Monday, May 11, 2009

Moving On To Laos...

Although Laos has been amazing, getting here was not. The bus left Hanoi at 7 (it was supposed to leave at 5:30). They oversold the bus, as usual, so the aisle was crammed with people. I was sitting in the back with a group of Danish guys and we were all uncomfortable. The ride was supposed to take about 20 hours, however after 2 hours one of the rear tires blew out and we stopped for an hour to put on the spare, and in the middle of the night the engine overheated so the driver pulled over to a guesthouse and went inside for a nap- meanwhile we were still on the bus. No engine = no air conditioning. It was like a sauna. 4 hours later, at 5 am, the driver came back out and we kept going to the Laos border.

The drive in the morning was beautiful. It took 2 more hours to get to the border, which was at the crest of the highest mountain. It took an hour for everyone to get exit-processed on the Vietnamese side and admitted to Laos, then we continued down the mountains and into the flatlands where Vientiane, the capital of Laos, is located. We arrived at 6 pm, and the Danes and I went in search of a cheap hotel. After checking in we went to and Indian dinner, then went back and crashed because we barely slept the night before.

Pic: the Laotian border post

I woke up at 7 am and went to the bus stop to find a bus to Luang Prabang, a UNESCO world heritage site and the old capital of Laos, located in the middle of the northern of Laos. I lucked out, one was about to leave just as I arrived, so I hopped on and settled in for the 10 hour ride. Again, however, the bus broke down twice, and the 10 hour ride turned into 13 hours. I arrived just after sunset and checked into a guesthouse, then walked through the night market. 

Pic: a monk looking at something in the night market

Luang Prabang is located on a peninsula where the Kahn river flows into the Mekong and although it is the capital of its province it is still a very small town. It is packed with Wats and Monasteries, making it feel rich in culture, hence the UNESCO selection. The night market is located at the main intersection, which is blocked for traffic starting at sunset. The main street was packed with stalls of local women selling woven products, paintings, drawings, jewelry, and other cultural wares whereas the side streets had food vendors. Luang Prabang is known for have BBQ'd skewers of fish and meats, grilled sticks of sticky rice, and all-you-can-fit-on-a-plate-for-5000 kip (75 cents) buffets. I tried the sticky rice and the buffet; both were excellent. 

Pics: 1. The grilled sticky rice 2. The main street of Luang Prabang during the day

I planned on going home to sleep off the 40 hours on a bus exhaustion but ran into some friends I met in Hanoi and got convinced to go out with them. We went to a beer garden first, but Luang Prabang has a curfew of 11:30 so it shut down. We heard that a bowling alley (random, I know) stayed open past curfew, so we ventured there until 2 am, when I went home.

I woke up at noon, then wandered around town trying to sniff out some choice food. Before I found anything, however, a Tuk Tuk driver offered for me to join a group of British people headed to a famous waterfall called Kouang Si. I ignored my stomach and jumped in. Although an exploited tourist attraction, the waterfall was beautiful. It had 5 levels of pools below the large waterfall, all of which an opaque turquoise blue color. The Brits staid at the pools to swim but I climbed up the 30 minutes to the waterfall. 

It was amazing at the top, partially because there weren't many people due to the steep climb. The pool underneath the main waterfall ended at the edge of the cliff with an infinity line (meaning you didn't see any rock edge, just a line of water), and you could jump off higher ledges into the pool. I also walk underneath the waterfall and let it hammer down on my back- it was like a massage. 

Pic: I awkwardly took a picture of other people in the falls...

There were also crevices in the cliff that were big enough to sit behind and watch the water drip in front of.

I returned to town at 4 and looked around for a good tour company to take me trekking in the mountains for a couple days. I booked a 2 day trip where you sleep in a Hmong (hill people) village with White Elephant tours for the next day. Then I walked to the Mekong to see the sunset.

In the evening I ran into the British people again and convinced them to come with me to a restaurant I heard about from a guy I met while traveling in Vietnam. He said it had the best sausages he ever had and was in a great location- on the other side of a bamboo bridge spanning the Kahn river. 

The place was really chill, we sat on the balcony where there were low tables and cushions on the ground to sit on. We ate the sausage as well as the Lao variation on a hot pot- a grill for meat with a trough around the outside to cook vegetables, noodles, and eggs in broth. So good.

Pics: 1. Lounging about 2. The Laotian hotpot

My tour left at 8:30 am on Friday, but I woke up at 5 to see the monks procession down the main street collecting alms from Buddhists. There were many, many monks in bright orange, and the atmosphere was really light and pleasant (although the monks were solemn, of course). There was one kid who kept accidentally dropping sticky rice intended for the monks basket and laughing at himself; he was really cute.

I went back to the hotel to pack my stuff and made my way to the White Elephant office. There was one person on the trek, Paula of England, and our leader was Kai, currently a university student but raised in a remote Hmong village. 

Pic: Kai waving hello
A truck took us an hour east of Luang Probang and dropped us off just off the highway. We hiked up into the mountains for 5 hours, all the while asking Kai questions about the various Lao cultures. In Lao there are 3 main ethnicities: native Laotian, Khmer (migrated from Cambodia), and Hmong (migrated from China). The Lao people generally live in the flatlands and close to rivers, the Khmer in the foothills, and the Hmong on the highlands.  

On the way up to the Khmer village where we stayed we passed by many small huts built on a parcels of farmland; all slash and burn style agriculture. Nobody lives in the huts normally, but the farmers use them as a shelter from rain or particularly hot days. We stopped briefly in a Hmong village to rest, then continued up the mountain to the Khmer village. 

The Khmer village is located just next to a Hmong village, which was unusual for it to be A. so high up and B. so close to another village. There are 60 families living there, which is pretty average according to Kai. We walked through the village, which was full of dust and farm animals, to the chief of the village's hut, where we spent the night. As we walked around the children were shy and stared at us from behind various objects.

Pics: 1. Me standing by the totally out of place sign at the entrance to the village. It was the only thing with writing on it in the whole town 2. Village children staring at us from behind a wagon

After putting down our stuff we went to the spring to wash ourselves, then walked over the hill to the other village. Kai explained to us the differences in construction techniques, trades, and living styles between the Khmer and Hmong people. In the Hmong village the children were much less aloof and immediately came up to us with big smiles. 

When we got back to the Khmer village the sun was setting and the wife and daughter of the chief were making dinner and Kai set to helping them, me being nosy and in the way all the while. 

Pic: The wife and daughter of the chief in their kitchen

It was dark after dinner, and because there was no electricity in almost all the village we lit candles and hung out around the table outside. One of the families had bought a generator and a TV and charged admission to the rest of the village to watch at night, so the children and parents who couldn't afford it came to the table where we were sitting. We played games with the children for a while, then Kai bought a bottle of Lau Lau (Lao whisky made from rice), which we drank with all present. In their culture only one person drinks at a time, and the guest of honor gives out the drinks but must drink himself first. Even the children were given Lau Lau, although very small sips. We went to bed at around 8 or so because we were tired from the long hike, and woke up the next morning just before dawn to the roosters. 

Pic: Huddled around the candle with the children.

We packed up, ate breakfast, and left at around 7 am to walk back around the the pick up point. The driver took us to the Kahn river about 40 km up from Luang Prabang and we unloaded the kayaks and got in to the water. We kayaked for 2 hours before stopping for lunch. The scenery was beautiful, although kayaking for that long in basically still water took a toll on my back. An hour after stopping for lunch we passed by a village where all the people were by the water. I asked Kai what they were doing, and he told me they were panning for gold. I asked if we could stop, so we pulled over to a beach. He offered to show me how it's done, so I learned how to pan for gold. I got a tiny little fleck on my first try...

Pics: 1. The scenery from my kayak 2. Panning for gold

We got back to town at 4, and the owner of White Elephant invited us to the have dinner at his restaurant, called Utopia. After showering, etc, I made my way there at 8 pm. It was a really cool space, it even had a fully lit beach volleyball court and a large bamboo terrace. The next morning I woke up and booked a bus for later in the morning back to Vientiane, where I met Julia, a New Yorker who I went bowling with and spent time with in Hanoi, in the evening and we shared a hotel room. Today I worked on my blog and walked around Vientiane, and tonight Julia and I are getting on and overnight bus to Pakse, which is in the far south of Laos. 

Luang Prabang, especially the trek in the mountians,  was definitely a highlight of my trip thus far. 

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