A Hidden Heaven in Paksong

A Hidden Heaven in Paksong 

By Patithin Phetmeuangphuan

Welcoming Visit Laos Year 2018, Vientiane Times is publishing a series of feature articles and images inviting you to experience the authentic nature, culture, history and hospitality of Laos, Jewel of the Mekong.

If you want a true taste of heaven in this world, it can be found in the south of Laos in Nongluang village among the hills of Pakxong district in Champassak province.

A day-and-night camp out organised by the local community will take you to earthly perfection at Lan Yai, atop the Bolaven plateau.
This is still a hidden place and few people know about it. But I was really lucky as I found out about it when I visited a friend’s house and fell into conversation with a tour guide.

This viewpoint provides a great view of waterfalls and a sea of fog.

So last weekend I and four local friends visited the place for the first time. I was amazed that my friends lived so close but had never been there before.

The tour guide said it would take about 90 minutes to get there but in the end it took almost three hours because we took our time observing our surroundings and taking photos.

It turned out to be quite a long way but I didn’t get tired and didn’t feel like I was trekking through high hills. But we made lots of stops, especially when we came to a river in the woods.

When we arrived at the top, all of us were very excited because it was so beautiful and there were wild flowers growing, even though at this time of the year most are long gone.

One of our tour guides had prepared a camp site for us. He told us the hills were particularly beautiful in the rainy season because of all the different coloured flowers and that was the best time to visit.

After we sorted out our camping arrangements, the guide led us to a big rock from where we could see three waterfalls.

We sat on the rock, playing a guitar and singing songs. The breeze from the waterfall below made us feel chilly and in the late afternoon it got even cooler as the hill in front of us became obscured by fog.

I felt that I had seen true heaven, but when the mist rolled in and covered us and the hills I really felt that I was in the kind of heaven you see depicted in films.

Later, our guide took us to another viewpoint from where we could see Vat Phou and the Mekong River in the far distance.
Although it was late in the afternoon, it didn’t get quiet as the sun sank lower in the sky because there was music in the air from the flocks of birds as they flew to their roosting places.

When I’m out and about I always look for somewhere to watch the sun setting but in my whole life I’ve never seen anywhere that offered up such a truly spectacular sunset.

The hills and the sky were on fire and were infused with every shade of red imaginable. It’s hard to convey the beauty of what I saw but I truly felt that I was in an earthly paradise.

Normally when I watch the sunset, the sky turns dark after a few minutes but here it stayed bright for longer and resembled a painting that spanned the heavens.

We stayed there for quite a while waiting for darkness to descend and getting colder and colder, and then our guide called us back to the camp.

He made a big fire close to our tents where we barbecued our evening meal. We carried on playing the guitar and singing, while sipping on some home-made whisky to warm us up.

The night didn’t become black because there was a full moon. We stopped singing when one of our guides started telling us some stories about the place and the meaning of Lan Yai.

Lan mean rock and Yai means big, which was quite appropriate given the craggy nature of our surroundings.

The area opened up to tourism a few years ago. The reason that it has few visitors is because it doesn’t appear on any website so people only get to hear about it by word of mouth.

And tour guides don’t speak English, so most visitors come from Thailand. They love being among the flowers and seeing the incredible views.

The locals don’t pay it much attention because to them it’s a part of their everyday life.

Our guide said anyone who wants to visit Lan Yai must contact the local community first because it falls within a forest conservation area. This means visitors must be accompanied by at least two tour guides, partly to ensure their safety.

As the night progressed it got windy and the temperature dipped to around 20C. But it felt much colder and the fire wasn’t keeping us warm enough, so we went to bed early.

I woke up several times in the night and peered out at the clear sky. The moon was a brilliant white orb surrounded by clusters of bright stars. I didn’t want to close my eyes.

At around midnight I called out to my friends to see if they were sleeping well or were awake like me. We were all awake so some of us left our tents to chat and gaze up at the incredible sky which again looked like a painting.

The morning was equally wonderful. I could smell sweetcorn and sweet potato being cooked as I lay in my tent but the thing that really awoke my senses was the smell of coffee brewing.

This was hardly surprising as we were surrounded by coffee farms, for which Pakxong is famous.

Everyone drank a cup of coffee as we huddled around the fire waiting for the corn cobs and sweet potato to cook, then we walked a short way to watch the sunrise and see the colours flood back into the hills and fields.

The emerging morning and the panoramic view ensured that the coffee was the best ever and the corn cobs and sweet potato were extra tasty.

Absolutely everything about this serendipitous trip was perfect. We forged closer bonds of friendship in a stunning environment, ate good food and had friendly tour guides.

Unfortunately we couldn’t stay any longer because we had other places to visit, but we’re already discussing what we will do on our next trip as we’ll certainly be back again soon.

Originally published in The Vientiane Times