19 April 2017
Product manager, James, recently had the chance to enjoy a truly memorable trip to a relatively undiscovered corner of Southeast Asia. Exploring remote villages, dense jungle and hidden temples made for an unforgettable adventure in the beautiful region of Northern Laos.
My adventure started with a short flight from Bangkok to Luang Prabang. A city surrounded by dense jungle, it is the religious and historical capital of Laos and home to some of its most spectacular temples. There is a large population of Buddhist monks in the city, and visitors have the chance to participate in a sacred alms giving ceremony, when monks process at dawn to collect offerings of rice. Thanks to our excellent Scott Dunn guide, we also had the chance to visit a working monastery in the city, and spend some time with an English-speaking monk who was happy to introduce us to his novices and educate us about the lives of Luang Prabang’s monks. As we were visiting just before the end of Buddhist lent, preparations were in full swing for the citywide celebration.
Luang Prabang used to be a destination more for adventurous backpackers than luxury travellers, but as the country’s infrastructure has developed and the tourism industry has grown, there are now a number of very comfortable places to stay in the city. One of the most luxurious is the magnificent Belmond La Résidence Phou Vao. Located in a tranquil spot on a hillside on the outskirts of the city, it is a true gem. With just 34 suites, it is an intimate boutique hotel, but it is set in charming manicured gardens so there is plenty of space to relax and enjoy the temperate weather. The excellent hotel restaurant overlooks the forest that surrounds the city, with an inviting infinity pool in the foreground.
One of the highlights of my visit to Luang Prabang was an early morning trip to the spectacular Kuang Si waterfalls. We arrived early to enjoy the views before the other tourists arrived, so by the time anyone else arrived, we had already walked to the falls and back and were busy enjoying an excellent picnic breakfast. After devouring the spread of fresh pastries and hot coffee, we wandered downstream, stopping to swim in cooling pools en route to the spectacular butterfly sanctuary a couple of kilometres downstream.
Also in Luang Prabang, my wife and I had the opportunity to join our guide and driver for a local night out and the opportunity to play a few rounds of Petanque, which, believe it or not, is the country’s national sport. The venue was an outdoor area, covered by a rudimentary roof made of corrugated iron with a makeshift bar serving the ubiquitous Beer Lao, the extremely tasty local brew. After losing the first couple of rounds we started to get the hang of it, and by the third Beer Lao we were pretty confident of our skills and almost sure the locals weren’t just letting us win out of courtesy!
After an enjoyable few days getting to know the city it was time for our adventure to begin in earnest, as with our local guide we boarded a long tail motor boat to take us up the Mekong River. The scenery was stunning as we headed towards our lunch stop at Pak Ou. Here we visited a riverside shrine populated by thousands of Buddha statues, hidden in caves where the Mekong and Nam Ou rivers converge. We took the Nam Ou River for as far as was navigable, before switching to a four wheel drive to continue the day’s journey. We arrived at Nong Khiaw, a sleepy riverside village where we spent a restful night before continuing deeper into the northern provinces towards the Chinese border the following day.
Our final destination was to be Muang La Lodge, a luxury boutique hotel in a village in the Oudomxay Province, on the banks of the Nam Pak River. The hotel is quite unusual, not only because it is in a part of the country where there is no other tourist accommodation, but also because it plays such a central role in the small village that surrounds it. Although the owners and manager are French, all the staff on site are local. The restaurant serves only local produce, prepared Laotian style and beautifully presented. Naturally occurring thermal waters not only serve the hotel’s spa pools but also the local pool and bathing area built by the hotel for local use. The hotel organise a full programme of tours and activities for guests: we enjoyed cycling through the hills and visiting local tribal villages. We travelled by 4×4 and on foot along dirt roads and through dense forest, learning about the culture and traditions of the many local tribes.
Our stay at Muang La was all the more unforgettable thanks to the opportunity we had to participate in the preparations for the upcoming Buddhist festival marking the end of Buddhist lent. Across Laos, villagers compete in boat races and my wife and I had the chance to train with the Muang La village team. Having ambled down to the riverbank where locals from several neighbouring villages had gathered to hone their paddling skills, we were somewhat surprised when I was handed a paddle and invited to join in. The villagers beckoned me to a space at the back of a long rowing vessel, the cox blew his whistle, and before I knew it, I was paddling for all I was worth. After an exhausting circuit of the course we disembarked completely soaked through, and the women’s crew took our places on board the vessel, having enrolled my wife onto their team! We both had great fun taking part in the training session, and when we returned to the Lodge with aching arms, we were especially glad to be able to take advantage of the resort’s elevated outdoor hot tubs, and, of course, a cold Beer Lao!
When it was time to leave Muang La, we flew from region’s main city, Oudomxay to Vientiane, the country’s capital and best-connected international airport before heading back to the UK.
Laos – Scott Dunn style- was undoubtedly one of the most memorable and enjoyable travel experiences I have ever had and I hope I will have the chance to return to this charming corner of Indochina one day.