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A trip down the Hinboun River, Laos, in a motorised canoe...pass into a world that is untouched by 'falang' (foreigners) and has a prehistoric presence that induces the feeling of being in 'Jurassic Park' or 'King Kong' (except luckily without the man-eating monsters themselves) - meet trees tangled in vines and smiley villagers who are keen to welcome in your strange white skin – though mine turned pretty brown after a few hours in the sun. Whilst we spent these scorching daylight hours travelling down the river and confronting features such as Kong lo cave and naked children bathing in the water and waving as we passed, at night my friend and I stayed in wooden village houses on stilts and intimately experienced the Lao culture along with the companionship of our experienced and entertaining Lao translator and our boat driver. See places that have literally never been seen by travellers, or perhaps even humans, before...tramp through luscious forest, clamber your way to waterfalls, watch villagers harvest the yellow rice paddy, enter one of the many valleys that no one has ventured into before as it is surrounded by forested mountains...this was an incredible achievement - accompanied by some Lao villagers and a Biologist with unparalleled knowledge you may even discover some knew species. If you really want to be taken into the real life that exists in these unspoilt, unexplored parts, I cannot urge you enough to get in contact with the 'Timeless Times' guys. It was the best thing I ever did.
Updated Apr 4, 2011
After a day's journey to reach the village of Kong Lor, we scrambled into thin motorised canoes for a half-hour journey to one of the most fabulous natural sights I’ve ever seen – the cave of Kong Lor. Switching on head-torches, the boat-men steered into its mouth: the light faded and we entered blackness.
It was amazing to putter slowly through the darkness, with just torchlight showing the walls and roof of the tunnel. I knew it was 7 kilometres, and that seems like a really long way in the dark - in fact it takes the best part of an hour.
Half-way along, we stopped at a sandy river-beach and scrambled into side-galleries to peer at ancient rock formations. At the other end of the tunnel the boat-men dragged the canoes through shallow rapids, and light beckoned us into the river gorge: there’s a village there which you can only get to through the tunnel – or via a tough half-day hike over the mountain. We could have walked back again over the mountain … but we didn’t … we headed back again through the tunnel, yet another wonderful experience in this astonishing and dramatic country.
Written Jan 10, 2009
Many villages in Laos produce rice whiskey called lao-lao. It is a potent drink containing 50-55 % alcohol. Taking into account how widespread this home production is , I was quite surprised not to meet drunken people. Do they have such strong heads?
We visited a couple of whiskey villages while travelling in Laos. The one near Pak Ou Caves is frequently visited by tourists; the bottles with snakes and scorpions inside are displayed in the stalls and waiting to be bought.
I much preferred the whiskey village near the Plain of Jars. We were greeted there by an elderly woman, whom we instantly called a 'whiskey grandma'. She kindly showed us around and then poured some whiskey into a tumbler, tilted her head and drank the contents without even touching the tumbler with her mouth. Next she poured some whiskey into the same tumbler and offered it to us. After some hesitation I swallowed a bit. It was strong, with vodka-like taste, and had a quick warming effect, quite welcome in the chilly weather.
So how is lao-lao made?
The rice is soaked in water and steamed. Then some rice flour is added and the mixture is put into a clay pot and left to ferment. After about a week fresh water is added and it is left again for another couple of days. After that the rice is boiled in a large pot over the fire. The alcohol vapour is collected at the top and then it drips out of a spout into another jar. Then it is bottled and ready to drink.
Written Aug 9, 2008
Plain of jars is still mystifying archeologists. Thosands of stone jars from 1 to 3 metres high are scattered across many square kms. Some are upright, some leaning, some of them have a part resembling a lid. How old are they?, how did they get to this place?, what function did they have? - these questions are still not answered although some theories sound more convincing than others.
The jars are likely to have been funerary urns, since bones and decorations were found at the sites, as well. Other theories say that they might have served as enormous wine fermenters. As to their age, many historians agree that they must be about 2000 years old.
Visitors can safely visit 3 major sites (out of about 20), but walking along marked trails is highly recommended. Let's remember about the unexploded bombs left behind in the secret war in 1960's A large bomb crater in site 1 reminds us of the war horror.
Site 1 is the largest and has the greatest collection of jars. There you can also see the biggest jar of all weighing almost 6 tonnes. My favourite, though was site 3 because of its scenic location on a hill, compact layout and beautiful rural surroundings.
All travel agents in Phonsavan organize tours to the Plain of Jars. We went there by minivan with six other travellers and a guide. Price - 10US dollars per person. You have to buy a ticket to each site on your own: price - 0.80 US dollars.
Written Aug 1, 2008
The provincial town of Phonsavan is in itself not especially interesting. What attracts visitors (who, by the way, don't come in large numbers) is the mysterious Plain of Jars in the town's vicinity.
The centre of the town is basically one main street with dull buildings of no historical interest. Phonsavan was actually built in mid 70's to become a capital of Xieng Khoung Province because the old capital was completely destroyed in the secret war. During that war (1964-73) the United States dropped in the area billions kg of bombs. Many of them never exploded and still pose a threat. I was surprised to see how locals use the bomb casings and other remnants for daily purposes, as f.e. fences, tools or plant pots.
Phonsavan may not be the prettiest town but in a way it is worth visiting. Not crowded with tourists it is a great place to observe how locals live. No Lao market was so interesting to me as the one here - so colourful and authentic. The goods sold there ranged from rats through nestlings to various kinds of seeds and plants that I couldn't identify. Besides, Phonsavan is the only gateway to the fascinating Plain of Jars ...
We got to Phonsavan from Luang Prabang on our way towards the Vietnamese border. The bus journey took about 10 hours and was an adventure in itself.
Updated Aug 1, 2008
This border has only been recently opened to foreigners. Laos will let you out OK, but don't turn up here if you don't already have a visa in your passport. I did, but it still took about 2 hours for them to process me. Where the Vietnamese side has a real building the Laos side has only a 3 sided wooden hut. Look for the red tablecloth. There is nowhere on the Laos side to buy food or drinks, but you will be able to buy a cell phone card! There is no "offical" money changer either, but if the cell phone people have sold anything that day, they may be able to exchange a little cash for you. From the Attapeu border to Attapeu is another 140km or so through quite undulating roads with next to no traffic. There is nowhere at all to stay between the border and Attapeu town and I only saw 2 places on the roadside where you might be able to buy food and drinks (not bottled water, only bottled beer!)
Written May 7, 2008
I was honored with a “baci” ceremony where the two eldest males of the family supported my elbows with their fingers while all the women of the house tied strings on to my wrists. The custom is to keep them on until they fall off naturally.
Not sure what the significance of the event was, but clearly I felt like the honored guest, especially when they topped off the event with a “money tree” with bills and candy followed by a feast for the men of the local finest, which included day-old mystery meat and the local rice liquor.
Written May 4, 2008
Like many Lao villages, the ethnic Lao occupied the primer riverside farming land while the ethnic minorities were more upland in marginal lands. I didn’t visit them, but reportedly they were H’mong.
The Laotians I did stay with made their way mostly with farming and sending to town a rapidly dwindling firewood supply. Some small river fishes seemed to be the major meat source as well as the occasional chicken. I did not see pigs or hogs in the village I stayed in.
Signs of wealth in the village were: generator electricity (and lights and TV and boom box to plug them into), corrugated iron roofing (vs thatch), concrete as pad for both latrine and water tap. All the homes I saw had water tap and latrine shared at most with one other household. My host had thatch and kerosene lighting.
Dad worked a night job, elder sister got up before dawn to turn out the sticky rice for the day and mom was on the go all day long. The older son was a novice Buddhist student in Luang Prabang and the younger son was recovering from an injury. Their simple lives were a reminder about how people all over the world just want the best for their families.
Written May 4, 2008
Luang Prabang is a jumping-off point for more remote northern Lao locations for trekking and the like. I only had a short visit there, but my time was mostly spent in Ban Hath Sa, a small village along the banks of the Nam Ou.
Be prepared for a long-ish, bumpy ride from LP to the boat docks, and unless you’re taking one of the larger, more established boats, they are Lao-sized meaning you could end up with knees in chin a lot of the ride.
Written May 4, 2008
Are you a cynical curmudgeon who has seen enough of the so-called "hilltribe trekking" in Thailand to know that you'd never do it again? Have you been put off by endless streams of scantilly clad tourists being herded through villages of "never before seen by Westerners" people who hide their TVs and put on their traditional costumes when the minibus pulls up?
There is a tour company in Luang Prabang caled White Elephant Adventures that really is different from the rest. We stumbled upon them quite by accident in December while strolling through town with no intention at all of going trekking. After a long talk with Derek, the owner (purely coincidental that he's also Canadian), we quickly realize this was different. We arranged a custom 3-day tour of biking, hiking, and kayaking, and the bottom line is that it was brilliant. We went to areas that really are seldom, if ever, visited, and never once felt like voyeurs. On the contrary, in the villages we stayed in, the kids followed us around in a huge crowd, trading songs with us well into the night. There were no "craft villages", no tourist traps, no hordes of tourists...at all. It was a genuinely wonderful experience for us and the people we visited. The guides were locals who acted both as translators and excellent tour guides, sensitive to the cultural and environmental situations.
These guys are good. Really good.
Updated Feb 27, 2007
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