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.

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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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The Plain of Jars

One of the most pleasurable elements of travelling to new places, particularly relatively unknown places, is the discovery of astounding sites that comparatively few people have visited. This part of Laos, down in the south east corner is not heavily toured by westerners, mostly due to it being difficult to access. Although Phonsavanh does have an airport flying in is not recommended at the present time so while the Plain is a mere fifteen minutes by car from town, getting here in the first place does require time and effort. This is a lengthy journey no matter where you are coming from, which is why it tends to be as part of a wider more involved itinerary.

It has to be said that whoever named it the Plain of Jars clearly new how evocative that sounded, for it is hard to conceive of a more intriguing title or one to make the visitor more look forward to seeing it, no matter how ignorant in advance one might be.

In outline these are large iron age stone jars, probably part of a burial ritual. There are hundreds of them dotted over the landscape, in varying states of repair. Some of the damage is historic, some is rather more recent as the area was heavily bombed by the Americans as part of the wider conflict in Laos that served as an adjunct to the Vietnam War. Trenches and bomb craters surround many of the sites, a powerful reminder of the troubled recent history.   Indeed, access to many of the sites is restricted as a result of the dropping of vast numbers of anti-personnel mines, with mine clearance an ongoing process nearly half a century later. Only marked paths are safe to follow and only in some locations. A cleared mine is marked with a white post, while a red post indicates identified but yet to be cleared ordnance. It is unlikely a tourist would ever see one of the latter, but the tourist is not the one who lives here. Local people will, and worse those that haven’t been found at all.

For us, it is a brief visit. For those who live here, it is a daily danger.

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There are three main sites open to tourists, although additional ones have begun to be accessible to greater or lesser degrees. Because of the remoteness, it has the attraction of being less crowded than perhaps it deserves. As ever, this is a double edged sword. In future years the popularity will increase, potentially leading to damage (graffiti is already noticeable) but bringing in much needed revenue to the local economy as well.

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One of the local traditions is that the jars were placed there by a race of giants for whom they were cups containing alcohol. The reality may be less certain and undoubtedly more prosaic, but the tradition has an appeal that all legends do, and perhaps it is the one to pretend to believe.

Excavations have revealed that burials were made next to the jars and it seems likely that they formed part of that process. Nearby there is a cave with a hole in the roof that may have been a crematorium. Again, there is limited knowledge and as is always the case it is likely we will never know for sure.

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This is a special place to come. The effort required makes it somewhere relatively few will put on their list, but it rewards the effort wonderfully. No doubt in future as improving links and infrastructure brings more tourists it will become busier. For now it is one of those wonderful secret places that is a privilege to visit. Mass tourism brings so many wonderful benefits to an area, so it is nothing other than selfishness to rejoice in seeing somewhere away from the wider visiting public. Encouraging people to visit is part of that process, for it will become more popular in the years to come. And thus, put it on your list, and do it soon.

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The hinterland

Lao roads are not great. Travelling takes an inordinate amount of time, potholes are frequent and the average speed is rather slow. It needs to be said so that when gauging distances there is the understanding that it’s not going to be like driving along the motorway. Much of the country is mountainous so bends and corners are frequent. On the plus side those with a fear of heights needn’t generally worry about precipitous drops a few feet away, they are comfortable enough from that perspective.

It does however mean that a lot of driving is going to be on the agenda. The route round to Phonsavanh will take around 12 hours in the car and so such itineraries are usually for four or five days. It is quiet and undeveloped with outstanding opportunities for trekking, travelling along the rivers, seeing wildlife (including tigers) and perhaps most of all taking in the often stunning views.

Most of the country is mountainous, and with a low population density even in the more built up areas the unspoilt nature of the terrain is a key attraction.

In truth the first part of the journey from Luang Prabang to Nong Khiao is the least eventful of the coming days, although almost instantly you can see the hills beginning to rise up ahead, and the road takes on a distinctly upward trajectory.

There’s a definite sense of heading into the wilderness, as the number cars and bikes on the road declines and the surroundings become more natural and quieter. The Laos climate means that it’s exceptionally green of course and that also means lots of rivers too. That’s abundantly clear at the first stop, Nong Khiao. It’s only a small place, two streets in reality, but the views are spectacular as it overlooks the Nam Ou river and nestles beneath mountains. It’s a hiking paradise and there are also various river activities as well.

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Morning is a particular time to take in the surrounds, the often misty outlook providing an arresting way to start the day.

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As an added bonus I made a new friend in the hotel at breakfast time.

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It’s typical to spend a couple of days here, it’s very much a retreat from the normal busy world. However, in my case it was already time to move on…

A few more words on Luang Prabang

This isn’t one of the more regular stops on the bucket list of places to visit, and that in itself makes it appealing to a certain kind of traveller. It’s off the beaten track almost by definition with only Luang Prabang being a regular stop on itineraries through south east Asia. However there is far more to the country than that and it deserves greater attention. It’s not over developed, just the opposite and therefore both eco tourism and simple exploration can provide its own joys.

Beginning in Luang Prabang itself one of the sights many visitors choose to make a highlight is the giving of alms to the monks. It does require getting up early and having previously written about the resemblance to paparazzi of the tourists scrambling for photographs, on this occasion it was more low key. Having said that, it was low season, during the peak it will likely be very different. This leaves me uncomfortable; a tradition reduced to being a spectator sport. Nevertheless, for the western visitor unused to such sites it is unquestionably an experience. The collision of tourism and real life always causes such questions.

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In the town itself there and so many temples to visit it can leave the visitor bewildered but the detail and elegance of them still takes the breath away. The best rule is to limit the number you take in and then appreciate them properly. Temple fatigue can ruin the experience and lead to boredom – that is to be avoided at all costs. Still, it’s unquestionably a major part of the experience and provides the lifelong memories of a very special place.

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The national museum is also a must visit – the former palace of the king, it has been kept in much the original condition, as well as having artifacts from centuries of history dotted throughout. It provides a fascinating insight into Lao history, up to the modern age. But be aware that photography isn’t permitted inside so the only things to take are the memories.

If all that gets too much, the Mekong flows next to the town, and provides a dramatic backdrop. Many of the hotels in the key heritage zone back on to the rivers so taking time over a coffee there is a key part of the experience. For the westerner, this evocative idea does tend to come up against the reality of searing heat and humidity though. Something true of so much of the region.

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If Luang Prabang is a tourist trap, heading out to the east of the country is anything but. And that’s where we go next.

Luang Prabang

After a brief stopover in Bangkok, the first port of call in Laos is the World Heritage Site of Luang Prabang. It’s notable especially for the number of monasteries and the architecture transpiring from that.

It’s probably the number one Laos destination for the tourist, indeed all too often it’s a case of arriving here for a couple of days and then flying out again. Over the next week or so I’ll be explaining more of what the country has to offer as I go through more of it.

Luang Prabang isn’t a big place by any means, only around 60,000 people, but those numbers swell massively during the peak season and therein lies on of the issues. It’s a sensitive place in that excessive tourism can damage what has made it so popular in the first place, which is why coming here out of season is not a bad idea at all. Getting into the restaurants, walking through the night market, seeing the surrounding sights – it’s all easier and more rewarding slightly out of season. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t come in the peak of course, but it’s worth considering outside of those times because this isn’t a destination to lounge around the pool anyway. It’s somewhere to explore.

Indeed managing the growth in tourism has been one of the challenges faced by the town and fortunately its World Heritage status limits development, especially in the centre. The hotel growth is mostly out of town.

Tomorrow will be about exploring properly, and more will be posted then.