For about an hour at the airport in Bangkok, it looked as if we might not get to Laos—a country long on my bucket list. Though my wife and I had lived in Asia for many years, Laos had slipped under our radar. I had long desired to visit the five remaining Communist countries, and had been to all of them except Laos. But I confess that my visit to North Korea consisted of a walk around the north side of the giant negotiating table at Panmunjom, which straddles the border between North and South Korea, and is where the 1953 armistice was signed.
But after straightening out a technicality about processing a passport, we were on our way. Our hotel, the Vila Maly, just 15 minutes from the airport, proved a perfect choice. LP is a small, laid-back, informal, low-rise and somewhat sleepy city. The city center is nestled between two rivers—the fabled Mekong and the smaller Nam Kahan, which meet at the north end of town. There is still a significant French influence from colonial days on the food and architecture. Two large quiet streets hug the rivers parallel to Sisavangvong Road, the main commercial avenue. At night, half the street is quickly converted to a vibrant market with hundreds of stalls selling local crafts, textiles and accessories, street foods, tourist items and locally grown coffee, tea and spices.
The most poignant items for sale are jewelry and kitchen implements crafted from the casings of bombs left from the intensive US bombing when Laos was used by the Chinese as a staging area for their assistance to the North in the Vietnamese War. These ordinances still occasionally kill or maim farmers tilling the fields and sometimes children who collect metal bomb fragment scraps to sell. The U.S. dropped some 200 tons of explosives on Laos, and it is estimated that more than thirty percent did not explode but remain dangerous.
After twenty years of civil war and subsequent isolation, Laos has reemerged as a tourist-friendly country. Its strong Buddhist tradition has also reappeared. “Wats” (temples with giant Buddhas) dot the landscape and LP has dozens, many of which have been or are being restored. Some of the more noteworthy include: Wat Xieng Thong, the oldest (1560 AD) and largest of Luang Prabang style temple architecture, featuring a giant seated Buddha; Wat Visoun with its giant gold monkey Buddha; and Wat Visonulat, featuring a watermelon stupa. A 300 step steep climb will take you to the top of Mount Phu Si in the city center, where you will find a golden stupa and great views of the city and its rivers. If you don’t mind rising before 6am, you can view the parade of barefoot saffron-robed monks file down Sisavangvong Road to collect food from kneeling locals and alms from early-rising tourists.
The National Museum is a must. Housed in the former King’s Palace built by the French in 1904, it houses a large collection of royal and religious art and artifacts including statues, furniture, stone tablets, the King’s throne, weapons and a collection of gifts from foreign dignitaries including Presidents Nixon and Kennedy. Highlights for me included the Royal Car exhibit which features a 1957 Edsel, a gift of the US Government (one must wonder just what President Eisenhower must have thought of the Laotians to give them an Edsel) and the gold Royal Barge.
Most tourists visit Laos for hiking, Mekong River cruises, elephant-watching and riding, biking, rafting and touring the native Katu villages. While we went to relax, walk, visit a few of the temples and sample the local fare, I very much wanted to take a day trip up the legendary Mekong. Unlike many Asian rivers, the Mekong in this part of Laos is quite bare of traffic. I doubt if in our five hour trip we saw more than twenty boats. We stopped at Xiang Hai Village, known for its hand-woven textiles, and then to the famous Tam Ting caves, carved into a mountain and filled with more than 4,000 Buddha images of every shape and size left by thankful worshipers over the years. We chose the luncheon cruise on the Nava Mekong, a traditional covered river long-tail boat, preferring it to the dinner cruises which do not stop at the caves. At $25, it was a great bargain.
I particularly enjoyed a “Fish Spa” where you sit and dip into a foot bath containing hundreds of tiny minnow-like fish that feast on your foot callouses. It provides a pleasant tingling sensation and you emerge after 10 minutes with clean feet and the fish having enjoyed a good meal.
After four restful days filled with interesting sights and friendly people, it was sadly time to take leave of Laos and fly back home via an overnight stay in Bangkok. But Laos has not truly dropped from my bucket list. It has simply moved to the “B” List of places I need to visit again.