Thursday, February 2, 2017

A Visit to Laos

I had never given Laos a thought as a tour destination until a month or so before the Lunar New Year. My wife and I are usually in Melbourne at this time of the year. There my daughter Monica would organise a reunion for all of us. Since she and her children had just visited us in Singapore, we thought we might as well go to Kuala Lumpur to hold one with my son Yang this year. Unfortunately, he had to go somewhere.

We decided to visit a tour agency to find out where we could go for a holiday. But we could only spare a few days.

Hwa had never been to Myanmar, but the tours were all booked up. Maybe Laos?

Why not?

It was meant to be an 8D7N tour. We had to pay a surcharge for a two-person tour. On top of that, we had to forgo two nights because of an appointment which I had inadvertently forgotten when we confirmed the booking.

Our first destination was Luang Prabang. The Lao Airlines flew there via Vientiane. I have never heard of this airline. But it turned out to be pretty good – the Airbus 320 was new and the in-flight service was reasonably good. Transit experience in Vientiane was a little Third World-like though. The airport has aprons but none seemed to be working. I had to limp along from one building to another.

Luang Prabang was the country’s capital when it was still a kingdom. It isn’t much of a town in the manner we see in the more modern part of Asia. There are no clear commercial precincts; shops, eateries, residences, hotels, monasteries, markets, schools, government offices, etc crop out all over the places. However, it is a world heritage site not without reasons. It is charming in its own ways. The roads, though narrow, are lined with generally well-kept French style buildings; the “esplanade” running parallel to the Mekong and its tributary Nam Khan is clean and beautiful. Our hotel, Victoria, is situated more or less on the peninsula at the confluence of these two rivers. It is a boutique hotel, very French in décor and service. (It became a French protectorate in 1893 and briefly gained independence in 1945 but returned to French rule until it was granted autonomy in 1949. Laos became independent in 1953. When Pathet Lao came to power in 1975, the monarchy was abolished. To this date, nobody seems to know where the royal family has ended up.)

There are many beautiful Buddhist monasteries in Luang Prabang. Before dawn, the hands of the monks from monasteries would march out for alms. Devotees would line their path to make offerings, which usually mainly of cooked glutinous rice.

Another “must” destination in Luang Prabang is its museum. Ironically, most of the exhibits there are about the Royal family.

Much of our six days were spent on the road – from Luang Prabang to Xieng Khouang, maybe a hundred kilometers as the crow flies, took us like seven hours to travel, and from Xieng Khouang to Vang Vieng, another seven hours. The road winds around the mountains of the region. Though thick with vegetation, they don’t look lush green. Villages dotted along the “highway”; many of the houses are pretty well-built and brightly painted. The highlanders are the Hmong and Khmus. The Hmong, who are animists, were at one time ostracized for their allegiance to America during the Vietnam War. Many fled to America. The Khmus are more or less of the Cambodian stock. Khmus and the Laos, who makes up 55% of the country’s population, are Buddhists.

Xieng Khouang is the nearest town from the Plain of Jars. Nobody seems to know for sure what these big granite bowls were made for. But one thing was certain, it became a clear target for the American bombers.

We could only have a very cursory tour of Vang Vieng (where we were supposed to spend two nights). The town is dusty, even though it is surrounded by limestone hills. (Not surprisingly, the town houses a cement plant.) With its many outdoor attractions, Vang Vieng is a destination for the young set.  

Laos is said to be a poor country, but it didn’t appear to me to be so. Tourism is a major foreign exchange earner. The country is still popular with Western tourists, but Mainland Chinese are bringing in the bigger bucks. They come in convoys of the latest models of Audi, Volkswagen, Lexus, BMW, Mercedes Benz and what-have-you. And Chinese hotels and restaurants are springing up to capture some of these bucks. Our tour guide told me that his people love the Chinese money, but not the way they behave at times.  

The Laotians are not a very entrepreneurial lot. Every stall you see in tourist sites seem to be selling the same thing. Scarves seem the most popular souvenir on offer.

Notwithstanding its poor country image, there is much the rich Asians can learn from the Lao people. Even in “cowboy” towns, tables and chairs in eateries are neatly laid out. Service etiquette in the more up-market restaurants can put many in East and Southeast Asia to shame. Crockery and cutlery are flawlessly laid out as if staff have been trained in Buckingham Palace. Every dish would come with a common spoon.

But do bring mosquito repellents along when you visit Laos! You certainly do not want to contract malaria or dengue, do you?
Lao Airlines, quite good really

The frontage of the hotel where we stayed in Luang Prasang. Victoria is supposed to be fairly luxurious boutique hotel
Thoroughly French!
Muscle power!

Luang Prabang, a city of monasteries

A typical street in Luang Prabang

First day of the Lunar New Year: Greeted by roosters and their hens, before going down to tour the Mekong!

The mighty Mekong
Care for a drink?

The Cave Temple along the Mekong

The Museum at Luang Prabang

Teak plantation

Not Jiuzhaikou!

A Hmong village

Yum-seeeng at Plain of Jars

Have trench will escape!

The footings were recycled from bomb shells 
More bombs dropped in Laos than anywhere else had ever experienced?

Our hotel in Vientiane - Mosquitoes!
No wonder they don't like Mainland Chinese! Look at where his feet are! In Vientiane Airport

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