Giant fans of green foliage carpet the mammoth mountainside bearing tall and slender teak, sandalwood, and rosewood trees nestled against the shoreline, adding a spark of color under a grey and white-coated sky. An occasional longtail or cargo boat slices through the still waters.
As our boat inches its way on a scenic sojourn down Southeast Asia’s Mekong River, through the untouched natural beauty of Laos, I feel as though I am traveling back in time.
Ten tourists, mostly from Australia and England, and I were on a 13-day discovery with Insider Journeys, a well-seasoned small-group travel company, exploring the sweeping mountain area and remote villages to uncover life the way it was hundreds of years ago. Laos, land of a million elephants and some 6.7 million people, is one of the least developed and populated of all the Southeast Asian nations. Mountains and plateaus cover 70 percent of the country.
A Tropical Paradise
Our group met in Chiang Rai in northern Thailand on the border of Laos, where the next day we went through immigration and crossed over into Laos to get our visas for a journey following the Mekong, Southeast Asia’s third-largest river. The first stop was the nondescript village of Pakbeng for an overnight. After a relaxing and peaceful five-hour cruise, with no signs of life except for some birds and the continued greenery masked behind the mist of smoke from the distant burnt fields, we arrived in a tropical paradise.
As our boat pulled up to shore at Kamu Lodge, a shock of pink bougainvillea flowers, colorful marigolds, mangos, papayas, pears, and lush tropical plants greeted us for what was to be an eco-adventure and introduction to the Kamu culture and lifestyle of hundreds of years past. The rooms were solar-powered safari-style tents with large mosquito nets draped above the beds. We were advised to take lots of repellant along.
The next morning after dining in a spacious outdoor straw hut that was surrounded by women working in the adjoining rice fields, I had my first fishing lesson in the ancient style of net-casting and panning for gold.
The most interesting part of the day was a visit to a rice farm where our group literally got knee-deep in mud to practice the skill of rice planting. There was even a bull with a simple plough dredging the earth beneath the muddy waters, in the traditional method.
Most memorable was the visit to the Kamu village where we photographed the barefoot, spirited children smiling and laughing amid their homes of earthen floors and meagre furnishings. The children couldn’t stop giggling when shown their photos. That evening, I had a massage for only 80,000 kips ($10 US dollars) which put a nice closure to my short stay in this eco-paradise.
Caves and Temples
As we continued our boat journey toward the confluence of the Nam Ou and Mekong rivers, our group stopped at the Pak Ou Caves tucked into the limestone mountain at the edge of the riverside. We had to climb a steep staircase to get to the two caves. The lower cave has thousands of small Buddha statues placed by the locals, and the upper cave (a steeper climb) is darker with fewer statues.
By lunchtime, we reached our final port stop at the popular and vibrant town of Luang Prabang (A UNESCO World Heritage site). Our comfy hotel, Sala Prabang, was moments from the tapestry of temples, French colonial architecture, and a night market of endless handmade crafts and clothing (a great place for souvenirs).
The food here is outstanding. Anywhere along the main Sisavangvong Road, a great cappuccino or a Beerlao (a tasty local beer) can be had for just a few dollars at Le Banneton. There are lots of choices for a wholesome and generous dinner in several of the popular restaurants, such as the Coconut Garden and Blue Lagoon.
Our three-day trip to Luang Prabang was not complete without a visit to the elaborate Wat Xieng Thong, the most celebrated temple of 16th-century design. Also, our 45-minute side excursion outside of town to the dramatic Kuang Si Falls was quite impressive. Adults and children cooled off in the multiple levels of falls scaffolding the mountainside.
On another note, the visit to MAG (Mine Action Group), with a film and artifacts from the Vietnam or Indochina War, was a bit unsettling to see as an American, but it served as a reminder of the lasting ruins of war on innocent children and villagers.
Laos’s Natural Gifts
I could have stayed in Luang Prabang longer but we needed to see the 2,000-year-old Plain of Jars at Xieng Khouang , where hundreds of giant stone jars are scattered across the sloping plains. Some archeologists hypothesize that these sites were used for cremations, but others disagree. So it is still a mystery. Villagers believe ghosts roam amid the jars which are cups for giants.
Two days later we descended the mountain into Vang Vieng, reminiscent of the stunning sculptured dome mountains of Vietnam’s Halong Bay. It was like entering another world surrounded by the majestic beauty of towering limestone peaks and the Nam Song River lined with colorful fishing boats. Our hotel was the Thavonsouk Resort, bordering the bank of the river.
Vang Vieng is also famous for its caves, which we explored. But it was the two-hour kayaking journey along the Nam Song River, maneuvering through some tricky currents in view of forested landscapes, where I really felt part of Laos’s natural gifts.
I arose early morning to sounds of roosters crowing and the gentle voices of women singing. My deck faced the dramatic mountains, with women ambling to work along the quiet waters. I tried to capture and savour this picture in my mind, knowing that Laos was both an inward and outward journey transporting me to a mystical landscape untouched by time.
For more information call 1-800-342-1957 or contact Insider Journeys at www.insider-journeys.com
Beverly has been a feature, arts, and travel writer in the San Francisco Bay Area for the past 28 years. To read more of her articles, visit: www.beverlymann.com