Well, we figured that we needed to give you all a break from reading our "book" so that is why we've held off on another update. However, here we are on our last night in Laos and we really need to post our recent escapades.
This country has captivated us right from our first day in Luang Prabang. We thought it would be difficult to be comparable to Myanmar but alas, we were wrong. This itty bitty country has been a joy to travel through. Let us say, Vientiane could easily be missed but given that it is the capital, it is a destination for many people who may want to see anything related to government and their pronouncement of victory of their independence.
Just a bit of history again of this little country...it used to be ruled by kings. In fact, it was split up in 3 kingdoms: Luang Prabang, Vientiane and Champasak. Ultimately, after multiple invasions by Thailand, English and French, the last king of Laos died in 1959. Following his death and the revolution, the monarchy was abolished. However, the royal palace still remains as a museum in Luang Prabang.
We flew into the southern city of Pakse. It is the gateway to the 4000 Islands and also, if you wish to drive to either Vietnam or Cambodia, you do so by driving through Pakse. Tourism is definitely underrepresented in this part of the country. However, you can see that there is going to be a boom sometime in the next few years. It does not have the charm of Luang Prabang and doubtful it can ever reach that level of appeal but it offers a way to get to the 4000 Islands which are stunning. Before heading down to the islands, we spent a day on the agriculturally rich Bolaven Plateau. This area is perfect for growing coffee and tea so it was a welcome change for Sunny to finally drink some better coffee than the standard Nestle instant coffee. Surprisingly, there are also several waterfalls but 2 noteworthy ones are locate on the periphery of the plateau...Tad Lo and Tad Fane. Tad Lo being a local favourite as many of them were swimming in several different pools to cool themselves down. Also, there are a number of guest houses built around the falls so if you want to stay close enough to hear them, then you are in luck. Since it is dry season right now, the water flow was not torrential as during rainy season during which bridges are destroyed and rebuilt after the water levels subside. We had lunch by Tad Lo and was very pleasant. Tad Fane, on the other hand was quite dramatic--twin falls that sit at an elevation of 220M high. Again, dry season made them seem fairly tame but still beautiful to see when we were there--the lands around Tad Fane are protected within a National Park. You could go ziplining across the falls--4 lines in total but unfortunately we did not have the time to do it that day.
Of course a day without stopping into a village to see handicrafts is a day without sunshine! The villages we stopped at made bamboo baskets, tools by blacksmiths and of course Sunny's favourite, weavers.
The next day started with a visit to Wat Phou. Oh no you think, another temple! Well, yes and no, this one is rather historic dating back to the 5th century when the Khmer empire started to expand from India into Laos and Cambodia. This is one of the palaces (small one compared to the one down a way) which includes both Hindu and later Buddha images. It was what our guide Ping, referred to as an introduction to Angkor Wat. The other thing he clarified for us was that the 3 religious beliefs were: Buddhism, Hinduism and AMIMISTIC (a mistake was made in an earlier post which we thought it was animalistic--wrong!). Animistic is the belief of all things have a spirit and are alive.
The complex at Wat Phou, located at the base of Mount Pho has a running spring that originates in the mountain. To this day, people still go up there to get some of this "holy" water to drink, wash themselves or bring home to family. Unfortunately, this complex has not received the same degree of funding for restoration as other projects in the country but it is still a very important complex for locals and tourists to visit so the upkeep is supported by entrance fees and some donations from a few historical societies.
After lunch with temperatures hovering 35-38 degrees, we proceeded south to the 4000 islands. This area was just idyllic! All these islands are contained within the Mekong River. We noticed that the colour of the river had changed dramatically from the light cappuccino colour in the north to the moss green colour in the south. We took a fairly "basic" ferry from the mainland to Don Khong (Khong Island). Don Khong is the largest of the Mekong Islands, measuring 20km x 8km and has a population of approximately 500,000. Most of the people live off the land, farming and fishing and now, more tourism. It felt like you were in cottage country with all the waterfront houses, guesthouses and temples built along the river. There were even a few houseboats right on the river. The 4000 islands...well, there were lots of them and so many smaller than the thousands of pagodas we saw in Myanmar. Some were so small, you could not even stand on them while others were big enough to support a few homes but nevertheless, they were beautiful as they were all scattered within the Mekong River. We stayed at a guest house called Pon Arena and it overlooked the Mekong River. Mr. Pon a really successful entrepreneur (now 92) realized how significant the tourism business could be so he built several hotels. The one we stayed at was one of his newest and it even had an infinity pool! Perfect place to cool down after a long drive down from Pakse. The one thing to be aware of when staying in this area, during rainy season, there have been incidents of malaria so we took precautions of covering up and applying insect repellent where there was skin exposure. We decided against taking anti malaria drugs given how short our stay was in this part of the world and we felt that the drugs cause more discomforts from the side effects than what the risk of getting bitten.
One thing we can easily see from our stay in Laos is that the Chinese are actively investing in businesses from tourism to manufacturing. In doing so, they've also spent money on upgrading the infrastructure of the country. The main road to the south were well paved and fairly new and bridges were constructed to access some of the larger islands. Speaking to all of our guides in Laos, the influx of Chinese money and tourism is a mixed blessing. Their quality of life increases but they don't seem to take well to the Chinese tourists...fortunately, they didn't put Sunny in that category.
After witnessing a breathtaking sunrise, we took another cruise in a long boat (just a couple of hours!) to the furthest southern island called Don Khone. In fact, you could see Cambodia just across the way. Our guide Ping lives on this island with his family so he was proudly showing us around the sites and of course, he knew everyone we encountered along the way. Another wonderful and informative guide. Surprise surprise we did not visit a temple today...we saw some temples and Buddha images along the way but instead we saw some more waterfalls. Who knew there would be SO many waterfalls in this little country! Anyways, just like the temples, they are all a bit different. The two we saw today were called Liphi Falls and Khone Phapheng Falls. The last being one of the largest and most powerful in all of southeast Asia...and this was during dry season, too! One of our last stops in Don Khone was to go out to see the fresh water Irrawady dolphins. Ping said that there used to be over 30 of them but now, there are only 3 left. He said most of them were likely caught in fishing nets by mistake. Who knows how much longer they will be able to exist in this part of the Mekong. Ping used to be a "boat boy" so he was very familiar with the behaviour of the dolphins and this was evident as we were able to see all three of them during our time on the river.
Then it was the 2 hour drive back to Pakse to check into our hotel and our last dinner in Laos. David had done so well since the start of the trip when he had a bout of cramps but a little Imodium solved that problem. Then when he said he had a bit of discomfort the day we were doing our cooking class, he just drank two Beerlaos instead and that seemed to do the trick. The food has been delicious here and we can't wait to return home to cook some sticky rice! Some final thoughts of Laos...these people have been so nice and we've so enjoyed leaving a bit of Canada with many of the locals, Canada flag pins. They may be poor but they are proud. We didn't see any begging in this country and NEVER once did we feel at risk for our safety or theft. The other thing that stood out was how trustworthy people are. Ping, out guide, parked a motor bike to go dolphin watching and left the key in the ignition without giving it a second thought. We would never have guessed that they live in a communist country, especially when we saw the Ferrari in Vientiane last week. Surprisingly, the toilets throughout our travels from north to south have been clean!
Thanks again for following us on this adventure. We are almost half way done so bear with us as we continue to write our long posts. Still there is so much we have left out! We fly to Siem Reap, Cambodia next during which we expect to be awed by Angkor Wat, so we've been told.