Laos, 2011

Laos: South East Asia Without The Beach

It’s likely that Laos will never become as much of a tourist hub as neighbouring countries like Thailand or Vietnam. For starters, it’s a landlocked country completely lacking in palm-fringed beaches upon which to build all-inclusive seaside resorts. There are also no hugely famous tourist sites in the country. The traveler scene in Laos is mostly centered around the backpacking set.

There’s plenty of reasons for the independent traveler on a budget to make time for a visit to Laos. Prices are low, the food is as delicious as anywhere else in South East Asia, and travelers never have to deal with the crush of tourist throngs. Even in Luang Prabang the country’s number one draw for visitors, there are no lineups to get into any of the many temples.

With fewer than 7 million people, Laos is far less populated than other countries in the region. For this reason most of its forests are still intact and its natural beauty remains abundant.

Ostensibly a Communist country since 1975, the Laotian government has embraced pro-capitalist market reforms since the 1980’s. Once you arrive in the country there are almost no reminders of its recent revolutionary past.

Vientiane is the capitol of Laos. With scarcely a few hundred thousand inhabitants it’s far and away the largest city in the nation. It’s a peaceful place and just about completely lacking in the frenetic pace of larger cities in South East Asia. The volume of road traffic is relatively low which is a welcome change if you’ve spent time in a city like Bangkok or Saigon before arriving in Vientiane. There is actually an 11:30 PM curfew but given the paucity of nightlife that’s unlikely to affect your plans.

On my first night in the city I happened upon a free, open-air Chinese opera. I had no idea what the plot was but it was engrossing to watch for a while. The colours of the set and costumes of the performers were gaudily colourful and eye-catching. There was a small audience of a few dozen. I noticed that at no point did anyone clap or cheer for the actors. Maybe that isn’t done in Laos.

Vientiane’s tourist attractions are pretty much limited to Buddhist temples. By the time I arrived in Vientiane I had seen my share of these so I decided to limit myself to just seeing That Luang, the holiest, and grandest, Buddhist monument in all the country. Built, and rebuilt, over a period of centuries, That Luang exhibits Khmer, Indian, and Lao architectural influences. The central spire is a dominant feature of the city’s skyline. The whole complex is painted gold in colour making it impossible to miss. It’s mostly made of concrete which rather dulls its aesthetic appeal.

Having made short work of Vientiane’s stock of attractions I soon set out northward to Luang Prabang, the former royal capitol of Laos. The road between Vientiane and Luang Prabang goes through some very impressive scenery. Much of the way is mountainous and in places giant sheets of limestone thrust upwards for hundreds of meters out of the earth in almost 90 degree angles from the surrounding countryside. Some of these have sheer cliff faces that would challenge the most expert rock climbers. I had never seen such a landscape except in photos of the karst formations in southern China. I had not known that I would see such magnificent scenery in Laos.

Luang Prabang is the chief tourist destination in Laos. It lies in a valley surrounded by mountains on all sides. Since 1995 it has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is one of the best preserved traditional cities in Asia and well worth a visit. The city features dozens of old temples that are richly endowed with Laotian religious artifacts and art.

Luang Prabang is a small city so getting around on foot is the best way to see things. I decided to limit myself to seeing the Royal Palace and a few of the more impressive temples rather than trying to cram in all the sights.

Being in the mountains makes Luang Prabang cooler than other places at the same latitude. I found that to be a pleasant change.

When I visited there was enough tourist infrastructure to provide plenty of options for restaurants and hotels but it didn’t seem overdone. However, Luang Prabang is small enough to easily imagine it getting swamped by tourism in the near future as Laos gradually begins to get more attention as a travel destination.

The town of Phonsavanh is a rather humdrum place but it acts as the best base for exploring the Plain of Jars. The “jars” are more accurately described as large stone urns that at one time had stone lids on top. Most are between 1 and 2 1/2 meters in height and weigh tons (literally). Some are as tall as 3 meters. It’s believed that the jars functioned as funeral urns and are about 2000 years old. Skeletal remains have been found inside some of them which lends credence to the idea that they served as graves. Tools, bronze ornaments, and ceramics have also been discovered inside some of the jars. The interesting thing is that these artifacts bear no resemblance to those of known South East Asian cultures. The present day inhabitants know nothing about who built the jars or why they did so.

Hundreds of the jars survive, mostly in a cluster referred to as Site One, 10 km southwest of Phonsavanh. There’s also a Site Two and Site Three where more of the jars lie. Sight Three is in the most scenic spot amongst rolling hills.

Many of the jars were destroyed during the bombing campaigns carried out by the US Air Force during the Vietnam War. In fact the whole area is pockmarked with bomb craters from that era. Some of these have been turned into fish ponds. Most are still just depressions in the ground.

The degree of bombing carried out was massive. The old town of Xieng Khouang once contained many colonial era buildings from the years of French occupancy and there were many temples and pagodas. The entire town was wiped out by the aerial bombardments.

During the Vietnam War many of the people of the Plain of Jars lived in caves and farmed only at night. My guide took me to a spot where a huge bomb was dropped in front of a cave entrance and killed many of the people huddling inside. Pretty sombre stuff. Even when I had visited Vietnam back in 2008 I had not seen such a sobering reminder of the devastation of war.

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