(CLICK ON THE PHOTO TO SEE OUR LAOS PHOTOS)
After nearly a week exploring Northern Thailand amid a cloud of smoke from the slash and burn agriculture we boarded a plane to Luang Prabang, Laos. We had hoped Laos would be a bit less hazy, but upon our descent into the airport it looked like it would be worse. Although disappointed by the lack of views that this country is known for, we were determined not to let that ruin our time here. I had visited Laos in 2005 and had fallen in love with the landscape, the people, and the slow pace of life, and was anxious to share it with Shana.
Luang Prabang is a special place, with the old city planted beside a bend in the Mekong River and emanating old world charm. You can see remnants of it’s French Colonial past in its architecture and riverside cafes where sipping a coffee and watching the river life pass by is a favorite pastime. We spent a few days exploring the temples and royal palace which has remained devoid of the Royal family since 1975 when the Communist Pathet Lao party ended the monarchy and sent them to work and eventually die in the fields.
We were eager to escape the agricultural smoke which enveloped the entire city, swallowed sunsets, rained ash over every surface and wreaked havoc on our eyes, nose, and throats (see our previous post on slash and burn air pollution).
Heading up the Nam Ou by riverboat is the only way to reach Muang Ngoi Neua as it has no road access. Watching the river life from the boat, it seems as if it has been frozen in time and not much has not changed in the past hundreds of years. Families cruise up and down the river and fishermen stand waist deep setting and checking their nets for a fresh catch.
Upon arriving, we were ecstatic that a heavy morning rain had cleared away the smoke and the air was cool and crisp with a mystical thin veil of fog hanging over the limestone mountains reminding us of Lord of the Rings Middle Earth.
Muang Ngoi used to be a regional center but was bombed off the map by America during the CIA’s “secret war” against Laos during the Vietnam war (more on that in an upcoming post). Unexploded bombs can still be seen in the village being used as flower pots and at our guesthouse as stairway banisters (see photo). Since then, the village re-established itself and was rediscovered by backpackers about 10 years ago and now sees a stream of travelers. Muang Ngoi is a great place to hike to reach off-the-beaten-path villages as there are no roads in the area and electricity is limited to 3 hours a day.
On our second day there, we set off to hike to a local village, Ban Na. A trail took us through rice paddies, passed by a cave that was used by locals and rebels during the war, and then past a traditional weaver from whom we bought a scarf. The trail arched over hillsides that gave us spectacular views of the valley and the majestic karsts looming overhead while also passing swaths of hillside that were still baren, black, and still smoking from the slash and burn practices. As we descended onto the floor of the valley and entered Ban Na village, Shana and I could only look at each other with childish grins on our faces as we were so blown away by the surroundings. We were the only non-villagers there so we respectfully and slowly started walking down the single lane of the village smiling at the locals who were very curious about us. Seven-inch long puppies flocked at our feet and we came across a group of young boys firing pellets out of skinny shafts of bamboo that popped like cap guns.
We had purchased a set of Laotian/English language children’s books at the non-profit Big Brother Mouse in Luang Prabang to hand out to villagers as they often don’t have the means or access to books. We handed some out and the boys were instantly enraptured by them. After enjoying the secluded atmosphere we headed back to Muang Ngoi Neau as the sun set and passed a large heard of cows who were on their way back home as well.
After another day soaking up the laid back atmosphere we headed back via riverboat to Luang Prabang and then spent a few days exploring the Capitol of Vientianne where we enjoyed an excellent authentic Italian meal and some delicious western dishes that helped nurse our cravings after a steady diet of local cuisine.
Laos is an incredible country, despite being one of the poorest in the world in the world and owning the dubious distinction of being the “most bombed country in the world”. The slowed pace of life, subtle French influence left over from it’s colonial past, and dramatically beautiful scenery truly bolster its claim to being the “Jewel of the Mekong”.
You can also check out a slideshow of our photos by clicking the photo below: