Laos a land for the adventurous Em­brac­ing the warmth and friend­li­ness of the South-East Asian na­tion, takes refuge in its spir­i­tu­al­ism, beauty and his­tory.

Jus­tine Tyerman

Sunday Star-Times - - ESCAPE -

Iwatched a slideshow in my sleep last night. Vivid im­ages of Laos were on con­stant re­play in­side my head, pro­jected on to the screen of my eye­lids. Monks in bright or­ange robes, in­tensely green ter­raced paddy fields, wa­ter­falls of iri­des­cent aqua­ma­rine, the swirling red-brown wa­ters of the mighty Mekong, golden stu­pas glint­ing in the sun, bronze Bud­dhas lin­ing tran­quil tem­ples, wiseeyed old ele­phants, smiles that lit up the day... and the night.

An in­di­ca­tion of an ex­cep­tional travel ex­pe­ri­ence is how such mem­o­ries flood the sub­con­scious, unan­nounced, lin­ger­ing at favourite places, re­liv­ing the sights, sounds, smells, sen­sa­tions and even tastes.

In my hypno­gogic state, I could taste the tan­ta­lis­ing flavours and spices of the Lao cui­sine – lemon­grass, shal­lots, chilli, gar­lic, mint, co­rian­der, ginger, lime, tamarind, galan­gal... and ice-cold Beer­lao, the lo­cal brew, which be­came a lunchtime habit.

If my pho­tos were in an al­bum like the old days, they would al­ready have tatty edges – es­pe­cially the ones of the long or­ange rib­bon of monks un­rav­el­ling at dawn in the street near our ho­tel in Luang Pra­bang as the Bud­dhist monks ful­filled their daily rit­ual of re­ceiv­ing alms.

The monks aged from 8 to el­derly, walked the street col­lect­ing food of­fer­ings from the lo­cal peo­ple. Those giv­ing alms were mainly women who sat in groups on the foot­path with their bam­boo bas­kets of sticky rice and other food. The monks chanted bless­ings to the alms-givers as they walked by. De­spite the early hour, I felt drawn to watch the rit­ual ev­ery day.

Our In­no­va­tive Travel guide Fhan, a monk in his youth, said 80 per cent of Lao males be­come monks at some point in their lives. They re­ceive free ed­u­ca­tion, ac­com­mo­da­tion, food and travel, so a pe­riod of monk­hood is es­pe­cially com­mon among ru­ral com­mu­ni­ties where fam­i­lies are larger and poorer. He said it taught him many things such as in­ner peace, but he ul­ti­mately left be­cause he wanted to earn money, marry and have a fam­ily, none of which is al­lowed as a monk.

Rice pad­dies climb­ing in gi­ant steps up green hill­sides is a quin­tes­sen­tial Lao im­age. The ter­rac­ing, cre­ated by hand over many cen­turies, is a re­mark­able feat. Bul­locks are used to pull ploughs but the back-break­ing work of plant­ing, tend­ing and har­vest­ing is still done by hand.

At Liv­ing Land Farm, a rice paddy and or­ganic farm near Luang Pra­bang, we learned some sur­pris­ing facts from guide Khamla. There are thou­sands of va­ri­eties of rice and Laos grows more than 500 types of sticky rice alone. It’s their sta­ple diet, eaten three times a day.

Khamla, as­sisted by a cou­ple of 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 labour-in­ten­sive, 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 deer then made its home un­der a big rock that pro­truded from the falls.

One of the most bizarre and ec­cen­tric places I’ve vis­ited, is Bud­dha Park in Vi­en­tiane. Also known as Xieng Khuan or ‘‘Spirit City,’’ the park is dot­ted with more than 200 Bud­dhist and Hindu stat­ues and sculp­tures cre­ated in 1958 by Luang Pu Bun­leua Sulilat, a Lao priest-shaman who in­te­grated Hin­duism and Bud­dhism.

There are sculp­tures of hu­mans, an­i­mals, demons, a Hindu god rid­ing a three-headed ele­phant, a god with 12 faces and many hands, and an enor­mous 40m-long re­clin­ing Bud­dha. It sounds like a fairy-tale but to get the best panorama of the park, you need to climb to the top of a gi­ant pump­kin. This is no easy 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

PHO­TOS: JUS­TINE TYERMAN

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

Wat That Luang tem­ple in Luang Pra­bang where we took part in a Bud­dhist Baci cer­e­mony.

The Tree of Life at Wat Xieng Thong in Luang Pra­bang.

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