It was the seventh day of my ‘Big Indochina Adventure’ and today we were crossing the border and leaving Thailand for the lesser known, but exceptionally beautiful, Laos.
After a five hour bus journey to the Thai town of Chiang Khong, we took a local boat across the Mekong River, where there is a natural border between the two countries. Here, we met our new tour guide, Kami, who was from Laos and was very knowledgeable on the history of his country, supplying us with fascinating information as we sailed along.
Officially known as the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Laos is one of the most peaceful and least explored nations in Southeast Asia and I was excited to investigate this more untouched country. With a population of around eight million, Laos has been democratic (though with only one party) since 1975, but with a dark past, of which most are unaware. I will be exploring this in my next blog.
It takes two days by river to reach Laos from Thailand, and our first day on the boat lasted about seven hours. We played cards, napped and ate to fill the time and before we knew it, we arrived into the village of Pakbeng, our home for the night.
This small village is known by tourists as the stop off town en route to the larger Luang Prabang, which is situated further down the Mekong River.
A local dinner at our guest house and drinks at the village’s ‘Happy Bar’ ended our day of travelling, and the following morning, we awoke ready for our second day on the river, which was another seven hour stretch.
This time, we stopped off at Pak ou Caves, two caves on the west side of the river which are known for their 2,500 miniature Buddha sculptures. Sadly, people used to steal the Buddhas so most are wooden now, with some made out of copper, rather than gold. They were still very impressive though and were laid out on shelves in both caves.
Due to the nature of the sites and temples we were visiting, we had to dress in modest clothing and remove our shoes when entering the buildings. The temples were beautiful testaments to the history of the country and the classical architecture was exquisite.
At the foot of the waterfall, we found the Tat Kuang Si Bear Rescue Centre, home to sun and moon bears who were found in the wild around Southeast Asia. The centre rescued the bears, because people were keeping them as pets or taking them to bile farms and using the bile in their stomach for medicinal purposes as they believed it cured cancer. However, there is no scientific evidence of this and as a result, the bears are now endangered.
Since 2003, the Rescue Centre has been working with the Luang Prabang Provincial Agriculture and Forestry Office to create a haven for these victims of the illegal wildlife trade. We saw the bears playing with each other, eating lazily and relaxing in hammocks and it was great to hear that they are now able to live a safe and healthy life. A few of us purchased the organisation’s ‘free the bears’ t-shirts in order to contribute a little to this important cause.
The sun bear is the smallest of the world’s eight bear species. Its name comes from the yellowish crescent marking on its chest, which is believed to look like the rising or setting sun. Each bear’s crest is individual, much like their own fingerprint!
Moon bears are officially known as Asiatic black bears, they are medium-sized and are very inquisitive and flexible. Their nickname is due to the crescent ivory fur on their chests.
We were shown the processes used to create some of their products, including the natural dyes (made from resources such as beetroot, tree seeds and jackfruit), silk worms and weaving techniques at their Living Crafts Centre, which was set amongst lush gardens and on the banks of the river. The experts made it look easy and we saw their natural, handmade clothing; accessories; gifts and home décor; with many people purchasing some of the unusual wares.
The place where we were sitting was attended by monks from twelve different temples in the city. Sixty six percent of the Laos population is Buddhist, with the rest being from several other cultures.
The remainder of the day was spent on a bus journey to Vang Vieng, a small town situated on the Nam Song River. Watch this space for my next blog post, to find out more about this captivating country!