So I left you last time on a slow boat down the Mekong river. Since that post took me three days to upload, a lot has happened. Even though you just got to read that yesterday! There goes that time traveling again! 😉
I know you have likely heard of the Mekong River and can possibly picture it from movies you have seen about Vietnam. It has been mentioned in many books, movies, and news stories throughout the world for many decades. It plays a vital role to many SE Asian countries because it is a major trading route linking China’s southwestern province of Yunnan to the South China Sea via Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, and provides locals with an invaluable outlet to the sea and international trading.
The Mekong is the lifeblood of this country and many others in this region. You get a sense of its importance as we float past fishing nets, villages, and water buffalo bathing in the waters. But just as many other areas in the world, there is an underlying battle between technological progress and the environment. The biggest topic of concern on the Mekong is dam building. When a dam is built to produce much needed hydroelectric power, the flow downstream is reduced. That reduced flow causes multiple problems. The river is used to irrigate crops in what would otherwise be a dry dusty climate in Cambodia. China is engaged in an extensive program of dam-building on the river: it has already completed three and another twelve are under consideration.
A panel of the region’s nations has accused China of blatantly disregarding the downstream nations in an effort to stop the dams, but to no avail. Since the building of the first Chinese dam, many species have become endangered, including the Mekong Dolphin and dugong. Water levels have dropped, ferries get stuck, fish caught are small and in lower quantities, and crossings to isolated Luang Prabang have lengthened from 8 hours to 2 days due to inadequate water levels. Which is why I find myself on a two day trip down the Mekong – Luang Prabang is our final destination.
Here in Lao PDR, navigation is a major issue. So on our 16 hour boat ride (split into two days) down the Mekong the captain earned every penny of his pay by dodging rapids, rocks, and sandbars. We were constantly changing direction and the further we got down the river the rockier the terrain became and there were a few times we passed mere feet from a large rock formation. To his credit, we never once touched bottom or scraped a single rock.
The boat was a family affair. Dad and the oldest son were at the helm. Dad would do the most difficult navigation, and his son would take over when it was clear. Mom and the younger son would cook and clean. We had the option to bring our own lunches onto the boat with us or have the family make our lunch for us onboard. Of course we all opted to have lunch on the boat! We were not dissappointed.
I have to say that cruising down the river surrounded by some of the most natural beauty I have ever had the privilege to see, was incredibly relaxing. I did a lot of reading and found myself periodically looking up, snapping a few pictures, and thinking about how lucky I am to be where I am. After about eight hours on the boat, I was half happy and half sad to see the shore.
It was a nice blend of locals living as they always have on one side of the village and an area they have modernized in order to add electricity, guesthouses, and restaurants to cater to their overnight guests. We put our bags down in the guesthouse where we were staying and headed out for a walking tour with our local guide. We had arrived there before any of the other boats for the day, so we were able to see a nice slice of life as we walked toward their local temple.
One of the things we were fortunate to see was a group of local women preparing offerings to take up to the temple. They were making small structures out of flowers and leaves and placing them on a platter with various food items like chicken, rice, and Laolao (a local booze made from fermented sticky rice),etc. They typically bring it up to the temple when the monks are done chanting after the sun sets.
We kept walking through the city and arrived at the local temple and monastery right at sunset. We were treated to some amazing views over the Mekong and the small village. It was another one of those supremely happy moments that have happened frequently on this trip. As we arrived, the local monk started chanting his prayers in the temple, furthering the beauty of the moment.
After taking in the sights at the temple we headed over to a local restaurant for some dinner and then retired for the night. There wasn’t much going on in this cute little town after about 9:00, so a good book and a comfortable bed looked quite appealling.
We arose early the next day for another day cruising down the Mekong. This day proved to be much more exciting than the previous as we made a few stops along the way.
Our first stop was in another small village where we were able to see an authentic slice of life. They have welcomed tourists in to take pictures of them and their villages in exchange for a chance to sell us their wares.
But we caught them unannounced and it was almost comical to see them catch sight of us and frantically start setting out blankets to display what they were selling before we could walk by. What we saw in the village was extreme poverty, but most seemed happy. There were a lot of children and women around the village and we were told that most of the men go away from the villages to work for the day.
There was a small houses where the monks lived at the beginning of the village near a small temple. The monks were very friendly and seemed happy to see us there.
The children were climbing trees, playing around, chasing each other and laughing a lot. Meanwhile, the mothers were making thatch for roofing or weaving items to sell to tourists. There were animals running around like chickens, pigs, dogs, and even an occasional cat. One of my fellow travelers wondered how often the dogs try to eat on of the baby pigs! You could see they were given only the most basic of sustenance, so they had to be quite hungry, but they were very interested in playing with the children. Overall the animals seemed happy too, which is contrary to some of the animals I have seen in rural settings recently.
We piled back on the boat and were told we would be stopping in another hour or so at the Pak Ou caves before arriving into Luang Prabang for a three night stay.
The Pak Ou caves are located just North of Luang Prabang and are known for having thousands of small Buddha statues. There are two main caves. A lower one and the upper one which is high up on the hill, but worth the climb. The upper caves were completely dark. While my headlamp was able to help me get around, it did not help me to take pictures. It was a very crowded experience and I was happy to get back on the boat for our short ride into Luang Prabang. I was a little bit sad to be leaving the boat. I had really enjoyed our cruise. It qualifies as one of my top ten most relaxed moments in my life. It was nice to have some place to go, but the R & R was a nice reprieve after moving to a new location almost every day! Luang Prabang was our stopping point for three nights which allowed us time to get some laundry done and settle in more than our previous one night stays.
Luang Prabang has played a major role in Lao history. Until the communist takeover in 1975, it was the royal capital and seat of government of the Kingdom of Laos. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Seriously – the whole city. It is known for having French Colonial buildings mixed in with traditional Lao buildings and many temples. The city is well known for its numerous Buddhist temples and monasteries. Every morning, hundreds of monks from the various monasteries walk through the streets collecting alms. One of the major landmarks in the city is a large steep hill on which sits Wat Chom Si. But more on that later, I am getting ahead of myself!
We got to our bungalows and were all surprised by how nice they were We have typically been staying in very basic accomodations, but this place was a true gem with a garden surrounded by bungalows and a trail down to the river. While it did not have air conditioning, they provided a nice mosquito net and both a ceiling and a floor fan to keep us cool at night. The beds were comfortable and I experienced a level of service that would put a few five star hotels I have stayed in to shame. The staff was always polite, eager to accommodate, and never intrusive. When we left, they all gathered together and gave us a blessing for safe travels. I feel privileged to have stayed there and would love to come back some day. So despite having a great place to stay we wasted no time in leaving to explore!
We make our way to the city to see the night market and go to a local restaurant. We had a nice meal and retired for the night ready for a big following day! The night market was noticeably neater than the other we had encountered, but featured much less variety in products.
The next morning we went over to a natural area that housed a Bear Reserve. At the reserve that rehabilitate Asian Black Bears and Sun Bears in preparation to release them back into the wild. They had quite the life with more enrichment toys and activities than most zoos. While most of them don’t get to stay too long, they didn’t seem unhappy!
We continued up the hill to Kuang Si Falls. They are hands down the most beautiful natural waterfalls I have ever seen. They were a series of multilevel falls with natural bathing areas. I think I will let the pictures tell the story…
It was truly breathtaking. We spent a few hours cruising around the falls and had a snack along the side of the falls.
Afterwards we went back to the city of Luang Prabang to make a brief stop at the Traditional Arts and Ethnology Center where we were able to see some traditional clothing and watch a video about traditional Lao wedding ceremonies.
It was a long hot day and we were all ready for a little R & R that evening so while some of the most hearty of travelers went out for drinks, the rest of us stayed in and recovered!
Rest assured we got up early the next morning for more sights. A few of the guys went up to ride some elephants and the rest of us went into the city to explore. The first thing we did was hike up the 300+ stairs to the top of Mt Phousi to see the temple at the top of the hill and observe the views.
The views were great, but I managed to get separated from the rest of the folks, so after I waited to see if we would connect, I carried on to see some of the hot spots in Luang Prabang.
At the base of Mt Phousi is the National Museum. It was once the Royal Palace when Luang Prabang was still the capital, and they had left several rooms set up as they once were used when the royal family was there. They had many of the gifts given to them by various countries and some amazing paintings and sculptures.
On the grounds there was a beautiful royal temple as well that I was able to grab some pictures of before I moved away from the huge packs of Chinese and Israeli tourists that were covering the grounds of the royal palace.
I decided that I wanted to see a temple on the far end of the city called Wat Xieng Thong. It was built in the mid-1500s and remained after many sackings of the city. It was actively being restored and was neat to see such an old temple. It was also interesting to see the monks climbing up on the roof of the temple and doing the actual construction. I think when I was told it was being restored I pictured a construction company. I just can’t picture a bunch of Catholic priests working on their own chapel. But they were getting it done!
I decided to walk back to our bungalows and enjoy the city a bit more before retiring for the night.
The next morning we had a mini-van trip to Vang Vieng. I really enjoyed Luang Prabang and wished that we had had more time there to explore.
After receiving a blessing and a kind farewell from all the staff at Thong Bay Bungalows we piled into a minivan for a 7-8 road trip to Vang Vieng.
On our way we stopped a few times and were lucky enough to catch a temple festival. It was being filmed by a major company, but I snuck in a few seconds of video before they shooed us out of there (who wants a bunch of white people in the background?!?) so I could share it with you.
Vang Vieng was settled as a stopping point between Luang Prabang and Vientiane, but has become another animal altogether. It has become known for it’s partying. Walking through the streets you saw a sea of 20 somethings from all over the world. Most had a cocktail and a cigarette in their hands. It reminded me a LOT of spring break. There were bars flashing their drink specials and playing old episodes of Family Guy and Friends to lure the partiers in for a very cheap drink. We wove our way through the crowds over to a river-facing bar to watch the sun set between two huge limestone mountains.
The views made it worth it. The other big thing to do in this area is to rent a floating tube, take a tuk tuk upstream, and then float down the river going from bar to bar doing shots. We all know how much fun that would be! Unfortunately, I am not 25 any longer and knew I would be getting on a public bus to ride to Vientiane the next morning.
So I chose to pass on the river floating, but the guys that went came back with a few scrapes, bruises, and stories of lost sunglasses and watches. But what would you expect from guys like this?!? I was able to enjoy the views and walk around the city. I was glad I went into the bus ride with a fresh perspective because the bus ride was the closest to hell I would ever like to encounter. Ugh, I couldn’t get off that bus fast enough! That was mere hours ago, which means that I have caught you up with me.
Tomorrow we will be leaving Lao PDR and heading over to Vietnam. I will keep you posted on what happens from there. In the meantime, take care and I am thinking about you!