Awandering – 2017

It’s that time of year again, where I undertake one of the frankly ridiculously compacted journeys through various parts of Asia.  This time it’s some familiar spots, and some new ones.  Thailand is the familiar, although the Golden Triangle will be a new experience.  Laos is partly new, heading across the border from Thailand, going through the countryside and forests before finishing up in Luang Prabang.  On this occasion I am hosting a group of tour operators from the UK, who haven’t been there before, so I’m quite excited about showcasing what the country has to offer.

From there, it’ll be a solo trip to the south of Cambodia, and finally on to India – Chennai and through Kerala.  As with the previous trips, there’ll be blog posts at every stage of the journey, so why not join me for it?  Departure is Saturday.

Reflections

The Laos part of the journey is drawing to a close, to come is the trip across the border to Thailand and then a flight down to Bali for a few days exploring. So it is the right time to think back over the trip and and the experience.

Prior to this one, my only previous time in the country was a couple of days in Luang Prabang. That’s how most people do it, the city is as much a draw for Laos as Siem Reap is for Cambodia. Thus much tourism involves flying in, having a quick look around and then moving to the next destination. It’s understandable too, it’s the one genuinely famous place that appears on so many travel wishlists. Yet it’s no different (except in scale) to the situation in many other countries. In the UK London is the big draw and many tourists go there and consider they’ve visited the country. Hardly the case.

This particular itinerary involved starting at Luang Prabang, heading our north east before describing a large semi circle and aiming down the finger to the south east of the country. Being work it was necessarily compacted in terms of time, but with a limit on that it was the only way to experience a decent portion of the nation in the time available. Holidays will likely take in some elements of it but not all, unless an unusually long amount of time is available, but it’s not easy to decide which parts should be omitted.

Laos is an extraordinary, fascinating country. It has limited western influence, particularly from tourism, and the lack of western fast food outlets is a strong indicator of that. It therefore appeals strongly to kind of traveller who seeks unusual destinations, off the beaten track, away from the usual volumes.

Nature is a big part of it, trekking, eco-tourism, historical tourism, and actually foodie tourism too. The landscape is stunning, the attractions peaceful, and you are unlikely to be pushed along at the pace of all the others. It does require a degree of independent mindset, and a realisation that this is not a wealthy country. The roads and the towns are anything but we’ll maintained or spotlessly clean so those hoping for an anemic environment comparable to home will be disappointed. But the nature of travel, as opposed to simply holidaying, is to seek out these places, especially because in the years ahead it will change.

The curse of the traveller is finding that no matter where you go, everything is the same. Monoculture prevails all too often. Therefore finding somewhere radically different can be challenging yes, but ultimately thoroughly rewarding.

Laos is one of those places. There are a finishing number and Laos too may no longer be one in the years ahead. Going there while it still is should be on the list of all those who appreciate the diversity of our wonderful planet. It’s time to think about somewhere you haven’t up till now. It’s easier than you think.

Vat Phu Champasak

One of the most celebrated sites in south east Asia is the Angkor complex is Siem Reap, Cambodia. Tourists descend in their thousands to visit what is without question a bucket list attraction. This brings its own problems, the question of sustainability and damage to the monuments being foremost amongst them. From the selfish point of view it is also a tourist trap, meaning that there is no prospect of having any of the key locations to oneself. This doesn’t and shouldn’t put anyone off, for it is an astonishing place to see. But Angkor is not the only Khmer location, and Vat Phu is a memorable excursion in its own right.

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I am travelling in low season, certainly, but it was quiet and even peaceful, a reflection of the lesser accessibility and also the lower volume of tourists to Laos, and this region of Laos more specifically.

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The structures were built on the lower slopes of Phu Pasak which ensures that as you climb, the views become ever more spectacular. It does require a moderate degree of fitness, particularly in the heat of summer. Plenty of water is advised, although a cooling breeze when you reach the top is even more welcome than normal.

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Some of the building was done as early as the 6th century, though the major construction was rather later. It can be seen as something of a precursor to Angkor, and was abandoned before completion.

It isn’t somewhere that rivals its more famous brethren in s

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cale or ornateness, but the layout and views, as well as wonderful ancient monuments make it somewhere that should be seen and appreciated. The isolation and the relatively low numbers make it even more so. This is a magical place and perhaps more so for being so relatively unknown.

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As the Laos trip draws to a close, and with so many memories to choose, this was an undoubted highlight.

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The Bolaven Plateau

Laos is largely mountainous, but there are relatively few plateaus to be found. As such, this one is prized for the fertility of the soils, with coffee and tea being notable produce. It’s also home to a number of different ethic groups, notably the Laven people after whom the region is named. The plateau is elevated to a level of over a thousand metres above sea level, meaning that for most of the year the climate is somewhat cooler and fresher than the surrounding areas. For a western tourist this is most welcome, the temperature being pleasantly warm rather than exceptionally hot.

That is one reason it is worth considering staying here and using it as a base for the surrounding areas rather than Paxse itself. Naturally not all attractions are as close but the peace and quiet appeals, as does the fact that the air conditioning in the room doesn’t need to be on full blast – and doesn’t need to be on at all most of the time.

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There are of course more waterfalls here, some of which offer the delights of a swim in the pool beneath, but the most famous is the Tad Fane falls, the highest in South East Asia with a drop of 120 metres.

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The flow does depend on the time of year but they remain spectacular year round.

Visiting the local villages and seeing the way of life is another attraction, while many of the coffee and tea plantations welcome visitors to see the process and of course most of all, sample the produce. Real coffee isn’t as widespread in Laos as might be hoped for, so it becomes something of a treat to taste the real stuff.

Waterfalls and Islands

From the title, those with some knowledge of their geography may be scratching their heads, given that Laos is a landlocked country. But the islands referred to are in the middle of the Mekong River, and there are four thousand of them – presumably a clever soul will in future create a salad dressing four times as good as any other?.

The largest of them is Don Khong, several kilometres long and wide, and a popular location for tourism. The river itself is, as so often, the principal attraction, for it gives life to the region and provides the most beautiful of backdrops for the visitor. Most activities are driven by the surrounding waters, such as heading off the southern tip of it hoping to see the Irrawaddy River Dolphin. This is a critically endangered animal, it’s survival prospects not helped by the damming of the river at various points. Tourism has often enough assisted with the preservation of species by making their survival valuable (in the interests of balance, tourism has damaged the ecosystem at least as often) and perhaps that may turn out to be the case here. It is to be hoped so at least.

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Access to the southern tip of the island is via Tuk Tuk, which follows the path of the old railway built by the French who were looking to use the Mekong to develop trade.

The railways wasn’t a commercial success and fell out of use. The tracks have long gone, removed for fencing and construction in the area. The locomotive is still extant and can be seen next to where the line ran, and the derrick platforms on the river can too be seen. There are some plans to rebuild the railway along the old route and from a tourist perspective this would both make sense and would be a specific attraction in its own right were they to utilise the old equipment.

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The reason why the railway was needed was because of the waterfalls that made navigating up the river impossible. There are numerous examples of large scale falls throughout the region that is centred on Paxse and the ones at Don Khong are large,  impressive and numerous comprising a 13km long stretch of rapids. The best by some distance and the largest are those at Khon Phapheng near the village of Ban Thakho. They are undoubtedly spectacular, and have the added advantage of not having suffered from any attempt at “improvement” of the natural wonder. By Lao standards, entry is quite expensive at 55,000 Kip, but it still only amounts to £4 and is a must see.

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Waterfalls are wonderfully impressive no matter how many you see. The simple truth of it is that seeing them is the thing, talking about them not so much.

Food

It’s obviously a necessity, and at its best it can make a trip, but it’s also the subject that can put people off, make them change their destination or even stay at home in extreme cases. The food of the destination you choose to visit can be the most exquisite memory you return with, or indeed it can be the dinner table/pub complaint about hideously awful it was.

So what to make of Laos food? Well firstly if you’re planning on spending any time here you do need to like Asian food. You aren’t going to find a McDonald’s or KFC anywhere – it simply isn’t going to happen, in contrast to somewhere like Thailand. In the resorts of the bigger towns and cities you will find western food – of a sort – so a steak is by no means out of the question in those places. But when touring and finding lunch, it’s going to be Lao, or at a push Thai or Vietnamese influenced. For many travellers this is in itself part of the charm of it. You can find a place such as Seno (supposedly named by the French from Sud, Est, Nord, Ouest since it sits at a crosroads) and find the entire main street is given over to grilled chicken, the local speciality.

Perhaps you can be tempted by the Lao version of a barbecue, which if anything is most reminiscent of a Swiss raclette where the meat is served raw and you cook it yourself on a central heated section that warms the soup surrounding it. That was a lot of fun actually.

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For those terrified of hot food, there is little to fear. Lao cuisine is more reminiscent of Vietnamese food than Thai, based around soups comprised of whatever ingredients are to hand, or fried rice dishes that again will be dished up with greens that can either be eaten separately or mixed in the main meal. If you do wish for something with a little more kick, the chili is abundant but served on the side to provide a little extra spice….er. Ok quite a lot of extra spice. This not like adding supermarket chili flakes, so be gentle with your mixing in the main meal. This is fiery stuff, a little is sufficient and add to it as needed, don’t overdo it and find you can’t eat it. This not an idle warning, it’s dynamite. But you’ll soon learn the right amount to add, if you do like heat you’ll be in heaven. If you don’t, skip it and enjoy the flavours.

That’s not to say there aren’t things to try for the more adventurous. Some local specialities fully satisfy any wish to do something different. How much more different can it get?

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For the record those are assorted insects. And also for the record that isn’t my hand – as a lefty I can guarantee that – now I quite like trying things. But there are limits. And eating roasted insects is it. To my considerable amusement the look of appalled horror on the faces of my colleagues as one hotelier insisted I try the duck (very good – more on that property later) passed without any sense of irony given their propensity to ingest creatures normally the preserve of the cat before you can stop him. Yep, it’s western values I’m afraid, deal with it.

I don’t want to give the impression this is the norm. You really aren’t going to be randomly presented with these things. But like many places the phrase “local delicacy” roughly translates as “you are out of your minds. No. Just no”.

The food is really good. A decent company will ensure you visit local places and you’ll get to try the local variations on the central theme. It’s delicious, and it should cater for most tastes. Lao restaurants are not exactly commonplace in Europe or the US, so it will be a new experience. And one to savour in all respects.

JAFT…

Which stands for Just Another Flipping Temple of course.

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Ah yes, temple fatigue. It afflicts all travellers to the region save perhaps those who come specifically seeking spiritual enlightenment. Laos is not as heavy in this regard as somewhere like Myanmar is, but as with so many countries the world over, religion has played a major role in the history of the nation. The visual sites and sights are not so much the point as the context it provides to the story of Laos.

Luang Prabang itself is the place most visited and with by far the greatest number of temples and monuments. Even the most avid fan will find more than enough to satisfy, and in truth most visitors from the west at least would get bored long before the supply of sites was exhausted. This where the context comes in, gaining an understanding of the role played in Lao life up to the present day provides a better understanding than simply looking at pretty buildings ever could. This is why a guide to countries like these is so important, for without one you are left merely looking at pretty buildings.

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Equally, when travelling you come across places such as Phiawat temple, extremely historic but destroyed in the civil war and left as a ruin to issue a reminder that damage to historical landmarks is not confined to distant history.

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Wat Pha That Sikhottabong, located on the Mekong riverbank and 6 km away from Tha Khek also offers the pointed lesson about the past, for the whole town faces across the river towards Thailand, forbidden land for many years under the Lao government, to the point that troops were deployed to prevent crossings. Not quite the Berlin Wall, but a barrier nonetheless.

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It’s true that Buddhists will get more from a visit to each one, but it’s still intriguing for the casual visitor. In Hang stupa is an impressive sight and an important holy place, while the realisation that Savannakhet is a lesser Luang Prabang is rather startling.

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If a list were to be compiled of most surprising things to visit in rural Laos, it would have to include a temple of another kind in Savannakhet itself – one to learning. It may not exactly be comparable to the Smithsonian or the Natural History museums, but the prosaically named Science and Technology Department is all about dinosaurs, given the fossil discoveries made across Laos. It won’t be a long visit, and it certainly doesn’t cost much (10,000 kip) but it’s worth seeing for the exhibits.

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Temples are part of the history and life of countries like Laos. You can overdo it, and that spoils the experience somewhat. Be sparing, appreciate them for what they are and they remain fascinating.

Tham Kong Lor caves

When I was a child I vaguely recall reading an Enid Blyton book where the child protagonists made an escape from their dastardly captors through an underwater river. The tale is long forgotten, but I do thoroughly recall the excitement of it to that young mind. If travel is to be about new experiences, then this certainly counts. For that youthful read is something I haven’t thought about for 30 years, and probably won’t think about for another 30, yet an underground river holds a endless fascination.

The Kong Lor caves are an undoubted highlight of any trip to the region. Located in Phou Hinboun Nbca, they  arch over an 8 kilometre long underwater river. The entrance itself is truly beautiful, the river flowing out into a large pool with an impressive mountain backdrop. Within there are stalactites and stalagmites aplenty, with each cavern spacious and spectacular and the Naga Palace in particular taking the breath away. In order to reach each one you travel by boat, and if there’s one thing which is at once both surprising and very obvious, it is that it’s extremely dark inside. Apart from the torch of the boatman, the only sensations are the motion of the craft and the sounds of the water rushing by.

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To that end it’s important to remember you are going to get wet walking to an from the boat through the shallows, so dress accordingly. The warm weather means you soon dry off but flip flops and shorts are the order of the day.

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The caves are normally lit, but power is unreliable and in many ways seeing it in the darkness with torches flashing is the best experience of all.

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Within you have no end of stalactites and stalagmites to view and the darkness caused by a power cut added to the experience if anything. Seeing a cave as it should be seen is perhaps the best part of the visit.

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Certainly it contrasts well with Tham Nang Ene cave where for reasons that are exceptionally hard to comprehend, the authorities have seen fit to “improve” nature with an array of garish coloured lights within. A wonderful site thoroughly ruined, and therefore of the two Kong Lor is the one to see and the other to skip.

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Two experiences (a third was inaccessible due to the rains) and two contrasting ones. The choice is easy.

The Journey to Khounkham

There’s no getting away from it, if you want to do a quick highlights trip this isn’t the part of Laos to explore. Invest time and you will be thoroughly rewarded, for the journey is part of the experience and must be appreciated.

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It also provides a rough insight into the nature of development in Laos. This is by no means a wealthy country, as any visitor would swiftly appreciate. It’s also one with few natural resources and this creates it’s own problems as the country strives to grow.

There is plenty of history en route for certain, the striking ruins of centuries old stupas may not rival Bagan for number, but they are no less fascinating and in some ways perhaps more so for being allowed to decay more naturally.

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Some of the other sights are less welcome. The most obvious primary commodity is wood, and the heavily forested nature of the surrounds is evident with even a cursory glance. Unfortunately the scarring and gaps in the treeline is equally clear, as is the evidence of landslides where the deforestation has removed the binding of the soils. Such logging is illegal and has been for some time, but tacit approval from the authorities meant that it carried on undisturbed, damaging the ecosystem and leaving ugly gaps behind.

More recently efforts to curb this have begun, and the rate of clearance has slowed but not stopped. More sustainable practices have begun to be put in place, though it is too late to disguise the damage done. Laos is hardly unique in this regard, indeed my own island was once almost entirely forested before my ancestors cleared almost all of it – the much vaunted English landscape is manicured and man-made, it is by no means natural.

That is why the worst approach is an external lecture on the rights and wrongs. Although many a visitor wishes to see traditional life in a destination, that does not mean progress can be denied, for a refusal to accept that condemns an entire people to permanent poverty.

And so while deforestation is a major issue, it is not one to lecture about, assistance is more useful, and from a consumer perspective, to buy sustainable wood products.

Similar issues surround the hydroelectric programme throughout the country. Damming rivers unquestionably changes the environment and some species are directly in peril as a result. But Laos gains much needed hard currency through the export of electricity, in particular to Thailand. National income is as essential here as it is anywhere else.

The worst kind of tourist is the one who wishes to preserve traditions in aspic, for the working life of people is through necessity. Humans do aspire and the reality is that backbreaking labour is not the choice of anyone. This does not mean that everything and anything is acceptable of course, but it does mean that opposing the freedom to be able to for example also afford the smartphone the tourist takes for granted is arrogant and immoral.

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Travelling in the Wet Season

Marketing departments around the world will wince at the title, for they have renamed such a thing over the last few years as the “Green Season”. From a British perspective, this means that at home our green season runs from oh, well January to December really. But when coming to tropical destinations in particular it’s a rather a different matter as rain really does mean rain during the wet season.

So that means you should avoid it of course, right? Well not really, it rather depends. If the plan is to take in a beach holiday, then unquestionably so. There is little as depressing as sitting in your room watching a beach through a downpour. If you are touring however it’s less clear cut. In a country like Laos the rains are an integral part of life, both in terms of agriculture (rice in particular) and the landscape itself. It is what creates the astonishing greenness of the country and fills the rivers that are both visually attractive and a means of traversing the country.

Indeed the low clouds and mist provide many a photo opportunity that isn’t available during the drier months and to some extent show the real Laos in a way that the rest of the year does not.

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That doesn’t mean it rains all the time, for it certainly isn’t the case, it just means that the potential for a downpour is ever present. Up until recently travelling was problematic between the months of April and September when the heaviest rains fall, but this has improved considerably. And to a Briton or European there is something actually appealing about the glorious spectacle of a tropical downpour.

That doesn’t mean it’s the best time to come of course, it’s low season for a reason. But it is dramatically cheaper and possesses a charm of its own. It is also much quieter. One small tip though – flip flops are often thought of summer wear but if you do come at this time of year, they are the shoes of choice and necessity unless you have waterproof boots, which are best of all for the walks. In particular, if they are river based that means deep puddles and streams to cross. Sitting in soaked soft shoes is no kind of fun.

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Personally I rather like this time of year and always have. It is cheaper by far which is always a consideration, but more than that it has a real attraction for me. The sounds and sights of a country during this time of year is special. I love it.

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