Laos, Simply Beautiful
Landlocked between the most famous South Asian countries is Laos or Lao PDR, a place where time is of no consequence. This is a country hidden amid the mountains, rivers and land, which among its vastly large neighbourhood is forgotten but is slowly trying to revive back in the world. A mix of nature and culture, Laos prepares you to take you to the unexplored part of the world, into remote wilderness.
In Laos you can actually go with the term ‘take it easy and slow’ and you wouldn’t mind it. Although it is one of the poorest countries in the world, but the sceneries it has to offer are priceless making it richer than the west. Half of which being unexplored makes it all the more interesting. The landscapes are breathtaking and the relaxed environment just adds to the experience. It is often said that PDR stands for “Please don’t rush” and it is rightly followed like a rule by the government. Though Laos has been going thorough immense change over the years and the tourism has increased, it still looks like it did hundred years ago. The mountains in the north, the traditional center in the middle with monks outnumbering the tourists and the small village of the south undergoing small changes to recover from the war and make a name in the world, Laos is a hidden gem.
If we have to look at Laos in one glance we see it clearly distributed into three parts. The first are the mountains in the north. The landscapes here can easily compete with the scenery of that of North Vietnam, but these are more hidden giving them a sense of preciousness. Along the Mekong River, the meandering path has created some of the most stunning limestone karsts of the world. The waterfalls are awe inspiring and a delight for the nature and adventure lovers. The base of all these karsts is the Vang Vieng which is backpacker’s central town. This might be the only town in Laos where you can find tourists from all over the world and is undoubtedly the party capital of the country. Young backpackers come here every year to party in the nature with thousands of other travelers. The adventure sports tubing and kayaking are worth trying. But it will be a shame if one visits this plethora of saw-toothed karsts for partying because this place has the most secretive, dark and hidden caves on the top of the mountains. To reach the caves one has to climb up the mountain and that is where the guides are required. The most famous is Tham Poukham or the Blue Logoon.
The best way to get there is to hire a bike and your own way through the roads and you can easily reach the spring fed lagoon at the bottom of the “Golden Caves”. The caves are 100m high and once inside you will require a flashlight to explore the caves where rests the Sleeping Golden Buddha and glimmering stalactites about 300m further inside. Padeng Caves and Ring Caves are just as intriguing. Across the river, a 1.5km path is marked by white flags that cut through the fields towards the mountains. The way up is more dangerous as climbing get tricky and the way includes a walk through the forests.
Far up the north where the sun has no power to turn everything warm and dusty lays Luang Namtha. The green paddies and the river Nam Tha flowing gives a view which is jaw dropping. This is the place if one wants to visit the true Laos. With the hardest trails between the forests to cover you get a chance to visit the tribes that have been living there for God knows how many years. The town is divided into two parts- old where the bombs during the war were dropped and the new town which has been reformed for the travelers. Close to this town is another village town Muang Sing famous for trekking. Here you can enjoy the unexplored trails and make you own trip. It also holds a number of waterfall like Nam Dee and Gneung Phou Ku Lom waterfall.
The second part of the country takes you to the towns resided by the monks. This side is filled with Buddhist temples and monasteries, the mountains in the far north working as background. The streets are immaculate and the saffron clad monks are everywhere. The capital city, Vientiane is probably the world’s most silent capital city that looks like a big temple in itself. The three layered gilded Stupa of Pha That Luang is the national symbol and the most important religious symbol of the country, dating from 16th century. Inside of the temple give you a closer look of the stupas and the other statues.
Wat Si Saket, now a museum called Sisaket Museum, is probably the oldest and the most atmospheric one. With its very contemplative ambiance it unfolds the life of Buddha through the various statues made of wood, silver, bronze and gold. Opposite this temple is a majestic and elegant structure which was the former royal temple of King Setthathirat which housed the magical Emerald Buddha (pha kaew) which has been moving to and fro between Laos and Bangkok over the negotiation of its ownership. Though the present structure is a reconstruction of dubious provenance, the tall Buddha images all over the place are a site to behold. The one to look out for is the beautiful, tall, lithe, long armed Buddha in the hands-down “calling for rain” pose.
Another temple Black Stupa has the attractiveness of patina of age that carries with it the mythical abode of a seven headed dragon that protects Vientiane. The mornings in Laos are pretty busy and probably the only times one can see work being done. The morning starts with the Morning Market that has the best handicraft shops along Thanons Setthathirat and Samsethai. Also it is the time when the monks go around the town for alms.
Built at the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Khan River, beneath the temple topped hill is Luang Prabang. Birthplace of many of Laos’s ritual, traditions and line of rulers, the whole city is so pretty that is has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage city.
Probably the cleanest city in the world, the rivers encircling and the mountains gives it a look so precious that just meandering on the streets is rewarding enough. The whole of Luang Prabang gives the impression of being a patchwork with traditional Lao household that are decades old, the golden roofed temples and hints of European architecture built when Laos underwent French colonial rule. The mornings start with the alms ceremony in which the saffron clad monks go around the town. The whole place looks like an image from yesteryear. The Haw Kham temple now a museum and the Phou Si are the major tourist attractions in the city. The main hill in the city, Phou Si gives you a panoramic view out of which sunset and sunrise are of the most rewarding time to go up. Saw Patuxai does not fail to give a glimpse of Paris in the middle of Laos.
Outside the main town are the best sanctuaries like the Elephant Village with about 9 elephants and the Bear rescue center that has an enclosure for endangered Asiatic Black Bears.
Kuang Si waterfall is a large multi staged waterfall which is an ideal place to relax. The Pak Ou or Buddha caves in the north stores a unit of Buddha statues which are considered bad luck to throw are a tourist attraction now. Amid the nature and temples you will find the best shops to eat the cultural food. In the south lies the Champasak famous for its Khmer temples and trekking.
The third part takes you away from the peaceful Laos and its beautiful history in the town Vieng Xai that gives you an insight into the recent history of all of Indochina. The “Hidden City” to support 20,000 people from nine years of bombings was built in the cave where today one can take daily tours to and see life sustained in caves with hidden hospitals and schools.
Built with serenity, Laos is a country to go to get one’s faith restored in humanity, faith and nature. A place that looks like the village of Buddha, Laos exudes tranquility and casual grandeur.