Arrive Pakse. Those on group flights will arrive mid-afternoon and transfer to our stunning guesthouse for the night. Perched high on the Bolaven Plateau, the resort rests on top of a 200 metre gorge which the twin falls of Tad Fane plummet into making an overnight stay in this beautiful location a wonderful start to our trip.
We transfer today to Don Khong, the largest of the 4000 or so islands in the Si Phan Don archipelago located in the mighty Mekong River. The former President of Laos, Khamtai Siphandon, has a residence on the island which is noted for its natural beauty. The best way to explore the island is by bike so this afternoon we travel as the locals do, that is, on two wheels. The roads are largely flat and quiet and our ride gives us an insight into local life as we pass grazing buffalos and farmers tending to their rice crops. Don Khong offers a great insight into rural Laos where save for a smattering of cars and electricity time feels as though it has stood still for much of this island. Cycling: approx 2 hours.
Today we take a day tour through the Four Thousand Islands. Our destination is Don Det, where we see the remnants of a French railway locomotive. The French had moved into Laos hoping to open a trade route to China via the Mekong River. After surveying the river they discovered a number of areas where the river was impassable due to waterfalls, including those in the Si Phan Don area. To get around the falls the French built a railway to carry goods (including entire boats!) around the waterfalls. They later developed plans for a railway network to link southern China with Saigon and Phnom Penh, however the railway on Don Det was the only one ever built in Laos. Following our visit to Don Det we head back up river to meet with our private minivan for the journey back to Pakse. En route we will stop at Pha Paeng Falls, the largest waterfall in the Si Pan Don region and sometimes referred to as the 'Niagara of South East Asia'.
Leaving Pakse behind we start our journey towards Savanakhet. Today is a long journey however we will break the journey with a stop at Wat Phu. Known locally as the 'temple on the mountain' Wat Phu is one of the oldest archaeological sites in Laos. This striking collection of Khmer ruins date from the 5th to the 15th century and is a UNESCO World Heritage site. We will also have the opportunity to stop for lunch and sample some of the local Laotian cuisine; a popular snack, Kaipen, is made of freshwater green algae, peppered with sesame seeds and sundried into paper-thin sheets and is usually readily available.
We meet a local guide this morning and transfer by tuk tuk to the Dong Na Tad Forest. We stop en route at a salt mine where we learn about the raw working of this natural mineral and the ancient methods of extraction that are still being used. Upon arrival at Dong Na Tad Forest we start our trek along the Honey Trail heading towards the lovely Nong Lom Lake. Our guide explains the villagers' relationship with the towering emerald forest and waterways. We pause to enjoy a typical lunch and listen further to the traditional legend of the lake. Your guide may request that you join him in collecting wild herbs to use for the lunchtime feast. After lunch we continue walking to the village of Ban Tat and visit the Tat Ing Hang Stupa gaining an understanding into Buddhist culture. Continuing our trek we reach Ban Phonsim and visit the ancient ruins and old city walls of Muang Kao, the historic birthplace of Savanakhet's lowland Laos and home to 400-year-old mango trees. Hopping back aboard a tuk tuk we make our way back to our hotel in Savanakhet. Walking approx 4 hours.
After breakfast we transfer to the Kammouan province for our next stop, Kong Lor. We will have the afternoon to relax and settle into the calm and slow Laos way of life. Our lodge for the next two nights is situated near the Hinboun river bank and right next to the Houay Say creek with clear water providing the perfect opportunity for a refreshing swim.
Today we board a traditional long tail boat and travel a couple of kilometres up stream to get to the famous Kong Lor cave complex. This amazing 7.5km long limestone cave is the grandest cave in Laos with some alcoves towering at 70-80m height. Following the river that snakes through the caves we marvel at the dramatic stalagmites, stalactites and sheer columns that weave their way through the strands of daylight at either end of the cave. After our boat journey we board our private bus for our journey to the capital city of Vientiane, a far cry from the remote rural Laos we have become accustomed to.
The capital Vientiane and our hotel are located near the banks of the Mekong River. The name of the city translates as Sandalwood City with sandalwood being a national symbol. We take an afternoon sightseeing tour of this relaxed low-rise city including visits to Wat Sisaket and Haw Pha Kaew. The temples themselves are noticeably different in style and character from those found in Thailand and there are certainly fewer tourists! In the evening the perfect option is to retire for a refreshing beverage and watch the sunset over the Mekong River.
This morning we take a flight to Phonsavan, the home of the archeological mystery that is the Plain of Jars. This megalithic archaeological landscape is made up of vast stone jars that are scattered in the landscape of the Xieng Khouang plateau. These stone jars appear in clusters, ranging from a single or a few to several hundred jars at lower foothills surrounding the central plain and upland valleys. It is said that these jars are over 2000 years old, but there is no reliable way of dating them and archaeologists are still mystified as to their original purpose (opinions vary from burial urns to rice whisky vats). We spend the afternoon exploring the first Plain of Jars site.
Early morning, we transfer out to a hill tribe market where we can learn about local fruits, vegetables and produce, most of it likely new to the eye! We will also visit a traditional Hmong hill tribe village, not far from the morning market, to learn about their authentic way of life. The Hmong hill tribe have an interesting local culture, a colourful history and traditionally wear distinctive bright costumes. We may also see some of the remains of the B-52 bombs that villagers now use to structure their houses and fences. As of 2008, Laos was the most heavily bombed country, per capita, in the world. An average of one B-52 bomb-load was dropped on Laos every eight minutes, 24-hours-a-day, between 1964 and 1973 and there are stark reminders in the Phonsavan province. We spend the afternoon exploring the second Plain of Jars site learning more about this mysterious architectural wonder.
Today we continue our journey north as we transfer to the enchanting town of Luang Prabang. Nestled in a narrow valley cut by the Mekong and Khan Rivers, this beautiful town was designated a World Heritage site in 1995. The afternoon is free to explore the town and stroll amongst the ancient red roofed temples and French colonial architecture. There's also a number of interesting temples to visit including Wat Xieng Thong and Wat Wisunalat.
After an early breakfast we will visit Phu Si Hill for stunning views over the city and the Mekong river below. The climb includes 329 steps and the path zigzags its way to the gilded stupa at the summit past various temples. After the climb we will visit The Traditional Arts and Ethnology Centre. In the afternoon we head out to the Kwang Si Waterfall where we arrive at the crystal clear pools. Walking through a forest trail we explore the various tiers of these striking waterfalls and have the opportunity to swim or simply relax by the pools admiring the stunning turquoise water. Luang Prabang is also a centre for markets in the region and there are many opportunities for the souvenir hunter to gather a few special items. The night market is not to be missed! For those up at dawn there is chance to witness the daily parade of saffron-robed monks receiving alms. Well worth the early rise the parade reminds us of the importance of Buddhism to many of the Laotian population.
This morning we board our private long tail boat for a journey up the Mekong River gaining more insights into local rural life along the way. Our destination is Pak Ou (meaning 'mouth of the Ou River') where the famous Tam Ting Cave houses thousands of Buddha images of various shapes and sizes, all brought there by devoted villagers. We also stop at the village of Ban Sang Hai, where villagers make a potent local rice-wine, only the brave will sample! We have some free time this afternoon to further explore this sleepy riverside town. You may like to visit the Ock Pop Tok Living Crafts centre, situated a couple of kilometres out of Luang Prabang it is a great opportunity to learn about Lao textiles and crafts. You can meet traditional silk weavers, craft artisans or you may just like to relax by the riverside with some gourmet Laotian lunch. Alternatively you could visit the Big Brother Mouse project and shop, a great initiative that works in providing books and reading programmes to local children in secluded villages.
Free time, depart Luang Prabang.