Travels with John Smith
Chapter 41 year 6 (2016-2017)
-Slow boat down the Mekong river
-Pak Ou caves
-silk and snake whiskey
-5:00 am with the monks
-The book boat
- buddhas and sunsets
-night market tasty
Travels with John Smith
Chapter 41, year 6 (2016-2017)
We walk down a thin dirt path towards the wide muddy brown Mekong river. There are neat paths of vegetable gardens on either side of the path. We are in Luang Prabang in Laos, on the way to see the Pak Ou caves ( a sacred buddhist site with thousands of buddhas inside) and a village where they weave silk and cotton.
We step on to a long, flat boat, kind of like an open houseboat, made of dark wood. There are lovely carved wooden railings outside on the back deck of the boat and on the awnings both inside and out. In the middle and main section of the boat, there are tables on either side of the open windowless dining room. Black iron lamps are placed above and colourful bright red and black woven table cloths are on the tables. Soft benches are placed on the inside facing out so if we want to, we can sit inside, under the shade of the flat roof and watch the world on the Mekong river, go by. There is a local man sitting inside the house-like box that is a little higher than everything else on the boat and he is steering us down the river. Our guide is a 20 year old white man, wearing a traditional Laotian outfit, speaking English with a very strong French accent. He is charming and polite, like someone taking your order in a chic French restaurant.
The boat is a tour offered by the hotel we are staying in, which is managed by a couple of French people. The hotel we are staying in is gorgeous; white with lots of dark wood, long balconies stretching around the outside the rooms, french doors on both sides of the rooms overlooking the quiet pretty pool and gardens. It is exquisitely decorated inside, capturing a perfect mix of Asian and French colonial cultures; elegant and colourful.
The Mekong river is surrounded by hills on both sides. We see a couple of tourist boats float by but all in all it’s pretty quiet. As we leave the shore where the boat is docked, there is a man breaking up the dirt on the small plot of land on one side of the hill down to the dock, with what looks like a pic axe. John and I sit outside in the hot sun on the only 2 chairs on the deck, but eventually, even with the breeze, its a little too hot, even for us.
There are only 2 other couples on the boat with us. We talk to one couple who look like they are about our age. She is Australian and he is a Brit and a musician so we exchange stories while we ride down the river, eating the local delicacies; Luang Prabang sausage, mokpa (steamed fish), wrapped in a banana leaf and Mekong River moss (kind of like seaweed).
I would love to see an Irrawaddy dolphin poke his head out of the water but I don’t think this stretch of the Mekong is a usual hangout for them. They are an endangered species and are mostly found in northern Cambodia but there have been sitings in other parts of the Mekong river so I can hope. I read there was a lot of diverse wildlife along the Mekong that is no longer here; crocodiles, tigers and numerous types of fish, including the rare Irrawaddy dolphin. We do see elephants on the other side of the river, bathing with people riding them bareback. There is a sanctuary there, where they rescue elephants from the logging industry.
We arrive at the caves and walk up loads of cement steps into the side of the rock. The part with the largest collection of buddhas is in 3 sections of the cave about 50 feet above the water but the next bit is another 300 steps or so. This bit has a woman guard sitting outside and she gives us a flashlight as it is pitch black inside. We can hear dripping inside the cave and the flashlight lands on more golden buddhas as we get deeper into the cave. I am trying to get a picture in this darkness by shining the light on the buddha and I hear a wasp close by. I notice that there are more than one and they seem to be attracted to the light so we don’t stay long.
We get back on the boat and travel further down the river to Ban Fund Hai, which is a small village. We dock and walk up a shaded hill towards some rickety stalls with beautiful silk and cotton cloths hanging around the outside. There are large looms inside and the women operating the looms work fast, threading the thing with a kind of spool and catching it with the other hand, moving the stitch across the long threads in front of them. They all want us to buy something and although I would like to buy almost everything I see, I know I need to be reasonable. I have almost used up the space I reserved in the carryon suitcase I brought (after a trip to my favourite shops in the weekend market in Bangkok!).
Some of the stalls have colourful looking bottles lined up on a rugged display case. We get closer and see snakes, large scorpions and huge lizards inside bottles of whiskey. The bottles have labels that say “Snake Whiskey-Real speciality of Ban Fund Hai -Usage; rheumatism, lumbago, sweat of limbs. Dosage; twice a day, each small cup before meal”. There is also Laos writing and a drawing of a muscular man flexing his muscles and a snake the size of the man, on the label. The women who are selling the whiskey tell us the creatures inside the bottles were caught in the village.
The houses in the village are mostly made of wood that looks like barn board and are fairly rugged, usually 2 stories high. Most have corrugated metal roofs. The stalls have a shop area, out front on the bottom level, open to the elements. There is a staircase leading up to the upper floor on the outside of the house and the banisters are made of the same weathered looking wood but more ornate with details carved below the railings. Some of the doors are made from different coloured wood, some are painted bright Mediterranean blue and have matching shutters but they all have the same basic design. They are similar to the houses we saw in Cambodia but these ones have more privacy (more walls). The village is fairly quiet and the pace of life seems slow in the hot sunshine. The streets are like dusty paths with the colourful material that is the main export of the village flapping gently in breeze and apart from a couple of small children coming back from school, the people from our boat seem to be the only visitors right now.
We turn a corner on the way back down to the boat and there is a stunning scene; a beautiful temple and several smaller buildings, all with the traditional sloping roofs that tilt upwards like an old fashioned moustache. The colours are brilliant in the sun; mostly white and gold, with red and turquoise mixed in. Medusa snake figures on either side of the steps leading up to it and white and gold buddha like statues sitting in various places in the shade or riding on a large white elephant.
It is 5:00 am and we are sitting on the side of one of the streets outside a large monastery. We have small rattan containers with sticky rice inside and bowls filled with some kind of packaged cakes in front of us. We were sold these items and told by other people who are lining the streets that we are to put handfuls of rice into the containers of the monks when they pass by. About 200 monks come out every morning at sunrise and collect alms from the locals.
They are gathering food for their one meal of the day and it is also a tradition that dates back to the 14th century. Tourists are allowed to join in as long as they are respectful (dressing appropriately, not speaking to or touching the monks as they pass, not stopping or following the procession, etc. If they are taking pictures, it should be from a distance). Matts are laid out along the streets so people are barefoot and either kneeling or sitting on small plastic stools so they are lower than the monks who pass. We see an orange blur moving towards us and soon they are passing, opening the large clay containers long enough to receive a morsel of rice or package of cake.
The line of monks is moving quickly and soon I see that I will run out of rice but there are more monks coming. I feel embarrassed that I might run out. What happens to the monks at the end of the line? Will they not eat? Do they actually eat this rice and if not, what do they do with it? Do they re-cook the rice, after all these people have touched it? There are 2 small girls to my right and I notice that sometimes the monks throw rice or the cake packages back at the girls feet and I wonder why? It seems like a waste and especially if some will not get any. I ask the girl’s mother and she says it is lucky or an honour for them to do this. They believe giving the food to children is the spiritually right thing to do. After the seemingly endless line of saffron coloured robes disappear down the street, we decide we are hungry.
We see a street vender with the traditional pole over her shoulders, balancing with a basket on each end filled with sections of soft bamboo, like little parcels open at one end, with steamed coconut inside. We buy one each and peel back the outer layer. It is sweet and filling. A good start to breakfast. There is a morning market nestled in an alley that turns into a bustling little street behind the temple on the main street. Similar to most Asian markets, the street is packed with the colours and smells of cooking. Mounds of vegetables, fruits and stalls with cheap but delicious good food.
We pass the local library and decide to go in. There is a painting on the wall in the courtyard of a long boat with ‘Book Boat’ on the side of it. It shows the boat in a river village distributing books and schoolchildren on the boat in their school uniforms, reading books. We go inside and learn that we can buy books from the library and they will donate them to the Book Boat. The boat travels to villages where there are no books and distributes them. We love this idea and buy a couple books we like the look of and give them back to to the library for that purpose.
We are standing at the top of a large steep hill called Phou si. It overlooks the city and the rivers and right now the sun is setting so there are a lot of people here, elbowing for the best shot. We take a couple quick pictures to keep the line moving.
There is a shrine up here too, though we came mostly for the view of the sunset. On the way up, we passed a giant golden buddha and some other buddhas, including the reclining buddha which is apparently the Tuesday buddha (so if you were born on a Tuesday, that one is your buddha (This one is mine!) and a teaching buddha (he is usually sitting with his legs crossed, with students around him (This one is John’s.). The view is stunning so it is worth the climb. Since we climbed up the steps on the river side of the hill, we climb down the other side to the night market, after the sun goes down. Why is it that shrines and temples are often up steep staircases?
It is dark but the main street running through the city is lit with rows of traders, with their wares in front of them. Stalls along the sides and 2 rows in the middle, stretch down the road as far as the eye can see. There are many hand made items of good quality, including carpets, silks, bamboo ‘stereos’ (a piece of bamboo set sideways in a stand, with a hole big enough for an IPhone to sit in actually does amplify the sound)’, paper umbrellas, teas in hand painted bags, etc.
We follow our noses down an alley off to the side where there are long tables with heaps of cooked food on big, round metal platters, like a rough version of a buffet (but with loads more food). There are people lined up at each table, waiting to fill their plates and then sit down on the benches and the long rustic picnic tables beside each of the buffet tables. We move down into the depths of the little street until we see a table we like the look of. There are platters with baked sweet potatoes, barbecued chicken and fish on skewers, fried green vegetables, different kinds of noodles, deep fried vegetables, peppers, etc.
There is a little woman standing behind the table heating the food in a large wok (if you want it warmed up)and on top of the fact that her food looks good, her prices are amazing so we join an excited group of young travellers who can’t believe their lucky discovery. Her place looks like one of the busiest and we can see why.
The shops beyond the market are really lovely with more upmarket versions of things you might find in the night market, including some antiques and local crafts.
There are some cafes here that remind me of parts of France, which makes sense, as Laos became a French colony in the late 1800’s to the mid 1900’s as part of Indochina. The mixture of Asia and France is evident, and even though it is mostly Asian, the French colonial side is there in some of the buildings but also for me, mostly as a feeling. Something that I felt when I lived in France.
We are looking at a black bear. He and his fellow bears are in an enclosure hanging out on some platforms, and tire swings, built presumably so they can do some climbing in a place called ‘Free the bears’. They are Asian black bears, otherwise known as Moon bears and they are hairier than their North American cousins. Around their cheeks they have something that looks like a mane or big thick sideburns and are a little smaller with a longer snout. Otherwise they are pretty similar, except for a white V shape, like an sideways moon on their chest.
This is the Tat Kuang Si Bear Rescue Centre centre, which has been set up to rescue bears that have been captured and/or abused. It has been set up as the 1st thing you see after coming into the entrance of the National wildlife park where we will find a large waterfall called Kuang Si Waterfall. It is a good location for it, as many tourists, like us, will come to the waterfall and learn about the plight of these bears.
The path we are on continues through a beautiful forest and we come across the 1st pond, where some people are swimming and the gentle looking waterfall is set as a gorgeous backdrop to the scene. We know there are at least a couple of ponds further up so we continue on the path.
We are now sitting having lunch on a balcony in a restaurant perched in front of the 2nd biggest waterfall and pond. I feel like we are sitting in a postcard. We are having a delicious lunch; my favourite-green mango salad, chicken red curry and pad Thai. The waterfall is rushing in front of us and the lagoon above it looks peaceful, with trees and roots growing out of the water. We read that the water is usually turquoise but at this time of the year, it is higher so it is more green and even muddy at some places but still picturesque.
Earlier, we continued up the path until we saw the biggest waterfall, which was spectacular and roaring above us. We began the climb up the steep slippery path beside it but it was clearly no longer the well trodden one, we were on before and we were warned that there could be many wild animals up there. A sign said there could be; birds, freshwater crabs, snakes, lizards, bamboo rats, leopard cats, wild pigs, slow loris, even bears. Some people in the restaurant tell us people from the nearby villages have even seen tiger tracks!
We finish our lunch and go down to the 2nd pool. It looks inviting, with only a few people swimming in it. There is no where to change or leave anything so John says he will sit with my clothes as he’s not really bothered whether he swims or not. I go in and it’s heavenly to float with the waterfall as a moving backdrop, like being inside a movie in this exotic place.
It is that time of day when the sun is low and bright, streaming through the trees. We are sitting quietly on a bench, surrounded by yellow and orange flowers. There are several large cobalt blue, leopard spotted and other magnificent butterflies the size of my hands flying around us playfully, dancing with joy in the late, golden afternoon sun. We leave tomorrow and the beauty of Laos will definitely stay with us for some time to come.