The slow boat dock has been moved to a fair distance outside of Luang Prabang, meaning the only option for tourists is to board a songthaew into town. Having made this journey, my conclusion is it’s an initiation ceremony – if you can make it there without passing out from the diesel fumes you’re allowed in.
It doesn’t take long to figure out why people’s eyes go all starry when they talk about visiting this town. Since the songthaew has unceremoniously dropped us in a seemingly random roadside location, we stumble down a side street. Guesthouses with wooden shutters and balconies and lush gardens nestle either side. And at the bottom of the street is a long road, the Mekong stretching along one side, quaint colonial buildings on the other.
We check into our guesthouse, Lotus Villa. Very large room, massive bed, French windows and a tile floor that’s just the right level of cool underfoot. This’ll do nicely for three days (they do an excellent breakfast too by the way).
Heading out that evening, there’s this unfamiliar sensation. Little bumps pop up on my skin. I shudder a little. Am I…. cold?!? After months of near death sweats in Bangkok it takes a while to reacquaint myself with this feeling. It’s a bit like welcoming back an old friend.
At night you can walk down the middle of the road because there’s barely a car in sight. You can hear the chattering crickets, very distinctly. Even though there are loads of tourists here, it doesn’t feel like there are lots of people. It’s a calm quiet little time capsule.
At Bamboo Tree restaurant I tuck into some or lam, a traditional Laos stew. It’s tender chicken and aubergine with lemongrass and galangal, but also dill. It’s not like anything else I have eaten in Southeast Asia. It comes with traditional Laos sticky rice, which is served in a tiny lidded basket. You take the rice out in little clumps and roll it into a ball, then use it to scoop up food.
Bombs and bravery
A breathy morning and a hearty breakfast later we’ve hired bikes (a snip at £2 for the day), and have somehow managed to beeline for the only major junction in the town. I teeter in the shadow of a lorry full of chickens. Passing motorcyclists cast worried glances back over their shoulders at me, as if they’ve just witnessed a poodle at the wheel of a steamroller.
We duck back into the safety of the quieter lanes in town and find ourselves at the UXO museum. It might not be the jolliest way to spend a morning, but it’s important to understand the continuing impact that unexploded ordnance (UXO), dropped by the US during the Vietnam war, has on the people of Laos.
There are some horrifying statistics associated with this ‘secret war’ on Laos – the amount of money spent by the US, the number of bombs dropped (millions), the fact this was done without the knowledge of the US public who were funding it. Today many of those bombs lie close to the surface of agricultural land. A lot of them look like shiny silver balls and often children pick them up thinking they’re toys and they detonate.
It’s one of those tragedies which is very difficult to process. Knowing that every week an innocent person in Laos, along with their family, pays the price (through death or injury) of decisions made by world leaders in a distant nation 40 years ago. I wonder if the leaders of today think it was worth it. It sounds like the US has started to take its responsibility for disposing of these bombs more seriously, although who knows if it will see through these pledges.
The museum also highlights the work of the Laos bomb disposal teams. They travel to remote villages and educate locals about the risks associated with UXO. They are killed and injured themselves in the process of diffusing ordnance, and they work for weeks on end without a break. I try to imagine trekking into the jungle, combing the earth for bombs in the searing heat, carefully clearing away the dirt from something that could explode in my face. People are remarkably brave.
Exploring the outskirts
A quick pit stop at the Novelty Café on the high street, where we sit on the front porch and people-watch, sipping tea out of blue and white china. The brownies here are excellent.
We cycle out of town across the Nham Khan river, losing the road and moving onto dirt tracks, so bumpy I can feel my pelvic bones dismantling. We pass painted wooden houses with cockerels strutting around their front gardens. We stop at a temple on the banks of the river, where there’s not a soul in sight. Bright orange robes hanging beside an outbuilding are the only human signs in sight. We gaze across to the opposite bank of the river, where people sit cross-legged, meditating.
Further along the track is a small village peddling local handicrafts to the tourists. The weaving is of exceptional quality in Laos. The village women use fine materials and spend years learning intricate patterns.
My Kafka moment
We make the foolhardy decision to cross the bamboo bridge back into town. It’s alright crossing, but when we get to the other side we’re faced with a pretty much vertical slope and two bikes to haul up it. We meet a group of tourists coming the other way who smile and ooh and ahh, mightily impressed that we’ve biked it across. I promptly fall sideways into a giant crack in the parched riverbank, my bike landing on top of me. They all gasp in horror. ‘I’m fine’ I squeal, limbs wriggling from beneath the wheels like a beetle on its back.
We lunch at the Big Tree Café. With it’s open front, green walls and thoughtful décor it’s the kind of spot you can settle into for hours.
The day ends at Mount Phousi, a hill in the middle of town where you can take in a 360 view of the surrounding area. You climb a winding stone staircase to the summit, where the air is scented with incense and the forests of Laos are laid out before you. You take a moment not to think. This place is exquisite.