From North to South Laos January 2013
We crossed from Thailand into northern Laos at Houayxai and drove to the small town of Houei Sai for the night. On the way we stopped at two villages. Laos is one of the few Southeast Asian countries whose ethnic diversity is still visible, in the sense that different groups often live in different parts and separate villages. The government officially classifies the population into three groupings according to the elevation at which they dwell – the lowlanders, the middle landers and the highlanders. However unrelated ethnic groups may live at the same elevation. The first village was home to Tai Leu peoples and they are lowlanders, akin to the ethnic Lao and originating from southern Yunnan in China. They are Theravada Buddhists and also animists, as well as being skilled weavers. There was a small wooden monastery and a white-washed temple. The houses were all on stilts, leaving storage-space underneath (which in one instance included a water-buffalo). Sticky rice is a staple diet in Laos and this village had a device for polishing the rice.
The second village was Khmu and these people are middle-landers, one of the largest minority groups in Laos and probably from southern Yunnan. They however are not skilled weavers. They believe in animism and consider that spirits inhabit animals, rice and even money. Visitors to a Khmu village must find out if a temporary taboo is in place and cannot enter if it is; food, water and a mat will then be brought out for them. Here as in most villages, pot-bellied pigs wander around freely and this one had an old woman guarding the drying rice from them. On the other side of a pond were a number of storage huts for rice, also on stilts. One curious feature of a Khmu village (which we didn’t see) is that they have four different cemeteries – one for adults who died normally, one for those who died violent deaths, one for children and one for mutes!
The next morning we set out for a day’s walk into the Namtha National Biodiversity & Conservation Area. On the way we went into a Lan Tan (or Black Tai) village and this lowland group is thought to have originated from Vietnam. They are mainly animists.
We then headed into the jungle initially up a long flight of stone steps with imposing-looking nagas on either side. At the top of the steps was a small Buddhist temple with the remains of the original one nearby, but the first thing we saw was a strange upright statue of a crocodile with an eagle on its head. Continuing on we came across a horned spider, a very weird-looking beast! We walked until midday, when we stopped for a barbecue of fish (talapia), river-weed and sticky rice, cooked on a fire in the middle of the jungle. It wasn’t completely al fresco, as there was a table with benches under a thatched covering. All the provisions had been brought up by locals. Afterwards one of them crafted a bamboo pipe for us to try out; it was surprisingly effective.
We then continued our walk and visited an Akha village. The Akha are highlanders and migrated from southern Yunnan firstly in the middle of the 19th century, then in 1949 after the Chinese communist victory and again after the Cultural Revolution. They are animists and have a village shaman. The villages have a ‘spirit gate’ to block evil spirits, hung with woven bamboo stars, as well as male and female effigies with exaggerated genitalia. Here also weaving is a feature of their lives. The Akha are also fond of singing and the women wear exotic costumes with elaborate headgear.
The following day we set off for Nong Khiaw. On the way we stopped at a village with a market, where we saw smoked rats, a squirrel and naked mole rats to eat. These mole rats are large and furless, but do have sporadic hairs on their bodies. Also preparations were under way to honour and appease the jao bawn (spirit of the place), by making decorated miniature houses for them, where offerings of flowers, incense, candles and sweets would be placed.
Nong Khiaw is on the River Ou and in a spectacular location at the foot of a red-faced cliff and towering limestone escarpments. We stayed in the Nong Kiau Riverside, which has spacious individual bungalows, with wonderful views over the river and the cliffs from their balconies.
After just one night there we embarked on a long boat journey down the River Ou to our next destination at Luang Prabang.
This river journey, which we started in thick cloud, was very relaxed and enjoyable with stunning mountainous scenery all around. On the banks and waters of the Ou different scenes and sights passed by – such as village activities, children playing, water buffalo and small family fishing boats.
We continued to the Pak Ou Buddha Caves, where we climbed steps up the cliffs to the caves of Tham Ting and Tham Phoum. Although abandoned by the monks they are still a sacred shrine, with an altar for incense burning and flower offerings, plus rock shelves with thousands of Buddha statues of various sizes. For centuries these caves have been used to house old cast-off Buddha images and during the Lao New Year boatloads of people from Luang Prabang make a pilgrimage to bathe the images and thereby gain merit. Around the entrance to the lower cave is a carved wooden16th century doorway.
We then visited Xang Hai, which is known by local boatmen as ‘Whisky Village’. The village produced stoneware jars for thousands of years, but it has recently found that distilling liquor is more lucrative. This liquor is called lao-lao and is made from fermented sticky rice; of course we had to try it! Apart from the distilling there is also weaving and of course children selling various artefacts. We then continued by boat to Luang Prabang.
Luang Prabang, once the country’s capital, lies right between the Mekong and the Khan rivers and was a small mountain kingdom for over 1000 years. It was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995 for its unique mix of traditional Lao and French colonial building. It first came into prominence in 1353, when a legendary Lao warrior called Fa Ngum captured what was then called Xieng Dong Xieng Thong. He established the kingdom of Lane Xang Hom Khao – the Land of a Million Elephants and the White Parasol. He brought with him Theravada Buddhism, artisans, intellectuals and a legal code. However his ministers grew weary of his military campaigns and his custom of taking his subjects’ wives as concubines and he was replaced by his son. In 1478 the Vietnamese captured the city and its golden age began. In 1512 King Visoun brought in the Pha Bang, a sacred Buddha image that is said to possess miraculous powers to protect the country, and this was a major event for the identity of the Lao people and the city. According to legend its casting was overseen by the god Indra and it was crafted in the heavens above the Himalayas and delivered to the capital Sri Lanka. From there it moved to Luang Prabang via Cambodia. In 1563 King Setthathilat, Visoun’s grandson, relocated the capital to Vientiane, because of Burmese invasions. He left the Pha Bang behind and renamed the city after it (Luang Prabang means the Great Pha Bang). In the early 1700s it became an independent kingdom and when French explorers arrived in 1867 they found a thriving port and market town. It was then under Siamese control, but in 1887 the Siamese left it virtually undefended, when it was attacked and sacked by a White Tai group. The French vice-consul rescued the king, who then offered tribute to France. So began the French period and the city was completely rebuilt. During the two Indo-China wars, Luang Prabang escaped most destruction, but in 1975 the Pathet Lao ended Luang Prabang’s royal line.
After dinner that evening we walked through the night market, which is one of the features of Luang Prabang and which also provides prepared food to eat there.
The next morning we got up at 5.30 am to go and offer food to the monks. All Buddhist monks have to beg for food and this is normally done in the early hours. We arrived at a place on the pavement prepared for us with mats to kneel on and sticky rice provided in the usual wicker baskets with a lid. When the monks came by, we had to place handfuls of rice into their bowls, making sure we didn’t touch the bowls themselves.
After this we repaired to a nearby shop for tea/coffee and Lao doughnuts, before returning to the hotel for breakfast. We then went on a tour of the city, walking through the market, where one stall offered pigs’ trotters and snouts.
Our first destination was Wat Thieng Thong, the Golden City Monastery. The sim or main temple was built by King Setthathilat in 1560 and is a fascinating structure with sweeping roofs resembling the outstretched wings of a bird. Its inside and outer walls are decorated with gold-leaf motifs on a dark background. These motifs depict various stories including the Lao version of the Ramayana (the Pha Lak Pha Lam), as well as punishment scenes on the numerous levels of Buddhist hell. These punishments include being forced to climb a tree full of huge thorns, being boiled in oil and being suspended by a hook through the tongue.
During Lao New Year water is poured into a trough shaped like a mythical serpent to bathe a Buddha image near the altar. The water is then channelled under the floor and pours out from the sparkling head of an elephant on the exterior wall. The outer back wall of the sim is covered in a glorious mosaic, which shows birds and animals, plus a legendary flame tree, which is said to have stood on the site when the city was founded. Next to the sim is a small open-sided shrine with a sitting Buddha. Beneath the roof is a mosaic depicting the Buddha seated on a rock in a landscape with figures including an archer.
There is also a shed with an ornate long boat in it. The Funerary Carriage Hall was built in 1962 and contains the latsalot, the gilt funerary carriage that transported the remains of King Sisavang Vong to his cremation. It is built in the form of parallel nagas with prominent fangs and dripping tongues. On it are three sandalwood urns to contain the remains of the king, his father and his mother. The hall has teak panels again with depictions of characters from the Ramayana.
We then visited Wat Visoun, which was destroyed by Chinese bandits in 1887 and has been reconstructed. The sim contains the usual collection of Buddha images and there is a drum pavilion and a unique watermelon stupa.
That afternoon we climbed up a stairway to the top of the Phousi Sacred Hill, which is crowned by the gleaming white Chomsi Stupa with its golden spire. The hill is seen as a miniature Mount Meru, the Mount Olympus of Hindu-Buddhist cosmology, and according to legend was once the home of a powerful naga who lived inside it. There are fine panoramic views over the city and the two rivers from the summit. We came down the other side past a collection of gold Buddha images, including a reclining Tuesday Buddha.
We then crossed a rickety bamboo bridge over the River Khan.
Our evening meal was described as a ‘hotpot’, but it wasn’t what we were expecting. The tables had circular holes into which pots were put. Burning charcoal was poured into them and a metal domed dish was placed on each, where we cooked pieces of meat and vegetable.
The next morning we visited a village of Hmong people. The Hmong are highlanders and have particularly colourful and ornate clothing. Many Hmong fought for the Royal Lao Government and helped the CIA during the Second Indochina War and were therefore persecuted after the fall of the monarchy. There were therefore large-scale emigrations to refugee camps in Thailand, from where some made their way to France and the USA.
We continued to the Kouang Si Waterfall. The falls descend a vertical and narrow ravine, before panning out into a series of pools. Swimming is permitted, but not everywhere there.
In the afternoon we went to the former Royal Palace, which is now the Royal Palace Museum and contains the trappings and artefacts of the old monarchy. There is an ornate temple in the grounds on the right and the palace itself, which was rebuilt in 1904 by the French, is at the end of an avenue of palms. It has a graceful spire and the pediment above the entrance shows the three-headed elephant Airavata sheltered by a parasol.
Inside its layout is original and the most impressive room is the Throne Hall with coloured glass mosaics on a crimson background. Articles of royal regalia are displayed here, as well as a collection of small Buddha images in crystal, silver and bronze, which came from the stupa at Wat Visoun and somehow managed to escape plundering by the Chinese bandits. The King’s Bedchamber is rather modest, but does have the massive bed with his initials and a carved Buddha sheltered by a seven-headed naga. There is a room of diplomatic gifts and a room with large portraits of the last king, his wife and son, which were painted, curiously, by a Soviet artist. The Pha Bang is currently housed in a small room here, flanked by numerous other Buddha images and embroidered silk panels depicting yet more Buddhas. The corridors around the rooms at the back are decorated with sixteen pictures showing the legend of Prince Wetsantara, an important Lao Buddhist epic. The prince is considered the penultimate incarnation of Buddha. He had a habit of giving things away, a Buddhist way of gaining merit. The King disowned him when he gave away a sacred white elephant and he became a hermit. He continued this habit, giving away his two children and finally his wife. A god then appeared, gave him his wife back and granted him eight wishes. He was reunited with his children and his parents and then the King abdicated in his favour.
The following morning we set out for Phonsavan, stopping at local towns on the way. At one of them we saw a water buffalo, which had just been killed, being skinned in preparation for the Hmong New Year. There were also spectacular views across the mountains.
Phonsavan is a town without any particular attractions, but it is the centre for visiting the world-famous Jar sites, which we did the next day. There are clusters of large stone jars at dozens of locations, although there are three main sites. They represent one of the most important prehistoric archaeological sites in Southeast Asia and are thought to be 2000 years old. It is not known why the jars are here or what their purpose was, but the most popular theory is that they were funerary urns. Inevitably they were looted over the centuries, but excavation by the French in the 1930s did reveal some bronze and iron tools, as well as bracelets, cowrie shells and coloured glass beads. Also underground burial chambers have been found more recently, which does support the funerary theory. This area was at the centre of very heavy fighting and aerial attack during the Indo-China wars and there is a lot of unexploded ordnance (UXO) around still. The main sites have been extensively cleared, but visitors have to stay on marked routes.
We started at Site 1 which is the most visited. Here legend says that the jars were made to ferment rice wine in celebration of a famous military victory. There is also a large cave (used by the Pathet Lao during the war) which was probably a crematorium for commoners, as the jars were most likely reserved for the ashes of the nobility. Again local legend says that it was a vast kiln used to cast the jars, as it does have a natural chimney in the roof. You can also see the remains of trenches and bomb craters. We then went to Site 3, which is smaller than Site 1, but still has over 100 jars with good views over the surrounding countryside. There is a Buddhist monastery nearby and we saw monks wandering amongst the jars.
After that we went to the village of Banna Pia, which is known as the ‘spoon village’, because of the use of parts recovered from UXO to melt down and make into articles such as spoons.
And then we visited a mulberry farm at Vang Vien, the Lao Sericulture Company, which produces mulberry tea, as well as silk and fruit. We saw and heard about the life-cycle of the silk-worm and the various stages of silk production from spinning and dyeing to weaving.
We returned to Phonsavan, where we made a visit to the MAG (Mines Advisory Group) office and watched a film about UXO and its devastating effect even today. Vast areas of Laos are littered with UXO and Laos is the most heavily bombed country per capita in the world – more than two million tons, including the deadly cluster bombs, of which 30% didn’t detonate. MAG is an international organisation and has been working here since 1994 to clear the ordnance, but the task is a Herculean one. It has been estimated that it will take 1000 years to clear it all, i.e. never! Since 1964 over 50,000 people have been killed or injured as a result of UXO accidents. It is also a key cause of poverty, because of the large amount of land it denies to productive uses. The clearance teams include women and there is an all-female team. The following morning we visited the office of the Lao National UXO Programme, a government organisation whose task is also to clear UXO. We were given a talk about their work and saw examples of UXO including the infamous cluster bomb.
In the afternoon we took a flight down to the capital Vientiane (pronounced Wiang Jan) for a two-night stay. Compared with other capital cities Vientiane is relatively quiet, but it changed after 1991 when economic restrictions were lifted, following the collapse of the Soviet Union. It is now a thriving modern city with private enterprise and growing tourism. Most of the merchant class are ethnic Chinese and Vietnamese after emigration from those countries during the French era. The first settlement there probably dates back to the 8th century and it has had a turbulent history. Mon and Khmer groups lived there, before King Setthathilat moved his capital there from Luang Prabang in 1560. Vientiane was overrun several times by the Burmese, Chinese and Siamese and was completely levelled in 1867 by the latter. It was more or less abandoned until the French arrived in 1867 and rebuilt the city. The Indochina and Vietnamese wars created flux, change and uncertainty with both emigration and immigration. In 1975 the communists gained power and set up the Lao People’s Democratic Republic. The 1980s were a time of stagnation with Soviet aid, large-scale re-education and refugee camps in Thailand. 1994 marked a new era of cooperation between Laos and Thailand, with the building of the Friendship Bridge connecting the two countries across the Mekong and initiating vital trade links.
The next day we had a tour of Vientiane and its main sites. We started at the That Luang Stupa, which is Laos’s most important religious structure and its national symbol. There is evidence that it is on an ancient Khmer site and the original stupa was reduced to a pile of rubble by Chinese bandits in the early 1870s. The present stupa is a reconstruction of the original built by King Setthathilat and dates from 1930; his statue sits on a pedestal in front of the stupa. It is surrounded by thirty short and spiky stupas with a cloistered wall round the whole, which contains a number of worn Buddha images, one of King Jayarvarman VII of the Khmer empire and a rather fetching dancing girl. The golden spire is 45m tall on a plinth of stylised lotus leaves. Next to it are various temples and shrines plus an enormous gold reclining Buddha.
We then went to the Patouxai or ‘Victory Gate’ monument on a roundabout at the end of Lane Xang Avenue. It bears a passing resemblance to the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, which it was meant to emulate, and was erected to commemorate Royal Lao Government war casualties in 1950. It is not particularly attractive, but there are good views from the top. The ceiling under the arch is decorated with reliefs of Hindu deities, including Vishnu, Brahma and Indra on Airavata.
Our tour continued to Haw Pha Kaew, which was once the king’s personal Buddhist temple, but is now a museum of art and antiquities, containing the finest collection of Lao art in the country. It dates from the middle of the 16th century, was destroyed by the Siamese in 1828 and restored by the French later. The temple is named after the Emerald Buddha (Pha Kaew), which was removed from there and taken by the Siamese to Bangkok in 1779, where it still remains, much to the chagrin of Lao Buddhists.
We went on to Wat Sisaket, the oldest Buddhist monastery in Vientiane. It was built in 1818 and hosted a ceremony where the Lao nobility swore an oath of loyalty to the king. It was the only monastery to survive the sack of Vientiane by the Siamese in 1828 and the nobility again had to swear another oath, this time to their Siamese overlords. In 1893 they had to repeat this ceremony before the French! The sim is surrounded by a cloister containing countless small niches with tiny Buddha statues in them and larger seated Buddha images in front of them.
Later we went to see the Buddha Park (Xieng Khuan) some 20 km outside Vientiane. This is a strange but fascinating collection of large ferro-concrete statues, which includes numerous Hindu deities and Buddhist figures, as well as an enormous reclining Buddha. Amongst these are a demon with a head in its mouth and figures emerging from the mouth of a fish; Airavata also puts in an appearance again. The park was created in the 1950s by Luang Pou Bounleua Soulilat, the disciple of a Hindu hermit in Vietnam. At the park entrance is a giant pumpkin-like object with a dead tree rising from its top. You can go into it through the mouth of devouring time (a fearsome-looking face) and explore hell, earth and heaven – the three planes of existence – and take a spiral staircase to the roof.
On returning to Vientiane we paid a visit to COPE, the Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise. This was founded in 1997 and provides services to limbless people, mainly of course to the victims of unexploded ordnance. That evening we had our meal at Makphet, a restaurant which trains street kids to become chefs and waiters; we were served by both students and trainers.
The next morning we had an early flight south to Pakse and then took a boat down the Mekong
to visit Wat Phou, a series of ruined Khmer temples dating from the 6th to the 12th centuries. Although on a smaller scale and more dilapidated, they definitely evoke the style and atmosphere of the great Khmer temples at Angkor in Cambodia. The site is dominated by the 1500m Mount Lingaparvata with a phallic stone outcrop, which is particularly auspicious to Shiva worshippers. Wat Phou was originally a Hindu site, but is now associated with Theravada Buddhism and it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. There is a festival every February, when thousands of pilgrims from all over Laos and Thailand congregate to celebrate the full moon and take part in various competitions including bull fighting. The causeway to the first group of ruins is lined with short stone pillars with lotus-bud tips – reconstructions of the originals. On either side of the causeway there were once reservoirs, probably representing the oceans around the mythical Mount Meru. At the end there are two large sandstone and laterite structures, whose original purpose is unclear. A path then begins to climb with worn and uneven stairways of sandstone blocks lined with frangipani trees, which lend an enchanting atmosphere to the site. At the foot of the stairways is a statue of Dvarapala, the legendary founder of Wat Phou, surrounded by flowers, incense and candles.
A steep ascent reaches the final temple set amidst mammoth mango trees, containing the best examples of decorative stone lintels. The exterior walls have relief sculptures of female divinities and the sanctuary has an altar with four Buddha images. Behind the temple is a stone slab with relief carvings of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. Up beyond the temple is a shallow cave with water dripping from roof via a carved wooden trough into a cistern for ritual anointing by pilgrims. The water coming from the peak of Lingaparvata is considered sacred and was once piped to the temple, where it bathed the Shivalinga.
We returned to the Mekong for a ferry crossing to our hotel on Don Khong Island and were accompanied on the crossing by two Buddha statues on the back of a truck, being taken round to raise money for a new temple.
The following day we set out by boat to explore this section of the Mekong, which widens and becomes a labyrinth of islands, known as Si Phan Don or Four Thousand Islands. On the way to our first destination, Don Det Island, we passed a bridge being constructed by the Chinese, who are as active in Laos as in many other countries. Don Det is joined to Don Khon Island by an old railway bridge. This used to be part of the French colonial narrow-gauge railroad that linked the two islands, to transport goods and passengers and bypass the rapids and falls which make river transport impossible. On Don Det there is an old and rusting locomotive from that era, one of the few visible signs left of the railway.
From Don Khon we had a boat trip to see the rare Irrawaddy dolphin, which is an endangered freshwater species and regarded by islanders as a reincarnated human spirit. However in the last 100 years their number has dwindled from several thousand to less than one hundred. Their plight is now recognised, but for various reasons the outlook for them is bleak. We were extremely lucky and saw at least three, including two playing together.
We then went to the nearby dramatic Somphamit Waterfalls to witness the crashing water and take the opportunity to bathe in a pool below them. We continued to the Khon Phapheng Waterfalls, which is the largest waterfall in Southeast Asia, a wide rock shelf with a huge volume of water pouring over it in picturesque surroundings.
The next morning we saw monks being offered food,
before setting off north to Tad Lo, where we would spend our final night in Laos. We went first to Kiatngong and had an elephant ride from there up to Phou Asa, which is a hill rising out of the jungle with strange roughly stacked stone walls and pillars. It is thought to be 19th century in origin, but its purpose is uncertain. It might have been a fort, but local villagers believe it to be the remains of an ancient Buddhist monastery.
We left Kiatngong and arrived at Tad Lo in the afternoon. There is another fairly small waterfall here on the river Xe Set. We stayed at Tad Lo Lodge, which is right by the waterfall in delightful wooded surroundings. The following day we made a short walk to the nearby village of Khiang Tanglae, before driving to Chong Mek, where we crossed into Thailand and then drove to Ubon Ratchathani for a flight to Bangkok. We spent a night there and then caught our plane to Delhi for transfer to the UK.
Laos is (so far) relatively undeveloped, especially in terms of tourism. It is the least known and poorest Southeast Asian country, but outright poverty is not something that strikes the visitor forcefully. It has a predominantly rural economy and most of the population live in small villages, where there is certainly a complete reliance on the most basic facilities. However villagers nearly all own land and can therefore grow their own food and co-operate in the raising of livestock. They also eat just about every creature that can be found! The people are very friendly and there is now widespread entrepreneurship with a lighter touch from the communist authorities. One big stumbling block to development is the unexploded ordnance in the countryside, but unfortunately Laos will have to live with that for a long time. It is a country with a diverse range of attractions, the food in restaurants is good and the hotels are clean, comfortable and completely adequate. Mobile phones are ubiquitous in towns and cities (like everywhere else), but have not really reached the villages. No doubt ownership of other electronic devices will also grow, just as car ownership is growing. The cultural heritage of Laos is a very important element, with its varied ethnic groupings and its Buddhist inheritance. This trip was fascinating, interesting and enjoyable from all points of view.