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Laos - Mong girl

Laos From North
to South

From the Mountain Tribes
to the Mekong Delta

After a tour in which mountain tribes in the north are visited, a boat trip on the Ou, via the Pac Ou caves filled with Buddha statues, to Luang Prabang. The next stop is the Plain of Jars (Tong Hai Hin) near Phonsavan. From Vang Vieng trips by mountain bike along rice paddies and by kayak over rapids. In the capital Vientiane the triumphal arch Patuxai is visited. In the Hinboun Nature Park, a boating excursion on the underground Nam Khong Lor river. In a boat from Paksé on the Mekong river to the temple complex of Wat Phu and again by boat to Khone island, a paradise of waving palm trees and waterfalls in the Mekong Delta. At the end of the trip the impressive temples of Angkor Wat in Cambodia are visited.

Travelogue: Ina Kuipers
Photos: Herman Hoekstra

Laos - Arrival by boat at the Laotian border

We take a domestic flight from Bangkok to Chiang Rai. We spend our first night in Thailand in a pretty teakwood hotel on the Mekong river. This river is the border between Thailand and Laos over a distance of 450 kilometers.

Laos - Stairs at the Laotian border

The next morning we cross the Mekong by boat. We arrive in Loas within 5 minutes, and then have to get our visas. This is a wonderful form of entertainment, which keeps many people employed.

It involves a tour of no less than three windows: window 1, hand over your passport and fill out a form; window 2, hand over money; turn 90 degrees and face window #3: here the date is written in your passport, next to four large stamps which are meticulously placed.

We take the bus to Vieng Phouka. The ride takes us through beautiful mountainscapes. We pass shabby, dusty villages in which different mountain tribes, with their colorful clothes and headgear, live.

Trek along the mountain tribes

Visiting the Khmu, Akha, Laenthen and Mong

Laos - Local population in front of a huge poinsettia tree

We continue by pick-up truck from Vieng Phouka. It takes us to the starting point of our three-day trek. We leave our luggage behind and only take day-packs.

We walk on a wide path. It is slippery now and then, but apart from that it's very doable. We enjoy nature and see lots of bamboo, banana palms and large poinsettia trees.

Laos - Our meal is prepared on banana leaves

Our lunch is prepared on the way. Banana leaves are spread on the path for us to sit on. On other banana leaves our food is prepared. We have rice with egg and scallions, which we eat with our hands. For dessert there are a kind of doughnuts and small bananas.

Laos - Spending the night in a bamboo hut on stilts in a Khmu village

We walk on and spend the first night in a Khmu village. We are guests of the villagers and spend the night in simple bamboo huts on stilts. The Khmu are very friendly and just go about their daily lives while we are there.

Laos - Pig nursing piglets in Khmu village

Early in the morning we are woken up by the crowing of a rooster. It won't be the last time. Chickens and chicklets, and pigs and piglets roam around our hut. There also is an abundance of puppies.

Laos - Wading through a river to the other side

The next day we have to cross a river immediately after we leave. We shuffle carefully to the other side, because the bottom is slippery. We put on our hiking boots and continue on our hike on a narrow, winding path through jungle-like surroundings.

You have to watch where you go all the time. All around us is bamboo. After a few hours of walking we arrive at a wide path where hiking is easy.

Laos - Akha women wear colorful headgear with silver coins

We continue on to an Akha village where we will spend the night. The Akha women wear colorful headgear decorated with lots of silver coins. They seem pretty heavy, but look beautiful.

We have arrived early in the afternoon and walk for another hour to a pretty waterfall. Here we shower for the first time in several days. It's cold but refreshing. We walk back to the village on a narrow path.

Laos - We teach children in the Akha village Frè-Jacques

It's very cold in the evening and we are happy that a fire is made where we can warm ourselves. The children of the village are a little reserved at first, but also curious. We sing songs to break the ice and the song "Frè Jacques is an immediate hit, with its "ding dong ding". The next morning we still hear kids sing "ding dong ding".

Laos - Mountain trive women walk to the market

Today we only have a short, two-hour walk ahead of us. We walk between barren rice paddies and pass a shabby village with many children. We notice that 14-15 years-old girls are already pregnant.

Laos - Mong woman with nice purple socks

After crossing a river, we find our jeeps already waiting for us to take us back to Vieng Phouka, where we take the bus to Luang Nam Tha. There we rent mountain bikes to explore the surroundings. We bicycle through little villages and visit a stupa. After this relaxing ride we have coffee in an outdoor café, and slowly the sun breaks through the haze.

We take a bus to Oudomxai. This is Laenthen territory. The idea of beauty here requires women to shave off their eye brows. Many women also wear huge glasses, which they need for their embroidery.

We spend the night in Oudomxai and leave for Muang Ngoi the next morning. On the way we visit a Mong village. The children wear traditional clothes and colorful headwear.

Laos - Mong girls

When we continue on by bus, the surroundings are fabulously beautiful, mountainous and green, but the road is in very bad condition. Lots of potholes, and landslides have seriously damaged the road. After over four hours we arrive in Muang Ngoi aan.

Boat trip on the Ou

The Pac Ou caves are filled with Buddha statues

Laos - Ou river early in the morning with karst mountains

In Muang Ngoi we take an excursion by boat on the Ou river and visit the fishers village of Ban Ngoi Kao, a pretty village with many palm trees and flowers. On the way back the karst mountains look fairy-like.

The next morning we are on a boat that seats only six people to Prabang. It's cold and hazy. The wind-chill temperature is only 10 degrees centigrade. But around 10 AM the haze clears up and we see a blue sky and the sun.

Laos - Landscape along the Ou river

Soon it gets warmer. Now we can really enjoy the views of the wonderful landscape. The banks are overgrown with palm trees and we pass several nice sandy beaches. On one of them we have lunch. We enjoy our tuna baguettes.

Laos - Entrance of the Pac Ou cave

We continue on to the Pac Ou caves at the point where the Ou and the Mekong rivers merge. We climb the stairs to the cave and look in amazement at over 5,000 Buddha statues, from very small to very large ones, which have been placed in alcoves and caverns everywhere.

Laos - Buddha statues in the Pac Ou cave

On our boat trip we also visit the village of Ban Xang Hai where the best laolao (Laotian whiskey) is made. Of course we sample some. The island is very touristic and there are stalls everywhere with jewelry, trinkets and shawls. We buy our first souvenirs here.

Laos - Sandy beach along the Ou river

We arrive in Luang Prabang in the afternoon; we will stay here for three nights. After a week of daily travel it's wonderful to stay in one place for a while. We can also have our laundry done here.

Luang Prabang

The town is teeming with temples

Laos - Richly decorated door in Luang Prabang

Luang Prabang is on the Unesco World Heritage list and rightly so. It's a place for culture lovers. The town is teeming with wats. A wat is a Buddhist temple complex where the monks also live. They are richly decorated and have beautifully carved doors. Lots of gold and silver, too.

We visit the old royal palace in Ho Kham, which nowadays houses a museum. In one room all walls are laid-in with colorful mosaics which depict daily life.

In the evening the main street of Luang Prabang is converted into one big marketplace with dozens of stalls catering to tourists. If you like souvenirs, this is the place to be. The town also has restaurants that serve delicious food.

Laos - Luang Prabang, sunset at Phu Si hilltop

At dusk we climb up 329 steps to the top of Phu Si hill. We are not the only tourists who thought that was a good idea: it's incredibly crowded at the top. The views of the surroundings are wonderful.

The next morning we take a long walk to the local market, which has all kinds of produce and merchandise: vegetables, fruit, meat, fish, herbs, pots and pans, fabrics, tools, etc. It's still strange to see meat being kept without any kind of refrigeration.

Laos - Wat in Luang Prabang

In the afternoon we visit the most famous temple of Luang Prabang, Wat Xieng Thong, which dates from 1560. The long walk and many impressions have made us hungry and we settle in in a restaurant. We conclude the day with a glass of red wine.


A plain full of large, 2,000 years old jars

Laos - Shabby bamboo huts on stilts in the northern part of Laos

The days fly in Luang Prabang. We take a long, eight hours bus trip to Phonsavan. The route takes us again through mountainous areas; the highest mountain pass we cross is at an altitude of 1,445 meters. The road meanders and has dozens of hairpin turns.

Today it's overcast and we long for some heat. In the daytime the temperatures are okay, around 25 degrees centigrade, but in the evenings it's cold: 10-15 degrees. Slowly the landscape changes and we drive into a large valley at an altitude of 1,000 meters. The huts are replaced by stone houses. We see stark contrasts everywhere: shabby bamboo huts next to little palaces with expensive cars parked in front of them.

Laos - Plain of Jars near Phonsavan

In Phonsavan we visit three sites on the Plain of Jars. Scattered over the area lie huge, 2,000 years old jars. It's still unclear where they came from, but it is presumed that the jars were used for sacrifices for the dead and as recepticles for the deads' ashes.

The largest jar weighs no less than 6 metric tons and is called King's Cup. In some places trees have grown together with jars.

Laos - Plain of Jars near Phonsavan

It is a bizarre landscape which still has craters from the bombs that were dropped here during the Vietnam war. We cannot under any circumstances leave the marked path; in some places there are still bombs, we even see a few. A lugubrous sight.

Laos - Woman making spoons from aluminum recycled from downed planes

The many bombs that were dropped here are now sometimes used for fences. The aluminum of crashed planes is melted down to be used for making spoons. We see this when we visit a village where spoons are made by people who sit in the noxious fumes all day long.

Vang Vieng

All kayaks keel over in the rapids

Laos - Lao woman

The next day there is another long trip and we arrive at 4 PM in Vang Vieng. We immediately book kayaks for tomorrow.

It's the first day of Christmas and it's nice and warm. We rent mountain bikes and ride between barren rice fields and along villages, with the karst mountains in the background. We stop on the way to climb up to a cave. It's a tough climb and once we're at the cave, we find out it's too dark to go inside. But we have a great view of the surroundings here. Climbing down turns out to be even harder.

Laos - Beautiful nature and a view of the mountains

We are picked up at 9 AM in our hotel and stuffed into a small pick-up truck with eleven people. We feel like canned sardines. The road is bad and the car jolts and lurches. We are glad to be able to stretch our legs after one and a half hours.

First we are taught, on land, how to paddle and what to do in rapids. We don life jackets and hard hats. Our stuff is packed in watertight bags which are tied to our kayaks.

Laos - Lunch is prepared on rocks during kayak trip

The first part is easy, there are a few not too difficult rapids and we manage. But then we arrive at the hardest rapid, which we have to cross one at a time. The guide whistles when the next one can leave. Eventually all kayaks keel over and we all end up with our heads underwater. But because of the life jackets we keep floating.

After this tough rapid it's time for lunch. The guides quickly prepare a barbecue on a fire between the rocks. The baguettes we brought are warmed over the fire as well. We enjoy our food.

After lunch we continue paddling and the last leg poses no difficulties. We are all soaked and the dry clothes we brought are more than welcome.

Then we board an again too small pick-up truck for a two-hour drive to Vientiane. That night we are tired but contented and fall asleep quickly.


The triumphal arch Patuxai has a beautiful ceiling

Laos - Vientiane, triumphal arch Patuxai

We stay for two nights in Vientiane, which is the capital of Laos since 1975 and has a population of approximately 400,000.

It is a beautiful city with many temples. The oldest one is Wat Si Saket from 1818.

We also visit the Patuxai, the triumphal arch. It is sometimes likened to the Arc de Triomphe in Paris.

We climb to the top of the Patuxai and see that its ceiling is beautifully decorated. The view of the city with its many green palm trees from the top is stunning.

Laos - Vientiane, decorated ceiling in Patuxai

We have bought some souvenirs on the way and take a tuk-tuk back to our hotel.

Hinboun Nature Park

On an underground river in the dark

The next morning we leave for Hinboun Nature Park. It is a long bus ride through an astonishingly green mountainous landscape. We pass several shabby, dusty mountain villages. The long ride is rewarded with a simple accomodation in a magnificent location by the Nam Hinboun river.

Laos - Entrance Khong Lor, undergroud river

We take an excursion to Khong Lor, a five kilometers long underground river. Only three people at a time can go in, in a shaky little boat. We have to get out several times, because the water is too low for a boat to float.

It's pitch dark and we wade, hand in hand, through the water. Fortunately flashlights are attached to our heads, so we can see a little.

Laos - Prayers are said during the Basi ritual

Half way the river is a cave which is illuminated since a year or so. We clamber up to visit the cave. It's very steep, but there is a path with things to hold on to. We are amazed that nature has made this and we gape at the stalactites.

We continue on and are happy to see the sun again after 5 kilometers. After visiting a village, we take the boat back, again through the underground river. At the end of the trip we take a swim.

We visit a Basi ceremony in the afternoon. It is a good-luck ritual. We have to fold our hands in front of us and each get a shawl. At the center of the hut is a table, decorated with banana leaves, flowers, candles, threads, eggs. a cooked chicken and laolao.

We have to approach the offer table and touch it. Prayers are said and an egg and some rice are placed in our handpalms. Then threads are tied around our wrists, which we have to wear for three days for good luck. At the end of the ceremony we all drink laolao.


By boat over the Mekong to the Wat Phu-complex

Laos - Wat Phu-complex on the Mekong

We leave for Savannakhet and visit the old stupa That Ing Han. It is the most sacred temple of Southern Laos. We only spend one night in Savannakhet and travel to Paksé the next morning. This is the third largest city of Laos and the largest one in the south.

We get in a boat and visit the impressive Khmer temple complex Wat Phu. It dates from the sixth to eighth centuries and is completely overgrown with moss and partly dilapidated. But it is still obvious that it used to be a huge complex.

Laos - Buddha with sacrificial table in Wat Phu temple complex

We climb a long stone staircase. Inside the temple stands a large Buddha statue. Huge rocks are scattered on the floor and a large sacrificial stone looks like a crocodile. In one of the large rocks you can see three elephant heads.

After this visit we get in small boats that seat six and are taken to Dong island. The wind is strong and waves beat the rickety boat. Fortunately we arrive quickly and debark on a pretty sand beach. But because of the strong wind we can't stay here. We are being sandblasted.

We rush to our common, partly public accomodation. It is New Year's Eve and we dream of making a fire on the beach. The wind is so strong an it's so cold that we get in our sleeping bags at 10:30 PM. We are not aware of the beginning of the new year.

Khone island

A paradise with waving palm trees in the Mekong Delta

The next morning we first visit a village before we get in the small boats again. This is followed by a two-hour bus ride and eventually we board a larger boat that seems more stable.

Laos - Quiet beach on Khone Island

The boat takes us through a paradisaical area on the Mekong, with waving palm trees and about 4,000 little islands, to Khone Island. It's nice and warm. Khone is a beautiful island without cars.

Our accomodation on a houseboat in the Mekong, made of teakwood, is incredible. Khone Island is an Eldorado for tourists. There are several restaurants with outside seating by the Mekong and they serve wonderful food.

Laos - Waterfall on Khone Island

The gigantic Lipphi waterfalls are wonderful and when we keep walking for a while and leave the many Thai tourists behind us, we arrive on a quiet and deserted beach. This is extremely enjoyable.

We get up at 4:30 AM because we want to see Irrawaddy dolphins. It's still dark when we leave and we walk 45 minutes to the starting point of the excursion.

As soon as it is light, we board a boat for three and sail through a fairy-like area. It looks like a flooded world with trees and bamboo growing in the water everywhere. There are dozens of uninhabited little islands. It takes about ten minutes to reach Cambodia. Here we disembark.

Laos - Waterfall on Khone Island

We sit down on a bench and begin to gaze. Our early rising is rewarded with views of dolphin heads and flippers that appear from the water every now and then. Only 15 freshwater dolphine still live in this part of the Mekong. The sun rises higher and higher and after half an hour of spotting we return by boat.

Half way the engine of our boat stops and we float to the bank. A passer-by is stopped and for a small fee our boat is tied to another and we are towed back to Khone Island.

Laos - Elephants, ready for a ride to Phu Asa mountain

After breakfast we board a boat that seats six and sail back to the mainland in 45 minutes. The bus is waiting to take us to Paksé. On the way we visit a spectacular waterfall and the village of Ban Khiat Ngong aan.

There we take a tour on elephant-back to the Phu Asa mountain. We reach the top in 45 minutes and see a ruin of unclear origins. After a short visit we lumber back. As a reward, we feed the elephants sugercane.


The impressive temples of Angkor Wat

The next morning we take a plane from Paksé to Siem Reap in Cambodia. Our vacation in Laos is over.

Cambodia - Khmer temple-complex Angkor Wat

We have enjoyed the wonderful, mountainous and wild nature as well as the friendly people. In the north it seems as if time has stood still. There is no luxury at all and the jungle is almost unspoilt. Our three-day hike in the north was an exceptional experience.

Cambodia - Khmer temple complex Angkor Thom

We stay in Cambodia for four days and visit the magnificant temple complex of Angkor Wat. The Khmer temples are scattered over a large area. We take a tuk-tuk to visit several temples.

The gigantic faces in Angkor Thom are breathtaking. This is an incredible complex. Ta Prohm is still partly overgrown with tree roots.

We have two and a half days to explore the huge complex, but a week wouldn't have been enough to see everything.

Cambodia - Tree roots are merged with the Khmer temple complex Ta Prohm

A bus takes us to Phnom Penh and we spend the last days of our trip in Cambodia's capital. On the way we visit a village where spiders are considered a delicacy. We decline politely.

In Phnom Penh we see a film about the Killing Fields. We become quiet when we hear the sad and moving stories. We also visit the Killing Fields and the museum with photos and instruments of torture, and the school building where people were kept prisoner and were eventually murdered.

Cambodia - Phnom Penh, skulls in the Killing Fields Museum

It is indescribable what has happened here. During the Pol Pot regime two million people were killed in Cambodia. You can still see craters and remains of clothing and human bones in the Killing Fields.

A glass memorial contains 8,000 skulls, stacked in memory of these cruel horrors. After this visit we have to catch our breath.

Cambodia - Phnom Penh, Royal Palace

On our last day in Phnom Penh we visit the fairy-like Royal Palace and the Silver Pagoda. The floor of the pagoda is covered with 5,000 silver tiles. Our last outing is to the Russian market where we buy some souvenirs. Our thirty-day trip is over.

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