Friday 19 October 2018

Living the life with the locals in Laos

Vang Vien in Laos
Vang Vien in Laos
Conor Haugh relaxes with one of the villagers.

Conor Haugh

Dim, the cheery, elderly Lao gentleman who had adopted us for the day, pulled from somewhere yet another bottle of locally brewed BeerLao.

As I had seen him do many times already, he poured himself a glass, finished it in one swig, refilled it, and passed it to me. It was 11.30 in the morning, and we were sitting outside the house where I had first met him the day before. I had stopped to watch him weaving a sticky-rice cup out of bamboo, and left 40 minutes later with one of my own and an invitation to a local wedding the next day.

Dim poured us another glass each and then rose, indicating that it was time to join the party. We were in Ban Na, a rural, minority village in northern Laos, and it was a far cry from the modern comforts of Vang Vieng, where I had arrived just two weeks earlier.

Once known as the hedonistic, "anything-goes" party-capital of Laos, Vang Vieng has recently (to the relief of many locals) rebranded itself as an eco-tourism destination. Sitting next to the pretty Nam Song river, with rugged limestone hills and lush rice-paddies surrounding it, the town attracts outdoor enthusiasts, bus-loads of Korean tourists, and a still-reasonable amount of party-goers.

While there, I tried rock-climbing and "tubing" (floating downriver on an inflated inner-tube), each for the first time. Zip-lining, kayaking, cycling, and hiking are other ways that visitors enjoy the natural beauty of the area.

Just a few hours north, Unesco-protected Luang Prabang is also deservedly popular. Faded colonial villas, French-influenced cuisine, restored Buddhist temples, well-curated museums, and a palpably relaxed atmosphere all add to the appeal.

Sitting next to the wide, lazily-flowing Nam Khan river, and within easy reach of stunning waterfalls, jungle-trekking, and several elephant sanctuaries, its location doesn't hurt either.

The sanctuaries were of particular interest to me. I had been hesitant to try an elephant ride while in Asia; I had heard too many stories of poorly-treated animals and dodgy practices. The outfits around Luang Prabang, people kept telling me, were doing it better. If I was ever going to try it, this would be the place.

Having booked a package with Phone Travels, I was dropped to its sanctuary early in the morning. It was difficult not to be impressed by the sight of the massive, peaceful creatures waiting patiently for us. Our guide introduced us to the elephants and their conservation. He gave us some riding advice and a list of Lao words that the mahouts (elephant trainers) used as directions. We then scrambled gracelessly onto the necks of our mounts to attempt to steer them towards the river for bath-time.

"Pai!" I shouted, meaning I wanted Kim, my elephant, to move forward. She, apparently, had other ideas, and continued loafing around. "Pai!" I tried again, but to no avail. Eventually Kim's mahout lent his voice to mine and we got moving.

Riding an elephant bare-back is indescribably exhilarating. With my legs tucked behind Kim's ears I clung on tightly as she ambled downhill and into the murky water. Once in to her chin, she stopped. She sucked up a trunk-load of water and sprayed it over her back- and by association over me - to cool herself down.

The mahouts loved this, of course. Their laughter only doubled when one cheekily yelled out "Molong!", the instruction that means "Drop your head!", and caused me to take an unplanned plunge.

I would be sprayed and dunked many times that afternoon, while the mahouts backflipped into the water and the elephants rolled and splashed around us. It was fantastic. Although the company was open about some compromises that had had to be made in terms of space and welfare, the elephants seemed, on the whole, to be happy and healthy.

One evening, back in Luang Prabang, I visited the Garavek Theatre for a night of traditional Lao folktales in a dimly lit back room. The story-teller was delightfully over-the-top, using wild, animated hand gestures and a range of voices in his act as he entranced us with legends of giants, curses, and romance.

He was accompanied by an elderly man on a khene - a handmade bamboo mouth organ played somewhat like a saxophone - lending still more enchantment to the evening. After the show I gorged at one of the many cheap, eclectic buffets in the night market, piling my plate high with spring rolls, rice, fried bananas, fresh fruit, and vegetable curries.

From Luang Prabang I took a bumpy four-hour minivan ride to the small countryside village of Nong Khiaw. I spent one evening there, and enjoyed a plate of láhp (a dish of finely chopped herbs and meat served with sticky rice) as I watched the sun set over the mountains and the Nam Ou river. The next morning I piled onto a crowded local boat and headed upstream to still more isolated villages.

The laid-back nature of the Lao people is infectious. There must be few places where this is more true than in Muang Ngoi. A rural, one-street town on the banks of the Nam Ou, Muang Ngoi offers cheap, stilted, riverside bungalows (complete with wooden porches and, of course, hammocks) for travellers to linger in for much longer than they had planned. It is also a starting point for treks to several remote villages.

Teaming up with a German and a French traveller, I set off on the six-hour mountain hike to Ban Phon village. After an hour's walk we came across Ban Na, where we would meet, and pass some time with, Dim, the bamboo-weaver, before continuing on.

Eventually, tired and thirsty, we arrived at Ba Phon. There are no guesthouses or hostels in Ba Phon, but there are several families who are accustomed to hosting occasional visitors.

A little girl welcomed us warmly when we arrived, took the German by the hand, and led us into her family home.

We introduced ourselves as best we could to the family, who had little English. The young girl pulled out a tattered copybook and began doodling in the margins.

It looked like fun, and I joined her, penning out an image of Spider-man in my notebook. Other village children began drifting through the open door. One mimed that he would like a Spider-man picture too, and I happily obliged. Soon the secret was out; by the time the sunlight was too dim to draw by, half the village kids had their own superhero scrawl.

In the last moments of the day I wandered around outside. Uneven dirt paths criss-crossed between brick homes, stilted wooden houses, and animal pens. Domesticated pigs, chickens, and ducks roamed the streets freely, as well as kittens and dogs. There was one bathing area shared by the whole community - a single tap emptying onto a stone surface and surrounded by a bamboo fence for privacy - and all day long villagers took turns bathing, or washing clothes and dishes.

After dark, the gang of children returned. Surrounding us in a circle, they taught us how to play simple bamboo flutes and percussion instruments, and we taught them how to whistle and hoot like an owl.

Ban Phon has no electricity, and so dinner (a simple, tasty noodle soup, a chicken we had seen wandering around earlier, and, of course, sticky rice) was served by the flickering light of an oil-lamp. Once we'd finished eating, our hosts laid out mats and blankets on the floor for us, and we fell asleep full and happy.

Early the next morning we bid a cheery farewell to our hosts and set off again. We had a wedding to go to…

Dim led the three of us past clusters of crowded, outdoor tables and into a simple, earth-floored home, where we joined a group of men sitting around low tables laden with food and alcohol. We were each poured a plastic glass of potent, home-brewed LaoLao (rice-whiskey) and introduced to the groom's father. The rest of the afternoon spun by in a blur of eating, drinking and dancing. We were introduced to the bride and groom, and joined the rest of the guests in tying small-denomination notes to their wrists to wish them luck.

On one rather surreal occasion, when I had stepped away for a breather, I saw the finely-dressed husband-to-be sprint past me and tackle a squealing pig to the ground (it would later be killed as part of the ceremony).

By five o'clock my head was spinning, but luckily the party had begun to wind down. I retired to the wooden shack that I had rented from a local for 15,000 kip (about €1.50) and gulped down a sobering cup of black Lao coffee.

A few days later I would leave Laos behind. I departed with fond memories of pristine nature, bare-backed elephant-riding, and local hospitality. There are beautiful landscapes and authentic rural villages within relatively easy reach of comfortable, culture-filled towns and cities.

The one constant throughout everything I experienced was a healthy dose of what locals call muangsun - the relaxed, humorous sense of fun that is a huge part of what makes Laos such an appealing destination.

Getting there

Laos shares borders with Thailand, Vietnam, China, and Cambodia, and crossing overland is usually a straightforward procedure. There are three international airports in Laos; Luang Prabang Airport, Pakse Airport (in southern Laos) and Wattay Airport (in the capital, Vientianne). Return flights from Dublin range from €700 to €1000 and usually include a layover and a change of airline. Laos grants a 30-day visa on arrival for most nationalities, including Irish, obtainable at all international airports and almost all border crossings.

Like much of Asia, Laos has a distinct dry season (October to late April) and wet season (May to late September). Despite this, it is easy to travel in the country year-round; without a coastline to influence things, Laos' weather system is much more stable than its neighbours. March to June are usually the warmest months, with temperatures in some southern regions topping 35°C.

TAKE THREE: Top attractions

Watching waterfalls

A 40-minute tuk-tuk ride from Luang Prabang, the spectacular Kuang Si waterfalls are not to be missed. Spouting from a high, rocky peak, the water tumbles down into a small, clear lake, then flows downhill to create multi-tiered, azure pools. The pools are popular with locals and tourists looking to cool down, but even the potential crowds do little to distract from the outstanding beauty of the place.

Elephant rides

Roughly 500 of Laos’s remaining 1,400 elephants are captive. Sadly, the space to release these animals is fast disappearing. Although sometimes controversial, ethical elephant-based tourism can be a useful way to contribute to their upkeep and conservation. Laos has a better reputation for safety and welfare than some neighbouring countries. The more reputable companies include the Luang Prabang Elephant Village.

Being part of the family

With more than 60pc of Laotians living in rural villages, a home stay is a fascinating way to experience real Lao life. While staying you can expect to share family meals, take part in village events, and perhaps even join a hunting expedition. As one night in a home stay, including dinner and breakfast, can cost as little as €5 per person, it’s a fantastically cheap option as well!

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