Laos – A Land Waiting to be Discovered
The look on the face of the security officer as she surveyed my boarding pass was priceless. “Luang Prabang?” she look at me quizzically before turning to her hapless and equally clueless colleague for help. “Where is this?”
This being Scoot’s inaugural flight, it was perhaps understandable that she was not familiar with its newest destination, especially given that it’s not (yet) the most frequented destination by Singaporeans. It didn’t help that we were flying on April Fool’s Day.
“Lao,” I piped up, trying to be helpful.
“Oh… LAOS!” a look of recognition flashed across the security officer’s face with the relief that this was not some made up boarding pass. “Yes, Lao,” I repeated with a wry smile, navigating the thin line of being insistent with the correct pronunciation for the country’s name, while gingerly avoiding being body slammed to the floor and handcuffed for my insolence.
You can blame the French for conjuring up one of the most hotly debated topics in Googlesphere – the correct pronunciation of the country’s name. They copped out by simply looking at the most populous people group in the land – the Lao people – and smugly added a silent ‘s’ to the end and voila! That’s the name of the country! Thank God they didn’t discover Singapore before the British did – we could have been named Chineses or Malays! Shudder…
Scoot’s maiden flight to Laos
The launch of Scoot’s inaugural thrice-weekly round-trip shuttle flight to Luang Prabang, Vientiane and back to Singapore will hopefully make the blur look on people’s faces, when names such as Luang Prabang, Vientiane and Vang Vieng are mentioned, a thing of the past.
To celebrate the flight, quizzes were conducted on board with winners walking away with prizes such as travel vouchers. The A320 aircraft, named Yellow Tail, was fittingly welcomed upon landing at Luang Prabang Airport with the traditional water cannon salute.
Pullman Luang Prabang
Our adventure in Laos begins! First stop was the Pullman Luang Prabang to refresh ourselves before our next exciting activity.
Newly opened in July last year, it is the biggest hotel in Luang Prabang and boasts three swimming pools.
The well-appointed rooms are huge and feel very luxurious.
The gorgeous estate is built atop and around working rice paddy fields. There is just something deeply calming and relaxing about staying around paddy fields, as though time comes to a standstill.
As you walk in the cool of the morning, and spy some beautiful ducks coursing lazily through the streams on the hotel grounds, you can’t help but wonder why it took you so long to discover this little slice of paradise.
Historically referred to as the Land of a Million Elephants, it is disheartening to know that there are less than a thousand elephants left in Laos today, much of it due to destruction of natural habitats through illegal logging as well as poaching. Elephants are highly intelligent creatures, and like humans, form strong family bonds and display great empathy for one another, as seen in the photo of mother-daughter pair, Man and Mon.
The work of MandaLao Elephant Conservation in Luang Prabang is therefore extremely important as they rescue elephants from logging camps and rehabilitate and reintroduce them to the wild, helping them lead dignified lives.
One of the most thrilling activities one can ever participate in is interacting and walking with elephants as you get to observe them in their most natural element, doing what they love doing. Elephants need to walk a lot everyday as it helps them digest their food. Unlike other elephant camps, non-riding is emphasised at MandaLao Elephant Conservation since riding is not a natural activity for the elephants.
An interesting fact we learnt was that it is difficult to give medicine to elephants. That’s why it is done by including it in their food. We played our part by making banana sandwiches for the elephants, inserting sticky rice, turmeric and sea salt into bananas to make for a delicious and nutritious snack.
And like us humans, feeding the elephants is the best way to bond with them.
Laos Buffalo Dairy Farm
When the founders of Laos Buffalo Dairy Farm first visited Laos six to seven years ago, there were no buffalo or any other dairies in Laos. Nobody in Laos was milking buffaloes, cows or goats then as none of the locals had seen a dairy before; they actually believed that milk came from coconuts.
Buffaloes were used mainly for farming or for their meat. As a full-grown buffalo is worth about the average annual salary of a Laotian, it is often used as insurance by the locals, for them to sell for emergency funds such as when they are hospitalised.
As male buffaloes were often quickly slaughtered for their meat, this led to a lot of in-breeding from the remaining males and thus poorer quality and smaller buffaloes. As a social enterprise, Laos Buffalo Dairy Farm has helped improve the quality of buffaloes by renting the under-utilised female buffaloes from farmers for milking, and helped increase the income of the farmers at the same time. The farm also houses other animals such as pigs and rabbits, thus serving as a mini-zoo for school kids as well.
Although buffaloes produce less milk than cows, their milk is more nutritious and has higher fat content than cow milk, making it creamier and thicker, from which the dairy makes excellent cheeses. The mozzarella in particular was excellent.
They also make several flavours of ice cream and I highly recommend the coffee-flavoured one.
Kuang Si Waterfalls
Probably the most picturesque site in Luang Prabang, the beauty of the Kuang Si Waterfalls, with its electric turquoise waters, speaks for itself.
A dip in the mineral-infused waters, or a jump from one of the tree branches hanging over the pools if you prefer, is a must.
As an added bonus, you get to see sun bears and moon bears at the Bear Rescue Centre, which rescues these bears from illegal poaching.
Lunch at Carpe Diem, a restaurant set in the middle of the magnificent falls, with its own waterfall swimming pool, completes the pretty picture.
Traditional Baci Ceremony
Here we are at the beautifully landscaped grounds of Sofitel Luang Prabang participating in the traditional Baci ceremony in Laos, a practice dating back hundreds of years.
The Lao people believe that humans are made up of 32 organs, each with its own spirit which sometimes wanders outside the body resulting in imbalance of the soul and hence sickness. Tying the white string represents tying the 32 spirits back to the body to restore harmony and balance.
Alms Giving Ceremony and Morning Market
Participating in the Alms Giving Ceremony is one of the most meaningful things you can do in Laos, notwithstanding the 4.30am start to the day. Lao people generally wake up at 4.30am to cook sticky rice for the monks. The monks only eat twice a day in the morning – once at 7.30am and again at 11am. It’s therefore important that they get enough food for these 2 meals.
Ever wondered why different monks have different dressing? In Laos, full monks have both shoulders covered whereas novice monks have one shoulder exposed.
Pro tip: Make sure you are dressed in clothes that cover your knees and shoulders, and that your hands are clean before distributing the sticky rice. It’s quite a challenge prying apart a consistent amount of sticky rice for each monk though and I ran out of rice by the time the last few monks came to me! Thankfully, we’re told they all share whatever they collect. Phew!
Right after alms giving, you can cross this beautiful bamboo bridge on the Nam Khan River, which looks especially gorgeous set against the rising sun. After each rainy season, this bridge has to be rebuilt as it gets washed away.
From here, you can make your way to the morning market. Visiting the morning market in Luang Prabang is a fascinating experience, and certainly not for the faint-hearted.
Here, you can see animals as diverse as bats, squirrels, and what looks like field rats being sold for food.
I’m not a fan of paying the vendors to release caged birds like the cute little owl you see here though. I feel this will only encourage the vendors to keep catching them and locking them up in such a small cage feels pretty cruel to me.
Buddha Park – Vientiane
Buddha Park in Vientiane is known more as an Instagrammer’s haven than a place of worship.
Filled with sculptures of all shapes and sizes of Buddha and Hindu gods, there are nooks and crannies everywhere for you to vamp it up for the camera. Anything for the Gram right?
Can you tell that we had lots of fun here?
Although Vientiane has more of a city vibe than laidback Luang Prabang, it still throws up many fascinating sights and sounds, as we discovered on a short morning walk around the city.
First up, a visit to Wat Ho Phra Keo, one of Laos’ most highly venerated temples built to enshrine the Emerald Buddha, before it was taken away to Thailand. There are still many beautifully sculptured statues of Buddha though, and the design of the temple is just exquisite.
On our way to the Patuxai Victory Monument, we came across a street vendor selling woven bamboo baskets where we saw what must be the world’s smallest working mobile phone.
Here you can see it in comparison against a Samsung Galaxy S10. Don’t mock its size though – the vendor used it to communicate with us by punching the prices into the phone.
Looking at the Patuxai Victory Monument, one is immediately struck by its similarity to the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. Ironically, it was built to commemorate those who fought in the struggle for independence from France. Today it is a popular recreational spot for the locals, especially for those taking their graduation photos.
Check out the intricate art work on the ceiling of the Monument!
And there you have it, lots of exciting and meaningful activities that you can pack into a quick 4D3N trip to Laos. Once you’ve discovered the beauty of this country, please help spread the word that it’s pronounced as “Lao”. The French will say merci beaucoup.
Scoot flies to Luang Prabang and Vientiane every Monday, Thursday and Saturday.