Monday, October 24, 2011

Laos Part 3 (b) - Pak beng to Luang Prabang

Another foggy morning met me as I peeped out the window, but nowhere near as dense as the previous morning in Chiang Khong. It was just before 6am when I left my little room to check out the morning scene. Already, there was a lot going on down at the dock. Goods were being loaded into the storage areas at the rear of the boats. Many captains were squatting on the shore, smoking and talking to each other, probably exchanging notes and tips of the river conditions. More than a dozen long, cabin boats had docked over night, some going north to Huay Xai, others going south to Luang Prabang. The boat crews most likely met in Pak Beng every few days as their boats made the round trip, ferrying travellers up and down the river.
I was the first of the passengers from our boat out and about, taking to opportunity to shoot of a few photos of the low cloud hanging over the surrounding hills. The river below looked dark, almost menacing, below the gloomy sky, not like the previous afternoon when it looked so vibrant. Even the rocks looked more ominous somehow, lurking, menacing along the shore. A few smaller boats were already negotiating the powerful current. It was much cooler here, so I returned to the room to grab a hoodie to keep warm.
Mr R and Mr J from our boat were out on the hotel patio and we exchanged greetings and reports of our night’s sleep. Their wives were still finishing packing for our onward journey. Another couple from our boat was already in the hotel’s small eating area, the smell of toast and coffee wafting out, making me hungry. In minutes flat, I had a super quick shower (without hot water), packed, and dragged J over to grab breakfast. For me, breakfast is usually fruit and toast, but J enjoyed the free range eggs. Unlike our western mass produced free range eggs, these chickens roamed totally free around towns and villages, eating scraps, plants, and bugs, which J thought made the tastiest eggs. I’m sure half the reason he loves travelling around south-east Asia is for the truly free range produce he gets to enjoy.
Phet had asked us to have our bags at reception by 8am, ready to get going. Over the next hour, the hung-over group swayed into the restaurant, looking a little green around the gills. They listlessly groaned about their various levels of drunkenness and amount of lao-lao consumed the night before. The two Dutch families were noisily having their breakfast, with the children all running around, like children do, shouting and playing. J, the other older couples and I mused at the pain they were inflicting on our hung-over friends.
With over 40 minutes up our sleeve, we walked back into the main part of town. The smell of freshly baked bread drew us to the ‘Phakdee’ bakery. So many delicious cakes, croissants, bagels, rolls and bread were displayed in the glass display. Already, many of the other travellers from the other boats docked in town had depleted the bakery’s stocks. All the bagels and sandwiches had been sold out. J and I grabbed some croissants for morning tea on the boat, buying a few extra to share with the others.
The dock was a hive of activity, with many of the tourist boats already getting ready to depart. Stalls with charcoal grills barbequing various meats and fish were doing a roaring trade selling hot food and cold drinks. Young children were playing along the river bank, running around with toy trucks and playing games. Older children rode by on their bikes, neatly dressed in school uniforms with white shirts, the older girls in long woven skirts with traditional designs. Motorbikes ferried children to school, women to shops, and farmers to work. The town was well awake.

By about 8:30, or a bit later, we were all filing over the gang plank onto our boat. The boats were lined up, bang right up against each other. To pull out from the stack, boats are pushed off the shore while the engine is put gently in reverse. The crew and people on the other boats help guide and push the boat backwards, as it slowly slides out from between the other vessels. All along the length of the boat, large bamboo poles are tied every few metres acting like bumpers. As our boat knocked up next to the neighbouring boats, the poles banged and crashed against the poles of the other boats. A few times the poles got stuck against the poles of the neighbouring boat provoking us into action, pushing and shoving the boats apart. It was a great source of amusement, watching the poor hung-over souls trying to help, while clearly cringing at every loud thump.
Clear from the other boats, we were soon on our way. The clouds were still low as we rounded the first bend. I found it fascinating how the river grew wide in some places, and then narrower in others. Over the next couple of hours as we cruised along the river, the cloud broke apart and lifted. In some places I swear I could reach out and grab a cloud as it slowly rose like an over-grown cotton ball up the side of a hill.
Like the previous day, I spent the day staring out the window at the never ending, ever-unfolding, stunning scenery as it passed by. The younger travellers napped their hang-overs away. The Dutch families (nick-named the elephants) thumped up and down the passage from the front to the rear all day. OK. Children are energetic and always tend to be rowdy. But the parents seriously stomped up and down the boat like they were barn dancing. Any wonder the children clomped up and down the aisle so heavily. The retired couples chatted and we chatted with them off and on, exchanging information about Laos and our onward itineraries.
Lunch both days was served on the boat. There was so much food with a number of dishes served both days. One of the English girls and I were vegetarians, and the cook made sure we had a few dishes too. Over the two days, the meals included deep fried fish, Lao curry, noodles with a thick tomato sauce, fragrant veggie stir-fry, spicy green papaya salad, BBQ’ed marinated chicken pieces, noodle stir fry, as well as lots of rice, fresh fruit and condiments. Everyone had seconds and thirds, and thoroughly enjoyed the food.
Mid afternoon, the scenery changed from rolling hills, to more dramatic limestone cliffs. Phet informed us that we had arrived at the Pak Ou caves. A couple of other boats were docked at the small wooden pier. Our boat was brought along side as another boat left. We all eagerly jumped off and walked the few steps up to the first, or lower cave. Another group were just completing their visit, and our group soon had the cave to ourselves. Phet provided some information on the cave’s origin and history, as well as how all the Buddha statues had come to be placed there. Before Buddhism spread to Laos, the caves were used to worship water gods. Later, the caves were transformed into a temple of sorts. Locals bring unwanted, damaged or broken Buddha statues there. There are well over 1000 statues in the lower cave.
The first smaller cave is open to the river with lots of natural light. You only need to negotiate a few sets of steps to get in to explore. However the second, higher and bigger cave is set way up the cliff. Hundreds of steep steps have been carved into the side of the cliff. Phet warned us that it was an exhausting climb, which I can testify to, particularly in the Laos heat. Thankfully much of it is shaded. But the sweaty climb was well worth it. Once in the cave, it’s almost completely black and cool. A torch or light is a must. We had a torch with us, but there are a few ladies out the front that rent torches and sell cool drinks to us tourists. Inside were hundreds more Buddha statues, with an impressive line of large, golden, standing Buddhas near the entrance. Toward the back in the darkest part of the cave is an alter of sorts, swathed in golden saffron cloth surrounded by many small Buddha statues in various poses. The aroma of incense hung in the air inside the cave, making it a peaceful place of refection and meditation. I found it very inspiring.
We spent about an hour or maybe slightly more at the caves. Many of our group did not bother making the climb to the second cave. J and I were the last to return to the boat. We were soon on our way to our next stop, the ‘Whisky Village’. By the time we arrived at the village, the sun was beginning to get low in the sky. We stepped of the boat to a little dried-mud bank that had been baking in the hot sun all day. You could feel the heat radiating from the lava-like hot sand. A set of wooden stairs provided easy access to the village.
The village itself is firmly on the tourist trail. More than a dozen stalls are set up, mostly selling fabrics, and jewellery, but also lao-lao whiskey. Weaving looms are set up to show visitors how they make their cloth. But I would say much of the fabrics are not woven on site, and were the same as the textiles seen all through Laos. Some of the jewellery was made by the locals, but the whisky is apparently made on site. Bottles filled with loa-lao of all different shapes and sizes lined the stalls, many also containing other delicacies; snakes, scorpions, insects, lizards, and bear paws. I was a bit grossed out. Good luck getting any of those through Australian customs.

We chatted to a few of the ladies and watched them weaving checked scarves. I bought a few for a dollar each to give as gifts to my friends back home, with the happy knowledge of having met the actual person who wove each piece. We wondered through the reasonably large township, looking through all the stalls. Other than our group, the town was almost deserted. Many tour groups came throughout the day, and now the ladies were beginning to put their goods away and shut up shop. I purchased a few small bracelets from a young girl before we returned to the boat. Luang Prabang was less than an hour away.
Knowing this was the last leg of the journey, most of the other passengers became excited about arriving in Luang Prabang, a UNESCO World Heritage site. But I was actually feeling a little sad. The last two days cruising down the majestic Mekong was the most relaxing, scenic, and enjoyable time I’d had in a long time, and was probably my number one highlight of my entire holiday.

I shot off many shots as the sun began sinking behind the hills. In the late afternoon haze, the hills appeared painted in various shades of blue and grey. I spotted the golden chedi on top of Mount Phousi, the 100 metre tall hill in the centre of the Luang Prabang peninsular; now I knew the boat journey was coming to an end. The city was hidden behind tall trees lining the banks, but you could see many buildings nestled amongst them. As we approached the main dock, we saw more and more shops, hotels, restaurants and houses. Dozens of boats were lined up along the river bank, many identical to the vessel that had been my wonderful retreat for the last couple of days.

The sun has almost set as our boat finally docked, casting golden rays on the river and lighting up the colours of the other boats. Steep concrete stairs and ramp provided the main access between the town and the dock. Hundreds of passengers arrived by boat each day. Many men and boys were waiting for our boat to dock, ready to carry our bags up the hill to the street above. Phet had warned us about these guys. Many didn’t wait to find out whether you wanted your bag carried or not – they just went ahead and grabbed them, took them up the hill, and then demanded a few dollars for their effort. So as our bags were unloaded off the boat, we kept a careful eye on them to make sure they weren’t hauled away. Even so, my bag seemed to suddenly disappear. J grabbed his case and we made our way up to the top, hoping my bag was up there and wouldn’t cost us too much.
Up at street level, a line of jumbos and tuk-tuks stood waiting for travellers newly arrived off the boats. Phet was helping the passengers from our boat to arrange transport to their various hotels. I spotted my bag beside a group of boys. I calmly walked up, picked it up, and carried it back to our group. Not sure what happened, or whether Phet had said something to the boys, but I wasn’t approached for money.
Our group said their goodbyes and exchanged email addresses, or made arrangements to meet later. I already had Mrs S and Mrs L’s email details, and we were confident we would bump into each other over the next few days. It was starting to get dark as we loaded our bags and ourselves into a little white jumbo, and set off to our guesthouse (Riverside Guesthouse – review on TripAdvisor It was a charming place and we loved that it was away from the busy part of town. It was dark and well past beer o’clock when we dropped our bags, freshened up, and headed up the quiet riverside street towards the main part of town. I was ready for my second beer Lao (Ok –strictly speaking not my second – but second night drinking beer Lao), and I was hungry. We chose a restaurant that overlooked the Mekong, though in the dark of the evening you could only see the moon light reflected on the fast flowing waters. The first beer didn’t even touch the sides. I ordered an interesting sounding dish, though pretty terrible for its western style: a Lao style pizza, with chillies, herbs and vegetables, and it wasn’t very inspiring, but a perfect accompaniment for the beer.
Many travellers from all around the world were eating and drinking in restaurants all along the Mekong riverfront. I was keen to explore and stretch my legs, so dragged J for a wonder through the streets and through the night market. It’s full of stalls of same-same goods, with little variety. I liked looking at the paintings, but each stall that had paintings had exactly the same images as all the other stalls. I guess someone, somewhere, made a decision that people would buy these scenes, and the artists just stuck to the established pictures, patterns and colours. Other stalls had a similar problem; stalls of identical fabrics, identical clothing, identical lamp shades, identical bags, trinkets, slippers, coffee and spices. You’d walk a few metres and swear you just saw the same stall just a few steps back. It was less than inspiring.
We walked around the streets near the market for a little while before finding a great spot to sit and enjoy another beer – the bar with no name. It’s on the main street near the market. Simple seats are set up on a little raised balcony that overlooks the busy street. A great spot to watch the world go by; motorbikes coming and going, tourists heading to the market or back to their hotels with bags of same-same goods, and people just enjoying great food and company. Our beers were cold and came with a plate of freshly roasted peanuts. I rested my feet up, sipped my refreshing cool ale, reflecting on the last two wonderful days on the river. Now we’re really in Laos. - k

1 comment:

  1. Hi Kathy, I have been lapping up all your posts about Laos. We are going there in January and covering the 3 cities you have written about. I am already a little disappointed that we have assigned only a day to Vang Vieng. What would you suggest we definitely cover there? We are not really the party kinds and tubing did not catch our fancy.