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The Captain's Choice — Laos

Thursday, May 29, 2008
Last week, Getaway showed the first leg of a trip with the Captain's Choice, a family-owned and operated company, established in 1994. They offer tours throughout Europe, Asia, Africa, Central and South America. Tours are all-inclusive, luxurious, personalised and go to exotic and remote destinations.

The services of local tour operators and guides are used at each destination, which gives tourists invaluable knowledge and experiences, while also helping the local economy. As a way of repaying communities for their participation, the Captain's Choice supports a variety of charities in some of the countries they visit.

A tour escort team is with you all the way, ensuring everything goes smoothly. They look after luggage and boarding passes (so minimal time is spent at airports) and, where possible, customs and immigration clearances. An English-speaking tour doctor also travels with the group.

The first leg of the journey was in Thailand. This week we visit Laos, officially the Lao People's Democratic Republic.

Laos is landlocked and bordered by Burma, China, Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand. Its history is traced to the Kingdom of Lan Xang, Land of a Million Elephants, which ruled between the 14th and 18th centuries. After a long period as a French protectorate, it gained independence in 1949.

A long civil war ended when the communist Pathet Lao movement came into power in 1975, but protesting between factions continued for many years. It bears the dubious distinction of being history's most bombed country.

While Laos' economy and political freedoms are ranked among the lowest in the world; foreign aid, private enterprise, tourism and its charming people are slowly improving life there and growing the economy. Tourism has created some inevitable changes in Laos, but not to the point where visitors miss out on its authentic traditions.

An option on the tour is a four-day cruise down the Mekong on the RV Mekong Sun, which was built in 2005 and designed to navigate the shallow waters of the Laotian stretch of the Mekong. The charming vessel has 15 cabins and carries a maximum of 29 passengers and a crew of 17. The vessel has two decks, and its teakwood and mahogany cabins all face outside and have private balconies. They are air-conditioned and have ensuite facilities. The large sun deck has comfortable chairs and a restaurant and bar that serves Asian and European food.

A highlight of that trip is a visit to the sacred Pak Ou Caves, just north of Luang Prabang. Accessible only by boat, the caves are set in limestone cliffs and, over the centuries, have been filled with Buddha sculptures. There are thousands of them, deposited by locals and pilgrims, laid out on wall shelves and across the floors. Some are just a few centimetres tall, others are metres high. Most are wooden, but many other materials have been used.

Those who take their Buddha statues to the caves believe they will be helped into Nirvana, their heaven. The best time to take them is in April, coinciding with the Laotian new year, as that means extra special good luck.

Luang Prabang was the imperial capital of the Kingdom of Lang Chang before it was known as Laos. The World Heritage city is perched high above the confluence of the Nam Khan and Mekong rivers. It is encircled by mountains and the well-preserved townscape is a fascinating mix of French provincial architecture and gleaming temple roofs.

Even though Laos gained independence from France in 1949, the French legacy remains. Beautiful shutters on buildings, croissants, baguettes and great shopping are evidence of French occupation.

Its 32 temples are occupied by Buddhist monks and novices, and for centuries they've walked a dawn ritual through the city to receive their only meal of the day. You'll also see Hmoung, Mein and Thai tribal people walking to and from the markets.

As night falls and the markets get into full swing, the town takes on a busy atmosphere. There are fascinating bargains to be had — everything from embroidered handbags to wall hangings, all hand made by local hill tribes.

Another advantage of being on a Captain's Choice Tour is that you aren't as limited with the amount of luggage you can take compared to regular commercial flights — so buy up big, but save space for Cambodia, the next stop!

Location

Laos, a landlocked country in South-East Asia.

Cost

The Captain's Choice Tour has a range of private jet tours to Asia, Africa and South America. They include business class travel, all accommodation, meals, taxes and travel insurance. They start at $29,880 per person twin share from Sydney.

Prices correct at May 29, 2008.

For further information

The Captain's Choice Tour
Level 1, 35 Seymour Street
Ringwood 3134
Toll free: 1800 622 628
Fax: (03) 8814 5799
www.captainschoice.com.au

Laos
It is recommended travellers to Laos see their doctor at least six weeks before departure as there are specific vaccinations recommended. Other health precautions and preventions may also be recommended and are best discussed with your doctor. For further information, visit www.welltogo.com.au.

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