Words and Images by Mick McDonald
Our first day in Laos and the wonderful leafy capital city that is Vientiane, with its French influenced cafes and coffee shops selling wonderful patisseries and serving refreshing lemon smoothies. We visited the Laos version of the Arc de Triumph, made out of cement donated by the US, for the airport!! We also visited what became an eye opener and yet another example of man’s capacity to inflict suffering upon each other. During the Vietnam war Laos had a B52 planeload of bombs dropped on it every 8 minutes 24/7 for 9 years straight, that’s 580,000 tonnes or ordinance of which 30% remained unexploded, making Laos the most bombed country in human history! We were at the COPE Visitors Centre, an NGO set up to produce prosthetic limbs for those who have lost limbs when coming across one of the estimated 80 million unexploded ordinance, it truly was an amazing place that highlights something that remains in the shadows of the history books, a war that was referred to as “over the fence”.
Driving out of the capital we were in a maelstrom of trucks, cars, bikes, pedestrians and all manner of animals before reaching the relative sanctuary of the countryside, save an endless convoy of Chinese dump trucks as they race to build a high speed train from Kunming, China, to Singapore by 2022.
Entering Vang Vieng is like something out of a Hollywood set, words really do fail me when trying to sufficiently describe the scene that rose before us. Vang Vieng sits on the banks of the Namsang River and is overshadowed by towering limestone karsts that rise vertically from the brilliant green landscape of rice paddies and banana trees below, it is a scene straight from a traditional Chinese silk paining, we were awestruck.
The following day saw a flurry of activity for Sarah as Vang Vieng is the adventure capital of Laos and Sarah wasn’t going to miss out as she took to the water kayaking then tubing before taking to the skies in a paramotor. I was missing driving the Hilux so much I decided to explore the superb karst country that lay all around Vang Vieng, it was a magnificent day capped off by an absolutely stunning, beyond superlatives, sunset. Sitting on the deck of the hotel having a cold “Beerlao” as the karsts glowed under a red sky was something that will stay with me for a long time.
Moving on it took a staggering 7 hours to do 250ks such was the road conditions as the road ascended and descended amongst an endless series of mountain ranges that stood between Laos and China. Broad yawning valleys populated by remote hill tribes that clung to the spine of a lofty mountain range was the order of the day before eventually arriving into the UNESCO listed Luang Prabang, yes, the entire old town is UNESCO listed, stunningly located on the Mekong River.
We checked out our accommodation for next year’s group at the beautiful French colonial lodge converted into a hotel located on a picturesque bend on the Mekong, before driving onto something a little more affordable for this research trip.
Luang Prabang’s old town, located on a spit of land between the Mekong and Nam Khan River, is a mish-mash of old colonial buildings, golden wats, narrow laneways connecting both rivers and trendy cafes. We visited the moving Unexploded Ordinance, (UXO) information centre this time to learn more about the mine clearing work going on in Laos and again to understand the horror that rained down on Laos of 9 long years.
A 5am wakeup saw us witness a centuries old tradition of Tak Bak; monks file out of the nearby wat to take alms early every morning. Essentially the monks walk along a route from the monastery and the locals, whom have prepared rice the evening before, place a handful of rice into each monks’ alms bowl, this constitutes all the monks will have for breakfast each day. It was an amazing sight where over 100 monks, in saffron robes, walked silently along accepting food for breakfast.
We visited the utterly stunning Kuang Si Falls, a series of aqua blue pools fed by a lofty waterfall that dissected its way through the jungle. Also, on site was an Australian “free the Bear” rescue centre for Asian bears rescued from poachers. These were some of the most scenic falls I had ever seen, certainly not on the scale of Foz do Iguazu or Victoria Falls but simply stunnig.
A Mekong River cruise was enjoyed before we caught up with our good mate who has done many Compass Expeditions trips in the past, Bianca, who works in South East Asia for an agency promoting self-development business models for impoverished villages to lift themselves out of poverty. Suffice to say it was indeed a great night on the banks of the Mekong as we bar hopped and ate French camembert, Spanish tapas and drank whisky & cocktails.
Our last night in Laos was spent at the complete revelation that is the Namkat Yorla Pa Resort, hidden well in the mountains on over 50 HA of dense rainforest, a true retreat and a fine way to see out the incredible Laos.
To find out more or join us on next years Asian Overland Expedition please visit: