Early morning gathering of alms by monks in Luang Prabang, northern Laos Early morning gathering of alms by monks in Luang Prabang, northern Laos

Loving laid-back Laos

Remember the sleepy Asian villages of some 20 years ago? They still exist. Trish Freeman joined some Kiwi travel agents who were lucky enough to ‘step back in time’ in laid-back Laos.
Hugging the Mekong and Nam Khan Rivers, the northern resort town of Luang Prabang was the highlight of a Wendy Wu Tours-Singapore Airlines famil to the destination earlier this year.
From offering alms to the monks, cruising the Mekong, heading inland to waterfalls, sampling Mekong whisky and leisurely retail therapy at a craft village, the agents discovered that Laos caters to all travellers. Rising at dawn to see the procession of monks proved so enjoyable for Andrew Kemp, House of Travel Timaru, and Davy Chen, Flight Centre Mt Eden, that they did it again the following day, while the

peculiarities of the early morning food market attracted Heather Blackburn from helloworld Howick for a second visit.
Kemp and Chen were also attracted to climb Luang Prabang’s Mt Phousi twice – to take in the slow sunset over the Mekong and then next morning to absorb the sunrise. The around 300-step climb to the summit can be tackled two ways – a direct route starting at the night market or a more leisurely ascent through a temple and Buddhist shrines where an ‘imprint’ of Buddha’s left foot can be found.
A cruise along the Mekong to the sacred Pak Ou Caves was an opportunity for Andrew Kemp to ‘sit back and watch life on either side of the river’as well as sample local rice wine and whisky.
A visit to a craft village to observe traditional paper making and silk and cotton weaving was part of the Mekong cruise excursion.
‘It was interesting to see the cottage industry at the craft village,’ says Danielle Caldwell from helloworld Napier who was not the only person in the group to purchase an exquisite hand-woven silk scarf.
The picturesque pools at Kuang Si Waterfalls were worth the visit, but can get busy with locals and tourists alike swimming and picnicking on the weekends.
The leisurely pace of life is not restricted to the villages. The capital, Vientiane, is home to less than 800,000 people and is without the crazy traffic congestion of other Asian cities. Also pleasantly missing from

Twenty four hours in the capital
Vientiane’s markets and attractions are aggressive hawkers that visitors constantly fend off in other Southeast Asian countries.
Flight Centre Mt Eden’s Davey Chen definitely appreciated having the ‘space’ to enjoy sightseeing, indulge in his passion for photography and interact with locals without being hassled.‘Tourists want their own space and they will get this in Laos,’ he says. ‘Laos is different, it’s authentic. I like the culture, the environment, and the people.’
The best view of Vientiane is from the top of Patouxai, a massive concrete arch built in the 1950s to
commemorate Laotian casualties of war. While the architecture is inspired from France’s Arc de Triomphe, its decoration is Laotian with Buddhist mythological figurines and Hindu deities.
The capital is also home to Laos’s nation symbol – the golden Pha That Luang stupa that’s depicted on its national seal and currency. The city’s oldest surviving monastery, Wat Sisaket reportedly has 6841 Buddha statues.
Worth the 25km trip east of the city is Xiengkuane Buddha Park, not far from the Friendship Bridge that links Vientiane with the Thai city of Nong Khai. Set in a field beside the Mekong, the park contains more than 300 statues – some bizarre – of Buddha and characters of Buddhist beliefs and Hindu lore.
Laotian food got a definite thumbs up, in particular a dinner at Vientiane’s Kualao Restaurant where the group was entertained by an energetic band of musicians playing traditional instruments. As the trip wore on, Andrew Kemp and Davy Chen grew brave enough to try some Laotian staples such as buffalo meat with cooked with tripe and bile.

Worth the upsell
A day at The Bamboo Experience reminded agents that optional extras offer upselling opportunities while enhancing the travel experience for their clients. The Bamboo Experience is an optional add-on to Wendy Wu Tours’ Luang Prabang itinerary.
Just two years old, it’s the brainchild of owner Somsay Anolak who is concentrating on making the business sustainable. ‘We have local craftsmen involved with the weaving instruction and they are enjoying the interaction with tourists and improving their English.’
Guests discover Lao culture through bamboo products, activities and foods. They learn the art of Bamboo basket weaving and traditional Lao cooking using bamboo shoots as the main ingredient. They have fun with crossbow shooting, walking on bamboo stilts, pounding rice with bamboo poles, separating the rice from the husk as well as kamu bamboo dancing (skipping poles) and try their musical skills with a Hmong khen performance.
The experience runs for around five hours and the travel agents agreed it was excellent value for money.
‘I thought The Bamboo Experience was a great insight into the way of life of the Hmong people, and I never realised just how versatile bamboo is,’ says Gina Courtier, NZ Travel Brokers. Both Courtier and Danielle Caldwell from helloworld Napier would recommend it to their clients.
The workshop takes place in a countryside setting surrounded by rice fields with half day sessions from either 8.30am to 1.30pm and/or 4.30 to 9pm. Lunch or dinner is included.

Circular route with SilkAir
Singapore Airlines partnered with Wendy Wu Tours on the famil following the launch of its subsidiary SilkAir’s round-trip service to Laos last October. The agents were impressed with the Singapore - Vientiane - Luang Prabang - Singapore route, and the airline.
‘The service and food is just as good as Singapore Airlines,’ says Gina Courtier, NZ Travel Brokers.
Wendy Wu’s business development manager Lisa Anthony says the service creates an opportunity for agents to sell a new destination in Asia.‘Laos is considered to be “the new Cambodia” and I enjoyed visiting one of the few Asian countries that I’d not been to before,’ she says.