Part Two: Laos
February 16, 2012
Dateline: Pakbeng, Laos
Latitude at Pakbeng 14.85 Degrees North, Longitude 101.55 Degrees East
Today we explored by road some beautiful country of the upper Mekong in Northernmost Thailand as we made our way to the river, where we would leave Nikki behind and cross into Laos. We went from Chiang Khong, Thailand to Houei Say, Laos, which was originally a French fortress built on the river in 1939. We officially entered Laos where the Pak Tha River empties into the Mekong. At Houei Say the river drops 8 meters in the “dry” season of April and May and this is when they catch gigantic catfish called “plabuk” (which I may or may not have spelled correctly) It is supposedly the largest freshwater fish in the world at 9 feet long and around 660 pounds. They live in deep holes and can be netted (with a very sturdy net of course) in shallow water season. The fish sells for around $5.00 per pound (US) so this is a major payday for the locals. There is a big competition between Chiang Khong and Houei Say which is sort of an Asian Fish Rodeo.
We had quite a kerfuffle at Laos customs with Stu’s passport stamp, (we had to present passport photos and $35.00 in cash) due to an erroneous date stamped on it on the Thailand side of the Mekong. We were first told he had to go back across the river to get it straightened out, but eventually higher management at Immigration ruled he could proceed. We considered getting some local money, but we were told that US dollars and Thai baht are widely accepted here. Their currency is the Kip which was trading at about 8,000 to the dollar so we decided to keep it simple and use dollars. We took some local transportation (tuk-tuks) with our bags to the local docks where we were to board our vessel, a 38 passenger long boat, and motor downriver to Pak Beng where we would spend the night. Our trip would take 2 days and this first leg would cover 140 km in 7 hours on the river.
We had a very tranquil cruise down the Mekong’s mist shrouded hills, enjoying a very peaceful and relaxing ride on the river, whose water was olive green flecked with gold. There were actually people panning for gold, although undoubtedly all we saw that “glittered was not gold”, but actually pyrite or fool’s gold. We stopped at a Hmong (pronounced Ha-mong with the accent on “mong”) village perched up high on a sand dune. The moment we disembarked, we were swarmed by small children selling hand made goods (woven bracelets and bags, and cross stitched tribal designs. There was lush foliage despite the dry
season and the shade looked inviting, but with the humidity, there was very little respite from the heat there. The river is approximately 300 yards wide here. Most villages along the river have no roads and they depend on the river for transportation. The boats were an odd assortment, many of which had seats that had once been in cars or at a kitchen table. There seemed to be no two alike which made for a very interesting ride. Our Laotian guide, using our Thai guide, Nikki’s, phrasing, said that sometimes the Chinese are “naughty” and dam up the river and won’t let enough water flow downstream, which causes problems, significantly impeding transportation and commerce.
We found an interesting phenomenon in the village – there are wooden huts with no windows and dirt floors, but each has electricity running to it on a single wire. They have one outlet per house and in that outlet is plugged a cell phone charger and we marveled at this. The houses had the campfire inside.They say the smoke keeps the insects out and I could feel the insects’ aversion – it certainly kept me out. The Hmong elect a chief who is sometimes a woman. and they also have a village shaman who offers herbal remedies.
Here women build the houses and men work in the fields. The soil varies from sand dunes to hard packed clay, presenting a real challenge in the rainy season. There was an abundance of pigs, chickens and dogs and we understood that all could be on the menu on any given day. The older people in the village wore traditional clothes, but the young ones wore western clothes – but quite rag tag Western clothes. Kee, our guide said we should not give gifts, candy or money, or any other handouts to the children, since the local people do not want to raise a generation of beggars. We could buy anything they have to sell but we should pay the exact price and no more. And we should not pay to take photos. Kee says they do not want to set expectations for children that they can ever get something for nothing since everyone is striving to teach them good work ethics.
From the village we had 3 more hours of cruising to reach the Luang Say lodge near the village of Pak Beng. En route we were served a hot lunch of beef, rice and eggplant which way too spicy for me (although Gary pronounced it tasty) and so I had to hit my stash of cheese and crackers. Kee told us that local people grow teak as an investment for their kids. We saw no males between the ages of 15 and 40, neither in the villages nor on the river and were told most leave the village to earn money, leaving older workers, women and children here. There were many babies and toddlers in the village, so we knew the younger men had to visit here from time to time. We were told that people here are not sure of their ages and that birthdays are not considered important.
The terrain grew mountainous as we made our way east and the river had a few rapids, but nothing too challenging. The most precipitous was a vertical drop of 1,000 feet over 350 meters at one point with several sets of rapids. We were told the lodge we were going to would be rustic and we were hoping that would not mean no indoor toilets. You could get some serious insect bites here in some undignified locations if you had to go outside. We noticed quite a few water buffalo and were told that in addition to using them in farming, the locals here eat water buffalo. They are “free range” and often they have to do a roundup including across the river into Thailand.
There were a number of bamboo houses on the beach, but we were told they will wash away with the rainy season. They are only intended to be temporary and will have to be rebuilt after the floods of the rainy season.
We arrived at our overnight stop a few hours before sunset and found we had quite a trek to make up the hill to the Luang Say Lodge high above the river. We were supposed to pack a light bag and leave our larger one behind, but some tourists apparently didn’t get the memo and the hotel porters struggled up the hill with suitcases weighing at least half a much as they did. The most amazing thing was they always had a smile too. They also held up poles to form a safety rail for the tourists since there were no permanent structures and if you tripped you would wind up in the river. OSHA would find this lodge quite naughty in the safety department. We found it to be beautiful with great views up and down the river, surrounded by mountains. The lodge was built out of teak and oozed charm and authenticity (as authentic as you can get and still satisfy Western tourists that is). The rooms were not air conditioned, but the evening cooled off rapidly and we were very comfortable with just a fan.
Our rooms were quite nice with en suite bathrooms and mosquito canopy netting tied over the bed like something out of a Bogart movie. In our room Gary pulled on the chain of the release cord a little too vigorously and broke it. We had wanted to get it in place over the bed before the dusk mosquito onslaught began and so we called the front desk for help. We expected a guy with a ladder. What we got were two house girls about 70 pounds each, about 4’6” and no ladder. They just shinnied up the posts and scampered across the rafters to take it down, fix it and put it back up.
There was a dinner show with dancers from Pak Beng – both tiny and charming but a little of the music goes a long way – sort of like a violin lesson gone bad – real bad. We had good French wine and a good dinner. We were told the Thais tried to conquer Laos at one time, but the French ran them off and apparently left an appreciation for their wines behind as their legacy. I enjoyed the food, but desserts here almost always involve rice and rarely involve chocolate, which makes them easy for me to resist. The sleeping in the cool mountain air was really a treat.
February 17, 2012
Dateline: Luang Prabang, Laos
Latitude at Luang Prabang 19.88 Degrees North, Longitude 102.13 Degrees East
Today we awoke at the Luang Say Lodge to continue our trip down the Mekong to the port of Luang Prabang, a distance of 160 kilometers, which would take us 7 hours. We had fabulous produce for our breakfast – mangos, pineapple, papaya, watermelon, all eaten at an open air terrace at the lodge overlooking the river. The weather was very cool with a heavy mist on the hills above the river, and the boat crew provided capes for us (sort of serape like things) so we all suited up and found that they warmed us perfectly, along with the hot tea served to us. At this point the river is pristine with steep
mountains and heavy vegetation coming right down to the river amid jagged rocks and sandy beaches. There were countless small waterfalls and rivulets feeding the river from hidden springs. We did see the occasional pig or two on the beach which was a little jarring – we weren’t sure Shangri-La was supposed to have pigs in the picture. Our pace was slow and languid except when we went through rapids where we needed speed to maintain steering. The boat we were on was 34 meters long and was essentially a river barge, built of teak with a hardened steel hull.
We learned that name Laos come from the phrase “Lane Xiang” which means a million elephants, which may or may not be historically accurate. Laos had a lot of elephants back in the day, but whether it was a million is debatable. Laos, unlike Thailand, was conquered quite a bit, in more recent times by the French, whose colonizing stopped at the Mekong border with Thailand. The French declared Laos a protectorate in 1893 and kept the Thais from taking it back during colonial times. The Mekong River was the west boundary of the French empire and the Thai Border was the east Boundary of the British colony of Burma. The Japanese briefly occupied Laos late in WWII, but found themselves needing all their resources to fight off the Allies in the Pacific and withdrew. At the end of WWII the French resumed their protectorate until 1954 when they granted Laos independence under a constitutional monarchy. This led to a civil war between Royalists and Communists (the Pathet Lao) which continued for a number of years including during the Vietnam War when the U.S. dropped more bombs on Laos than they had during the entirety of WWII in a effort to destroy the supply line know as the Ho Chi Minh Trail. During the Vietnam War, the Viet Cong often scurried across into Laos after a raid in Vietnam. Laos became a refuge for Anti-Communists escaping Vietnam, until it fell to the Communists as well.
After the fall of Saigon in 1975, Laos became a communist nation, but it has evolved over the years to be sort of “Communist Lite”. The ruling party is communist, mostly in name. They have elections here, but there is only one party, so it’s not so democratic that anyone would notice. Their economy is built on capitalism and the US lifted a 20 year trade embargo in 1995, which helped greatly in the cause of capitalism, including tourism. They have really seen tourism skyrocket up from 300 tourists in 1990 to hundreds of thousands today. Schools in Laos are paid for by the Vietnamese government. No one seemed quite sure as to what the quid pro quo is on that – most likely the Vietnamese are seeking markets among the 8 million people who live in Laos for their burgeoning economy.
The Mekong is 4, 180 kilometers long, the 10th longest river in the world, and there are very few bridges across it. It is called both the Artery of Life and the Mother of Waters. Rice whiskey is distilled along the banks in scattered villages and teak logging is still a major source of income. The Mekong starts in Tibet and runs through Yunnan Province in China, then Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam where it empties into the South China Sea. There are 3 seasons here. December-January are the Cold Season (a relative term) and February – April are the Dry Season (also a relative term). May-September are the Rainy Season by anyone’s standards.
The Hmong tribes are traditionally mountain farmers who grow rice in the wet season and corn and other hardy crops in the dry season. They are semi-nomadic and clear the land of old crops by burning. They plant crops and stay a few years until the soil is depleted and then move on. When the river is down they plant peanuts in the sand banks.
Laos is very culturally diverse with 130 different ethnic groups in 4 major categories which the Laotian government is now trying to unite. They are:
Lowland Thai – the most powerful and influential group with ethnic roots in Thailand and the Shan people of Burma.
Highland Khmer – Australian- Asiatic influence by way of India and Indonesia. They are the group who built Angor Wat. They were powerful at one time, but now are the poorest group in Laos.
Mountain People – the Sino-Tibetan people of Chinese descent from tribes from Tibet and the Himalayas. These people are now traders and refugees.
Hmong – the Hill tribes which are dominant in Northern Laos. They have written the “Bible” of Animism, their religion, which is believed to be the oldest religion in the world. Animists believe in sentient (feeling) spirit in all things in the world. They have a priest/shaman to communicate with the spirit world and with the spirits of ancestors. Their goal is harmonious existence through sacrifices and prayers. Hmong Animists typically have a shrine in each home of wood and paper decorated with the feathers of a sacrificed rooster (cockerel). Actual animals in the wild are scarce. Birds, squirrels, monkeys, wild boar, and deer have been hunted to the point of vanishing from the countryside. Hmong houses are made of wood or bamboo planks, with steep thatched roofs that extend nearly to the ground.
As we made our way east down the Mekong, we saw Hmong villagers panning for gold and we passed the village of Houri Sangaeh which is gold panning center of sorts. Our guide, Kee, told us that the streams feeding the Mekong can provide gold worth $100 US per month to a family, which goes a long way here. The French built a gold mine, but it didn’t product enough gold for it to be worth it. The best time for panning is January through May when the river is at its lowest. The locals look for characteristics in the mud that signify “pay dirt”.
We stopped at a weaving village of 200 people of the Yao tribe whose real name has permanently escaped me, but is sounded something like “Gon D-turn”. We actually visited a “suburb” of this village, which was set up to sell goods to tourists arriving by river. An interesting side note – they offer jet boat rentals as a tourist attraction and what a contrast that provided. We much preferred the weaving by hand and passed on the jet boat experience.
We visited another weaving village called Ban Baw ( pronounced more like “beau”) where we bought scarves an had the opportunity to sample some Laotian moonshine – clear rice whiskey – aged 3 to 5 minutes. They also make a home brew beer. Both were pretty awful. The whiskey is called Lao Khao. It is strong stuff, but not exactly smooth – Jack Daniels has nothing to worry about here. Here is the process:
A large oil drum is filled with small cake of ground rice. Water is added and the natural yeast in the rice cakes creates fermentation. After 1 to 2 weeks the cream colored liquid is collected to make rice wine called Sara. It tastes a little like fizzy lemonade. To make the whiskey, the container is heated on a wood or charcoal fire and covered with a metal lid. Cool water flows over the lid and the alcohol condenses on the bottom of the lid. From there it flows through a small pipe to a bottle ( although ours had a rope and bowl.)
We stopped at Pak Ou, where there are two caves in a rock wall containing literally thousands of Buddha statues and images. (Estimated at 4,000.) The lower cave is called Tham Ting and the upper is called Tham Theung. Anyone can come and bring a Buddha statue and leave it, and apparently thousands have. The caves were originally used by Animists to worship Phi, the God of Nature and the Mekong River Spirit, which they believe was housed here. The statues are made from all sorts of materials including concrete, bronze and wood although due to termites, the latter has not fared so well. Inside the caves there are Buddhas on every available surface, some 1 to 2 meters high, some in gold leaf, some just painted and flaking. There is a washing ceremony where the Buddhas are washed in a long
wooden vessel in the shape of a naga (snake dragon) The King and Queen used to come and wash the Buddhas back in the day on the Laotian New Year, but in those times, they were far fewer in number. The last king was deposed in 1975 and the washing isn’t really manageable any more. Today only Buddhists and Animists live in this area. The Catholic Church in Luang Prabang which was built by the French is now a police station. The only Christians in Laos today are in the capital, Ventiane, in the southern part of Laos,.
Crime is practically non-existent here (practically because there is some). The two main offenses involve taking and selling drugs and speaking out against the deceased king or the current government. The Laotians say they have Freedom of Speech as long as you don’t say the wrong thing.
We continued downriver to Luang Prabang, situated between the Mekong River and the Nam Khan River, and we met our two hosts, Ek and Paan. where we learned more Laotian history on our way to check into the Kiridara Hotel.
In the mid 13th Century a number of small states in Northern Laos united to form the Kingdom of Lang Chang which evolved into the name Luang Prabang. The founder was a Thai chief who married a Khmer princess. Two hundred years later they waged war against the Lanna Kingdom in what is today northern Thailand and lost and so those two kingdoms more or less merged (or reunited as the Thais saw it). In 1707 there was a war of succession that split the kingdom into two parts – Ventiane in the south and Luang Prabang in the north. Luang Prabang fell to the Burmese, and were ruled by them in the 1700’s, but finally got rid of them and became a dependency of Siam (Thailand). But this only occurred after a large massacre. Luang Prabang was declared a World Heritage Site in 1995.
We had some relaxation time by the pool which was really welcome after our hectic touring and then shortly after 4:00 p.m. we met with Paan who would guide us the next few days since Ek was developing a cold. She took us to a market to get a new suitcase since Sharon’s had a blowout and she also ordered a custom made skirt out of Laotian silk.
That evening we went to the night market in old town Luang Prabang where there were a lot of crafts, specifically weaving and carving. We bought an elephant head (a small one) for our library at home carved in teak wood. We enjoyed sightseeing (not eating) some of the local delicacies such as Frog snout (we dubbed it the Kermit Special), but they did have some tasty looking things like donuts, fried chicken and grilled fish.) There was something labeled “Half-Brain Stew” that we saw, (well truthfully we averted our eyes) and passed on the offer of a free sample. It sort of makes you wonder what they put in their donuts too – that frogs and brains business just casts suspicion on everything and we figured the donuts would not be your typical Krispy Kreme.
We had dinner at a restaurant called the Three Nagas and were served Laotian fare, which seemed very much identical to Thai food. By this point we were all getting pretty desperate for some Western food, except for Gary, who could eat Asian food at every meal. In fact, our Thai guide Nikki commented that Gary must have some Thai ancestors, because he has the typical ravenous Thai appetite, but apparently he did not get the Thai metabolism or physique with that inheritance
February 18, 2012
We skipped making merit this morning and “slept in”, and yet we were still ready at 7:30 for breakfast. Our guide, Ek, met us to explore Luang Prabang, whose name means “Capital of Holy Buddhas”. We also took a pass on seeing local singers and dancers perform. At the risk of being narrow-minded and culturally shallow, I have to say that to these Western ears a little of this goes a long, long way. There are some huge gaps in some basic musical concepts between what Western cultures appreciate and what Asians appreciate in terms of melody, pitch and tone. There are hundreds of wonderful things about Asia, but music is not one of them.
Today we would visit several temples, though not all since that would mean 33 temples and this is overload in anybody’s book. There were once 66 temples in the olden days, but 33 more are now in ruins or replaced by other structures. We were picked up by Ek and our driver Olay. We had to chuckle upon seeing (not making this up) a plastic Buddha on the dashboard of our tour vehicle. He was a very nice man, if a little unskilled with the clutch from time to time, injecting a little lurching movement in our ride at random intervals.
Before we started our touring, we took advantage of a local laundry (being advised to avoid the pricy hotel laundry service). They do it here for $2.50 per kilo, which is roughly 2.2 pounds. The bad news is, your clothes might shrink a bit, but hey the price is right and clothing is so cheap here, you can buy more.
We had learned a little local etiquette which included much of what was true in Thailand, such as the prohibition of touching another person on the head. Also conservative dress is observed here, particularly in temples and includes, for both sexes, covering knees and shoulders. We read that public displays of affection are taboo as is littering, so no kissing or squeezing allowed. Also we were cautioned to be aware of eye contact which is a Western, not an Eastern value. Lao people believe that staring affects a person’s soul (khwan). And we should ask permission before photographing anyone since there is a lot of both shyness and superstition among local people.
Once in the temples there should be no touching of Buddha statues and in some temples even posing with them is considered disrespectful. One rule that we found a challenge was to keep our heads lower than Buddhas and monks when speaking with them. The Buddhas were almost always elevated, so this was not a problem, but those monks were really, really short. We concluded that they give most Western tourists a pass on this one. They are strict that women may not touch a monk. If a woman wants to give something to a monk, she hands it to a man who hands it to him.
En route to the temples, Ek gave us some more background on the Buddhist religion
We learned that there are 10 basic Rules for Novice monks (starter monks) to keep it really simple, and they may spend 5 to 6 years at that level. If a man enters the monkhood as an older man, he may be called Father Novice. A man can actually drop out and rejoin multiple times. Once monks are ordained, they have to observe 328 rules which include no jumping, no jewelry, no driving. They take a test – sort of like Monk boards. We wondered if that is going to be expanded to include “no cell phones, no IPAD, no Fitbit, etc. to accommodate advances in technology. Here monks typically shave their heads at every full moon, although this practice varies with different Buddhist sects. This is a tradition which is said to symbolize a renunciation of earthly desires, Also it creates uniformity in the monkhood and eliminates distractions to their focus on their religious duties. No primping in the mirror here, and in fact even looking at yourself in a mirror is not permitted. Monks often play the role of marriage counselor and spiritual adviser to lay people.
Our first stop was at the oldest temple in Luang Prabang called Vat Visounnarath built in 1512-15 by the King at the time. The banyan trees in the courtyard were said to be 2,000 years old and so they predate the temple. On the grounds of the temple compound is the equally ancient (1503) That Makmo (a.k.a. the “Watermelon Stupa,” so named because of the big round shape. A stupa was a religious monument that served as a tomb for important kings and royalty and are often on the grounds of the temples. The That Makmo dome was designed to look like a lotus blossom – that was the intent anyway, but it looks more like an artichoke to me. It may have been more lotus-like before the pillaging in 1887 by a Chinese militia and the coating of grey concrete applied in 1932 to keep it from crumbling.
There are also a number of cabin- like buildings housing the temple’s monks, complete with laundry (orange robes mostly) flapping in the breeze on the porches. Signs with Buddhist teachings (obviously hand painted) are scattered throughout the grounds. There are quite a few similarities to Christian teachings. The signs provide kind of a thought for the day sort of thing including the 7 rules for Talking. For example, one sign indicated your should “Speak Truth, not Untruth” and another noted you should “Speak pleasant words, not unpleasant ones” – both excellent ideas. Key parts of their teaching involve listening more than speaking, that the self is not as important as others, and that you should always seek enlightenment,, and you can’t learn while you are talking. Also a big one is that giving is better than receiving, which should sound quite familiar to Christians. A ceremonial drum is sounded at 4:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m. to mark prayer time.
Inside the temple there were murals, reminiscent of Dante’s Inferno depicting different “hells” and punishments for various offenses. For example one particularly graphic depiction illustrated the punishment for an adulterer which showed a very unhappy fellow being pierced by stakes, impaled on thorns and bitten by dogs. There were other hells for more minor offenses such as illicit eating (monks have to fast after noon) or lying or hunting (they don’t believe in killing things). We were told that illicit eating is the number one cause of monk-school washout among young boys and young men.
As we continued our sightseeing in the historic area, it immediately became apparent why Luang Prabang is a World Heritage Site. There seemed to be ancient monasteries and temples on every block. Our next stop was the temple of Vat Xieng Tong. The translation of the name is the Monastery of the Golden City, and it is the most historically significant temple in the city. They practice Theravada (pronounced Ter rah vah dah with the accent on “ter” and “vah”) Buddhism here, as they do in Thailand which is based on the Tipitaka, which is the earliest teachings of Buddha. “Vat” means temple here, whereas in Thailand and Cambodia, it
is “wat”. The temple (called the sim) is actually just one part of the complex that is Vat Xieng Tong. There are also monks’ quarters (called kuti), pavilions, gardens and shrines. It was built in 1560 and was embellished over the years. It is considered to be the religious emblem of Laos. The temple complex served as the entrance to the city – the first stop when crossing either the Mekong or the Nam Khan to get to Luang Prabang. The temple itself has a striking 3 tiered roof which almost reaches the ground on each side. There was some extensive restoration complete with scaffolding going on while we were there, but we could still see the beauty of it and could imagine it as the site of coronations of Laotian kings and religious festivals. Temple styles here originated from India, but in Laos they evolved to be higher and more pointed rooflines with finials.
As we walked about we learned a few more monk rules such as no novice can sit in a position higher than a monk, no one can point the soles of their feet toward Buddha and you should never point with a single finger (a scolding position) as this is considered rude, but rather use your whole hand. Also you should not step on the raised door frame of a temple. This is where the spirit of the naga dwells and so you should step over it. Gary kept forgetting about doing the pointing thing – naughty tourist.
We also learned that monks only have to go barefoot when collecting alms. Otherwise they wear flip-flops. While they cannot drive even a motorbike – you often see them on the back of one with someone else driving. They are allowed a few vices such as smoking and getting tattoos. All Laotians (not just monks) do not touch another without permission. The biggest taboos seem to be sex, lying, stealing, killing, and eating during fast. We were told that monks have to taste at least one bite of whatever they are given to eat. If not they will go blind (we didn’t think it seemly to share that in our country common folklore tells us that something else causes that.)
Buddha statues may have different poses called asanas. We learned about the different hand positions seen in statues of Buddha that are called “mudras”. Buddha always has the same serene expression, but his body and hands convey a message. For example if his hands at his side with all fingers down he is calling for rain.
Also each day of the week has a different Buddha asana or mudra and there are many for individual messages Here are a few examples:
Monday is Peace Buddha – Buddha is standing with one hand extended like Diana Ross admonishing you to “STOP” in the name of love.
Tuesday Buddha is reclining – Buddha is lying on his side, body perfectly straight with his head resting on one hand propped up on an elbow.
Wednesday Buddha has a bowl and is asking for Alms. This is only the Wednesday morning Buddha, the afternoon Buddha is doing something else.
Thursday Buddha is meditating / thumbs touch with fingers slightly overlapping
Friday Buddha is thinking deeply with this palms crossed over his chest
There is a mudra to expel negativity that looks a little like the NC State Wolfpack sign with the thumb and middle finger together. A mudra called Namaskar is with the hands together as if praying. It is a welcoming greeting and is the same gesture made from one person to another, which the Thais call the “wai”, and Laotians call it the “nop”.
From the temples we walked to Foreigner Street, so called because this is the area where Caucasians used to live. Today the street is lined with various forms of low-tech food production. We saw racks of sticky rice cakes drying in the sun made by the monks that are intended for the poor. They rehydrate them and heat them. Also people bring other food throughout the day for both the monks and the poor since giving to others is a key part of their religion. We also saw women and children making papadam (originally from India) which is a tortilla like food item made from tapioca root instead of corn or wheat. It was also being dried on racks outside on the street. We were told it will last for years, but no word on how tasty it would be by then. Also on drying racks we saw jerky, algae (which they grind up and use as a seasoning) and there was the odd batch of laundry thrown in. We commented that it would seem birds, dogs and cats would steal a snack. Apparently this country is so honest that not even the animals steal – except the occasional “naughty” bird, and even then they don’t take much.
For building materials in the old days before cement, (which Ek called “semen”, which gave us pause until we figured it out), they used bamboo and water buffalo poop for a binder. It must have been a very happy event when they were introduced to plaster and cement.
We walked (or climbed is more apt description since there were an estimated 400 steps) at dusk up to Mount Phousy, a hill in the center of town where the Vat Tham Mothayaram Temple offers an excellent view of the area. It is sort of a ritual to go up there for the sunset, which seems to sink into the hills above the Mekong . We explored the mountain top with its countless Buddhas, set in serene grottos and niches, with floral offerings of orange and yellow flowers (marigolds are big here) as the sound of the chanting of the monks in the temples below drifted up to create a really spiritual moment.
A word on Buddha likenesses. There is an abundance of statuary of a jolly pudgy guy grinning ear to ear which is often mistaken for Buddha. This is not the case. He was a person who at one point in his life was wealthy, thin and handsome and always in trouble with the ladies. He knew there was no way he was going to become “Enlightened” (the ultimate goal of the faithful) with those attributes so he asked Buddha to make him broke, fat and ugly to allow him to escape from temptations like chasing wealth and women. He was granted his wish and became fat, broke, and ugly, but also happy as depicted in the numerous images of him.
On our way down we did peek into one of the temples where the Buddhist were at prayer. With the dusk upon us and the almost celestial chanting, it was easy to be drawn into a sense of spirituality. Until that is, we noticed with some amusement that a young monk on the back row seemed to have concealed a cell phone inside his prayer book and was texting away. He looked back and saw us looking at him and slammed his book shut looking contrite. We didn’t tell on him, so his secret is safe with us, but we did think that he may be a monkhood washout in the coming years.
Our guide attempted to educate us about temple and festival lore – but it was somewhat hard to follow. It seemed at times to be a sequence of non-sequiturs and strange illogical plot development – sort of like a child relating a story (or making one up from whole cloth). Such was the case for the festival in progress that is held once a year to celebrate the last day of the last life of Buddha. It was very carnival like although there was no midway. It was a chance for the monks to let their hair down – that is if they actually had any hair. We understood that Buddha’s last hurrah as a mortal his imminent immortality to be
the cause of the celebration. There were a lot of games of chance, which we were surprised at (no jumping, but it’s okay to throw a ball or a dart. Most of the people playing were young boys and old tourists and the proceeds would go to the monasteries. Not too different, we thought, from the Catholic bingo nights. They had balloons to burst with a dart, dart roulette where you pick three numbers and spin a wheel. If your dart lands on one of your numbers you win. There was also a dice game where you would roll to match 3 dice. We concluded it must not be considered as sinful here as it is in the Christian world to be shooting dice.
We finished off our evening with dinner at the hotel by the pool and called it a day – a very long temple-filled day at that.
February 19, 2012
We had a very lovely poolside breakfast at the hotel with the distinctive smell of charcoal in the air and so we knew there were mighty preparations underway to get the day’s supply of sticky rice ready. The mist was just rising off the river when we heard the sound of a gong in the distance, and we imagined the monks making their way among the people wishing to “make merit” by offering them food.
We were picked up at the hotel in order to have an elephant experience at the Xieng Lom Elephant Camp which is 17 kilometers up the Nam Khan River from Luang Prabang, mostly on a dirt road. Unlike our adventure in Thailand, this proved to be pretty tame because we sat in the box called a “howdah”” on the elephant’s back, but it was fun anyway, and certainly much more comfortable than sitting “spread eagle” on the elephant’s very broad back.
En route we learned more about a monk’s life. He is allowed to hold and play with children (such as nieces and nephews) of both sexes until the children are four years old. After that, they can touch the nephews only. The belief is that they shave not only their heads but also their eyebrows in order to keep desire away, which is one of those logic-defying things that we keep struggling with. But it’s interesting – always interesting, as was a local crematorium that our guide pointed out– an open air affair built like a gazebo – teakwood painted white, but the top was blackened from all the smoke
When we arrived, we saw the elephants placidly munching on bamboo and banana palm leaves. All of the elephants they use here are older females which are much more docile and easy to work with than their feisty male counterparts. Our assigned elephant was Cam Dee – a 44 year old matronly type. Our mahout was Jai who was 24, and who looked to be about 10. He told us he was working on his English. From what we understood our elephant’s name meant Good Gold, although with his English and our grasp of the Lao language, it could have been Raging Maniac. We climbed up a set a stairs to a tower
that would permit us easy entry into the howdah. After riding bareback in Thailand, this seemed liked a limousine. We learned that Sang Dee is how you say “Good Elephant” and we lavished this praise on Cam Dee at every opportunity, lest she decide to go rogue – but that was thankfully not the case. “Pai Pai”, as it does in Thailand, means “giddy-up”. Elephants here, as in Thailand, are trained in a foreign language, in this case Hindi. The benefit of that is that no one will give a command by accident that might confuse the elephant or otherwise cause a problem.
Many of the elephants here have been rescued as orphans or from abusive environments. Jai pointed out an unfortunate elephant whose tail had been chopped off. He said local people make jewelry out of elephant hair, and think nothing of chopping off the tail for easier access, but at least they don’t kill them which is little consolation to us animal lovers, which brings me to the topic of ivory. The elephants here are Asian elephants which are smaller than their African counterparts, and unlike the African Elephant, only the male Asian elephants have tusks. So the female elephants are at least safe in that regard.
We set off down a trail to the river and saw local women washing their clothes. We didn’t know we were being stealthy until one of the women shrieked in surprise as Cam Dee blew hot bamboo breath on her. We noticed that this Laotian “ Laundromat” is down-river from the elephant crossing, which we perceived to be poor planning on their part.
The camp manager told us in his briefing that the elephants seem to favor tourists over local people. Tourists as he described as tall and wide (and compared to them we all certainly are – even the shortest and the skinniest among us). We speculated that the Laotians are so small and nimble they can climb all over the elephant and no doubt irritate her to no end. We tourists are quite placid by comparison, as well as being respectful and quite in awe of them.
After our elephant ride, we visited a weaving village called Xangkhong, accessible across a bamboo bridge. We were told that the weavers relocated here during the Vietnam War when their villages in Northern Laos were bombed. Here they raise their own silkworms, dye and weave the silk. They also make their own dyes using such products as indigo and other natural substances. Some of the designs are so intricate, they take months to complete. They had a showroom and workshop and very reasonable prices – $16 for a hand woven silk scarf.
We returned to Luang Prabang for lunch and sat on a balcony overlooking the street at a restaurant called The View Pavilion. It was near the temple of Vat Sop Sickharam, so our view included watching the monks coming and going.
After lunch we went to the National Museum in the palace of a former King, but the palace was built by the French in 1904. Apparently they found the king was living in a bamboo hut and thought he needed better lodging. It was very plain on the outside, but quite nice on the inside – perhaps not sumptuous but definitely an upgrade for bamboo. The throne room is simple colonial in style, with lavishly portrayed scenes in mosaic from Laotian life using mirrors and bright colors.
The king died in 1975 and the monks set up an elaborate coronation ceremony for the son, but he was never crowned. The Communists abolished the monarchy and sent the would be king to a “Re-education Camp” to get him indoctrinated into the joys of Communism.
The highest ranking monk always did the Coronation of the king. Interesting note: since women are present at the coronation, the monk uses what is termed a “mask” but actually looks like one of those funeral home fans (the kind made out of paper and glued to a stick) so he could avoid eye contact with the women. Monks also preside at ordinations but there are no women there, so there was no need to hide from them.
Since Communism has waned, the Japanese have provided a lot of development money that Laos cannot possibly repay, but we were told the Japanese don’t care, they just don’t want to be held accountable for all those invasion related atrocities perpetrated on the people here during World War II.
Paan, our other guide, told us that her grandfather once owned a farm in Northern Laos on the border with Vietnam. He told her of almost a year of daily carpet bombing by Americans during the Vietnam War, attacking Viet Cong trying to slip over the border. He said the family and workers would run and hide in caves when they heard the bombers coming and that every structure on their farm was bombed and burned. Interestingly enough, she says her grandfather and family bear no ill will toward the US for that. He said something to the effect that Laos has seen all manner of invasions and so much devastation, but at least the Americans were trying to do something good (as opposed to other invaders who came to plunder and conquer). She cited an example of when the Japanese invaded and confiscated every piece of metal to make it into swords and machetes. Apparently it was very brutal.
The CIA was very active in Laos during the Vietnam War and the US was backed by the Royal Army of Laos to fight against Communism. When Saigon fell, Laos actually was a quasi-Democracy in that they practiced capitalism and could own property and businesses, but they were closed to the outside world until 1999. The US gave 2 Lincolns and an Edsel to the King of Laos during the 1960’s but no one seems to know what happened to them.
At the Royal Palace, we were told another mangled and strange Naga Saga. This particularly long story involved a transvestite man and a captured and caged cat and that somehow this brought rain. One the rain came, the cat was turned loose and the man went back to his own clothes. We wondered if we were missing something.
One thing we did resonate with is the various simple Buddhist Teachings we have heard. Two of my favorites heard hear in Luang Prabang are:
“ Anger is a hot coal you hold in your hand. You intend to throw it at others, but it burns you the most.”
“If you cannot find anything you like, then you need to like what you have” ( a variation on the Stephen Stills song “ Love the One You’re With”.
We called it a day fairly early and prepared for our departure tomorrow afternoon for Vietnam.
February 20, 2012
We had a new driver today whose name is so complicated, our guide suggested we call him Mr. Driver. We would fly to Hanoi later today, but this morning’s plan called for a visit with children at a school in the Laotian countryside at a Hmong village called Ban Naoun (pronounced “bohn ooh en” with the accent on “ooh”). The Hmong migrated here from Mongolia and several of the children have the lighter hair and eyes apparently passed down from their Mongol ancestors. Today the more wealthy Laotians are the ones who left during the communist era (on the CIA payroll so they say) from 1975 to 1985 and then came back to live in luxury. You can still see the old Communist “Hammer and Sickle” flying around town, but their heart just isn’t in it any more. It’s more symbolic and romanticized now – perhaps like the Confederate Flag – a symbol of a bygone era.
Armed with candy for the kids, we set out for the village. Unfortunately, the school was closed for a holiday, but still hordes of children, seeing our van, streamed down the hillsides toward the school to greet us. Even young boys playing a game of soccer (Paan pronounced it “Shocker”, but we are sure they get as many chuckles from our pronunciation of their language as we do theirs). There were also many boys armed with slingshots who helped spread the word of tourists bearing candy arriving at the schoolhouse. Soon we were surrounded by very orderly and well mannered children.
We learned that there are only two grades taught here and unfortunately that is all the education parents can afford. Although the schools are public, they are not free. The children were both dirty and adorable. They were fascinated by us and we were fascinated right back.
We saw men smoking tobacco with a water pipe (they say it’s better for your lungs) and were trailed through the village by a young boy with a pet rooster tucked under his arm like a puppy. The kids sang The Chicken Song for us in their language (which was a little hard to get the gist of until they added the sound effects and dance moves) and Happy Birthday which was the only song they knew in English – performed just for us. The kids had some very basic toys – like sticks, and a defunct bicycle tire. Young girls sold woven bracelets and wood carvers were selling their crafts as well. They typically sell them wholesale to merchants in Luang Prabang, but we bought a carved Naga (sort of a snake lizard, dragon combo –a long body like a snake, but with lizard like feet and the head of a fire-breathing dragon) directly from the man who carved it.
We were told the village shaman often uses the heads of animals on a stick to keep away evil spirits – including pigs, chickens and dogs – we were okay with this until we heard the dog part. Some cultural divides are just too wide to be bridged. We were thankful the shaman wasn’t dealing with evil spirits while we were there.
We learned that 90% of business in Laos is tourism related and we were glad to see that UNESCO seems to be at work everywhere to preserve it. Since the country was Communist for so long, we expected to see the same drab structures we have seen in China, but this was not the case – the village was both quaint and charming, with only a slight vestige of technology placed there in 2011 in the form of electricity to each home provided by an extension cord which provided a plug, which provided electricity to a cell phone charger. The electricity is only on a few hours a day, so battery management is important – not that there is much of a cell signal in these parts.
From the village we took a short hike to a beautiful waterfall and series of pools deep in the jungle at a park called Kouang Si (pronounced Kwang See. The name has something to do with a legend involving deer drilling the earth with their hooves and creating the waterfalls, which were absolutely beautiful. (we nicknamed it Shangri-Laos). There were pools at 5 different levels, an otherworldly celadon green, cascading from one level to the next over limestone with hundreds of tiny waterfalls stretching for 80 meters. The top pool was clear, the rest shaded green from the limestone. Along the paths growing wild were
every tropical flower and plant normally seen in nurseries and greenhouses here in the US – hibiscus, periwinkle, lantana, poinsettias just to name a few. There were a few brave souls swimming, but the water was ice cold and most just looked on. We did see (in captivity) a local bear, which is almost extinct now, but they are trying to bring them back
We saw a motorbike pulling a bicycle up the hill with two people holding hands serving as the connection between the two. The motorbike had saddlebags the size of small refrigerators and we speculated what they might be for, but the possibilities were endless. Everything is open air here – cooking, manufacturing, and services such as haircuts. Transportation locally ranges from the open bed of a pickup truck (no F 150’s here – we are talking tiny Toyotas), to tuktuks, jitneys, bicycles, motorbikes and cars. One of the most bizarre sights was 5 guys on one motor bike, each with a container of soup with plastic over it –we assumed destined for a picnic at the park. Then there was a motorbike with a side car which was a modified shopping cart, and another with a sidecar made of a buggy seat with wheels.
We had lunch at a local noodle shop which was quite good – the best in town so we were told. We had a choice of noodles – skinny (like spaghetti) or wide (like lasagna) served with tomatoes, pork broth, scallions, garlic, bean sprouts and spices – all really fresh. There were small dishes of cilantro, watercress, green beans, and butter lettuce for us to add what we wanted to our noodle dish. While we ate, we learned some Lao etiquette such as for locals, there are no rules on time and tardiness or showing up unannounced. When our guide set a time he/ she would specify Western which mean the exact time. Unlike in China, chopsticks are used for noodles only. It is fingers, spoon or fork for the other items in your noodles. Locals also avoid using their left hand when eating since that is reserved for less sanitary business. If you are in a Lao home and offered a drink, it is considered rude not to take it and at least sip it. If you invite Lao people to join you for dinner – you pay. If they invite you, then they will pay. They apparently make exceptions for tourists since we always split the check.
We had time for a shower and change, thanks to our late check out and caught a 4:50 p.m. flight to Hanoi .