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Laos - Buddhist Temples, Plane of Jars, Unexploded Ordnance (UXO)

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by Günther Eichhorn

Itinerary

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In January 2016 I visited Laos for a couple of weeks. I had asked Northern Travel Laos, a tour organizer in Laos, to organize a private tour for me. The organization was excellent, everything worked like clockwork. I had two guides, one in the northern part of the country from Luang Prabang to Vientiane, and another one in the southern parts, around Pakse. Both guides were very good, quite knowledgeable. I can really recommend this tour organizer.

Itinerary

I flew into Luang Prabang, a major city in the north of Laos. My guide was waiting for me at the airport, and brought me to the hotel in Luang Prabang, where I stayed for three nights. Luang Prabang has a night market from around 17:00 till 21:00, every evening. In contrast to the morning market, which sells food, the night marked sells household goods, clothes, etc. By now it is dominated by souvenirs for tourists. There are LOTS of tourists in Luang Prabang.

On the first full day I visited the morning market. People in Laos eat apparently everything. In the market I saw beetles, crickets, frogs, maggots, and rats. But the vegetable offering was great. Again it included simple local food like seaweed from the Mekong river. All the meals that I had included fresh vegetables, which was really great.

We then walked around town to visit a couple of local monasteries and temples, and the palace of the last king of Laos. Like in Myanmar, monasteries are ubiquitous. They are a main education resource for local children that don't have enough money for a decent education. My guide for instance came from a small village. He spent 10 years in a monastery to get his education. Novices start at 8 years of age. They become a monk at 20 years of age. Monks eat only twice per day, in the morning and at lunch time. After 12:00 noon they don't eat anymore.

After visiting Luang Prabang, we drove to a Hmong village and then to the Kuang Si Waterfall. The waterfall was quite spectacular, the first of many during my visit of Laos. In the evening we hiked 328 steps up to the That Chomsi Stupa, on a hill overlooking Luang Prabang, to watch the sunset.

On the next day we briefly visited the school of one of the monasteries. There are some 60 - 70 temples in Luang Prabang with some 80 monks per temple. Many of them have schools for their novices.

We then took a boat to first visit another local village, Xang Hai Village, and then the Pak Ou caves. These are two caves on the Mekong river, that house thousands of Buddha statues. The boat ride was VERY cold, it was only about 8-10°C (46-50°F).

The next morning we drove to Phonsavan in the Xieng Khuang province for a two-night stay. On the way we visited a local Tai Dam village where they make rice noodles. The women can make as much as $500 per month, making noodles.

The area around Phonsavan was devastated by American bombing between 1964 and 1973. Over the 9 years of this bombing campaign, one planeload of bombs was dropped every 8 minutes, 24 hours per day for 9 years. I visited the Mines Advisory Group (MAG) office, which shows information about the bombing and the terrible legacy from this bombing campaign, the Unexploded Ordnance (UXO). An estimated 80 million of unexploded bombs litter the countryside and in many cases prevent villagers from farming their fields. Since the end of the war, more than 20,000 people have been killed by UXOs. It is a shame that the USA doesn't do more to clean up this mess that we created.

The next day we made a short visit to Muang Khoun, the old capital of Laos, then we visited the Plain of Jars. The Plain of Jars was one of the highlights of my visit to Laos. In the afternoon we visited a local silk manufacturer.

The next day we continued on to Vangvieng for a two-night stay. On the way we visited another local village of the Khmu.

On the first full day in Vangvieng we visited the Tham Jang cave and the Tham Phu Kham Cave. In the afternoon I had a nice boat ride on the Song river.

The next day we drove to Vientiane for a two-night stay. On the way we stopped at the Ngum dam for a boat ride on the Ngum reservoir. The dam was built in 1972, it is the largest reservoir in Laos, a very important fishery resource. In Vientiane we visited the Buddha Park, a very impressive park with Buddhist and Hindu statues.

During the full day in Vientiane we visited the Wat Si Saket Temple, the Pha That Luang Stupa, as well as the Patuxai Monument.

The next day I took a short flight to Pakse, where a new guide waited for me. We drove around the Bolaven Plateau, visiting the Tad Fan and Tad Lo waterfalls, as well as a couple of local villages. The area around the Bolaven plateau is know for its coffee and tea production. We then continued on to Ban Kiet Ngong to the Kingfisher Eco Lodge for two nights, a nice lodge located on the edge of a large swamp area. In the evening some of the elephants of the local elephant keepers are set free to roam around the swamp.

The next day I went on a full-day elephant ride in the local forest. Unfortunately, there is really no local wildlife left, I didn't see anything. But it was a pleasant excursion with a boxed lunch that my local guide had prepared. It was a bit tricky to get off and back on the elephant or lunch without a ladder or platform, but the mahout knew how to handle it. The ride on an elephant is not very smooth, so I had a somewhat sore butt at the end of the day, but it was worth it, I enjoyed the excursion.

The next day we drove further south to the 4000 Islands on the Mekong river for a one-night stay on a large island in the Mekong, called Don Khong.

After arrival at the Mekong river, we got on a boat for a ride down the Mekong to the islands Don Som, Don Det, and Don Khone. On Don Khone we rented a bicycle and drove the Li Phi Waterfall (the "Corridor of the Devil"), part of the huge Mekong Waterfalls. After a short boat ride back, we drove to the Khone Phapheng Falls, the largest part of the Mekong Falls.

After the night in Don Khone, we headed back north to Pakse, and the south again on the other side of the Mekong to the village of Champasak and the temple Wat Phu. This temple complex is older than Angkor Wat, but also started by the Khmer. It is much smaller than Angkor Wat, but interesting to visit.

After the visit to Wat Phu we headed back to Pakse for my last night in Laos. The next morning I started my long flight back home from Pakse via Bangkok, Tokyo, and Los Angeles.

The Country

Laos is a one-party socialist republic. It is governed by a single party communist politburo dominated by military generals. It is a very poor country. Apparently corruption is a big problem that prevents foreign businesses to invest in Laos. Another problem that the country faces is the burden that Unexploded Ordnances place on the economy by preventing the use of a significant amount of farm land.

The history of Laos goes back to the Lan Xiang kingdom, founded in the 14th century C.E. and lasted till 1707. After that, there were three kingdoms, the kingdoms of Luang Prabang, Vientiane, and Champasak. In 1893, France invaded the country and brought it under French rule. In 1946, the kingdom of Laos was formed, the king of Luang Prabang became king of Laos. Laos at that time had only limited independence from France. Laos gained full independence from France in 1953 as a constitutional monarchy. It lasted till the communist take-over in 1975.

The legacy from the USA bombing of Laos from 1964 - 1972 is a huge amount of Unexploded Ordnance (UXO) that litters the country. I have put more information on a separate page about this UXO problem.

People in Laos were generally friendly. Everybody smiled, and nobody had a problem with me taking pictures. This was a welcome difference from the experiences that I had in some African countries (e.g. Ghana, Togo, Benin).

Observations

Like in Việt Nam, there are no beggars in Laos. Everybody seems to want to work and earn money. What was even more surprising was that the vendors are not at all pushy. They are nothing like the vendors for instance in Egypt, where they were incredibly obnoxious. In Laos they would most of the time wait till you asked questions, instead of pushing their wares on you. I liked this facet of Laos very much.

The northern parts of Laos are fairly clean, not much garbage on the streets. The southern parts are not quite as clean, there was more garbage along the roads.

There were a lot of tourists in Luang Prabang, much more so than in any of the other places that I visited. Many tourists came from Asia, especially South Korea, China, and Japan. I think South Korea made up for the overall largest part of the tourists.

There were also a significant number of tourists from Europe, here France made up the largest part of European tourists.

Altogether, it seemed that there were significantly more female tourists than males.

Cars on the streets were mostly modern, I didn't see many old cars. As far as commercial vehicles are concerned. there were lots of trucks on the roads, some of them quite large, some even with large trailers. There were also quite a few farming tractors on the roads, but never so much that they impeded the traffic significantly. Overall, the traffic was fairly slow, not may people were speeding. In fact, frequently cars were driving significantly slower than the speed limit.

One thing that was a bit unusual was the fact that almost all restaurants had squat toilets. They take getting used to. I quickly learned that they spray you when you urinate standing up and don't get your legs out of the way. Of course, all hotels had standard western toilets, so I didn't have to deal with the squat toilets too much.

One very surprising fact in Laos was the connectivity. Essentially EVERY restaurant, bar, hotel had free WiFi. I don't think I saw one restaurant without free WiFi. I certainly did not expect that, but it was very welcome.

Food and Drink

The food in Laos is excellent, similar to the food in Việt Nam and Myanmar. I love the noodle soups with fresh vegetables, I had those for almost every meal. It was delicious. A bowl of soup with chicken cost around $1.50 - $4.00. And the beer is good, German style lager beer, and very inexpensive. A large bottle with 0.64 l (0.68 quarts) cost between $1.00 and $2.00 (in the most expensive place). I was very happy with food and drink and gained about 4 kg (9 lb).

Overall

Laos is a fairly poor country. This is exacerbated by the load that the huge amount of Unexploded Ordnance (UXO) places on the economy and on peoples lives. People were in general friendly, although a few times I seemed to feel a bit of resentment against America because of the suffering of the civilian population during the war. I didn't see any beggars in Laos, quite different from Cambodia, but similar to Việt Nam. People seem to want to work and earn a living without resorting to begging. It was an interesting country to visit. The only thing I missed was seeing wildlife. I guess this is only possible in very remote areas. In proximity to cities and villages, all wildlife is fair game for a hungry population, which I can understand.

All pictures are © Dr. Günther Eichhorn

I have split the pictures in several pages:

Luang Prabang
Luang Prabang and around
Phonsavan Plain of Jars
Phonsavan, Plain of Jars
Vangvieng
Vangvieng
Vientiane
Vientiane
Pakse
Pakse and around
Villages
Villages
Mekong
Mekong
Nature
Nature
Daily Life
Daily Life
Unexploded Ordnance
Unexploded Ordnance (UXO)

All pictures are © Dr. Günther Eichhorn


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