Golden wats and fried moss: photos from Laos

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Guardian photog Ariel Soto travelled to Thailand and Laos over the holidays -- here's her pictorial impressions. View her pics from Bangkok, part one of this three-part photo-essay, here.

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Wat Xieng Thong in Luang Prabang, Laos

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Cruising down the streets of Luang Prabang, Laos

From soupy Bangkok we flew to Luang Prabang, Laos, a world heritage site and a city with a wat on almost every other block. It is located along the beautiful Mekong river and much of the culture revolves around the river. It is where people bathe, wash their clothes and, along which, they grow their food (much of which is farmed organically.)

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Schoolmates looking out over the Mekong river in Luang Prabang

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Novice monks taking a break from classes in Luang Prabang

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A typical street in Luang Prabang

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A fruit stand at the night market in Luang Prabang

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A textile weaver at the Hmong night market in Luang Prabang

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Fried river moss, a delicacy served at all the restaurants in Luang Prabang

From Luang Prabang we traveled north by boat up the Mekong and Nam Ou river to a small town called Nong Khiaw, located in a mystical looking valley, that filled with a thick fog every morning. Our first day there we just walked around town, eating at little restaurants people set up on their front porches and admiring the beautiful children that were everywhere.

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A boat ride up the Mekong and Nam Ou River

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A family bathing and washing clothes along the Nam Ou River

What was startling to notice was the lack of old people, especially old men. Laos is the most bombed country on earth. During the Vietnam war, the United States dropped an average of one B-52 bomb-load every eight minutes, 24 hours a day, from 1964 to 1973 on Laos. I was in one of the most beautiful places I've ever been to, surrounded by incredibly friendly, honest and beautiful people and I found myself wanting to cry almost everyday.

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The bridge that connects the two sides of the town of Nong Khiaw

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Nong Khiaw

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Nong Khiaw

Beyond the lack of elders, there were other lasting signs of the devastation: people missing limbs and planters made out of bombshells. But overall, everyone looked well-fed and genuinely happy. Even though Laotians work long hours, they do so at a comfortable pace and many of them spend that time working with their families.

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Children in the mountain village of Banphayong

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Banphayong

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Blessing of rice wine during the Hmong New Years celebration in the village of Banphayong

A highlight of Laos was a trek we took to remote mountain villages, crossing rivers and walking through leech infested jungles (eww!) to get to them. We were able to participate in a Hmong New Year's feast and laughed with the villagers when our guide, Kumla, translated that I was sitting like a man ... women sit sort of side-saddle on the floor and men sit criss-cross, apple-sauce.

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Banphayong

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Banphayong

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Banphayong