Laos – an emerging jewel

The wrinkled woman with her Akha tribal headdress carrying a big basket of rice on her back was slowly, but tenaciously walking up the cart track in the same direction as us as we followed our guide through rice fields on our gentle trek in the far north of Laos. Mai, our wiry guide, asked her if we could photograph her and her face broke into a broad smile, indicating willingness, although she asked for some money so she could buy some noodles.

This brief meeting captured two of the truths about Laos – the people are as friendly as you could ever meet and extremely poor, US$100 a month representing a better than average income. Over three quarters of the Lao population live in rural communities, mostly in small, dark bamboo walled and grass roofed houses, surviving on rice farming and other crops, as well as traditional weaving and embroidery. But most houses have a television and a satellite dish, even if not much else.

The far north villages are home to some of the 49 ethnic groups in Laos, among them the animist Akha, Yao, Khmu and Lanten in this part of a mainly Buddhist country, where the largest ethnic groups are Lao and Tai. Each group has a different house building design, some on stilts, some close to the ground and others without windows which would let in the evil spirits. At the entrance and exit to every Akha village there is a spirit gate which prevents spirits entering the village.

My wife and I were on a 12 day gentle trek, although trekking was an exaggeration, as it was more wandering round villages which took us from World Heritage town, Luang Prabang, on the banks of the Mekong river, before we headed to the far north west near the border with China. Luang Prabang, the old royal capital of Laos, is an elegant town with many temples, stupas or funeral spires, and French colonial houses lining the streets, but no high rise buildings.

One of the most amazing sights in Luang Prabang is the alms collecting procession of Buddhist monks along the main street at dawn each morning. After the monks have passed by, it’s time to walk to the morning market selling the freshest vegetables and fruit you could hope to see, much of it grown nearby on the silt banks of the Mekong, including beans, cucumbers, chillies, tamarind, melons, grapes, pomelos, river fish, and the famous local sausages, as well as assorted birds, both alive and dead.

The drive from Luang Prabang to Luang Nam Tha took most of the day in a minivan on the main highway to China over increasingly rutted roads which we were told had been in the same condition for at least five years, although we had to slow down even more on a 10 km stretch under massive reconstruction. After hours of jolting, we suddenly emerged onto a two lane motorway for the last 30 km which had been built with Chinese money.

Finally after a gruelling 10 hour drive we pulled into the parking area of the Boat Landing Guest House where we were shown to our comfortable cottage right beside the Nam Tha River. Started by an American on ecological principles, the Guest House lighting was dim and the water solar powered, hence the cold shower in the morning, but the situation was superb. The next two days we spent alternately on a river trip and trekking through rice fields, rubber plantations and villages, where the locals spin silk, weave, make earthenware pots and bamboo fish traps, and distil Lau Lao rice whisky at around 60 degrees proof.

Our trip on the Nam Tha River took us down some exciting rapids, through the Nam Ha National Protection Area, similar to our National Parks, into a couple of villages and up a tributary where we moored for a delicious lunch of salads with sticky rice served on banana leaves beside the river. Our local guide for the two days had a great sense of humour and spoke quite good English. The return trip up the rapids was even more exciting requiring a change of pilot to complete after one particularly hairy ascent. The crew worked together impressively with a minimum of fuss, just plenty of hand signals to point out the rocks.

We left Luang Nam Tha for Muang Xing, a town two hours north within 5 km of the border with China which only the locals are allowed to cross, because the official tourist border crossing is back at Boten on the other side of Luang Nam Tha. Most of the locals on either side of the border are from the same ethnic groups and are related to each other, crossing daily for work and trade. The market at Muang Xing, starting at 6 am, is a fascinating mixture of people and produce, while in the local museum there is a large collection of tribal artefacts and clothing representing all the main tribes in the area.

After two nights in the far north our minivan took us back the way we had come on an all day journey to Nong Khiau, a mecca for backpackers, beside the Nam Ou River. We spent the night at the Sunset Guest House where we had dinner with an English couple we had met two days earlier, accompanied as usual by Lao Beer, but unfortunately we failed to take a photo of the beautiful sunset across the river from our room, as the next morning we were greeted by thick fog.

After breakfast we headed to the Pathok Caves where the communist sympathising Luang Prabang Government hid and operated from during the Vietnam War, avoiding the heavy bombing by American planes. The steep steps up to the caves were infinitely easier than the bamboo ladder which was the only means of wartime access, while inside the caves were marked the wartime uses of different areas. It brought home sharply the history of conflict in Laos during the 20th century, when it was occupied by the French for 50 years under the Lao monarchy before gaining independence in the 1950s, bombarded more than any country in history during the Vietnam War, then becoming the People’s Democratic Republic of Laos in 1975 after a coup which ended the monarchy after more than 600 years.

Since 1975 many Lao, particularly the Khmu people, have lived in exile overseas because they supported the royalist government and the USA, and are too frightened of reprisals if they return, with many people including the last King, Queen and Crown Prince having been imprisoned in POW camps near the border with Vietnam never to be seen again.

Here are the two faces of Laos: first, the friendly, hospitable, although poor country which is increasingly welcoming foreign investment in infrastructure and tourists, notably Germans, French, British and American, many of whom are interested in the type of environmentally sustainable tourism experiences provided in the north of the country; secondly, the undercurrent of repression and imprisonment by the communist government which discourages the local inhabitants from discussing politics and prevents many native Lao from coming back home.

They say Laos is like Vietnam 20 years ago and there’s no doubt it has a charm and beauty all of its own. But a major challenge will be managing economic growth and increasing the wealth of the people from very low levels without provoking civil unrest. At the moment the population appears to be contented despite the low income, probably because food is plentiful and cheap, but there is scarcely any industry in Laos which is predominantly rural and agricultural with a tractor being a massive purchase and most work still being manual.

When we went to Laos we were the only clients on our guided tour which guarantees to operate with a minimum of two people, starting and finishing in Bangkok – this was the ideal way to go, because the accommodation was very comfortable, the tour guides were excellent and travelling independently would be a challenge, especially the driving and finding your way round. If you visit Laos, don’t expect 5 star accommodation, good roads or great travel facilities, but you will enjoy the people, the food, the scenery and the fact that it’s still cheap. It was a great experience.

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