The Land of a Million Elephants

BY LAURA HORSLEY

Laos, the land of a million elephants, is a must see when exploring  South East Asia. Lush jungle, misty mountains and a deep engrained Buddhist culture are few of the attractions to Laos which has become a hub for backpackers trying to escape the tourist ridden Thailand.

Once in South East Asia, getting to Laos is relatively easy.  A popular route into Laos is to cross the Mekong River at Chaing Khong on the North-East Thai border and travel into the heart of Laos via the “slow boat”. This boat is, literally slow, taking two days with an overnight stop at a small village until eventually arriving at the beautiful city of Luang Prabang.

Bearing in mind this involves sitting on wooden benches for 8 hours a day, surrounded by backpackers and locals, in a tiny narrow boat, this journey can be painful yet, is not to be missed. The scenery when traveling down the Mekong River is stunning with jungle, mountains and the odd village made of palms and bamboo, framing the pathway to your destination.

The first overnight stop the boat takes is Pak Peng, a small, relaxed harbor village that is extremely unaffected by time. Watching the sunset with the locals whilst trying to swallow the local moonshine alcohol that is freely offered around is something of an experience, but well needed to rid those sea legs. Don’t however get too eager with the prospect of free alcohol – the locals may be able to glug away but one sip of the lighter fuel like liquid and your throat will burn for days…

After a drunken nights sleep and another 8-hour day back on the boat, you will arrive in Luang Prabang.  Once here, a crowd of excitable locals will greet you competing for your custom and the bargaining for a cheap room commences.

The efforts you will go to will be ridiculous, often bargaining over 20p as the backpacker purse strings grow ever tighter. A room for £1 to £2 is however common and means all the more to spend at Luang Prabang’s romantic night market.

The city of Luang Prabang itself is influenced by its French colonialist occupation, it’s traditional Buddhist culture, and Laos’ communist government. The upside to this is that Luang Prabang is a vibrant city that has managed to retain its traditional influences. Even better is the French cuisine, a happy necessity after living off noodle and rice for months on end. Once here, relax, wander around the numerous temples and treat yourself to a few bottles of the legendary beerlao. If you’re feeling really enthusiastic, you can also attempt to wake up at dawn to take part in the Morning Alms Giving procession. This involves kneeling in the street with the locals and offering food to the monks that pass by; a tiring but magical experience.

Moving on from Luang Prabang, you can travel onto more idyllic spots off the tourist trail or like every other backpacker, head to the grossly tourist spot that is Vang Vieng. The bus journey here is painfully slow and the roads will make your stomach turn but the scenery on the way is well worth seeing. Vang Vieng itself is nestled in a beautiful green landscape with the river on its doorstep, framed by vast limestone mountains. The town is however awfully affected by alcohol seeking travelers and a room in one of the quest houses on the river is a more recommended destination for a nights sleep.

The main attraction here, second to caving, is “tubing”; an alcohol fuelled bender where inflatable rubber rings are rented and you are dropped off at a string of bars by the river. Here, rope swings, slides, and trapezes throw you into the river and as you float down, the locals pull you in to experience their free shots and buckets of alcohol. If you’re after a mud fight, a few bevies and a very drunken, often dangerous, swim down the river, this is the place to be.

You can do this for a couple of days but soon enough your liver will yell for a rest and its time to travel to the capital Vientiane. Unlike Bangkok, Vientiane is a calming and relaxed capital that is a welcome change after one too many intoxicated nights in Vang Vieng. Here there is an opportunity to see the local temples, laze in one of the many cafes, and make some last minute buys at the morning market.

When traveling in Laos, it must be remembered that communism is prevalent and in some areas a curfew must be abided by. Do your reading before you go and be sure to avoid political events. You should be somewhat vigilant, as cases of civil unrest, armed attacks and bombings have occurred in the past. Especially in certain spots such at Route 13 from Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng, a highway that is known to be especially prone to bandits.

This aside, Laos is an extremely diverse country and whether you want to experience a different culture, trek, cave, venture into remote provinces or just get intoxicated with fellow backpackers, Laos is a perfect destination. The country is responding to tourism and as a result, becoming ever more visited and expensive but this is exactly why it is such a perfect place to visit now.

Just avoid the wet season, get some Laos kip and get traveling!

HOW TO GET THERE

An overnight sleeper train is the easiest way to get to Bangkok but flights can be taken to other countries from here. How recommendable it is to fly with Laos airlines is debatable. The planes are said to be more like flying cars and not all too safe to fly with. Based on price and time however, they are often a popular choice.

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