Laos, Southeast Asia's undiscovered gem, showcases its treasures


Laos, Southeast Asia's undiscovered gem, showcases its treasuresTen experiences not to be missed in the "land of a million elephants"

It does not have the luscious scenery of Halong Bay in its eastern neighbour, Vietnam; nor the ghostly ruins of Angkor Temple in its southern neighbour Cambodia; nor the sublime beaches of Thailand to the west or the profusion of golden pagodas in nearby Myanmar. Nor, of course, does it possess the manifold resources of its large northern neighbour, China, with whom it shares a minimal border.... But perhaps these shortcomings are one of the great charms of Laos, the "Cinderella of Southeast Asia".

Because this remote, landlocked country, with a surface area equivalent to that of the United Kingdom, Romania or half of Spain, unknown to many for decades, has managed to preserve its essence without being contaminated by the mass tourism that has largely invaded its "famous" neighbours. It was known in the 14th century as Lan Xang, or the Kingdom of the Million Elephants. There are not so many now, barely a thousand, but they can still be seen in some places and can be petted or bathed with in the Nhan Kahn River. Here you can still find nature in its purest form, combining sheer cliffs, lush jungles, endless rice paddies and mysterious caves, centuries-old traditions such as monks in saffron robes begging for food at dawn or making beautiful sinh or sarong out of the finest silk, small temples that glisten in the sun and an amazing gastronomy.

Here, too, the locals still look at tourists with curiosity and welcome them - this is common to all countries in the area - with a permanent smile. Laos is still a cheap country, even if the prices are always a lot of zeros (one US dollar is equivalent to 8,000 lakhs). You can get an air-conditioned hotel room for US$15-30, a restaurant meal for US$5-10 (a tasty local meal from street stalls costs just over a dollar) and a bus for a 100-kilometre ride for just US$2.

Laos is a country with many surprises and unique experiences that captivate the traveller. It is difficult to choose just a few, but here are ten that should be on the agenda of a good traveller:

1.- Discover the "new" Vientiane, the capital

The temptation of all there is to discover in the country means that many people hardly pay attention to the capital, Vientiane, the gateway to Laos for most. However, the city is well worth at least a day or two to enjoy the essentials. Far from the hustle and bustle of other capitals in neighbouring countries, this is a quiet, bustling, modern city. 

Until recently the streets were made of dirt or mud, today they are paved, traffic lights have been installed, which was unheard of a couple of decades ago, and traffic jams are already "enjoyable". With the exception of the beautiful city of Luang Prabang, the Lao capital is home to some of the country's most important Buddhist monasteries and monuments, including Vat Si Müang, Vat Sisaket, Vat Ho Phra Kèo and the great golden stupa of That Luang, the country's main monument and icon, with its 500 kilos of solid gold leaf covering it and a bone and hair of the Buddha himself inside. 

The centrally located Nam Phu Fountain and the promenade along the Mekong River in the historic city centre, where a lively street market is held in the evening, are a favourite meeting place for locals and visitors alike to get together and have a beer, which must of course be a Beer Lao, which is found everywhere.

2.- Walking among 200 Buddhas

Although there is a lot to see in Vientiane, such as the Nongkhamsen Temple, located in the middle of lush vegetation, its particular triumphal arch, the Patuxay, inspired by the one in Paris, but with typical Lao motifs added, including "Kinnaly", a mythical bird woman, and you can climb to the top of the monument, which offers an excellent panoramic view of the city, the different temples or the National Museum of Laos, dedicated mainly to the 1975 Revolution, but with a collection representing paleontology, archaeology, history and ethnology, a must-see is the Xieng Khuan, or Buddha Park, a unique sculpture park, 20 kilometres from the centre, with more than 200 religious, Buddhist and Hindu statues, including a huge 40-metre-long image of the reclining Buddha. 

Although the statues appear to be centuries old, they were built in 1958 by Luang Pu Bunleua Sulilat, a monk who studied both Buddhism and Hinduism. There are ornate and elegant sculptures and statues, made of reinforced concrete, of Buddhas, gods, humans and folk characters. There are also some very surreal, macabre and menacing sculptures of animals and demons. The best place to see it in its entirety and to photograph it is the top of a huge calabash with a demon's head on top and three levels representing Heaven, Earth and Hell.

3.- Eat something typical: insects

Lao cuisine reflects the ethnic diversity of the country and its neighbours and can be savoured in any restaurant, with those included in the Lasting Laos group (TBC) being recommended. Laos has strong regional variations even among the most common dishes, with glutinous rice being the staple of most meals and is eaten with the fingers. The national dish is Larb, a minced meat salad made from chicken, beef, duck or pork, dressed with fish and lime sauce and garnished with mint leaf, peppers and various vegetables and accompanied by the inevitable glutinous rice. 

Other typical dishes include Jaew, chilli dipping paste, Tam Mak Hung, fresh green papaya salad, spicy and sour, and Khao Piak Sen, sold for a euro on every street in town, is rice and cassava noodles eaten with chicken, pork, Chinese beans and mint, often eaten for breakfast. But if you want a different gastronomic experience, there is nothing like the so-called "jungle food", that is, insects of different kinds - beetles, caterpillars, crickets and more - and with different preparations.

This is what more than 2 billion people in the world, a quarter of humanity, already eat. In the West, such delicacies are often shunned, but is there anything more disgusting looking than an oyster or barnacles? At Luang Prabang's luxurious Blue Lagoon restaurant, now closed, they specialised in coconut soup with black ant egg and cricket wrap, which many people said was delicious!

4.- Enjoying endless rice paddies in Vang Vieng

When you arrive in Vang Vieng, halfway between the two most visited places in the country, Vientiane and Luang Prabang, and discover its enchanting landscapes, its emerald green rice fields, especially in the rainy season: Vientiane and Luang Prabang, and you discover its enchanting landscapes, its emerald green rice fields, especially in the rainy season between May and October, the waters of the Nam Song River, its karst mountains, jungles, caves, mesmerising blue lagoons, villages and the many possibilities they offer for active tourism, by land, water and air, it is hard to believe that just a decade ago, this was the liveliest and most vicious place in Southeast Asia, leaving behind places like Bangkok, Pattaya, Hanoi, Naipyidó in Myanmar or Halong Bay, because of its enthusiasm for partying. 

It was a wild, uncontrolled, all-out partying that took place in a myriad of bars - both riverside and in town - selling drugs and alcohol at rock-bottom prices, and with lax authorities and laws that condoned it. Today, visitors to Vang Vieng can trek or hike through the endless, beautiful rice fields or go kayaking or tubing down the river on large inflatable tyres, Or take a hot air balloon ride and be mesmerised by the scenery from the air, or visit one of the many nearby caves, such as Tham Nam, one of the most popular, where you can admire the crystals, stalactites, stalagmites and some of the creatures that inhabit the caves.

5.- A kayak trip on the Nam Song River

Once you've forgotten the cheap booze and wild partying that made Vang Vieng famous years ago, what remains are the active but easy-going activities in a dreamy landscape around the Nam Song River. The most popular and fun are tubing and kayaking, which can be hired and rented from many stalls along the riverbank. 

Tubing, as mentioned above, is all about being carried along by the current in a large tyre that you steer with your hands and feet. But kayaking offers many more options, starting with fun little rapids, visits to nautical caves, such as the one at Tham Nam Thaem which cuts through the mountain and emerges on the other side of the ridge for panoramic views of the Nam Kouang Valley. The next stop for a paddle is at Organic Farm, where mulberry tea and a variety of fruit wines are produced. Further down is Tham Non Cave, one of the largest caves in Vang Vieng, which served as a shelter for villagers during the Second Indochina War. 

The last stretch is a gentle paddle back to Vang Vieng. Throughout the entire two-hour tour, stops can be made at various places offering controlled alcoholic beverages, beer, soft drinks and snacks. A full day package can be purchased including lunch, visit to the Elephant Cave, tubing in the water cave, 5 km kayak, zip line and Blue Lagoon.

6.- Watch the sunset from the PhaNgeun or Nam Xay viewpoint

The peculiar landscape of Laos, with its abundance of mountains and surrounding limestone karsts, but also large expanses of vegetation and rice paddies, means that there are frequent viewpoints from which to contemplate these contrasts. Among the most spectacular are Pha Ngern and Nam Xay, both near Vang Vieng. For the more athletic, they can be reached by hiking the marked trails, although a small fee is required to access them. 

Interestingly, at Nam Xay there is a large motorbike attached to some rocks, where, naturally, everyone who climbs up has their photo taken. The best time is at sunrise or sunset, although you have to be careful not to linger over the beautiful views and let the darkness come, because the descent is always more difficult than the ascent. In any case, it is well worth the effort. There is no other city with sunsets as bloody as those in Luang Prabang.

Especially when viewed from Mount Phu Si, which is reached after climbing 328 steps to a height of 100 metres. At the top, overlooking the valley, awaits a new temple, Wat That Chom Si, which emerges like a beacon with a prodigious view of the silent city, nestled between the riverbeds.

7.- A swim in the Kuang Si Waterfalls

Continuing with the enjoyment of the pure nature of Laos, another essential visit is to the spectacular and high Kuang Si Waterfalls, in the surroundings of Luang Prabang. This is a set of waterfalls at different heights and with rafts of turquoise-blue water between them in the middle of a dense forest. Swimming and jumping from lianas into the water is allowed in some of the rafts. 

The main attraction is the great waterfall with a height of about 60 metres and a small viewpoint to appreciate it. To enjoy it in all its beauty it is necessary to do it out of the rainy season from May to October, because the force of the water removes the bottom soil and muddies the water, besides some paths will be impracticable with mud and it will not be possible to make the complete visit. A little before reaching the great waterfall there is an area with a small restaurant and changing rooms and toilets where you can change your clothes. 

Another good place to visit is the Tat Kuang Si Rescue Centre for the rescue and recovery of endangered Asiatic black bears and other wildlife, which is next to the entrance to the falls. From here it's a 25-kilometre journey up the Mekong to the Pak Ou Caves. Over 300 years old, these two shrines, carved into limestone caves, are richly decorated with thousands of Buddha carvings, most of them very small, left there by the faithful.

8.- Participate in the Tak Bat alms ritual

You have to get up early, but it's worth it. Every morning between 6 and 7 am, in the central streets of Luang Prabang, a moving procession of monks begging for alms at the first light of day has been held for 600 years. It is the Tak Bat, which fulfils one of the precepts of Buddhism that calls for the elimination of attachment to material objects, thus leaving more space in the mind for meditation and prayer. It is a unique and moving moment. 

For Laotians it is extremely sacred. Buddha teaches that all material possessions are useless to one who truly seeks Nirvana, a monk possesses only his clothes, a razor, a needle and a bowl. 

And it is in this bowl called "patta" that the monks, who come from one of the 300 Buddhist temples in the city, hang over their shoulders where the people of the city - an estimated 90% of the population - who have risen before dawn to prepare meals, deposit the inevitable glutinous rice, fruit and biscuits, never money. In return, the monks bless them and recite a prayer, although silence is the norm, with only the sound of feet on the ground and the ever-present crowing of roosters. 

The hundreds of monks, barefoot, shaven-headed and in saffron robes, file past the donors, first the oldest and then the youngest and children, who remain seated or kneeling before them - alms-giving is forbidden to tourists. This offered meal is the only food the monks eat during the day, the rest of their time being devoted to spiritual duties such as meditation, blessing and prayer. 

But since visitors don't fast, a good idea is to head to the Morning Market, which opens at 5am for a bowl of noodle soup or a coconut rice pancake. At the market you'll find some live animals, such as caged fish and birds, for shoppers to release out of compassion. Another way to make merit.

9.- Walk through Luang Prabang, a World Heritage Site

Luang Prabang, the former capital of Laos, which was called Muong Swa, is undoubtedly the jewel of the country and of the journey through it. It lies on the banks of the Mekong River and its tributary, the Nam Khan, and was declared a World Heritage Site in 1995 for its 'exceptional urban landscape', an example of the fusion of traditional Buddhist architecture and temples with the urban structures created by European settlers in the 19th and 20th centuries. This protected the city and prevented the sprawling development of other cities in the area, full of skyscrapers and traffic jams. 

It is the country's main religious, spiritual and cultural centre. Luang Prabang is said to have once housed up to a thousand temples, although today only 33 are home to the nearly 3,000 monks who are part of the human landscape as striking, silent presences. They are temples in the purest Lao style, with curved roofs, gilded facades, teak panels and vermilion columns. 

Life here is still lived at a walking or cycling pace. Although a leisurely stroll around the city is best, don't miss the superb Royal Palace, which is exquisitely proportioned and contains unique collections of Lao art, including a copy of the Pra Bang, the golden Buddha for which the city is named. Among the many temples and monasteries, Wat Xieng Thong, made up of some 20 buildings of varying sizes, played a major role in the Unesco decision. In an enclosure of flowering shrubs and palm trees stand several temples with imposing roofs, walls painted red and gold and inlaid with fine glass mosaics. Each building is a jewel, and the whole is of a harmony and beauty that cannot leave the visitor indifferent.

10.- Take home a Laotian souvenir

Although the best souvenirs of your trip to Laos are kept in your mind, it seems inevitable that you'll also take back some more tangible souvenirs to remind you of the days you spent in this unusual country. One of the most popular are the handmade, hand-painted paper lanterns, which are foldable so they don't take up much room in your luggage. 

Of course there are the typical T-shirts and slippers, but the most attractive are the silks, the traditional designs vary from region to region, but the quality is supreme and the work is entirely handmade and can be seen on the doors of many houses and in numerous workshops open to the public, such as Houy Hong Weaving Center in the capital, where women weave magic into the cloth, creating intricate patterns that tell a thousand stories. The vibrant colours and delicate craftsmanship of their textiles are a testament to Laos' rich cultural heritage. 

The most popular piece is "Sinh", the traditional tube-shaped skirt that has been made since the 14th century. Laos produces two varieties of coffee that are reputed to be among the best in the world, Robusta and Arabica.

It can be bought by weight, ground or in grains. The most original is to buy it as a gift as a souvenir from Laos, in little bags with Laotian designs. You can also buy gold and silver jewellery of high purity, but jewellery made from bomb remnants is very popular and a bit unusual. Laos is the country that has suffered the most bombs per capita. It is believed that some 270 million bombs fell on the country during the long war known as Vietnam but which particularly affected Laos, 30% of which never exploded. With the metal from the bombs, many artisans make jewellery, chains and even cutlery. 

This initiative is supported by NGOs to help the victims and their families. This is a very successful way of contributing to local development and compensating the population. The COPEmuseum in Vientiane offers an educational look at this tragic part of Laos' history. The more daring or curious can take home as a souvenir the popular snake whisky, found in markets all over the country, also with scorpions and tarantulas in it. It is extremely strong and made with rice alcohol and a hint of reptile inside the bottle. Sellers claim it has powerful aphrodisiac properties and fights rheumatism.

Laos shows great concern for sustainable tourism and responsible projects under the Lasting Laos brand. Their recommendations in this regard and a good picture of what Laos has to offer can be seen in this video. 

Programmes to support sustainable development in Laos, sponsored by the European Union, are carried out, among others, by SWITCH-Asia, ECEAT - European Centre for Ecological and Agricultural Tourism and Plan International Deutschland eV

Further information:  

Authors: Enrique Sancho and Carmen Cespedosa. Open Comunicación

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