Monday, March 22, 2010

2nd March 2010 - 14th March 2010 - Luang Prabang & The Nam Ou (Laos)

A friendly country

So we arrived in Luang Prabang after a 15 hour overnight bus trip with fat swollen ankles and weary heads and booked ourselves into a nice hotel in the middle of the old French colonial region of the town. Luang Prabang is a very cute place, well maintained with a thriving tourist industry catering to people wanting a slice of Buddhist culture in a somewhat European setting right on the Mekong River. Yes it is very touristy with almost every shop catering to the travellers needs, however it is also a very beautiful and serene place perfect for spending a lot of time just wandering around and absorbing the atmosphere.

Luang Prabang

"Absorbing the atomsphere" Sheena style

Our stay was spent like most, visiting the many wats scattered around town and taking a day trip out to the magnificent Kuang Si waterfalls. On our way to the waterfalls I was stuck in a tuk tuk talking to this weird Canadian bloke who claimed he was in Laos as a spy researching the financial climate of communist nations… Needless to say we doubted his story considering he was divulging the information in the first place and secondly because he was an idiot. There’s one in every tuk tuk.

One of the many photos of me
jumping off something - Kuang Si Falls

Near Kuang Si Waterfall

The largest of the falls

Speaking of idiots, we couldn’t believe what we saw during the morning alms procession, which involves the local monks receiving food from local Buddhists at dawn. The daily ritual is supposedly very spiritual for the Buddhist people, as they believe that by feeding the monks, they are in turn, feeding the spirits of their deceased relatives. Tourists are invited to come watch and courteously take photographs, but out of common decency, they are expected to stand back silently and not interrupt the procession. Unfortunately the advent of the digital camera has given the few obnoxious tourists the ability to treat human beings like creatures in a zoo without at least the financial repercussion of film expenditure and we unfortunately witnessed possibly the most disgraceful display of this behaviour you could possibly imagine spoiling it for respectful tourists and offending the monks and locals.

The monks after receiving alms

We would have liked to have stayed a little longer in Luang Prabang, just relaxing, and of course eating, however it is amazing how even on a very long trip time seems to run out. So after a bit of research, we decided to not follow most people in going south to Vang Vieng and instead we decided to head up north to Nong Khiaw where we would take a bit of time exploring the Nam Ou (river) before heading across the border into Vietnam via the newly opened crossing at Tay Trang.

Gardens in a wat - Luang Prabang

The Nam Ou has only recently been discovered by tourists, and hence there are not many people visiting the region. This will surely change soon with the opening of the Vietnamese border and the fact that this river is home to some of the most beautiful scenery and fishing villages inhabited by the friendly Laotian people. Lush jungle and sheer cliffs on either side of a reflective river made for some pretty breathtaking moments.

Nong Khiaw and the Nam Ou

The view from the bridge in Nong Khiaw
to the Nam Ou below

Muang Noi - Villages use old cluster bomb
casings for fencing

Sunset at the village Muang Noi

Sheen getting ready to float down the Nam Ou
One of the villages on the Nam Ou

Sheena and I spent about a week heading up the river stopping off at places along the way (including an unexpected wedding where we had the local hooch Lao Lao shoved down our throats) until we made it all the way up to the remote town of Phongsali right up near the Chinese border. Phongsali is a former French hill station located up in the mountains surrounded by wild flowers and tribal villages. Phongsali was actually more like a revisit to China with a large presence of Chinese immigrants and Chinese food available. It was weird being up in the cold mountains having spent so much time in the much warmer climates down at sea level.

Many hours spent in boats like this
Sheena and our guide in Phongsali

Our river trip meant for many many hours sitting on wooden planks in noisy boats and we were both glad when the trip came to an end, however we were sad as well as it meant the end of our stint in Laos. With possibly the friendliest people in the world living in the most amazing scenery, Laos is one of the most beautiful countries I have ever visited. The friendliness of the people is especially inspiring, seeing as the amount they suffered during Americas “secret war” that was conducted in Laos simultaneously with the Vietnam war. More bombs were dropped on Laos during that period than what were dropped during the entirety of World War 2, resulting in casualties of up to 1/6th of the entire Laotian population. Terrible stuff… and yet having endured so much and having had their country literally “sent back to the stone age” Laos is rebuilding and forgetting and their (tourism) future seems quite bright.

We hope we get to come back again one day.

Simon & Sheena

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