Entries "April 2007":
Sunday, 29 April 2007 Lao Liaisons (Vacation)!
After a very hectic fall, winter and spring in Cambodia, Andrew and I decided to take a vacation to Laos in mid April. Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar (Burma) all celebrate their New Year's festivities in mid April. Its probably the biggest holiday in these SE Asian countries. Its also the hottest and driest time of the year before the monsoons come in May and June.
On the afternoon of April 11th, Andrew and I flew to Vientiane (capital city of Laos) from Phnom Penh on Vietnam Airways. It was the first time we have been in a plane since we arrived in Cambodia!!
Andrew and I spent a few days in Vientiane (on the Mekong River across the river from northern Thailand) walking and biking around the town. It is hard to believe that Vientiane is the capital city of Laos as it was so laid back and quiet for a capital. Approximately 200,000 people live in Vientiane as compared to almost 2 million in Phnom Penh!!!. Vientiane was a lot like what Andrew and I imagined Phnom Penh to be like when we came to Cambodia--laid back, quiet and little traffic!! Phnom Penh is definitely not laid back, is quite noisy, and has a lot of traffic!! There are many old beautiful French colonial buildings in Vientiane (as in Phnom Penh). There are no skyscrapers in Vientiane yet!!. Vientiane is probably the best preserved capital in SE Asia.
We visited some sites in the city including Pha That Luang (golden) monument (see photos). Apparently, Pha That Luang is the most important monument in Laos. It was built in the mid 1500's. As the lonely planet guidebook states, the monument looks like a gilded missile cluster from a distance. We also visited Patuxai, a large monument reminiscent of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris (see photos). Unlike the Arc de Triomphe, the Patuxai has 4 archways instead of 2. It was built in the 1960's with US purchased cement that was supposed to have been used for the construction of a new airport. Apparently, some ex-pats refer to it as the vertical runway!!.
After a few days in Vientiane, Andrew and I decided to head to northern Laos, specifically to Luang Prabang (the Shangri-la of Laos). We hopped on a very long (10 hour) twisty mountain bus ride up to Luang Brabang (population 26,000). What we didn't know at first was, for part of the ride we had a guard on board the bus carrying a semi automatic rifle. This guard was apparently for our protection, as rebels have attacked buses in the past. Luckily, there haven't been any serious problems on the roads for a while!!!
Until recently, Luang Brabang has been isolated from the rest of SE Asia by a lack of reliable surface transport (the Mekong River is not navigable year round). However, now due to improvements to the roads, Luang Prabang is within a day's drive of China as well as Vientiane. Due to tourism, Luang Prabang is now one of the country's richest destinations. According to guidebooks, this mountainous area has 12 distinct ethnicities (including the Hmong and Khamu tribes). Only 20 years ago, this area was off limits to foreigners due to lingering fighting among the military and mountainous rebel groups.
Andrew and I arrived in Luang Brabang after the 10 hour mountainous bus ride and stayed at a beautiful guesthouse/bungalows north of town. Needless to say, we were feeling quite sick after the long bus ride!!
Luang Brabang is a UNESCO World Heritage City encircled by mountains and located at 700m (approximately 2300 ft) at the confluence of the Nam Khan and Mekong Rivers. There has been a lot of French architecture preserved in the town as a result of the Unesco classification. Andrew and I really loved being there. There are approximately 32 historic temples in the town built before the French arrived.
For the first few days in Luang Brabang, we celebrated Bun Pi Mai Lao (Lao New Year!!) with the local townspeople. It is quite a fun festival with the locals dousing each other with cold water to cool off with buckets or water guns. No one is exempt from being hit with water. The symbolism of throwing water is to cleanse your sins and wash away any bad spirits, so you have a clean slate for the New Year. For the first two days of Bun Pi Mao Lao, there was a parade in town, and everyone in the parade (including the high ranking monks and military) were soaked with water from townspeople lining the parade route!! Andrew and I even got into the action. Check out our photos!!!
We decided to spend a week in Luang Brabang as we couldn't tear ourselves away from this beautiful place. We spent our days splashing around in beautiful tiered limestone waterfalls (Tat Kuang Si) near Luang Brabang and hiking and kayaking the tributaries of the Mekong River.
We hired a local guide and trekked almost 900 meters (3000 ft) uphill to visit local Hmong and Khamu villages. We were hoping to escape the heat, but it wasn't much cooler at the top (5300 ft), once we got there. Along the route we witnessed a lot of slash and burn agriculture. It looked quite alarming to us as on the steep mountainous slopes, there were large areas recently cut and burnt for local plantations and logging (see photos).
To escape the heat, we also kayaked some of the local tributaries (Nam Ou and Nam Khan) of the Mekong River approximately 1-1.5 hours from Luang Brabang. The water levels in the rivers were quite low as it was the dry season, but there were some small rapids (class 1 and 2) that were quite fun!! The scenery was also quite beautiful and we saw some elephants giving tourists rides alongside the Nam Khan River.
During our last few days in Luang Brabang, we visited some of the local temples and monuments including the Royal Palace Museum (Ho Kham), Wat Xieng Thong (the most magnificent temple in Luang Brabang), Wat Visoun (oldest temple in the region) and Phu Si (great view of the town from the top of a hill in the center of town). We also switched guesthouses (to be closer to town) and stayed at a wonderful guesthouse featuring thatched roof bungalows with a view of the Nam Khan River. Across the river, we could see from our bungalow local people tending to their gardens, and children swimming in the river.
On April 23rd, our trip was over and we flew back to Phnom Penh and went back to work. Boo hoo!!! We will certainly miss the gentle people and beautiful landscapes of Laos!! We hope to visit southern Laos before we leave SE Asia!! Will keep you posted!!!