and development. However, due to it being so rural and sparsely populated, it has struggled to develop like it's more powerful neighbours such as Thailand and Vietnam. Nonetheless, it is the rural village life that gives Laos a sense of being back in time, before the hi-tech world we live in today.
Assuming you arrive in Luang Prabang in tact from either a night bus journey or rapid river trip, you will be presented with one of the most pleasant towns in Southeast Asia. In fact, Luang Prabang is such a quaint backwater, it has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This town of 50,000 people is nestled on the confluence of the mighty Mekong and Nam Khan Rivers. You have a pick of hotels from low to high budget to choose from. The food is most numerous and worldly in choice. However, for me, it is the famous Beer Lao that I enjoyed the most. This beer is possibly the best I've ever tasted, and I've sampled many countries' beers on my travels! It's tangy unique flavour was even developed by a German brewer. It is available all over Laos, but strangely not available in neighbouring Thailand, perhaps because they view it as a threat to their own beer market? You will see Beer Lao now in specialist beer shops in the UK. I have a collection of Beer Lao T-shirts in my campaign to advertise my favourite beer!
So what is there to do in and around Luang Prabang? Well as I always advise people, you should head up high to get your bearings of this wonderful and most colourful of towns. Where better to head up to that Phousi Hill? From here you get a view over both the Mekong River to the south, and the Nam Khan River to the north. The hills around these two rivers are breathtaking and serene. The heavily forested area is like a fairy tale land.
Here's the view north from Phousi Hill along the Nam Khan River. The quaint roof tops of Luang Prabang is like a little Lego town below. The town itself is famed for cooking courses and also yoga, if that is your thing as a traveller.
If you like exploring temples and wats then Luang Prabang has a few to keep you busy. At one of town is the famous golden temple which you see in the above photo. Then down the other end of the town I found a tiny one called Wat Xieng Thong, which caught my eye for it's pretty mosaic of a lotus tree on the outside of it.
The streets of Luang Prabang are fairly quiet by day with people going off exploring, which is precisely what I did. I hired the obligatory moped to take a ride into the near by hills. This is something I can massively recommend! You are unlimited and spoilt for choice on where you can go. The only difficulty is the expense. Unlike neighbouring Vietnam and Thailand where you can pick up a motorcycle for $5, it will cost you more like $20 here in Laos. However, I still think the price is worth it in order to explore breath taking mountains and waterfalls.
This waterfall above is called Kuang Si and is a solid hour long journey from Luang Prabang. This multilayered wonder is perhaps one of the best you will see in the whole of Southeast Asia. It is like stepping into your own set of Lord of the Rings. The extra benefit of this wonder is that you can go swimming in the rock pools below the falls and there is a tremendously fun rope swing for you to daringly have a go at too (that's me flying through the air below!)
Once you have had a great time somersaulting off the rope swing it's nice just to relax around the rock pools and realise you made the 'right' decision travelling through Laos on your way to Vietnam!
On my first motorcycle journey around Laos, I took the time to really getway on out there into the mountains, beyond the beautiful but relatively touristy area of Luang Prabang itself. It is highly rewarding arriving in villages where few Lao people have interacted with strangers from the west. I felt like a film star on occasions pulling into a village and being immediately swamped by local kids who want to have their photo taken with you.
I remember back in 2004, on my first trip to Laos, digital cameras had not long been invented. These kids were highly bemused by even the concept of having their photo taken and thought it pretty hysterical when you showed them their photo straight away on the back of your digital camera.
I give testimony to the absolute friendliness of the people of Laos, when my friend's moped actually broke down in the middle of nowhere. We wheeled the bike into some guys back yard and he took great delight and rose to the challenge of fixing the moped's engine over the course of an hour. When I offered payment for it, he refused. For him, he just enjoyed the challenge of fixing the bike and trying out in his broken English a little bit to find out about our European world. I loved the excitement of being in the middle of nowhere, wondering whether I would end up spending the night sleeping in some random guys back yard. Alas, we got moving again due to the ingenuity of these Lao mechanical minds.
I really only saw and sampled one tiny portion of Laos but in those short few days around the Mekong River valleys, I got to sample a beautiful laid back town, the majestic temples, rolling fertile paddy fields and remote villages. Let's not forget the most enthralling of waterfalls you will encounter in all of Asia, and a beer to die for!
My next stop through Southeast Asia would be Vietnam. I caught a bus which took my from Luang Prabang all the way to Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam, lasting a whopping 27 hours! However, the bus was well kitted out for this huge journey with a full on, horizontal bed on board, in which I did actually manage some sleep too.
If you enjoyed my blog on Laos then please check out more of my photos by clicking here!
Next week please join me for my journey through one for one of the most fascinating journeys in all of Asia - Vietnam! It's going to be a cracker!