Monday, February 16, 2009

Luang Prabang

Luang Prabang, LaosLuang Prabang, Laos
Luang Prabang, LaosLuang Prabang, Laos

A 6-hour bus ride north took me to Luang Prabang, which is a cute little town on the river with a lot of colonial architecture. Like Vang Vieng, it has been pretty much overtaken by tourism. But it is still pleasant with lovely just-so restaurants and guesthouses. Kind of like the Napa Valley of Laos (without the wineries). My ATM card had been cancelled due to some security fraud issue, so I was almost out of Lao Kip by this time in my trip. The only place that would take my credit card was the plush Ancient Luang Prabang hotel. Alas...

Luang Prabang, LaosLuang Prabang, LaosLuang Prabang, Laos

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Vang Vieng

Vang Vieng, Laos

Next I took a bus north to Vang Vieng, which a few years ago was a sleepy river village. Now it's backpacker central, with tons of drunken 20-something kids floating on innertubes between bars on the river. The town has been completely taken over by tourism, with restaurants, thumping techno dance clubs, internet shops and some sketch massage parlors vying for attention.

Vang Vieng, LaosVang Vieng, Laos

The area around my bungalow down by the river, though, was beautiful and serene. Surrounded by mountains, rivers and rice paddies, the scenery is still worth going to see. And it seems like every nearby village has discovered a cave in the mountains that they tout as a must-see destination.

Vang Vieng - LaosBuddha Cave - Vang Vieng, Laos
Vang Vieng CountrysideVang Vieng - Laos

I went to see a cave with a Buddha shrine inside of it (complete with a slightly lame "Blue Lagoon" out front), and met intrepid Scottish white-water rafting tour guide Amon there. We ended up taking a motorbike tour through the jungle countryside, getting lost for a couple of hours looking for the road back to town. The minute you get out in the country you can really get a feel for the level of poverty that exists in Laos, hidden from view in the tourist-oriented cities. The countryside was just amazing though. The mountains just shoot straight out of the ground and the scenery alternates between browned-out dry rice paddies and lush jungle.

Saturday, February 7, 2009


Pha That Luang - Vientiane, Laos

I took a couple of weeks off posting, so now I'm catching up with my Laos trip (which happened in late January). After Hanoi, I had about a week to spend in South East Asia before heading back to India for a spiritual retreat. I really wanted to get to Laos, even for that limited amount of time. You hear a lot about Laos when you are traveling - how it's not very touristy (false), how it's pretty but there's nothing much to do (false) and how it's changing fast (true!). Laos was great and I enjoyed my time there, but it was surprisingly well developed for tourism. It takes a bit of time and effort to get out of the tourist bubble. I'm hoping to be able to go back and do so later this year. BTW, did you know Laos was still communist? I didn't!

Vientiane, LaosVientiane, Laos
Vientiane, LaosLaos

I flew into its capital, Vientiane, and was struck first by how clean and modern it was. The streets were wide, clean and tree-lined. Underground sewers! Grocery stores! But not much traffic or crowding. Vientiane is probably the laziest capital city I've ever been to, but pleasant nonetheless. Though it did feel like there was not a lot to focus on there as far as a city center. It has a lot of guesthouses and tourist restaurants, but Vientiane is big enough to not feel completely taken over by tourism, as were Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang.

I spent a bit of time sightseeing, a lot of time eating, and also got an incredible massage from a clinic of blind masseuses. Lao massage is all about applying lots of pressure to pressure points, and at one point my masseuse had me screaming as he stood on a special spot on my thigh.

Pha That Luang - Vientiane, LaosPha That Luang - Vientiane, Laos

The main attraction in town is the Golden Stupa, or Pha That Luang. This is the most important temple in Laos and is blindingly gold in the sunlight.

Buddha Park -  Vientiane, LaosBuddha Park -  Vientiane, Laos
Buddha Park -  Vientiane, LaosBuddha Park -  Vientiane, LaosBuddha Park -  Vientiane, Laos

By far the most interesting and bizarre sight is the Buddha Park, about 25 km outside of town. I rented a motorbike and drove out there on my last day before my bus left. Built in 1958 by a priest who attempted to integrate Hinduism with Buddhism, it contains over 200 statues from both religions (and some strange demons). Tori, I think you would have liked this park!

The food is similar to Thai food, with an emphasis on curries, and there are a number of dishes that both countries seem to lay claim to (like green papaya salad and laap, raw marinated meet like ceviche). I couldn't get enough papaya salad, but even my fondness for steak tartare couldn't get me to try laap in its pure, raw form. My stomach was just feeling healthy after weeks of problems, so I didn't really feel like pushing the envelope. The Laotians also have tons of sticky rice, which I love. I went down and ate at a seafood shack by the Mekong River, where I met the very drunk but very funny Richard, an economics professor teaching in Shanghai. I asked him how he thought the economic downturn would affect China and he said "Oh, definitely, they might only grow at 7% this year." Jerk.