Not a word I would usually use in casual conversation. For example, I wouldn’t be down my boozer back home having a chat to one of the locals about a recent holiday and say “I went to see so and so there, it was sooo majestic!’. They would probably a) laugh at me b) take the mickey c) think I had gone a bit loopy on the holiday or d) all of the above.
For Nong Khiaw though, I am willing to make an exception – Nong Khiaw was Majestic. There I said it and I can also tell you that there are only a few places in the world I have seen for which I would use such an extravagant word.
The drive there itself was fairly interesting. I have been on a few mini-van rides in Laos now and they all seem to go something like this – arrive at pickup point at pre-arranged time, wait 30 – 45 minutes after that scheduled time for bus to arrive, wait another 15 minutes for bus driver to chat to the other bus drivers or anyone else who might be in the vicinity for a natter, load up cargo which firstly includes the tourists and their bags piled up all around us and then every man and his chicken piles in – children and other locals sitting on the floor or in the aisles (on my second ride a tourist was even asked if a Laos child could sit on her lap due to no other space), animal carcasses (see previous post), big bags of rice, piles of wood etc etc. No space is unused. We then leave for the destination but on the way we make up to 10 – 15 stops for the bus driver to get out, chat to his mates or do business, stand by the side of the road in full view of everyone to take a leak or to make very long phone calls. Sometimes he stops and disappears for 10 minutes in a house maybe to have a coffee or to have a quickie with the missus (who knows?). Other people get on and off, items are loaded and unloaded, money is exchanged and we finally arrive, backs sore from the incredibly bumpy roads. Please don’t think for one minute I am complaining, I love these types of unique travel experiences as they amuse me and it beats a boring ride on the National Express back home! There is usually a VIP Mini-Van service which may have avoided all this but I am trying to shake my flashpacker status.
On the way up to Nong Khiaw, and also walks around the surrounding villages, I really enjoyed observing the simple village lives that people were leading, totally untainted by Western influences. Although you could see clearly that they lived in poverty (I understand it is one of the poorest nations in South East Asia), I certainly did not see miserable, desperate or dejected faces. I saw smiling, laughing and happy people. Children playing in the streets and locals busy getting on with their work together or sitting in gatherings on steps or stools chatting and laughing loudly, sharing meals or Beer Lao. I almost could feel a deep family and community spirit as I walked through their villages. I fully appreciate I am only a window shopper and you would have to really live amongst them to understand what their lives are truly like but on the face of it, these people seemed happy or at the least content. And also very laid back – I don’t think I have ever seen so many hammocks.
The full name for this country is the Lao People’s Democratic Republic or Lao PDR although locals joke that the PDR stands for “Please Don’t Rush”. I tell you if you are ever stressed out in your life take a trip to Laos. It will sort you out a treat.
Anyway, after arriving at the guest house and checking into my room with a view:
…………I took a walk around the town, including a 1.5 hour trek up to a very high view-point and took these photos which hopefully shows why I decided to use a slightly dramatic word to describe the place. It is an dramatic place.
I was in town for 2 nights and wanted to explore the area a bit further the next day. After shopping around for a bit and being quoted wildly differing prices for the same tour ranging from US$25 to US$100, I booked a 1 hour boat trip north up the river to a more isolated village called Muang Ngoi, explore there for 2 hours, trekking, see a waterfall, lunch and then kayaking back along the river with Nong Khiaw Adventure Tours (obviously the $25 place). Bish, Bash, Bosh.
I woke up the next morning feeling extremely exhausted. I think it was due to the 2.5 hour hill climb the day before and another rooster waking me up in the dead of the night. I felt so tired I nearly decided to just give the tour a miss but I forced myself up and out and I am so glad I did because it was a great day and met some nice people including the guide.
I had some good chats with the guide that day. He said that he used to be a Buddhist Monk. I had thought that once you were a monk you were always a monk but he explained that is not the case and for most it is something they do for a certain period when they are young men. A rare few do go on to become monks forever but for most it is just a temporary thing. After his time as a Buddhist Monk, he went to college to study computers and then got a job in IT working in the same college before it closed down which brought him to what he was doing now – being a tour guide. He said he made more money in IT but enjoyed being a tour guide and it helped him with his English. As I had heard from a local in nearly every country I had been to, he said that if they learn English it gives them far better opportunities and almost guaranteed employment.
Over lunch, I also had a good chat with a Finnish guy who was on the tour and also travelling solo. Unfortunately, he had fallen for a bit of a scam a couple of nights before where in the evening before his check out date, a lady had knocked on his door and asked for payment for the room. She looked genuine so he gave her the money but when he woke up the next morning and checked out, the reception people knew nothing about it or who that lady was so he had to pay again. Turns out it was just some random lady, a scammer. I had actually read about that scam on the internet but was surprised to meet someone who had experienced it. One to watch out for!
I took a walk that evening, had a nice Indian curry and took this photo. There are no words to describe how serene this place was at dusk.
Next day it was back to Luang Prabang for my upcoming flight to Bangkok and then to the next phase of my travels in Indonesia.
Back in Luang Prabang, I visited the UXO Lao Visitor Centre which taught me about something I was completely unaware of known commonly as the Secret War in Laos (Laotian Civil War). I won’t go into details of the actual conflict as that is what Google is there for but I will tell you what the museum told me about the current impact on Laos.
This war basically resulted in Laos being one of the most bombed countries in the world. Unfortunately, this has left Laos with a huge problem in terms of unexploded ordnance (UXO), mainly cluster bombs. Basically, this is a big bomb which is dropped, explodes and releases hundred of other smaller bombs (or “bombies” as they are known), many of which (up to 30%) did not detonate on impact. These bombies are now scattered around the Laos countryside like ticking time bombs waiting for someone, such as a working farmer or a child who may believe it is a ball to throw around and play with, to set them off so they can wreak their originally intended destruction from the past on an unintended victim many years in the future.
Right now, even to this day, an average of 1 person per day in Laos dies from contact with an unexploded bomb and many others are injured, which can destroy families if the main provider for the family is injured. Major efforts are underway to clear all of this UXO and also educate communities and children on how to keep safe from the unexploded ordnance but the museum told me it would take up to 100 more years until it is all cleared. An ongoing campaign is also underway to ban cluster bombs in future wars due to the incredibly long lasting impact they can have on a country and treaties have been signed already to support this. The issue is one of the direct contributing factors to poverty in the country and stunts their economic development. Tragically, also due to the poverty in the country some locals actively seek out the larger bombs so they can use the scrap metal for profit, risking their limbs and lives. Anyway, the museum itself did make me think a lot about the issue so I couldn’t finish this blog post without mentioning it.
A must visit to learn about it if you are in Luang Prabang.
My time in Laos had come to an end and it was on to the next phase of my travels.
My next post is going to be a new thing I am going to start doing which will basically be a short post with a personal conclusion on my time in Laos. I will try and do after my time in each country comes to an end to include my overall feelings on the place (positives and negatives) and what the next plans / destinations on my travels are. I guess you could call it a sort of interim post between countries.
I will try and do this on Cambodia and Vietnam too at some point in the future as it is something I only just decided to do and they don’t deserve to be left out.
Thanks for reading and as always feel free to leave a comment if you have been to Laos or could relate to any of the experiences or if there is any place in the world you have seen which you would call “majestic”.
Next post: Interim post – conclusion on Laos and next plans.