Laos a land for the ad­ven­tur­ous

Sunday News - - TRAVEL -

de­light­ful Lao young­sters, demon­strated the 13 steps of rice pro­duc­tion af­ter which our group of Ki­wis in coolie hats, had a go at ev­ery­thing. It’s a labour­in­ten­sive, hands-on op­er­a­tion us­ing no ma­chin­ery... apart from Ru­dolf, the wa­ter buf­falo.

Rest­ing from our labours, we sat on the bal­cony of The Ter­race res­tau­rant over­look­ing the paddy fields and en­joyed the 14th step, rice wine and de­li­cious Lao rice dishes cooked by lo­cal women.

Tat Kuang Si Wa­ter­fall, 45 min­utes’ drive from Luang Pra­bang, is an ex­tra­or­di­nary sight. Cas­cad­ing 60m in three tiers to a pool the colour of aqua­ma­rine and turquoise gem stones, the wa­ter then tum­bles down a series of shal­low traver­tine ter­races that form nat­u­ral swim­ming pools. Af­ter trekking up­hill through the rain­for­est on a hot, hu­mid day, the wa­ter felt de­li­ciously cool and re­fresh­ing.

Ac­cord­ing to le­gend, the Tat Kuang Si Wa­ter­fall (Tat means wa­ter­fall, Kuang – deer, and Si – dig) be­gan to flow when a wise old man dug deep into the earth to find wa­ter. A beau­ti­ful golden PHO­TOS: JUS­TINE TYERMAN feat – you en­ter by way of a de­mon’s mouth and ne­go­ti­ate steep steps with no safety rails pass­ing through Earth, hell and heaven on the way, emerg­ing on a dome topped with a tree of life. It’s an in­cred­i­ble view... but don’t even think about it if you suf­fer from ver­tigo.

Laos has a myr­iad of splen­did Bud­dhist tem­ples but two stand out for me.

Wat Sisaket, in Vi­en­tiane, the only build­ing to have sur­vived the raz­ing of the city by Si­amese (Thai) in­vaders in 1828, is the old­est tem­ple in the cap­i­tal. Built from 1881 to 1824 on or­ders of King Anou­vong, it is strik­ingly beau­ti­ful. The shady teak clois­ters sur­round­ing the court­yard, and sanc­tu­ary or ‘‘sim’’ are lined with 10,136 stat­ues of Bud­dha – 2000 large and 8000 minia­tures. It’s a tran­quil, cool place of re­flec­tion and quiet med­i­ta­tion.

Wat Xieng Thong, the most revered tem­ple in Luang Pra­bang, was built in 1560 by King Set­thathi­rath. A huge golden Bud­dha is the cen­tre­piece of the or­nately-dec­o­rated tem­ple, sur­rounded by row-upon-row of smaller Bud­dha stat­ues. The walls of the tem­ple are dec­o­rated with mag­nif­i­cent glass mo­saics and carv­ings de­pict­ing Lao leg­ends. The golden frontage of the tem­ple is ex­quis­ite. So too is the mo­saic Tree of Life on an out­side wall. There are more than 20 struc­tures in the grounds in­clud­ing a build­ing to house the royal fu­neral barge pulled by a fierce many-headed naga or dragon.

What’s the puzzle of the Plain of Jars all about? The site con­sists of thou­sands of stone jars or urns scat­tered around the hill­side on the Xiangkhoang Plateau near Phon­sa­van in the Xieng Khouang prov­ince. Dat­ing back to the Iron Age (500 BC to AD 500), it is among the most im­por­tant pre­his­toric sites in South­east Asia and also one of the most mys­te­ri­ous. No one knows for cer­tain what the jars sig­nify.

Stand­ing at site one, the largest of more than 100 sites, our guide Fhan pro­posed a num­ber of the­o­ries. From re­search and field trips in the 1930s, French ge­ol­o­gist and am­a­teur ar­chae­ol­o­gist Madeleine Colani the­o­rised that the jars were as­so­ci­ated with an­cient burial prac­tices. The dis­cov­ery of hu­man re­mains, burial goods and ce­ram­ics around the jars sup­ports this the­ory.

Some say the stone ves­sels were cre­ated to brew po­tent rice wine or store whisky while oth­ers be­lieve they were used as wa­ter stor­age ves­sels.

By 2013, 1999 jars had been counted in 77 sites with an­other 30 sites still to be sur­veyed. The jars range in size from 70cm to four me­tres, some with lids, but most with­out.

Fhan also de­liv­ered some shock­ing facts about Xieng Khouang, which numbed us into stunned si­lence. The prov­ince was heav­ily tar­geted by US clus­ter bombs from 1964 to 1973, in a covert op­er­a­tion dur­ing the Viet­nam War. At the Plain of Jars, bomb craters dot a land­scape still de­void of tall veg­e­ta­tion. We vis­ited a cave near the site where a Bud­dhist shrine stands as a me­mo­rial to fam­i­lies shel­ter­ing there who died in a bomb­ing raid.

Mil­lions of UXO (un­ex­ploded ord­nance) still con­tam­i­nate Xieng Khouang. Bomb dis­posal teams fromMAG(Mines Ad­vi­sory Group), an in­ter­na­tional non­govern­men­tal or­gan­i­sa­tion founded in 1989, have been op­er­at­ing to clear the UXO since 1994. And Cope (Co-op­er­a­tive Orthotic and Pros­thetic En­ter­prise) pro­vides orthotic de­vices, pros­thetic limbs, wheel­chairs and other aids to those in­jured by ex­plo­sions from clus­ter bombs. Laos holds a tragic world record – it’s the most heav­ily bombed coun­try on the planet, per capita. MAGhas a vis­i­tor cen­tre in Phon­sa­van and Cope in Vi­en­tiane.

The gi­ant sit­ting Bud­dha pre­sid­ing over the ru­ins of his tem­ple at Wat Phia Wat in Muang Khoun, the for­mer cap­i­tal of Xieng Khouang prov­ince is a poignant sight. The tem­ple, which dates back to 1322, was blown to smithereens by the US in 1966.

The black­ened, scarred Bud­dha and a few brick col­umns are all that re­main. He’s suf­fered much over the cen­turies re­sult­ing in a sev­ered arm, lop­sided face and miss­ing eye. In the misty rain, he had a for­lorn, melan­choly look but he is much-loved and highly revered by wor­ship­pers.

Laos is for the ad­ven­tur­ous trav­eller. It’s a very for­eign but friendly coun­try. You def­i­nitely need an ex­pe­ri­enced lo­cal guide and a highly com­pe­tent driver to nav­i­gate the roads, lan­guage, food and cus­toms, not to men­tion the cur­rency. ● The writer was a guest of In­no­va­tive Travel.

Jus­tine at Bud­dha Park in Vi­en­tiane, which fea­tures more than 200 Bud­dhist and Hindu stat­ues and sculp­tures cre­ated in 1958 by a Lao priest-shaman.

Jus­tine Tyerman at Liv­ing Land Farm, a rice paddy and or­ganic farm near Luang Pra­bang.

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