The pace of change is reshaping the world at an unprecedented rate, Laos is not sheltered from this so-called ‘progress’, yet it still feels like the country is in the slow lane and this, I believe, is what makes its charm. We only stayed six days, but we got a glimpse of the beauty that the mountains, the forests, the rivers and the temples stow away.
We took a night train from Bangkok and although it was a comfortable journey, we had to wear our winter clothes as the unavoidable air-conditioning was set to fridge standard. We arrived in Vientiane in the morning and once we had settled in a hostel, I rented a bicycle to look for the Chinese Embassy. I wanted a confirmation that it was possible to apply for one of the toughest visas of our journey. I had received some conflicting advice and I had even read somewhere that for a French passport holder, it was not possible to apply for a Chinese visa from outside one’s country of residence. All mentioned the necessity to have a fixed itinerary with proof of bookings. Despite being the capital, Vientiane has the feeling of a provincial town. I set off without a map and thanks to its oneway traffic system got lost. By the time I got my bearings again, it was too late – I had missed the Embassy’s – morning only – opening hours. It was a mixed blessing, for in the afternoon, I discovered that a hostel down the road from ours, arranged hassle-free next day visas for a small fee – only requiring two photos and our passports. What a relief it was, for there was no other way for us to come back home overland.
We cycled around the city and were surprised by how quiet the place was. In the evening the road along the Mekong River had been closed off to motor traffic and had been transformed into a long promenade for people to stroll along. It was our first time in months that we found ourselves amongst people and not aggressed by noise. It felt strange to have relative silence: no motorbikes, no music, no shouting.
That same evening we came across a large peace gong in another part of the city that had been donated by Indonesia. The peace that it was referring to was of a different nature, but we remarked on how little traffic there was compared to Jakarta and that a gong would be heard here! We cycled until night fall and found a restaurant that had a large selection of vegetarian food.
Now that we had sorted our Chinese visas, we were ready to move on to North Laos where we had heard there were some large stretches of protected jungle. We bought a night bus to Luan Prabang and visited a temple before leaving behind the quiet capital.
We took a ‘Deluxe’ coach and to our surprise the ‘King of Bus’ was fitted with comfortable beds and cushions.
Luan Prabang had more character than Vientiane and felt much more human-scale. We found a nice hostel in the old part of town close to the Mekong River and the night Market.
The next day we went on a day excursion to one of the most picturesque waterfalls in Asia – the stunning Kuang Si Falls. What makes these waterfalls remarkable is the colour of its pools and the calcification of the rocks as the water gently tumble from one level to the next.
It was just the beginning of the wet season and despite the fact that the level of the water was low the waterfalls had not lost any of their glory. The water was very clear and the pools had an inviting turquoise hue. This is one of the most visited attractions of the area and as expected there were many visitors.
Nevertheless, we managed to find a moment during the lunch period when we had one of the pools nearly to ourselves. The temperature of the water was ideal and if it had not been for the fact that we had to be back by a certain time (because of the transport we chosen), we would have stayed much longer.
Within the park there was a bear-rescue centre that specialised in providing shelter for Moon bears – mid-sized black bears with a distinct white mark on their chest that used to be widespread in the jungles and mountain areas of South East Asia. Moon bears are a protected specie, but loss of habitat and increased poaching is jeopardising their future. The bears are fast disappearing because it is believed that their gallbladders have medicinal properties – the tragedy of it all is that there is no medical evidence backing this.
This outing gave us a desire to experience some of the wilderness that Laos has to offer. We had heard of an eco-tourist resort that organised night safaris in the Nam Et-Phou Louey protected area (North East of the country) also know as the land of ‘Forever Mountain”. Unfortunately, it was quite out of our way and going there would have involved more than twenty hours of traveling with local buses. Instead, we identified another park near Luang Namha that was en route to the Chinese border and fitted nicely with our itinerary.
The mini bus journey from Luang Prabang to Luang Namha was rather bumpy and took us across the mountains on a road that was still under construction. Part of it was paved, the rest was still a dirt track and just like our trip across Sumatra, it was sad to see the deforestation. Here, rubber plantations are replacing the native forest. Globally, there are one billion vehicles on the road and the rubber has got to come from somewhere.
The earth was red and it was as if the new road was a bleeding scar on the landscape. Parallel to the road a power line had recently been installed and it was clear that those two lines of developments would not only bring good things to the area. Most of the way the hills looked like they had been sheared by someone who had never set hands on a pair of scissors – leaving some tall patches randomly.
The new road came across some old settlements that had been in the forest and its ‘minority’ inhabitants now looked out of place. Building sites rarely look harmonious and it is hard to understand the complexity of a situation by just passing it, but it felt at the time that civilisation was far from being civil. Was this road being built to bring more tourism? Inevitably the country is modernising and it will be up to this coming generation to ensure that they don’t throw the baby with the bath water.
Thankfully there are the National parks which are protected. This is what had brought us there and we were blessed by the lushness of these conservation areas. We went on a whole day excursion, with a morning on the river kayaking, a vegetarian meal on banana leafs and a long walk through the jungle in the afternoon. We finished the day by plunging in the chocolate-looking river to refresh ourselves.
We had travelled slowly through Northern Laos and were able to enjoy a bit of its timeless beauty and appreciated the fact that it had not yet adopted the pace of its neighbours. The people were kind and not pushy, but perhaps what remains mostly ingrained in our minds and hearts are the turquoise colour of those magic pools and the dwarfing effect of the giant trees during our walk through the protected jungle. Will the next generation be wise enough to maintain and even regenerate this lovable part of the world?