Lacking Cambodia’s ruins and tumultuous history, Thailand’s culture and regional power and Vietnam’s long history and story of conflict, Laos seems like the ignored quiet child in the back row of the classroom by comparison.
Yet for all that is understated and little-known about Laos, scratch its surface and you’ll find a fascinating and laid-back nation worthy of far greater attention.
Bordered by the Mekong to the west, most of the Annamite mountain range to the east, Laos is surrounded by China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand and Burma. Laos is a crossroad nation and a two-stop hop and skip on my way to Hanoi in northern Vietnam. I have two reasons for stopping over in Laos. The first is the chance to see the rare Irrawaddy dolphins that can be found near Laos’ border with Cambodia, and the second is to see the UNESCO world heritage site and holy city of Luang Prabang. Naturally, fulfilling these objectives gives rise to a third unstated one; to learn about Laos.
Once the French capital of southern Laos, Pakse is situated at the confluence of the Se Don and Mekong rivers and is close to Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam and therefore sees a lot of travellers moving from country to country or headed for Si Phan Don (four thousand islands). And like the aforementioned travellers, Pakse is my staging point from Siem Reap to Si Phan Don and the Irrawady dolphins.
The guide books all say that Laos is laid-back but the reality is far nicer. Pakse, for example, has wide roads, low traffic levels and therefore little noise and exhaust pollution and its inhabitants are friendly and smile and move around in a chilled-out way. Walking the streets is a relaxed and lose-yourself-in-looking affair. French colonial architecture is still to be found despite a period when the communist government tore down colonial reminders in favour of featureless structures. Two blocks down from our hotel is Bolavens, a coffee shop-cum-restaurant serving great organic local coffee, pastries and incredibly fresh fruit shakes with the mango and banana mix my favourite.
Pakse is near the Bolaven plateau – the coffee growing region of Laos – and the Khmer ruins of Wat Phu. The Khmer ruins date back to Laos’ early nationhood which was dominated by Khmer influences. Prior to the Khmer influenced period, Laos was simply a collection of disparate principalities all warring with other. But in the fourteenth century, a local warlord called Chao Fa Ngum, backed by the Khmer, began expanding. Chao Fa Ngum conquered Viang Chan (modern day Vientiane, Laos’ capital) and all the way up to, and including, the province of modern day Luang Prabang. He called the new kingdom Lan Xang (land of a million elephants) and made Theravada Buddhism the state religion (another Khmer influence). But by the eighteenth century the kingdom had all but crumbled away and Siam controlled Laos using it as a buffer against the expansionist French colonialists.
But, back to Pakse and the reason for stopping there. Amidst the French colonial houses, shophouses, crumbling Wats and western styled coffee shops there are many hotels and guesthouses catering to western travellers. Each hotel is fronted by a restaurant with the better ones frequented by locals – always a good sign of reasonably priced food. And each hotel is a travel agent too. Booking tickets to Si Phan Don was no more complex than asking the hotel receptionist to book the trip and asking her to call us when the bus arrived. Of course, in true laid-back Laos style, booking the trip was so uncomplicated and languid that I was left wondering if I’d been properly understood and somewhat circumspect about whether the bus would arrive at the appointed hour, let alone day.