Throughout Laos, posters advertise experiences that promise “Shangri-Lao,” day to week-long escapes to an exotic paradise.
While landlocked Laos lacks the beaches famous in Thailand, its verdant mountains barely inhabited by humans in the North and thousands of flatlands covered in rice paddies throughout the country still warrant its title as a Shangri-la. Even the two most populated cities, Vientiane and Luang Prabang, span only a few downtown blocks, with the vast majority of Lao’s seven million people living in remote rural village communities.
My original itinerary had me spending several days visiting temples and sights of cultural importance in Vientiane and Luang Prabang, but after one afternoon in Vientiane, I realized that the sights I had planned to see over several days’ time could be visited in only a few hours.
Emancipated from my schedule, I set out to experience the essence of each town.
In the French Colonial capital, Vientiane, I spent every afternoon by the banks of the Mekong River. Resting by a fountain or tree, I would watch as couples and families enjoyed the park by day, hundreds participated in wildly popular group aerobics classes at sunset, and the dark of night brought lively markets and teens patrolling the boardwalk. With drinks from local cafés and fruit stands, I read books and enjoyed the slow pace and relative ease of life in the small capital city.
The bus ride to Luang Prabang was the kind of adventure that comes free with the price of admission. A journey that I was told would take 8 hours ended up requiring nearly a day, with several landslides blocking the road, multiple bus breakdowns, and many miles by foot with my bags. I saw the slow journey as an unexpected gift because it meant I could spend more time appreciating the mountain scenery of Laos in areas that are not normally stops on the tourist trail.
The city of Luang Prabang, once the capital of the Kingdom of Laos, is the definition of quaint. Intermixed with the lingering influences of French Colonial architecture and eateries, traditional Buddhist temples and cultural sites make the town a sleepy getaway for travelers.
My favorite temple in Luang Prabang was the UNESCO-protected Wat Xieng Thong. Built in 1560 as a temple for the King, the small but ornate temple complex houses an extraordinary royal funerary urn as well as some spectacular glass mosaics done in rich jewel hues that glisten in the sun radiating colors as rich as a tropical coral reef.
While the most physically challenging, my best experience in Luang Prabang Province was a 70km bike ride through the hilly countryside. While a number of waterfalls were my official destination, by far, the joy came from the ride itself. Fighting exhaustion from the 90+ degree heat, I communed with local villagers who quite literally cheered me on as I went about my way. I imagine it is a bit of a site to see a foreigner riding through the hills during the summertime, and I appreciated all of the high fives from the kids and the smiles from the adults I passed by. I was most delighted by a stop to buy a hat. The saleswoman handed me a traditional rice-pickers hat which she had made herself. When I put it on, we both laughed and laughed. This picture was the first she had ever taken with a camera, and captures the moment of our giggling and language-less sharing.