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In Luang Prabang

And wishing we had several more days here!

sunny 30 °C
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On our first evening in Luang Prabang, recovering from the arduous journey there from Thailand, we did little other than enjoy our beer and pizza and flirt briefly with the night market on our way home. But the next morning we headed straight up to the main street to rent bicycles for the day—just $1.50 each. Ciaran rode on the back of Mark’s since we couldn’t find one his size (a recurring theme in this trip, it seems), and we managed to explore most of the old city this way, making a loop around it by following the water. We were dazzled by the town’s attractiveness. It just has charm in spades—everywhere we looked that morning, we saw meandering river, cobblestone sidewalks, makeshift cafes with their plastic tables out on terraces at the river’s edge, old colonial buildings, monks, children playing and riding bicycles, fresh coconuts for sale. We rode for several hours before deciding we needed a break, at which point we stopped for baguette sandwiches (and in my case, one fabulous iced latte) at a café back on the main street.

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The next day we decided to hire a songthaew to take us to Kuang Si waterfall about 35 kilometres away. I had my doubts about whether or not the trip would be worth it, since we don’t seem to have a lot of luck with waterfalls. For example, back in Munduk, Bali, we spent most of one day on an unguided trek in search of waterfalls (they were the main point of the trek). We managed to get lost after finding just one that was not terribly impressive, and spent most of the rest of that day wandering around in the forest, hot and thirsty. In Malaysia, we were promised a waterfall as part of an excursion we had signed up for—and we did see one, but we had forgotten to pack all the bathing suits, so we had to sit by the side of the water sweating while everyone else jumped in. In Thailand, we paid a fair amount of money to see the famous seven-tiered Erawan falls, where normally it’s possible to swim at gorgeous pools in several different areas. We arrived a few days after torrential downpours had turned the entire waterfall brown and frothy (it’s usually turquoise and inviting). The water looked like chocolate milk, and the falls were so swollen and powerful that we were not even allowed all the way up to the top of them. We gazed mournfully at signs inviting swimmers to take a dip, or warning them not to dive.

Watefall, shmaterfall, I was thinking—but as luck would have it, these falls were stunningly beautiful, with natural swimming areas at several levels. The water was emerald, clear and bracingly cold, and we managed to remember to bring bathing suits. The first thing we noticed was that if you took too long getting in, fish would nibble at your feet. That made it pretty easy to plunge right in despite the temperature.

Strangely, the waterfall area also houses a bear sanctuary (run by Free the Bears of Australia), so the kids had a close-up look at half a dozen unexpectedly playful Asiatic black bears, known as moon bears, who made good use of their facilities, swinging in hammocks, climbing trees, perching on treetops and rising up on their hind legs to swat at each other. These bears are generally all rescued as orphaned cubs when their mothers are poached or shot by hunters keen to sell their parts in China, where apparently there is demand for bear bile and bear paw soup.

There was a bit of drama on the way home. After we’d piled into the tuk-tuk and driven maybe 15 minutes down the highway, we came across an accident. A woman driving a motorcycle while carrying an infant in a sling and managing a four-year-old on the seat with her had somehow veered off the road and crashed in a shallow ditch. There was a man helping her out; he had a motorcycle as well, so it was unclear to us whether he was part of the accident or had just stopped to help her out. He flagged us down and, using some basic words and body language, indicated that she had broken her collarbone and should be taken to the hospital.

Broken collarbone and all, she managed to climb into the back of the truck with her baby still in its sling while we helped her older child board. It was a strange ride after that, since clearly she spoke no English and we spoke no Lao. She seemed to be in a mild state of shock, and was for the most part expressionless except for a handful of times when she adjusted the sling and pointed to her neck, grimacing slightly. It was one of those times when we really wished we knew a few more words. We arrived at the hospital, and the driver seemed to want to assure us that he would only be in there with her a few moments. Meanwhile, we were at pains to convince him that we were in no hurry at all and would be happy to wait as long as it took. We also wondered if the woman would need money for the hospital, but couldn’t ask that either. In the end, the driver reappeared less than five minutes after escorting the woman into the hospital, and that was the last we saw of any of them.

We had intended to visit a scenic bridge and at least one temple on our last day in Luang Prabang, but the rest of the afternoon was quickly eaten up by school work, foot scrubs and writing. By the time we left the hotel again, the temple was closed for the day and darkness was falling. We left the kids with Charlotte and set out for the bridge anyway, eventually reaching it after a few wrong turns. It was worth the trip; there are no cars allowed, just motorcycles and bicycles, and there’s a walkway for pedestrians on each side. The walkway is made of creaky slats of wood (through which you can see the river fifty feet below) finished off with a low metal fence on the side, and crossing it in the near-darkness was an eerie experience. On our way home, we passed by a most unusual sight: a makeshift skateboard park on the concrete grounds of what seemed to be a school or other community building. We finished off our final evening in Luang Prabang with dinner at our favourite restaurant (Khmu) and one last trip to the market to pick up a duvet cover I’d asked two women to sew for me.

I didn’t want to leave Luang Prabang without seeing the early morning procession of monks collecting alms, so I set our alarms for 6 a.m. and shook both kids awake to see it as well. I don’t think they appreciated it as much as I did, but it was one of those unforgettable experiences, like watching the people of Hanoi wake up and exercise outdoors before the city comes to life: some 270 saffron-robed monks, barefoot, silent and carrying begging bowls, walk down the small street our hotel faces each morning around 6 to collect food from local people who kneel on bamboo mats or sit on folding chairs. As the monks go by, these people reach into giant bamboo rice containers repeatedly, giving each monk one handful of cooked sticky rice. At this time of the day the city, already sleepy at its busiest, is incredibly peaceful. What I really loved was that it was a chance to witness something real rather than staged. Unlike the artificial “five-tribe villages” in Thailand that have been set up to make it easier for tourists to visit ethnic hilltribes (kind of like human zoos, unfortunately), this is just a routine thing that the monks do every day out of a combination of necessity and tradition.

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The necessity part is a bit of a mystery to me, actually; the whole idea behind the saffron robes and lack of shoes is that monks have presumably renounced material goods to devote themselves to the study of Buddhism and pursuit of enlightenment. In theory at least, they’re not supposed to own much more than a begging bowl. But every now and then you spot one somewhere in town (not just in Luang Prabang, but anywhere in Laos or Thailand) with a cell phone or sometimes even a digital camera. They often carry umbrellas for sun protection as well. It’s likely that not all monks are taking their studies quite as seriously as others. In Thai tradition, every man is supposed to spend at least three weeks being a monk at some point in his life. Some will decide to continue longer, possibly a lifetime, while others will decide they’ve put in their three weeks and are moving on. We were told by the owner of our hotel in Luang Prabang that boys as young as 7 or 8 can become monks. So it’s likely that some novices are taking the monk business more seriously than others.

When the last monk had disappeared down the street, we packed, went for breakfast, and boarded a tuk-tuk to the bus station, where we got on the bus that would take us to our next stop: Vang Vieng, about six hours away, mostly up and down a tortuously winding, terrifying road through mountains. The bus looked ordinary enough, but performed some feats of engineering that were anything but ordinary, such as managing hairpin turns that seemed to me to be calling out for the long, unwieldy bend itself in half. Luckily, I had doled out Gravol to both kids half an hour before the trip. They seemed impervious to the many dips, rises, twists and turns. But two hours into the trip I was digging into the Gravol bottle again for Charlotte, while Mark coped by closing his eyes and leaning his head against the seat in front of him. This was also the route that was until recently known for shootings and banditry, so there was really nothing relaxing about it.

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To top it off, Ciaran turned tornado on me at one point when his Nintendo DS wasn’t cooperating: I suggested he take a break and have a nap, so he slapped me. I snatched his Nintendo and closed it, and he went psycho because he wanted to turn the power off first so as not to drain the battery power. The long and the short of it is that ultimately I decided to punish both of us by removing his DS privileges for the rest of the long, long bus ride (at this point there were still four hours to go). Not pretty…but we survived, and Vang Vieng is beautiful. More on that next time.

Posted by The Rymans 20:28 Archived in Laos Tagged family_travel

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