Laidback in Laos

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Laidback in Laos
View of the limestone cliffs and the Ou river in NongKiaw

If you want to indulge in the art of doing (almost) nothing, stroll in the lap of nature, visit the best street markets in the world and drink amazing coffee - look no further than this tiny southeast Asian country.

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Published: Fri 24 Jul 2015, 12:00 AM

Last updated: Fri 31 Jul 2015, 1:52 PM

Our trip to Laos starts out on a limb. Just before the last leg of our Southeast Asian jaunt, one in our travelling group of friends actually breaks a leg! Well, not quite, but he injures it badly enough in a fall off a rented scooter in the north of Thailand, so we all practically limped in from Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang in northern Laos.
This means we have to drastically change our plans and strike Vientiane, the capital of Laos, and the picturesque Four Thousand Islands off our original itinerary. It also means we're stuck for about a week in Luang Prabang waiting for our friend's leg to heal. doing nothing! Not a great prospect to look forward to, when all you want is to pack in as many sights and experiences possible into your backpacking trip.
Tourists rushing across Southeast Asia usually skip across to this tiny sliver of a country while crisscrossing Thailand, Cambodia or Vietnam, and at first glance, its landscape and culture appear almost identical to that of Thailand, and is probably a blend of Thailand's and Cambodia's (haven't been to the latter). But it's obviously poorer than Thailand, for one, though not less expensive. It is also commendably a people's democratic republic, albeit a socialist one, compared to Thailand and Cambodia which are royal kingdoms.
Jammed in between these popular touristy havens, with China and Myanmar hovering in the north, Laos is definitely a poor cousin. It's one of the countries - along with Thailand and Myanmar - making up the famous "Golden Triangle", the border tripoint, in the confluence of the Ruak and Mekong rivers. But at first glance, it seems to have neither Thailand's overwhelmingly tourist delights and magnificent temples, nor Vietnam's gritty and rustic charm.

Slow boating along the Mekong

In Luang Prabang, we hastily retreat into the old town centre, which is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, for its numerous golden hued temples and traditional architecture, highlighted by a French quarter with pretty old houses. Old town is also where the liveable guesthouses are, and we luck out at the Vanvisa Guesthouse, a gorgeous converted ancestral villa with wooden flooring, stairway and pillars.
If a hotel is not your thing, a place like this, run by a hospitable family, makes you feel welcomed and comfortable, besides being cost effective.
We discover on our first stroll outside that the entire old town is walkable in a couple hours, but only if you don't stop to gaze at the numerous wats (temples) that dot the place, just like in Thailand. Grabbing a map on our way out - most guesthouses will give you one, or there are a number of little tour agencies dotting the town - we soon see that walking northwest out of Vanvisa almost immediately brings us out onto the banks of the Mekong river. From there it's just a long stretch alongside the water, turning to the right when the river breaks off into a tributary - the Nam Khan River - leading us to Sisavangvong road in the centre of old town, and back to Vanvisa guesthouse; an oblong circle really. This is what I like about old towns anywhere in the world!
So, along the banks of the Mekong river we stroll all day. The river is something of a long-held "memory" for me, having read references to it in Pearl S. Buck novels and other literature set in the region. While its neck, running through Luang Prabang isn't particularly large or wide, its muddy waters flow with a slow, inherent romanticism, setting a relaxed tone for the life and activities along its banks. Plus, the riverbank is set high above the water itself, rendering some gorgeous, majestic views, especially at sundown.
The riverside is dotted with quaint little cafés and restaurants serving mostly mixed cuisine from the region, little boutique hotels, hostels and guesthouses, but surprisingly few roadside vendors. Occasionally, we halt to have a meal of noodle soup (after trying out other dishes, we always return to this Southeast Asian staple) and the unusual, superb Lao coffee (see box, facing page). Down the river, you'll spot the slow boat landing, for the local canoe-like boats, and the boat jetty for bigger ferries.
Look anywhere and you'll see a wat, but we're already having "temple fatigue" fresh out of Thailand. Still, we give the Royal Palace Museum a skip (it was probably closed for renovations that week) and end up at Wat Xieng Thong, arguably the biggest tem-ple complex in town, with multiple structures and a monastery on the grounds. The dramatically sloping, tiled roofs, and carved, gilded ornamental walls are all typical of the region, but there's interesting gold foil work on the walls of the main temple and, atypi-cally, mirror inlay details as well. Another chamber is the "funeral house", with a number of different Buddha statues standing to rapt attention. A bit discon-certing, but feels like you're in attendance at some dreamlike royal event.
Off the wat's premises, you'll find vendors selling touristy items and trinkets, the pick of which are great oh-so-comfy and pretty harem pants and striking Laotian marionette puppets - I got one of both.
Outside and winding alongside the Nam Khan river, we pass through the area with attractive French colonial houses, now renovated and many of them converted into boutique hotels. We stroll into other wats, on and off, as our fancy takes us, but most of them are sights that blend into one another and you'll be hard put to remember the names afterwards. Nevertheless, they're great spots for some meditation or just pondering on nothing.
Leaving our temporarily disabled companion for a bit, we trek up to Wat That Chomsi, atop the Phou Si hill. A long, steep flight of stairs takes you up the hill, and there's an entrance fee. While the stupa itself isn't impressive, we're rewarded by the sight of the entire town spread out in front of us, with the Mekong and Nam Khan winding in between, and the striking golden stupa top of another wat - the Phon Pao - at a distance.

A market like no other

More noodle soup later, it's near sunset, and we're nearly back at the guesthouse when the whole Sisavangvong avenue starts to transform itself, and we wonder what's going on. Turns out, Laos hosts some of the best street markets in the world! The Luang Prabang night market sets up under makeshift stalls and awnings, and you can get everything from local food to handicrafts, clothes, jewellery, wooden artifacts, furnishings, spices. really anything, apart from hard goods. There's also no hard sell, and no pushiness from the vendors - they allow you to bargain without being argumentative - and you'll know when to stop haggling. The big bonus is lavish buffet tables, serving both vege-tarian and meat, that let's you eat all you can for dirt cheap prices. And it's all made from healthy local produce. The Lao night markets - as well as the daytime ones that sell mostly food, fresh produce and fish - are one of the most colourful, traditional experiences you can get in the region. Again, you can't help comparing the markets here to Thailand's, but the Lao ones win for authenticity and ease of bargaining. It's one of the times I regret not shopping.
In the evening, we relax on our guest-house's lovely, airy wooden verandahs, downing pints of local beverages and taking in the riverside breeze. Chilling starts to take on a new meaning.
Nonetheless, Nong Kiaw
Weather and our friend's leg permitting, we walk the 3km to the north bus stand one day and take a mini bus to Nong Kiaw (also spelt Khiaw or Kiau). The bus is nothing more than a glorified mini-van, and a three-hour bumpy ride later, (you can also take a boat via the Mekong), we arrive at the even quieter little village of Nong Kiaw.
The landscape here is reminiscent of Vietnam's Halong Bay, with those karst limestone cliffs popping out dramatically, and there's decent guesthouse accommodation to be had. The place has only two roads winding along, and sightseeing by way of the Pha Tok Caves; we didn't go, and instead (again), choose to just stroll about and enjoy the feeling of being in a truly isolated place even in these days of global inter-connectedness and ease of travel.
Strangely, out of all the little villages in all the countries in all the world, my eyes nearly fall out on seeing not one, but two Indian restaurants in Nong Kiaw! Both the Deen and Chennai restaurants are run by friendly Tamilians, and are arguably the better eateries there, though it still beats us how they landed up in this obscure place. We try some local cuisine too, like a bamboo soup, but wouldn't really recommend it - too basic and bland for anyone's taste. Just stick to the flavourful, healthy noodle soup.
In a nutshell, our two days in Nong Kiaw are marked by lazy long walks and sitting on verandahs gazing at the limestone cliffs and river. Back in Luang Prabang for our flight out, we spend our last day at the deck-style cafés along the river, just soaking in plenty of scenic sunsets and Lao coffee. We can't get enough of the retro-looking sunsets. The idyllic life has gotten to us - we're reluctant to leave.
Laidback nature and restful environs are not all that Luang Prabang has to offer - the more active among you can find plenty of day trips and excursions to make, from treks to waterfall visits and elephant camps, and plenty of tour agencies to arrange them for you. Plus, you can get massages, inexpensive salon treatments, or take a cooking class.
As unlikely a destination as it is, we'll always treasure Luang Prabang as the place that taught us - fervent, frantic travellers - to slow down and smell the roses, or walk alongside a river, drink coffee and do nothing in order to enjoy life, in this case. If you're in need of a relaxing break on a Southeast Asian tour leg, look no further than Laos.
Trip tips
  • When to go: November to March is peak season, with low rainfall and cooler temperatures; however, if you go between June to October, you can take advantage of near-empty guesthouses and cheaper prices for everything. Be prepared for intermittent rainfall then.
  • money: The Lao currency is called kip. Dh1 is equal to 2,210 Laotian kip (approx). A cup of coffee costs around 5,000-10,000 kip and the average meal between 10,000-25,000 kip.
  • Also visit: Other places to visit in Laos include Oudomxay, Vang Vieng, Vientiane, and the Four Thousand Islands (Si Phan Don). Do your research online before deciding which places to visit, unless you want to feverishly hop across the country to try and see everything.
 

LAO COFFEE

The glass says tea, but it's actually the most unusual and delicious coffee we've ever had! The bottom half inch of the cup is filled with sweet condensed milk, with a layer of milk powder (sometimes), and topped with their local robusta coffee. You blend the whole thing and sip some of the best, rich coffee in the world! A cold/iced coffee version is quite popular too.
Text and Photos: Mary Paulose
marypaulose@khaleejtimes.com



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