I am a professional artist and have been lucky enough to take several long painting-focused trips. Starting In early January 2010 I embarked on a four-month painting and travel tour of the Indochina region including Cambodia as well as Laos, Thailand, Malaysia, and Myanmar.
Luang Prabang, Laos
After the heat of Cambodia, I decided that I lacked enthusiasm for a long bus ride up through the jungles of southern Laos so I opted instead for a flight from Siem Reap to Luang Prabang, Laos. Luang Prabang is one of the nicest cities in SE Asia, a combination of Buddhist temples and French colonial architecture set on the Mekong River. As one can imagine it is also very touristy, but still not that busy. It also was deliciously cool in northern Laos – not cold mind you, but pleasant. This was the season (March) for slash and burn agriculture so it was also very smoky (The constant advice on my trip from other travelers/expats was that November and December are actually the best time to visit the Indochina region).
I ended up spending about 10 days here and did a lot of painting. It was a nice gastronomic change because in Laos they have great coffee and bread, thanks to the French history. Highlights are the boats along the Mekong, Wat Xieng Thong, and just the general ambiance.
The full name of the country is the Lao PDR. Supposedly this means “People’s Democratic Republic”, but the expats will tell you it actually stands for ” please don’t rush.” In comparison to the constant sales pitches one often receives in Thailand and Cambodia it was truly relaxing.
I met a lot of terrific travelers here and interacted with many young monks. Luang Prabang is filled with Buddhist Wats and monks. The monks are often teenagers who are only temporarily fulfilling family obligations, sometimes for a few years, but often for just a few weeks. As teenage boys, they are often not very monk-like, but smoking or ogling girls, or even poking fun at me as I painted! Mostly they were very nice and often well educated, speaking English. English as a second language was much more common in Laos and Cambodia than in Thailand. This is probably because of the poverty. Many more NGO’s are in Laos helping out and giving English lessons.
While there I stopped by the National Museum, which was the old palace for the Laotian royalty. It had some very nice mural and mosaic work. Especially interesting was some art conservators I met from Japan who were working with locals on the restoration of old wooden Buddhas. A survey was made in Luang Prabang province about 10 years ago of these Buddha statues. A sad note is that since then about 100 of the 1100 in the survey have disappeared. Plans were afoot to implant the remainder of them with microchips.
The Town of Luang Prabang is near the intersection of the Mekong and Nam Ou rivers. At the suggestion of several other travelers, I took a 7-hour boat ride up the Nam Ou River to the town of Nong Khiaw. This was in a motor-driven longboat with about 10 seats that sat very high in the water. The water is low at this time of year so once we actually had to jump out and push. But the boat ride was extremely scenic with towering cliffs and fishermen at work for the whole trip. A surprise bonus was watching locals pan for gold, which is something they do in the dry season when the rivers are low. Nong Khiaw is a well-located but very small town amidst beautiful surroundings.
After a few days, I took another short boat ride up the Nam Ou to an even more beautiful and remote town, Muang Ngoy. Here I had a really great view of the river from my bungalow balcony. The is not much to do there but I did a few paintings and there was a nice beach. A highlight here was a short boat ride I took up to a weaving village with a Laotian tour guide I met. I bought a few textiles and then a woman who also accompanied us bought a live chicken for our dinner. The trip was a free tour but I had agreed to buy all the beer, and well, those Laos can drink.
On the way back we ran into a few Lao guys on boats, having a party in the middle of this stunning river with giant cliffs all around. They had a big bamboo log made into a bottle filled with Lao Lao, which is the whiskey the locals make from rice. We tried a little and then we’re on our way back to the town where we had the chicken cooked by our friends’ sister. The night ended with a game of spin the chicken head, which is a drinking game. You spin the chicken head and whoever has the beak pointing at them has to do a shot. When the booze is gone the ”winner ” has to eat the chicken head (luckily I lost).
Laos was definitely the nicest part of this trip. You really felt that the locals were happy to see you. This was not a feeling I got often in other parts of my journey.
A final note on Laos: While In Muang Ngoy I observed a team of de-miners working in the countryside to locate and neutralize old explosive mines and unexploded cluster bombs from the Vietnam War. Thousands of innocents have been killed or maimed over the years. This is a real tragedy and I encourage everyone to get involved in solving this issue. What I would like to do with the work I created on this trip is to use them as a fundraiser for a charity that is working with these issues.
Learn more about Cambodia by listening to one of our Amateur Traveler podcast episodes about Laos.