I’m on a trip of a trip of a lifetime to SE Asia with my mom and good friend Sandra. See my original post here where I explain the how and why of us coming halfway around the world. Special thanks to my many travel blogger friends who were loaded with advice on what to do, where to go, and how to blend in.
After visiting Thailand and Cambodia, we headed to Laos. Prior to my visit, I did not know much about the country. I have now discovered that I, along with most Americans, didn’t even know how to pronounce the name correctly. The country is Laos (say the “s” sound on the end) while the people are Lao. (Kind of like America vs. Americans.)
We had a hellacious rain storm flying into Luang Prabang, which is in the northern mountains of Laos, and landing in one of the small Laos Air planes is tricky enough without bad weather. Our guide called ahead to the airport to see of our plane was landing (several had been turned away) and all the airport could report was, “We don’t know.” Um… Yeah.
At any rate, we did land safely (whew!) and were greeted with temperatures in the 50s. Brrrr! And, the northern part of Laos is very mountainous, so it felt more like the Appalachian mountains than an exotic jungle. Fortunately our hotel had some amazing views – the La Residence Phou Vao is a French hotel that feels like a Swiss Chalet! Check out the view:
Fun fact: Laos was under French colonial rule from 1893 until 1953. The European influence can still be seen in much of the architecture giving Luang Prabang a very charming effect!
Luang Prabang is a World Heritage Site, with Buddhist temples dating back to the year 1000. Unlike Thailand and Cambodia, religion is a major influence taken seriously in Laos. Our guide was named “Phan” and he was an ex-Buddhist monk. He came from a poor village and so his parents sent Phan and his brothers to the local wat to be train to become monks. This way he and his brothers would get free food, free lodging, and free education. Phan lived as a monk from age 12 to 20 when he decided to leave the wat.
Fun fact: Phan said that 80% of the boys in Laos would train to become monks but only 1% would stay for their entire life. This set up seems to benefit both the villagers and the wats.
Laos is one of 5 socialist countries left in the world. It aligns itself politically with Vietnam, but it is as poor as Cambodia. While Cambodians were such cheerful, welcoming people, the Lao seemed much more reserved and were not quick to smile. Tourism has not yet reached the level it has in Cambodia, so maybe as more people visit, the Lao will learn to trust visitors more.
While they may be wary of outsiders, the townspeople come together each morning to donate to a “Buddhist Welfare Program” of sorts. The monks from the different wats march through the town to collect alms, or donations, from the villagers. This is the monks’ sole source of food for the day. Men and women donate sticky rice, fruit, and other offerings as the monks pass by. We were discouraged from joining in the donations by Phan, who said it wouldn’t be appropriate for foreigners to participate. So, we watched in amazement as over 250 monks made their way through the town before sunrise. Rain or shine, hot or cold, this process occurs like clockwork.
We saw more orange-robed monks here than any place else on our trip. (FYI- the robe color does not matter in Laos. The monk must make due with whatever is donated by townspeople.) Everywhere we looked we could find monks making their way to and from the wats. Religion permeates the town, and life revolves around first supporting the temples, and second, trying to make a living. The Lao form of socialism doesn’t appear to support helping the people claw their way out of poverty, so the tourists can’t help but notice it. There were very few cars but lots of street peddlers and open air markets.
It was evident the Lao work very hard to survive. Our guide Phan as well as the waiter at our hotel were both self-taught to speak English. They studied the dictionary, writing out words and phrases, and spoke with English-speaking tourists as often as possible. As a result of so many Australian tourists, Phan and our waiter had accents from Down Under! As our waiter explained, “There are no English teachers in Laos.”
The French Colonial influence can still be seen here in the architecture of the restaurants and boutiques in the tourist district. It was a pleasant town to walk, especially when you could meander along overlooking the beautiful Mekong River.
We saw the oldest temples on our trip here in Luang Prabang, dating back over a millennia. Wat Visoun and Wat Aham were just breathtaking. While the temples in Thailand were highly decorated with gold leaf and jewels, and the the Cambodian temples sported the elaborate stone carvings of the Khmer, the Lao temples relied mainly on detailed paintings for decoration.
A highlight of our time in Laos was our visit to the “Caves of One Thousand Buddhists.” Used since ancient times,the Pak Ou Caves overlooking the Mekong River have been a place of safety and worship for the villagers. Considered holy, thousands of Buddhist statues have been placed throughout out the caves, a practice that continues today. Animism is also alive and well in Laos, so spirit houses and tree wrapping were visible.
Lots of the tourists were backpacking through the country. Laos is actively building their ecotourism, where you can learn to be an elephant mahout or hunker down for the night with the ethnic Hmong.
The Hmong originally came from Mongolia and did not integrate well. They have maintained their own language, arts and crafts, housing styles, and their children do not attend school for the most part. The Lao government used to have a policy set to drive out the Hmong, but now they have somewhat accepted them, seeing their value as a tourist attraction. The Hmong still do everything by hand, including making their own cloth.
Fun fact: During the Vietnam War, the CIA recruited the Hmong to work against the government to try and thwart the spread of Communism. When the Communists took over, almost half a million Hmong fled to the US to avoid persecution.
On our last in Laos, we were given the honor of a Baci Ceremony. This ceremony takes place for major events, such as a birth or homecoming, or in our case, a farewell of friends. Performed by shaman (an elder who used to be a monk) who chants in Sanskrit, wishing us a safe journey. Then he and the other elders tie a white string around our wrist for luck. Tradition says we should wear the strings for three days. (I still have mine on!)
Poverty is always hard to see, especially when it is coupled with an oppressive government; the will of the people just doesn’t seem to shine as brightly. However, the natural beauty of the mountains and rivers of Laos along with the unique character of Luang Prabang makes it a good place to visit. I hope they continue to build their ecotourism and that more Americans will make the trek.
The temples were some of the most awe-inspiring we saw, if based on their ancient age alone. But the sincerity of our guide Phan and the seriousness in which the Lao approach their religion is worth exploring, too.
On to Vietnam!
To see all my photos from my trip, see my Flickr account.