Trip Start Nov 30, 2004
Trip End Feb 04, 2005

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Flag of Lao Peoples Dem Rep  , Louangphabang,
Thursday, January 6, 2005

Hello all,

My boat finished the Mekong River and arrived in Luang Prabang late Christmas afternoon.  It's a relaxing place.  The gang found a couple guesthouses and had some local dinner downtown to celebrate the holiday.  I had fish mok, the local specialty that resembles a casserole.  Pretty tasty.  Most Lao food and spices have a fish base.  A little ironic considering the country is completely land-locked.  Later on we found a bar celebrating Christmas, western style.  There were white bed sheets covering the hill in back along with a snowman and green/red wine bottles stacked like a tree.  The elevation here is over 3,000 feet so it's a bit cool at night and resembles home.  The first night we stood in the street, looked up at the stars and noted how surreal it was.  Celebrating Christmas in a serene part of a third-world country far removed from commercialism.

By now there's 10 of us.  Two more Australians have joined us independently.  That's three Aussies total, all from Melbourne and two of them actually knew each other from a party they went to.  Small world.  The guys all have fairly long hair.  They resemble guys from the Doors, the Rolling Stones and the Beatles from the mid-60's.  At one point I asked them if I was out of fashion.  I think it's just an age thing.  Most of them are early 20's.  Also most in the group are traveling for longer than me.  One guy is gone for 15 months.  One of the funny things about this group is we never set a time, yet all seem to converge at the same time to do stuff.

There are some nice attractions in and around Luang Prabang.  One day we went to a nearby waterfall.  Four of us including me jumped in and went swimming.  Another day we took a boat up to the Pak Ou caves.  It's known for having lots of Buddha images inside along with some animal figures sculptured into the walls.  Yet another day we walked to the top of Phu Si Mountain and saw the temple there.  We arrived near sunset and had a great view of the surrounding area.  Very popular and crowded.  Later that same night, I took a few of them to the Royal Ballet.  It had highlights of a popular Lao story and some regional ceremonies.  Not as much dancing as I had expected.  Mostly just a small group of guys in silk costumes doing some choreographed stomping.  Still pretty interesting to see how different cultures express themselves artistically.

The real beauty of Luang Prabang is the ambiance.  It's a place that many travelers stay longer than expected.  The group took off to do some more rafting down the Mekong after four days.  I stayed longer to soak in more culture.  One thing I haven't mentioned is that all the countries in the region are predominantly Buddhist.  The people tend to be peaceful, friendly, relaxed and detached.  That's part of what makes it so safe to travel here.  I see lots of vendors I want to support.  From now on I find someone I like and then look for something to buy.  Whatever the price, I can live with it.  There's a kindness here that I find endearing.  This is a place I'm coming back to next time in the region.  Not easy access, but worth it.

One thing I like about Lao is that they preserve their culture.  Thailand is nice, but has become really commercial.  I think Laos has done some things to protect themselves.  One, the government regulates all trekking to minimize the impact on the environment and local hill tribes.  Two, having relations with the locals is prohibited.  If caught, foreigners are deported.  Three, motorcycles are not rented to foreigners because it causes too many accidents.  At first none of us liked this rule.  But after a while it made sense.  So many of the foreigners here are just out for a cheap party.  It's too easy for a reckless foreigner to cause damage.  Lots of women and children on bicycles here.  Most locals drive pretty slowly and cautiously.

I speak too soon.  The first night here, three of the guys had a lady-boy on a motorcycle following them back to the guesthouse.  It's a pretty open culture here when it comes to cross-dressing.  They were still debating the next day what gender she really was.  A few nights later, I was headed to the night market when guess who offers me a ride.  I smiled but declined. Walking through the market I pass her again.  She's sitting quietly on the cycle eyeing me the whole way.  Leaving the market I head back to the guesthouse along a narrow side street.  The motorcycle passes, turns around and waits.  I was a little shocked when I saw her up close.  Very un-Lao.  Lots of make-up, clear English and a slow, deep voice.  Also very direct and confident.  I have to admit, I began to lose my composure.  I tried to explain legality to her, but quickly lost ground.  Finally, I just thanked her and walked on.  My first solicitation.  I think someone that open has to pay off the authorities.  Made sure to get a look at her hands and hips.  I'm pretty sure she's female.

Another first.  Our first afternoon here, four of us guys were exploring town.  We were walking down one of the streets along the Mekong River.  After a few blocks we see some old, local men sitting in chairs.  In front of them was a table with some big jars.  Inside each was a yellow liquid with lizards, cobras, scorpions and centipedes.  Lao whiskey that had been curing for 10 months.  And they were selling it!  We realized that this is Lao culture.  The Brit said he'd try some.  The Canadian was questioning the sanitation.  The Australian was leery.  So, to keep it rolling, the American threw in 15,000 kip for a round for all of them.  Back home I can't even take the smell of whiskey.  We pulled out the cameras and they were actually going to down it.  Then I realized I was being left out.  So, I got a round too and we had some Lao culture together.  It's pretty wicked to think about.  But outside of that everything was OK.  Yes, I have a picture to prove it.  It was one of those fun moments.

I lingered in Luang Prabang past New Years. Now onto Vietnam.

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