Jewel of the Mekong River

Trip Start Aug 03, 2008
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21
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Trip End Aug 18, 2009


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Flag of Lao Peoples Dem Rep  ,
Saturday, September 20, 2008

I was so done with boat trips until I we took a flight to Luang Prabang. The flight may have been only an hour, but an hour at a low altitude in a tiny plane with lots of turbulence.  It reminded me of the movie Aviator and the horrible plane rides shown at low altitudes with Howard Hughes (Leonardo DiCaprio) saying how great they were.  However, I must admit it was better than our alternate choice, which was a 3 hour bus ride followed by a two day boat ride.  I guess no matter how you slice it, transporting ourselves between all these places just sucks and wears you down! (So as Bill puts it, I'll never stop complaining about transportation, lucky for him he doesn't get as sick as often.)

Anyhow, we made it but had to take a van to town since that was our only options from the airport.  As soon as we got out of the van, we had three guys in front of us showing fliers of their guesthouses trying to bring us to them.  This was a first for us as usually it's just people trying to sell us goods, but I'd never had people standing at the top of their street trying to push the rooms, and the funny thing is now that I think about it, I didn't see them out there any other times while we stayed on that street. We ended up picking the first place we had seen, even though we went to others, but this place had soft beds.  Ah, the simply luxuries, you miss in strange countries who sleep on boards.

Lucky for me the beds were so comfy, as somewhere between the horrible flight and taking it easy for the night, I started to feel a bad cold coming complete with body aches.  Not to mention, I pretty much took the next day off as Bill trampled around in the temples in town (see below), and I stayed in bed with the AC room and a good book.  That must of done the trick because I was feeling better towards the evening.  Bill rescued me for a bit and took me to a nice lunch along the lake, but I didn't really feel better until we walked around the night market and had some dinner.

Now the night market is a sight to see.  A huge section of the main street is shut down every night and canopies go up.  Each vendor has a little canopy and they all string together long extension cords and put little lights throughout the market.  So basically, there ends up being two little path ways with vendors on each side.  And when I mean little, you had to stand to the side if a person walking the opposite way came down the path.  Not to mention the humidity in the air combined with all the canopies actually made this market feel like a heat trap leaving you breathless for air as you emerged from one side glad to feel the slight breeze.

So needless to say, the first walk through the market was intriguing, but the fact that we had to walk through it every night to get to the other side of the street made it feel like a nuisance after awhile.  Bill and I got plates of banana pancakes to take back to our room for dessert as we watched a movie, and he had to carry them all the way through the market balancing them stepping to the side to let people pass.  When we finally got to the other side, a girl asked with wanting eyes and a big smile, "Where did you get those?"  Bill and I pointed and said, "On the other side of the market."  Her smile disappeared as she flatly said, "Oh."

That night we also signed up to take a cooking class from 10 am -5 pm including both lunch and dinner.  Our other option in the area was starting from 8-2 and only cooking lunch for the same price and this one charged extra for the cooking book. Plus, starting at 10 sounded a whole lot better.  I don't miss the days where I have to get up early!

So we headed off to our cooking class.  Again starting with a trip to the local market, but  this market was endless.  We were there over an hour looking through rows of vegetables, spices, fruits, meats, rice, and even fish swimming around in tubs.  The market was so large that it even had clothes, school supplies, toiletries, and even electronics.  I mention to Bill that it seems like a Laos Target, but they he replied, "Target doesn't have live fish."  I guess not, and it was all out doors for the most part without refrigeration.  Well, the refrigeration was only to make drinks cold not to keep the meat away from the bugs.

First, a small tea break before the cooking begins.  Now, the huge different between this school and the one in Thailand was that the instructors demonstrated the dishes making everything look so easy.  Then only using our cookbooks, we first had to pick out the food we would needed, and then start cooking at our station.  The instructors never really checked on us unless we asked a question.  I thought about how easy it looked when they were doing it but now I stare at the cookbook like it’s unsolvable math problem.  Whereas, in Thailand all we did was follow each step our instructor made kind of like Simon says.

So I learned more about how to cook Laos Food.  But I also had to share the cooking station with Bill, and so I may not share well when it comes to my cooking space.  He started to wait for me to tell him what I wanted him to do because when he tried to do something on his own, he claimed I only yelled at him.  Now how could that me?  :) I also hadn't realized until he pointed it out the next day that I did all the cooking as I never let him in front of the stove.  But we had a good time, cooked 5 dishes throughout the day, and ate tons of food.

Decision time again as we try to figure out what to do on our last day here.  The one thing we knew was we wanted see Pak Ou Caves, but had multiple options on how to get there.  I was leaning towards taking a tour which included the caves, riding elephants, and kayaking or rafting.  Bill wanted to take it easy on me since I was still getting over being sick, and was leaning towards doing it on our own.  If we did it on our own, we could get there by tuk tuk or boat.  In that option, I was leaning towards the tuk tuk as the thought of a boat was enough to turn my stomach though it was a calm river.

The tuk tuk won, but turned out to be an hour in half 25 km ride out of town down a long bumpy dusty road.  What I mean by won is that we asked boat prices and tuk tuk prices to multiple people and drivers walking up and down the street at least a hour before Bill finally decided by the cheapest price.  (Since I had to chose the cooking school, it was Bill's turn to pick this day).  After getting dust all over our clothes and sun glasses, we arrived at a small village and are still not sure where we are supposed to go.  Our driver points towards the river, and we now realize we still have to get in a boat to cross the river as the caves are on the other side.  Now, had we known all this, we would have definitely gone with the boat. And by the end of the trip, Bill had wished we took tour.

The boat driver tells us that it's 20,000 a piece to get over there.  Our tuk tuk driver just keeps motioning us to take this boat so we do.  Bill's enraged by this point as he assumed we'd be at the caves without any additional costs.  Now what exactly are these caves, you may be wondering.  Well, basically everywhere you go in our little city advertises these caves, the caves of 10,000 Buddhas.  Lonely Planet description also makes it seem like a "must see."  So after taking hour in half tuk tuk ride and a boat ride across the river we finally get here.

The first cave known as lower cave contains two separate sections of tiny little Buddhas, well action hero size.  To see these action size Buddhas you walked up one set of stairs to see the first display, and then down and up a few more steps see the rest.  And that’s all she wrote in the lower cave, as we thought looked like it went higher, but false alarm as it was just a dead end.

So despite our disappointment, we are hopeful the upper cave will have more to see.  As we walk across a bridge, we see children and adults holding little tiny straw cages.  They're waving them around saying, "Buy one, good luck."  I was still trying to figure out what was in them, and then I looked closely to see that they were live birds locked inside these little cages for tourists to buy and set free.  And if you look even closer, many of the cages had blood in them.  Bill and I walked up the giant stairs up and up, and saw one of these cages just tossed aside past our walkway. Bill looked at it, and saw the bird was almost dead and since no one was around, he started to try to let the bird out.  He had a small opening but the bird wouldn't come out, and at that point a girl, about 12 or so, came around the corner upset because we tried to open the cage.  She took it and started trying to repair the cage.  Bill just responded, "He's almost dead, he's not doing well."

So we just left walking up the stairs towards the upper cave. Finally, we arrived after a gazillion stairs to find a cave, so Bill got out the flashlight as we walked in prepared to see many Buddhas.  However, the cave did not go more than 20 feet, and there was only one Buddha.  We stared at each other in disbelief wondering what all the fuss was about. As we walked out of the cave, we saw the little girl sitting there with her bird cage.  We wondered if she was going to say anything, but as we walked passed her, she did nothing, and there wasn't anything else to see, so sadly, we left.

After our long return trip, our driver took another way back to allow us the chance to buy Laos Whiskey which we passed.  He also wanted to take up to see a water fall for more money, but at this point we were both done.  During the ride back, the traffic stopped for a bit as tons of people walked along the street, the driver motions to us telling us it was a funeral.  One side of the street contained many people walking, and only one side of traffic could go at a time.  As we were driving by, the line of people made a left and there we so many on the other side too.

When we finally made it back, Bill was determined to take the price of the boat ride off the finally price he paid the tuk tuk driver.  The driver at first didn't want to but then agreed to take off the 20,000, but then Bill said we paid 40,000.  The driver had said, "That too much." Bill had figured as much but the driver hadn't come to help negotiate price, so Bill told him to take it up with the boat driver.  And eventually, after Bill got a little louder, that's the price that was paid. It was only 4:00, but we were ready for bed after that.

We did take it easy that evening, so that before we headed for the airport we’d get up early to see the monks receives Alms. Basically, people from the town get in a line early in the morning and put food into each monk's bowl, which is what the monks eat that day.  Tourists can participate, but we just went to watch.  The owner of our guesthouse told us it started at 5:30, and so we got up to find the front door of our hostel locked and a woman sleeping next to it.  We woke her up to unlock the door to find out it doesn't start until 6.  Now, since it took place almost directly in front of our guesthouse we went back in for a bit.  And by the time we came out again, it had already begun.  Now, it seems that there were more tourists taking pictures than people actually giving Alms to the monks.  It was a strange sight as the monks walked up and down.  We had expected more people giving Alms from the way it was described.  But that seemed to be the case for Laos, it sounds better in the book.

Michelle (Bill is off making travel plans for India)

Well, I will explain a little about the town of Luang Prabang that I explored while Michelle was "recovering" (lounging) in bed.  The town is a peninsula formed by a large tributary that joins the Mekong River because there is a large hill directly in the path of the tributary, and it needs to turn around it.  From this easily defensible position the Lao people built their capital city, though in modern times the capital has moved closer to the border with Thailand.  Anyhow, I basically walked around the old part of town which is this peninsula.

I will spare you some of the bigger details that I have given to other temples we have seen since these were not that impressive and generally kept in a poor state of repair.  The first thing that stood out was the Royal Palace turned museum therefore not much of a royal palace at all.  Yes, it was by far the largest house, but overall it was pretty plain with the grounds setting it off more than the building itself.  The private temple on the grounds was decorated quite nicely, though it was not open to see the inside.  Further down I saw Wat Xieng Thong, which was the place where the royal family's remains were kept. 

When I was there the entire inside of the building was filled with young monks eating their alm collections for lunch.  It was an interesting sight because outside of the army of concerned females attending them and their bright orange robes, you would have thought it was any other bunch of 10 to 15 year old kids.  Finally, at the end of the day I climbed up Phu Si, which is the hill that dominates the landscape of this peninsula for a view out across the valley.  It was a very different view because it was quite rugged terrain covered with the rich green of the rain forest.  The walk to the top was made interesting by the large number of places where people worshiped and the various statues of Buddha placed around it.  These included large statues of the Buddha for each day of the week, which you are supposed to pray at for what ever day your birthday is that year.

I know that this seems like I am selling the town of Luang Prabang a little short.  But the compared to where we have been the temples are not that spectacular, but there is a lot of colonial French architecture that is quite interesting.  And the town does make a good place to walk around.  But that being said with all the other places to go, I think it will be a long time before I make it back to Laos.

Bill
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