Losing Yourself in Laos

Laos

Surrounded by the popular tourist destinations of Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, landlocked Laos is often overlooked by travellers on their journeys to Southeast Asia. It was this very mystique that drew me to Laos in the first place, in search of the unexpected. Leaving Singapore in the wee hours of the morning, I finally arrived into the airport in Vientiane after a lengthy transit through Kuala Lumpur. I was excited and exhausted in equal measure after the long journey, but my itinerary compelled me to make a further domestic flight to the north of Laos. Here was my first taste of something quite different. Following a low-altitude cruise over the jungles and hills, the ageing propeller plane landed onto an unmarked piece of tarmac could scarcely pass as a runway and our luggage was carried into the tiny domestic airport by a rickety old pickup truck!

Suitably satisfied by my introduction into Laos, I spent the next three days exploring the countryside around the sleepy town of Oudomxay. Considered one of the largest towns in the north of Laos, the dirt roads and wandering chickens around Oudomxay were nonetheless a far cry from the urban environments that I’m more accustomed to. But the serenity served as a welcome respite from my taxing journey into Laos. There was a distinct crispness about the air, and the sight of the majestic hills surrounding the town set against the cloudless blue sky was truly breath-taking. With the help of a guide I’d made contact with before arriving, we drove into the hills to visit some of the villages located deep within the jungle.

Laos Temple

Along the way to one of the more remote villages, I was told that the village was normally rendered inaccessible for six months a year due to the flooding of a nearby river that made vehicular transport impossible. As a result, its inhabitants spent an entire year using the most basic tools to carve an alternative route through jungle and hill to ensure that they would not be cut off from precious supplies from the outside world. As if on the cue, the dirt road became increasingly treacherous just as my guide had finished relating the tale, as a combination of narrow trails and steep drops kept me clinging to the edge of my seat for dear life for the next half-hour. A memorable story, no doubt, but at the time I was worried if I would even live to tell the tale! Thankfully, some skilful driving ensured my safe return to Oudomxay.

That experience of the jungle-roads prepared me well for the five-hour journey I was about to make from Oudomxay to my next destination, Luang Prabang. On paper, the route seemed simple enough – a straight drive down the highway cutting through the hills and jungles to reach Luang Prabang. In reality, the ‘highway’ was pockmarked with potholes, occasionally giving way to dirt track and barely wide enough to allow two cars to pass in opposite directions. Although nowhere near as treacherous as my expeditions out of Oudomxay, the long, bumpy journey was no less memorable. I can still recall the humbling sight of hills and jungle stretching as far as the eye could see, broken only ever so slightly by the narrow highway winding precariously through them. Every so often, we would pass a stream flowing gently towards the Mekong, the sound of running water cutting crisply through the stillness of the jungle. As we approached closer to Luang Prabang, the highway would take us through the occasional farming village replete with pigs and chickens scuttling about, as its inhabitants looked quizzically on at this passing foreigner so far removed from their way of life.

laos2

I arrived into Luang Prabang just before sunset, and it became readily apparent that the city was nothing like the town of Oudomxay that I’d just left. The streets were lit with colourful signs for restaurants, cafes and pharmacies, and they were bustling (compared to Oudomxay, at least) with tourists chattering in English and French. Everything pointed to the fact that Luang Prabang was indeed the gem in the Laotian tourism industry. At first, this came as a jolt to my system after the serenity and solitude of the previous few days. But as I started to explore the city over the next two days, I began to see why Luang Prabang was such an attraction. Located at the confluence of two tributaries to the Mekong, the city was a dynamic mixture of elegant temples, lively street markets and riverside dining. I plucked up the courage to sample some of the street food at the night market, and I’m proud to declare that I passed the test unscathed – while enjoying some exceptional fried chicken and rice vermicelli in the process! Whether I was surveying the intricately decorated temples or engaging in some customary bargaining at the night market, Luang Prabang was offered me another face of Laos to the one that I had experienced in Oudomxay.

As enjoyable as my time in Luang Prabang was, I eventually had to depart for the final leg of my journey by taking a domestic flight back to Vientiane. The aerial route expectedly proved to be less eventful than my travels over land. Nevertheless, I was still in for a minor shock on the short one-hour flight as I read through the ingredients listed on the complimentary preserved banana snack: banana, sugar, water… ash?! Fortunately I suffered no ill effects, my stomach having already been toughened by the street food in Luang Prabang.

If Oudomxay was a sleepy country town and Luang Prabang a tourist hotspot, then Vientiane bore all the traits of an administrative capital. Most of the people around were locals and there were few tourists in sight, reflecting the relative absence of attractions in the city. The one obvious exception was the Patuxai, also known as the Laotian Arc de Triomphe, a relic of Laos’ past as part of French Indochina. This was also reflected by the number of French restaurants scattered throughout the city. Without a demanding itinerary to follow, I took the opportunity to explore the city at a gentle pace.

laos3

On my final evening, I took a peaceful walk along the banks of the part of the Mekong that separated Vientiane from Thailand. As the sun set behind the distant hills, my thoughts returned to the many episodes I had on an eventful trip to Laos. I came with little idea of what to expect, but I was about to leave with a rich treasure trove of memories from the wonderful country of Laos. I’d spent nine days exploring Laos, but it was scarcely enough. I suppose there is no better endorsement of a country than the desire to visit it again in the future – something I will certainly do someday.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Michael is an avid traveller who loves to immerse himself into the history and culture of different lands. He is also on an insatiable quest to try as many local lagers as his ailing liver will allow. He is currently based in London.

Share This Post

Google1DeliciousDiggGoogleStumbleuponRedditTechnoratiYahooBloggerMyspaceRSS

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

Things You Should Know About Eating in Oman

Omani food shows a mix of influences from Asia and the Middle East with dishes built around chicken, fish, lamb and rice. Like other Gulf tourist hotspots, Oman has got its fair share of exquisite and expensive hotels and restaurants, though you’ll also find plenty of foodie treats for those on a more modest budget. […]

Connect With Us!