With warnings from our tour leader, we were prepared to push, elbow and kick our way to the front of the queues in order to make it across the Laos border and reach our slow boat to start a two day trip down the river to get to Luang Prabang. Luckily, the border was pretty quiet and we passed though (with a $35 dollar visa on arrival- make sure you bring a passport sized photo!) without incident.
Laos is one of the last five communist countries in the world. The others being China, North Korea, Vietnam and Cuba. I was keen to see how this may have helped/ hindered this small country.
We joined the Mekong river and boarded a slow boat where we were to spend the next two days travelling downstream with a few stops a some local ethnic minority villages and an overnight stay in Pak Beng.
The villages were a great way to really see how the people in Laos live. They have very little, living in wooden huts, a few animals here and there, and schools were few and far between. Our guide had bought some books and pencils to give to the kids of the villages- here, every little helps and helping to improve their education is one of the best ways to do so. The kids were great fun, posing for pictures and running around with us.
Next stop, Luang Prabang! We stayed here for three nights and had a great time. It’s not a big place- literally three main streets but there was enough to do. We rose at dawn one morning to go monk spotting- i.e. to see the locals give alms in the form of food to the local monks. The local people line the streets waiting for the monks to pass them and making sure they don’t touch the monks, their bowls, stand taller than them or point their feet at them, deliver a handful of sticky rice into their carriers. It’s a great opportunity to see the monks in action (and great for photos!).
We also visited Nam Ou elephant farm, a place that rescues former working elephants. They have 8 female elephants and a 1 and 1/2 year old baby elephant, otherwise known as ‘naughty baby elephant’. Elephants here don’t get names until they reach 3 years of age. We went on a short ride on the elephants and then spent some time washing them in the river. Now that was a pretty special occasion. I don’t think I’m going to have many opportunities in life to get that up close and personal with these great creatures. Armed with a small bucket and a scrubbing brush we set to work removing mud and such from the elephants, though a large part of the exercise is to let the elephants enjoy the sensation of the brush. Up close you can see the damage done to the elephants whilst being forced to work. Scars mark their heads where they were beaten with sharp hooks and sticks. Awful stuff but they seem pretty content here now. They have a small jungle area to roam freely and a far more caring environment. Of course nothing beats having these animals in the wild and living as nature intended but this is still far better than their previous alternative.
We stayed a night at Vang Viene- the home of “tubing” (and funnily enough Friends reruns), what used to be one of the main tourist draws to the country. It’s a trend that’s pretty much stopped now, though you’ll still find a couple of bars and a few tourists floating down the river, and I’m glad of it. Without the veil of the drinking, drugs and partying, I think visitors will be able to see more of Laos itself. We did kayak down the river (where we saw a couple of people floating peacefully along on their rubber rings) which has a beautiful mountainous backdrop and probably the shallowest water I’ve ever kayaked on (it was the end of the dry season!).
My first home stay was at Naduang, here in Laos. Whilst basic, you kinda forget all that when you’re surrounded by such wonderful people. We played with the village kids all afternoon and after dinner, the ladies of the house whipped out some traditional sinh skirts for us to try one and the kids taught us some traditional dances! It was a memorable evening ending with a dance-a-long to that universal tune ‘Gangnam Style’…
Our last stop in Laos was Vientiane, the capital city. A couple of days here were all that was needed to see a few temples, visit the night market and try out the food. We ate at Makpeth, a restaurant run by Friends International as a training restaurant for deprived street kids to teach them skills they can use to gain employment later. The food was yummy, the service decent! I recommend it if you’re in the area- just be aware it is more expensive than other local restaurants.
All in all, Laos was amazing! While the people don’t have much, they seem happy and welcoming, and so relaxed! Definitely a great place to visit.