Long Haul Focus: Thailand and Laos

Date Posted: 11/12/2013

Flying into the colourful chaos of Bangkok, Rebekah Tailor journeyed north to discover unspoilt natural beauty, lush green jungle and rural hillside villages.

The gentle curves of the Mekong stretch as far as the eye can see, its mysterious, murky waters flanked by sandy verges rising steeply to surrender to lush green jungle.

Every so often there’s a glimpse of life beyond: the pointed wooden huts of the hillside tribes peeking above a leafy canopy; groups of village children gleefully splashing about on the shore; a herd of black buffalo congregated along the river bank.

You may see goats partially concealed by thick undergrowth and makeshift rods poking through the rocks ready to catch a mob of fish within the submerged nets. It’s a picturesque setting; exotic, unspoilt, romantic. This is Laos.

And what better way to see it than from the comfort of a purpose-built river barge? Curled around the cushions at the stern of one of Luang Say Cruises’ 34-metre-long Pak Ou boats, it was difficult to think of a more relaxing way to travel.

This was the first leg of a 300-kilometre journey along the Mekong; travelling from Huay Xai in the north to the cultural capital of Luang Prabang, on a two-night venture which would comprise visits to three remote hillside villages, sleeping under canvas amongst chirping cicadas, and sampling traditional rice alcohol.

It was a stark contrast to the noise and bustle of Bangkok we’d flown in to two days previously; the first sojourn of an eight-day familiarisation visit which would flirt with the Thai capital before flying up to Chiang Mai.

From here, a transfer through landscapes of mountainous green would visit Chiang Rai, pausing at the Golden Triangle where the borders of Thailand, Myanmar (Burma) and Laos meet, before boarding the river cruiser which would wend its way to Luang Prabang, our final destination.

Along the Mekong: Pak Ou caves, rural life, and back to school

Whoever said: “It’s not the destination but the journey that counts,” could have summed up our Mekong cruise from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang with this one simple quote. Mooring up close to Ban Houeiphalam, a Kamu village, it was our second glimpse of rural life in as many days.

Compact wooden huts raised on timber stilts, no visible plumbing and water collected from one main pump; it’s an image of basic living, although dotted throughout the village are satellite dishes, and music playing from a television set can be heard at an open window.

Ban Baw Village further along the river presents a much livelier atmosphere. Dozens of local women and children, prepared to receive the boatloads of tourists, congregate to show off their wares: colourful scarves of silk and cotton, ready to barter and give you their best price.

This particular village is home to 65 families belonging to the Lao Loun, Hmong and Kamu tribes, and Simon, our guide, readily pointed out the distinguishing building styles of each group. The villagers are welcoming, calling out greetings “sabaidee!” (hello) and inviting you to sample some of their rice alcohol (I found one sip was quite enough).

The insight into these small communities is both a privilege and an eye-opener, particularly if you’re inclined to compare it to your own lifestyle, which is somewhat inevitable.

And my eyes were never wider than when visiting the tiny school at Kamu Village. Comprising one building with two classrooms, each accommodating about 40 pupils, we were treated to an excited rendition of Frère Jacques by dozens of smiling youngsters.

Later that night at the neighbouring lodge, the children of Kamu Village delighted guests with some traditional song and dance around an open fire; truly a highlight of our time in Laos.

A final stop along the Mekong before reaching Luang Prabang allowed time to explore the Pak Ou caves. Revered as the home of river spirits, Tham Ting (lower cave) and Tham Phoum (upper cave) are filled with hundreds of ‘retired’ images of Buddha.

Snaking 300-odd steps up the cliff-side, those who can manage the trek up to Tham Phoum are greeted by the black mouth of the upper cave which winds in deeper and darker, only unmasking the hidden images of Buddha by torchlight.

Luang Prabang: A royal palace, Mount Phousi and sunset panoramas

Out of all the places we visited on our whirlwind tour of Thailand and Laos, Luang Prabang is perhaps number one on my list to return to. Friendly and vibrant, this UNESCO World Heritage Site has plenty of historic and cultural gems to explore, including beautifully preserved Buddhist temples such as ornate Wat Xiengthong; its low-seeping roof representative of classical Laotian architecture.

Begin at the Royal Palace Museum to gain an insight of the local history; highlights include the detailed mosaics of coloured glass adorning the walls of the richly decorated Offering Room, and the venerated Prabang Buddha. The road opposite the former royal palace is where you can begin the ascent up to Mount Phousi.

Spiralling from the centre of the old town, Mount Phousi is scattered with shrines and images of Buddha - including his ‘footstep’ some 300-steps up - leading to the gilded stupa at its pinnacle. From here, you can enjoy spectacular views across Luang Prabang and the river, to the steep green hillsides beyond.

Bangkok: tuk-tuks, glittering temples and the Grand Palace tour

A vivid contrast from the attractive, tidy thoroughfares of Luang Prabang, the colourful chaos of Bangkok’s streets must be experienced to be believed, and we threw ourselves in to the spirit of things with a frenzied tuk-tuk ride to the night markets.

There’s a seedier side to the city that’s not hard to find, difficult to avoid, and somewhat inevitable if you plan to explore at night.

For a slice of culture that’s more highbrow, visit The Grand Palace and Wat Phra Kaew: “If you haven’t been there, you haven’t been to Thailand!” exclaimed our guide, Aim.

While the glittering ‘village’ complete with golden spires and colourful mosaics is - unsurprisingly - bustling with tourists, there’s an air of tranquillity as you enter The Temple of the Emerald Buddha, and the mountain of gold on top of which sits one of Thailand’s most renowned treasures is certainly something to behold.   

Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai and the Golden Triangle

I preferred the comparative calm of Wat Phrathad Doi at Chiang Mai to the crowds at Bangkok’s Wat Phra Kaew. Arriving as the sun was setting, the soothing hum of the monks’ evening chants made for an atmospheric setting at the most sacred temple in northern Thailand, built in AD1384 and standing 3,500-feet above sea level.

A winding drive through teak forest and lush green valleys punctuated by the yellow ‘scrambled egg’ flowers of Siamese cassia took us on to Chiang Rai, and the chance to visit two of the local hillside villages frequented by visitors to the region.

From here it’s a short drive up to Mai Sai, the northern-most border trading town between Thailand and Myanmar (Burma), close to the infamous Golden Triangle.

It’s due to its notoriety that this particular stop whiffed a little of a tourist trap - or what I like to call the ‘Land’s End effect’ - with mandatory souvenir and food stalls, telescopic look-out points, and general hustle and bustle.

Still, it’s not every day you find yourself standing in Thailand looking right across the sunlit Mekong to Laos, with Myanmar lying to the left, and it’s an excellent photo opportunity.

Food and drink

Mealtimes comprise a variety of complementary dishes served simultaneously and shared by everyone. Fresh herbs and vegetables served with steamed or grilled meat and fish, delicately flavoured, ensure a filling and wonderfully healthy menu, traditionally accompanied by sticky rice; a staple in northern Thailand and Laos.

Dining highlights included the bizarrely-named Cabbages and Condoms restaurant in Chiang Rai; a chain of eateries established by former politician and activist Mechai Viravaidya who promoted family planning and AIDS awareness in Thailand. A five-course set Thai menu comprised soup, pork in coconut sauce, sweet and sour pork and chicken in ginger served with stir-fry vegetables and rice.

Luang Prabang’s Roots & Leaves Lao restaurant made for a picturesque dining setting beneath the stars, accompanied by a traditional music and dance show from a stage set across from a beautiful lotus pond.

Live like a local

It’s worth rising early for the chance to witness or participate in the daily almsgiving; a serene and humbling scene as the silent procession of Buddhist monks - young boys through to wizened men robed in vibrant shades of orange - make their way through the dawning streets to collect food offerings from the local people.

Pick an interest

Arts and craft: Visit the weaving village of Ban Phanom in Luang Prabang to see how the beautiful fabrics and cloths are crafted on manually-operated looms; with the opportunity to purchase a selection of handmade textiles: scarves, table runners, place mats and purses.

Shopping: There’s ample opportunity to visit one of the bustling night markets, and my favourite was at Luang Prabang. Far less chaotic than the Bangkok night markets, it’s a pleasant shopping experience, where you can pick up a variety of local crafts to take home as souvenirs. Bartering is expected and nearly always fruitful.

Culture and ethnology: For an insight into Laos’ ethnic cultures and traditional way of life, a tour of the Arts & Ethnology Centre at Luang Prabang is a must; providing context for visits to the hillside villages.

Fact File

Flight Time: London to Bangkok: 12.5 hours approx. Bangkok to Chiang Mai: 1.5 hours approx.

Time difference: GMT +7. Daylight saving time (GMT +6) from late March to late October.

Currency: Thailand: Thai Baht (THB) Laos: Lao Kip (LAK)

Time to visit: October is reputed to be the wettest month, marking the tail-end of the rainy season, although during our visit we saw only the odd sprinkling of showers. The most popular time to visit Thailand and Laos is between November and February when it rains the least and it is not too hot.

We went with…Travelsphere

This familiarisation trip was based on Travelsphere’s 12-day holiday ‘Journey through Thailand and Laos’ and attended by a party of top group travel organisers.

Providing a fantastic range of short breaks and long-haul holidays, with a wealth of expertise and great benefits for groups; Travelsphere received the accolade of Best Tour Operator - Long Haul for the fifth consecutive year at September’s Group Leisure Awards.

Asia World Enterprise is the ground handling agent, and all group holidays would be led by a tour manager using the services of local guides. GTOs have the option of working with Travelsphere’s groups’ team to tailor-make their holiday.  

facebook twitter make as homepage