Friday, January 17, 2014

Top Ten Destination Number Four - Laos

Main street of Luang Prabang
Golden Stupa in Vientiane
Moving back to Asia, number four in my top ten of countries I’ve visited is Laos. My favourite country in South East Asia without a doubt, Laos has a little something for everyone except for perhaps the shopaholic. Nestled between China, Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia and Burma, Laos is not the most frequently visited country in the region, but that suits visitors to Laos just fine. Laos is a relaxing and slower-paced change for those coming from Thailand and Vietnam in particular, it’s a bit cooler and dryer, it provides the visitor with plenty to see and do, some good food, and a welcoming smile. In short, Laos the perfect getaway!
The capital, Vientiane, although not the most exciting of capitals, has a mixture of French-colonial old world charm mixed with temples and wide boulevards. Set on the Mekong, which provides much of Laos’ life, the capital is more of a big provincial town rather than a capital.
Visit and marvel at the Golden Stupa, see the replica of the Arch de Triumph, or stroll the banks of the Mekong at dawn or dusk which makes for a truly beautiful scene (and photo). Vientiane is just over the river from Thailand, and the perfect introduction to Laos.
Vang Vieng

Looking for excitement? Well, you might just find it in Vang Vieng. Vang Vieng has been a tourist Mecca over recent years, and that’s because of the tubing. Unfortunately, this is also the uglier side of Laos tourism. Hundreds if not thousands of young mostly white tourists descending on the town to go ‘tubing’, in itself a perfectly respectable activity involving sitting on a tyre’s tube as you float down the river. However, they lined the river with bars and it became a place to get absolutely trashed and party. On top of that, every year people died because they jumped into the river and hit a rock, or drowned. Tubing was stopped last year after another death, now it may have reopened but in a tamer form.

Having said that, you are not obliged to go tubing, and the area around Vang Vieng is really beautiful with rocky hills, winding rivers and greenery as far as the eye can see. Go hiking or rock climbing, or if it the idea tempts you, hot-air ballooning and you’ll see a different and breath-taking perspective on Vang Vieng.

Craters Restaurant, Phonsovan
I found the most interesting place in Laos Phonsovan. This dusty town is centred in a place which was heavily bombed from around 1964 to 1973 by America, and 30% of the bombs didn’t explode on impact. Today, there are still many out in the area in the fields, which could go off by someone treading on them. MAG is the institution in the area that has taken up the responsibility for removing these unexploded ordinances from the farms and countryside, aided by a team of mostly local volunteers. Visit the MAG centre in town and learn about the work they do.
Plain of Jars
Around Phonsovan, and the main reason tourists head there, is the Plain of Jars. Scattered over three sites are these giant stone jars which date back thousands of years. Their purpose is supposedly a mystery, although most concur that they are graves. It’s a breath-taking and eerie site, although other tourists taking photos make alter the errieness somewhat! I took a tour, which is pretty standard, and there’s no issues from unexploded ordinances if you follow the marked tracks and listen to your guide. The tour takes in a few other sites such as a Russian tank, and you’ll see places decorated with the shells of bombs and the like. For example, back in Phonsovan, Crater’s Restaurant.

Mekong River at Luang Prabang.
Finally, I visited Luang Prabang, a quietly beautiful town on the Mekong heading into the northern part of the country. There are plenty of restaurants and hotels here, but it’s a very relaxing place to go and the perfect place to while away a few days or a week doing very little. Day trips include a boat up the Mekong to visit the Pak Ou caves, taking in an interesting unnamed village on the way, or visiting the Kuang Si waterfalls, which are truly beautiful and a great place to take a swim and escape the heat. It’s like some lagoon in a tropical jungle.
Kuang Si Waterfalls
The town itself has a museum and plenty of temples to keep you busy. There’s a fashion show on some nights, and plenty of night spots if you are so inclined. You may be best advised to avoid the people pushing opium though! The buildings have a colonial air on the main strip, and you can sit at a restaurant on the street and wonder if anyone actually lives in Luang Prabang. Alternatively there are a host of river-side restaurants and at dusk the sunset over the Mekong is as stunning as any sight you’ll see in South-East Asia.

For this traveller, Laos was the perfect South-East Asia getaway. If you are interested in more information, tips and my thoughts on Laos, I have an ebook out on Laos – Short Journeys: Laos, available for kindle now.

Next time… well, that would be telling, wouldn’t it. Stayed tuned as next time we hit the top three, in about a week or so.

The top ten so far:
10 – Slovakia
9 – Romania
8 – Mali
7 – The United Kingdom
6 – Japan
5 - Central Asia
4 - Laos

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