Southern Laos

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOur final destination was southern Laos, in just a few days we covered the Bolivean plateau, the most famous Khmer temple in Laos and had a nice relaxing stay on one of the 4000 islands close to the Mekong falls. Unfortunately we were delayed so that our visit to the Bolivean plateau was cut quite short. WOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAe only visited two of the water falls on the border of the plateau and didn’t really get to see the tense fauna of the plateau itself. Circling the entire plateau takes about 200km. If you consider that we’d taken over 8 hours to cover this distance just a week ago, it is not surprising that we didn’t have time to do this after we arrived at 2pm. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
After our short visit to the plateau we stayed a night in Pakxe. From the first impression I got that this town has little to offer and, I must admit, we didn’t really give it a second chance. We stayed in the hotel that night and left early the next morning to visit Wat Phu. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI thought I’d seen the last of Pakxe, but I would be very very wrong. Pakxe has the only bridge for about a 100 miles around (yes I made that number up, but there are VERY few bridges over the Mekong), so whenever we needed to switch the side of the river, we had to return Pakxe. This would happen 2-3 times. WOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAe first stopped in Wat Phu, a lovely temple currently under reconstruction. There are two buildings, supposedly one for women and one for the men, but nothing definitive is known. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFrom there a lovely, lovely stair case leads up to the older temple at the foot of the mountain where there is a sacred spring and supposedly a crocodile-altar to sacrifice virgins (not so lovely).OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

From there we returned to Pakxe to cross the river and drive down to the landing place next to the island we’d be staying onOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA. A 30 minute drive with a very authentic boat brought us to the main island where we would stay the night. and watch a very lovely sunset The next morning we could walk down to the Mekong falls. On the way we saw the local railway. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWho would have thought that an island barely 3km long would have its own railway system, or at least had had. There are a few informational posters telling you the history behind the railway, which was used to transfer heavy military steam boats over the Mekong falls for the French and was abandoned shortly after the end of the canonicalization era.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA  The falls themselves are not as impressive as one would expect, while the Mekong is a strong and water-rich current it is split into several smaller side arms between the different islandsOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA. Of course each of those side arms remains more massive than most rivers I know, it still doesn’t quite compare to the mental image I had made my myself and the falls themselves are more like rapids. It is still very impressive to see the water masses tumble down the rapids, but I wouldn’t necessarily call it a water fall.

Luang Prabang – Surroundings

   OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe had a few more days in Luang Prabang packed with activities outside the town. The days could, of course, have also been well spent further exploring Luang Prabang, but there are only so many days in a trip and we wanted to see as many different things as possible.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
THE sight outside of Luang Prabang are the Pak Ou Caves, named after the river on which the caves are located. They are considered sacred and it is said to bring good luck to deposit a Buddha inside this caveOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Continue reading

Luang Prabang

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOur next stop was Luang Prabang. I had heard of it before, but I had no idea what I was in for. After having suffered through the car ride back from Phonsavan to the “main road”, we came to realize that the main road was just as small and curvy as the previous road. It took us another full day to cover the 250km from Phonsavan to Luang Prabang. We reached the city in the early afternoon and were greeted by a buzzing city, everybody in a rush to get home (or to the next party, we didn’t ask).OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
The town is located at the juncture of two rivers: The gigantic Mekong and the not quite as large, but still large Nam Ou. Continue reading

Phonsavan and the plain of jars

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe next day we set out to Phonsavan. A town that reputedly has no charm whatsoever as it was built in the 1970ies as a district capital. There are many grey buildings in grey streets set in grey surroundings and we reached it      on a grey day. The drive to Phonsavan was the exact opposite though, OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAwe drove through sunshine and luscious green mountains. The road through those mountains was small and windy, but fortunately tarred and while our driver was driving very safely, we took many of the turns with squealing tires. To recover from the hardship of being driven around, we stopped at a number of local markets on the way, where our guide showed us what was for sale. Continue reading

Aside

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe set out to Vang Vieng the next morning. The drive led us through many different villages and flat scenery until we reached the mountains shortly before our final destination. There we made a short stop to take a look at two old Buddhas carved into the stone. It was also our first contact with the abundant green nature of Northern Laos. Continue reading

Vientiane

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAToday we arrived in Vientiane, Laos after a gruelling 18h flight. Minus one bag which got lost somewhere along the way. Luckily we would be reunited with it only one day later.

It was midday and we bravely decided to fight the jet-lag by staying up until the evening. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe wanted to get a feeling of the town. Our first destination was the Mekong, visible from afar, a huge brown trail running alongside the city. As we are in the dry season, the river bed is partially dry and can be walked on. At least that’s what I thought. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis directly led to my first experience with the Mekong being a lot more intense and closer up than anticipated: I slipped and made contact with the muddy muddy ground of the Mekong.  After a short stop to clean myself up we strolled through the streets to take a look at all the street food, the traffic and the streetlife before heading for our first lao dinner. It was delicious: A huge variety of foods from soup to salad, most of it hot and spicy and a fresh mixed fruit juice to help with the painfully spicy chilis.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe next day we set out to visit the major temples in Vientiane. We learned a lot about Buddhism architecture and Buddhism in general, in particular that the Theravada branch is predominant in Laos and does not believe in reincarnation but in ascension to the heavenOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAs. Therefore they do not bury their dead but rather cremate them to see the body lifted into the sky. The ashes are then stored in Stupas, burial monuments. The lao temples normally have a similar layout: They consist of 4 main buildings: The central hall, the dormitories, the library and the Stupas. All the buildings are protected by Nāga, the mythical snake which wanted to become a monk, but couldn’t as it wasn’t of human form. Buddha then agreed to have a depiction of Nāga in every temple as a compromise. It is also considered the protector of Vientiane and Laos.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOur first stop was Wat Si Saket. A former temple, now a museum, which hosts several thousand Buddha statues of varying forms and sizes.The vast majority are small Buddhas situated in alcoves in pairs of two to bring a happy marriage to the pair that donated themOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA. In addition the walls are lined with larger Buddhas between 500 and 100 years old. A Buddha statue’s fingers are all of equal length to represent that Buddha found perfect balance. He has no desires, whereas a human has different desires whose importance are represented by the varying length of their fingers. The only Buddha statue with “normal hands” was a statue made in the image of one of the former kings. They are the only ones allowed to make a Buddha statue in their image. But they do not stand above the monks or the constitution.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe central hall of Wat Si Saket can also be visited, even by women. It contains the main and also the largest Buddha of the temple. There are many wonderful frescos depicting Jakatas, stories of the previous lives of Buddha, on the walls. Behind the hall was a wooden Nāga.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA This very long trunk is used for the ritual washing of the Buddhas once per year. It is hollow inside and the water is filled into the Nāga from which it is then rained onto the Buddha statues.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe next stop we made was Haw Phra Kaew, formerly the temple of the emerald Buddha. Unfortunately the Thai invaded Laos a number of times and “found” many important artefacts which they consequently returned to Bangkok. This means that the temple of the emerald Buddha does not actually contain the emerald Buddha. It hasn’t contained said Buddha since 1778. This place is also a museum and contains a lot of different Buddhas OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAfrom all over Laos. The building is not a temple, because it consists only of a central hall, but no libraries and dormitories.
The final stop was the golden Stupa located somewhat outside the town: Pha That Luang. The Stupa was built in the sixteenth century and was surrounded by four temples, one in each cardinal direction. Three of those still stand today. The Stupa was badly damaged during one of the Thai wars and then rebuilt anew, as were most of the temples and buildings in Vientiane

After lunch we decided to embrace the Lao way and relaxed. After all our guide told us that Lao PDR stands for Lao People Don’t Rush.