A Landscape Painter Visits Southeast Asia: Part 3-Laos

Flood Plains, Mekong River, Luang Prabang, Laos, 5 x 9 in. or 12.5 x22.5 cm., oil

In 2010, I embarked on a fantastic four-month painting tour of Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia as well as Malaysia and (very briefly) Myanmar.

The narrative of this trip is broken up into 4 articles seen at the links below:

If your time is limited, I think that the Laos and Cambodia articles are the most interesting.

You can see just all the artwork here:

Luang Prabang, Laos

Mekong River, Luang Prabang, 7 x 7 or 18 x 18 cm., oil.
Mekong River, Luang Prabang, 7 x 7 or 18 x 18 cm., oil.

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 on the Mekong River

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. In 2010, I think the New York times chose it as one of it’s top destinations. As one can imagine, it was also more touristy, but that was relative, so still not that busy.

Door Gaurdian, Luang Prabang, Laos, 5 x 9 or 13 x 24 cm., oil.
Door Gaurdian, Luang Prabang, Laos, 5 x 9 or 13 x 24 cm., oil.

Above is a statue of a warrior on the grounds of a Buddhist wat in Luang Prabang. These are called “dvarapala, “ and are typically placed outside temples or palaces in southern Asia to serve as protectors. They are found in Buddhist, Hindu, and Jaina cultures. The temples also serve as monasteries, and there’s always lots of monks  around. Typically, one son from every family serves at least one year as a monk. If they stay longer, it’s often because they receive an education, sometimes training in English. Most Buddhist monks will not stay for their entire lives. All this I was told by a young monk who spoke fluent English that I met in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

Inside a temple or museum in Luang Pabang, Laos

It also was deliciously cool in northern Laos – not cold mind you, but pleasant. This was also the season for slash and burn agriculture so it was also very smoky.

Buddhist Wat Blooming, Luang Prabang, Laos, 7 x 7 or 18 x 18 cm., oil.
Buddhist Wat Blooming, Luang Prabang, Laos, 7 x 7 or 18 x 18 cm., oil.

I ended up spending about 10 days here and did a lot of painting. It was also a nice gastronomic change because in Laos they have great coffee and bread, thanks to the French history here.

On the grounds of a Wat in Luang Prabang. Not sure what these houses are?

Highlights are the boats along the Mekong, Wat Xieng Thong and just the general ambience. I met a lot of terrific travelers here and interacted with many young monks.

Wat Gates, Luang Prabang, Laos, 5 x 7 or 13 x 18 cm., oil.
Wat Gates, Luang Prabang, Laos, 5 x 7 or 13 x 18 cm., oil.

One of the oddest things that tourists did in Luang Prabang, was to make offerings to a morning procession of Buddhist monks. One would go down to a particular avenue, early in the day, and either bring, or purchase food from the vendors that were there to sell it to you. I did it once, and felt very uncomfortable, and most of the monks refused my offerings.

Main street, Luang Prabang

And they were right, there was no piety, no belief coming from me that day. It occurred to me later that the monks knew what I was giving them from the wrapping, and didn’t like it. Perhaps because the vendor was selling a substandard product? My mistake was perhaps buying from the vendors in the first place. The real idea is to give something that you’ve prepared yourself. The morning I was there. I think I was the only tourist. But apparently in the intervening years, it’s become quite a bit more hectic. An educational experience.

Inside a temple or museum in Luang Pabang, Laos

Luang Prabang is the former religious and government capital of Laos, but lost that designation after the takeover by the Pathet Lao (the communists)in 1975. It’s a very lovely city to walk around in, and I spent about 10 days there

Buddhist Wat, Luang Prabang, Laos, 7 x 7 or 18 x 18 cm., oil.
Buddhist Wat, Luang Prabang, Laos, 7 x 7 or 18 x 18 cm., oil.

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 aggressive sales pitches one receives in Thailand and Cambodia, it was truly relaxing.

Young Buddhist Monks watching Stephan Giannini paint in Luang Prabang, Laos

Luang Prabang is filled with Buddhist Wats and monks. The monks are often teenagers who are only temporarily fulfilling family religious obligations, sometimes for a few years, but also 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!

Flood Plains, Mekong River, Luang Prabang, Laos, 5 x 9 in. or 12.5 x22.5 cm., oil
Flood Plains, Mekong River, Luang Prabang, Laos, 5 x 9 in. or 12.5 x22.5 cm., oil

Mostly they were very nice and often well educated, speaking English. English as a second language was much more common in Laos and Cambodia then in Thailand. This is probably because of the poverty here – many more NGO’s are here helping out and giving English lessons.

Art conservators working in the National Museum in Luang Prabang

While there, I stopped by the National Museum, which was the old palace for the Laotian royalty. Some very nice murals and mosaic work were in evidence. Especially interesting was some art conservators I met from Japan who were working with locals on the restoration of old wooden Buddha’s. A sad note is that a survey was made in Luang Prabang province about 10 years ago of these Buddha statues. And since then about 100 of the 1100 in the survey have disappeared. Plans were afoot to implant the remainder of them with microchips.

In the suburbs of Luang Prabang, Laos 5 x 7′, or13 x 18 cm. o
Wat Chomphet, on the other side of the Mekong river from Luang Prabang

I saw a lot of old religious buildings with art desperately in need of restoration, and wish I had the funds and logistics to help out (some of you may know that I sometimes work in art restoration).

The night market in Luang Prabang

The night market is where I bought my dinner most nights. One night with my guest house co-conspirators, we bought some Lao-Lao there, which is rice whiskey. Very cheap and a serious hangover. But also a bottle full of laughter!

The shore of the Mekong river at Luang Parabang

I had fun in the evenings, hanging out at the guest house, drinking beer and meeting people from all over. It was a great time in Luang Prabang, but it got better!

House boats in Luang Prabang
Ferries to cross the Mekong river in Luang Prabang

Nong Khiaw

The Town of Luang Prabang is near the intersection of the Mekong and Nam Ou rivers. At several other travelers’ suggestion I took a 7-hour boat ride up the Nam Ou River to the town of Nong Khiaw.

On the boat to 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.

Fisherman along the Nam Ou river in Laos

The boat ride was extremely scenic with towering cliffs and fisherman at work for the whole trip. The haze you see is actually smoke from slash and burn agriculture.

Panning for gold in the Nam Ou river, Laos, 2010

An unexpected bonus was watching locals pan for gold, which is something they do in the dry season when the rivers are low.

Jungle villages along the Nam Ou river, Laos.

Nong Khiaw is a well-located town amidst beautiful surroundings, but very small. Unfortunately the boat no longer runs, so you have to take a bus to Nong Khiaw, since the building of a dam.

View from the bridge in Nong Khiaw, Laos

I actually made two stops in Nong Khiaw for a few days each. The first time alone, and then on the way back to Thailand with some new friends.

Nong Khiaw, Laos, 7 x 7 " or 18 x 18 cm., oil
Nong Khiaw, Laos, 7 x 7 ” or 18 x 18 cm., oil
The children hamming it up. My constant companions everywhere I painted.
Nam Ou River Near Nong Khiaw, Laos 4 x 8 in., 10 x 20 cm.
Nam Ou River Near Nong Khiaw, Laos 4 x 8 in., 10 x 20 cm.
Nong Khiaw, Laos
Near Nong Khiaw, Laos 5 x 9" or 13 x 23 cm., oil
Near Nong Khiaw, Laos 5 x 9″ or 13 x 23 cm., oil
Bicycling with new friends in Laos

The second time was with some new friends and we rented bicycles one day.

Fields near Nong Khiaw, Laos, 7 x 7″,’oil.
Laotian Hills

Muang Ngoi Neua

After a few days I took another short boat ride up the Nam Ou to an even more beautiful and remote town without any road access, Muang Ngoi Neua .

Crowded into the Muang Ngoi Neua river ferry.
Beach party at Muang Ngoi Neua on the Nam Ou river, Laos

Here I had a really great view of the river from my bungalow balcony. I did a few paintings and there was a nice beach.

Nam Ou River Near Muan Ngoy, Laos, 7 x 7 " or 18 x 18cm.,oil
Nam Ou River Near Muang Ngoi Neua Laos, 7 x 7 ” or 18 x 18cm.,oil

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 for a group of young Lao men, and well, those Lao can drink!

The weaving village we visited, probably Bon Sopjam
A loom in the Laotian weaving village of Bon Sopjam
The party starts! The log is full of Lao-Lao, or rice whiskey.

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 were on our way back to the town where we had the chicken cooked by our friends’ sister.

Digesting dinner after our game of spin the chicken head. The man on the right spoke good english and was our guide. The woman on the right was one of the few Americans I met in Laos. Her name evades me, but I remember she had a shop in Marfa, Texas.

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).

Nam Ou River Near Muan Ngoy, Laos, 4 x 7" or 10 x 18cm.
Nam Ou River Near Muang Ngoi Neua, Laos, 4 x 7″ or 10 x 18cm.

One of the fun things that I did when I was in Muang Ngoi Neua was going on a tubing excursion with a couple friends. This is quite popular in Laos, although much more in the south where it’s a bit of a drunken and dangerous spree. Here it was just a few of us with no alcohol.

Tubing in Laos. (Image courtesy of Lauren Pears).

We rented our inner tubes and got a lift a few miles up the river where we would be able to head back towards town. It was an amazingly beautiful warm day, the river was like bath water, I was with good people, also beautiful women, and we started to gently float down the river. I don’t know quite how they managed it, but my friends had some pot, and they took it out and started passing around a joint, which I declined (because I don’t like pot). And suddenly as we were floating, a motor powered riverboat came by with huge speakers that was blasting the 1960s American musical band the Doors. My head was spinning with a déjà vu moment from the movie Apocalypse Now! It’s an incredible memory!

Some friends I met and hung around with for a week or two. Eventually we split up because I think they went to southern China. That’s me on the far right, and Darshna, Mandy, and Or. Darshna was English and the other two split their lives between Isreal and England.

I should say something about making friends on the road while traveling. This was easy everywhere (although it didn’t seem to happen much in Thailand). You met fellow travelers at a guest house or tourist attractions. A lot of people would come up to me when I was painting and talk, so it made me popular because I was doing something a little out of the ordinary, a little more interesting.

But of course my new friends, some of whom I hung out with every day for a week, just eventually parted ways. Usually one or the other of us was going somewhere new. And for the most part I don’t even remember their names. But we shared some terrific experiences.

Vat Ban Luang Khon Temple in Luang Nam Tha, Laos

Luan Nam Tha

We left Muang Ngoi for a few days in Nong Khiaw, and then I think the four of us headed up to Luan Nam Tha , a mountain town near the Chinese border in Laos that had a good reputation as a jumping off point for trekking tee hill tribes.

The only thing of note we did was renting bicycles and ride around.

Statues at Vat Ban Luang Khon Temple in Luang Nam Tha, Laos

There were some beautiful rustic villages. Although, it was always clear to me the people who lived in these wooden houses up on stilts without electricity or indoor plumbing, would’ve much preferred to be in a modern apartment with all the conveniences that we take for granted in the west.

Bike riding around Luang Nam Tha

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.

Now it was time to return Thailand.

Map of my Indochina trip.

Published by Stephan Giannini

An oil painter from Maine, USA.

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