A Travellerspoint blog


Don Daeng

Chill time...

sunny 44 °C
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Lazy day on Don Daeng.

La Folie Lodge offers free bicycle hire to its guests, and we took advantage of this by pedalling off to take a peak at the island in the morning, before the heat of the day became too unbearable. Wise move, as the temperature hit 44 C in the afternoon!

Sunrise from the balcony...

The hotel manager advised us against going north as the road wasn't up to much, so we headed south. Good job, as the track heading south was more like a collection of holes surrounded by soft, dusty, loose sand and interspersed with the odd tufts of grass or a few wooden slats attempting to impersonate a bridge. Rusty Chinese bikes made for Chinese sized people with rusty western sized riders on Lao tracks is not a good formula. I gave up and headed back to the poolside long before David did!


The rest of the day was spent on the sunbed, in the cooling pool, bar, restaurant, private balcony and A/C room. Repeat as necessary.


Posted by Grete Howard 01:56 Archived in Laos Comments (0)

4000 Islands

Boats and bikes and more waterfalls

sunny 39 °C
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Having set the alarm for pre-dawn, I popped down to the river bank to watch the sun rise over the Mekong. It wasn't spectacular, as sunrises go, but it was worth a photo of two. Most amusing was watching the fishermen throw their nets out – one chap was a little too enthusiastic with his throwing, falling backwards out of the boat in the process.


Phet, last night's waiter, had pre-warned us about the monk procession this morning, another reason for getting up early. Not as many monks as in Luang Prabang, but better in many ways, as there wasn't another tourist in sight, just the locals gaining merit by getting up early to cook some rice for the dozen or so monks doing their daily rounds.


Parting company with our luggage outside the hotel on Khong Island, we set off in a long tailed speed boat to explore the 4000 Islands area. Much more comfortable than yesterday's dolphin-watching boat, this one had cushions and even seat backs, and the benches were raised much higher off the floor of the boat. Almost luxurious.


4000 Islands Area
Known as Si Phan Don in the Lao language, this is the widest point of the Mekong and during rainy season the river recedes, leaving behind 1000s of islands and islets, hence the name of 4000 Islands.


Initially, the islets we saw were mainly uninhabited, just little mounds of grass and a few trees, then a few more boats, fishermen, women doing laundry in the river, buffalo grazing, men repairing their vessels and monks' robes hanging out to dry (no more dirty habits for them then...) Later we passed one of the main backpacker islands in this area, Don Det, with the riverbank lined with rustic bungalows on stilts, lively bars and kayaking/tubing youngsters.


Our stop for the morning was the large island of Don Khone, another backpacker haven, where we were to rent bicycles for a tour of the major sites. Seeing the size of the bikes and the state of the track, I chickened out of cycling, and decided to travel on the back of Khien's motorbike instead. After a few minutes of bumping along the track I was jolly glad I did! David, being the braver of the two of us, decided to risk a pedal bike...


Liphi Waterfall
Known as the Corridor of the Devil, Liphi means bad spirit in Lao and refers to the fact that many dead bodies were found trapped in fishing nets here during the war, and locals believe bad spirits of dead are therefore trapped here. No-one will swim here for that reason. Legend also tells of a princess who went over Liphi Falls in a raft and was reincarnated as the river tern bird. These were probably the prettiest of all the waterfalls we've seen so far on this trip.


The French built a railway here in the 1930s to bypass the Khone Phapheng Falls for the vital supply link of cargo from Vietnam. Remains of the tracks can still be seen, as well one of the locomotives. Initially, the ferry was put on the tracks and pulled along by local workers before the arrival of engines.


Back on the boat again for some more exploring and returning to the mainland for lunch in a tourist restaurant on stilt overlooking the river. The menu looked impressive, but the chicken was off, so was the ginger, and the sweet and sour, and the 7-Up as well as Diet Coke – so basically whatever you ordered, you ended up with hot and spicy pork and Pepsi. Just as we were finishing off our food, a huge group of Thai tourists with matching black jackets and red baseball caps arrived in their double decker bus. Suddenly a variety of foods appeared from nowhere....

Mullet-cuisine lunch: it could be sweet and sour pork (which I ordered), or David's choice of chicken with ginger. Or you could have hot and spicy pork. Unless you were Thai....

The large and the small of it - our huge mini-bus (for the two of us, plus Khien, our guide) is dwarfed by the bus carrying the Thai tourists.

The roads here in the south are generally in a much better condition than those we drove along further north, and a couple of snoozes later, we arrived at another one of those 'sideways' ferries to transport us across the river yet again. This time there was only our vehicle on board, so we were able to get out and walk about.


Wat Phou
A UNESCO Heritage Site, the name means Mountain Temple, and is an ancient Khmer ruin from the 7th to the 11th centuries, basically preceding Angkor Wat. Wat Phou was once the capital of the Khmer kingdom, which later moved to Angkor in Cambodia. The oldest historical site of worship in Laos, the temple is dedicated to Shiva, and Khien, David and I all made offerings and prayers to the Buddha before scaling the seven levels of the temple.


We missed a festival here by a few days, which Khien said was a good thing as the place is uncomfortably crowded during that time. Huge teams of workers were still busy clearing the rubbish. Obviously the Glastonbury of Laos.


Another boat trip across the Mekong to our hotel for the night, this time on a catamaran with a flat wooden deck suspended between the two boats, and a couple of chairs for tourists to sit and admire the view.


During the dry season, large expanses of sand are exposed here, making an enormous beach in front of the hotel. A small tractor with a trailer for tourists and luggage (affectionately known locally as the Chinese Buffalo) takes you from the riverside to the grand entrance of La Folie Lodge, a small luxury hotel on Don Daeng Island.


Wooden bungalows sit on stilt with large balconies overlooking the beach. Not a bad place to finish our Lao tour...

Sunset from the bar...

Posted by Grete Howard 00:59 Archived in Laos Comments (1)

Tadlo - Don Khong

Waterfalls and Dolphins

sunny 38 °C
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Before breakfast we wandered down to the river to see the elephants being bathed. The lodge is recognised by ElefantAsia (an international NGO for the conservation of elephants) for their work with rescued elephants, eco-tourism and breeding program. That's good enough for me.


Paxuam Waterfall
Entrance to the waterfall is across a bamboo suspension bridge and through a beautiful eco-resort – I am not sure if it was the swinging of the bridge or the amount of BeerLao I had last night that was making me feel dizzy.


Khone Phapheng
The largest waterfall by volume in South East Asia, on the Lao-Cambodian border, Khone Papheng is colloquially known as the Niagara of Laos. The name means 'Sinking of the Song' in the Lao language – a reference to the sound the water used to make when hitting the sandstone at the bottom of the falls. The highest fall here is 21m and the falls stretch 9.7 km along the river, with an average discharge of 11,000m3 per second. That's a lot of water. The whole area is geared to tourism, with souvenir shops and restaurants lining the walk from the car park. The falls are certainly spectacular.


After a light lunch overlooking the falls, we took a long tailed speed boat out on the Mekong River near the Cambodian border, looking for the rare and endangered Irrawaddy Dolphins. On the brink of extinction, there are only 20 animals left in this area. Having read many reports of sightings on the internet and in guide books, we were expecting to merely glimpse the dolphins briefly in the distance – which is what we did. Until two of them made a quick appearance almost by the boat. If you'd blinked you'd missed them!


A very traditional ferry consisting of a flat drive-on-drive-off barge powered sideways by a tug took us across from the mainland to Don Khong Island for our overnight stay.


Posted by Grete Howard 03:50 Archived in Laos Comments (3)

Vientiane - Pakse - Bolavan Plateau - Tadlo

The cutting edge, thundering water and giants in the jungle.

sunny 36 °C
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Early start for a 06:30 flight to Pakse in the Chamapssak District of Southern Laos.

Having read the itinerary about the Bolaven Plateau being 1000-1350 metres above sea level, we'd both heeded the warning about the cooler climate and wore jeans and closed shoes. Cooler, my foot! 36C and brilliant sunshine. Call that cool?

Houey Ten
As there are no factories in Laos producing knives, most villagers make their own. The village of Houey Ten has taken advantage of this, and around 30 families have set up a little knife making business, making various different cutting implements from recovered bomb shells.


Tea Plantation
The Vietnamese brought tea plants to this area in the last 30 years, and now the locals produce green and oolong tea – the difference being in the drying process.


Tad Fan Waterfall is the highest in the area, at 120 m high. The area is declared a national park and is said to hold wild elephants and tigers. Trekking is very popular here.

Coffee Plantation
Coffee is Laos' most valuable agricultural export, and was brought here by the French in the 1930s.


Tha Teng Market
The wares sold at the ethnic food market are very similar to those in other markets we have visited in Laos, but the atmosphere was not as friendly and welcoming as it was further north. Lots of cooked foods, raw ingredients (fish being the speciality in this area – live catfish, eels and frogs seemed to abound) as well as clothing and household goods.


Ban Kiang Tatsoung Village
The poorest of the ethnic minorities in this region are the Alak tribe, an
Austro-Asiatic ethnic group. Animists by religion, they believe in the supernatural, spirits of the mountains, forests and other natural features, and have a shaman to cure their sick and predict the future. Their society is matriarchal – women lead the family, control finances, make major decisions (sounds like most western families...)


They have various clans named after animals (pigs, buffalo, chickens...) - the animals they represent are considered sacred hence they are not allowed to eat them. At least once a year during the New Year, the village holds a buffalo sacrifice, and in times of disaster, a chicken is boiled and the shaman studies the liver to find the spirit responsible for the problem.


It's the first village where we have encountered children begging for 'money' and 'bon bons' and at times we didn't feel entirely comfortable walking in amongst the houses.


Lunch was taken overlooking the Tak Hang Waterfalls where locals and tourists were bathing in the cooling cascades.


Our local guide, Kien, recommended the wild pig larp, and although we asked for it Mak Phet (with chilli) it came pretty well totally bland. Apparently they are afraid of upsetting the delicate western palate. They obviously haven't met the Howards yet...


After checking in to our rustic lodge on the banks of the river, we set off on a short jungle trek to see the beautiful Tad Lo Waterfall. This area is famous for its waterfalls, and there are literally hundreds!



Today's highlight was without a doubt the elephant ride this afternoon. The lodge has rescued two female elephants from a life of logging, and instead of seven hours of hard labour they now have a life of luxury, ferrying tourists about for an hour a day, and the rest of the time they are well and truly pampered.


Starting off from the lodge, into the jungle, we climbed along the river's edge, then crossed the creek to the opposite side and deep jungle with tall grasses on either side of the path, before entering a clearing and riding through the local village. A slash and burn area followed, accompanied by the sound of the local temple drums, making the whole experience totally magical. David, being the perfect gentleman that he is, agreed to accompany me on this ride, despite not having any interest in the elephants at all. For the first five minutes, I was terrified (remembering the bad fall from a camel in the Sudan), but I soon felt comfortable and safe aloft the pachyderm and every time I was looking at David, he was grinning broadly. He reluctantly agreed with me afterwards that the experience was way cool! Not only was it one of the highlights of this trip, it was probably the best elephant ride ever!


Posted by Grete Howard 04:08 Archived in Laos Comments (0)


Bizarre Buddhas, Fad Foods, Stunning Stupas, Lost Limbs...

sunny 36 °C
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Buddha Park
Heading out of town this morning along what Zak, our local guide, called the 'dancing road (as it was so bumpy) while it is still (relatively) cool, to the bizarre Buddha Park. Affectionately known as Buddhaland (the official name of Xieng Khuan means Spirit City), the park is a Disneyesque collection of around 250 religious images – one man's interpretation of Hindu and Buddhist deities. The project was started in 1958 by a priest-shaman and his untrained disciples and each image is made from reinforced concrete. Known as the Pumpkin, you can climb inside this enormous representation of Hell, Earth, Heaven and Paradise. Entering through a giant mouth, it was hell to get in, and not much easier to climb up through the layers.

David entering Paradise...
The 'Pumpkin' representing Hell, Earth, Heaven and Paradise.

The Lao Disabled Women Development Centre provides vocational training and employment opportunities for women who have either been injured by cluster bombs or were born with disabilities. Founded in 2002, the centre takes in 30 new girls every six months, providing training in things like sewing, weaving, hand made paper making, computer literacy and English. After this time, most girls go back to their village, with the foundation providing loans for them to start up their own business. One of the products they make is table mats made from rolled up newspaper - a fabulous way of recycling as well as creating something useful.

Table mat made from recycled newspaper


Somvang Cemetery
An unscheduled stop was made at the Somvang Temple to see the crematorium. Three days after death, the body is brought to the temple, where monks give a blessing, the family wash the deceased's face with coconut milk and the body is cremated on large open fires. In and around the grounds are benches and seats for family and friends. Three days later, the family will collect the ashes, which will be placed inside a stupa in the grounds of the temple. The size of the stupa depends on the wealth of the family. Should the deceased have committed suicide, the ashes will be scattered on the river, and their soul is not thought to be reincarnated.

The cremation area.

Stupas containing ashes.

After a light lunch of sour fish soup with ants' eggs and deep fried baby swiftlets, we continued our city sightseeing tour. The soup was delicious, and the ants' eggs very tasty - quite sour and I loved the way they seemed to 'pop' in your mouth when you bite into them.

The swiftlets, however, were another story. I ate one and really didn't like them. They were whole, complete with legs, head and beak, but that wasn't a problem, it was the taste. It just didn't like it.

I felt very guilty that all those baby birds had been killed and I only ate one......


Wat Sisaket
Built in 1818, Wat Sisaket is the oldest standing temple in Vientiane as all the others were destroyed at some stage during some war or invasion. The temple now has more than 10,000 ceramic and silver Buddha images (10,136 to be exact), many brought from other temples when they were destroyed.

Wat Prakeo
Formerly a royal temple, this building previously housed famous Emerald Buddha which is now in Bangkok Grand Palace. Built in 1535, it is not technically a wat as it does not have monks associated with it.

That Luang Stupa
This is the Golden Stupa and the most important national monument in Laos. Originally built as an Indic temple in 3rd century to house the Buddha breastbone (the man known as Buddha seems to have more temples with his relics that there are human bodily parts...), the current stupa was built in the 16th century, with 1000 pounds of gold leaves covering its exterior. The original stupa can still be found inside the new one.

Patuxay Monument
Known as Laos' Arc de Triomphe, the name means Victory Gate. The monument was built in memory of Lao soldiers who died in the Vietnam War, using US funds meant for an airfield, hence it is colloquially known as the 'vertical runway'. The building work was started 1957, and the five towers representing coexistence among nations of the world
and the five Buddhist principles (thoughtful amiability, flexibility, honesty, honour and prosperity). Later the fountains were added by the Chinese.

COPE Exhibition Centre
The Cooperative Orthotic & Prosthetic Enterprise is a rehabilitation centre for amputees, most of whom lost limbs as a result of 'harvesting' scrap metal from unexploded cluster bombs. An emotional display shows the various limbs available and chronicles the fate of many local people. I came away in tears, and seeing the young chap with half an arm struggling down the stairs with his white stick, just finished me off! The poor lad wasn't even born when the war was on, yet his life is ruined as a result of the atrocities in the 1960s. Cluster bombs should and must be banned!

Cluster bombs. There are 25 million unexploded cluster bombs left in Laos - SCARY!!!!!

Prosthetic limbs


Posted by Grete Howard 03:22 Archived in Laos Comments (2)

Vang Vieng - Vientiane

High as a kite, dam tummy trouble and tasty cockroaches.

sunny 36 °C
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Despite having no intention of getting high in Vang Vieng, we also found ourselves high as kites this morning, floating 1000 feet above the beautiful karst scenery in a hot air balloon. To our surprise, the balloon basket had a door, making entry way easier than usual, and with just five passengers and the pilot, there was plenty of room to move around the basket for photography and views. Taking off from the airport runway in the centre of town ate 06:30, we flew over the built up area and along the river towards yesterday's cave as the sun was rising above the mist and the stunning tree-covered peaks. The whole scene was eerie and magical, and well worth getting up early for. Hardly a word was spoken, which may have as much to do with the fact that the five passengers comprised of five different nationalities as much as the awesome scenery.

Balloon_1.jpg Balloon_2.jpgBalloon_3.jpgBalloon_4.jpgBalloon_5.jpg

500 photos later, we'd crossed the river and skimmed across the bizarre jagged pinnacles and were looking for somewhere to land. Not easy when the plains below are shrouded in early morning mist, but the Chinese pilot seemed to know what he was doing. Expertly avoiding a tree, we touched down gently in a field, much to the surprise of the lady working the land. She looked bemused and puzzled, pointing to the balloon and making gestures with her hands and shaking her head in disbelief.

With the mist obscuring all surrounding landmarks, we were effectively temporarily geographically misplaced. In other words, the back-up team had no idea where we were or how to find us. Even the pilot seemed unaware of our location and asked the local farm worker if she would explain our position to the team via the walkie-talkie. Clearly another new experience for the elderly peasant, she was initially somewhat overwhelmed by the technology, but embraced it well and was soon shouting her instructions to the rest of the balloon team.


Eventually, after nearly 3/4 hour, we heard shouting, and the helpers appeared from the bushes. The next problem, of course, was how the passengers would find their way back to the road and the vehicle. A trek through dense undergrowth and thick jungle ensued, wading knee-high across a river, before crossing paddy fields and paths. The thought did cross my mind that maybe, just possibly, it wasn't such a great idea in an area littered with unexploded ordnance...?

As we boarded the mini bus, we were told that Khamseng had been very worried about us, and had phoned the balloon office to find out where we were, as he'd been told we'd be back by 07:30, and it was now past 08:30!

After a quick change out of the soaking wet jeans and shoes, and a speedy breakfast, we left Vang Vieng behind for another long day on the road and more adventures to follow. I really would have liked to have had one more day here to be able to indulge in the tubing the town is famous for (besides drugs).

At Ban Houay Mor, we stopped to have a look at their famous goods – row after row of dried fish of every shape and size. They didn't, however, have the type of fish Khamseng was after for his grandmother, but Mr Tong (our driver) brought some to take back to his wife.


Having ordered our lunch at a small restaurant in Phon Hong, I went to photograph the kitchen, commenting to David “it will be a miracle if we don't get ill after this”. As soon as we got back in the vehicle after eating, I realised that the said miracle would not be happening. The road on the way to Nam Ngom Lake was narrow, with very few places suitable for a bush stop, so when nature could take no more, I crouched behind a large rock. Great timing, as I was just walking back to the car when two large buses filled with Thai tourists appeared around the bend.

The lunchtime kitchen

The dam was built by the Japanese in the 1970s, and not only provides most of the electricity to Laos, but 80% of the power they produce is exported to Thailand. The area is being built up as a tourist resort, with much construction going on, and with such stunning scenery I can see it will become very popular in the future.

Nam Ngom Lake

At Ban Keun we stopped to look at a huge area for the production of salt. Saline underground water is pumped up by a large organisation, with the water sold to local families to extract the salt. Large vats of boiling water creates lumps of the white stuff after about an hour, after which it is shovelled into huge baskets and steamed for a further hour. The baskets are dried out and the salt sold back to the company for 400 kip per kilo (ca US$ 0.05). Each family can produce three baskets of salt in one hot, hard working day, with each basket yielding 70 kg. Most of the labourers here are migrant workers from poorer areas in northern Laos.


Khamseng knew how keen I was to see the insect market, so he took me to several stalls at Don Makai to try the various delicacies on offer. Although illegal, bushmeat is popular in the countryside, but as soon as we approached they covered the meat up and wouldn't let us take photos. Insects, however, seemed to be OK, and I was not only allowed to take pictures of them, I could sample the little critters too. Of the cockroaches, worms, crickets, grasshoppers, cicadas and dung beetles I tried, the bamboo worms were my favourite. To be honest, they tasted very much like any other deep fried snack – slightly salty and greasy.


The Green Park Boutique Hotel in Vientiane is nothing short of stunning. With only 34 rooms set around a central area with the swimming pool, flower gardens and an ornamental pond, it's the attention to detail that sets it apart from other hotels. The bathroom has a large double bath with a raised bench aiding your entry, and the wall behind it being a complete window to a small enclosed courtyard with plants and lighting. The grounds are dotted with candles and the service is superb. One of the things I have really enjoyed all throughout this trip is the fact that we are expected everywhere we go, and have not yet had to check in as far as giving our names or a voucher goes. We have been greeted by name everywhere we've been.


Posted by Grete Howard 03:56 Archived in Laos Comments (2)

Phonsavan - Muang Khoun - Vang Vieng

Over, along and inside the mountain.

sunny 27 °C
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Muang Khoun
Our only reason for visiting Muang Khoun, the former provincial capital and now a sleepy little town, was to see the Wat Phiawat. Known as the Chief of Temples, it was constructed in 1322 to house the first Buddhist statue brought here from Burma. Despite the temple being destroyed and Buddha's left arm cut off in 1375 by invading Chinese, as well as being razed to ground in 1953 during war with France and destroyed late 1962 by US bombing, the Buddha itself survived, and is highly revered by the Lao people. I can see why as it has a magical feel about it, very serene and peaceful. Also in town is the ruins of the old 16th century Royal Palace and an overgrown Khmer stupa in Sri Lanka style.

Moang Khoun Temple

Royal Palace

Tat Phoun Stupa

Retracing our steps all the way back to Phou Khoun along the same winding road with the same stunning views, we turned off towards Vang Vieng and stopped for lunch at an amazing viewpoint overlooking the Pho Phatang karst mountain range.


Despite our visit to the MAG office yesterday where we heard all about their ongoing work to clear the Lao countryside of remains of cluster bombs, it was quite a reality check to see teams of bomb clearing experts along the side of the road, detonating unexploded ordnance on the hillsides.

Tham Jang Cave Cave_2.jpg
Arriving in Vang Vieng, we made a stop just outside town at the Tham Jang Caves. Two large bus loads of Thai tourists were just leaving as we entered, and after that we had the 4 km long caves to ourselves. Stalactites and stalagmites beautifully lit with different coloured bulbs and walkways snaking amongst the overhanging rocks, there are many legends surrounding this cave.

The sun was just dropping behind the jagged rocks as we arrived at our hotel, casting a beautiful glow over the Nam Song River as we enjoyed a sundowner on our private riverside terrace.


Vang Vieng
Vang Vieng is a happy place, but restaurant menu items preceded by the word 'happy' has nothing to do with the state of your emotional well-being and everything to do with the illegal substances added to your food and drink. As alcohol is my drug of choice, we were grateful for a hotel away from the main backpacker strip and the happy bars full of the young and not-so-young happy travellers, high as kites.

Posted by Grete Howard 04:53 Archived in Laos Comments (0)

The Plain of Jars

Having a few jars without getting blasted.

overcast 15 °C
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Having suffered from sickness and diarrhoea all night, David did not feel up to coming out this morning, so I left him in bed while I went off to see the Central Market. Mostly food stuffs, there were many unusual fruits and vegetables on sale, many of which were completely alien to me. Ants' eggs, swallows, toads, several fruits and vegetables that Khamseng didn't know the English word for (we probably don't have one...), as well as new variations of the more familiar fruits, such as gooseberries, yam, custard apple, lychee, sapodilla, mangosteen and gourd, all beautifully presented. I even got to try mangosteen for the first time – absolutely delicious!

Ants' eggs in the market

Fish sauce in the market.

Toads (or maybe large frogs?) for sale in the market.

Unknown fruit in the market

My first mangosteen

At the Tourist Office we saw the various bombs dropped on this area during the Secret War. The Xieng Khuang Area - one of the poorest in all of Laos - suffered extreme heavy bombing during Vietnam War. Laos was officially neutral, but became politically divided when the official leaders gave aid to Americans, while the Phatet Lao (communist faction) supported North Vietnam via the Ho Chi Minh Trail. US never declared war on Laos, but staged a Secret War on this area – Laos was bombed more heavily than any other country in history or world, with 3 million tons of explosives dropped during the nine years of conflict in the area. That averages one bomb every eight minutes for nine years – hard to take on board.


Unfortunately or fortunately whichever way you look at it, 30% of bombs dropped did not explode at the time of impact, many are still causing death and injury to this day, some 40 years after the war. With scrap metal fetching very high prices, the locals call the leftover ordnance their 'Dry Season Crops', and feel the risk of injury is worth the reward.


Plain of Jars
Believed to be between 1800 and 2500 years old, the origin and use of these huge stone jars is still shrouded in mystery. There are 70 sites or more in this area, but only a select few have been cleared enough of land mines to allow tourists to enter. Even the largest one, imaginatively called Jar Site 1, has MAG (Mines Advisory Group) markers showing where it is safe to walk. Stepping off the path in one of the most dangerous archaeological sites in the world is not recommended, with nearly 1 million ton of unexploded ordnance still around.

Only walk on the white side of the marker!

Various legends surround the jars, and their use has been speculated for centuries – some claiming that they are funerary urns (although no human remains have been found), others think they were used to store water for travelling traders, while popular local beliefs say that they were used for the Lao Lao – storage of the local whisky.


Whatever their original purpose, the 500 or so jars on this site alone are certainly enigmatic and bewitching, surrounded by green fields scorched by chemical warfare and deserted save for a couple of local youths.


In order to understand the situation faced by the Lao people, even today, a visit to the MAG office is a must. Posters on the wall go a little way towards explaining the problems caused by the American Secret War, but the one hour harrowing film will leave even the most hardened traveller feeling distressed at the inhumane use of cluster bombs. The MAG was set up in 1994 to help people rebuild their lives and alleviate suffering by responding to needs of conflict between affected communities – they know the area has unexploded bombs that could maim or kill them, but if they don't plant rice they won't eat. Since the end of the war in 1975, the MAG have dealt with 20,000 casualties caused by unexploded ordnance, disabling 100,000 bombies – the small bombs released by cluster bombs, which spread over wide area – a year.

Navang Handicraft Studio specialise in carving the Mie Long Leng, a soft wood grown in this region. Mostly sold in upmarket stores in Luang Prabang, the products are revered by the Lao people for storing rice or seeds, or warding off evil spirits with a fake elephant tusk.


Posted by Grete Howard 02:22 Archived in Laos Comments (0)

Luang Prabang to Phonsavan

Winding roads, villages and caves.

overcast 17 °C
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If cheap cocktails = bad idea, cheap cocktails + windy, bumpy roads = very bad idea.

Leaving Luang Prabang behind this morning, we made our way along a twisty road, unpaved in places, with the most awesome views over the valley – sometimes both sides of the road. Five times we climbed up to around 1500 metres and then back down a few hundred metres before once again ascending.

Kiu Mak Now
The Khmu village of Kiu Mak Now is precariously spread along a ridge, with a steep drop either side. The name means lemon village, although we didn't see any lemon trees. A mother brought her young baby who'd been scalded by boiling water to us, asking for creams or medicines for the baby's burns. All I could offer was some Savlon, which I gladly gave. The men had some very interesting home made catapult-type pears used for fishing.

Girl with burned arm.

Making brooms

Fishing spear

By the time we reached Phou Khoun around lunchtime, I was sincerely regretting last night's cocktail session, feeling decidedly wobbly walking around the local market.


Chicken feet for lunch

Pho Lang Chng
After a lunch of noodle soup and chicken feet, we visited the Hmong village of Pho Lang Chng where the whole village turned out to greet us, taking a break from the construction of a new house for one of the divorced ladies of the village. Everyone joins in, doing what they can of building work, including the little children.


Hidden Buddha Cave
The 140 metre long Tham Pha Cave has 100s of small Buddha statues which were hidden from Chinese Haw invasion several centuries ago.
The cave, now known as the Hidden Buddha Cave, was used as hospital during war, but returned to obscurity until it was rediscovered in 2004 by bat hunting villager.


Nong Tank Lake
Legend tells of a white mole and a dragon causing a sink hole to open up and swallow the entire village. At low water, the roofs of the houses can allegedly still be seen.


This area is littered with remains from the Secret War, including a Russian Tank.


Our hotel for the night is reminiscent of a European ski resort, with wooden chalets perched on a hillside overlooking the town of Phonsavan. This area is decidedly chilly in the evenings, and the staff lit a wonderful open fire in our room.


Posted by Grete Howard 05:00 Archived in Laos Comments (2)

Luang Prabang and Kuang Si

Monks, markets and waterfalls

overcast 31 °C
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Alms Giving Ceremony
The ritual known as Binthabat takes place every morning at 5:30 and has been part of the area's religious heritage since Buddhism was introduced in the 14th cent. Locals receive spiritual redemption from giving alms (in the form of cooked rice, bananas or sweets) to the monks, and the tourists get a kick out of it. Unfortunately, despite signs in every language, in every restaurant, shop and hotel, tourists still insist that their photos and experiences are more important than respecting the local culture. If you wish to give alms, you must have shoulders covered, be lower than the monks and not make eye contact. Although photography is permitted, you should do so from a comfortable distance without flash. Yet again I was ashamed by my fellow travellers, sticking their flashguns almost up into the faces of the poor monks.


After the tourist spectacle was over, we walked through the local early morning market which takes place every day from 04:00 until 10:00. Here any and every type of food can be purchased - as well as the familiar and not so familiar fruits, meats and vegetables, we saw live frogs, caterpillars, dried rats, crabs, ants' eggs, butterfly cocoons and much more.

Ants' eggs in the market

Butterfly cocoons in the market

Live frogs and crabs in the market

Royal Palace
When the communists took over control of the country in 1975, they sent the royal family to re-education camps, and turned the royal palace into a museum. Now overrun with tourists, it was nevertheless very interesting, with some beautiful pieces on display, including the typical communist custom of displaying gifts given by other foreign nations. In the courtyard were the collection of the royal cars, and photos of the staff, including the one-eyed driver.


Wat Haw Phapai
The name means Monastery of the Bamboo Forest and until 1975 it was the royal temple. There is a dispute about the date of origin of this temple, with versions varying from some time between 1645 and 1815. Either way, it is a beautiful building, with green glass mosaics and gold leaf carvings on the outside, with red being the colour favoured inside. Carvings depicting a mix of Hindu and Buddhist stories as well as folklore fables adorn the walls and ceilings.


We stopped by the Big Brother Mouse charity again to donate a spare digital camera we had brought with us, before having a look around the Fine Arts School. Here, traditional arts and crafts are being taught to the younger generation, using techniques handed down through the generations.


Ock Pop Tok
Textiles are an important part of Lao cultural diversity and at Ock Pop Tok (meaning East meets West), we were shown the silk weaving process from caterpillars to the finished product, their use of natural dyes, batik, traditional Ikat weaving and hemp painting. Afterwards we enjoyed a cup of silk worm poo tea. As you do. Said to lower cholesterol and blood pressure as well as stabilising diabetes, I am sure it is good for us...


Kuang Si Bear Sanctuary
Kuang Si Bear Sanctuary was established in 2003 to house endangered Asiatic bears rescued from bile farms or illegal wildlife trade (Chinese medicines or bear paw soup). The original idea was to reintroduce the bears to the wild, but unfortunately they are now too used to human contact to be able to do that. With large enclosures and food tucked away in bamboo and other hiding places making meal times a little more fun, they are certainly much better off now.
Website www.freethebears.com


Photographs can rarely do somewhere justice, and nothing can be more true for Kuang Si Waterfall. It is a stunning series of several tiers of waterfalls cascading down through verdant vegetation and over picturesque rocks, with sounds of the jungle and colourful butterflies filling the air. Numerous and frequent signs request visitors to cover up as a mark of respect for the local people, but still you see western tourists walking around in skimpy bikinis. Feeling ashamed of my fellow travellers seems to be a recurring theme on this trip.


Having spent quite some time setting up my tripod, mounting the Neutral Density filters and shooting some creative long exposure shots of the falls, it was time for our picnic. “That's your table over there” said Khamseng, pointing to a picnic table with beautifully pressed tablecloth, proper cloth napkins and set out for two with a drink and cutlery. I never expected that sort of luxury when our itinerary said picnic lunch. Chicken curry, sticky rice, fried chicken and stir fried vegetables, followed by some lovely little rice powder biscuits coated in cane sugar and some little 'egg bananas'. Not bad for a picnic in such a beautiful setting.

Having arranged to meet our friends Jen and Simon for dinner tonight (I think they are stalking us...), we walked along the main drag of town, through the extensive night market and along to the river, just to find the restaurant we'd been recommended and arranged to meet at, was fully booked. Fear not, there were others. Wanting to share a cocktail or three after dinner, we were surprised to find that most of the town shuts down at 23:00!

Posted by Grete Howard 08:18 Archived in Laos Comments (3)

Luang Prabang

Cultures, customs and curiosity

semi-overcast 24 °C
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This morning we set out on foot to explore the UNESCO Heritage site that is Luang Prabang, starting with one of its newest museums, the Traditional Arts and Ethnology Museum. The museum is a private non-profit organisation which promotes Laos’s cultural history and traditions by dealing directly with the villagers, and explaining the history behind each item obtained. In the small gift shop (where 50% of the profits go back to the original artists), we bought a wooden mask for our collection, and it came complete with an explanation of its creation and uses.


An even newer museum – so new in fact that Khamseng (our guide) had not been there before – is the Project Space exhibition displaying a variety of modern art from local artists. My favourite was the huge bank note that the artist had painted using his own blood.


A quick walk through Dala Market (mostly Chinese tourist tat, but also some beautiful Lao fashions) took us down to the Nam Khan River. Along the way we stopped to see the dying craft of stencilling – once used a lot on the temple decorations; an exhibition of ethnic clothes; and some beautiful French colonial architecture. Khamseng is a very good guide and makes it so much more interesting by pointing out the various fruits, trees, flowers, architectural details and other things we would have undoubtedly missed on our own.

Dala Market
Ethnic clothing exhibition

Wat Xieng Thong – the Temple of the Golden City - is one of the most important temples in Laos, and displays the last king's enormous funeral cask. It is currently being restored with the help of UNESCO funding. Built around 1560, legend tell of a betel merchant who built a palace on this site, making himself the first king of the new capital, and founded the temple here. It was the royal temple until 1975, and used as the place where kings were crowned & granted power.

Wat Xieng Thong

Big Brother Mouse is a locally owned non-profit organisation who strive to make learning and reading fun for all children in Laos, and they design and publish their own books. Most Lao children outside the towns have never owned a book, so we bought a couple of dozen different ones to see about changing that for at least a few of the country's poorer children.

Big Brother Mouse Shop

Khamseng took us to a very nice restaurant in the old city for lunch, and also suggested some local dishes for us to try. My favourites were crispy fried river weed with a spicy buffalo-skin dip; and river fish in coconut milk soup.

Crispy fried river weed with buffalo skin dip.

This afternoon we headed out of town to the countryside, stopping first in a Lao Loum village, one of the many ethnic minorities here in Laos. 400 people live in the village, and they mostly grow rice, and cotton, which they weave into beautiful cloths. At one of the houses we were invited in to join them in some Lao Lao (the local rice 'whisky') to celebrate the birth of a new baby.


The village next door is populated by the Hmong people, and is much smaller with only 32 families. Despite their obvious poverty, there was no resentment or begging going on, and they seemed totally happy for us to explore their village and homes, and show off their speciality craft – embroidery. Khamseng explained that normally we would give the books we'd brought to the local school, but the villagers told him that in the past the teacher had sold the books to the pupils, keeping the money for himself, so we decided to give the books directly to the children. The joy and pride on their faces made it all worthwhile, and seeing a father read to his son; as well as a couple of little girls sharing a book and reading out loud in unison; made my heart melt.


At Ban San Khong village we saw the paper making process from the bark of the mulberry tree, as well as how they make the natural dyes for the cloths and paper. We also popped in to Wat Xangkhong Temple to listen to the monks' daily chants.

Hand made paper

Natural dyes

Monks chanting

The Baci Ceremony is an important Lao cultural and spiritual ceremony invoking the 32 kwan or spirits that make up the components of the soul. The ceremony is held for all special occasions, such as the birth of a baby, a wedding, new year, or in our case, travellers arriving from afar and is very special, with half the village is invited to take part. The local shaman leads the 'prayers' and after the spirits have been called back into your soul, each of the elders present tie a white thread (symbolising purity) around your wrist for peace, harmony, good fortune, good health and human warmth and community. You must wear them for three days at least, preferably until they fall off.

Baci Ceremony

After the ceremony, the hosts laid on a beautiful spread of local foods, with plenty of Lao Lao and Beer Lao, inviting the locals to eat with us. It was a beautiful evening with a great insight into the Lao culture and customs.

Posted by Grete Howard 07:13 Archived in Laos Comments (3)

Pakbeng - Khoken - Pak Ou - Luang Prabeng

Slow boating is now getting a little tedious...

overcast 25 °C
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Having seen the sunrise as a large orange ball in the sky yesterday, I set my alarm for 06:00 to find the river was shrouded in mist. By 07:50, we were all back on the Luangsay river boat for the next leg of our journey.

At Khoken we stopped to have a look at the village and become sitting ducks for the sales people with their scarves and other materials. A scamper up the sandy bank brought us to a cluster of houses, mostly built from wood and straw, although we did see some brick making. Yet again I was disappointed with my fellow tourists, clambering all over the temple mount to take their photos without asking if it would cause offence. To be quite honest, there wasn't much to see and what we did see wasn't all that interesting.

Brick making
Village_4.jpgVillage_5.jpg Sales opportunity

Lunch on board the Luangsay

After a delicious lunch on board we made a stop at the famous Pak Ou caves – one of the main reasons for our trip here. The caves were converted to a Buddhist monastery in the 15th century, and now hold over 4000 old and broken Buddha statues. 93 steep steps take you to the lower caves and a further 225 steps to the top cave. The lower cave was claustrophobically crowded with tourists (and a few devotees – this is still a working temple) as several boats arrived at the same time. Once the majority had departed, we had the place almost to ourselves. Quite magical.


Another couple of hours saw us arrive in Luang Prabang and the end of our river cruise.

Once a royal palace, the Villa Maly in Luang Prabang is now a luxury boutique hotel, and we are staying in the building where the king's grandson once lived. A strange mix of old world charm and modern comfort, we have an enormous four poster bed and the most gorgeous wash basin in the bathroom.


Korean style BBQs are very popular in Laos, and we thought we'd try one out tonight. A slate table surrounds an electric grill plate around which is a soup 'trough'. Two waiters brought a selection of meats and vegetables for us to cook ourselves on the grill, although in reality they did most of the work for us. Beef, pork, chicken, pork fat, mushrooms, noodles, carrots, cauliflower, broccoli, some green leaves that we couldn't quite determine what were and the staff didn't know what they were called in English, as well as whole eggs in their shells. All served with a dipping sauce (which tasted very much like plum and ginger) plus small dishes of garlic and chilli. With the beautifully lit swimming pool in the background, friendly, attentive staff and a few beers, it all made for a fun and unusual evening, followed by sharing travel stories in the bar with some American tour operators.


Posted by Grete Howard 07:36 Archived in Laos Comments (2)

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