Laos – Mad about the Mekong

To the ends of the earth with Nick Smioth

Once you get out of the city, in Laos there are plenty of traditional rice farmers to photograph in the humidity of the mountains

Kept cool by the mighty Mekong River and fresh breezes that roll down from the mountain forests, Laos is a tiny landlocked country in a distant corner of Asia, and a different world from the sweltering and bustling stereotype of the Far East. Bay’s Nick Smith finds out more.

There can’t be many countries so little known to the British imagination that travellers are routinely left wondering how to pronounce its name. So, let’s get that out of the way now: the little landlocked country called Laos in what was once known as ‘French Indo China’, but which is now officially referred to as the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, rhymes with ‘mouse’. The country whose outline is shaped like a mediaeval mace, that has borders with China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand and Myanmar, does not rhyme – as some BBC travel show presenters seem to think – with ‘anyhow’. When they pronounce it that way, they sound at best as if they haven’t done their homework, and at worst they come across as the thespian pseuds that they really are. They should know better. And it’s no real excuse to say that hardly anyone knows anything about tiny Laos, the 106th most popular international tourism destination, because there are plenty of decent books about the place. I think I got the Laos bug after interviewing author of Mad About the Mekong John Keay – who ruefully observes that no-one says his name properly either – for an article, if I remember correctly, in Geographical magazine. In his book, Keay follows in the footsteps of 19th century French explorer Francis Garnier who travelled from Kratié in Cambodia to Shanghai, in the process navigating much of the Mekong – “a no-go river, its turbulent waters fouled by ideological barriers as formidable as its natural obstacles” – that at the time was unexplored territory.

Top: Sunset over the mighty Mekong at Luang Prabang Below: An idyllic and tranquil rice field in the mountains of Laos

Until the turn of the millennium, only the most spirited of independent travellers made it to Laos, usually as part of a circular tour of what most adventure travel companies persist in calling ‘Indochina’. In something of a stark contrast, neighbouring Thailand gets more than 40 million visitors per year (pushing them up to #5 in the leader board), while Laos has for the most part struggled to attract a few million, and even then, only in the 21st century. I’m not sure if the label Indochina is one of those heritage terms that has become offensive to westerners with nothing more important to worry about, or simply quaintly old-fashioned in a world where the names of everything get ‘modernised’ due to the current trend for excruciating wokery, but it certainly reminds me that the country was historically part of a group of French colonial territories that even had the famous revolutionary motto of Liberté, égalité, fraternité. For better or worse it stopped being called Indochina after the Second World War, when Laos started to make the transition to the socialist state that it is today. Because there are barely any historical connections between the United Kingdom and Laos to speak of – the two countries only established diplomatic relations as recently as 1955 – there are no direct flights, and so you’ll probably end up going via Thailand, stopping over at Bangkok.

Top: Luang Prabang’s famous Wat Xieng Thong temple by day… Below: … and at dusk, with the equally famous night market in the foreground

If you book with one of those cheap flights websites, you’ll almost certainly repent at leisure as you jet halfway around the world several times in different directions before eventually landing at Wattay International Airport a few miles from the centre of the country’s capital city. At Vientiane, you might wish to visit the site of the That Luang monument, where a reliquary is said to contain the Buddha’s breastbone. Most people don’t, because they’re more interested in hotfooting it to Luang Prabang, the picturesque former royal capital in the fork of the rivers Nam Khan and Mekong. You could take the bus and spend a pleasant day driving through rice paddies (as I did once, stopping at roadside cafés serving steamed fish in banana leaves with sticky rice), or you could switch planes as most do, arriving at your destination in as little as an hour, having left a cardboard box of stale sweet bread and Diet Coke untouched.

Not that the time matters much, because here on the banks of the mighty Mekong and encircled by vertigi-nous mountains, Luang Prabang seems to move along at its own rhythm. It’s of no importance if you arrive late or early because the traditional wooden Lao houses and boutique guesthouses will still rub shoulders with ancient Buddhist temples, many of which have been restored to their resplendent whitewash and gilded splendour, their gardens planted with oleander, jasmine and bougainvillea. Luang Prabang is a sleepy town that seems to have attracted a backpacking culture for optimistic young Australians keen to see something of the world on a student’s budget. While for us here in the UK, Laos represents the farthest of far-flung exotic and often expensive long-haul travel, for our antipodean cousins crossing Indonesia and the Gulf of Thailand is a much more manageable prospect in both time and money. You’ll see them wandering around in their green and gold replica cricket shirts, and their Southern Cross baseball caps. And because they’re a cheerful and friendly bunch, you’ll inevitably spend evenings in their company chugging frosty Beerlao lager in open air bars, swopping tall travellers’ tales and trying not to take too seriously their endless showboating over Australia’s prowess on the cricket pitch.

Top: Street food at the night market where everything is freshly cooked in front of you Below: By morning monks in saffron-dyed robes collect alms from locals and tourists

By day, you quickly become familiar with the town’s main road that runs parallel to the Mekong, where at one end you’ll find the famous Wat Xieng Thong or ‘Temple of the Golden City’, while at the other, there is an equally famous night market. This is where you can fulfil your heart’s every retail desire providing it extends no further than juniper paper goods, silver work, batik and silk scarves. I don’t know if the travel-ler absorbs some aspects of the Buddhist anti-materialism philosophies by being in such close proximity to so many temples, but after a while I stopped buying things and just wandered about taking in the sights and smells in the pleasant evening air. One of Luang Prabang’s most striking temples is the dramatic and serene Wat Mai. Its beauty is such that when the Chinese invaded Laos a century ago, they refused to destroy it. A local guidebook describes the interior of the largest of Luang Prabang’s wats or temples as, “a large and majestic red nave with gold stencilling on the columns, beams and walls together with the variety of gilded Buddha statues and tables at the altar … the large Buddha statue provides evidence of the religious, aesthetic and architectural importance of Wat Mai.

This was where a novice monk dressed from head to foot in saffron-dyed robes told me all about the daily routine and rituals of his life in Buddhism. He explain-ed that one of the aspects most likely to appeal to the western photographer was the early morning collection of alms. In the early morning light, monks walk along the street gathering offerings of rice, sweets and coins from locals, whose duty it is to feed them. Feeling duty bound to set the alarm for an hour before dawn – as it turned out there was no need because the multitude of chickens that live in this part of the world make their electronic equivalent completely redundant – I left the young monk to his meditations, in search of Wat Pha Bhat Tai and down the hill to the banks of the river.

Traditional fisherman casting his net in the setting sun

Luang Prabang locals play a game of pétanque

Along the way I saw the curious sight of locals playing pétanque which is probably best described as the French version of lawn bowls – only the highly competitive and vocal action takes place on a hard dirt terrain. During a break in their contest, as they switched ends, the play-ers told me that this is their local sport, one of the remaining influences of French colonial times. After relieving me of a few American dollars, they pointed me in the direction of Wat Pha Bhat Tai from where, to the sound of monks chanting, I watched the sun set over the sand-banks of the Mekong, fishermen casting their nets in the pale orange light.

Top: Barges moored at the entrance to the Pak Ou caves, with the white staircase to the grottoes just visible. Below: Hundreds of gilded figurines look out over the river.

The morning came when it was time to say goodbye to Luang Prabang, and although I think I could have stayed there for months, talking to the monks and drinking beer with the Aussie backpackers, it was time to explore Laos’s interior. I started off modestly enough, taking a traditional barge a couple of hours upstream to visit the mysterious ‘cave of a thousand Buddhas’ that’s called Pak Ou. As the vessel slipped its moorings and clouds of burned engine oil billowed into the morning air, I started to feel some of the wonder of being on a big river, its brown waters swirling, the air alive with the cries of scavenging gulls. On the banks were grebes and stilts, curlews and sandpipers, cormorants, storks and pelicans. As we pushed against the never-ending south-eastern current into the mountains, all around were rice paddies and banana plantations, the dark green steamy atmosphere of the Orient. As the last traces of the town of Luang Prabang faded into the dist-ance, it was easy to imagine this was the landscape encountered by Francis Garnier all those years ago as he explored more than 5,000 miles of the river network. Arriving at Pak Ou, I stepped out of the barge and climbed a steep staircase cut through the rock to reach a series of grottoes high in a cliff-face, where I was rewarded with the sight of thousands of gilded and terracotta figurines festooned with garlands of flowers, all dusted with the ash of countless incense sticks.

Top: Countless small villages line the banks of the Mekong Below: A typical traditional village in the humidity of the Laos jungle

I asked my guide where all these statues had come from and Racha told me that they just seemed to appear from nowhere, probably left by the fishermen and farmers whose lives are so bound up with the Mekong. These devot-ional offerings have been made for centuries, said Racha, in the hope that they will provide protection, though on the subject of what the locals needed to be protected from, he was a little vague: “maybe from bad weather, or stuff like that.” It’s not always easy to reconcile the often ugly history of twentieth century Laos with these exquisite landscapes, and for people like Racha it is probably a lot less stressful to discuss the legends of comfortably distant history than to dwell on the

More gilded and terracotta figurines at Pak Ou caves

misfortunes of the recent past. Legend has it, he said, visibly cheering up, that King Setthathirath – the 16th century monarch behind such monuments as Luang Prabang’s Wat Xieng Thong temple and Vientiane’s That Luang stupa – also discovered the very caverns we were standing in. “Every Laotian New Year, thousands of locals embark on a pilgrimage to Pak Ou to offer their prayers and receive blessings.” After a few hours we returned to the boat and ate our lunch of green papaya salad and sticky rice that had been wrapped in banana leaves and tied with raffia twine. We took a few photos of elephants, and then let the current take us downstream back to Luang Prabang.

And so started my exploration of the Mekong, that was a pale shadow of the grand explorations of Garnier or Keay’s extraordinary contemporary journey for Mad About the Mekong. Even so, in the spirit of adventure I got myself a berth on a cheap and cheerful river cruise run by local boatmen, where you’re expected to rough it a bit as we drifted along from village to village though a landscape that seemed to be impenetrable by any means other than the great river itself. After a while time becomes irrelevant and you stop wondering where you’ll fetch up next, because let’s face it, yesterday hardly went to plan. You even stop marvelling at the idea that you’re so far removed from the 21st century, because that involves thinking about airports and the long hard journey back to the modern world.

Although you’ll see elephants from time to time, they’re mostly for the benefit of travel photographers!


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