Laos orders at the bar
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.