Northern Laos

The Northern part of Laos is lush green, stunningly beautiful and extremely mountainous. The winding roads to get anywhere is a testament of human resilience to cut through these mountains and connect the land to its people. And these people, the people from Laos, the ones who call this land home, are some of the most humble, friendly, smiling people I have ever met.However, the smiles hide very deep scars which define them as a people and Laos as a nation. I have spent the last 10 days exploring the Northern part of Laos. And in this short period, I learnt about these scars. My ignorance was appalling.During the Indo-China wars when the Soviets and the Americans were fighting over Vietnam, Laos became a battle ground (known as the Secret Wars). During a short period (less than a decade), the Americans dropped 2 million tons of bombs across the land. Most Laotians didn’t understand why the Americans wanted to kill them. In this same period, the communists, who eventually came to power, set up their base in Vieng Xay caves. As the bombs fell, the caves provided shelter to the communists. Today 600000 tons of UXO (unexploded ordinances) remain. The bombs have killed a lot of people and handicapped many after the war. Children and farmers find these bombs from time to time. Unfortunately, the lucrative trade of gun powder and metal also forces the poor Laotians to take chances on their lives. There are programs to clean up Laos but progress is slow. And this very nature of war and post war trauma define the nation and its people.I keep on calling the people of Laos as Laotians but actually the country is extremely diverse. I will explain more in my next note once I finish travelling Central and South Loas before wrapping up a final note on Buddhism in Laos.There are many highlights of Northern Laos1. Luang Prabang: Probably one of the most laid back towns (UNESCO world heritage sight) I have ever been to. LP has everything: amazing food, coffee, temples, view points, markets and more. A beautiful introduction to the country.2. Food: The food is amazing here. Noodle Soup, Papaya Salad, Fried Rice, Coconut pancakes, Fruit Shakes are just fantastic. And some of the food is very spicy!3. Vieng Xay caves and Plain of Jars: Both these places have their place in history. The Plain of Jars have these cylindrical structures from 1000s years back which the archaeologists determine were used for burials. The Vieng Xay caves were the head quarters for the communists during the war against the Americans.4. Nong Khiaw: Another sleepy town by the Meekong. It forms the starting point to go further North but the town itself is just beautiful. You can spend a week here doing nothing and just connecting with the river and nature.Unfortunately I skipped on trekking in the North (Phongsali and the communities there) and North West (Luang Namtha). I didn’t have the right hiking gear and after a day hike in Nong Khiaw, I realised that the mountains are steep and the right shoes are a must (I bruised my ankle bone wearing sneakers) . One aspect which surprised me is that trekking is seriously expensive: USD 50 to 75 per person per day. I couldn’t justify the costs as I am on a strict budget. But that is something I would like to do one day. Another shortcoming was my lack of ability to ride a motorbike. There are so many more opportunities to explore with a bike. Such a shame! Having said that, there are enough buses connecting places though the journey through the winding roads can be quite hard on the stomach and are exhausting.Most travellers don’t really explore Laos in depth. That needs to change. The country and the people have a lot to offer but we must, with the utmost respect, understand the deep scars which define this country. And then we can appropriately embrace everything the people of Laos have to offer.As always, thanks for reading!

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