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.
Eventually, we arrived into Luang Prabang, which was the former capital of Laos’s old kingdom. It has eighty three temples and more than two thousand monks. It is known as the centre of Buddhism and the most beautiful city in Laos. It also became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995, which has interestingly meant that no building in the city can be taller than two floors.
That evening, we met some new members of the tour, who were joining us for our time in Laos and Cambodia. We had a group meal and fun bowling session to get to know each other.
The subsequent morning began with a cycle ride around the city, visiting the local sites, including Wat Xiengthong, built by King Setthathirath in 1559 and considered one of the most important Lao monasteries. It is seen as a significant monument to the spirit of religion, royalty and traditional art.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.
Our next excursion was to Kuang Si Falls, a beautiful three-tiered waterfall, that reaches fifty metres in height and is set in tropical rainforest. It was absolutely stunning with its sparkling turquoise pools. We even got a natural foot spa, from the little fish nibbling at our feet!
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.
Our final trip of the day was to the Ock Pop Tok Centre, which means “east meets west”. It is an artisan social enterprise started in 2000 by two women, from Laos and England respectively. They founded the company because of their shared love and knowledge of art and aimed to bring people together through textiles and handicrafts. Ock Pop Tok proudly claim to have been “pioneering social business and ethical fashion before these terms were even a part of our cultural lexicon” and they are now a team of over seventy eight employees.
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 next morning, we woke before 5 am so that we could take part in a sacred Lao ritual, offering alms (food) to Buddhist monks. Lao people will wake up at 4 am to cook sticky rice and other food that they bring to the street, or directly to a temple if they live in close vicinity. In Luang Prabang, the monks come to the streets at around 6 am and we were ready in low chairs. We were told not to wear shoes or scarves as a sign of modesty. We held baskets of rice that the monks came and received in an orderly queue. If food is not offered, the monks will not eat. If they have enough food, they will give what remains to poorer people.
Our local tour guide, Kami, told us that he was a novice monk for four months, to gain karmic merit when his grandfather died. Lao boys can become monks from a young age, but can only be a full monk at the age of twenty. We saw novice monks with one shoulder exposed, which is a symbol that they are still learning and have not yet made the decision to become a full monk.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!