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Pleading for Laos – episode 1

26 November 2012 Laos, travel stories No comment

 Buddhist temple in Laos

This week is Laos week. I’ve been there earlier this year and I got mesmerized. The guy who influenced me to go to Laos is Mihai who visited Laos few years before me and told me so many things about this little known country… So, I asked him to contribute with a journal of his Lao trip… Enjoy !

There is a saying from the ancestors:

The Vietnamese plant the rice, the Cambodians watch the rice growing, the Laotians listen to the rice growing. Laos is the last frontier of Southeastern Asia, a land in which time seems to have stood still. There is very little noise in the air.

Laos features in some sad lists: one of the last 5 Communist regimes all throughout the world (together with China, Vietnam, North Korea and Cuba) and (at the first glimpse) one of the poorest countries in Asia. Furthermore, Laos holds the unhappy title of being the most bombed country in history, without any guilt.

In the war against Vietnam, Laos was gifted by the Americans with more bombs than all the bombs which were dropped in the whole WW2 !!! No kidding about this and with numbers. Without Laos being officially involved in any war ! As simple as that, the American bombers flew on the principle “well guys… if you feel there is any danger when landing, scatter all your bombs all throughout Laos”. And they dropped, they did not play. Between 1964 and 1973, the United States Army dropped two million tons of bombs in 580.000 aerial raids: a bomb every 8 minutes, 24 hours a day, for nine consecutive years.

As a meager consolation in time, Laos was declared by New York Times the number one tourist destination in the world in 2008 in a controversial top that starts with Laos and ends with New York. A bit difficult for a 6 million people poor country to sustain a number of people equal to at least a quarter of New York Times’ circulation.

Why is Laos so attractive ? Because here lies the most unaltered ecosystem and the most intact culture. This is that Asia of the classical movies, the Asia without skyscrapers. It is a country in which the Western ways barely show themselves. Slowly, but surely. A country without Mc Donald’s, without Starbucks, without KFC, with very few ATMs and in her vast majority… without tarmac..
Welcome to Laos.

Vientiane

I woke up in the hotel in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, I dressed, I took a taxi, I took a plane, I woke up in Vientiane, Laos, I took a taxi, I went to the guesthouse, I went back to sleep. I think that from my first 24 hours spent in Vientiane, I slept 16 hours. I reckon you are interested in impressions from the other 8 hours.

Vientiane and Laos do not resemble any country seen until now. Everything is so peaceful and somnolent. Almost you cannot believe you are finding yourself in a capital. It’s a unique capital of the world, probably the most quiet and the most relaxed. Not for nothing it has the surname of “Asia’s largest village”.

Avenues of Laos: Lane Xang

In what concerns the standard of living I was expecting the worst, that is a cruel poverty.

Nowhere near that. I think Vientiane does not qualify for the 5 poorest places in which I have been so far. It does not look like a poor country: the streets are impeccable, large, spacious, little circulated. On the side of the road one, can see showrooms from Toyota and Peugeot just like everywhere else. On the streets, cars of all sorts, including the latest Mercedes. It looks like one of a provincial towns, a coquettish one and less noisy.

The second misconception that was quickly shattered: no sign shows that this is a Communist country. There are no propaganda panels with agricultural records, there is not a local Ceausescu present in any paintings (I have no idea who is the boss of the party), the personality cult is equal to ZERO. There are not any communist blocks and any “matchbox” type working men’s districts. There are no blocks! NONE! I at least have not seen any and I kind of took all Vientiane by foot.

Only houses or villas. Even the headquarters of the ministries and the embassies that are all situated on the street on which I am accommodated, look like a house or a villa, but one in good taste, not one belonging to the uneducated people from our country.

However, the influence of the statute of a former French colony is present almost everywhere – all the panels are in two languages: Lao (a succession of first grade learning to write signs) and French. The majority of the restaurants have French menus. There are many French tourists. And above all these, they have an Arc de Triomphe as an inheritance from the French and a delicate spacious boulevard nicknamed “Champs d’Elysée de Lao”. A “Champs d’Elysée” in which the ladies wearing the latest fashion trends are replaced by Buddhist monks in austere orange robes.

The French Bastard colonialists left their mark even on the denomination of the town. The old Viang Chan changed its name and phonetic in today’s Vientiane. Therefore, the capital of Laos can be considered the (very) small Paris of the tropics.

If Laos does not depict itself as a Communist country, a thing is certain: it is a Buddhist country in which the religion is deeply stuck in the everyday life and in which the Party did not intervene to change the customs. The people are free to venerate Buddha and they do it with a piety that leaves you amazed. Many monks everywhere, temples at every corner. In front of the computer, there is a Buddhist monk dressed in an orange robe, just as you can see in the movies set in the 18th-19th century. More exotic than this it is not possible. Here the Holy Three are the sickle, the hammer and Buddha. And it seems it will last for a long time from now on.

From the security point of view, I have nowhere felt as safe as here, I think not even in Singapore. As it is written in all the guides and as I can confirm from the spot,Vientiane has one of the lowest rates of criminality from the world’s cities. Furthermore, the harassment of the tourist is zero in this city, nobody pulls you in order to ask or offer you something. From this point of view I prefer Vientiane 1000 times to Bangkok.

It is also true that this is the country in which the locals are the worst in what concerns English speaking.

I do not have Internet at the guesthouse and it is not to be found everywhere, but where it is found, it is uncensored.

Luang Prabang

I reached Luang Prabang thanks to a flying Chinese coffin, 1970 edition or around. We thank for the professionalism proven by Lao Airlines, by far the most exotic airlines I have ever and will ever travel with. However, was it really necessary for a slogan of an airline like: ”Fly safe with us?” “Why mention?”

Luang Prabang is a mountain little town, the former capital and the host of some tens of Buddhist temples in the purest Lao architectonic style. It is full of monks around there, you can find them at every step trying to make way unnoticed for themselves through the tourists avid of exotic photos.

Temples of Laos: Wat Xieng Thong

Some of the temples are as old as around the year 1500 and have withheld the vicissitudes of the times, among which the total massacre of the Laotians by the Siamese kingdom (Thailand) around 1828. Others did not resist, but were rebuilt after the initial plans, sometimes with the goodwill of UNESCO which placed Luang Prabang in the list of the World Heritage. Anyhow, I have seen some of them and they are real jewels. It is not one of those kinds of beauty “absolute grandeur, greatness up to the sky, grand maniac proportions”. Nothing of this kind. Rather a humble and delicate beauty, a temple equal in size or even smaller than a monastery from Moldova like Voronet. This kind of beauty and painting detail. It’s only that here, they are all gathered in the same city, you do not have to travel through an entire region.

In comparison to Luang Prabang, a small sized town from Europe would seem like a real metropolis. Seen from above, Luang Prabang appears as a shambles protected by the jungle, by majestic mountains through which wave like two snakes the Mekong and the Nam Khan rivers.

I am not saying that the temples cannot easily occupy two days around Luang Prabang. But what shatter your eyes and your senses is the savage beauty of the mountains around and the meandering of the Mekong. One more time: what nature does, the (genius) hand of the man cannot. So I tried to take advantage as much as possible by the surrounding habitat through the trips and the organized tours within reach.

Pictures of Laos:

Laos: Luang Prabang

Luang Prabang

Temples of Laos: Buddha statuie in Luang Prabang

Luang Prabang

Sights of Laos: boats on Mekong

Luang Prabang –Mekong river… on which the Cousin will sail but in the episode 2!

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    My name is Cezar (where the nickname "Imperator" comes from) and I have travelled to 105 countries around the world. In this blog, I would like to share with you stories, memories, travel tips & tricks and news to help you plan your journeys !

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