Often overlooked in favour of Vietnam, this largely undiscovered Southeast Asian star has an exciting secret side. Tom Moore embarks on a fascinating adventure through the lesser-known regions of Laos.
We all peered over the edge of the boat to find a three-metre-long python making its way out of the water and on to the shore.
The luscious green rice paddies, where territory is marked by stilt houses, feel non-existent as we leave Mai Chau in darkness at 5.30am, heading from northwest Vietnam for the Laos border.
Heavy rain had meant a lorry had become stuck, with a queue snaking back behind it. The ever-resourceful local women had set up camp, offering tea to those in the tailback, who were now trying to create a make-shift road through a rice paddy with planks of wood, failing miserably, causing a ripple of laughter among the women.
A chaotic but exciting introduction to Laos.
After an emotional farewell to my guide Quon at the Na Meo border it was time to carry on my journey to Laos. But wait! The border was closed. It turned out that lunch can be a protracted affair here, but after some patient hanging around while they enjoy a leisurely bite to eat, normal service with a smile resumed.
I eventually arrived in Vieng Xai at 3pm, a sleepy town in a beautiful setting with limestone karsts dominating the landscape. All that was left for me that evening was to be reacquainted with my old friend, Beer Lao (undoubtedly the best beer in Southeast Asia in my opinion) and an early night. My first full day in Laos was a surprising one.
While Vietnam’s relatively recent military history is well known, people often forget that Laos became caught up in the conflict between the US and the North Vietnamese. Vieng Xai’s limestone karst caves made the perfect home for the Pathet Laos’ ‘Hidden City,’ which supported around 20,000 people at the time.
It’s astonishing to see where the schools, hospitals, markets and even cinema once were and the audio tour really brings this place to life and hammered home the resilience, determination and strength of the Laotian people in surviving nine long years of intensive bombings. In 1973, a ceasefire stopped the bombing and the new town of Vieng Xai was established as the capital of the liberated zone. Being the only visitor on this audio guided tour created a unique and memorable experience like no other historical tour in Indochina.
After staying a night in Sam Neua en route, it was time for what I had been waiting for, the Nam Nern Night Safari — an experience that gives you the opportunity to spot rare wildlife while staying in the Nam Et-Phou Louey National Park. Indochina is not well known for its wildlife havens so I really had no idea what to expect.
We started the two hour journey upstream to the base camp in two long-tail boats. Nothing had prepared me for the amount of birdlife we witnessed, which included kingfisher, eagle and even pheasant. The work they are doing here to preserve wildlife is obviously working.
When we arrived at the camp a traditional Laotian meal had been prepared for us and while indulging we were given a presentation on what the project’s plans are for the protected area.
In a nutshell, the area was once a notorious hunting ground for locals in search of prey, including the highly lucrative tiger and all manner of smaller animals, which they would eat or sell. This had a devastating impact on the population of tiger and other headline species, as well as upsetting the whole ecosystem.
The tour is designed and managed by the WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society) to create a direct link between conservation and tourism so that the money that visitors pay has a positive impact on encouraging local people to protect endangered tiger and other wildlife.
Villagers are incentivised not to hunt, with bonuses paid to them for each sighting during a trip. Visitors give a record of wildlife sightings at the end of python making its way out of the water probably sniffing out sambar deer we were later to see further downstream.
After what was obviously a very broken sleep, I woke up the next morning not only thrilled about the wildlife I had witnessed but confident that the money used for the project was making a difference to conservation in the area.
Overall, this journey through northern Laos has opened my eyes to something new and exciting, a rare opportunity for the intrepid traveller to experience wildlife and adventure while learning more of the country’s turbulent past.
Exciting new area: Mu Cang Chai
While on my travels I also stopped off in Mu Cang Chai, Vietnam. A region untouched by tourism, Mu Cang Chai provides travellers with a landscape dominated by luscious green rice terraces and an insight into some of the most indigenous ethnic minority groups in the whole of Southeast Asia.
We would suggest including this must-see stop on the return journey from Sapa to Hanoi, therefore still experiencing the night train on your outbound leg. It is a travesty to think that these phenomenal scenes have been missed for so many years by travelling overnight.
In order to appreciate the views to the maximum extent, we would recommend a sunset trek up the side of one of the mountains: this can be done in only a couple of hours and makes for fantastic photo opportunities. The accommodation is simple, because the infrastructure for visitors simply does not exist. We use a local guesthouse that, although basic, provides a wonderful experience.
We are very excited about finding this new area and believe it to be a great additional stop when including a trip to Sapa.
Tailor-made itinerary ideas in Laos
A perfect trip for those with limited time or already based in Asia, giving a fascinating overview of Laos past and present. Visit Vientiane, the modern capital of Laos, before heading south to explore the ancient Khmer ruins of Wat Phou and the 4,000 Islands. End with a few days in the country's spiritual heartland of Luang Prabang.
Combining cities, river journeys, temples and hill tribes, this tour starts in the unassuming capital of Vientiane. From here you take in all the main sights in Laos including the far south where riverside hamlets are shadowed by the remarkable hillside ruins of Wat Phou, the UNESCO recognised town of Luang Prabang and the remote mountain retreat, Muang La.
This is a wonderful itinerary for those looking to delve a little deeper into Laotian life and explore some of the hidden gems that make Laos such a rewarding destination. Much of the travel is done by road in order to enable you to stray far from the madding crowd.
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