The start of our trip through Indochina began with Laos. I knew next to nothing about Laos before we got there other than the fact that a good friend had recommended it. The country is known as a vacation spot to locals, but it is largely off the tourist path.
We were still a bit jet-lagged upon our arrival. Our guide and driver picked us up. To this day, I don’t know the name of our driver. He said his real name is a mile long, so just call him “Viang” which I never felt like I pronounced correctly. They took us to our hotel, the La Residence Phou Vao to drop off our bags. In hindsight, the hotel in Laos was probably the nicest hotel we had throughout the trip. It was extremely luxurious but still felt like we were “in the thick of things.” I quickly got used to the staff always greeting me with a smile so wide, it was as if I was their childhood idol.
After lunch at the hotel, we went out for a trip to a local village and the waterfall. As we were driving around, Viang told us just how recently Luang Prabang had become a place that you could actually get around. He would point to an ATM machine and say that they just got their first ATM machine two years ago. As we drove through the main street, he said that they paved the road just five years ago.
We drove a bit out into the country side and stopped. Viang led us up a small hill and into a Laotian village. We were immediately greeted by small children trying to sell us bracelets. After some hellos, Viang smiled and asked them to leave us alone and they pretty much did. They always stayed nearby though, watching us from around a corner. Viang gave us a brief description of the religious settings in Laos, most of which is Buddhist but also Animist (which I had never heard of). We passed women embroidering pillows, we passed beautifully made huts with woven grass walls. One man invited us into his hut so that we could see the inside. Of course, it was very sparse, but there was a TV and a raised bed. The TV was the only thing electric in the hut.
After the village, we went to the big waterfall in town the Kouang Si Waterfall. We didn’t know that you could swim in the waterfall, so neither of us brought our suits. But I would have loved to swim for a while. It seemed a bit dangerous because the water level was so high, but plenty of people were doing it. Because of the rainy season, many picnic areas near the waterfall were flooded. Bridges had been completely washed away. The water was quite dramatic.
The next day, I rose early to see the Buddhist monks in town. Every morning, the monks walk through town and ask for food. The local people believe that it is very good to give food to the monks, so they make their own rice or buy rice from a vendor, sit on mats, and drop rice into the monks’ alms bowls. I got up around 5am so that I could make it downtown and participate. Most of the tourist just took pictures, but there were a few of us that were on the matts, dropping rice into the monks’ bowls. I did not realize how hot the rice would be and you can’t ask a stream of 100 monks to stop to allow your fingers to cool down, so my fingers got a little burned. Also, I ran out of rice about halfway through and had to sit there looking foolish. I later found out that the monks go in order of seniority, so that the youngest monks end up with the smallest amount of food on purpose.
In Laos, many people are only able to get an education by joining a Buddhist monastery. They do not have to stay at the monastery their whole lives, but they join in order to learn to read and write. So Buddhism is very much engrained into their society.
After David got up, we met our guide and took a dragon boat trip down the Mekong River. The dragon boat was run by a small family that most likely lives on the boat. There were many places we visited that can only be visited by boat. The roads are not dependable and become unusable during monsoon season.
We stopped at a rice whisky village where they made rice wine and rice whiskey. I sampled some whiskey coming right out of the distillery. David was not so adventurous. This town had lots of bottles of whiskey and some sort of disgusting animal. Usually it was a cobra in the bottle. The locals believe that the venom mixes with the whiskey so that drinking the whiskey makes you stronger. They also had whiskey bottles with giant millipedes, scorpions, bear claws, elephant penis, and the largest bees I have ever seen in my life.
We stopped at a few other villages along the river such as a textile weaving town. You could see the worms, the dyeing process, and the weavers. Everyone was hard at work. We stopped at a town that makes their paper out of elephant dung. The paper was not what you would expect and was very high quality.
But the highlight was a visit to the Pak Ou Caves. There are a set of a couple of caves built into the mountain along the river containing hundreds of statues of Buddhas. The caves are very eerie and beautiful. Our guide explained how the different poses of the buddha signify different things. Laos has its own position: if the Buddha is standing and has both hands pointed down, that is unique to Laos and is the symbol for “Pray for rain.”
After the caves, and a visit to a lunch spot on the river (with the largest unused bee hive I have ever seen.), we took an hour or so to get back home. The boat owners had set the benches into day beds and both David and I napped underneath the sun, a gentle river breeze blowing over us, just hearing the sound of the slow engine taking as back to the hotel. Since we had an early start to the day, we were back by 4pm. We decided to book some spa treatments before dinner. The spas were so cheap in this part of the world that it was always a good idea to throw in a massage when free time presented itself.
Our last half day in Luang Prabang was to visit the president’s palage and main temples.
This is the part where I get tired of saying “It was soooo beautiful.” You have to go to experience it. They were unlike anything I had every seen before. There was one temple in particular that had a “Tree of Life” motif on one side made out of elephant skin. Yes, they used elephant skin as the wallpaper. You wouldn’t know if someone didn’t tell you. But even without that exoticness, you see that they have their esthetic. The decorations in the Presindetial Palace weren’t copying the French or the Chinese or anything else. So it is worth going to see. It is very ornate. More so than I can capture with a camera.
We climbed one of the mountains in Luang Prabang. It was perhaps a half hour walk up. Unfortunately, it was one of the most humid days we had there and both David and I arrived at the top as living waterfalls. There was no breeze. We were trying to enjoy the view, but honestly, we were both so hot and sweaty and uncomfortable that we just wanted something cool to drink and some air conditioning. I don’t even think I took a picture.
After getting down, we had lunch at the hotel and took a plane to Hanoi – the next stage of our trip.