For an authentic taste of Lao life and culture, look beyond Vientiane, advises Kevin Donnelly
AFTER a one-hour flight from Bangkok and landing at Undon Thani, it is easy to pick my Lao friend Khom from the bustling crowd in the airport foyer. Being more than 180cm tall, Khom is hard to miss and his welcoming smile shines like a beacon.
Even though I have been to Laos six times, this trip is different. Instead of flying from Bangkok to Vientiane, I have chosen the less expensive option of flying to Undon Thani, in northern Thailand, then travelling by road to the border and across the Australian-built Friendship Bridge to the Lao capital.
This trip is also different as Khom has convinced me the southern town of Pakse is the place to be and that the best way to make the journey after a day in the capital, Vientiane, is by overnight VIP bus. After arriving at the terminus with Khom, we are shepherded on to our VIP bus — aptly named King of Bus — and I am surprised to find, instead of seats, rainbow-coloured mattresses with an assortment of families, couples and students in various states of recline.
The VIP buses are air-conditioned and each mattress fits two passengers; Khom has booked one mattress each and, as I am near the front of the bus, I have a clear view of the road ahead. While the engine noise and the sound of tyres on bitumen are ever present, I manage a few hours’ sleep between watching a passing parade of darkened paddocks and rice fields, interspersed with wooden, thatched huts silhouetted in the moonlight.
In many ways Pakse combines the best of Vientiane and the northern town of Luang Prabang. The town has authentic, inexpensive restaurants, one of the largest open markets in Laos and cheap accommodation, and it rests peacefully at the confluence of the Mekong and Se Don rivers.
In addition to my room being spacious, clean and inexpensive, an added bonus staying at the Pakse Hotel is the commanding view from the rooftop bar and restaurant. In the early morning or late afternoon, a 360-degree light show opens up, embracing the city centre, the Mekong and the surrounding mountains.
Like Luang Prabang, Pakse has a nearby world heritage site; in this case, it’s Wat Phu, a pre-Angkor site with stunning ruins reflecting Hindu and Buddhist traditions. Nestled at the foot of Phou Kao, a holy mountain, Wat Phu is about 30km south of Pakse and reached by road and car ferry across the Mekong.
The road to Wat Phu passes traditional Lao wooden huts and cuts through lush, green rice fields; the only concern for drivers is the number of goats, hens, dogs, buffalo and occasional child who act as if the road is entirely their domain.
After the smog, noise and congestion of Bangkok, Wat Phu is a tranquil oasis, visually and spiritually. The central sanctuary, on a terrace at the foot of a cliff, is reached by walking along a causeway, flanked by stone posts and two moss-covered sandstone structures weathered with age. After ascending a series of steps in the shadow of gnarled, frangipanis trees, visitors reach the sanctuary, its Buddhist statue surrounded by incense and offerings. At the back of the sanctuary is a spring where holy water flows and, from the front, the view below reveals a verdant plain with ruins outlining the original complex.
Travelling back to Pakse from Wat Phu, two images stand out. One is of an old man on the ferry, dressed in jungle green with a rusty, antiquated bike (wheels but no tyres) and a toothless, friendly grin. The second is of a family stall selling satays: father squatting on the dirt floor cutting sticks, mother chopping chicken and a small child pounding a mortar. Both symbolise something unique about Indochina and, in particular, Laos. Compared with the West, living standards are low and possessions are few. But there is an acceptance of what life offers and a willingness to make the most of what is at hand.
While it is a longer trip from Pakse than Wat Phu, another must-visit destination is Si Phan Don (meaning 4000 islands), about 130km south, adjacent to the border with Cambodia. On arrival, one has to cross the Mekong, but this time by motorboat.
The largest island, Don Khong, has the remains of one of the only train tracks built in Laos (constructed by the French) and impressive waterfalls where the Mekong crosses the border from Laos into Cambodia. Although under threat, freshwater dolphins are also an attraction. Like Wat Phou, this is a perfect place to let the sights and sounds wash over you, be it the energetic and constant rush of water over rocks, or the power and serenity of the Mekong where it widens and nourishes rice fields and village plots.
Over lunch, sitting and talking to Khom, it is hard to believe Laos has so recently been fraught with civil war and that a few kilometres away across the Mekong lie Cambodia and the killing fields. Beneath the veneer of Buddhist harmony, resignation and peace, there lies a brutal story of violence and bloodshed. On the final day, after breakfast at the Pakse Hotel, I am surprised when Khom asks whether I have a waterproof slicker. Once we arrive at the Bolaven plateau, I know why. The intention is to visit the Tad Fan waterfalls and resort, but as we drive up from Pakse a cloud of mist rolls in over the plateau. Unfortunately, the mist and low cloud obscure the view, but judging by the sound made by water cascading and hitting rocks, the falls are impressive. This is also a good opportunity to taste the locally grown coffee, which is sought after by connoisseurs as far away as France.
For those thinking of travelling to Laos, make it some time soon and ensure Pakse is on the agenda. Unlike Vientiane, where the signs are now in Lao and English, ATMs have arrived and an American style-mall has recently opened next to the Morning Market, the southern town speaks of an earlier, less hectic and more authentic time.
The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s travel advisory for Laos urges travellers to exercise caution and ‘‘ monitor developments that might affect your safety because of the risk of civil unrest and criminal activity’’. More: www.smartraveller.gov.au. Travel Indochina is offering a 10 per cent early booking discount on its 17-day Inside Laos tour. From $3415 (with the discount), including breakfasts, three lunches and two dinners, transfers, boat trips on the Mekong River, one domestic flight and sightseeing; international flights extra. There are a number of departure dates next year but only those for April to July are reduced. More: 1300 365 355; www.travelindochina.com.au.
Real time: Approaching Don Khong by boat on the Mekong River, main picture; view from the Pakse Hotel, above right; the ancient site of Wat Phu