Laos is the poorest country in South East Asia. Neglected by tourists who once preferred the dynamism from Vietnam, the beaches from Thailand and the temples from Cambodia, Laos is suddenly experimenting a fast touristic growth. Visitors particularly appreciate Lao people's laidback attitude (the PDR letters of the slogans Peoples Democratic Republic are now standing for Please Do not Rush!) and the scenic surroundings of this mountainous country. One thing is certain: it is worth going to Laos, I keep incredible memories from the month I spent there.
The Bolaven Plateau by motorbike
I met Markus for the first time in Krabie, Cambodia. We stayed in the same hostel and he had been travelling for a few months in South East Asia. We met the day before I left for my big bike ride along the Mekong. But less than a week later our paths crossed again as we were on the same bus going to the small town of Pakse, in Laos. I traveled for nearly a month with this 26-year-old German who took a sabbatical to travel from China to Thailand. Our first adventure took us to Laos' most beautiful coffee region: the Bolaven Plateau. The Bolaven Plateau is located in southern Laos in a volcano that erupted millions years ago. At an altitude that ranges from 800 to 1350 meters, the region is particularly green and cold compared to the rest of Laos or Thailand.
There are many national parks, spectacular waterfalls (Tad in Laos), jungle, and one of the best coffee in the world. A popular 400 miles route starting from Pakse which is considered as the country's coffee capital. On the 21st January, we rented two scooters for a few dollars and we left Pakse for a three-day roadtrip. On the way we passed through several villages. As we drove all the overexcited children ran to us screaming "Sabaidee!", "Hello" in Lao. They were very curious to see us there and they were posing to have their photo taken. Many ethnic minorities live in the Bolaven Plateau. Generally Laotians are very nice but we found that the locals were particularly welcoming in this part of Laos relatively untouched by tourism.
As we progressed on our journey it started to get dark and it was getting colder. We did not know that it would be so cold and we realized very quickly that we did not bring enough warm clothes. At a petrol station we put on all the clothes we had including our towels that we wrapped around the waist! But on the bike the biting cold was unbearable and we had to slow down a bit reduce the cold feel of nightfall.
On the roadside we saw locals making fire, seeking warmth, families were gathering around the fire. Indeed these people must have been so cold too as they live in wooden huts that are not heated. We stopped several times on the way to join people by the fire trying to get warm. They did not speak English but they understood that we were freezing and they smiled at us. The first thing we did the next morning was to look for a market and we bought jumpers and gloves! On that second day we went from one waterfall to another. They are not always very accessible and we had to drive quite a few times on dirt roads barely passable with scooters. However the waterfalls were incredible. Tad Alang is certainly the most spectacular of all. It takes a good half hour walk in the forest by following the sound of the water before you can actually see it. The formation of rainbows at the foot of the waterfall surrounded by lush vegetation makes this place magical.
As we continued our journey, we passed a house where a party seemed to be taking place. People were singing and dancing to traditional tunes. They waved toward us to come over so we left the bikes on the side of the road and without hesitation we joined them. Again no one was able to speak a word of English so we were communicating by signs. They welcomed us with great enthusiasm, the men were all completely drunk! They invited us to drink some Lao Lao, a very popular and traditional rice alcohol. After drinking and dancing, we decided to leave quickly because we still had a long way to go before the next town and we did not want to end up as drunk as they were – though we were having an amazing time with those guys! We stopped at the nearest town a few miles away. After finding a hostel for the night, we ended the day in a local restaurant where we enjoyed a Chinese hotpot (a kind of stone grill on which everyone cook their own pieces of vegetable and meat), a real delight!
TREK IN THE JUNGLE & HOMESTAY
Located along the Ou River, the charming little village of Mong Ngoi, that consists of one single street is only accessible by boat.
From this village it is possible to hike to another tiny village built on top of a mountain. Only a few tourists go there because this hike through the jungle requires a guide. Markus, my traveling companion in Laos, and I – a bit unconsciously! - decided to go to this village by ourselves. A young Korean who travelled with his mother joined us. We easily went through some small villages along a trail in the mountains before entering the jungle.
For two hours we walked in the thick vegetation of bamboo forests and wild banana trees. The path we had been following since the beginning became less and less visible and intersected by numerous rivers. As it was getting late in the afternoon, we decided to turn back, after all if they say that you need a guide to reach this village there might be a reason!
On the way back, we bumped into a hunter. With little hope we asked him where the village we were seeking was. Obviously he could not speak a word of English but he showed us a different direction with his hand. So we did not give up our search for this hidden town and rushed in the direction the man indicated. Quickly we found a path that we followed for two hours, climbing this mountain in the middle of the forest. The climb was quite challenging especially since we had finished our water bottles. We started to get a bit worried and were wondering if we were on the right path because so far there was no sign of the village, just forest and lush vegetation. The idea of sleeping there in the jungle without water and warm clothes was not very encouraging! Suddenly, a woman came out of a bush with a machete and a huge bag full of bamboo that she was carrying on her back. What a relief to finally see a sign of life! We asked her if we were on the right track and she gestured us to follow her. Barely twenty minutes later as the sun was setting we finally reached the top of the mountain. The relief was huge, we would not have to sleep in the jungle! Like most people in Laos, the villagers lived in small bamboo houses.
We found a family who was willing to feed us and accommodate us for the night in exchange of 5 pounds each. Inside the house there was no rooms, only a single open space. A fire on the ground was used as a cooker, and we all slept on a thin mattress against each other. There was no toilet nor bathroom. We washed in the river and relieved ourselves in the bushes! These people live in another world, so far from the comforts of our everyday life yet the smile on their face is just extraordinary. Exhausted after a long day we fell asleep immediately after eating. This jungle adventure and this homestay will remain etched as one of my best memories in Laos.
HOMESTAY IN LUANG NAMTHA PROVINCE
Markus left Laos a few days before me to go to Northern Thailand. I decided to stay a few more days and took the opportunity to tour the region of Luang Namtha, close to China in the north of Laos, by motobike. This part of the country is famous for its huge national park, Nam Ha protected area with its dense jungle and rivers. The first day I drove on a very dusty dirt road that was following a river.
Again I went through several small villages and people were very hospitable. Once I reached Vieng Phouka I found a hostel and walked in the small village. There are petanques grounds in almost all the villages in Laos. Petanque is a French game where the goal is to throw hollow metal balls as close as possible to a small wooden ball called cochonnet. Locals love playing petanque. Past the petanque field, two Laotian challenge me on a game. It's was tight but they were pretty good and I ended up losing the game. The next day I drove a bit higher and the landscape became more impressive with beautiful views over vast green hills.
I met children who were going out from school. They looked at me with a puzzled look. It seems that they hadn't seen a white face in a while!
My motorbike trip was almost finished but I was exhausted after those two days and I did not want to return to Luang Namtha the same day as I had already spent a lot of time there. So I decided to look for a family who would be willing to host me and feed me in exchange of a few dollars. I stopped at the first village. I walked over to a woman who was selling snacks and drinks on the roadside. With my hands I told her that I was looking for a place for the night. She smiled and waved at me to follow her. We entered the village made up of small wooden houses on silts as most homes in Laos.
She showed me one of the houses, her house. On the ground I wrote the number 70 with the stick to let her know that I was willing to pay her 70,000 kip (7 euros) to stay in her house. That was probably much more than what she was expecting as she did not try to negotiate and invited me to get inside her house with a big smile. The experience I had that night was amazing but difficult because for the first time I was alone with people with whom I could not communicate at all with words. The host family was extremely friendly though. I watched the mother cooking on the floor of the kitchen. The stove was a fire pit on the floor inside the house.
The children came home from school. There were about ten people living under this roof! We made a circle and all ate on the floor. The house consisted of three separate rooms: the kitchen, living room and bedroom. However there were no heating nor toilet inside the house. The inhabitants were using a common toilet which was a hole in the ground surrounded by four sheets that gave a minimum of intimacy. I was surprised to find that there was a TV in the lounge. After lunch they watched a soap opera on TV that seemed to fascinate them. Then it was time for bed, the family went to the bedroom and left me in the living room. I slept on a thin rag on the floor. The mother handed me a blanket but it was still very cold. I must admit that I did not have much sleep that night. Also I started to get sick so it was quite a long night. In small villages in Laos locals wake up when the rooster crows, when the sun rises! The father was preparing a campfire outside the house and the children came to warm themselves up by the fire. They were all holding a ball of sticky rice in their hands that they were slowly eating. That was their breakfast...Children there didn't seem to be unhappy, on the contrary, they were smilling and full of life. Never they will know the comfort children have in other parts of the world but they do have a joy of living that other kids don't have.
Although I did not have a good night that experience is definitely another highlight of my time in Laos.