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Saturday, 01 July 2006

Honeymoon in Laos?

Written by Michael McCarthy
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Close your eyes.  When you hear the word ‘honeymoon’, what do you think of?  Long walks along wind swept beaches, candle lit dinners overlooking a majestic blue ocean, some sort of tropical paradise, right?  How about a landlocked communist country in the middle of the monsoon season?  My fiancé was skeptical, but I managed to convince her. Despite (or because of) its geopolitical remoteness, Laos proved to be just as romantic as your standard honeymoon destination, if not more so.

 

We flew into the capital Vientiane hoping to explore its laid-back French colonial charm and eager to see the sights.  The only problem was: the city was closed. That’s right, the entire city was closed.

 

Apparently, still in wedding bliss, we failed to hear the news that the Asian branch of the World Economic Forum, ASEAN, was meeting in the capital and because of this, no foreigners could enter the city.  Since Laos did not have the proper amount of police to guard foreign dignitaries, it solved the problem by simply not allowing foreigners out of the airport.  And so, our first introduction to Laos was having our passports taken from us, and waiting for hours in the airport terminal (the size of only the most remote terminals in the U.S.) with other confused foreigners.  We were rerouted to the UNESCO world heritage city of Luang Prabang in Northern Laos, a city surrounded by mountains and famous for its historic Buddhist temples.

We arrived in Luang Prabang and were dropped off at our hotel, the Sala Luang Prabang.
Sala (a series of boutique hotels in
Laos), which was the perfect place for a honeymooning couple.  Our room consisted of a clean wooden floor, wooden beams, soft white linens, and a surprisingly romantic mosquito net all bathed in an iridescent light. The Sala confirmed my hope that it was possible to stay in romantic accommodations at very affordable prices (roughly USD$40/night).

night marketAfter cleaning up and resting, we began to explore the city at night.  Walking out of our hotel without a real destination, we headed up a side street and were pleasantly surprised. In front of us was a nighttime street market run by the women of the northern ethic minority group, the Hmongs, who come into town every night to sell their silk textiles, handmade silk dresses, wall hangings, blankets, Buddhist paintings and Beer Lao t-shirts.  The street was literally blanketed in multi-colored cloth.

 

Adding to this, each vendor plugs a rice paper lantern into a socket hidden nearby, creating a surreal light against a nighttime backdrop.  We walked up and down the street, taking in the array of colors on display.  Naturally, we succumbed to the allure and after a quick back and forth of bargaining, we were the possessors of a few silk patterned items (and a few Beer Lao t-shirts).


The next day, after a refreshing French-style breakfast of fresh fruit, yogurt, eggs, and coffee along the Mekong River, we decided to see the sights. On bicycles rented from an enterprising laundromat owner, we passed Buddhist monks dressed in saffron or maroon robes, shimmering temples with Alpine roofs that nearly touched the ground, tuk-tuk taxi drivers in their blue mini-pickups who politely offered us a ride, and other foreigners who seemed as enchanted by the city as we had already become.

We later dined at the Apsara, a restaurant that breathes charm.  Combining a French colonial front with more contemporary pan-Asian furnishings --- complete with Chinese lanterns inside --- the Apsara creates an atmosphere that can only be described as pleasing. And the cuisine ranks among the best I’ve ever had, on par with the haute cuisine of New York or any larger city. After refreshing gin and tonics, we dined on the chef’s specialty, a Thai-inspired salad, and entrees of chicken and fish curry, followed by a dessert we still discuss to this day.

A cruise along the Mekong was next for our honeymoon in Laos.  We signed up with East West Laos, a company that organizes trips aboard its beautiful wooden boat, the Pak Ou.  Unfortunately, it had already departed, so we decided to meet up with the boat by taking a more standard Laotian commuter boat to meet the Pak Ou in the village of Pak Beng. However, the commuter boat proved to be an arduous voyage, lasting over ten hours, though it had been promised to be only five.

view from pak beng lodge

Our uncomfortable commuter boat ride was quickly forgotten once we dropped our bags inside the Luang Say Lodge in Pak Beng where the Pak Ou boat was docked.  Resting high atop a hill in the village, the lodge overlooks a valley where the Mekong flows lazily through the lush green mountains.  A light mist completed the quaint sleepy village feel.  All of the impeccably clean rooms contained an enormous window allowing you to lean out into the mist, perching yourself over this setting.  If this was not enough, you could also enjoy this view from the elevated porch in the restaurant.

Finally aboard the Pak Ou, we leisurely rested on cushioned seats found throughout the boat and relaxed as the Mekong took us from one stop to the next, en route to Luang Prabang.  From the boat, we occasionally glimpsed village life along the river.  We stopped at one of these villages and had a chance for a quick interaction with the locals, observed by an elderly Buddhist monk who seemed to be blessing the entire scene. At another stop, our guide led us into the Pak Ou caves, our boats’ namesake, filled with thousands of Buddhist statues.

Arriving in Luang Prabang, we boarded a bus towards our initial destination, Vientiane. The city is described by many as laid back, even boring, and we decided to embrace the mood rather than fight it. We checked in to our two-story hotel, the “Villa Manoly,” located on a side road just five minutes from downtown, and complete with a pool.

 


 

We decided our first visit would be to a Buddhist temple called Wat Sok Pa Luang, where an engaging Laotian woman was said to run a combined sauna and open-air massage hut on the temple’s wooded grounds.  After a quick dip in the pool, we headed off.  It was the perfect thing for a relaxing afternoon. After rinsing off in an enclosed shower, we climbed the stairs and were immediately swept into the owner’s world.  In perfect English, she asked us to take off our shoes and showed us where to change into towels, and then sit and sip some of her homemade herbal tea.  After a cup or two, we were shown to an herbal sauna heated with firewood. Soon the steam took over the room and a healthy sweat ran over our bodies.

When the heat became overpowering, we left the sauna and let the cool air reinvigorate us. The owner smiled in support and we continued this tea-sauna-fresh air combination several more times.  Finally, we were led to the adjacent room and received rigorous one-hour Lao massages, described by my wife in a Zen like state as, “fabulous”.  We finished the afternoon by visiting the temple for a one-hour guided meditation, led by the local monks.  Finally, for dinner, we dined nearby at a local restaurant, eating a Lao specialty, laap, a fish rubbed in a unique blend of spices.

Our Laotian honeymoon continued as we headed south towards a more secluded location to view the famous waterfall called Tat Fan. The waterfall, one of the largest in Laos, was described to us as a must-see, despite its remoteness.  From our hired tuk-tuk, we saw signs for the Tat Fan, so we turned onto the dirt and gravel road that climbed almost entirely uphill.

 

Since it was monsoon season and rain was coming down in torrents, the road was pocketed with mud puddles.  Just as we approached our resort, both back wheels of the tuk-tuk got stuck in the mud.  The driver, apparently mystified and unsure of what to do, left it to us to track down some staff members from the resort, a passing tea plantation worker and a few wooden blanks.  Collectively, we jacked up the wheels and the driver hit the gas, spinning furiously out of control and heading directly toward the resort.  Luckily, disaster was averted at the last moment as the wheels found solid ground.  My wife looked at me in horror as we entered the resort overlooking the waterfall.

waterfallAnd was the waterfall worth is?  Well, we wouldn’t know; the intense rain made it so foggy that we couldn’t see.  If it were not for the deafening sound of the waterfall, we would have thought the Tat Fan a myth.  Yet, as a sign of our new marriage, we made the best of it by laughing off the experience. We even took pictures of each other posing awestruck in front of a white wall of fog where the waterfall supposedly was.  We spent that night reading to each other, cozied up in our room, with the resort virtually all to ourselves.

We cut our romantic waterfall experience short the next day and traveled to Tat Lo, a nearby village, for our first-ever elephant ride. We were led to a raised platform to mount the animal, and then sat on cushioned saddles as a diminutive Laotian man slowly guided the elephant towards higher ground.  As we ascended the hills in the jungle towards a vista, we could feel the elephant’s sheer power.  Looking down, we could see its feet sink into the ground, making enormous impressions into the mud soaked ground.  My wife even got the opportunity to “drive” the elephant, a chance she hesitantly accepted but eventually came to enjoy, though not completely without anxiety.  The view atop of the elephant was impressive, especially when we made it to the vista and were treated to a panoramic view of the surrounding countryside.


The southernmost part of Laos was our last destination where we visited a collection of islands known in Laos as Si Phan Don (or “Four Thousand Islands”).  Having been dropped off by a bus driver who literally turned the bus around to make an extra trip for us, we boarded an open canoe with a lawn mower engine to take us to our island of choice, Don Khon(e) (not to be confused with Don Khong, our earlier mistake).  Along the way we savored the new environment:  islands lush with palm trees and dotted with simple huts for the few tourists who venture this far south.

Having been impressed with its northern counterpart, we decided to once again stay at a Sala hotel; this one entitled Sala Phae.  This time we were treated to a raftel, which is a hotel that literally was constructed on the Mekong River with bamboo poles underneath to act as both support and anchor.  Like the other Sala hotel, the room came with white linens and mosquito netting.  The outside balcony completed the room: a small patio where we enjoyed our breakfast delivered to us as we dipped our feet into the passing waters. All of this, including a hefty breakfast, was USD$15 a night.

We spent the better part of five days bicycling around Don Khong and Don Det (the neighboring island). It is a bucolic countryside of rice paddies, water buffalo, workers in triangular straw hats, and local children at play.  As we cycled, we would occasionally stop to eat a simple meal at a river restaurant.  Talk about fresh food! As we sat overlooking the river, we saw fish being pulled in right before our eyes, which then became the daily specials.

 

When we returned ashore from a short boat trip to see a local species of river dolphin, the Irrawaddy, some local fishermen invited us into their hut to dine on their catch.  Since it was that time of the day when the skies usually open for an hour and dump rain in buckets, we happily accepted.  Almost immediately, a plastic Coke bottle filled with the local rice whiskey, lao lao, was passed around as each fishermen took a swig and then handed it over to another.  Eventually, it made its way to us.  Not wishing to be impolite, I took a healthy taste and handed it back (note: Jamesonâ need not fear an Eastern competitor).  Not hesitating, the man passed the bottle to my wife.  After a brief moment of uncertainty, she followed suit, to the immediate cheers of everyone in the hut.  We passed the test and spent the remainder of the afternoon in their company.

Since the island only has electricity via generators, the service is spotty at best and absent at night.  Once again we relaxed in each other’s company, discussed island life with the hotel staff, and simply enjoyed the uncomplicated time without life’s modern conveniences.

Our time in Laos was simple, and therein lies its charm.  The country will not sweep you off your feet like the typical honeymoon is supposed to; nor will it support an image that a honeymoon should be uncomplicated, perfectly set amidst a Hollywood-like tropical paradise.  But like a real marriage, our honeymoon in Laos was full of smaller, remarkable events that complied together, fulfilled our wishes. Hopefully, this will carry on during all of our journeys together.

 


 

a young monk backflipping
a young monk backflipping

details:

Luang Prabang:

Sala (Luang) Prabang

102/6 Ounkham Road, Ban Xieng Mouane

Tel : (+856 71) 252460, Tel / Fax : (+ 856 71) 252472

Email : salaprabang @ salalao.com

Web : http://salaprabang.salalao.com

Apsara Restaurant

Thanon Kingkitsarath

Tel: (856 71) 254 670

Fax: (856 71) 254252

E-mail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

East West Laos Cruises (Asian Oasis)

Thanon Sakkarin

Tel: (856 71) 252 553

www.asian-oasis.com

Pak Beng:

Luang Say Lodge

www.mekongcruises.com

Vientiane:

Villa Manoly

Ban Phyavat

P.O. Box 89

Tel/Fax: (856-21) 218907

Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Wat Sok Pa Luang

Thanon Sok Pa Luang

(no phone or website- it’s a Buddhist temple!)

Tat Fan:

Tad Fane Resort

Ban Lak 38, Pakse

Paxonng Road

Phone: +856 (0)20 553 1400

Fax: +856 (0)20 553 1411

www.tadfane.com

Don Khon(e):

Sala Phae- raftel

E-mail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Website: www.salalao.com

©Michael McCarthy

Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012

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