One of our favourite travel destinations in the world is Southeast Asia. Spectacular scenery, lively cities, delicious food, balmy weather, instagrammable architecture, affordable lodging and on top of it all, one of the most hospitable people on the planet. What's more? It is the region with most visa-friendly countries for Indians. It was no wonder we headed back to ASEAN region for our opening trip of 2024. And since this was our fifth trip to the region (and the month was February), Laos picked itself as the destination. Laos is the only land locked country in Southeast Asia with Vientiane as its capital. The city started off as one of the several city-states of Dvaravati Kingdom in the 6th century. It later became a vassal of the Khmer Empire. But it came into prominence when King Setthathirath officially established it as the capital of Lan Xang in 1563. And 461 years later, we landed in Vientiane, checked-in and headed straight to the first stop - Wat Si Saket. Built in 1818 and named (and modelled) after the Wat Saket in Bangkok, this is the oldest temple still standing in Vientiane - all the older ones being destroyed during the infamous Sack of Vientiane in 1827 by the Siamese. A hop, skip and a jump away is the Haw Phra Keaw, a temple built in the 16th century by King Setthathirath (and rebuilt after the said Siamese destruction) when he moved the capital to Vientiane. This temple was built to house the famous Emerald Buddha - yes, the kingdom of Lan Xang possessed this till the Siamese took it away in 1779 and it has been housed in Bangkok ever since. We ended the day at the City Pillar, erected originally during the Khmer era, destroyed during the Sack and re-built in 1915.
Half a century ago, in 1958 to be precise, a shaman-priest named Luang Pu Bunleua Sulilat set about making a sculpture park on the Lao-Thai border, 25 kms south of Vientiane. He merged aspects of Hinduism and Buddhism creating over 200 sculptures of the Buddha and Hindu pantheon. If you didn't know their real age and the fact that they are made of reinforced concrete, you could easily be fooled into believing these sculptures are from some centuries old long lost kingdom. Closer to the city is Pha That Luang, a monument that has precisely the opposite effect. The gleaming golden stupa looks ultra-modern, but its genesis goes back to couple of centuries before the birth of Christ. That is when the first Indians arrived in this part of the world (no, contrary to how we felt, we weren't the first). They were the missionaries sent by Ashoka who arrived here with a breast bone of Buddha to spread the religion and the first stupa was built here to house it. Hardly anything survives from that bygone era. Most of what is seen today is from the 16th century reconstruction. Much closer to the city, in fact in the heart of it, stands a war monument called Patuxai. The name means Victory Gate in Lao and was built between 1957 and 1968 using the money that the Americans had given to build an airport. Which should explain its nickname, the 'vertical runway'. And one can climb to the top of it for some splendid panoramic views. We covered all three sites on the forenoon of our first full day of the trip and spent the afternoon on a flight to Pakse.
Pakse is the largest city and the capital of the southern Lao province of Champasak. And it is the gateway to one of the three World Heritage Sites of the country. And an hour drive brought us to it the following morning. Wat Phou Champasak started off as a religious site at the dawn of Lao's recorded history when it was part of the Champa and Chenla kingdoms. It grew into the massive temple complex that we see today during the Khmer era (~11th ccentury AD). Despite it being a World Heritage Site, there were hardly anyone else on the site. The place brought us the sweet memories of roaming the lesser known gems of Angkor, our last trip before the Covid interregnum. After spending two hours climbing as far as our legs would take, we drove back to our hotel in Pakse. On the way, we stopped by the brand new Wat Phou Salao, a new temple complex that offers sweeping vistas of the city and famous for its giant meditating Buddha and rows of smaller ones that adorn the hillside.
Pakse sits on the edge of Bolaven Plateau, one of the pretty little corners of Laos. Even in the peak of dry season, its greenery was lush, its waterfalls roaring and its butterflies fluttering all over. There are several falls worth visiting and three of those are the most accessible - Tad Fane, Tad Yuang and Tad Champee. And yes, "Tad" means "Waterfall" in Lao. The usual tourist itinerary involves visiting Wat Phou in the morning and the falls in the evening. We decided to split the events and visited the falls the following morning which had an obvious downside. All these falls face westwards and we had to constantly peer into the harsh sun to get a glimpse of the silhouette of the falls. On the plus side, we got to enjoy the falls in complete solitude and in the coolness of the morning hours. Packing the falls in the afternoon of a hectic day in this stifling tropical heat would have made us lose interest in travelling itself.
Since we had an early morning start, we could get back to Pakse before noon which in turn helped us catch an earlier flight back to Vientiane and that gave us a chance to check out the last two sites of the capital: Wat Ong Teu housing the city's largest bronze Buddha and That Dham, a giant stupa that also doubles up as a roundabout. The reason latter, whose name translates to Black Stupa, is black is unknown. Popular legend attributes it to the marauding Siamese who stripped it off its gold covering, but historians think the stupa was probably like this since its inception in the 16th century.
The following morning we started our three day road trip across Central Laos. The driver showed up on schedule and we were on our way to Vang Vieng by 7:30. Vang Vieng was notorious for its rave parties and drug abuse till the 2012 government cracked down. Since then, the place has reinvented itself as the premier adventure capital of the country. Situated on the banks of the pretty Nam Song and surrounded by the vertiginous karst formations, the place is ideal for kayaking, tubing and rock climbing. If you (like us) are at an age where "sitting" can be classified as an adventure, Vang Vieng has got you covered as well. It is home to several intriguing caves to explore, lagoons to cool your heels and a viewpoint worthy of being classified as the best in the country. Among the caves we checked out Tham Chang and Tham Phu Kham, the sight of a sleeping Buddha in a monumental cavern at the latter cave was a stunner. Among the lagoons we checked out the Blue Lagoon 1 and 3. And the one and only viewpoint, Nam Xay, involved a very strenuous 45 minute clamber ending in one of the unforgettable sights of our life: meandering paddy fields interrupted by jagged limestone hills. Someone had managed to haul a couple of motorbikes all the way to the top. And since we have an Instagram account we had to join the long queue for the perfect shot. Thanks to us, the average age of the queue jumped from a childish 18 to a more respectable 25.
It is often said that Laos is a time capsule stuck in the laid-back 80s. Well, 80s also had its problems one of which was the potholes masquerading as roads. And Lao roads (outside of the main China built Vientiane - Boten expressway) have an unfair share of them. Our vehicle for the trip was a Toyota Hiace mega-van for a good reason. The potholes here are so big and gaping that cars rarely ply these roads. Many cars have entered the said holes to be never heard of again. We got up at 3 am to hit the road at 4 so that we can be at Phonsavan by 1 pm taking princely 9 hours to negotiate a measly 230 kms. One hour southeast of Phonsavan is Muang Khoun, the capital of a little known 16th century kingdom of Xieng Khuang. Once famous for its temples and stupas, it was ravaged over time by Chinese and Siamese invasions and flattened by the bombing during the second Indo China War. Now all that remains are a weather exposed solitary Buddha statue of Wat Phia Wat and the imposing 1576 That Foun. Almost everything we have seen so far on the trip was a mini version of similar sites elsewhere in the world. Wat Phou looked like a mini Angkor, Van Vieng a mini Ninh Binh, Bolaven a mini Meghalaya and now, Muang Khoun a mini Sukhothai. All that was about to change.
Next up was the second of the three World Heritage Sites of Laos, the Plain of Jars, one of the oldest sites in entire Southeast Asia and as unique as it gets. The entire Xiangkhoang Plateau is littered with giant megalithic stone jars. Dating from about 1000 BC, these mysterious jars have puzzled the historians and best they could say about them is that these were likely used for burials. The largest concentration of these jars are located around the town of Phonsavan (which should explain the trouble that we took to get here). Plain of Jars was also the epicentre of the American bombing during the Secret War. Between 1964 and 1969, US dumped 2 million tonnes of bombs here, making Laos the most bombed country on the planet. And they managed to keep it as a secret for well over three decades. Even today, many of these unexploded bombs cause loss of life and limb to the community living here. The only things as abundant in this region as the jars are the holes left by this relentless carpet bombing, a sad reminder of the destruction caused by the war.
On the following day, we had to endure a longer drive on worse roads. We were stuck once in a pothole only to be pushed out by the Good Samaritans of the next passing vehicle. We were stuck another time for an hour in front of a toppled giant truck. Other than that, the drive was uneventful. And the scenery, especially the Nong Tang Lake was simply breathtaking making the entre ordeal worth it, many times over. This is the 26th country that I have visited and I would easily put Laos as the prettiest. All the bobbing and jostling finally ended 10 hours after we started. And it ended in the magical Luang Prabang.
The magic show had to wait a bit. First up, the following morning, was a trip to check out the two must-sees around Luang Prabang. First of these was the Pak Ou caves, which is a set of two limestone caves located 25 kilometres (an hour) north of the town. It is famous for the several miniature Buddha sculptures that fill their interiors. The visual impact of the hundreds of neatly arranged statues has to be seen to be believed. The next was the majestic Kuang Si, a multi tired waterfall located 30 kilometres on the other side of the town. Do not let the inviting turquoise waters of the first three tumble mesmerise you. Grit through the primordial urge to take a dip and walk steadily to the final falls. If there is a perfection in nature, it has to be this. A fall that is prettier than any that Renaissance painters have imagined, prettier than any that Hollywood computer graphics have conjured up. If this falls doesn't impress you, nothing else will. The two sites ate up most of the daylight hours of the day, but not all of it. We got back to Luang Prabang a couple of hours before the sunset. That gave us a chance to climb Phu Si to watch it. Mount Phu Si is a 100 m tall hill located in the heart of Luang Prabang. It is believed to have been placed here by Hanuman, the Hindu god who helped Rama conquer Lanka in the famous epic of Ramayana. While the summit offers a breathtaking 360 degree bird's eye view of the town, the climb offers a chance to visit the myriad monasteries that dot it.
The day's superlatives did not end with the sunset, as it usually does, but continued way beyond dusk. Luang Prabang is famous for its cooking schools, all specialising in authentic Lao cuisine. Most schools have a front end restaurant dishing out their signature wares to hungry tourist. We had dinner at the Tamarind, one of the famous schools and got to taste a vegan version of a typical Lao dinner. Since describing tastes is an art best left to experts, I chicken out and invite you to watch the trip vlog for the details. As we don't yet have a machine that could record taste and smell, we have to contend with the visuals to relive this unique experience. Our walk back to the hotel took us right across the famous Night Market. The wares were silk textiles, wall hangings, souvenirs and lamps, all well-presented, very reasonably priced and completely devoid of hard-selling. A shopper's paradise and Aparna was in seventh heaven.
The last full day of the trip was upon us and the sights of Luang Prabang had to be checked off before we caught the evening train to Vientiane. After stuffing us with a sumptuous breakfast, we headed to the Royal Palace Complex. Way back in 1353, when the kingdom of Lan Xang was founded, the most revered Buddha statue in the country made its first appearance. It is popularly believed to have been sculpted in Sri Lanka around 1st century AD, but the style points to 8th century Khmer origin. This statue has a name - Phra Bang and that over time got corrupted to Prabang giving the town its present name. This statue is safely ensconced in an opulent shrine inside the Royal Palace Complex. The complex itself was built in 1904 by King Sisavang Vong and only housed two generations of the Lao royalty. His son Savang Vatthana was deposed in 1975 by the communists. The entire palace is very well maintained and oozed with subdued elegance. The entire town of Luang Prabang is the last of the three World Heritage Sites of Laos and was pleasure to roam around. The town houses 133 monasteries and we lost count of how many we visited that day. But three are worth mentioning. First was the Pa Huak covered with splendid 19th century murals depicting historic scenes along the Mekong River. Second was the 200 year old Wat Mai Suwannaphumaham, the largest temple in town and the one with the most resplendent facade in the country. And finally, Wat Xieng Thong, the most famous of all monasteries in the country. Built in 1560 by King Setthathirath, its sloping curved roofs and the amazing Tree of Life mural are couple of iconic images of the country.
As alluded to in the previous paragraph, China helped build the country's first high speed railway line. The solitary line connects Boten (on the China border) with Vientiane (on the Thai border). Luang Prabang and Vang Vieng being the convenient stops along the way. Thanks to the railway line, we could cover the 300+ kms in little less than 2 hours, the train clocking an impressive peak speed of 160 kmph. And now, all that was left was the long way home. We had a couple of spare hours on the final morning and we decided to walk back to Patuxai to record the closing lines of our vlog and ruminate over the last 10 days. Oh boy, what a destination Laos was! Laos is what you get if you take all the goodness of Southeast Asia and distill it to its essence, stripping off its chaos. Laos is all the nice bits of Southeast Asia, but set in a more idyllic atmosphere. And despite being flooded with tourists it has somehow managed to keep its 'off-the beaten path' vibes intact.
Click here for more photos from Luang Prabang.
Click here for more photos from the rest of the country.