Laos or­ders at the bar

Rutherglen Reformer - - Motors - Neil Mur­ray

Kuang Si wa­ter­falls in Luang Pra­bang

Shop­ping at Kh­mou vil­lage and, below, enor­mous re­clin­ing bud­dha at That Luang Stupa, Vi­en­tiane, Laos

The sun was set­ting over the hori­zon, our drinks were on the way and, along with hun­dreds of lo­cals, we were en­joy­ing the view from the bar’s bal­cony over­look­ing the mighty Mekong river. Wel­come to Laos.

Gath­er­ing on the banks of the river to catch the sun­set is a nightly rit­ual for the cit­i­zens of Vi­en­tiane, the cap­i­tal and largest city in Laos, so it seemed like an ideal way to be­gin our visit to the coun­try.

The nearby night mar­ket, too, gave us a quick shot of lo­cal colour, and a meal cost­ing less than a ten­ner for the two of us com­pleted our first evening.

My wife Linda and I had flown with Viet­nam Air­lines into Hanoi and then on to Vi­en­tiane for a hol­i­day that was go­ing to prove both eye-open­ing and mes­meris­ing.

The fol­low­ing day, at Wat Sisaket and That Luang Stupa, we took off our shoes – as is the cus­tom – and had our first look at what was to be a string of colour­ful, dra­matic, ma­jes­tic tem­ples and build­ings – all with fas­ci­nat­ing his­toric de­tails filled in by our in­for­ma­tive guides.

Din­ner that evening in­cluded a show of tra­di­tional Laos danc­ing, which, bizarrely, ended with a ren­der­ing of Auld Lang Syne.

A 30- minute flight away in Luang Pra­bang, it was shoes off again at the Haw Pha Bang tem­ple, built in the grounds of the Royal Palace, be­fore, hav­ing clam­bered up 328 steps, we had more Mekong sun­set-watch­ing from the top of nearby Mount Phu Si.

That evening, we at­tended a baci (spir­it­b­less­ing) cer­e­mony, which in­volved hav­ing cot­ton strings tied round our wrists, knock­ing back a white spirit in one gulp, eat­ing lo­cal del­i­ca­cies and lis­ten­ing to an­other ren­di­tion of Auld Lang Syne.

Vis­it­ing a Hmong (Mon­go­lian) vil­lage the fol­low­ing day, it was hard to re­sist the sales push of the kids, all dressed in tra­di­tional cos­tumes and sell­ing colour­ful bags and wrist­bands.

This was fol­lowed by a walk through the jun­gle, past a bear sanc­tu­ary, where the Royal Zoo­log­i­cal So­ci­ety of Scot­land’s Ro­main Pizzi is cred­ited with help­ing to per­form the world’s first neu­ro­surgery on a bear – to view the Kuang Si wa­ter­fall, with loads of Asians in “budgie-smug­glers”. splash­ing about in the lower falls.

We had an early rise the next day to be ready in time to watch Luang Pra­bang’s tag­bat (alms-giv­ing) cer­e­mony and found it eerie stand­ing in a de­serted street in the half- light wait­ing for the monks to ap­pear.

When they did, kneel­ing (or seated) lo­cals handed mostly rice and fruit to them as they walked past in si­lence.

Then, past a food mar­ket where grilled rat was on sale, it was on to a 20-seater snake boat for a re­lax­ing cruise on the Mekong – and a chance to sleep af­ter the early rise.

We stopped at the Bud­dhist caves at Pak Ou, which are packed full of Bud­dha fig­ures (our guide said there were 2500), fol­lowed by a sight­ing of an ele­phant and wa­ter buf­falo on the river­side as we ate lunch.

The next day, af­ter a 90- minute flight south to Pakse, we headed straight for more falls – Tad Fane and the more im­pres­sive Tad Yuang, where we watched, be­mused, as one en­thu­si­as­tic swim­mer took self­ies as he splashed di­rectly below the falls.

We hit the wa­ter again the fol­low­ing day on a long- tailed boat that had wooden planks for floor­ing and plas­tic gar­den fur­ni­ture chairs with life­jack­ets draped over the back to visit Cham­pasask and the vast 11th-cen­tury Wat Phou Kh­mer tem­ple ru­ins, a UNESCO World Her­itage site with ele­phant and al­li­ga­tor fig­ures.

On to a coach then, we had a petrol stop en route, where, stand­ing in the open- air loo in front of a waist- high wall, I watched as five or six skinny black mon­keys ca­vorted about in a cage in front of me. Bizarre.

A two- night stop on Khong Is­land gave us the chance to cruise ( snake boat, bench seats with wooden backs) through the Mekong’s 4000- is­land area, past river­side vil­lages and fish­ing farms, with the moun­tains of Cam­bo­dia in the dis­tance.

Back on land, we made for the Khone Pha Pheng Falls (more rapids than falls), where a group of young monks de­lighted in tak­ing self­ies.

Our ho­tel on Khong Is­land sat right on top of the Mekong, so din­ner on our fi­nal night in Laos was a de­light, over­look­ing the river and watch­ing the sun set.

This is where we came in, I thought.

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