travel & nature photography
Text and images © marcus karlsen / no use without written permission
After years of isolation Laos begins to open up to the outside world.
The smell of incense tickles the nose and the air is full of the sound of chanting monks. The sun sets over the lotus-shaped temple pyramid Pha That Luang. Men and women are kneeling at the foot of the temple, lighting candles. A little girl wearing a traditional costume is laying down flowers as an offering to Buddha. Monks with shaved heads in saffron robes are leading the way in a procession around the stupa. All hold candles in their hands. The ritual is called Takbat and is part of the annual That Luang Festival in Vientiane, the capital of Laos. After a weeklong celebration it has now reached the pinnacle on the last day of the festival. Outside the temple there is a huge exhibition area where we can buy everything from clothing, furniture and household items to Lao whiskey for a dollar per liter. Some kids try to win soft drinks by puncture balloons with darts. Thousands of people have found their way here, still it is very peaceful. On every street corner the police and military watches, armed with Kalashnikovs. A reminder that Laos after all is a strictly controlled communist state. When the sun goes down hundreds of candles are lit around the stupa. Fireworks and hot air balloons are sent up. It's all very evocative. The ceremony has, like Laos, changed little during the last hundred years. The country is still a secluded, quiet and dreamy place that seems trapped in the past. It has, however, begun a tentative and uncertain road towards modernization. Although it is a country the size of Britain it has few roads and only a handful of traffic lights. The country is still a green tropical wilderness dotted with golden temples. The quiet and relaxed atmosphere that fills the country is even more amazing when we are told that it is the most bombed country in the world and also one of the poorest.
Since the communists seized power in Laos in 1975 the country has been largely isolated from the outside world. The country did not open its borders to tourists until 1989, and still very few find the way here. But Laos now eases its restriction and welcomes tourists. Fortunately, a trip to Laos is still a journey back in time. While neighboring China, Vietnam and Thailand races into the new millennium with high-rise buildings and traffic congestion, Laos is still Asia as it was half a century ago. The former kingdom, known as "the country of a million elephants", now known as the Democratic People's Republic of Laos is a strange and forgotten place. Something we notice when we go to the bank to cash in one of our travel checks. The largest Laotian banknote available is the 5000 kip banknote, worth about ½ USD. We redeem 100 USD and leaves as millionaires with a several centimeters thick wad of bills in our hands. Had we exchanged more we might need a wheelbarrow to bring the money.
We head towards Patuxay, one Asian version of the French Arc de Triomphe. The structure, also known as Victory Gate, is probably an example of how Laos could turn even the ordinary upside down. Decorated with Buddhist reliefs and mythical figures, it is built to commemorate Laotians who died in the wars before the Revolution in 1975. The monument is built of concrete given by the U.S. to build a new airport. It is therefore referred to as "the vertical runway". We walk up the stairs to the top of Patuxay. From here there is a great view of Vientiane, Laos's largest city with 450 000 inhabitants. Below us, on one of the main roads into the city, a steady stream of bicycles and mopeds are passing. There are a few cars and trucks. Women on bicycles hold small umbrellas to shade from the burning sun. Families of four or five stacks up on a single moped and blast off in a cloud of exhaust. In one of Vientiane's many temples, Wat Si Saket, the inside of the outer walls are covered with small niches with Buddhas. In total the temple includes 6840 Buddha figures. Buddhism has been something the people can hold on to through the country's many trials as colonialism, war and communism. Through religion, they got confidence and spiritual prosperity and Buddhism permeates most of their lives. We walk around the temple among coconut palms, banana and mango trees. But even here in the shady garden, the heat is almost unbearable and we proceed down to the banks of the Mekong River. We find a small restaurant and drink a fruit juice. Life is calm here in Laos. Many would have it that the Loa PDR does not stand for "Lao People's Democratic Republic" but for "Lao - Please Do not Rush."
From Vientiane, the Mekong River meanders quietly past forested hills up to Luang Prabang, the capital of the former kingdom of Lane Xiang. Lane Xiang grew and flourished, only to be devoured by its powerful neighbor states. However, this is still considered to by Laos's golden age. Luang Prabang has never been a flashy city. The city's location between the rivers Mekong and Nam Khan has limited its expansion, but made sure it has retained its charm. The idyllic small town is a UNESCO listed site. Surrounded by mountains and rivers, and camouflaged by palm trees and tropical forest, it is one of the best preserved cities in all of Southeast Asia, an outdoor museum. Along the narrow streets, rice paper lamps are hanging outside the old Laotian wooden houses and the Indochinese colonial buildings. The city is filled with beautiful temples; Wat Xieng Thong is perhaps the most beautiful of them all. The temple is a jewel for the eye and soul. A sense of peace and harmony fills us when we walk among the small temple buildings. Around the temple grows Bougainvillea and Hibiscus in the shade of palm trees and Banyan trees. The temple is built in the traditional Luang Prabang style with graceful, low sweeping roofs that almost goes right down to the ground. The backside of the temple is decorated with red glass mosaic and inside the roof is held up by black-painted columns with small figures painted in gold leaf. The temple area is almost empty, only a few monks are kneeling in front of a gilded bronze Buddha. The whole city fills us with inner peace; this is the place for living lazy days in Laos.
If you want to travel around Laos you have the choice of several hours of butt shaking on bad buses on even poorer roads or an hour flight with Lao Aviation. A choice that might not be as easy as it sounds as Lao Aviation has one of the poorest reputations among airlines. We still choose the latter option. It is only a coincidence that we get on the plane. The departure is shifted to two hours earlier, without telling us. We happened to hear it from someone we met at the hotel. The plane is an old, washed-up Russian airliner. Shortly after the departure the cabin is filled with something that looks like thick smoke, we cannot see the end of the cabin. Some passengers start to look pretty desperate. Fortunately, it is just condensation from the air system and after a while it disappears. The pressure in the cabin is jumping up and down and we try to make our ears pop all the way. We fly over a desert landscape covered by dense tropical forest. The pilots find their way using a handheld GPS receiver. A short time later we land in a field outside Phonsavan. The small town consists of low, worn brick houses. A herd of cows wander through the partially paved streets, and at the local restaurant a few foreigners in overalls labeled MAG, "Mine Advisory Group" sits drinking coffee. They work for the UN clearing unexploded ordnance. This area was one of the main battlefields in Laos during the Vietnam War. Every day for nine years the U.S. dropped bombs worth 2 million USD over Laos. That is an average of one bomb every 8 minutes in all these years. More bombs were dropped on Laos during the Vietnam War than the total number of bombs dropped during the Second World War. That makes Laos the most bombed nation in the world. At the same time, the country was invaded by the Vietnamese troops who also did great damage.
Outside of Phonsavan is the Plain of Jars, a real archaeological curiosity. And here we find, you guessed it, jars. Huge 2000 year old urns of stone are scattered in several places. No one is sure why they are here or who made them. The legends tell of a king who brewed liquor in hundreds of huge stone jars to celebrate a victory on the battlefield, one jar for every soldier. When the liquor was ready, they celebrated the victory by drinking themselves to death. Other theories are that the jars were used as burial urns or for rice storage. Archaeologists have just begun to unravel the mystery. At a mountain not far away, one has found a quarry with half-finished jars. The jars were probably rolled several miles across the plains by water buffaloes. At that time they were sealed with a lid. Still some of the lids lie beside the jars, where grave robbers threw them away when they stole the contents of the jars many years ago. An unopened jar will be every archaeologist's dream. Many mysteries would probably get an explanation but some of the mystique surrounding the place would be gone. We walk among the jars, the largest weighing over 6 tons and is 2.7m high. The grassy plains roll over a hilly landscape. No trees grow here. Thousands of gallons of the chemical Agent Orange was released here during the Vietnam War. It has ruined the soil. Between the jars are deep bomb craters. The bombing was meant to stop the traffic of Vietnamese troops along the infamous Ho Chi Min trail that went right through this area. Laos was essentially a neutral country. Fighting was being kept hidden from the rest of the world. American pilots bought the bombers on a military surplus store for a mere dollar and flew bombing raids in jeans and cowboy hats. Even now, many years later, the war is still present. Every year people are killed or maimed by unexploded ordnance from the war, also known as UXO. In Phonsavan we see several bomb casings for sale. The size of a tennis ball and with small fins, they look like little toys. During the war, up to 650 of them were packaged together and released as cluster bombs over the countryside. Every little bomb was supposed to explode when they hit the ground. Not everyone did, and now American tourists are buying them the same bombs, bringing them back to the U.S. as souvenirs. It's a strange world we live in.
The next day we head to a small Hmong village. The area we are traveling in is so desolated and unexplored that new species are still discovered here. Just a few years ago scientists found three new species, an ox, a wild pig and a small deer. The village is like something out of the last century. Small earth paths are running between houses that are built of bamboo and palm leaves. There is no electricity or sanitation, and water is collected in the nearby creek. The only more recent is the special U.S. construction materials they have used. Weapons that were sent to kill the people are now being used to make life easier. Bomb shell lies in the dust on the ground, turned into trough for the pigs or used as flower pots. We walk past a field fenced with remnants of other bombs. Several houses are built on missiles placed nose first into the ground. The metal makes it more difficult for rodents to enter the house. A little girl is looking at us from the safety of the doorway. We smile and wave at her, unsure she pulls back, hiding in the shadows inside the house. Just as this country, the girl is curious about the outside world but at the moment she chooses to keep it at a distance.