Words and photos by Harnoor Channi-Tiwary
The only land-locked country in Southeast Asia, Laos is used to being overshadowed by its cousins - mighty China, historically-strong Vietnam and culturally-rich Thailand and Myanmar. Cocooned within these giants lies this fascinating land that is rarely spoken about.
Laos is like a languid lover. You need to step off the treadmill and rearrange your travel expectations when you come here. There’s no need to hurry. Slow down, take your time. Wander, explore, discover, marvel. Travel writers often joke that Lao PDR (People’s Democratic Republic) is actually an acronym for Lao – Please Don’t Rush. Truer words were never said.
A tumultuous past
To know Laos, it is important to understand its history. Luck hasn’t always favoured this land. The Lao people originally came from China when they migrated southward from the 8th century onwards. But the first Lao kingdom wasn’t formed until 1353, when Fa Ngum, an exiled prince from the region who grew up in the lap of the Khmer empire returned to his homeland and founded Lan Xang, or the ‘land of a million elephants’.
In an attempt to unify the kingdom, he brought in the beliefs of Theravada Buddhism and his dynasty ruled from Luang Prabang for the next 200 years. It was only in the 17th century that this kingdom began to crumble and eventually split into three parts – Luang Prabang to the north, Vientiane in the centre and Champassak in the south. The three kingdoms could never see eye to eye and it wasn’t long before the Siamese kings seized control.
It is from this point onwards, that Laos became a puppet in a larger political game, paying a hefty price for its geographical location. In a bid to evade the French and secure their own independence, Siam ceded Laos to the French, who used it merely as a buffer for their interests in Vietnam. The colonialists did not invest much into the country, and rural life continued as normal for decades.
Destiny had other plans for this country made up of peace-loving people, humble peasant farmers and spiritual monks. Though the French left in 1954, Laos was dragged into the US-Vietnam conflict. A ‘secret war’ ensued for decades. While Vietnam and Ho Chi Minh occupied the headlines, not many knew that Laos was bombed daily and suffered the heaviest bombing in history.
In a span of nine years between 1964 to 1973, USA dropped more than 2.7 million tons of ordnance in Laos alone. The number of bombs dropped on Laos far exceeded the total amount the USA used in the second world war. One-third of those failed to explode and to this day around 300 Laotians are killed each year when they accidentally set them off.
What is remarkable, however, is that despite a traumatic past, the Laotians are happy to forgive and forget. They do not dwell on the past and instead live in the present. Due to lack of flight connectivity, and perhaps a shortage of marketing, Laos is not as visited by tourists as its famous neighbours, with the exception of Myanmar. And I must admit, I hope that doesn’t change.
Start at the capital
If you had to pick one place in Laos to visit, Luang Prabang should be it. A UNESCO World Heritage City, the small town of Luang Prabang is easily traversable on foot and packs as many as 30 Buddhist temples within it. Take a cue from the Lao PDR joke and make your trip longer than a quick weekend. To truly enjoy the former royal capital, you must allow yourself to be.
Start your day with tak bat, a traditional alms-giving ceremony to Buddhist monks. The ceremony is an integral part of local life here. Every morning around 5am, a member from each household sits by the road holding a basket full of freshly cooked sticky rice and bananas. In the next hour or so, hundreds of monks quietly file by, opening up the lidded bowls they carry as almsgivers place food in them. Done in complete silence, there is such solemnity in the proceedings that it feels out of place to take out a camera and snap a photograph of this amazing spectacle.
Days can be spent walking along the narrow lanes of this heritage town, marveling at the French colonial buildings on either side. Stop for lunch at Popolo, a Cuban-inspired and colourful restaurant serving wood-fired oven pizzas made from scratch. Or make a prior reservation at L’Elephant for French food or Manda de Laos, a Laotian fine dining establishment set around a glorious UNESCO classified lily pond. The day will simply slip by, a multitude of shops, cafes and restaurants offering respite from the sun, along with numerous temples, each unique and equally stunning.
Eat like a local
When it comes to food, Laos doesn’t disappoint. Located along the maritime trade route, the cuisine has is a melting pot of influences from Thailand, China, Cambodia and France. A personal favourite is the rice noodle soup, khao piak sen. Similar to Vietnamese pho, the rice noodles are cooked in the broth and served with a variety of condiments and herbs for you can customise as you please. Usually eaten for breakfast, it’s understandable if you decide to have a bowl any time in the day too.
Another noodle soup, khao soi, traces its roots to Myanmar and northern Thailand but couldn’t be more different from the original. Unlike its counterparts from across the border, khao soi here doesn’t use coconut milk and instead has a clear pork broth with minced bolognese, tomatoes, garlic and mak tua nao (fermented bean paste). A word of caution: it’s highly addictive.
Various street hawkers dot the street pavements but there’s one that never lacks a crowd of expats and locals. Khao nom kok are bite-sized coconut pancakes made with rice flour and coconut cream, which you might have also eaten in Thailand where they’re called kanom krok. Slightly sweet and served hot in banana leaf bowls, they’re ideally devoured whole as you walk down the night market lane, admiring handicraft brought down by the hill tribes.
Laap or larb is another dish you can’t miss. The unofficial national dish, it’s essentially a version of beef tartare or ceviche where raw or cooked meat or fish is seasoned with padaek (Laos fish sauce) and lime juice then served with toasted rice powder and fresh herbs. Just as other local dishes are commonly enjoyed, wash down a plate of laap with a mug of ice-cold Beer Lao.
Though Laos is not your typical sightseeing destination, there is one exception when visiting Luang Prabang. Located 29 kilometers away from the city, Kuang Si Falls is an enchanting display of nature’s raw beauty. Deserving of the cover of every travel magazine, this 50-meter high three-tiered waterfall flows into multiple turquoise blue pools that are mostly open for swimming.
Near the entrance gate is Tat Kuang Si Bear Rescue Centre, home for Asiatic black bears saved from poaching. Hunted then kept in cages for their bile, the bears here nap in hammocks, crawl through car tyres and lounge in treehouses. Supported by the Free the Bears Fund charity, the rescue centre is free to enter.
After visiting the falls, skip the touristy stalls outside the gate and walk down further towards Carpe Diem Restaurant, a hidden gem unlike any that you may have visited elsewhere. Set in a prime spot along the cascading water, this is your chance to take a dip without the crowds after tucking into French dishes such as filet de boeuf and frog legs.
By the end of your trip, you’ll find yourself taking after the laidback pace Laos moves at and it’s the only way to fully appreciate the country. Take off your watch, put your phone on silent and tuck it deep into the bottom of your bag. It’s the quiet moments like sitting by the river at a café and sipping on coffee that teaches you how to enjoy the little things in life.