Monday 3rd December

It was our last day. We were to leave at 3.00 pm. Having packed our bags we went down to our last breakfast with Bruce, he was not going to leave until the next day.

Breakfast over and having vacated our room, we set off for our last visit to town.

it was obviously wash day at the temple…… it was Monday after all!

The road of the night market looks very different in the day. It is quite a wide road. Tuk tuk’s sit patiently and colourfully waiting for customers.

We decided to investigate the far end of the road where the old colonial buildings are. It is also the location of the specialist and more up market shops and restaurants.

Some side streets….

We had a lovely morning looking at textiles and paintings.

I have also to report one or two more costly investments……. Laos is generally very light on the purse to visit. Food is very cheap and eating out amazingly good value.

For our final meal we went to the Bamboo Tree, a restaurant recommended by Yael, one of the Western Australia trip members. It was excellent and we had a wonderful final repast.

Suitably fed and watered, we took a tuk tuk back to the hotel.

There was just a bit of time to take a few photographs of the hotel gardens and the view across the river of the gardens on the other side of the river, in the sunshine……..

It was time to go. A great and colourful holiday was over……

Sunday, 2nd December

One of the highlights of Luang Prebang is the morning Sai Baat, the ritual arms giving that takes place before dawn each morning. In Luang Prebang itself, 400 monks process from the Wat or temple to collect food from the waiting people. To attend this we were going to have to leave the hotel at 4.30. On hearing there was a mini session of this alms giving taking place around the corner from us, Denise and I decided to go for the smaller, more intimate experience!

We left our room at 5.45 am and headed along the lane to the main road where we had been told the monks would come at round 6.00. What we, of course, had not taken into account was that at 6 o’clock it was pitch dark! 😳 Nevertheless, not to be found wanting, we took up our position at what we thought must be the temple. Sure enough there in the gloom we could just make out the outline of two women, seated on stools waiting for the monks arrival. Well we rather assumed that was what they were doing, given there was not much else going on. Apart from the occasional dog going past and the even more occasional early morning tuk tuk. We stood there in the quiet for several minutes before we heard the rustle of more people joining those already seated. Further along the road another cluster of would be alms givers were gathering. The monks were not going to go hungry this morning!

Just after 6.00 about five monks approached from the right. We were standing, trying to look inconspicuous (why had I taken it into my head to wear white trousers!?!) on the opposite side of the road. The monks silently bent to take the offerings and then, standing to the left of the assembled almsgivers chanted for a short time. It was a lovely moment in the light of the building behind them.

During the lull in proceedings we decided to cross the road to stand in a side street near where the other group of almsgivers were seated. Within a few minutes more monks processed past, each silently bending to take the food and then moving off, taking the turning opposite us and heading off down the road. There was no chanting this time. Just, perhaps, 20 saffron robed figures walking off into the dark.

Amazing. It was not the major event of the town promenade, but we felt we had a private viewing of an age old event. It felt quite special.

Arriving back at the hotel, Denise returned to bed for an hour and I took up my ipad to write, as a dedicated scribbler. It is the best time of the day to do my blog as the Wi-fi, somewhat up and down at best, is more likely to work.

We met our remaining travellers at breakfast. Young Sarah was off to spend a morning with elephants and we were taking Bruce, keen photographer, off to town for a bit of sightseeing.

Luang Prebang used to be the royal capital of Laos. Once again it sits at the confluence of two rivers – the much mentioned Mekong and the Nam Khan which runs passed our hotel. The city was pronounced a World Heritage location in 1995 because of its beautifully preserved colonial buildings. It had a monarchy until this was dissolved in 1975, the last King and Queen being held prisoner in a cave in the north east of the country until they died in the early 1980’s. Like Cambodia it has had to pay homage to both Vietnam and Siam and was later under the authority of the French whose legacy, in addition to the old buildings, would seem to be wonderful French bread!!

It is a very clean and bustling place, without the tension that seemed to be associated with – say – Pnom Penh in Cambodia. It has some wonderful architecture and Buddhist temples.

Our first stop was the local market. Very different from the night market, this is where the locals shop. There were pink eggs…..

There were raw innards……

….and innards cooked

There was local algae……..

Herbs

Spices

Unknown things…..?

……and religious offerings.

There were little old ladies……

And cheeky boys

It was great fun!!

Leaving the market behind we first found the palace, now a museum. The lilies in the pond were beautiful

(Arty shot!)

It had a temple in the grounds of some magnitude.

We then headed up the steps to the Stuppa which can be seen for miles around as it towers over the town. There were a lot of steps up to the top and an equal amount of camaraderie amongst the clamberers as we made slow progress up to the top.

When we got there, there was a stall selling little finches in tiny cages. It is thought to be lucky to set these little birds free. We wanted to free them all! In the end we set four free. They were so pleased to escape their minuscule baskets, not above nipping those trying to set the free!!

Having looked down on views of the city from every angle,

we walked back down the steps and rewarded ourselves with a snack and a beer. After this, the afternoon turned out to be a many templed affair, I can hear Keith groan!

At the day of this road we came to the confluence of the two rivers, the Mekong and the Nam Kamh and decided to have a beer and watch the river traffic.

Our thorough investigation of the religious houses of Luang Prebang, culminated in visiting the oldest temple in the city dated 1650.

It was exceptional in its decoration. Unfortunately by this time I was running out of charge, which has saved the world and my blog from a lot of photographs, but I managed one or two of what I thought to be the really special bits. This temple used to be used by the royal family until 1975 and they had endowed some special pieces. I particularly liked the Tree of Life and a collage showing rural life. Of course it had its usual gold trappings too…….

Eventually templed out, we took a tuk tuk back to the hotel, where we had agreed to meet Sarah to go to eat after a bit of retail therapy in the night market. 😳 The previous night had been a sort of reconnaissance mission!

We set out again on the hotel’s courtesy bus around 6.00 and were into the fray by 6.15. It was great fun. It is a big market and it took time. Nevertheless, as agreed, we met up again at 7.30 to decide who was going to be blest with providing our repast. We did not make a good choice. Of all the lovely places to eat, we chose badly. It had all the disaster combinations – poor service, delayed meal, over cooked, further requests for additional food not met. Slightly disappointed, we returned to the hotel. Not an ideal ‘Last Supper’.

Agreeing to meet for a final breakfast the next day, we adjourned to bed.

Saturday, 1st December

I woke up before it was light to a cacophony of cocks crowing. There are chickens everywhere in Laos and we have seen some very fine cockerels strutting about or under large cloches made of open basket work. Cock fighting is still s legal sport in Laos.

We had our breakfast on the hotel’s terrace looking over the Nam Khan River.. unfortunately it was quite a dull morning (our first), but you could see people working in the fields opposite.

Our first outing of the day was to the Museum of Anthropology, which was really interesting. We were given a short talk by the manager, a dapper young man who spoke very good English. He explained that the Hmong and Kmhmu people we have come across in our travels are just two of the ethnic groups making up the population of Laos, there are another two groups and many more splinter groups.

All have their own distinct culture and the museum is keen to encourage young people to take an interest in their heritage and continue the traditions. A key part of this is the ceremonial clothing. There were some splendid and beautifully worked garments on display.

Kmhmu

Hmong

We had seen young girls working on their embroidery in the villages, in preparation for their marriage. Apparently as part of this they and the female members the family will all work on the bedding which the bride should have prepared. Obviously no John Lewis wedding list here!

Unfortunately we did not have as much time as we would have liked here. There were some wonderful exhibits on display, including the basketry of the Kmhmu people (very dear to my heart!)

And musical instruments.

The inevitable museum shop had some wonderful pieces for sale. The museum supports the women to continue to make things in their traditional way not only to maintain their cultural skills but to provide them with an independent income. Obviously this is not so evidently needed in the cities, but in the rural areas you can see that it would be a real contribution to a family income.

Reluctantly leaving the Museum behind, we took quite a long tuk tuk ride into the country to see the famous Kuang Si waterfalls. These are about 50 minutes outside of town and are approached by the usual avenue of food stalls when you near the site.

I have to say that cooking seems at least one tradition of the Laos people that shows little sign of abating!!

En route to the waterfalls you pass through a bear rescue sanctuary. Apparently there are bears in Laos, poached for their saliva. This often leaves cubs without their mother and the rescue centre had a number of bears who seemed reasonably happy in their semi native setting. Most there had been rescued very young and had no experience of life in the wild so hopes of re integrating them into their natural habitat are quite slim which is a shame.

I felt I could really relate to this last one – it is probably how I would react with a lot of people peering at me!

We wandered up the muddy path ( it had rained over night) and soon reached the lowest pool. The colour of the water is due to a chemical reaction apparently (the scientifically inclined amongst us will know more…… I just thought it was visually pleasing and slightly unusual).

It got more and more impressive as we worked our way up to the top …..

It was a roaring force not to be stopped. I can’t begin to imagine what it is like in the Monsoon. You could swim in the lower pools and our swimmers took advantage of the opportunity.

We wondered back down and had lunch from the stalls of the ever patient ladies at the bottom of the falls and then went off to the butterfly farm a little way away. This was a quiet and gentle oasis compared to the torrent not a kilometre away. The contrast was somehow typical of what we have found in Laos generally. The forceful and the gentle.

The butterflies were fascinating and very beautiful, but quite beyond my photographic capabilities. I did my best….

Not only were the butterflies beautiful, I learnt a lot about butterfly life that I did not know. A really interesting visit.

However, it was time to return to the City and just time to freshen up before we took to the centre of town and the famous (well famous here!) night market. Every afternoon between 4.00 and 10.30 the whole centre of town becomes a night market selling everything from food (inevitably!) to paintings, to clothes, to lanterns, wood and weaving. It is a colourful joy.

After a rummage here we met the group for what was effectively the last time we would all be together. The group was going separate ways – to Thailand, Sri a Lanka, Vietnam and for us eventually home. Flights rather dictated a delay for us, so we will leave on Monday.

A picture will follow here when available!

After goodbyes were said it was off to bed early. It is an early rise for monks tomorrow.

Friday, 30th November

We set off at 8.00 on the journey which was to take us to Luang Prebang, until the 16th century, the capital of Laos.

For the first hour our route was reasonably flat as we worked our way across the valley to the mountains beyond. Our mini bus was much more comfortable and was for our private use, so we had a bit more space and the road was surfaced.

We stopped when we came to a bridge in a small town. The scenery was spectacular.

And there were a lot of large carp below us. These are considered sacred here and it is thought particularly lucky for you if you feed them first thing in the morning. Outcome – some very large fish swimming handily under the bridge!

I am afraid my limited lens does not do them justice….. take it from me there were a lot and they were big!

We had a funny incident here. The Korean ladies – I think they might have been the same ones who were at the waterfall the day before – appeared on the bridge just as we were leaving and one of them was taking a photograph of the group. Being my usual helpful self, I offered to take over the photography😁. It was not until I had taken the first shot that I realised they were taking it the wrong way! I had my back to the beautiful scenery and the backdrop to their photograph was a very fresh building site! Maybe it is a Korean thing 😳. In any event, I was not having that and soon ushered them over to the correct side of the bridge and they had the beautiful view in the background. Little Miss Helpful as always!!

We set off again. We began to climb and the road began to deteriorate although the effect was far less in our healthily sprung vehicle. The road also started to zig zag dramatically to accommodate the steepness of the incline. It went on and on and the views became better and better. A feature of the day were the houses along the roadside, often almost suspended over the edge of the cliff it seemed – but they had amazing views!! Not much help though if there was a subsidence I thought!

We again came across major earth works. The Chinese and their railway again. It is to be an express route between the major cities. I could not help but feel that the village communities that we were passing would have no real benefit from it, even when it was built. It would not be stopping at the sleepy hollows but would loudly rush past taking people to and from a world that these rural folk can only imagine.

There are two main groups of people living up here. The Hmong and the Kmhmu. The Hmong tend to live on the top of the mountain and descend a bit to do their farming. They are lighter of face and more Chinese looking. The Kmhmu live lower down the mountainside and go up to do their farming. They tend to be slightly darker skinned. Both communities seem to co exist happily and both have their own cultures. There are no temples here. The people believe in spirits and turn for support in times of crisis and ill health on their shaman.

The morning wore on as we dozed and watched the scenery unfold in turns. Often we were caught in a line behind lorries and tankers as they made the laborious climb, gears crunching. There is only one road and everything travelling between Vientiane and Luang Prebang has to use it. Overtaking is a dangerous business. A sheer limestone wall on one side and a sheer drop on the other.

We eventually stopped for an early lunch at a restaurant near a community at the top of a particularly arduous ascent. We had seen the red roof of the restaurant in the distance for some time. We were so lucky that it was a glorious day. We were surrounded by mountains and green hills. Even the loo had a view!

The scene from the top was quite breathtaking!

It got better of course with us in it!

We set off again. Although there were still some ‘up’s’, we were in reality beginning our long descent into Luang Prebang. And it was to be a long one. A very long one. After travelling for about half an hour, we came to a road closed sign and lots of big diggers in our path. They were repairing a land slip that had occurred during the big rains. Best estimate of the time before we could pass was an hour and a half. In the event it was nearer two.

There was nothing for it but to wait. There was a small village a few hundred yards back, so we wandered back up the road to see what we could see. The village was a small ribbon community, rehoused from the top of the mountain to bring the people nearer to the facilities available in the area – there was a school, a tap and access to medical help. I always wonder at the element of choice in these moves. I fear there was none. There were very few people about. Despite the steepness of the terrain, the people Farm these remote locations and everyone was out working. Unbelievably hard work it must be too. Apparently peanuts are a major crop and there were some drying….

That is a very small pig walking through them!

We also saw tobacco drying on the top of a healthy looking wood store

The housing was a mix of breeze block buildings and bamboo and straw. The outlook was amazing.

It was all very photogenic, but I fear it is a hard life.

A banana flower

Aubergine drying for seed……

……. the herb garden

This was clinging to the side of the road!

After our sightseeing interlude, we wandered back to the bus, which had been joined by a long line of frustrated travellers, all approaching the hold up in their own way.

Eventually we set off again, this time in a caravan of vehicles. One or two death defying overtaking later and we were bowling along again.

Our final stop of the day was at a Hmong village, obviously used to foreign visitors. The children soon gathered, but no one begs and all are willing to be photographed. Some older girls were working on their needlework. This is a key issue in their marriage process. Apparently you start the needlework very young and it seems girls are chosen to be wives not only on their looks but also for their prowess with the needle. I would have been single for an even longer time had this been a prerequisite in England methinks!!!

Then there were the children……..

Most were very happy to have their photo taken, particularly if you showed them their picture afterwards!

Others were a bit shy……

One was having a haircut…..

The street where they lived……

The school…….

The view from the village.

We got back on the bus to continue our journey.

We just managed a post sunset shot en route –

And then it was all steam ahead for Luang Prubang which we reached around 7.00. pm. Our hotel is a little way outside of the city centre, so it was a bowl of soup in the hotel and then bed after a bit of recovery time. We start a city tour at 9.00 am. tomorrow. This tour is not for the faint hearts!!

Thursday, 29th November

Having thought about it overnight, I have to report that your blogger ‘wimped out’ of the bicycle ride. I know. I felt a real light weight. But take a stony road, hills and a mountain bike with gears (my sit up and beg bike only has 3!) I saw a disaster in the making, so I opted out and joined Denise in the support vehicle. All things considered, a good move.

It was a bit overcast when we left centre ville, but the day brightened and warmed up quite quickly. We sat in the back of the truck that followed the cyclists to provide water and comfort, should the need arise. This was definitely ‘tour de Laos’ rather than ‘Tour de France’!! The whole enterprise seemed a source of complete mystery to the locals!

I think it is well worth dwelling on the villagers for a moment. Rice seems to be the main crop. As the rice harvest has taken place the fields are full of dry straw. Although town dwellers tend to have perhaps three children, in rural communities large families of perhaps 5 and 6, may be more, are still common we were told. Children being a good source of labour. In addition, there being no pension provision, children are relied upon to look after their aged parents. A good number of children spread the load of responsibility. Old people are respected and cared for. The children we saw all looked happy enough, tumbling with the dogs, cats and chickens in the dust around most houses.

We travelled up through a couple of villages out into the farmland beyond for about 7 kms. It was a very bumpy ride for us in the truck and it proved impossible to take many photographs because you could not keep your hands still, as we lurched along – swerving to avoid the biggest potholes and clattering across the narrow wooden bridges that spanned the streams and water ways.

At one stage we came across some major earthworks. These were part of the the new press railway line the Chinese are financing and building. The trouble of these ventures is that rather than giving work or trade to the local people, the Chinese provide all their own resources – manpower, machinery and equipment so it contributes nothing to the local economy.

The view from our perch in the back of the truck – on a less bumpy bit!

We eventually arrived at the nearest you can get to the Kuang Nyui Waterfall we were visiting. Our cyclists dismounted and we clambered out. Passing the usual gastronomic opportunity, plus puppy, we set out to clamber up the hill.

We started up the track, crossing a very wobbly bridge, even in Laos terms – planks shot up as you put your foot on them and the whole thing swayed from side to side!

The route took us up and through some pretty dense vegetation and then down again to an even more precarious looking bridge, but by now we could hear the roar of the water and see it tumbling over the rock above us.

I think it is difficult to capture a waterfall on a photograph as it is a roaring, living thing, too active to be represented in a still photograph. The Korean ladies who had passed me on the track were all very happily being soaked by the force of the downpour and gave some size perspective……..

Eventually the Asian representatives and their shrieking left and our little party took their turn,

Bruce and I performed paparazzi duty! There is nothing like a bit of water to give people pleasure. Somehow I have never been a Water Baby!

There was another, much more gentle pool on the way back where more bathing took place, before we left it to its quiet babbling. Laos generates a lot of hydro electric power in its towering limestone mountains and now sells it to its neighbours less blest.

We wandered back down to the vehicles, buying drinks on the way to support the small local community.

There were not quite so many cyclists on the way back. Bruce and Sarah had joined the support party and their bicycles were expertly tied on the roof.

Denise taking her duties seriously!

It was such a lovely meander back stopping for photos of water buffaloes

Pigs

And just views!

Back in the city we had our first free time of the holiday. Denise and I just lunched on a few cashews and nibbles and had a rest before setting out for an afternoon stroll.

We crossed the river on a very long and wobbly bridge amazingly shared by pedestrians, cyclists and motorcyclists. In the usual way, the bridge swayed and the planks flexed as weight fell on them. I am sure they have been safe for years, but still felt happier when we had reached the other side!

The south side of the river it was much less developed, with hotel buildings much more in the local style.

Looking across back to the north side, buildings were multi floored and you could see the Vang Viang of the future. In fact it is a town with something of a darker recent past. Some years ago it became something of a backpackers paradise, situated as it is on the Nam Song river, in a beautiful valley about halfway between Vientiane and Luang Prebang. To some extent it became a victim of its own success. In addition to the backpackers who had found an inexpensive, beautiful location that provided kayaking, swimming caving and rock climbing it also attracted bars and restaurants including such niceties as magic mushrooms and marijuana infused pizzas. Unfortunately, it deteriorated into a place of drunkenness, drugs and debauchery by all accounts and when this was mixed with the outdoor pursuits and a number of people died, embassies started to register it as a dangerous place to go. Eventually the Government cracked down and closed some of the more hard core rave bars, started to enforce the drug laws and closed down the more dangerous activities. Vang Vieng had cleaned up its act and become a more respectable tourist location again. Since then it has grown rapidly with, it would appear, little deference to its cultural roots to n terms of buildings.

For us it was an enjoyable walk along the river. We passed cows and strollers and the inevitable cooking…

A lady was building a new fence to keep in her herd….

Someone was painting boats ready for the new season…….

At the end of road we turned inland and walked through a local community. We could see inside some houses.

Food stalls abounded and chicken feet were readily available for the discerning eater!

Back over another bridge, we watched the days balloon flights going over,,,,,, this bridge did offer at least a bit of protection from falling into the water!

Back on the night market street, young women were setting up their market stalls, babies attached. All happy, albeit shyly, for us to show an interest in their offspring.

We had agreed to meet the rest of the crowd at The Elephant Crossing again and spent a jolly evening together before adjourning to bed. It is the 8 hour journey to Luang Prebang tomorrow – advertised as being another bumpy ride but with bends (😳) as we cross the mountain range that lies between us and it.

Wednesday, 28th November

Foregoing the opportunity of travelling by local bus because it was described as ‘too bumpy’ – I, of course, would have preferred this as providing ‘local colour’! – we took the ‘smoother’ option of a shared mini bus. As the other occupants were already on board when it arrived to collect us, we took up the four seats in the back. Our luggage was hoisted on the roof and we were off.

All went well until we got out of Vientiane. Our route took us down to the Mekong River where we took our last look at Thailand before turning away and heading out of the town. There was a short stop at the bus station when we feared that more passengers would be boarding (the mini bus was full in our terms!) but thankfully this was not the case and we were soon on the road to Vang Vieng. It was not long before before we realised that the suspension in our ‘smoother’ vehicle was more or less non existent. In these circumstances the back seat was probably the worst place to be. The road, although mostly tarmaced, had obviously been very badly affected by the rains, to the extent that there were vast tracts of just compacted stones and major pot holes. Before long we were being tossed around, leaving our seats and then descending back on to them with something of a bump (for which read thud!). We were hanging on to the handle on the seat in front for dear life as a way of containing our levitation. The journey was to take three and a half hours. The driver was obviously keen to get on (😳) and seemed to gleefully look upon every opportunity to pass the vehicle in front as a challenge to his standing in the racing world. We hurtled up behind things and just before the oncoming vehicle was perhaps a few yards away from it, he would overtake. This added lurching to the bouncing. People were beginning to look rather uncomfortable and I was just thanking my lucky stars for the gene pool that gave me a cast iron stomach.

After an hour we stopped at the local ‘services’. I denied myself the opportunity to use the facilities and instead took a few pictures, it not being possible to take any on the bus as the windows were dirty and I am lacking a sports programme on my ‘phone, which would have been the only thing to accommodate the movement!

On consulting our guide we were reassured that we had done the easier part of the journey. The road was going to get really bad now. And so it did. For the next 2 hours. However, what it was getting was higher and eventually we were in the mountains and despite the discomfort of the ride, we had to acknowledge that the scenery was quite beautiful.

We arrived at the hotel about 1.30. We were stiff from the journey and collapsed on the seats provided outside the hotel, thankful to have arrived in one piece. Shoes had to removed before entering, but we were eventually safely in a beautifully sunny room, where we munched a few nuts and rested until 2.45 when were off out again, this time to a cave.

Vang Vieng seems more of a village than a town and nestles in a valley more or less surrounded by mountains. We wandered down the main street where there was a lot of building going on. I thing Vang Vieng has been discovered and is building to accommodate the inrush of guests. I am glad to be here now. I think putting your rice out to dry in front of your house could soon become a thing of the past.

Turning off down a side road towards the river, smoke spiralled up from a bonfire in a lush green landscape whiile jagged topped, grey mountains loomed overhead.

The rice harvest is now over and the rice straw remains….

We continued down the track until we reached the river, here a wooden bridge with bright orange paint took us wobbling across the river, it’s wooden slats showing varying degrees degrees of spring, making walking a little uncertain, but the views were amazing.

The air is clear and crisp and everything feels so much fresher. The humidity is gone and though it is still very warm, it is much more comfortable. As we neared the cave there were the inevitable food stalls. You could graze here all day! Some of the things we tasted. All seemed very sweet versions of rice.

This one involved bee larvae……..

….. and these were medicinal mushrooms. It is alleged.

I have to admit, with apologies to any cave dwellers or potholers reading, that caves do not do a lot for me. I am sorry but there it is. I particularly don’t like those with fluorescent lighting of various hues rendering them more like Santa’s grotto than a wonder of nature. This one had the added disadvantage of being reached by a large number of steep steps. Nevertheless, in the interests of the party, I duly clambered up – with, I have to say, more zeal than some of my compatriots which is pleasing in my old age – and joined in the outing.

Nature at its best!

Grrrrrr!

The reveal at the end of the tunnel was a wonderful panorama…..

We returned through the tunnel and out to the river where there was a lady fishing.

We wandered back up the road towards the town….. please note the elephant clothing. Local brew!

On the way back, Bruce purchased his favourite variety of pancake – banana, cheese and egg. Not a combination I would recommend!!

The sun began to go town as we wandered up the town and a few balloons appeared overhead. We went to sit on the balcony of the Elephant Crossing Hotel to watch the sun go down over the river.

It seemed rude not to take advantage of their ‘happy hour’ offer – two cocktails for the price of one. I had two ‘Frogs’

Which was a combination of cucumber, mint, gin and tonic, all taken through a very eco friendly bamboo straw. All very satisfactory……

Tomorrow it is the cycle trip to the waterfall. Perhaps I will and perhaps I won’t!