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South-East Asia

Laos: Effortlessly Immense

by Matt Thomas

Laos, despite the almost indifference of Laotians to tourism, is an outstanding country to visit. This is providing you can get past the time consuming journeys, 10 hours for 300km is the norm, and appalling road and transport system. I had my first taste of this even before I arrived via the bus from Sapa in Northern Vietnam to the crossing point in Dien Bien Phu. Apparently at no point during the construction of a night bus did someone think, “Hey, wouldn’t a toilet be an idea?” That said, there are so many stops to pick up and drop off anything from farming products to pig food, that opportunities are plentiful. Similarly the buses are not designed for tall people, to say the least, and they load far too many people on. But enough with the negativity.

My first stop was Luang Nam Tha in the north-west. This is a one horse town, if that, and to date the only place I went where I actually went into a seemingly open internet cafe to be told it was closed (being closed normally is an alien concept in south-east asia, in Laos not so much.). After being drenched on my bicycle ride as it was national holiday, or waterfight day, the only other thing to do is trekking.

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Laos Village

My trek was certainly authentic. It was 35 degrees and unmercifully uphill, the only respite provided by the shade of the jungle. We arrived just after one pm at the remote mountain village, where they only spoke the local dialect rather than Laos, meaning even my guide couldn’t communicate with the locals, who took it turns to come into our hut and stare. The scenery was decent enough, a pleasant red sunset against rugged mountains and lush greeenery. Similarly the village was certainly untouched by anything approaching creature comforts, apart from solar panels that provided electricity. Chickens, pigs, dogs and cats ran amok. A pig even followed me when I went for my morning relief and digested the results.

Truth be told, I was pleased I did this trek, as it was undoubtedly an experience, but was equally glad when it was over.

The journey to Luang Prabang was even worse than the one described above, as the potholed roads, lack of airconditioning, average speed of 20kmph, a local child being sick, and a lack of leg room combined for the most uncomfortable ten hours of my life. All this said, Luang Prabang is serenely pleasant. The food is outstanding and there is a more than adequate choice of riverside bars on the beautiful peninsula. As a tip to those wishing to get off the beaten track a little here, I would suggest taking a boat to the other side of the Mekong and walking around the temples there, I went on a sunday morning and they were deserted, one even had pleasant Asian chillout music playing which made for a delightfully eerie atmosphere.

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Luang Prabang

Vientiane, Laos’ capital, one could take or leave. In terms of child exploitation, this is more prevalent here so be warned on that front, if you end up in the “wrong” bar.
The best things to do here are the Buddha Park ( via local bus and tuk tuk via a dirt road), and the COPE centre. The latter houses a free museum (donation not obligatory but you will) whose exhibits provide harrowing insights into the history of cluster bombs in the country, and the inspiring work done in the field of prosthetics for victims of these, and also for those who have lost a limb in traffic accidents.

Konglor Caves is Laos’ top site, a jaw dropping and enormous series of caves in the central south of the country. They are accessed via motor powered canoes. These are incredibly spooky and awestriking and if they haven’t been already, must feature in a Star Wars film soon. At times, due to the reflection of the water on the side of the caves, the water seems invisible which gives the sensation of floating, almost flying. Simiarly the caves themselves are stunning, and the tour, while more challenging that I anticipated, is well put together. Getting there however, is not as easy as it should be. I would strongly recommend either staying up there or hiring motorbikes, as public transport links from Tha Khaek are appalling (although it is possible as a day trip, just about) and we found hiring local tuk tuks difficult and expensive.

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Exit to the Caves

My final stop in Laos was travellers’ mecca, 4000 Islands, namely Don Det and Don Khon. There is no traffic here on this paradisial part of the Mekong River, meaning all there is to do is sleep in hammocks, read, sunbathe, take pleasant bicycle rides, marvel at the waterfalls and relax at the numerous chill out bars. Tranquility personified.

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The mighty Mekong