Archive for Laos
Places to visit in Laos
We are often asked what sights we think are worth seeing, which places we found interesting and what would we recommend doing. These are our thoughts. There is much more detail in our Journal for Laos. We travelled from south to north but these entries are based on the places we liked best.
The details may change so we suggest you check with a good guide book. We suggest “Lonely Planet” or the “Rough Guide” series because they are both well written and kept up to date. You can get more information on;
Many visitors only visit Luang Phabang and Vientiane with some also stopping at Vang Vieng. Consequently these towns see many tourists and tend to cater to tourists. However the southern towns of Laos are well worth a visit if you can afford the time.
Slow Boat on the Mekong
The boat trip on the Mekong between Luang Phabang and Hauy Xai travels through majestic mountainous scenery in one of the remotest stretches on the river. A trip on one of the slow boats designed to take tourists is highly recommended.
Vientiane (Central Laos)
There are several sights of interest in Vientiane, the Capital of Laos. Being a centre of commerce and religion the city feels less like a tourist resort and more like a working town. It is however a small city of only a quarter of a million people and without the hustle and bustle of Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur or Saigon.
Probably the most impress sight is Pha That Luang, the most important national and religious monument in Laos.
The Patuxai or Victory monument is set in a pleasant gardens on the main road into the centre of the city.
Wat Sisaket is an old pagoda built around 1820 and the cloister walls are studded with hundreds of niches housing over 2000 silver and ceramic Buddha images.
Wat Si Muang is the site of an ancient masonry pillar said to be 1000 years old and the remains of the original ancient city.
The National Museum of Religious Art, Haw Pha Kaeo, is housed in a former Royal Temple and houses fine examples of bronze and wooden Buddha images. Well worth a visit.
Plain of Jars (Central Laos)
Located in the Centre of Laos, near the town of Phonsavan, the 1000 metre elevation plateaux is surrounded by high peaks. Here hundreds of huge 2,500 year old stone jars are found in groups across the plain. It is worth spending a couple of days exploring these evocative sites with a guide.
It is important to stick to the marked paths as there are still unexploded bombs left from the American war in the 60s and 70s.
Luang Phabang (Northern Laos)
This well preserved ancient capital of Laos is a pleasure to walk through and be in. The Royal Palace Museum is well worth a visit. There also several pagodas which have survived the ravages of time and invading armies from the surrounding countries. Every morning at 06:00 the monks from the pagodas walk slowly along Than Sakkarin accepting alms from the townsfolk and visitors. Some say the town has gone too far to attract and accommodate tourists to the extent that the character of the town is being lost.
Pakse (Southern Laos)
There are two major attractions in this area, apart from the town itself.
The ancient Kymer temple of Wat Phou is at Champasak, about 16km from Pakse. The 1000 year old ruins of the temple are set in an imposing location of vegetation clad mountains. Many of the sculptures and intricate carvings are well preserved in the excellent modern museum at the site.
The other attraction is the people and countryside of the Bolaven Plateau. Trips can be arranges to spectacular waterfalls and villages of the indigenous peoples.
Si Phan Don (Deep South near the border with Cambodia)
This region is called the four thousand islands because the River Mekong spreads out into a shallow 16 km wide inland delta with numerous rapids and cascade waterfalls.
In the dry season, when the river is low, taking a boat between the islands to see the waterfalls is a good day out.
The remains of the French railway built to move cargo past the waterfalls can still be seen on one of the islands.
Freshwater dolphins are another major attraction although the number of dolphins in the river here is falling.
Vang Vieng (Central Laos)
The beautiful Song river and spectacular scenery bring many visitors to Vang Viang. The limestone caves, trekking opportunities and relaxing on the river in canoes, boats, kayaks and inner tubes makes Vang Vieng a popular destination. However the ready availability of drugs and excessive drinking are tarnishing the reputation of this laid back town.
Thakek (Southern Laos)
A quiet town with few ‘sights’ Thakek offers several interesting limestone caves to visit. Whilst in the dry season these are easily accessible, some with well constructed walkways and steps deep inside, in the wet season a boat or waist deep wading is necessary.
Savannaket (Southern Laos)
Savannaket is a quiet town which still retains many examples of French colonial architecture. The people are friendly and helpful and in Wat Sainyaphum English speaking monks are happy to chat. In the evening the population seems to gravitate toward the temporary cafes by the river bank to cook their meals on charcoal burners on their tables.
Slow Boat up the Mekong River
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Our boat, a converted Mekong cargo boat, moving serenely up the great river. Passenger speed boat flashing down the river. The passengers all wear lifejackets and crash helmets.
Beautiful mountain scenery near the Pak Ou caves. Line of water buffalo walking along the sandy bank of the river. The water rises the sixteen metres up to the jungle during the wet season.
Fisherman paddling past huge rocks which are submerged when the river rises. Hmong people panning for gold in the gravel banks exposed by low water.
Cargo boats moored at Pakbeng. Cargo boats moored against a sandbank.
Dawn as we move through a narrow gorge. Slash and burn operations near a Hmong village we visted.
Fisherman working from precarious rocks. Sunset on the Mekong near Hauy Xai, Laos
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For the last two years we have lived by the influence of the Mekong River one way or another. It drew us like a magnet, connecting us with dramatic civilisations, bustling markets and the unequal struggles of the poor. At the ancient Laos capital of Louang Phabang the brown swirling Mekong flowed steadily, its level dropping every day of the dry season. We were told that the bigger cargo boats would soon stop sailing north until the rains came in June. It was time to continue our journey north by boat to Hauy Xai, a border town near the confluence Laos, Thailand and Burma.
Consulting the riverboat crews on shore we were presented with several options. Slow cargo boats carrying sacks of corn being exported to Thailand, passenger boats with fifty hard benches for a hundred people and livestock, fast speedboats which could navigate the rapids in one day and new, comfortable, but expensive, slow passenger boats which took two days. We discounted the speed boats because of their deplorable safety record. We were told of boats skipping off of submerged rocks and smashing into rock buttresses in the river. Whilst spending a day on a crammed local bus was fun and interesting the prospect of two days on the hard bench of an overcrowded boat going through dry season rapids had less appeal. So we checked our finances, bit the bullet and opted for the slow comfortable boat up the Mekong.
At dawn the ropes were let go and we slipped out into the Mekong. Moving against the current our progress was certainly slow but watching the sun rise over the jungle was unforgettable. We were headed for a remote stretch of the river where there were few roads through the mountains, sparse population and only jungle villages. Within minutes the mountains crowded in and we were buffeted by swirling water powering through narrow gorges. High above us were towering walls of rock which were submerged for most of the year. Where the river widened out the jungle fringed banks were fifteen to twenty metres above our deck, that’s the incredible change in water level that drives this river every year.
Our fellow passengers were a great bunch of French, Danish, Dutch, British and Thai tourists. We established an instant rapport, spotting birds, waving to other river users and chatting about life in South East Asia. Some lived and worked in Bangkok or Singapore. At Pakbeng we tied up with the cargo boats and walked up a wide sandy beach to the steps of an Eco Lodge to spend the night. We were not sure exactly what an Eco Lodge was, but the local insects were certainly friendly. Having a six inch long bright green preying mantis clearing up the smaller flying insects on your mosquito net is not however a welcome sight at close quarters. Delicious, fresh locally produced vegetables and fruits from the jungle surrounding the mighty river gave us a taste of the range of Laos foods and made a perfect ending to a breathtaking day.
Mist shrouded the mountains as we slipped back into the current in the morning. At wider parts, where the indigenous people were panning for gold, the boated slowed and the crew tested the water depth. As the jungle closed in and the sun rose higher in the sky the brown river twisted and turned. Flecks of black lace fluttered slowly on to the deck like despondent butterflies. The familiar smell of wood smoke gradually increased until at one turn we heard the crackle of burning wood and saw the flames of slash and burn dart and spring through the jungle.
At sunset of the second day we tied up at the frontier town of Hauy Xai having thoroughly enjoyed a wonderful slow boat trip up the Mekong. It was a great end to our visit to Laos and its delightfully friendly people.