BONJOUR WORLD: Natural, pure Laos ignites the soul
When I arrive in Vientiane, Laos I know the trip is going to be interesting. The hotel, which is part of Secret Retreats picks me up in a vintage 1960 Mercedes Benz for the short ride to the first property in the capital city, Ansara Hotel. The Mercedes was once owned by the Thai Royal family, a fact that the hotel staff is happy to explain in detail.
There are other signs this is going to be an interesting trip too. For one thing, Laos is not on the typical list of traveler must-sees. That means the country is still raw with beauty and expectation.
Vientiane is not your typical capital Asian city either. In fact, it is a bit more provincial as the paperwork tells us in detail and, it is located right on the banks of the Mekong River. River cities always have good stories to tell and the people watching is like nowhere else.
From the old colonial style homes to Chinese buildings cutting in and out of Buddhist temples and busy markets, the city of half a million residents is a patchwork of all the cultures that have been through in year’s past.
I took a tour with a company called Asia Safari Laos and was very pleased at the afternoon sightseeing. When in Vientiane you will want to visit That Luang, the national monument as well as the Wat Sisaket, Wat Phra Keo and Phatouxay, which is called the Lao “Arc de Triomphe.”
A restful night led to an early morning transfer to the airport once again to fly to Ondomxay in the north of the country. From there we set off for Muang La Resort, a happy little place that was sitting perfectly poised in the middle of a mountain and river. There are 10 rooms there and a thermal spring, which makes the destination popular for locals since locals partake in the healing waters here too. I even indulged in a few spa treatments myself since in Asia the massages are so inexpensive you can’t help but get hooked on such a daily indulgence.
And while I was having my feet rubbed, my colleagues were out enjoying the taste of crickets and worms, note to self; I feel I made a better choice.
That night at dinner at Muang La we had the chance to spend the evening on a small island, which is part of the resort and the island is called La Sala. Translation; a traditional wooden building on stilts. We reached the building by a bridge leading from the resort.
It was on our first day too that we met the resident funny man, i.e. a local pet monkey the hotel managers had decided to adopt. This little guy was really more mischievous than a barrel of monkeys because I personally had the experience of him pulling up my dress and later when I told him ‘No’ he stuck his tongue out at me. Where else will you find those antics at a luxury resort?
Muang La is part of the Secret Retreats family of properties and it consists of raised rooms on stilts where guests sleep. The rooms are made using the traditional architecture from the area created by the mosaic of ethnic groups calling this part of Laos home.
Part of the mystique of this part of Laos too is the fact that the communities like the Ikhos, originating from China and the Hmong people, from the high steppes of Tibet live very isolated existences where village shamans still have much control. And, while it is not on my menu, rats and dogs are still easily on the menu for dinnertime cuisine. At one point we stopped in a tiny local market and saw dead rats and all manner of insects and bugs for the daily meal. While it is not for me to say what constitutes a good meal outside of my own culture, I just could not bring myself to eat some of these delicacies. Of course, rice is also a popular staple since the area is surrounded by terraced rice-fields.
In the actual village of Muang La near the resort the main draw is the large Buddhist Temple – Chiao Pha Kham Sing. Since it was a full moon on one of the nights we were there we spent that evening taking part in a Buddhist full moon ceremony. I have been to a number of Buddhist ceremonies in my life, but this one was more gracious than most. First, we circled the temple the appropriate number of times with candles and at the end of the night we lit paper lanterns sending our wishes with the lanterns into the night sky.
For our final night in Muang La we were invited into the home of a village resident for a Baci ceremony. This ceremony is very special taking from the animist belief that is still strong in Laos. In fact, I was told there are no missionaries in Laos, they are not allowed. Due to this the Laotian people have had the good luck of being able to keep their own culture and religion strongly intact.
The Baci ceremony is performed with the people believing all humans have 32 souls, one for each of the 32 parts of the body. These souls have the tendency to escape and risk being eaten by evil spirits, which can cause bad luck and illness. Due to this, it is important to call back the soul to the body by the Baci Ceremony also known as the Ceremony to welcome the souls. Friends and family gather in the home where there is an altar decorated with strands of cotton that represent the ties with the spirit world. The altar also has a variety of cakes and fruits, alcohol, incense and candles set on it in order to encourage the soul to return. A shaman or wise man from the village leads the ceremony and lights four candles that are on the top of the altar. Rituals and meditations commence as the elder tells the souls to return to the body enticing the souls with the goodies on the altar. The people having the ceremony done for them, in this case me, make a wish and then have the cotton bracelet tied around the wrists in an attempt to stop the lost souls from leaving the body again. I wore my cotton bracelets for some time, but eventually they fell off my wrist so my souls may or may not still be completely intact as of this writing.
I also noticed in many of the villages we visited that the children wore protective talismans around their necks and in some of the villages women still go topless.
One day we took a drive in the four-wheel vehicle to several villages discovering stunning views, but a few surprises along the way. At one point we stopped at a village that had what was called a spirit gate leading into it. It was here that I learned about the fact that each year the locals kill a dog, usually black, and hang his head on the gate for protection of the village. The front legs of the dog are also hung on each side of the gate. Over time this all rots and then the next festival rolls around and another dog chosen to be sacrificed to protect the village.
After a few days in Muang La it was time for our next encounter and so, we headed to the one-time royal capital of Laos called Luang Prabang.
Taking a river cruise on the way via the Nam Ou River, we began in the town of Muang Khua where we boarded the boat and had the chance to see isolated villages, limestone cliffs rising off the riverbanks, finally ending our evening at the Secret Retreat property Satri House.
Satri House is actually a former residence of Prince Souphanouvong and was built in the early 1900-century and refurbished in 2002 offering a true Laos culture still intact today.
Dinner that evening was at L’Elephant Restaurant where the menu featured gourmet local items set in a colonial townhouse right in the heart of Luang Prabang’s famous peninsula.
The highlight of any trip to Luang Prabang is the alms giving ceremony that travelers often think of when Laos comes to mind. Those who want to give alms to the monks in the city must get up early and be at the old part of the city by 5:30 a.m. where the local monks pass daily receiving donations of rice from the local people.
Other musts in Luang Prabang include the night market and Mount Phou Si with 328 steps. The National Museum is a must in this city too and there are three temples not to miss; Xiengthong temple, Vat Mai temple and Visounnarath temple and you can take a tuk tuk (small motorized vehicle) to get anywhere in the city cheap and fast.
My colleague and I found a good stop that quickly became our home away from home for several days in Luang Prabang, having feet massages. These were, in fact, more medical than relaxing since the Asian women know exactly how to work all the toxins out of a person’s system and they have no mercy when it comes to pain.
Overall, the Secret Retreats properties offered a nice look at several properties in Laos that are keeping the traditions of the country while promising guests an intensive and action-filled adventure where luxury, history and culture gracefully intercept.
For more information and to book a Secret Retreats property in Laos visit www.secretretreats.com.