Isaan, or northeastern Thailand, is easily my favorite part of the country. I could explain why by saying superficial things like “the people are friendly, the food is spicy and the scenery is spectacular”, but one can only truly know what I mean by smelling a rice field at dusk, joining a group of locals for whiskey and soda after dark, and tasting a bite of those spicy salads for oneself. The next best thing, I suppose, is seeing pictures that capture just a hint of the wacky charm Isaan is famous for. So, here you go:
Pon is keen to tell me how lucky I am. “In the wet season, you cannot walk on this track,” he says. “But now, it is safe – we can go to the waterfall.”
This is the grand finale, the cherry-on-top reward at the end of a day’s trek. It’s a reward that feels greedy, however. The walk across the Bolaven Plateau in southern Laos begins with purposeful striding through the Arabica coffee plantations that mean relative prosperity for the local bean-growing co-operatives. This leads to the rocky, semi-barren landscape of the Dan Sin Say plateau, where cows mooch around with a flabby lack of menace, over stepping stones and down to the banana-fringed pool at the bottom of the Tad Cham Pi falls.
In a sweaty, sticky heat, this feels just about right. But we must press on. Tad Cham Pi is just a baby. If I want something truly impressive, then forging ahead to Tad Fane is imperative.
We get to the lookout; the twin falls daintily tumbling through the forest into a deep chasm are indeed impressive. But we can get closer.
Luang Prabang is now the crown jewel in a $513 million annual tourism industry that has become the second-largest industry in Laos, behind mining and ahead of electric power. However, the town’s shaded streets, glittering temples and French-colonial ambience still offer a less-developed alternative to many of Southeast Asia’s glitzier destinations.
“It still is, really, a bit of a land that time forgot,” said David Johnson, managing director at Delivering Asia Communications, a Bangkok-based public relations company specializing in hospitality consulting. It will change eventually, but Luang Prabang and Laos develop at their own speed, he added.
Hundreds of foreign tourists were among the thousands watching the parade of “fire boats” that followed the races in Luang Prabang. The nighttime event is a highlight of the three-day race weekend: Handcrafted bamboo boats adorned with fruit, candles and paper serpents are carried to a Buddhist temple and then floated on the nearby Mekong as a way of honoring ancestors and empowering the Naga, a serpentlike deity in Buddhist and Hindu mythology.
The event began at dusk as more than a dozen fire boats were pulled on trailers through the town’s main thoroughfare. Thousands of candles flickered in a light breeze as musical troupes marched along, playing traditional instruments.
On the corner of the old Mekong River road in Vientiane, and the site of a now vanished river, slumps the tiled, tumbledown ruins of a French colonial building – the erstwhile home of Laos royal prince-turned-Communist revolutionary, Prince Souphanouvong.
The disintegrating ochre-hued 1909-1925 home of the “Red Prince”, who later became Laos’ first president under Communist rule in 1975, is set to be saved by an aid agency. But its decrepit condition is a metaphor for many other French colonial buildings in Laos’s riverside capital.
Vientiane became the smallest capital of France’s parcel of land in Indochina. The French arrived in 1893, having forced Siam to cede the Lao territory to them through gunboat diplomacy. They set up shop in a backwater.
Viang Chan (City of Sandalwood), as it was, had been razed to the ground by the marauding Siamese in 1827, and the decapitated temples and Buddha statues had sunk beneath arboreal anarchy. Slowly, the spiritual structures resprouted on the land that hugged the middle Mekong. The French realigned the city with broad tree-lined avenues and planted elegant shuttered villas. This month marks 60 years since Laos’s independence from its French colonial masters.
Just to the south of Prince Souphanouvong’s house is the gold and crimson shrine to the spirits of the vanished river, Nam Pasak, dedicated to Inthachakkhunag, one of the nine naga (dragon-serpent totems) of Vientiane.
A U.S. $5 billion dollar loan for construction of a rail link across southern Laos between Thailand and Vietnam has reportedly been approved. The loan is worth more than half of Laos’ total Gross Domestic Product.
New Zealand group Rich Banco Berhad has apparently approved the loan to Malaysian-based Giant Consolidated, which will build the 220-kilometer track linking the two borders. However, details surrounding the deal, the bank and its relationship with the Malaysian group are sketchy at best.
The project, along with other massive infrastructure projects planned by Vientiane, has raised eyebrows among economists who doubt the country’s ability to repay its potentially enormous debts.
According to the World Bank, Laos GDP was just U.S. $8.3 billion in 2011. Laos has sole ownership of the project and will be responsible to repay the debt after a Chinese group withdrew amid concerns over its profitability.
Bangkok: The opening in two months time of a bridge connecting Thailand and Laos is set to massively improve trade between China and ASEAN. The Chiang-Khong Houayxay Bridge will open in June, linking by smooth highway the southwest Chinese city of Kunming to the Thai capital, Bangkok (pictured). The 1,807 km Kunming-Bangkok highway opened in 2008, however traffic has always backed up at the Lao-Thai border city of Houayxay where vehicles have had to take a ferry to cross the Mekong.
The bridge, under construction for three years, will smooth this growing trade artery.
Last year, China remained ASEAN’s biggest trade partner and ASEAN became the third biggest trader of China with two-way trade reaching nearly $400bn, a figure that is expected to crack $500bn by 2015. [04/04/13]
The splashing of water lures me out to my stern balcony. They must be diving under the ship to fix the faulty propeller, I think. As I lean over the edge of the railing, I discover I am wrong: four Lao children are swimming gleefully around the boat on a competitive circuit, the weakest swimmer ending up dangerously swept downriver by the strong Mekong current before grasping the stern of a longtail boat docked nearby. He struggles hard to keep up and eventually disappears with the others upstream again.
The clean, sandy beach where we have docked for repairs presents cameos of life along this mighty Indochinese river. A woman in a straw hat busily plants her vegetable seedlings, while keeping an eye on her nearby toddler, who happily digs her own holes. Another woman waters her sandy field, and scolds children who come too near as they practice their somersaults, cartwheels and handstands. Three children emerge from the water and run to join the gymnastic group, one of the littlest pausing to remove her chafing, sandy underwear and continue on unimpeded.