Laos, Land of a Million Elephants

Laos - “Sabaydee!”  This word brings a smile to those who say it, as well as to those who hear it.  Accompanied by a delicate salutation - joined hands held to a reclined chin - this is one of the nicest ways to say “Hello” and the surest way to fall under the charm of Laotians. It is part of the gentle pleasures of life that can be felt in the cities, villages, on the banks of the Mekong River, in secluded mountain areas, near cascades and of course in the temples on your itinerary.

This contributes to the feeling of the exotic that you will experience in this peaceful, serene Asian Buddhist country and is likely what most people coming to visit Laos from everywhere in the world will want to experience.  This state of mind and well-being can be observed in the Westerners - French for the most part - who have decided to make a life here, opening boutiques, restaurants, cafés, wine bars or small guest houses and integrating tradition with modernity.

Happiness on hand

The quest for happiness is visible everywhere in Laos: among other places, near the splendid and imposing Vientiane Gold Stupa, the That Luang, where for a few dollars you can buy a caged bird that you quickly set free so your deepest wish may come true, at Buddha’s feet, where fruits or a yellow and orange flower bouquet wrapped in a banana leaf or candles and incense will accompany your prayers, and once a year, you have the chance to randomly select a numbered stick corresponding to a message that constitutes Buddha’s annual prediction concerning your life as far as love, health and business are concerned.

For their part, nägas, the legendary cobras with a dragon head sculpted on many buildings and available to buy as souvenirs, offer their protection to people as well as to Buddha at the entrance of temples.

Another form of happiness that is more tangible is the science and art of therapeutic and aromatic rejuvenating massage offered at prices that will also contribute to your relaxation, to the point that you will be tempted to adopt the practice on a daily basis.

For the pleasure of the eyes, body and soul

Laos has everything to please various type of travelers: travellers who sign up for a guided tour will get an eye full of architecture in the gold-orange-yellow color palette, young adults can live a modern-day hippie experience, ecotravelers will be attracted to an immersion in nature and Laotian culture, trekking and cycling enthusiasts will find a large selection of travel itineraries through mountainous land, and finally, those who aspire to discover the Buddhist spiritual life can experience it during a stay with monks.

Whichever choice is made, no one leaves Laos without crossing paths with elephants for a few hours or a few days… resulting in guaranteed satisfaction and smiles.

A golden and sophisticated city

Every morning at six, hundreds of monks of all ages descend on the streets of Luang Prabang to receive their daily ration of rice offered by residents and tourists. The warm saffron color of their outfits in the changing light of the early morning provides a striking image and lends an even more poignant sense of community.

The former royal capital Luang Prabang is the cultural and spiritual capital of Laos. It is also  where Buddhist monks who come from all over the country are trained.  In the city itself there are more than 32 temples, the most spectacular one being the Vat Xieng Thong, and in the surrounding area more than one hundred others can be seen, making it the holiest Buddhist site in all of Asia.

Because of its holy nature and its architecture, Luang Prabang is a UNESCO world heritage city, implying that all renovations and new constructions are strictly regulated. The architecture of the temples is indeed unique with long pleated roofs descending in soft curves close to the ground, golden indentations and shining colored mosaics.  The architecture of the houses is French colonial influenced by traditional Laotian culture.  Even commercial advertising is regulated and is kept in a cohesive style: golden letters on mahogany. 

The main street, Sisavang Vong Avenue, has everything that you would find in a chic and relaxing seaside destination:  restaurants and cafés, some with a terrace overlooking the Mekong, European style wine bars and art and handicraft galleries.  In a lovely Italian café, where we were served excellent fresh pasta with smoked salmon, the owner goes as far as putting a natural stone in the shape of a heart on our note to keep it from being blown away by the wind. This gesture is so nice you are almost happy to pay the bill and to leave a tip, even though tipping is not required in Laos.

In the surrounding area where you find more upscale residences, you will see well-maintained old American or European cars: family inheritances left by kings who received them as gifts from visiting heads of state.

In the heart of Luang Prabang, after ascending 100 meters of stairs up Mount Phou Si, you will be rewarded with a stunning view of the city and another opportunity to share your deepest wish with Buddha and to meet the Buddha of your day of birth, whose personality is centered around peace, the mind, teaching or prevention, for example, and is supposed to permeate your entire life.  To get this sacred reward, all you have to do is go down the other side of the mountain, which also provides another opportunity to gain an everlasting visual memory of the city.

In front of Mount Phou SI is the Royal Palace, a museum you have to visit. Apart from the traditional artifacts of the permanent collection, a visit to the king’s apartment teaches us many things about him, his wife’s, and his son’s lives and their different personalities.  It is a powerful yet respectful insight that allows you to understand the union of the spiritual tradition with the day-to-day modernity of their lives.  Audio guides are recommended.

Gold Stupa and Gate of Triumph

In Vientiane, the modern-day capital that celebrated its 450th birthday in 2010, we were left speechless in front of the Golden Stupa (Pha That Luang Temple). Built under the reign of King Sethtathirat, it is believed to hold a relic of the Lord Buddha and is considered to be the symbol of the country. 

The impressive Patuxai or Gate of Triumph is another example of the French influence. Built on Lane Xang Boulevard in the sixties to honor those who fought in the struggle for independence, it is an Asian version of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris decorated with Buddhist figures.  It is very touching to see Laotians photographing themselves from all angles at its feet, summit and gardens. 

The cult of the elephant

Other than the Vientiane Gold Stupa, the other symbol of Laos is a triple-headed elephant beneath a parasol, which was part of the official flag of the country until 1975. It illustrates the ancient name of Laos, “Land of a Million Elephants”. Today, the elephant population is only around 50,000 as a result of successive wars and of the criminal exploitation of ivory.

However, elephants are still used in agriculture and in large construction works.  Travelers of all ages are usually very happy to meet the friendly animals.  Depending on your degree of adventurousness, you could choose to take a ride on an elephant’s back securely attached to a wooden chair, or a ride as close as possible to bareback - just like the guides do – seated on the elephant head without any form of restraint except for placing your feet behind its large ears. Sit, try to relax and even enjoy bathing with your new friend, but just remember that he has a huge trunk that he likes to fill with water and splash his back…exactly where you are sitting!

At the Elephant Park Project, along the Nam Khan River, elephant riding is done with respect to the animal and to nature: four female elephants will seduce you with their agility to go down steep slopes or to escalate the river bank.  The one we rode, named “Chocolate” was surprisingly adept at avoiding obstacles.  

It is possible to spend a night in an elephant camp, notably at the Mahout Eco Lodge.

Waterfalls and cascades, tropical trees and flowers

25 km from Luang Prabang, waters of the highest waterfall, Khuang Gi, drop 100 meters before dividing on many plateaus in cascades of a creamy turquoise. If you brought a bathing suit in your bag, a refreshing dip will be welcome before enjoying the picnic you plan to share with other tourists or Laotians on holiday.  If you would like a more private area, how about going a little deeper into the jungle? It’s possible: we saw a couple with their white-gloved private butler serving champagne and canapés on a teak table covered with a silk tablecloth… to each his own!

Another well-known waterfall is the Tad Sae, located 15 km from Luang Prabang.

Mahogany, teak, poinsettias, fig trees and bamboo grow in the lush jungle. The tentacular roots of the fig tree wrapping around the mahogany tree strangling it to death is a curiosity of nature… it’s a rough neighborhood!

Buddha Park:where "enchantment"gets its meaning

Dozens of Buddha sculptures and figurines tell different legends, messages of hope or philosophical thoughts within the Vat Xieng Khuan, known as Buddha Park.  The most notable sculpture is the enormous 40-metre-long reclined Buddha.  Another sculpture resembling a giant pumpkin has three stories representing Hell, Earth and Heaven. You can enter through its mouth and climb from hell to heaven, until you reach heaven and a terrace overlooking the park.

Sculptures of humans, animals, gods and demons of various sizes leave us in awe.  We want to see everything, understand everything and remember it all. Even though it appears to be centuries old, this green and flowery paradise, close to the Mekong River, was built in 1958 and is located 25 km from Vientiane.

The Plain of Jars: back to Iron Age

Scattered in the landscape around Phonsavanh, on the Thong Hai Hine plateau which covers 1,000 square km, are more than 300 stone jars in various heights and diameter, between one and three meters high and weighing a few hundred kilos.

Ongoing research projects are still trying to penetrate their secrets.  Initial findings suggest that the jars are associated with prehistoric burial practices of a society that lived some 2,000 years ago!

From Luang Prabang or Vientiane, you have to plan one travel day each direction on unpaved and bumpy roads to reach the site.

The venerable Mekong 

At first sight what you will notice about the Mekong is the brown color of its waters. Despite intensive agriculture, the waterside villages do not pollute the river. The color is a result of the alluvium it carries.

Even though seaside tourism is not very well developed on the banks of the Mekong, a few small white sandy beaches appeal to swimmers, who have to be careful and good swimmers.  Water can be deep just a few steps from the beach.

In the surroundings of Luang Prabang, the Mekong will bring us to the Pak Ou Caves, known to house thousands of Buddha sculptures brought there over the centuries by inhabitants as proof that their vows were fulfilled.

Here, the Mekong River’s brown waters meet the Nom Ou River blue waters; a beautiful phenomenon we observed from the terrace of the restaurant where we shared an excellent meal.

A few hours cruise in a sampan (friendship boat) allowed us to meet gold diggers.  There is a belief that gold can be found in the sand of the Mekong.  To see the men so focused on their sieves provoked memories of films we have seen on the Klondike gold rush…

A stay with the monks: meditation or experiment

Women, as well as men, are welcome to meditate at Wat Pon Phao for one day or more. It is, however, necessary to obtain a special permit from a local agency prior to the visit.  Couples, married or not, should be warned that there is no coed dormitory.

Trekking, bicycle and an immersion in nature and culture

There is a wide selection of rides for a few hours or a few days: trekking or cycling in the country or staying in welcoming villages where you can share in the local culture. It is easy to reserve on-site or in advance.  Asia Reveal Tour is one of the agencies that offers this type of service. Their guides are in great athletic shape, know the history and the land very well and can share their knowledge in both French and English. 

A guided visit will allow you to appreciate the country villages whose architecture varies based on their location in the lower, middle or high plateau and meet the villagers and their many children, all smiling and courteous.

Boutique hotels

The Seng Tawan Riverside Hotel, where we stayed in Vientiane, directly on the banks of the Mekong River, is a comfortable boutique hotel, immaculate and well decorated with colored bas-reliefs and a superb terrace offering a spectacular view of the River.  From here you can see Thailand as if it were just the other side of the street.

The morning fog pierced by rays of sun creates a quilted, calm and romantic ambiance.  The breakfast, a Western and Asian buffet, is quite delicious and a bit surprising, serving a spicy dish at seven in the morning.

A traditional spa offers a large variety of massages, including a unique one that is supposed to burn fat.  Will anyone take the opportunity to import this specialty to North America?

The Ancient Luang Prabang Hotel is very charming with a touch of modernity.  The room opens on a small balcony providing a view of the street, where life goes on, starting with the monks’ procession at six in the morning.

The staff is pleasant, handing you your key in cupped hands as though it were a precious treasure. It is after all a precious gift, considering how well you will feel in the calm and luxurious décor.  Quite impossible to forget your room number here: there are none! The rooms are identified by astrological signs such as dog, rooster and rabbit.

Silk, saa, silver and wood

Since tourism is such an important industry in Laos, there are many handicraft sellers.  Silk and paper saa workshops, where everything is made by hand in front of you, are open to visitors and each step of the production or transformation of the new and useful objects is explained.

Silver jewels and beautiful pieces of exotic wood, such as service plates and salad bowls, can be found in boutiques in downtown Luang Prabang.

Women will likely want to bring back a pretty, traditional skirt made of a large cotton or silk fabric hemmed with an embroidered band.  Worn straight and falling a little above the ankle, it does wonders.

Traditional dancing and painting

In Laos, hands play a significant part of dance.  The suppleness and dexterity of men and women drawing shapes in the air with their hands is amazing and applies as well to traditional dances as to modern ones.

Traditional figures are mostly depicted in visual arts; however, we discovered contemporary artists P. Noy and Anoussa Phommamoueng, who have created their own styles inspired by cubism.

Food and drink: discovery is a euphemism

It’s quite easy to remember that Beer Lao is for beer and Lao Lao is for rice alcohol (50-proof).  If you need a fortifying tonic, there’s the cobra, scorpion or centipede rice alcohol.

Chicken, pork, beef, fish and sticky rice are favorites among tourists.  They can be served with fresh pepper soya sauce. Be careful with the peppers: they are fireworks to your palate.  A tip: if beer and rice do not succeed in putting out the fire, try cucumber… it does wonders!

A visit to the morning fresh market to smell coriander and other herbs and to witness the tremendous versatility of the natural tastes and resourcefulness of Laotians is a must.  Snails, birds, giblets, fresh and dry algae, grilled insects, small crabs, ducks and other foods can be found still alive or prepared and ready to be cooked and savored outdoors.

A treat you’ll have to taste is a macaroon-like bite size treat made of eggs, rice and coconut milk, scallions and sugar, prepared and cooked in oil while you wait.

Fruits are abundant, mostly small and tasty bananas, melons and the so-delicious famous durian - despite its repulsive odor-the beautiful pink dragon fruit with its fresh and juicy white and black pulp, and the jujube, a small round green fruit with a flavor reminiscent of an apple and pear.

Contrary to many Asian countries, where only tea is offered, Laos serves excellent coffee in its restaurants, bakeries and cafés, such as the JOMA in Vientiane, with its modern terrace and lounge music.

In Laos, distinguishing food as organic is unnecessary since chemical products are never used to grow anything in the country, be it sugar cane, corn, peanuts or sweet potatoes.

A rush of adrenaline

Residents and tourists will find many opportunities to experience a rush of adrenaline and excitement.

The Laotian New Year is in mid-April. Buddhas are brought outside the temples to be cleaned on altars with perfumed water coming from nagas. The believers then bring this water home to use on their friends, purifying them for the New Year. Since April is the hottest month of the year, no doubt it’s much appreciated!  Elephants are also out on the streets in a noisy procession.

The Boat Festival on the Mekong River is held in Vientiane, in mid-October, after a three-month fasting period by the monks. At night, the river shines with hundreds of small boats decorated with flowers, incense and candles.

Technology? Yes...

Wi-Fi is omnipresent in Laos, in cafes, hotels and in the many karaoke bars. Fortunately, since residents get up early and begin work at daybreak, the speakers go silent around eleven at night, ending the lyrical impulses of karaoke fans and allowing the residents at neighboring hotels to get a peaceful sleep.

The huge Vientiane covered market competes with any American shopping mall as to the number of electronic appliance and mobile phone stores. It’s stunning!

Very reasonable prices

Laos is an economical destination for Westerners.  Once the airline ticket is paid, the cost of living and local transportation are more than reasonable… even if you have to replace a dollar by millions of kips!

A long trip

Travelling from Canada, we had to board four different flights:  Montréal-Chicago-Tokyo-Bangkok-Vientiane. Quite a trip! However, airlines (United Airlines, Japan Airlines and Lao Airlines), transfers, airports and their services were all very efficient.

Japan Airlines should be applauded for the extreme kindness of its personnel, the space in the airplane, even in economy, the quality of the food and even the livevideo for takeoff and landing. Very exciting for those who do not suffer from the fear of flying, of course!

The virtues of simplicity

Once at our destination, we were happy to not see any big busses of tourists.  Everything is on a smaller scale.  Travelers use small vans with drivers and guides, all very attentive and experienced. Amusing colored touks-touks - motorcycles equipped with a platform, a bench seat and a roof - offer individual or collective taxis.  For $2 or $3, they drive you safely to wherever you want to go!

An even bigger eye opener

Six or seven days should be enough for most tourists to get a good overview of Laos’ main points of interests, Vientiane, the Plain of Jars and Luang Prabang.

Traveling to countries so distant from our own could include a tour combining three destinations in three weeks. For example: Cambodia-Laos-Yunnan or Vietnam-Cambodia-Laos.


Sylvie Berthiaume

Translation: Christiane Théberge

Our thanks to Voyages Circuit Oriental and its partners in Laos who paid for local transportation, guides, hotels and visits.


The Pha That Luang in Vientiane

Nägas, legendary cobras

Early morning in Luang Prabang

European cafe in Luang Prabang

Mount Phou Si

A ride on an elephant's back

Patuxaï, Gate of Triumph

Khuang Gi waterfall

Buddha Park

Plain of Jars

Pak Ou Caves

Wat Pon Phao

View on the Mekong, Seng Tawan Riverside Hotel terrace

Laotian hats

At the market

Cobra rice alcohol

Touk touk