Laos (pronounced 'Lao' without the 's' sound) is a classic Asian stop in the backpackers circuit, but is mercifully little-visited by Singaporeans. One needs to get away from the home country sometimes. The unhurried charm that is Laos is almost certain to vaporise when the China-Laos high speed rail comes into play in 2020, linking Kunming to Vientiane. The 418-km line will be part of the 3,000-km regional railway that will continue through to Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore. This development is expected to fast track Laos into a tourism (and trade) mecca by bringing in the masses (and goods) and their attendant socioeconomic benefits. We learnt much from our 10-day trip from 6 to 15 November 2015 covering Luang Prabang, Phonsavan (Plain of Jars), Vang Vieng and Vientiane.
Luang Prabang Night Market resembles Bangkok's famous counterpart in appearance with mostly the same kinds of goods on sale (apparently imports from Thailand), sans crowds. However, the night market's short food street was jam-packed with hungry backpackers when we visited. I was happy to see that Luang Prabang was on the itinerary of Westerners, especially the French and Americans, probably due to its UNESCO World Heritage Site status.
Laos also attracts a good number of visitors from Thailand. In fact, Tim and I were intrigued to learnt from our guide in the Plain of Jars that Laotians can actually understand the Thai language and vice versa. Both Thai and Lao belong to the Tai-Kadai language family. Laotians have the upper hand as they get a good deal of Thai TV and radio. Some estimates reveal that 70% of the words in Thai and Lao are similar. However, many common words are different including pronouns, negatives and question words. Formal words are usually similar as both languages have loan words from Sanskrit and Pali, especially for religious terms. Lao vocabulary is also influenced by Chinese, French, and English.
Left photo: From the medley of ready-to-eat food, I picked out the interesting-looking ones in a bowl, and handed it to a lady. She tossed the lot in a wok for a warm-up fry. The overall flavour was acceptable except for a number of tasteless starchy bits. What popped our taste buds was the dark-looking buffalo sausage (middle photo), which was re-heated on the grill and doused in a tongue-searing chilli-lime-and-spice mix. Truly yummilicious - much better than what we had at high-end Tamarind restaurant later.
Right photo: Fruit Shake stalls were everywhere, blended on-the-spot in any combination including adding a dash of lao-lao (rice whisky). Standards varied but generally, it all depended on how much ice was added, the less the better.
Left photo: We visited the Luang Prabang night market twice. One can see tortoise carapaces (similar looking to the Spiny Hill Terrapin) painted with Buddhist images on display. There were other animal-part crafts for sale such as canines and small ivory tusks.
Right photo: We succumbed to the grilled dishes on our second visit, savoured with searing hot dips, spicy papaya salad and our favourite sticky rice served in a traditional weaved basket.
Left photo: Laotians like their lanterns big with bold designs and boisterous colours. These lanterns can be accent pieces or repeated at intervals, usually placed outdoors to decorate the facade of shophouses.
Right photo: We stayed at Saynamkhan River View Hotel, a quaint, oft-photographed row that typifies French Colonial architecture. Our room was dominated by old-fashioned dark wooden flooring and furniture. We found our bath towels twisted and folded into a swan with two swans forming a heart shape, placed in the middle of our bed. Opposite our second-floor room was a huge fruiting tamarind tree which attracted birds such as an unidentified warbler and bulbuls. The hotel was just off the main Sisavangvong street and located next to the river, and so was walking distance to all major sights. Our room was clean and good enough for us.
Our hotel overlooked the Nam Khan River. We were privileged to observe the speedy work of the locals rebuilding their bamboo bridge in the dry season. Within three days, they progressed from the little extension as seen in the right photo, to completely bridging the divide as shown in the left photo. All that was left to do was to add the railings. When the monsoon rains come around, bridges are typically destroyed by the swelling waters. Locals then rely on boat services to cross the river.
Left photo: We photographed this lovely butterfly at the Royal Palace Museum. The image clearly shows the play of light on colour - the shaded half appears orangey-red, while that in the strong sunlight glows bright yellow.
Right photo: Tim spotted an E-Bus service that plied a fixed loop which we hopped onto for a relaxing and private tour (nobody else got on) of the Luang Prabang peninsular. The bus had a clean and quiet electric motor and travelled at around 40 km/h. The funny thing was that this bus had a smaller capacity (6 pax) than the modified truck tuk-tuks (taxis - 9 pax).
We huffed and puffed up Mount Phousi, a 110-m hillock on which sat a sprawling temple complex displaying numerous outdoor deities, grottos, pavilions, prayer halls, Buddha statues, Buddha footprint, and a golden stupa (That Chomsi) at the summit. Digging around on the net after the trip, I was excited to finally learn the identity of the maiden holding her long hair (centre of photo). She is Phra Mae Thorani - the Earth Goddess summoned by the meditating Siddhārtha Gautama (Shakyamuni) with his 'earth touching' (right hand point downwards towards the earth) mudra when Mara (the Evil One) and his demons tried to prevent him from reaching enlightenment. Phra Mae Thorani became the Bodhisattva's witness to his past meritorious deeds. She then wringed her hair, out of which flowed a flood of water from the cumulative donative libations of the Buddha over the ages, sweeping away Mara and his army. This act freed the Bodhisattva to reach enlightenment. Phra Mae Thorani can also be seen in Thailand.
We found two skinks up Mount Phousi. The Many-lined Sun Skin (Eutropis multifasciata) on the left was actually spotted inside a spirit house, sitting on the offering plate. The Spotted Forest Skink (Sphenomorphus maculatus) was found in leaf litter.
The 360-degree view at the summit of Mount Phousi shows off the ring of mountains surrounding Luang Prabang (which we flew over on the flight in), the absence of tall buildings and vistas of the two rivers (Nam Khan and Mekong) that envelop the peninsular.
The prayer hall at the top of Mount Phousi. On the LHS of the lady in pink, you can see a tiny dome-shaped cage-basket which holds two sub-adult munias. Devotees can purchase these birds from vendors, and set them free as a meritorious deed. Interestingly, Laotian Buddhist temples have fortune seeking 'chiam' (Hokkien for a cluster of numbered bamboo sticks placed within a bamboo container which a devotee shakes until one stick falls out. He then picks up a fortune slip corresponding to the number on the stick). You can see Tim on the RHS of the photo collecting ALL the fortune slips for his own record and that of a friend (blame the librarian in him). In Singapore, Buddhist temples do not typically have 'chiam', but Taoist ones do. If I recall correctly, the fortune numbers in Laos go from 1 to 24 or 1 to 35. In Singapore, numbers can go beyond 100.
We descended Mount Phousi on the other side of the hill and found ourselves directly opposite the entrance of the Royal Palace Museum. The elaborate Haw Pha Bang temple located at the entrance of the museum complex houses the sacred 83-cm tall Phabang Buddha - the palladium (protective deity) of Laos that gives Luang Prabang its name. The bronze statue is plated in gold and is purported to be made sometime between the first and ninth century. It was abducted by the Siamese twice and returned each time as it caused political upheaval and misfortune to its captors. At night, the street outside Haw Pha Bang is turned into a night market, the one that we went to.
The museum itself bans photography, bags and shoes. Royal artefacts and gifts from 'capitalist' and 'socialist' countries are displayed around the former palace's reception area, throne room, and residential spaces. For me, I learnt the gist of the Vessantara Jataka through a series of paintings and accompanying plaques in English that were hung along the length of the palace walkway. It told of one of the past lives of Gautama Buddha - how he was so charitable that he gave away all his possessions including his two children.
Left photo: Attractive French Colonial residences can be found all over Luang Prabang.
Right photo: We had our first taste of sticky rice (Oryza sativa var. glutinosa) at a riverside restaurant and became hooked on it. Sticky rice is dry and chewy, not wet and gummy. It made everything taste better. Laotians roll this into neat rice balls and eat it with various dishes. Some 85% of the rice grown in Laos is glutinous. Sticky rice is preferred over the generations as it tolerates poor soils and erratic rainfall better than plain rice. When cooked, it keeps longer and can be easily packed for meals in the fields. Plain and sticky rice differ in their proportion of two starches: amylopectin and amylose. Sticky rice has high amylopectin content giving it its stickiness and opaque appearance in the raw and milled form. It only has 0.8% to 1.3% of amylose. Plain varieties have lower amylopectin levels and 10% to 25% of amylose. Rice in general is gluten-free. Un-milled sticky rice with intact bran is purple or black - also chewy and lovely.
Temple gardens usually have statues of Buddhas where devotees can place offerings of sticky rice rolled into balls (see this on the giant lotus pad and on the monkey's offering).
We booked a table at the famed Tamarind restaurant in Luang Prabang. Ordered too much as usual. Interesting dishes included the mixed platter with Orlam (stew with meat, eggplant, long bean, lemongrass, mushroom, chili, and lam/chilli wood), River Weed and Grilled Sausages. We enjoyed the Water Buffalo and Tripe Laap - a sour-spicy meat and herb salad. Also had Mokpa (steamed fish in banana leaf), and ended off with a starchy dessert platter (too much fried stuff and a tasteless lump of boiled pumpkin). Tamarind was the only place in Laos that sold eco-friendly bamboo straws. Bought a whole lot for the office folks. The laap and river weed were the highlights of our meal.
Tak Bat or alms giving has long been associated with Luang Prabang, at least for me, although it occurs in most parts of Indochina. We started out way too early at 5.15 am and walked down a near-empty street all the way to Wat Xieng Thong where we found only a few monks milling around. Where was everybody? Took the chance to tour a silhouetted Wat Xieng Thong in the pre-dawn hour and even poked around the nearby residences. Back at the main street, there was only a handful of waiting vendors and spectators, with long rows of empty stools lining the length of the street. A basket of cooked sticky rice and/or packet biscuits/snacks could be seen beside each stool.
Without warning, the place suddenly burst to life when tourists and locals were bussed in en masse. The devotees had arrived. They quickly took their places on the stools and within one to two minutes, the monks appeared, seemingly out of nowhere. The alms procession had started in earnest in the space of five minutes, transiting jarringly from a deserted to bustling street.
One can easily tell the tourists (seated on stools as in the photos above) from the locals (kneeling as in the photos below). Devotees give out tiny lumps of cooked sticky rice or packet food to every passing monk.
This little girl (right photo) was sincere in her merit making, kneeling on her own to hand out biscuit packs to bare-footed monks.
I was shocked and upset to discover huge baskets placed at intervals for the monks to throw away excess sticky rice and packet food (right photo). Obviously, there were more alms givers than monks. One wonders how these devotees would have felt having the waste basket right in front of their faces. For me, the food waste was unacceptable and even hypocritical. One wonders too about hygiene standards as each giver picks up a tiny lump of sticky rice with his (washed/unwashed) hands and places it into the alms bowl of every passing monk. Each monk would have taken something from every devotee, throwing excess away just to please those down the line by collecting from them too. Wonder if the monks actually eat the accumulated (unhygienic) sticky rice, or was it all just a show? The sight of the waste baskets made me question the entire spectacle and spoilt the tak bat experience.
The parade ended at the junction right behind our hotel at 6.20 am (left photo). There were as many camera-toting tourists at Myanmar's daily alms-giving ritual in Maha Ganayon Kyaung (temple). The nature of giving also differed. In Myanmar, people donated items such as packet biscuits, sweets, raw rice and even soap. It was the temple that cooked the donated rice, with devotees scooping out rice and other dishes using clean ladles for the monks. We also witnessed the monks chowing down in big open halls. There seemed to be minimal food wastage compared to Luang Prabang.
Sabaidee or 'hello' in Laos was the greeting on the lips of every vendor in Phousi Morning Market, located on a side street opposite the Royal Palace Museum. It was one of the highlights of Luang Prabang rather than Tak Bat. We had our fill of sticky rice for breakfast. I loved the purple variety cooked in fragrant coconut milk and drizzled with desiccated coconut and sugar (middle photo), while Tim preferred his coconut sticky rice grilled in bamboo (right photo). The market also sold odds and ends including amulets and what looked like antique bas relief metal plaques (I bought one).
We popped into a small temple near Phousi Market. In fact, we visited most of the temples we came across. One can occasionally see hellish scenes of punishment dealt out to errant believers in the afterlife. I have always been fascinated with depictions of hell. Laos's images were similar to the Chinese 10 Courts of Hell in Singapore's Haw Paw Villa.
We checked out a side street in Phousi Market where we found wildlife for sale: dead flycatchers, sharmas, leafbirds and possibility an Oriole of some sort. There were also strange-looking eel-like river fishes and a variety of cat fishes on display, on top of the usual meat and vegetables.
A typical view of Phousi Morning Market, with vendors spreading their fresh produce on the ground. The market reverts back into a roadway at 11.30 am thereabouts.
Dried rat and live Bamboo Rat for sale. Our guide at the Plain of Jars said that Bamboo Rat is an expensive delicacy - around US$20 each, maybe more. They are trapped from the forest. We spotted a vendor allowing two Bamboo Rats to run around as live advertisements, each with a leg tied to a short string attached to an open basket. There was a pail with around eight Bamboo Rats for sale.
We took a half-day tour to Pak Ou Caves, involving a 50-km slow boat ride to and from Luang Prabang. The long boat was narrow with only two persons per row. It was fairly unstable and rocked at the slightest wave. We sat on recycled car seats that could be reclined. Our boat floated pass farms and villages as we made our way upstream. We observed that some locals tied their long boats at both ends, using ropes attached to bent stakes that had been driven into the sandy or muddy banks. The two-hour ride was otherwise monotonous and cramped.
We got off half-way at Bang Xang Hai 'Whisky Village' where tourists could buy lao lao (rice whisky). Tim paid an inflated price for a tiny red bottle. I didn't bother with the liquor, preferring to walk around. Visited a Buddhist temple courtyard and strolled through a small village constructed from wood, bamboo and concrete in combinations thereof. Saw several hand looms scattered around, snake/scorpion wine for sale, and just one provision shop.
The photo shows Pak Ou Caves (lower cave). Apparently both lower and upper caves hold around 4,000 Buddha statues left behind by devotees over hundreds of years. We were not aware at that time, that one could see Buddha figurine designs representative of different eras in these caves, ranging from faded wooden ones to polished bronze and gold-plated icons. It would have been much nicer if we were the only ones around to contemplate the beauty of the religious art, but there were tonnes of locals and tourists all waiting to climb up the narrow staircases for closer views. As such, we only had a few seconds to snap our pictures and scram.
Long boats docking area below the caves. Pak Ou caves is located at the confluence of two rivers: the Mekong and Nam Ou.
We found some bats in the upper cave (accessed via a long outdoor stairway) but did not have binoculars with us. The upper caves were pitch black. There were vendors loaning out torches for a fee. Apparently the bulk of the Buddha statues are housed in this cave. We only had time to explore the front portion. This cave was much quieter (many did not make the climb up) and the atmosphere was a lot more reverent.
Right photo: Spiny-tailed House Gecko (Hemidactylus frenatus) seen at Wat Xieng Thong.
Pak Ou Caves (lower cave) as seen from the jetty area.
Wat Xieng Thong (Golden City Monastery) is the most famous of Lao’s Buddhist temples. Located at the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers at the tip of the peninsular, it has changed little over the years. The temple was built in 1560 by King Setthathirat and restored in the 1960s, retaining the classic ‘Luang Prabang’ style with low sweeping roofs resembling a mother hen sheltering her chicks. There is a captivating tree of life mosaic done on a dramatic red backdrop located at the rear temple wall. It encapsulates the founding of the temple by two hermits who chose this site next to a large flame tree where the rivers join.
We particularly liked the army of Buddha icons in the 'Calling for the Rain' mudra (both hands straight down by the side) , a posture unique to Laos. This can be found in one of the buildings in Wat Xieng Thong.
Art pieces for sale in the Wat Xieng Thong temple courtyard.
Wat Xieng Thong's La Chapelle Rouge (The Red Chapel) houses a rare reclining Buddha in black, dating to the 16th century.
This curious and cute elephant head sticking out of the exterior wall of Wat Xieng Thong turned out to be a water conduit for libation ceremonies. A drain in the floor of the sim (ordination hall) channels water through underground pipes that empty out from the mouth of the elephant.
We paid a second visit to Phousi Market. Saw more bushmeat: the mottled pelage of flying squirrels, the Indochinese Ground Squirrel (Menetes berdmorei) which has stripes, and an unidentified pheasant.
From clockwise: River crabs cleverly tied together with bamboo; a basket of frogs including the Banded Bullfrog; buffalo hide (with and without hair); as well as strange river fishes and eels, all displayed at Phousi Morning Market.
From clockwise: A lady with two shopping baskets at Phousi Market; strips of meat sprinkled with sesame seed left out to dry in a residential part of town; live bee larvae (white and wriggly with yellow head); dead adult bees.
From Luang Prabang, we took an onerous and cramped mini bus journey through sinuous and beautiful mountain passes. We finally arrived in Phonsavan (Xieng Khouang province), gateway to the Plain of Jars, some eight hours later.
From clockwise: We were pleased to see a real 'zhulong' (Chinese for pig's cage) in Phonsavan's Agricultural Market located behind the main street. Now we understood the idea behind cake shops in Singapore churning out pig-shaped confectionary placed in plastic mesh for Singapore's Moon Cake Festival; preserved fowl being sold in Phonsavan market; Phonsavan is an old-world town with shops spilling into the streets; View of mountains at the noodle soup lunch stop on the way to Phonsavan.
Paid sobering and insightful visits to the UXO (Unexploded Ordnance) Survivor Information Centre and the next-door MAG (Mines Advisory Group) Centre in Phonsavan. Learnt about the proxy Secret War in Laos (that took place during the Vietnam-US War) from two free documentary screenings at the MAG centre (and from more reading up later). Between 1964 to 1973, the US dropped over two million tonnes of ordnance on Laos in 580,000 flight missions. This is equivalent to one planeload of bombs every eight minutes, 24 hours a day for nine years. This horrific fact makes Laos the most heavily-bombed country in history. To put things in perspective, over 270 million cluster bombs were dropped on Laos, 210 million more bombs than that dropped on Iraq in 1991, 1998 and 2006 combined.
The US fought with the Royal Lao Government against the Communist Pathet Lao. The main aim was to thwart Communist traffic from North Vietnam through Laos into Vientiane and South Vietnam. The North Vietnamese Army occupied parts of Laos (one of which was near the Plain of Jars) to facilitate the Ho Chi Minh Trail supply corridor and as a staging area for offensives into South Vietnam and Vientiane. The war was ‘secret’ as it was not made known to American voters until years later. It was all very tragic as Laos became the biggest victim of the Vietnam-US War entirely due to its geography as Vietnam’s neighbour. Needless to say, the bombings wiped-out many villages and displaced hundreds of thousands of civilians in its nine-year duration.
Up to a third or approximately 80 million cluster munitions (called 'bombies') did not detonate, leaving Laos contaminated with enormous quantities of Unexploded Ordnance (UXO). Some 20,000 locals have been killed or maimed by UXO ever since the war ended. Over 300 Laotians continue to be killed (60%) or maimed (40%) each year, 40% of which are children. Kids come across the ball-like bombies in the course of everyday life and start playing with them to devastating effect. Several NGOs are active in Laos teaching children the danger of bombies through stories, songs and other means. MAG has been instrumental in training locals to systematically clear the land of UXOs (surface and deep ordnance) since 1994, working with villagers who come across bombies and other UXOs. MAG staff also use metal detectors to locate the bombs, careful digging to extricate them, and controlled detonations to defuse the danger. This effort is very slow and to date, only a tiny proportion of land has been cleared (likely less than 5%) and returned to productive use.
Stayed at the Vasana Plain of Jars Hotel in Phonsavan, one of the best in the area in terms of its cavernous rooms and balconies, pleasant garden setting and fantastic 360 degrees views from its hilltop location. It was a huge bonus that this hotel was a wildlife magnet too. We saw another Spiny-tailed House Gecko as well as a cute orangey Common (Four-lined) Tree Frog (Polypedates leucomystax) in the hotel's sprawling grounds.
Our room (#45) was the best room in our opinion as it was situated at the end of a long open corridor overlooking the countryside below, next to an extremely bright security light. This summoning beam attracted a tremendous variety of moths, reminiscent of our moth-ing trips to Fraser's Hill in Malaysia. Tim and I loved the moth at the bottom right corner most as it looks like a rolled-up dead leaf.
These two panels of moths cover only the more interesting species that visited the outside of our room and balcony. There were also the usual drab brown varieties. We even observed two to three species of Hawk Moths. The bottom right corner shows what the ceiling looks like plastered with different species of moths. We spent several back-breaking and neck-craning hours on the two nights we stayed, photographing the lot. There were also crickets, mole crickets, katydids, grasshoppers and other insects that came. We were surprised at the biodiversity, given that the Vasana Plain of Jars Hotel is only a 15 minute walk from Phonsavan town and is surrounded by farmland and not forest.
View of the countryside below from the Vasana Plain of Jars Hotel.
We shelled out double (or possibly quadruple) for a private tour of the three main Plain of Jars sites (Sites 1, 2 & 3), as well as an authentic Hmong Village (Bomb Village) costing US$120 for the two of us for a full-day tour. It was worth the money as our informative guide (Mr Lee, a Hmong himself) could speak fairly good English and patiently answered our many inquisitive questions on Laotian life. We were driven around in a huge van.
From clockwise: Bomb Village, so named because villagers have salvaged the huge casings used to contain bombies, using them in lieu of wooden stilts to prop up their storehouses and columbary (for rearing pigeons); the Hmong's farms are located some distance from their village where they grow maize and other crops. Maize cobs can be used as fuel, in this case, to boil water; bomb casings are also used as pig feeding troughs and to plant vegetables in. Village pigs wear a wooden triangular structure around their necks to prevent them from escaping through bamboo fences; a columbary with bomb casings used as stilts.
We felt privilege to visit the simple home of a Hmong villager, complete with simple furnishings placed on dirt floors and an 'animism' altar (see bottom centre photo). The Hmongs cannot be that poor as they have satellite dishes - we found one such dish covered in many layers of cobwebs (bottom right photo). Hmong fence made of bamboo that can be retracted to allow the passage of vehicles (bottom left photo).
From clockwise: Tim and I are next to a stack of bomb casings in Bomb Village Ban Tajok; the Plain of Jars Site 1 Visitor Centre sells aluminum souvenirs made from salvaged bomb remnants, melted and recast into spoons, chopsticks, bottle openers, key chains etc; defused bombies and bomblets on display at the same visitor centre.
I liked Site 1 of the Plain of Jars best for its wide open spaces scattered with giant stone jars. These jars have been the subject of much speculation as to their origins and usage. MAG has cleared Sites 1, 2 and 3 of surface and/or deep ordnance. Tourists are advised to stay on the main path, as demarcated between white markers (ie. cleared of both surface and deep ordnance). We wandered freely amongst the jars to examine them closely and did not keep within the white markers. Since the jar sites are cleared of at least surface ordnance (ie. using visual inspections), there was a remote risk that a deep ordnance could explode. Deep ordnance (ie. buried) can only be found using metal detectors. Farmers typically suffer injuries or die when digging in their fields and striking a deep ordnance with their hoes. Some unwittingly light their fires on top of a deep ordnance which trigger an explosion.
From clockwise: I am standing next to a giant jar, the biggest being almost 3m tall, while others average 1m in height; an approximately 30-m wide bomb crater; a rare jar with lid still intact; a typical unbroken jar. We could also see trenches dug by the North Vietnamese in and around the jar sites.
Jar ecology - many of the jars have plants, insects and other wildlife using them as homes and hidey holes. From clockwise: a jar has become a mini pond covered in duck weed; a scary mass of spiders found inside one jar; a bird's nest affixed to the top of a jar lying on its side; a crab spider found on a tree trunk.
Jars have different openings - round, rectangular, tapered etc (see examples of the three types of jar openings in the front of the photo). One theory is that these jars were likely used as secondary burial sites. Past excavations have found human remains and other after-life items in them. The ancients likely placed a corpse or two in a covered jar and returned six months later to collect the bones for reburial. Over 90 jar sites have been found in Xieng Khouang province, each containing one to 392 jars. Only seven sites are open to tourists. Another evidence of the jars being used for burials is that most jar sites are situated on hilltops, just like modern Laos cemeteries, according to our guide Mr Lee.
Site 1 is one of the bigger sites with over 200 jars resting on a wide open plain.
Site 2 has jars scattered all over a hilltop interspersed with trees.
Left photo: We had to walk pass scenic paddyfields to get to Site 3.
Right photo: The MAG-cleared main path as demarcated by white markers.
From clockwise: Our guide invited us into this broken jar at Site 2. We can verify that a jar can definitely fit in two humans; a mini pond with vegetation growing inside a jar; the only lid with a human figurine carved on it; a toppled jar lying on the side.
Site 3 was on an obvious hilltop with a fence around it - isolated and quiet when we were there. We dared not venture outside the fence. The Plain of Jars receives remarkably less tourists than Luang Prabang, due to its out of the way location (a significant detour from the straight-through Luang Prabang-Vang Vieng-Vientiane route) and difficult overland journey through mountainous areas with numerous switchbacks. Such a pity. For us, we would rate it as a must-see destination.
MAG displays showing the admirable extent of UXO remediation work.
The Phonsavan Agricultural Market also had its share of bushmeat. Left photo shows a porcupine and Silver Pheasant. Right photo shows three Variable Squirrels and another porcupine.
From clockwise: Other items on sale at the Phonsavan Agricultural Market included mixed insects, preserved birds, and a strange vegetable with purplish flowers.
We had this smashed fish dish (bottom right photo) at Sanga restaurant in Phonsavan town upon the recommendation of our guide Mr Lee. It looks gooey and gross but actually tasted quite good.
More bushmeat at the Phonsavan Agricultural Market: squirrels, a pigeon, waders and unidentified mammals hastily covered with a blue feather duster when the vendor observed us taking photos. In fact, one must be quick and surreptitious when snapping such shots as vendors tend towards aggression if they catch you photographing their (illicit?) wares.
From clockwise: A huge specimen of the Asian Toad (Duttaphrynus melanostictus) found at the Vasana Plain of Jars Hotel; a Tokay Gecko (Gekko gecko) with a regrown tail; a hairy (moth?) caterpillar; and possibly the Common/Four-lined Tree Frog (Polypedates leucomystax), all three creatures found near a disused building in Vang Vieng Resort.
Another minibus ride got us to Vang Vieng. This was the former party capital for backpackers, revolving around tubing, drinking and wild games. Revelers in their swimwear would stop at multiple bars while tubing downriver to dance to loud music, consume hallucinogenic mushroom cocktails, smoke weed, get high on lao-lao (rice whiskey) and/or beer, play mad games, and do dumb tricks when stone drunk such as swinging down a high flying-fox and somersaulting into the river. This resulted in several tourist deaths and numerous injuries each year, when people landed wrongly or hit a rock. The authorities clamped down on the insanity (or fun whichever way you choose to view it) in 2012, by shutting down 24 party venues along the river and dismantling all crazy slides and swings. In its hey day, Vang Vieng was also known for its "Friends Cafes" that served up "happy" pizza, shakes or whatever food laced with magic mushrooms or hard drugs, with reruns of "Friends" or "Family Guy" playing in endless loops.
Too bad, the party has been snuffed out. Tim and I would have loved to observe (and not partake of) the action (since I am bad with alcohol and Tim is allergic to cigarette smoke). Today, what is left is a watered-down version. We only found one happening bar in the middle of town (and not by the riverside) called Sakura. It attracted a good crowd of party goers with its loud music, dance floor and booze. Several other bars were sit-down affairs playing 90s hits with minimal dancing. We counted only five "Friends Cafes", still playing reruns of "Friends" minus the "happy" meals.
Tokay Gecko (Gekko gecko), my lifer! I have always wanted to see this huge and very pretty gecko ever since I came to learn of its existence. It is supposed to be common all over Southeast Asia, living even in people's homes. However, it is not found in Singapore except for an introduced population in Mandai. One can hear its loud call readily though. I finally found a specimen in an abandoned building (main picture) in Vang Vieng Resort. That same night, we spotted four tokays in all....one in somebody's home and two in a temple. The Tokay Gecko on the red temple wall has a regrown tail (bottom left photo). Also spotted the Four-clawed Gecko (Gehyra mutilata) and Flat-tailed Gecko (Hemidactylus platyurus) in Vang Vieng Resort as can be seen in the bottom centre and bottom right photo respectively.
Temples in Laos sometimes have a curious pot-bellied statue in a meditative pose, often seen grasping his belly. Not sure what it represents. It could be the Laotian depiction of the Maitreya (Future) Buddha aka the Laughing Buddha in Chinese culture.
This Field or Grass Frog (Fejervarya limnocharis) was very cruelly treated by our adventure guide in Vang Vieng. He found it hopping along on the dark muddy ground of Loup Cave and promptly broke its legs at four points, even when Tim and I protested loudly after the first snap. I thought the guide was doing this to immobilise the frog for consumption later. But no, he simply left it on the ground (see photo above) for us to photograph! Terrible, the poor frog became a cripple for an image. We felt miserable for a long while following the incident. The Loup Cave also served up a gigantic spider (middle photo) as well as a pale Cave Cricket (right photo).
We really enjoyed the caving experience despite the horrid start (our guide disabling a hapless frog). We had purchased a full-day package to explore four caves: Elephant Cave, Loup Cave, Hoi Cave and Water Cave, as well as to tube down the Nam Song river.
We explored the four caves in flip flops, tees and shorts with swimwear worn underneath. A headlamp was provided but we also brought along our own torches and cameras packed away in a dry bag. Calcified stalactites and stalagmites were dazzling in both white and transparent crystalline forms.
These stalactites were hollow. Our guide drummed on them, producing a sonorous range of sounds.
In some parts, water was slowly dripping off the stalactites, forming tubular structures that expanded downwards in time.
Extensive caves, quite unmolested. Twice, we found stalactite segments collapsed in one continuous piece on the ground, leaving only bare rock behind.
Tight spaces that we had to squeezed through at times.
Launching area for the Water Cave. We each sat in one of these rubber tubes (old tractor tires) and pulled ourselves using a set of ropes to move along a cold river that ran through the Water Cave. This was tiring but immensely fun, especially when we had a group of over 20 squealing Korean tourists who preceded us. They filled the cave with their excitable chatter, laughs, and splashes. We had our headlamps switched on to illuminate the otherwise dark passage. The rock formations here were rather non-descript. Our guide signaled for us to get off at some dry ground midway, and we walked through a short passage to explore a bit before heading back the same way. By then, our arms were quite sore but it was an experience worth repeating.
Stacked stones at the halfway point inside Water Cave.
We spent an hour and a half tubing down the Nam Song, allowing the river currents to sweep us 5 km downstream. Tim risked his handphone camera to snap these photos. Our guide shadowed us in a kayak. He rescued me twice - once when I strayed into some overhanging low bushes by the riverbank and got stranded, another time when a Taiwanese lady (who was recuperating from a broken wrist) and I got trapped in a mini eddy that was taking us nowhere. My new Taiwanese friend (we were floating along together for a while) told me that she had left all her belongings with another friend she had made, but he was nowhere to be seen. Shortly after, we did come across her friend, waiting for her to come by at a riverside bar. She shouted at him that time was short (everybody has to return their tubes by 6 pm or face a fine), and could not say much more before the currents pushed us onward. She was surprised that we had a guide with us.
Our guide got impatient with our slow progress and made Tim and I hold on to some string while he towed us in his kayak. Clinging on took a lot more energy than languid floating, and was painful for the fingers. So clever Tim tied the string to his tube and I simply had to hold his hands or tube to move along in tandem. We grew bored and I invented a bounce-off-each-other's-tube game using a short string that we had found.
At some point, our guide became tired and allowed us to float freely again. There was hardly anybody else tubing at that hour, probably because it was already near the cut-off time of 6pm. Instead, many tourists passed us in their kayaks. We received obligatory splashes (kayakers using their paddles to sweep a wave of water over us). Thank goodness some kayakers were polite enough to ask if I wanted to be splashed and I said a firm 'no'!
It was particularly harrowing to see an approaching large rock just beneath the water surface. To overcome that, we instinctively raised our bums to let the tube take the hit. We also had to go under several wooden bridges - the challenge here was not to crash into the thick supporting stakes. That was not as difficult as I imagined, as we naturally adjusted our bodyweight to maneuver the float in the direction we wanted. Our guide taught us nothing of that sort, we had to use our own instincts and wherewithal to survive. In all, tubing was good fun. If anything, it was a brilliant way to experience the constantly flowing force of a living river.
Our only snake for the trip, the Rice Paddy Snake or Plumbeous Water Snake (Enhydris plumbea)! This mildly venomous freshwater reptile is widely distributed across Asia (except Singapore) and is fairly common. We felt super lucky to find it, a bonus lifer for us.
After tubing, we crossed a bridge and saw some attractive riverside huts serving drinks and snacks. I suggested getting a drink there even though we were dripping wet. Upon entering our hut, I spotted the snake almost immediately in the next hut (resting on a beam just above the waterline but below the hut's floor). However, from afar, I had dismissed it as a 'yellow-and-black' cable, the sort used to tie things together. While chit-chatting over coke and beer, I could not help remarking "that looks like a snake", likely because I saw it twitch in my peripheral vision. Tim turned around and gave a loud yelp. I thought he was joking when he confirmed it to be a snake.
We spent the next half an hour trying to get decent photos. At first, the snake's head was turned away. We both climbed over to the next hut and found its head resting downwards. After some difficult shots requiring us to lie on our bellies and thrust our heads below the floorboards, the snake moved itself and came to rest in a far more amenable position (see photo). Notice that the snake's eyes face upwards instead of sideways, allowing them to remain above water while swimming.
The riverside huts where we found our snake.
The karst landscape of Vang Vieng is seductively laidback. Serendipitously, our hotel (Laos Haven Hotel) was run by a Singaporean guy called Michael who has been living abroad for close to 30 years, first in Thailand, and now in Laos. His hotel (a leased property) was simple and clean, located just a five-minute stroll from the main street, away from the throbbing music. We chit-chatted with Michael quite a bit, especially during mealtimes as his wife runs a well-regarded restaurant called 7 Haven (serving fragrant green curry, the best I have ever tasted) adjacent to the hotel. Somehow, the woody and breezy look-and-feel of 7 Haven reminded me of a beautiful hotel I stayed in when in Hokkaido.
Michael lamented that Singaporeans are a timid lot who dare not explore the myriad business opportunities abounding in Asia as he has been doing. He tried to interest us in a business venture - a retirement village that is in the process of being constructed just five kilometres outside Vang Vieng. He revealed that good solid wood can be had cheaply in Laos, his preferred construction material. In contrast, Laotians favour concrete. His constant dictum was 'In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king'. Indeed, we found it refreshing to meet a can-do frontier businessman, especially one from Singapore.
Twin spirit houses at a Vang Vieng hotel across the river.
Our hotel proprietor Michael said that Vang Vieng was used by the Americans during the Vietnam War (ie. proxy Laos war) as an airfield to bomb other parts of Laos. Today, this airfield is mostly an empty plot of concrete, with a bus terminus at one corner, as well as food stalls and an open-air wedding site at another. It is a five-minute walk from Laos Haven Hotel.
Two war remnants serving to mark the entrance of a Laotian village in Vang Vieng.
We took a coach from Vang Vieng to Vientiane. We had enough of squeezy mini-buses. Although more spacious, the coach took far longer to get us into town. Fortunately, we sat next to a retired American guy who was a full-time globe trotter based in Panama. He was at present taking his time to tour parts of Southeast Asia. We had interesting conversations on how to get the most from credit card air miles and hotel booking websites (especially those that challenge customers to find the same room at a lower cost) in order to stretch the dollar. Sadly, we did not exchange contact details. He trotted off to the Best Western hotel while we got conned paying top dollar for a very short ride on tuk tuk to our hotel - the Ibis Vientiane Nam Phu (recommended).
The photo above shows a typical temple garden which is usually encircled by headstones of the deceased. We believe that each of these mini-stupas bear human ashes behind tiny closed doors. Contrast this modern cemetery with the Plain of Jars and one can see how Buddhism has influenced the populace even in death.
Chou Anouvong's statue stands regal in Chou Anouvong Park in Vientiane, directly overlooking the Mekong River which in turn marks the Laos-Thai border. There were lots of elephant and horse statues placed around the square base of Anouvong's giant form. We observed locals paying their respects with joss-sticks and lotus flowers.
When Laos was part of Thailand, Chou Anouvong (1767 to 1829) became the last monarch of the Laos Kingdom of Vientiane. He led the Laotian Rebellion (1826 to 1829) against Thai rule twice but failed, and died a sad creature locked in an iron cage. Today, he is hailed as a Laotian hero, credited for solidifying Lao nationality. This is despite the fact that his rebellion caused the Thai king to sack Vientiane, only sparing Wat Si Saket, and resulted in a permanent divide between the Lao people on both sides of the Laos-Thai border (ie. isolating the Lao-speaking provinces of NE Thailand). In the 450th anniversary celebration of Vientiane in 2010, the government created Chao Anouvong Park to honour the man.
From Chou Anouvong Park, we crossed an empty road pedestrianised likely for the weekend, and found ourselves staring at Thailand across the Mekong River (see right photo). Here, we found the remains of a mysterious religious ceremony where offerings (fruits, sweets, flowers etc) had been piled onto a pagoda comprising tiered trays made of banana leaves and weaved bamboo. This structure even had the 12 Chinese zodiac animals printed on a paper flag (see left photo). There were about five of these tiered pagodas lying abandoned.
A golden dragonfly at the Laos-Thai border on the banks of the Mekong River.
Start of the Night Market in Vientiane which was well-patronised by both locals and tourists alike.
This was one of four spirit houses built below a Bodhi tree in the middle of the night market.
We felt fortunate to stumble across a Chinese temple in Vientiane dedicated to Fudezhengshen (福德正神 - translated as Right God of Blessing and Virtue), more commonly known as Tudigong (土地公 Lord of the Soil), a locality god. There was a temple festival going on, including a full-fledged opera.
The Chinese temple had set up a tentage where six deities lorded over the proceedings in their little thrones (see back row of photo). These Lion Dance offerings were made of sweet peanut.
Tim is fond of picking out the weirdest dish in the menu to try. This time it was frog with vegetables at an open-air restaurant. The frog had rubbery skin, and the dish was rather spicy and tasted a little strange to me.
The next morning we took a tuk tuk to Pha That Luang, and came across a very large company of high school students practicing for a band performance and parade.
The Buddha as depicted in different styles and colours at Pha That Luang.
High school kids making their offerings at Pha That Luang after band practice.
Garden Buddha statues can be as interesting as those housed inside temples. This Four-faced Buddha has multiple hands, each holding a powerful instrument.
Laotian temples typically have colourful frescos featuring the different incarnations of the Buddha's life (see right photo). This particular temple even had Ganesha (the Indian Elephant god) sitting on a lotus pad amongst the other Buddha figurines. The left photo shows prince Gautama cutting off his hair with his blade before he left the palace for an ascetic life. This act should not be confused with Phra Mae Thorani's squeezing her hair to let out of torrent of water (see below) to protect the Buddha from Mara and his demons.
Phra Mae Thorani (Earth Goddess) squeezing her hair to let out of torrent of water to protect the Buddha from Mara and his demons. This scene can often be found in temples across Laos.
Monks frying an unknown dish.
Matronly ladies taking turns to use their feet to operate a wooden pestle pounding away at unidentified leaves. Other ladies constantly stirred the leaves for an even pounding.
At Wat Si Muang, we were fortunate to observe an interesting libation and donation ceremony. Worshippers placed burning yellow candles at one end of a long dragon-like vessel, and poured water (libations) which flowed into an enclosed area where important monks were presumably being 'bathed'. Monk assistants dressed in all white and carrying ceremonial white umbrellas (see photo) were constantly sheltering the head monk and his immediate lieutenants. The (wooden?) enclosure was wrapped in banana leaves and heavily decked in yellow, pink and white flowers. There were also live banana trees used.
Devotees then gathered themselves on both sides of a red carpet and placed their scarves neatly on the ground, lining the path for a line of monks to walk on. They had with them trays and baskets of money (small notes).
A short entourage of monks walking along the red carpet and receiving alms in their cloth bags.
Some donors even had their offerings grandly displayed on money trees. The elderly head monk and his two lieutenants had the white umbrellas sheltering them the whole time as they walked the 150-m path towards the ordination hall (sim). It seemed like every monk received monetary alms from each donor, just like those in Luang Prabang who accepted rice and food offerings from every merit maker.
Laotian Buddhism is syncretic as it is elsewhere in Indochina, with worshippers in Wat Si Muang praying to what I believe is a lingam (phallus), which typically symbolises fertility.
Left photo: A lady arranging her offering of fruits, candles and flowers.
Right photo: In the outdoor portion of Wat Si Muang, I captured people appearing to pray for numbers, probably in hope of winning the local lottery.
The inhabitants of a spirit house with sticky rice offering rolled into neat balls.
A lady and her daughter making merit by releasing two munias from their wooden cage. This cage was immediately abandoned. It was cleverly made from chop sticks, wood and satay sticks. The satay sticks can be lifted to let the birds out.
It was interesting that Laotians also pray to their ancestors, in this case it appears to be an important community figure.
From right to left (not left to right): Monday to Sunday Buddhas in Laos, similar to that in Thailand with minor differences. People tend to feel an affinity for a particular day's Buddha corresponding to their birthday. Monday to Sunday Buddhas can be found in most Laotian temples, normally scattered and not congregated like this under the Bodhi tree of Wat Si Muang.
Monday Buddha = Preventing Calamities (Thailand's version only has the right hand held up in a 'stop' sign, while Laos is unique with two hands held up)
Tuesday Buddha = Reclining Buddha
Wednesday Buddha = Holding an Alms Bowl (to receive morning alms). Thailand has an additional Wednesday Evening Buddha which symbolises 'Retreat in the Forest'.
Thursday Buddha = Meditating
Friday Buddha = In Reflection (Deep Thinking)
Saturday Buddha = Meditating while protected by Mucalinda's (King of the Naga) seven-headed cobra hood
Sunday Buddha = In Pensive Thought
Temple guardians of different forms and hybrid types.
Ancestor worship, again at Wat Simuang. This time it is of a deceased monk I believe.
Day time view of the Chinese Fudezhengshen Temple in Vientiane, located near the Mekong River waterfront. I learnt long ago that a building is not a Chinese temple unless you see dragons on its roof.
We found four Lyssa zampa moths in Vientiane. This one here has a torn wing and was resting inside the Chinese Temple.
We ate twice at Makphet within the same day. This is a lauded restaurant that presents Laotian cuisine with a creative twist. It is also a social enterprise, training disadvantaged kids to be waiters and chefs. Patrons were mostly tourists as it priced out the locals.
Interesting dishes at Makphet included beef marinated in lao-lao (whiskey) and fried with Frangipani flowers amongst other vegetables (left), as well as papaya salad with a Giant Aquatic Beetle and Prickly Flower Pepper (right). Also ordered dishes with ingredients such as Hibiscus, Mekong fish and 'Ancient' fish.
Tim with a tuk tuk opposite Vientiane's Chinese temple (left). A typical rubbish bin in Vientiane that looks like a bombie (right).
Wat Si Saket is the oldest temple in Vientiane as it was spared by Thai King Rama III despite the Laotian Rebellion by Chou Anouvong.
Some of the thousands of Buddha statues lining the sheltered corridor that hems in the courtyard of Wat Si Saket.
We had less than 30 minutes to finish touring the Laos National Museum. Best find for Tim was bamboo text scrolls.
Laos National Musuem: Photos of the devastation of the proxy war in Laos, including that of a suffering little girl.
Giant Communist banners juxtaposed with ad banners in the streets of Vientiane.
Religious paraphernalia in the limousine that took us to Wattay International Airport (Vientiane) for our flight back.
My Bird List
(Apologies as it is very scanty and not in taxonomic order as I did not do proper birding in Laos)
1. Eurasian Tree Sparrow - All parts of Laos
2. House Sparrow - Vientiane
3. Feral Pigeon - All over Laos
4. Common Myna - Vang Vieng and Vientiane
5. Unidentified Warbler with a white belly - Luang Prabang and Vientiane
6. Great Tit - Vientiane
7. Red-breasted Parakeet - Vientiane
8. Common Sandpiper - Vang Vieng
9. Unidentified Pond Heron - Vang Vieng
10. Scaly-breasted Munia - Luang Prabang
11. White Wagtail - Luang Prabang and Vang Vieng
12. Sooty-headed Bulbul - Vang Vieng and Plain of Jars
13. Unidentified Bittern - Luang Prabang
14. Barn Swallow - Vientiane
15. Common Kingfisher - Vientiane
16. Stejneger Stonechat (lifer!) - Vang Vieng (thanks Ding Li for the ID)