15-25 February, 2001
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ROUTE and COUNTRY INFO for Laos
Laos' Sleepy Capital "City"Feb 15-17
UPDATE NOTE: The original work for this page was lost along with the last Vietnam page when our laptop died. What follows is a brief overview of our time in Laos. Check back later, we might be able to recover our original work and post it here in the near future.
We arrived in Vientiane on a brilliant, sunny, warm day. It was a world of change from the clammy winter weather we had just left behind in northern Vietnam. Vientiane lies on the bank of the mighty Mekong River, not too far inland from the Thai border. Although it's the capital, there really isn't much to do or see in Vientiane, population 200,000. But we immediately appreciated the mellow, laid-back feeling of Laos. The Laotians exist in something of a time warp in this landlocked country. Laos is surrounded on all sides by treacherous mountain chains and the remote borders of neighboring Southeast Asian nations -- Thailand to the south, Burma and China to the east and north, and Vietnam and Cambodia south and west.
Vientiane's only real landmark, a bad copy of the Arc de Triomphe
We walked around Vientiane and checked out the giant market, and then realized we had exhausted our sightseeing opportunities almost immediately. You don't go to Vientiane to see things. Instead, you go on your way to somewhere else in Laos, and to just settle in to the relaxed vibe that is Laos. After coming from the rather busy, hurried Vietnamese capital, we found Vientiane's quiet, low-key capital to be a welcome change.
Beautiful Old Capital of a KingdomFeb 17-25
The U.S. did some really bad things in Laos during the Vietnam-American War. The US military literally bombed the eastern portion of the country to pieces as part of its "secret war" against the Viet Cong in the 1960s and 70s. Although never part of the official war, Laos was dragged in to the mess because the Ho Chi Minh trail ran through parts of its mountainous eastern border with Vietnam. In some places, you can still see the remnants of war material. We saw empty cluster bomb casings being used as informal flowerpots in Luang Prabang.
This is about as busy as Luang Prabang gets...
Mythical golden nagas at the Luang Prabang palace
The country is just coming out of its decades-long slumber, which may end up being a bad thing in the end. Laos is the only country we traveled to where we felt genuinely lost in time. The 21st century hasn't quite invaded Laos yet, but it's coming quickly. The government is beginning to establish trade ties with its neighbors and western countries. Even now, you can see the effects of consumption-oriented, western-influenced society creeping in from Thailand and the West. The unique and isolated culture of Laos, which has existed for a thousand years, is about to come to a screeching halt. Change is in the air, and it doesn't feel good for this quiet, reserved, gentle-natured nation that doesn't seem to comprehend the real nature of the super-competitive world outside. Wandering the streets of Luang Prabang, one gets the feeling the the Lao people just don't have the street smarts or the will to fight off the inexorable wave of money-hungry investors that are beginning to pour into the country. The place is about to change, probably for the worst, very quickly. We're glad we got to see it when we did.
Young monks taking alms, downtown Luang Prabang
Luang Prabang is the capital of ancient Laos. It remained the capital until the Pathet Lao took over in the 1960s, when the capital got moved to Vientiane. Luang Prabang sits on a bluff a couple hundred feet over confluence of the Mekong and Khan Rivers. It enjoys a serene, beautiful setting. Many of its buildings are intact old shophouses and mansions which have begun to be restored by smart locals and investors. As a UNESCO World Heritage site, the town, like Hoi An in Vietnam, looks like something straight out of the 17th century. There are many monks in town, who go to school at one of the several dozen wats (buddhist temples) in town. Wandering through the streets is a real pleasure in itself, taking in the beautiful imagery of this spiritual and relaxing old capital.
Three monks hard at study
One of Luang Prabang's many wats
We really wanted to venture farther afield in Laos, to see some of the less-populated areas. But, unfortunately, Mike got a bad stomach bug in Luang Prabang, and that halted our plans. Rural Laos is not a place to go adventuring when you're sick. So, we spent an entire week in Luang Prabang, wandering the streets, hanging out in cafes, visiting wats and befriending young monks when they weren't busy with their studies. What an incredible experience visiting this relaxed, kind country!
From Laos, we flew to Chiang Mai, Thailand, where we hung out just long enough to arrange our flights on to Bali and then (unbelievably) back home...
Back to Vietnam pg 3 On to Indonesia!
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