Visiting Laos

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King Setthathirat’s Statue in Vientiane

History in brief

There are about 6.5 million people in Laos consisting of various ethnical groups, each very distinct in language and culture, the country is 70{19eb38c1b83d5d29fbbb5fcafd2ea2075c90f1df4554789572ffea0ad4fd1559} mountains. A bit of history – Laos has its roots from the Nanchao kingdom in present day southern China; it became the Lan Xang kingdom under king Fa Ngum somewhere in the 14th century. The ancient capital was in Luang Prabang.

After King Suriya’s death in 1694 the kingdom gradually split into a few kingdoms and some had to pay tribute to neighboring kingdoms while there was foreign interference.

It was after a Chinese ’Haw’ invasion in 1887, Luang Prabang decided to accept French protection. In 1893 Thailand ceded Lao territory to the French.

Laos today is a much laid back country, in fact they still practice the 2 hour lunch break.

Taking a drive to other parts of Laos means driving on mountain roads, not recommended for the seasick prone. Many of the roads are still rudimentary except the main road to Luang Prabang and to the south.

Vientiane — pronounced as ‘Viengchan’ it’s the administrative centre of Laos and all business starts from here.

In 1563 King Setthathirat made Vientiane the capital of Laos but after his death things began to fall apart. In the 1827, the kingdom of Vientiane (being a vassal state of Thailand) raised a rebellion against the Thai kingdom and as a result Vientiane was completely destroyed and the population removed. Only thing left standing was Sisaket temple, Vientiane was abandoned until the French made it into an administrative centre.

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PatuXay the Lao version o f the Arc de Troipmhe

There is a road called ‘Sam Sen Thai’ meaning 300,000 Thais, when the Thais were here this area was their main army camp. Today this road is in the middle of the tourist belt and there are many hotels around here.

Near here is the Mekong river on Setthathirat Road where in the evenings it becomes a ‘pasar malam’ selling Lao craft, clothing and DVDs.

There are a few places worth visiting, there are many beautiful temples, shopping areas, there is a Laos version of the famous French ‘Arc de Triomphe’ in Vientiane called Patuxay, it is exactly the same dimensions as the French structure but with Lao features.

Besides foreign tourist, thousands of Thai visitors come to Vientiane daily and their routine is temple visiting, shopping at China Mall and the duty free at the ‘Friendship Bridge’.

The French left many of their architectural trademarks all over Laos but mainly in Vientiane and Luang Prabang.

Nam Ngum Lake – The largest hydroelectric dam is also a popular spot. It’s the largest body of water in Laos, it provides electricity to itself as well as Thailand and is considered a major source of foreign revenue for Laos.

Food and hotel is plentiful, there is a mix of Thai, Chinese, Vietnamese and of course French influence. If you read Chinese then Laos will not be so strange because many places display Chinese writing. Vientiane can be quite expensive.

Luang Prabang is a UNESCO heritage site with many of its old building still intact and it gives a very relaxed feel. This was the old capital but was moved to Vientiane to avoid any invasion from the Burmese.

It’s an 11 hour bus journey from Vientiane over scenic mountains or 30 minute flight—take your pick. If you go by road you will pass some Hmong villages with markets that sell things like mouse deer or civet cats.

Luang Prabang itself is next to the Mekong River, it has the old quarters, most of the older looking building has been turned into guesthouses or hotels. There are many foreigners who have settled here and they set up restaurants or guesthouses.

In general the whole town is within walking distance, it has more temples than I can remember. Almost all of them are very beautifully made, the most famous is

the That Luang temple, the largest stupa contains the ashes of King Sisavang, the last king of Laos and his brother. The museum is a good visit because it was the old palace and one can see the way the royalty used to live in the old days.

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Sunset as seen from Chom Si temple

There is a very pretty sunset watching spot on a hilltop on Wat Chom Si overlooking the town and the Mekong river, be sure to get there early as it gets crowded just before sunset.

Great food all over town because it is used to many foreign tourist, at the night bazaar there is a small lane packed with locals and tourist alike serving local dishes and their specialty is the Lao grilled fish and meats and eaten with sticky rice, another very popular stall who caters to budget tourist sells a plate full of whatever you can pack in for only 10,000 kip or RM 4.00. In general hotel prices ranges from USD 25 to UDS 40.00 per day for a comfortable hotel. If you can afford it there is even a USD 1,000.00 per night hotel.

If there is anywhere worth visiting in Laos it is this place, nearby attractions is the Kuangsi waterfalls, Pak Ou caves and a moonshine distillation ‘factory’ at Sang Hai village, the rice wine here is of a very good quality and sold even far away.

Many villagers around here make Lao shawls for tourist, some are of very good quality.

Night bazaar is a road closed to traffic in the evenings and the local people set up stalls selling mostly Lao products from garments to swords, you may even find some endangered products as well.

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Night Bazaar in Luang Prabang

Tat Kuangsi Park, with spectacular waterfalls, has turquoise colored water due to the minerals from the nearby hills; it’s very popular with tourist swimming in the cascading pools. You will also find the endangered Asiatic Black Bears sanctuary, there are many here rescued from Lao bile farms or poachers. Some of them have mental disorder due to their treatment during captivity while some have found happiness in their new environment. The park depends on entry fees and donations for their good work.

About 30 km from Luang Prabang there is Pak Ou cave, you can either take a 2-3 hour boat ride from Luang Prabang or 30 minutes by car, if you go by car you would have to take a short boat ride to cross the Mekong river. There are mainly 2 caves. Both of them have hundreds of small statutes of Buddha; the dark cave would require torchlight to see where you are walking. As in most places in Luang Prabang you would have to pay a small fee to help in their maintenance.

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Plain of Jars

When all is done there is a nearby Hmong village which sells traditional things and the well known Sang Hai distillery, it’s more a moonshine operation but that’s how it’s done all along. The liquor is made from sticky rice and it has rice wine and rice alcohol with 50{19eb38c1b83d5d29fbbb5fcafd2ea2075c90f1df4554789572ffea0ad4fd1559} alcohol content. Good stuff if you can handle it.

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Making Rice Wine at Sang Hai

Xieng Khouang (Plain of Jars)

There are hundreds of stone jars of various sizes scattered all over the plains, some of them as old as 3,000 years old. Nobody is sure what they are used for but it is assumed that they were used as burial jars. The largest one weight about 6 tons and over 3 meters in height.

Distance from Vientiane is about 400 km and it’s a long drive or you can opt for the 35 minute flight, there is a small town nearby called PhonSavanh and is where the hotels are located. Some sites are about 12 km from town and within easy reach.

There are a few locations to see these jars, some of them in remote areas. It’s best to stick to well worn paths.

Laos is considered the most heavily bombed nation in the world, courtesy of the US government. It has been recorded that there are about 5 million tons of bombs dropped in Laos, most of it is cluster bombs resulting in about 270 million bomblets, 17{19eb38c1b83d5d29fbbb5fcafd2ea2075c90f1df4554789572ffea0ad4fd1559} of this was dropped in Xieng Khouang. Many of these bomblets are still around and killing people almost on a daily basis.

Bomb craters can be seen everywhere and even some house are build with casings from these cluster bombs.

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Fat Buddha at Pak Ou Caves

Phongsaly – This is the tea region of Laos, it is next to China’s Xishuangbanna province. Many Chinese come here to buy tea and send it back for processing into Pu Er tea. The buyers are usually the large tea factories where volume is necessary. It’s then sold as Pu Er tea from China. Better to come here by flight, in general it takes 2 days to get here by normal and ‘sleeping bus’. It’s a good place to see the Aka tribal people living in their traditional style. Modern civilization is reaching them fast and it won’t be long before you see them using Samsung tablets.

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KuangSi Waterfalls

Chinese companies are making 2 dams here and very soon their lifestyle will be gone. If you want to see these people in all purity this is the place, this part of Laos requires some trekking in order to see their villages.

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Premium tea leaves harvested and send to Pu Er in China as ‘Made in China’ tea.

Champansek – The is the part of the Mekong which goes over a spectacular waterfall flowing into Cambodia. The place is ‘Si Phan Don’ or 4,000 islands. There is not much to do here but the falls are spectacular. Downstream there are still some pink dolphins but they are a dying breed.

Business opportunities:

In general Laos is not suitable for manufacturing activities , even their tomato sauce comes from Thailand. Laos is flooded with Chinese goods; it however is suitable for mining, agriculture, infrastructure development projects.

Air Asia has direct flights to Vientiane but inland flights need to be connected from Vientiane.

For more info: [email protected]

The article was  contributed by Mr Rubin Gan

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