Jeff & Mark Loved Southern Laos
By Jeffrey Wood and Mark Abate
Countries are often described in terms of their governments, geography, history, religions and the culture of their people. Laos is a complex and wonderful country which has been shaped by all of these things. It awaits the savvy traveler with a rich and unique glimpse into a part of the region often overlooked in the shadow of it's more highly touted neighbors.
Laos is distinct from its neighbors. While it has shared in Southeast Asia's history of competing kingdoms, religious transitions, colonization, warfare and emergence of autonomous government, the culture and country which has developed in the past twenty years is like no other. It offers the traveler a fascinating history - at once grand, traditional and somewhat mysterious, with some horrific interludes. It offers a culture shaped by diverse religions; a society which has had to adapt through political upheaval both foreign and domestic. It offers a warm and gracious people who welcome the traveler.
A fantastic way to appreciate all that is Laos can be found along it's eternal super highway: the mighty Mekong. While this eighteen hundred mile long river touches many countries along its rush from the Tibetan Plateau to its ultimate delivery into the South China Sea, it is truly the central artery of Laos. Forming the country's border with neighboring countries, it offers the Lao people sustenance; it enhances and defines much of their culture, beliefs and superstitions. The Mekong also serves as a primary means of transportation through the country. Its banks reveal geographic diversity, but also the diversity of the Lao people and their ways of life.
My partner and I have visited Luang Prabang and the surrounding area several times. No trip to Laos, no attempt to appreciate Lao culture can possibly be complete without the time and opportunity to absorb the atmosphere in this part of the country and I have found it truly enchanting; it is perhaps my favorite spot on the planet. With that being said, we had never been to southern Laos and only had passing acquaintances with the Mekong through half-day excursions on the river from Luang Prabang. While amazing in their own right, these experiences also whetted my interest in seeing more of the country and spending more time on the river. Purple Dragon's itinerary offered exactly what we were looking for and we jumped at the opportunity to make our fourteenth trip with Purple Dragon.
After a few days in Bangkok, we left for two nights in Vientiane, the capital of Laos. While the capital was moved here from Luang Prabang in 1753 it appears that until recently the city remained small; the old city is quite walkable and charming. After touring the city and some of the surrounding areas, we returned to the airport and flew to Pakse, the jumping-off point for our cruise on the Mekong.
We met several others who would share our Mekong experience with us, along with our guide for the cruise at a small French cafe in Pakse. From there we boarded a bus and drove south to the Pha Pheng waterfalls which separate Laos from Cambodia. From the falls we boarded a long-tail boat to travel north through Siphan Don, an area of four thousand islands in the Mekong. We stopped at several islands to gain an appreciation of village life which continues today amidst the rubble of the last century's French colonization. Crumbling French bungalows and municipal buildings are surrounded by rice fields and the rusted ruins of an old French railroad all mark the past, while a vibrant village of wooden houses, built as houses have been built in this region for centuries define the present. It becomes obvious that the Indomitable will and culture of the Lao people continues after those who have attempted to subjugate them have failed and moved on.
Late in the afternoon we pulled alongside our home for the next three days, a former rice barge called the Vat Phou. While her early life was spend carrying teak logs from Vientiane to Pakse, her utilitarian past ended with a complete refitting as a floating hotel. Including twelve beautiful cabins, a covered upper deck and an indoor, air-conditioned dining room, all clad in beautiful mahogany, it was very luxurious. Even more inviting than the accommodations was the cruise guide and crew, all dedicated to the quality of the guests' experience. From discussion of the sights that we saw to quiet conversations on deck, we all felt as though we were given a very special personal introduction to Laos along the Mekong. The temple ruins and villages that we visited illustrated centuries of the past as well as the present, and even gave us glimpses of Laos' potential future, all through the lens of one if the most impressive rivers on the planet.
Does the idea of cruising along the Mekong appeal to you? Would you enjoy an intimate glimpse of a fascinating, unique culture and its history? Would you enjoy spending time among gentle, gracious and welcoming people? Consider visiting Laos and traveling along the mighty Mekong!