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.
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
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.