What to see? | Laos

 

Vientiane

This delightfully friendly capital, studded with crumbling French mansions, bougainvillea­-blooming streets and steaming noodle stalls, is somewhere between a big town and a diminutive city; the kind of place you might find a Graham Greene protagonist. Its conveniently compact travellers' enclave is based around Nam Phu, the Mekong riverside and Setthariat and Samsenthai streets. Full of things to see, from Buddha Park to the Morning market and an impossibly rich selection of international cuisine, most pointedly French, you'll find yourself slowly won over by the easy charms of this evolving backwater. The city may reveal its beauty less readily than Luang Prabang, but spend a few days visiting its unusual sights, sampling its excellent food and enjoying a Beer Lao at sunset by the river, and you'll soon feel at home here.

 

Luang Prabang

Colour is the first of Luang Prabang's virtues to greet travellers. Pearly frangipanis with their heady perfume, banks of overgrown trees peppered with scarlet flowers, the burnt sienna robes of hundreds of monks and their novices, and resplendent gold and claret wats. The scent of fresh coffee, river activity, produce markets and spicy food soon follows. And then the broader aesthetics begin to unfold. Encircled by mountains, and set 700m. above sea level at the confluence of the Nam Khan (Khan River) and the Mekong River, Luang Prabang is now Laos' foremost tourist showpiece. The brew of gleaming temple roofs, crumbling French provincial architecture and multiethnic inhabitants captivates even the most jaded travellers, and the quiet benevolence of the city's residents lulls them into somnambulant bliss. Sealed highways linking Luang Prabang with Thailand and China have turned the city into an important relay point for commerce between the three countries. City governors have wisely provided a road bypass system that gives the city centre a wide berth. Thus the sense of calm antiquity that first brought visitors to the city when Laos opened to tourism in 1.989 has been well preserved. More­over, the city is Unesco Heritage listed, which means a blessed ban on buses and trucks. Most road activity consists of bicycles or motorcycles, but an even score simply go by foot. Although the city teems with travellers, it is not a party destination, and the 11.30pm curfew silences the city by midnight and maintains its traditional disposition.

 

Plains of Jars

The Plain of Jars is a large area extending around Phonsavan from the southwest to the northeast, where huge jars of unknown origin are scattered about in over a dozen groupings. Despite local myth, the jars have been fashioned from solid stone, most from a tertiary conglomerate known as molasses (akin to sandstone), and a few from granite. Quarries (actually boulder fields) west of Muang Sui have been discovered containing half-finished jars. Apparently the jars were carved from solid boulders of varying sizes, which goes a long way to explain the many different sizes and shapes. Many of the smaller jars have been taken away by various collectors, but there are still several hundred or so on the plain in the five major sites (out of the 20 or so known to exist) that are worth visiting. Site 1 (Thong Hai Hin), the biggest and most accessible site, is 15km southwest of Phonsavan and features 250 jars, most weighing 600kg to one tonne each. The largest jar weighs as much as six tonnes and is said to have been the victory cup of mythical King Jeuam and so is called Hai Jeuam. The site has two pavilions and restrooms that were built for a visit by Thailand's crown prince. Two other jar sites are readily accessible by road from Phonsavan. Site 2 (Hai Hin Phu Salato), about 25km south of town, features 90 jars spread out across two adjacent hillsides. Site 3 (Hai Hin Lat Khai), it's on a scenic hill-top near Lat Khai. Ban Xieng contains a small monastery where the remains of Buddha images that were damaged in the war have been displayed. The villagers, who live in unusually large houses compared with those of the average lowland Lao, grow rice, sugar cane, avocado and banana. Villagers can lead you on a short hike to a local waterfall called Tat Lang. To reach the jar site you must hike around 2 km. along rice paddy dykes and up the hill.

 

Ho Chi Minh Path

This path is formed of a network of dusty and gravel roads, parallel to the border of Laos and Vietnam, and specially attractive those interested in the warfare history. This route was used by the North Vietnamese during the Vietnam War and the Viet Minh in their struggle against the French in the fifties. Although the North Vietnamese denied the existence of this pathway and the United States also denied that they had bombed; the fact is that between 1.965 and 1.969 was attacked with 1,1 million explosives and large quantities of herbicides. The trail, located in a fairly remote location, it still retains many vestiges of the war, the remains of helicopters and airplanes. Sepon, about 600 km southeast of Vientiane, is the nearest town, was destroyed during the conflict and all that remained were various huts.

 

Bolaven Plateau

Spreading across the northeast of Champasak Province into Salavan and Sekong, the fertile Bolaven Plateau is famous for its cool climate, dramatic waterfalls, fertile soil and high-grade coffee plantations. It's also known for being one of the most heavily bombed theatres of the Second Indochina War. The area wasn't farmed intensively until the French started planting coffee, rubber trees and bananas in the early XX century. Many of the French planters left following independence in the 1950s and the rest followed as US bombardment became unbearable in the late '60s. Controlling the Bolaven Plateau was considered strategically vital to both the Americans and North Vietnamese, as evidenced by the staggering amount of UXO still lying around. The slow process of clearing UXO continues. The largest ethnic group on the plateau is the Laven (Bolaven means home of the Laven). Several other Mon-Khmer ethnic groups also live on the plateau. Katu and Alak villages are distinctive because they arrange their palm-and-thatch houses in a circle. One unique Katu custom is the carving of wooden casketsfor each member of the household well in advance of an expected death; the caskets are stored beneath homes or rice sheds until needed. Among other tribes, the animistic-shamanistic Suay (who call themselves Kui) are said to be the best elephant handlers. Elephants were used extensively for clearing land and moving timber, though working elephants are hard to find these days. The Alak, Katu and Laven are distinctive for the face tattoos of their women, a custom slowly dying out as Lao influence in the area increases.