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Laos - the sleepy hollow yet charming backwater of South-East Asia. The country is quite the paradox: formerly known as the land of a million elephants, it is the most bombed nation, per capita, in warfare. Quaint little tourist retreat yet home to one of the CIA's most clandestine wars. Adventure abounds in this tropical paradise, 4 million people in a land not yet jaded by tourism.

Today the country is more like the land of a million unexploded ordnance (UXO), but luckily, or unluckily for those that live there, they are concentrated in an area close to the Ho Chi Minh Trial, where the B-52s, F-4s, F-105s, A-1s, A-107s and other American fighter planes reigned their bombs in a futile attempt to stop North Vietnamese regulars from infiltrating into southern Vietnam.

The country contains 68 ethnic groups, yet it's the size of the UK, and it is landlocked in between China, Burma, Vietnam, Thailand, and Cambodia. There is no railway and many of the roads that do exist are virtually impassable during the rainy season. River travel is the most efficient means of transport to many parts of the country.       

Our trip starts in the magical old capital of Luang Prabang. Writer Anthony Paul describes it thus, "this glorious jumble of temples, markets and sidewalk stalls on the Mekong River still manages to evoke another era.... it is one of the best destinations for a traveler in search of `the way Asia once was' - that elusive Shangri-la which old Asian hands refer when patronizing newcomers."

In 1995, the town and its 32 Buddhist temples were deemed a World Heritage Site which confirms "its exceptional universal value as a cultural or natural site which deserves protection for the benefit of humanity" (www.unesco.org/whc/sites/ ).

Once known as Xieng Thong, the Golden City, it was founded in the 14th century by a Khmer backed warlord Fa Ngum and flourished until the late 17th century when it was split by warring factions.

At rush hour, the town has been described as a "cluster of bicycles with bells tinkling, a few motorbikes, and the odd battered truck."

French explorer Henri Mouhot, the man who rediscovered Angkor Wat, died near Luang Prabang at age 35 of malaria but before he did, he wrote of the area, "I candidly confess that I have never been more happy than when amidst this grand and beautiful scenery... even if destined here to meet my demise, I would not change my lot...."
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Mouhot, had taken ill at a cave in nearby Ban Phanom, and monks had carried him to the riverside in hopes of curing him. Unfortunately, he didn't make it, and today a white tomb engulfed by forest in the middle of the wilderness marks his final resting spot. It's a nice place to spend eternity.          

Canadian businesswoman, Catherine Stretch, says she ate some of the best food in her life in Luang Prabang, in particular the steak and pate at the Cafe des Arts which is on Thanon Xieng Thong, the town's trendy boulevard.  

A nice guest house in town is Ban Lao, not far from the Lao Aviation office. It's run by Santisouke Rathikoun, whose father, Ouane, was the former commander-in-chief of the Royal Laos Army. The Far East Economic Review has written a review of the place and quotes author Roger Warner of Shoot up at the Moon as saying, "Ouane's name meant fat and his greediness far outweighed his patriotic instincts."


After the Pathet Lao took over the country in 1975, they took the property away from the Rathikoun family and put Ouane in a re-education camp in northern Laos where he eventually died. The property was given back to the family two years ago and Santisouke has taken the far from favorable review of his dad, photocopied it, and plastered it all over the hotel's walls. Nothing like bad publicity to attract tourists.

Laos could be called "the country of great sunsets." And if you are in LP a good place to watch the kaleidoscope is from the boat restaurant opposite the Vinnida 2 Guest House.   

From LP we travel to Phonsavan, home of Laos' most mysterious spot, the Plain of Jars: dozens of huge stone jars, carved out of solid rock. It's the country's "Stonehenge" or "Easter Island" to be more precise. How did they get there, what are they doing there? So many theories have been put forth but the most plausible seems to be that King Khun Chuang stored wine in them back in the sixth century to celebrate his future conquest of the province. There is also speculation that they were later used as sarcophagi. You can travel to Phonsavan by road, but I recommend you fly in. It's only a US$35 flight from Luang Prabang and the view is spectacular.

There are a number of jar sites, but only are three fit for tourist visitation. The first, the biggest, is Site 1, or Thong Hai Hin, and it contains the most jars and the largest one as well. But the site, near a Laos Air Force base, is just not that scenic. Site 2, Hai Hin Phu Salato, and site 3, Hai Hin Laat Khai, are much more pleasing to the eye.         

A good guide to the sites is Sousath Pethrasy, the owner of  the Maly Hotel in Phonsavan, who has been described as "a hunter, hotelier, tourist guide, citizen and survivor."   His father, Soth, was the former Laotian ambassador to Russia and the Pathet Lao point-man in Vientiane during the Indochina conflict. A real character, Sousath, who dresses in pilot coveralls, a Tom Mintier-CNN style reporting vest and dark sunglasses, spent years in a cave in the Viengsai district of Laos, where he learned his English from downed American airman, Lawrence Bailey. He has discovered some of the lesser-known jar sites himself and he can spin many a yarn. His hotel is chalk-full of old war weapons, including the fuel tank from a downed MIG fighter. As someone said if Sousath doesn't know about it, it probably didn't happen.  

During the Indochinese conflict the CIA had their staging base at Long Tieng, only a few km away from Phonsavan. It was the second biggest city in Laos at the time, but officially it didn't even exist. One figure is that for every person living in the area, 300 kgs of bombs where dropped on them but the villagers have shown remarkable ingenuity using all the spent ordnance as building materials. As a result, bomb casings now serve as fence links or supports for homes on stilts. On a sad note, however, many children in an attempt to impress their parents try bringing home some harmless looking cluster bombs and end up losing their lives or limbs as a result.

Next on the agenda, is the country's capital, Vientiane (flying is easiest, and relatively cheap US$44 one way on Laotian Air.) Once, it was one of the great cities of Indochina but today it's a shadow of its former self. The Lonely Planet, however, does recommend a great architectural walking tour which is definitely worth checking out. A good place to stop and chill along the way is the Scandinavian Bakery near the Fountain Circle which has a variety of great munchies.  

Wandering a little farther afield, you might be surprised to find a replica of the Arc de Triomphe, called Patuxai, which was built with concrete absconded from US AID during the Vietnam War which had been earmarked for a new airport.           

About 25 km south of town is Xieng Khuan or "Buddha Park."   Lying buddhas, standing buddhas, sitting buddhas, buddhas everywhere and anywhere is the theme of this Laotian Disneyland.     

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Vientiane also has may great places to watch the sunset. Pick any open air restaurant near the corners of Thanon Fa Ngum and Thanon Nokeo Khumman and have a great time gabbing away and watching the sun go down over the mighty Mekong.

And what could be a better way to relax and unwind from your journey than with a herbal sauna and massage at the forest monastery of Sok Pa Luang on the outskirts of Vientiane? Catherine Gusse, a Canadian tourist traveling through Laos, described her experience: "The raised platform of the house stands over a makeshift chimney. Bundles of green herbs are fed into a fire. A young assistant shows you up the stairs to sit in serene contemplation of the foliage for some forty minutes while he builds a fire.

"You are given a thin floral sarong as faded as the curtains from an abandoned house. The door of the handsome wooden sauna, sealed with damp rags, keeps out all shred of light. Acrid smoke chokes you for a few minutes, but if you hold out, astonishing waves of sweat pour from your skin and the smoke becomes intoxicating. After twenty minutes, thoroughly cleansed, orange herbal tea in glass tumblers has appeared though the server has vanished.              

"Another forty minutes. The assistant appears and begins the massage - precise, vigorous, and very thorough for the next hour. No conversation is necessary for the shy Lao people. Appointments, name cards or receipts have no place here."

(5,000 kip sauna, 10,000 kip massage, ATW: US$1= 7,500 Laos kip)

The sauna itself contains many medicinal herbs including eucalyptus, tamarind, carambola and orange leaves which are added to a drum of water which is heated by a fire beneath it, and then aromatic steam is guided through a pipe into the hut.

One of the real treats of visiting Vientiane lies about 50 clicks downstream overlooking a scenic bluff on the Nam Ngum River: the lovely eco resort of Lao (newly growing) Pako (forest). It was started by Austrian Walter Pfabigan as a place to accommodate students that were working for a Swedish reforestation company which was replanting the area as it had previously been devastated by slash and burn agriculture. When the students left, Walter decided to continue the complex as an eco-resort, respecting the environment and working in harmony with the local surroundings and resources.

The buildings on the 50 hectare site are constructed from natural native materials using local Laos carpentry techniques. It is a incredibly serene spot, with glorious pinkish-purple sunsets. "No disco, glaring lights, blaring video or karaoke" as one guest put it. Just sit and listen to the silence. Lots of great nature walks and just a tremendous place to relax.                 

If you are up for it, try the local villagers favorite drink, Lau Lao, a rice whiskey concoction which includes snake, tree bark and elephant and buffalo innards.

About 160 km north of Vientaine lies Vangvieng, simply one of the most beautiful spots in all of South-East Asia. With its karst topography, it is a glorious spot to while away a few days. Mountain-bikes can be rented and there all kinds of fascinating areas to go riding, exploring and spelunking. Alom Thavonsouk owns the Sunset Cafe and Thavonsouk Bungalows, the nicest property in town. This eco-minded Laotian entrepreneur, who has family in Canada, collects antique cars and runs a nightclub in Vientiane as well.   

Photographer Michael K. Elmore, who recently completed a photo assignment in Laos, said, "the people of Laos were friendly, open and very tolerant of my inability to speak their language. They allowed me to photograph a part of Laos that I had not seen before, and my days were totally magical." Very well put.

The Laotians and their neighbors in Issan, in northern Thailand, are the Newfoundlanders of the region - they don't get any respect, although they do provide the backbone of the Thai service industry and they drive the Thai economy, especially between 1986-96 when Thailand had the highest economic growth rate in the world. They are constantly the butt of jokes for their supposed lack of intelligence and uncivilized ways - but the truth is that they are a kind and gentle people who will not harass you and will treat you very well. They are truly a delight to deal with. They are an unfortunate people who just happened to be pawns caught between the major cold war powers and they suffered horribly because of it.


GETTING THERE (warning, info outdated)

BY AIR

Lao Aviation flies once a week on Tuesday from BKK to LP (11:55 - 13:40), and from LP to BKK (9:10 - 10:55).

email:   This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
website:   WWW.laoaviation.com

Vientiane office:
Tel: (856-21) 212051-3
Fax: (856-21) 212065

Bangkok office:
(662) 236-9822/3; 237-6982

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Thai flies to Vientiane from BKK everyday at 8:20, and   from Vientiane to BKK everyday from 10:35 - 11:45. Flights are 70 minutes.

Thai flies to Chiang Rai four times a day, five on Sundays.  

www.star-alliance.com

Bangkok Office
Tel: (662) 545-1000

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Angel Air flies to LP: We and Su at 12:15 - 13:25

M and Fri at 10:20 - 12:55 (stop in Chiang Rai)

Angel Air flies to BKK: We and Su at 14:10 - 15:20

M and Fri at 13:40 - 16:15 (stop in Chiang Rai)

Bangkok office
Tel: (662) 953-2260, 535-6287-8
Fax: (662) 535-6287

BY BOAT

The fast boat trip from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang costs about US$25. You cross over from the Thai town of Chiang Khong and the nearest major Thai town to that is Chiang Rai (both Thai Airways and Angel Air fly there). You cross over the river in the morning, go to immigration, travel down the road a bit and line up to hop on one of the many boats heading downriver.

Taking the fast boat all the way amounts to 300km in 5-6 hours - not exactly a leisurely cruise down the Mekong.

The boat can seat six, but it's a tight fit so many travelers travel five max and share the extra cost for the sixth person. Be warned, if you travel in December and January bundle up because it can get cold. And bring earplugs too.    

The slow boat takes two days and is a bit cheaper (about US$10). It travels about six hours a day and stops in Pakbeng, a nice little sleepy town on the Mekong, which knows it has the monopoly on nearby food and accommodation for tourists.          

Another option is go by slow boat the first day, stay overnight in Pakbeng and then take the fast boat the next morning which would get you to Luang Prabang in 2-3 hours.    

If you are going by boat, visas can be obtained at the border (US$50), but they are more expensive than in Bangkok (US$30) and take a day to process so better to get it done  beforehand.

In Bangkok, you can obtain either a 15 or 30 day visa yourself at the Laotian embassy, or have a travel agent do it for you. Fifteen day visas are also available on arrival for US$30 at the Friendship Bridge separating Nong Khai, Thailand and Vientiane, and from the international airports in Luang Prabang and Vientiane.

BY BUS

The cheapest way to see the country is by road. The best way to do this is to travel by overnight bus or train from Bangkok to Nong Khai in northeastern Thailand. Then take a short tuk-tuk ride to near the border where a government sanctioned bus will then take you from Thai immigration over the Friendship Bridge to Laos immigration. If you don't already have your Laotian visa, you can purchase one there for US$30. It's the a forty-mine jumbo ride into the Laotian capital.  

Route 13 will take you all the way from Vientiane to Luang Prabang. But it's a long and arduous journey, and takes about twelve hours, so I recommend splitting it by stopping off in Vangvieng which is about four hours outside of Vientiane. The route itself is magnificent, (rivalling the trip from Danang to Hue in Vietnam and the journey from Medan to Lake Toba in Sumatra) especially as you get closer to Luang Prabang.                  

If you want to go Phonsavan by bus from Luang Prabang you have to go the long way around via Route 1 to Route 6 and this takes about sixteen hours. And then to get back to Vientiane, you have to retrace your steps to LP, and then go back down to the capital from there. The other way via Route 13 is still too dangerous.     

Suggested Reading

Nothing can beat the Lonely Planet Travel Survival Kit (www.lonelyplanet.com). It's one of their best guide books and Joe Cummings has done an excellent job of preparing and researching it.   

Also good if you can get you hands on it, Henri Mouhot's Travels in Siam, Cambodia & Laos (Oxford) which recounts the explorer's marvellous adventures from 1858-60.

For background on the Vietnam War: check out Christopher Robbins' excellent book The Ravens (Corgi) as well as his Air America: The Story of the CIA's Secret Airline (Corgi).   

Also, for more on the horrible plight of the Hmong, try Tragedy in Paradise, G.P. Charles Weldon's memoirs of his time spent in Laos from 63-74 (Asia Books).

Christopher Kremmer's Stalking the Elephant Kings (Silkworm) is a great read, tracing the mystery of what happened to the last King and Queen (Savang Vattana and Khamphoui) through modern day events.  

The Rough Guide also has a good travel book on Laos.

A great coffee table book to get a visual idea of the surrounding area is The Mekong by John Hoskin and the late Allen Hopkins (Post Publishing Co., also available on CD).  

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