By Najla El Halwagy
Laos is a mountainous and landlocked country in South-East Asia bordered by Myanmar (Burma) and China to the northwest, Vietnam to the east, Cambodia to the south, and Thailand to the west and has long been isolated from the outside world. So isolated that most of my friends thought that Laos (pronounced Lao), was part of Vietnam or Cambodia.
Officially, the Lao People’s Democratic Republic is ruled by a Marxist and communist government, and a single-party dominated by military regime. Yet, unlike what was previously perceived of communism, Lao is open to foreign investment and its amazing tourist attractions are becoming more and more accessible to tourists.
Though Laos’ strategy for development is based on generating electricity from its rivers and selling the power to its neighbours and the economy is accelerating rapidly with the demands for its metals, it has one of the lowest annual incomes in the world. According to the Global Hunger Index (2013), it ranks as the 25th hungriest nation in the world out of the list of the 56 nations with the worst hunger situation. Amazingly, in spite of this, during our visit in all the cities of Laos, we have not encountered one beggar or street person and in the markets, there are no pushy vendors.
The capital city is Vientiane, a relaxed riverfront town and despite being the capital and the hub of commerce and administration, Vientiane is quite laid down.
A large choice of restaurants and pavement cafes dot the downtown, complemented by the architecture of the buildings that are dominantly French style, and contrasting pleasantly with the old Buddhist temples dotted all around. Being small in size, it is easy to navigate around and see the most important sites within walking distance or hiring a song-teow. In the evenings, there are bars and cocktail lounges to cater to all tastes.
Wat Si Saket
On our first day we visited the only temple left intact after the Siamese invasion in 1828. It houses thousands of tiny Buddha images and rows with hundreds of seated Buddhas dating from the 16th and 19th centuries in all sizes made from wood, stone and bronze.
Art enthusiasts will be thrilled to see many figurines and sculptures by highly skilled craftsmen such as the five-metre long beautiful detailed wooden naga (in Sanskrit, it means serpent deity) as well as a Khmer-style Buddha seated on a coiled naga.
We then proceeded to That Luang or the great Stupa (where the highest monks are buried), and is considered the holiest place in Laos. From the outside it looks more like a fortress surrounded by high walls and it features two temples with the main Stupa, the top of which is covered with gold leaf.
Every November a large crowd of followers come to That Luang to pay respect to the stupa and hold a festival there. It is considered the most important Buddhist celebration in Laos with many activities going on for three days and three nights.
We were asked by the guide to walk round the Stupa seven times for luck and to get the blessings of the Stupa, which we did.
The morning tour was concluded at this famous monument, also called Anousavari, or the Arc de Triomphe of Vientiane. From the top, visitors can enjoy a panoramic view of the city.
In the evening, we enjoyed a walk to explore the city along the Mekong riverfront and watch the colorful sunset, then proceeded to the night market at Chao Anouvong Park where they have local foods with many stalls along the road and a good place to browse for souvenirs.
On our second day we visited this amazing park. A sculpture park located 25 km southeast from Vientiane and contains over 200 Hindu and Buddhist impressive statues, of which some are much larger than human-size. You will spend the better half of a day, admiring the sculptures and what each represents.
On our way back to the city, we stopped at the International Lao Disabled Women’s Development Center that trains disabled women in a variety of fields. The Center displays a large variety of local handicrafts from tablemats, silk and linen scarves to other memorabilia for table settings and stationary. The ladies in our tour contributed immensely and generously to the Center’s well-being by buying almost everything on display.
Lao National Museum
The following day we visited the located in a French colonial building, originally built in 1925 as the French governor’s residence. The museum presents the history of Laos, highlighting the Laotian people’s struggle to free the country from foreign occupiers and imperialist forces in the 1970s.
We then took the flight to Luang Prabang.
Luang Prabang is a UNESCO World Heritage city, an outstanding example of the fusion of Lao traditional architecture and its urban structure built by the European colonial authorities in the 19th century. The town has also become the most popular tourist attraction in Laos.
There are over 32 ancient temples in this little town including the Wat Mai, the former royal temple, and Wat Sene, one of the most beautiful temples with its red walls and golden bas-reliefs.
That evening we experienced a Baci Ceremony with a Lao family. A mix of Animism and Buddhism, these social gatherings are important in Lao people’s life. Lao people believe in the spirits that correspond to the 32 parts of the body and the ceremony recalls these spirits back. Once this is done, each attendant ties bracelets of cotton at the wrists of another attending the ceremony. The “master of ceremony”, usually a “wise man”, prays with the audience kneeling around him and a floral composition, a significant religious symbol. The ceremony is particularly relevant to welcome guests, on farewells, births, marriages, house or company warming, while undertaking a long (or far away) trip and other similar important events in one’s life. The ceremony ended with a traditional Laotian folk dance show.
After the ceremony, we walked to the Night Market, which was a great experience where all kinds of memorabilia are displayed from silk scarves and table linen, to many Buddha statues and silver elephants.
Wat Xien Thong
On our second day in Luang Prabang, we visited the beautiful, one of the most emblematic temples in Laos. and remains a significant monument to the spirit of religion, royalty and traditional art.
Holy Pak Ou Caves
We then boarded the long-boat for a highly scenic two and half hour boat ride up the Mekong River to the mysterious cut into a limestone cliff where thousands of gold lacquered Buddha statues are crowded into the two caves. They range in size from a few centimeters to the size of a human. On the way back, you can pass by a rice paper making and weaving village, pottery village of Ban Chan and the Whisky Village of Xang Hai, where they produce the famous lao lao whisky.
The National Museum
That afternoon we walked to the National Museum (Victoria Xiengthong Palace) that used to be the former Royal Palace and the last residence of the Laos Royal family.
The Palace overlooks the majestic Wat Xiengthong – the town’s most famous temple. And inside the complex of the Museum, you will see the “Prabang” sacred golden statue, giving its name to the town.
Kwang Si Waterfalls
Around 32 kms from downtown, the route to the falls is quite scenic, where you pass through different ethnic villages, green forests and mountain tops.
The waterfalls is three-tiered and begin in shallow pools on top of a hill then cascade 60 meters. Take a picnic and enjoy the view or swim in the natural pools at the foot of the falls.
The following may not be on your tour agenda but worth the experience:
– Ask your tour guide to take you to the Traditional Arts and Ethnology Centre (TAEC), the only independent resource centre in Laos dedicated to the country’s diverse ethnic groups. Besides the museum, there is a boutique to promote fine handicrafts from village artisans.
– Experience the ancient ritual known as Tak Bat. You will have to wake up early (like 5 am) and travel like the locals by Tuk-Tuk to the peninsula to witness and attend an alms-giving ceremony, where long lines of monks and novices stroll along the street of the town center to collect their daily food subsistence from the worshipers.
– A visit to the open-air food market (also very early in the morning) that is held daily in the streets is quite an eye-opener. Lao people still like buying fresh food, going to local markets and returning home with fresh ingredients. An occasion to spot curiosities used by Laotians in their cuisine such as cockroaches and scorpions grilled on skewers.
– Experiencing the sunset at the Phu Si Hill in the centre of town. The walk to the top offers views of the mountains surrounding Luang Prabang, the point where the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers meet and there are several temples you can explore along the way. Halfway up the hill you can find the temple Wat Tham Phou Si.
– Take a Tuk Tuk around town, the fare is only between USD 1 to USD 2 and the drivers are very pleasant. As you walk through downtown, stop for a traditional massage at any of the many shops there. They are clean and very professional and quiet a pleasant ending, especially after a long day of touring.
Luang Prabang has a fabulous array of shops selling many different handicrafts, antiques, and textiles. You’ll find high-quality products and a great variety especially the Lao sarong made from silk or cotton, the silverware and wood carvings at reasonable prices, compared to other countries in Southeast Asia. The order of the day is to explore the town to find the right item, and then to find that item at the right price!
The night market is not to be missed – and you literally can’t miss it as it takes over the main street from 5pm each night! Some really lovely handicrafts and prints on rice paper can be bought there, as well as t-shirts galore and bedtime slippers. This covered market is most enjoyable because you can look and touch without being pounced on by the market vendors to buy something.
Vientiane specialises more in quaint gift shops, galleries and outlets, selling genuine hill tribe silk, arts, crafts, home-furnishings, jewellery and books – most of which can be found around the city centre. The night markets along the Mekong River have great bargains and a variety of merchandise.
– Garden of Eden shop located across the bamboo bridge and opposite Sabai Dyen Restaurant in Luang is well worth visiting. There are many beautifully designed and crafted necklaces there at very reasonable prices.
– Anakha in Luang Prabang: The Blue House. This is a beautiful little ladies’ clothes shop with some terrific designs and quality fabrics. Expect a very friendly welcome from a Laotian lady and her English husband.
– Ma Te Sei: Located in Ban Aphay, this shop sells some lovely hand-woven indigo textiles but is more well known for jewelry, spoons, and rings made from the aluminium scrap metal collected from bomb casings.
– Oot Ni Gallery is one of the largest and best antique shops in Vientiane. If you’re looking for something a little more unique, the shop displays an assortment of genuine antiques from across Southeast Asia, silver ornaments, handicrafts and artwork.
– The Ministry of Silk, located in the centre of Vientiane, really offers a touch of class for those looking for a one-of-a-kind dress or shirt made from locally produced silk. Prices are high but you do feel like you’re paying for that extra quality.
Though there is an abundance of fine French and European restaurants, a reminder of the country’s past colonisation and neighbouring Thai and Vietnamese dishes, the Lao cuisine is different. The staple food is steamed sticky rice, which is eaten by hand. Galangal, lemongrass, and padaek (fermented fish sauce) are important ingredients. Plenty of ginger too in most dishes.
The most famous Lao dish is larb, a spicy mixture of marinated meat or fish that is sometimes raw (prepared like ceviche) with a variable combination of herbs, greens, and spices. Another Lao delectable invention is a spicy green papaya salad dish.
Makphet, a family-friendly restaurant, is one of the places we experienced in Vientiane. It is set in a French colonial building and offers a mix of creative Lao cuisine, as well as great shakes and cocktails. Specialties include the Frozen Hibiscus and Lime Daiquiri, the Luang Prabang style Buffalo and Vegetable Stew and other South East Asian dishes free of MSG and using only locally grown ingredients.
Another experience was the Kualao, a long established restaurant famous for the quality of its food in the centre of Vientiane. Everything from the servers’ attire to the décor, as well as a daily performance from the National Dance Troupe, all makes Kualao a tourist attraction. The menu is full of flavours and exotic colours, like papaya salad, deep-fried Mekong River fish, spring rolls, and handmade Laotian sausage.
The Kitchen Restaurant in Luang Prabang has excellent service. If you go there, try the clear watercress soup with little chicken balls, or the Lao Noodle soup with a bit of curry, and a chicken laap, followed by mango sticky rice. All good.
French style breakfast at Café Ban Vat Sene Bakery. Indulge in a croissant, fruit juice, coffee or tea plus French toasts with butter and jam. Lao people have inherited the culture of eating bread from the French. It is not unusual for Laotians to have a sandwich for lunch or on the go when they are traveling.
If you have had your fill of noodle soups and sticky rice, try the I-Beam Bar, a swanky two-level restaurant near the centre of Vientiane, specialising in Spanish-style Tapas and European wine.
Tamnak Lao Restaurant specializes in traditional unique Luang Prabang cuisine. The dishes served there are prepared with bark wood and the vegetables are collected from the local jungle.
Dyen Sabai is a laid-back restaurant that overlooks scenic views of the river and Luang Prabang City. Seating comprises floor cushions, low tables, pillows set on tree-enshrouded wooden terraces. There’s also an open garden for enjoying traditional Lao barbecue.
We stayed at Belmond La Residence in Luang Prabang, a most pleasant experience in this exquisite resort. The rooms are spacious, tropical gardens all around, and the cuisine is both Loatian and French.
In Vientiane we stayed at Green Park Boutique Hotel, again we experienced the welcoming Lao hospitality and luxury in a relaxing atmosphere.
However, since Laos has become a popular destination for tourists, you will find hotels ranging from five-star to pension style. The service is impeccable everywhere and cleanliness is religion to them.
On a side note, the Laos people have suffered greatly during the Vietnamese war and massive bombing campaigns have brought the country to destruction. Between 1964 and 1973, US bombing raids made Laos the “most heavily bombed country on earth,” where American B-52s dropped an average of one bomb-load every eight minutes, 24 hours a day, totalling more ordinance than was dropped during the whole of WWII. However, Lao, in the last 20 years has grown rapidly, the country was rebuilt, and tourism has contributed to raising the employment rate.