Laos

 January 2011
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The day started early with a misty fog over the river as we watched the sun rise during breakfast.  We gathered up our packs and our boxed lunches of fried rice and hiked through the dirt down to the harbor for a short ride in a long-tail canoe across the Mekong River into Laos.  Lek is not licensed to be a tour guide in communist Laos, so she became our "friend" for this part of the trip.  We had local guides throughout for tours.  Arriving across the river it was another hike up to the immigration office where we filled out visa requests.  Just getting out of that canoe wearing a pack and carrying stuff was a challenge. 

Once handing over your passport and visa request you then stand around and wait for your visa.  The immigration official holds your passport up and smacks it against the window, which hopefully you can see from where you found a place to stand elbow to elbow with 50+ other people all waiting for theirs, you then wiggle your way to the front and hand over $35 US cash and they will give you your passport back.  At no time did any of the Laos immigration officials speak to anyone.  All this from one windowed office and a small waiting room / hallway.  Its exhausting and chaotic and exciting and a bit anxiety producing all at the same time.

Once everyone accomplished this it was another songthaew ride to another harbor to board our slow boat that would take us down the Mekong River for two days.  We would cruise down the river by day and spend one night in the town of Pak Beng, the second day we would arrive in Luang Prabang at dinner time.

 

     

Our slow boat was roomy and comfortable with seats that resembled the seats of a van, a long table for lunch, all day free coffee and tea, toilet facilities and full range of beautiful and unusual scenery to occupy our days.  Lek brought many local snacks for us to try and even made chocolate drinks for us.  There were puffed rice cakes, fish, sausage, bamboo worms, sticky rice, bananas, oranges and tamarinds amongst other things.  The ride down the river was relaxing, starting out somewhat cool but warming up into a bright sunny day.  We broke out the fried rice at lunchtime and I was so full from all the snacking, Bill ended up eating both of ours. 

We puttered down the river for 8 hours, taking photos of the fisherman's nets, the water buffalo along the shore and local people going about their day, some panning for gold, fishing or working in their fields.  I had no idea that panning for gold would be a common scene on the Mekong River.

 

   

In the evening we arrived at Pak Beng where we would overnight at a guesthouse on a hill overlooking the river.  After checking in we headed out for a look around the small town, more of a village really.  The market was closing up but we did see lots of vegetables, pig skin (with hair!), fish and roasted rats for sale.  We ate dinner at a local restaurant where Lek ordered a shared appetizer of fried crickets and more worms.  Of course we all tried them  The crickets were salty, maybe a bit greasy but a nice accompaniment to a cold beer.  We also shared some Laotian whiskey with our traditional dinner of Larb, a dish of minced meat with rice and herbs.

After another early morning breakfast we donned our packs and trudged down to the boat.  We walked down the road to some steps, across some sand, over some rocks, through some water and across a plank to board the boat.  Whew, glad I got a pack for this trip instead of a roller bag.

 

      

Again their was sunshine and views of locals and water buffalo along the shore.  For this second day the boat crew cooked up a feast for our lunch.  There was curry, vegetables, fried spring rolls, chicken, fish, fried rice and fruit and candy for dessert.  It was great lunch that we all enjoyed. 

We stopped to visit B. Phon Sa Vang village and bring them the school supplies and sundries that we had picked up in Pak Beng the night before.  The village is home to about 700 people.  They live in one room raised thatch houses and have a few wells scattered around for clean water.  They fish in the river and grow vegetables.  The village is very isolated along the river and very poor.  Medical care is fairly non-existent as they cannot afford a boat ride to a town with a facility.

The school is the biggest building and is host to 160 students.  There is one teacher and she was trained abroad and came back to teach in the village.  They were very happy to receive the workbooks, pens, cleaning supplies and personal items.  Although this is an obviously poor village there were many smiles and lots of laughter and the children loved seeing themselves on the camera displays.  Derek managed to infiltrate the ranks of the small boys in a matter of moments and had them hollering and laughing.  The children in the classroom performed a song for us and we toured around the village learning a little about their life.  It was a humbling experience. 

 

         

Another few hours on our slow boat and we arrived at Pak Ou caves just outside Luang Prabang.  The lower cave, Tham Ting, is a shallow series of caves with many steep stairs and full of Buddha statues.  A steep climb up more stairs brings you to the upper cave, Tham Theung, which is also full of statues of Buddha.  The caves were originally used for the worship of the river spirit prior to Buddhism spreading to Laos from India.  Over time people continued to bring Buddha images and the caves are said to hold more than 4000 of them.

We arrive at the dock in Luang Prabang just before 6pm to a waiting songthaew that transported us to our hotel.  Luang Prabang is a former capital of Laos, the French occupied this area for quite some time and the influence is obvious with cafes along the riverfront and many houses with a French style architecture.

Its a lovely quiet town full of temples, monks and markets.  Lek accompanied us to dinner to a Laotian outdoor bar-b-q restaurant.  The tables have a hole every couple seats to accommodate a pail full of burning ashes.  This is then topped with a vessel much like a hot pot in China.  The trough around the outside is filled with broth and miscellaneous vegetables.  Thinly sliced pieces of meat are placed on the center part of the pan and cooked.  It was fun and with whiskey shots and beer, sleep came easy.

 

       

After a visit to the Ethnology Museum the next day and a lunch of noodles, we met up with everyone for our afternoon trip to the Kouang Si Waterfalls in the countryside south of Luang Prabang.  The waterfalls are a beautiful spot.  We hiked up to the top of the three tiered falls, a challenging hike through mud and slippery tree roots that was mostly a straight vertical climb.  Bill and Peter both decided on a dip into the pools.  It was chilly and no one else in our group was interested in swimming.  We paid a visit to the Tat Kuang Si Bear Rescue Center to see the Asiatic Black Bears or "Moon Bears". 

That evening we enjoyed a traditional Lao home dinner at the home of a local woman.  She, her mother, sister and niece all cooked a traditional dinner for us.  The 76 year old mother and some of her friends gave us a traditional good luck ceremony complete with murmured chanting, blessings and strings tied around our wrists.  The dinner was fantastic; curry, sticky rice, fried chicken wings, fried eggplant, seaweed and salsa, sausage and larb.  Lots of food and a lovely group of women.

 

       

For late night fun, Lek introduced us to Laotian style line dancing.  We entered what looked like a 1970's disco club with booths, a stage for live music, neon lighting and a dance floor.  There was live Laotian singing and a band and the locals, dressed in everything from everyday shorts and t-shirts to fancy party dresses would dance side by side in a line circling around the dance floor and moving their hands around and around.  Hard to describe but way fun to watch.  The group stayed only long enough for a couple drinks and Jackie, Nicki and Norrette to try out some of that line dancing.

Bill and I decided to get up at 5AM and go down to the center of town to see all the monks receiving alms.  Its pretty impressive as Luang Prabang is home to over thirty temples and hundreds of monks, young and old, receive alms daily.  We chose not to participate as we are not practicing Buddhists and instead took our place across the street to watch as the monks came from all corners to receive their daily food.  It has been said that this is turning into a tourist activity and the government is requiring the monks to participate or risk being replaced by actors in saffron robes to keep up the tourist trade.  We did get some video from our vantage point.  Click below to see.

After breakfast we met up with Kate and trekked up to the top of the large steep hill, Mount Phousi, in the center of town to see Wat Chom Si which sits at the summit.  There are many parts to the hill-top temple, the gleaming gold Stupa, the caves of Buddhas, the Buddha footprint temple, and even an old Russian anti-aircraft gun.  We wandered about for quite some time, enjoying the panoramic view of the river and town below, finally coming down on the other side of the hill.  Wandering along the river front we stopped for lunch at a restaurant that was little more than tables, chairs, a rice cooker, hot plate and cooking supplies sitting beside the road in a clearing overlooking the river.  When Bill asked about the restroom the woman of the couple led him up the hill to their house and showed him to the bathroom.  They were very accommodating. 

We had a nice lunch of noodles and vegetables and then headed down the road to visit the Xieng Thong Temple.  Built in 1560, Wat Xieng Thong is covered in mosaic scenes including the gigantic tree of life on the back of the main building.  We also toured the National Museum and Bill and I hung out for the evening at the night market and ate some chicken on a stick for dinner at the market.  We really enjoyed our time in Luang Prabang.

 

       

A seven hour van ride over the hills to Vang Vieng was ahead of us the next day.  It was a comfortable ride and great scenery throughout.  We passed many villages and locals working the rice paddies, or the grass fields; cutting, bundling and drying the tall grasses to be sold for making brooms.  There were abundant scenes of children and water buffalo with a backdrop of the cloud topped Karst mountains.  We even spotted the occasional wedding celebration where it appeared an entire village would be gathered amongst flowers, decorations, music and food.  Lek brought along iced coffee and we had snacks of dried mangos and chips.  We lunched at the top of a mountain pass with scenic views of the cloud forest below.

 

     

We arrived in Vang Vieng around 4:30pm and checked into our large room in a very nice riverfront hotel.  A walk around town proved that Vang Vieng existed primarily as a backpacker hang-out for tubing down the river and lots and lots of drinking.

We decided, along with Kate, to book a half day of kayaking down the river and cave exploring.  None of the three of us was really interested in the tubing and kayaking seemed a good substitute.  Turned out to be a highlight of our trip.

The next morning Bill, Kate and I met up with our kayaking/caving guide and began our tour down the river.  It was just the four of us.  The river was low so although there were quite a few big rocks to maneuver around and some small rapid-like areas to get through it was generally an easy paddle.  We passed through the area of bars catering to the tubers with buckets of beer and rope jumps, too early for anyone but us kayakers.  Kate and the guide were in the lead with Bill and I bringing up the rear.  I learned that I was really glad I didn't sign up for the full day of Kayaking.  I could use some practice.  We managed to keep up and have a lot of fun.

 

       

We stopped at a half way point for some cave exploring.  I don't know what we were expecting but this wasn't it.  After a hike through the trees (jungle-y) we came to a cave opening that seemed to have a lot of water in it.  Yep, we were to wade through the water (which had tiny fish in it) and it got higher and higher, peaking out at about hip height.  Then we climbed throughout the cave on sloped walls, up vertical embankments and squeezing through narrow openings. 

Our guide led the way with a piece of bamboo that he crammed some candles in and lit, a true torch.  This cave was called the sleeping cave as during wartime the local people would come here to sleep when bombing was going on above ground.  There is a lot of writing on the walls and handprints.  At the end of the cave we had to climb up a steep wall to a small opening back out into the jungle-like path.  We loved it, hopped into our kayaks and paddled back to the beachy shore area right in front of our hotel where the truck picked up the kayaks and we walked to our rooms, wet but feeling as though we had experienced an adventure.

 

     

The next morning began very early for a hot air balloon ride before we caught our van ride to Vientiane the current capital of Laos.  The balloon ride was a first for many of us and you can't get much better than sunrise over the Mekong River for your first hot air balloon.  Really nice.

A three hour van ride through the country brought us to Vientiane.  As soon as we arrive at our hotel Bill and I realize we left our elephant painting back at the hotel in Vang Vieng.  To our surprise, Lek manages to arrange for someone from Vang Vieng to bring our painting to us in Vientiane for a minor sum.  At least it seemed a small amount to us.  US dollars can go a long way in these poor countries and before we leave, we have our painting back.

 

    

Vientiane is doing quite a bit of construction along the river, creating a park like setting and paved walkway.  It is a joint project between North Korea and Laos.  I think it takes away from the area and will make it more touristy.  It was rainy while we were there and my mood may have been influenced by that but I didn't find Vientiane impressive. 

We visited the Sisaket Temple and Museum, the Victory Gate (Patuxay), mailed some post cards and met up with the group for dinner at Makphet, a restuarant that trains street children in the culinary arts.  Its part of an organization called Freinds International and they have several restaurants around South East Asia.  The food was great and presentation was very modern and stylish.  It was a nice evening and our last in Laos as we fly to Hanoi the next day. 

 

           

Throughout Laos we were met with friendly smiles and exclamations of "Sa bai dee".  From the poor villages to the populated towns the Lao people seemed happy to share their homes, their food and a slice of their lives. 

Below is a photo album with lots of pictures from Laos.  To continue our adventure just click on the link above to read about and see photos of Vietnam.