Laos is a small and mountainous country, 4% is arable, and during the Vietnam conflict the Ho Chi Minh Trail that boarders the two countries was constantly bombed, in fact, on some measures it is the most bombed country ever, for example, using per capita metrics, and a considerable amount of Unexploded Ordinance remains, on some estimates 8m bombs did not explode.
The country is beautiful, at Lunag Prabang the Mekong slips past as it winds its way from Tibet towards the ocean outlet of the Mekong delta in southern Vietnam, cutting steep sided valleys covered in denser green rain forest and with very step banks, which make getting to and from boats a bit tricky especially for use oldies! Boats of all kinds traversed the river, cargo, tourist and ferries – we made one trip of about 4 hours in narrow long boat, which seemed to have a difficulty with its motor until we pulled up along side a larger boat that served as a gas station on the river.
https://static.googleusercontent.com/external_content/picasaweb.googleusercontent.com/slideshow.swfThe river cruise to the Buddhist cave was interesting, passing farm land and weaving around the rocky parts of the river. At the caves one is provided a panoramic view of a mountain range and we could see elephants in the water on the opposite bank. All along the river small villages can be seen and the bank of the river is often used for market gardens, sometimes with small terracing, it seems the flooding of the river is less a danger with the up stream dams. Laos is looking to the Hydro power industry as its major form of export income by selling power to its neighbors of Thailand, China and Vietnam, however, the ecology is impacted and the flow of the river is likely to lessen in time, thus impacting how the people who live along the river interact with it. We saw Monks walking along the bank, many fisherman in very small boats or sitting on the bank, women and children carry the daily supplies up the banks from small boats and sometimes cows and elephants drinking. The river is an integral part of local life.
A trip to a local Elephant nursery saw us spending an hour with a 57 year old female who seemed to enjoy eating, the rest of the tour group road off down to the river, and on return two elephants transported their tourist riders down to the river for a spot of bathing and washing, of both parties. Like most places across Asia the elephant is endangered and these nurseries are important, as are the ones for bears, we past one such Bear park as we visited one of the water falls in the area.
The Plain of Jars is one of the important flat and arable areas and it is in the East towards Vietnam, it is home to large stone jars that were chiseled into shape somewhere between 300BC to 300AD by unknown people’s, and it is thought as part of burial rights to hold the bones. It is a 6hour drive to Phonsavan but worth it, you can fly in and out, but then you miss the sights. The road is narrow and winds through steep mountains and past village after village, like in Sri Lanka the road is just an extension of the house and in most parts the road ran along a narrow hill top with the houses perched precariously with little of no backyard, hence all play and cooking and cleaning was done in the front between the front door and the road, which in all cases was no more than a few feet.
The jars themselves are large, about as tall as a normal person and varying in circumference. There are many sites and we visited two, there other main one was impassable due to rain. The plains are about 1000 m and hence the weather is cool and during our visit rainy as there was a Typhoon off the coast of Vietnam. The thing that strikes you about the stone jars is “how did they do that”, this was during the Iron Age, so it is thought that some form of iron tool was used, but it would have taken many hours and then required a lot of effort to move them into place.
The local markets and eating places are pleasant without hassle and the food and drink all reasonably priced, the hotel accommodation provides a good range to meet different budgets with Tuk Tuks and hire vehicles plentiful.