Laos is for the adventurous traveller
I watched a slideshow in my sleep last night. Vivid images of Laos were on constant replay inside my head, projected on to the screen of my eyelids. Monks in bright orange robes, terraced paddy fields so intensely green they looked artificial, waterfalls of iridescent aquamarine, the swirling red-brown waters of the mighty Mekong, golden stupas glinting in the sun, bronze Buddhas lining tranquil temples, wise-eyed old elephants, smiles that lit up the day... and the night.
An indication of an exceptional travel experience is how such memories flood the subconscious mind, unannounced, lingering at favourite places, reliving the sights, sounds, smells, sensations and even tastes.
In my hypnogogic state, I could taste the tantalising flavours and spices of the Lao cuisine – lemongrass, shallots, chilli, garlic, mint, coriander, ginger, lime, tamarind, galangal... and ice-cold Beerlao, the local brew, which became a lunchtime habit.
If my photos were in an album like the old days, they would already have tatty edges – especially the ones of the long orange ribbon of monks unravelling at dawn in the street near our hotel in Luang Prabang as the Buddhist monks fulfilled their daily ritual of receiving alms.
The monks aged from 8 to elderly, walked the length of the street collecting food offerings from the local people. Those giving alms were mainly women who sat in groups on the footpath with their bamboo baskets of sticky rice and other food. The monks chanted blessings to the alms-givers as they walked by. Despite the early hour, I felt drawn to watch the ritual every day.
Our Innovative Travel guide Fhan, a monk in his youth, said 80 per cent of Lao males become monks at some point in their lives. They receive free education, accommodation, food and travel, so a period of monkhood is especially common among rural communities where families are larger and poorer. He said it taught him many things such as inner peace, but he ultimately left because he wanted to earn money, marry and have a family, none of which is allowed as a monk.
Rice paddies climbing in giant steps up green hillsides is a quintessential Lao image. The terracing, created by hand over many centuries, is a remarkable feat. Bullocks are used to pull ploughs but the back-breaking work of planting, tending and harvesting is still done by hand.
At Living Land Farm, a rice paddy and organic farm near Luang Prabang, we learned some surprising facts from guide Khamla. There are thousands of varieties of rice and Laos grows more than 500 types of sticky rice alone. It's their staple diet, eaten three times a day.
Khamla, assisted by a couple of delightful Lao youngsters, demonstrated the 13 steps of rice production after which our group of Kiwis in coolie hats, had a go at everything. It's a labour-intensive, hands-on operation using no machinery... apart from Rudolf, the water buffalo.
Resting from our labours, we sat on the balcony of The Terrace restaurant overlooking the paddy fields and enjoyed the 14th step, rice wine and delicious Lao rice dishes cooked by local women.
Tat Kuang Si Waterfall, 45 minutes' drive from Luang Prabang, is an extraordinary sight. Cascading 60m in three tiers to a pool the colour of shimmering aquamarine and turquoise gem stones, the water then tumbles down a series of shallow travertine terraces that form natural swimming pools. After trekking uphill through the rainforest on a hot, humid day, the water felt deliciously cool and refreshing.
According to legend, the Tat Kuang Si Waterfall (Tat means waterfall, Kuang – deer, and Si – dig) began to flow when a wise old man dug deep into the earth to find water. A beautiful golden deer then made its home under a big rock that protruded from the falls.
One of the most bizarre and eccentric places I have ever visited, is Buddha Park in Vientiane. Also known as Xieng Khuan or "Spirit City," the park is dotted with more than 200 Buddhist and Hindu statues and sculptures created in 1958 by Luang Pu Bunleua Sulilat, a Lao priest-shaman who integrated Hinduism and Buddhism.
There are sculptures of humans, animals, demons, a Hindu god riding a three-headed elephant, a god with 12 faces and many hands, and an enormous 40m-long reclining Buddha. It sounds like a fairy-tale but to get the best panorama of the park, you need to climb to the top of a giant pumpkin. This is no easy feat – you enter by way of a demon's mouth and negotiate steep steps with no safety rails passing through Earth, hell and heaven on the way, emerging on a dome topped with a tree of life. It's an incredible view... but don't even think about it if you suffer from vertigo.
Laos has a myriad of splendid Buddhist temples but two stand out for me.
Wat Sisaket, in Vientiane, the only building to have survived the razing of the city by Siamese (Thai) invaders in 1828, is the oldest temple in the capital. Built from 1881 to 1824 on orders of King Anouvong, it is strikingly beautiful. The shady teak cloisters surrounding the courtyard, and sanctuary or "sim" are lined with 10,136 statues of Buddha – 2000 large and 8000 miniatures. It's a tranquil, cool place of reflection and quiet meditation.
Wat Xieng Thong, the most revered temple in Luang Prabang, was built in 1560 by King Setthathirath. A huge golden Buddha is the centrepiece of the ornately-decorated temple, surrounded by row-upon-row of smaller Buddha statues. The walls of the temple are decorated with magnificent glass mosaics and carvings depicting Lao legends. The golden frontage of the temple is exquisite. So too is the mosaic Tree of Life on an outside wall. There are more than 20 structures in the grounds including a building to house the royal funeral barge pulled by a fierce many-headed naga or dragon.
What's the puzzle of the Plain of Jars all about? The site consists of thousands of stone jars or urns scattered around the hillside on the Xiangkhoang Plateau near Phonsavan in the Xieng Khouang province. Dating back to the Iron Age (500 BC to AD 500), it is among the most important prehistoric sites in Southeast Asia and also one of the most mysterious. No one knows for certain what the jars signify.
Standing at site one, the largest of more than 100 sites, our guide Fhan proposed a number of theories. From research and field trips in the 1930s, French geologist and amateur archaeologist Madeleine Colani theorised that the jars were associated with ancient burial practices. The discovery of human remains, burial goods and ceramics around the jars supports this theory.
Some say the stone vessels were created to brew potent rice wine or store whisky while others believe they were used as water storage vessels.
By 2013, 1999 jars had been counted in 77 sites with another 30 sites still to be surveyed. The jars range in size from 70cm to four metres, some with lids, but most without.
They are often likened to Stonehenge but without an answer to their purpose. I like the enigma surrounding the jars.
Fhan also delivered some shocking facts about Xieng Khouang, which numbed us into stunned silence. The province was heavily targeted by US cluster bombs from 1964 to 1973, in a covert operation during the Vietnam War. At the Plain of Jars, bomb craters dot a landscape still devoid of tall vegetation. We visited a cave near the site where a Buddhist shrine stands as a memorial to families sheltering there who died in a bombing raid.
Millions of UXO (unexploded ordnance) still contaminate Xieng Khouang. Bomb disposal teams from MAG (Mines Advisory Group), an international non-governmental organisation founded in 1989, have been operating to clear the UXO since 1994. And Cope (Co-operative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise) provides orthotic devices, prosthetic limbs, wheelchairs and other aids to those injured by explosions from cluster bombs. Laos holds a tragic world record – it's the most heavily bombed country on the planet, per capita. MAG has a visitor centre in Phonsavan and Cope in Vientiane.
The giant sitting Buddha presiding over the ruins of his temple at Wat Phia Wat in Muang Khoun, the former capital of Xieng Khouang province is a poignant sight. The temple, which dates back to 1322, was blown to smithereens by the US in 1966.
The blackened, scarred Buddha and a few brick columns are all that remain. He's suffered much over the centuries resulting in a severed arm, lopsided face and missing eye. In the misty rain, he had a forlorn, melancholy look but he is much loved and highly revered by worshippers.
Laos is for the adventurous traveller. It's a very foreign but friendly country. You definitely need an experienced local guide and a highly competent driver to navigate the roads, language, food and customs, not to mention the currency.
More information: Innovative Travel, a Christchurch-based boutique tour operator with 27 years' experience offers travellers the opportunity to explore historically and culturally unique destinations worldwide that provide a challenge but with the security of a peace-of-mind 24/7 wrap-around service. See innovativetravel.co.nz
Getting there: Singapore Airlines flies from Auckland to Singapore daily, from Wellington four times weekly, and from Christchurch daily: singaporeair.com. SilkAir flies from Singapore to Vientiane and Luang Prabang three times weekly: silkair.com. Lao Airlines flies from Vientiane to Xieng Khuang: laoairlines.com
The writer was a guest of Innovative Travel.