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The Land of a Million Elephants


There are some vacations that just seep into your soul. For me, that vacation was our Christmas trip to Laos. I’d wanted to go there for a long time, but things like Covid always got in the way. This beautiful country, steeped in a rich cultural heritage, was well worth the wait. The people are as warm as the scenery is gorgeous. And we lucked out with bluebird skies and cool weather every day.

VIENTIANE

Most people I know only go to Luang Prabang, but we wanted to see a bit more of the country, so we flew first into Vientiane, probably the sleepiest of all Asian capitals. I like more local hotels, so we tried Chanthapanya Hotel, smack dab in the middle of “downtown,” so quiet that we weren’t sure we were really in the middle of the action. We were. There’s just not much action to be in the middle of in Vientiane though we did find a dive of a place near our hotel where we had the very best massage of our lives for $7. The Lao masseuse is almost an acrobat and you are their apparatus with them bending you every which way. Lao massages rock. Vientiane mixes French-colonial architecture with Buddhist temples such as the 16th-century Pha That Luang, which is a national symbol, but truth? The golden structure is beautiful, but there’s not much to see. Nor was the Patuxay Monument (the Lao version of the Arche de Triomphe) all that impressive. We far more enjoyed a visit to Buddha Park, home to more than 200 Hindu and Buddhist statues, which sits in a meadow next to the Mekong River. We braved a really dicey stairway to climb to the top of the tallest structure there. There’s just no way that staircase would be deemed safe in any other country, and don’t get me started on the railing up top. Pure terror - but since we all survived, it was worth the view.



The food in Laos is absolutely delicious – a bit like Thai with a twist. And the food is darn cheap, too. We had more than a couple of huge feasts for about $25 all-in. We liked the food so much that we took a cooking class in Vientiane with Madame Phasouk, a course taught in her home, sprinkled with a bit of Laotian history. The whole family really loved whipping up the delicious local specialties.


VANG VIENG

We took the new, hour-long train (opened during Covid) to Vang Vieng. We all loved this sleepy town, once the party town of Laos. Now, it’s cleaned up and quieter and the jumping-off point for all sorts of outdoor adventures. We kayaked the river and did a little caving. My kids braved a zip line, too, before we made our way to one of the gorgeous blue lagoons. And lounging by the pool on the river at our favorite hotel in Laos, the Riverside Boutique Resort, was dreamy. Our massage here wasn’t as great as at Vientiane, but the meal at the Luang Prabang Bakery was not to be missed. If you ask my kids what their favorite part of our entire trip was, they’d say Vang Vieng.



LUANG PRABANG

Luang Prabang captured my heart, delivering everything I’d hoped to find in Laos: culture, nature, good food, and family fun. An added bonus? The sunsets over the Mekong River are nothing short of spectacular, best seen from a boat on the water.


To get to Luang Prabang, we took another train as it’s faster than driving and a bit of an experience. The city is bigger than I realized, but the Old Town main street is quite a lovely and manageable walk, lined with cute restaurants, shops hawking local crafts, and breathtaking wats (temples). At night, the street turns into a huge night market with local crafts and foods with not a fake handbag in sight, unlike the night market in Vientiane.

We did a lot of great things in Luang Prabang that you just can’t do anywhere else. One morning, we got up before sunrise and offered alms to about 200 local monks, a silent ceremony that dates back to the 14th century. The monks collect alms to keep their vows, while the locals give alms to practice their Buddhist faith. The hotel organized sticky rice and packets of food and schooled us in the ins and outs of what to do. We donned special scarves and sat on small stools while the monks filed by with their bowls at their sides. We placed a bit of rice and a packet of food in each bowl. At all times, our heads had to be below the monks, and we had to remain silent. As girls, my daughter and I had additional rules to follow: we weren’t allowed to touch the bowls or look the monks in the eye. I was bummed my good travel camera was on the blink because it was a very beautiful and moving vision, sitting under one of the prettiest wats I’ve ever seen with these men in their saffron robes filing by as the morning mist lifted. (Tip: if you buy a good camera in Singapore, also buy a humidity-free storage cabinet.) And I loved that the monks offered food to the local poor before heading back into the wat.



That afternoon, we did a workshop at Ock Pop Tok, a social enterprise that aims to help the local indigenous women. We learned all about the different forms of silk weaving and that each indigenous people has their own style. Then, we got a chance to dye scarves and t-shirts, even making the dyes out of items found in nature. We chopped and boiled wood and ground leaves to get just the right colors. My arts-loving daughter had a great time, but even our menfolk enjoyed the day, ending at a restaurant on the river, taking in the sunset.



The following day, we learned all about rice at another social enterprise called The Living Land Farm, and let me tell you, I will never look at another bowl of rice the same way again. What hard work it is to get that bowl! We went through the entire 13-step process from plowing the very gooey muddy field behind a water buffalo named Bentley to harvesting the mature plants to grinding rice into flour. We also learned to make the tools and baskets. It was one of the best experiential tourism workshops I’ve ever attended.



After, we made an unplanned stop at another social enterprise, the Laos Buffalo Dairy, on our way to Kuang Si Waterfalls. Holy cow! There’s a reason this series of turquoise swimming pools and falls are famous. They are breathtakingly beautiful. My son and husband braved the frigid waters and went for a rather invigorating swim. Me? I got my feet in. Wimp.


We made our way back to the hotel and had a fabulous meal at Manda de Laos at the edge of a gorgeous lily pond, a UNESCO heritage site just a block from our recently renovated, beautiful hotel, Villa Mali Boutique Hotel, which is in the old town part of the city.

There was more we could have done: bike rides through the flat city, a climb to the top of Mount Phou Si, Luang Prabang’s sacred hill that offers impressive views. We just ran out of time. Drat.


FINAL THOUGHTS

Our trip to Laos was just what I was craving: culture, nature, and family fun. My advice? If you’re going, go soon. I think the new train line and the airport will see a boom in tourism. Luang Prabang’s old town is already undergoing a revitalization with new, fabulous restaurants cropping up and hotels completing renovations. I want everybody to experience the beauty of what is known as “the land of a million elephants” (an ironic name as I didn’t see a single elephant). But I’m afraid the charm of the unspoiled land will soon be forever changed. I genuinely hope Laos can hold onto what makes it so very magical.

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