23rd – 29th September 2013
Nong Khiaw to Luang Prabang – The Golden Wonka Ticket
At 0800 on a Monday morning, at the suggestion of another backpacker, we presented ourselves at the dusty wooden ‘ticket office’ the Nong Khiaw boat landing, with a crisp wad of 50,000 kip notes (AUD1 = approx 7000 kip). After some shuffling and scratching, the hatch opened, gestures made, a ticket scrawled, and the transaction was complete: we had the golden Wonka Bar ticket that (almost) guarantees you a place on the 5 hour trip down the Nam Ou and the Mekong to Luang Prabang on the local boat.
Like much transport in these parts, the boat only leaves when it’s full, and in the low season, there is a risk that there is insufficient interest. Rumour also has it that the boat operator gives preference to locals, and, if there is an excess of passengers, you are forced to consider a share in a ‘private charter’ boat, which is more expensive.
All of this uncertainty is fuelled by the local tour operators who take advantage of the absence of any official tourist information to create uncertainty and misinformation which may incline the traveller to take the more definite but also expensive private boat.
Some of the inefficient communist market forces die hard.
On this day, however, the stars aligned and our passage was secured. We returned to the hotel, checked out and packed it to the jetty to await the 1100 departure. Waiting there, sipping on a pineapple shake, various groups of travellers appear, and finally the sleepy boat pier bursts into life as the hour arrived. Packs were loaded, the richer or more locally well-connected travellers shove their way forward, their guides grabbing the eight precious comfortable seats (apparently taken directly from a coach and bolted to the wooden floor), leaving the late-runners – and those with children – to the wooden benches and roaring diesel fumes at the rear of the boat.
The grasping greed of the western world dies hard too…
With everyone loaded, the boat set off into the spectacular limestone mountain landscape. It is like a boat trip to Jurassic Park: some vistas are positively primeval, with jungle clawing its way off the brown riverbanks, and reaching green and misty into the steep and shadowed mountains; caves are glimpsed among impossible cliffs. For an hour or so, one can try to close one’s ears to the mind numbing roar of the unshrouded diesel motor, and let one’s eyes feast on the visual treat that is the landscape of northern Laos.
The boys make friends with another Aussie traveller, and the boat was filled with games and laughter. We see lots of butterflies, dragonflies, water buffaloes and some birds dart rom the riverbanks: a brilliant kingfisher flashes from a swooping branch. In the villages, the children swim and slide down the muddy shore.
We were fortunate enough to have one of two wooden seats up front – not deluxe by any means, but a good spot to get away from the fumes and take photos. The river winds its way south, negotiating some tricky rapids of rocks and sand, and, ominously, passing through the site of a half-built Nam Ou dam.
Emblazoned with Chinese characters, the wall of concrete literally casts it shadow across the river and tells a story of modern Laos. It won’t, perhaps drown the landscape entirely, but we passed many villages upriver whose age-old way of live will be shoved aside by the rising waters the project will create. We are lucky to be seeing this part of Laos now – this dam and the bridge to Thailand being built upstream on the Mekong where we crossed from Thailand will change things forever.
After several bum-numbing hours, and merciful but brief a toilet break: “girls on that side of the beach, boys on the other!”, the river unveils its most spectacular precipice, before throwing itself into the mercy of the wide brown Mekong. On the boat there is a murmur of excitement.
Within a surprisingly short time, the final hours chattered away with some of our fellow voyagers, someone points to the eastern bank: we are here. Hidden behind its green veil of trees on the eastern bank, the city of Luang Prabang offers glimpses of its treasures: a white washed house, a golden stupa.
As those who are younger or less laden scramble off the boat before us, we stretch, awakening numb back muscles, gather our boys and our bags, and clamber up the steep stone water steps.
We have arrived in Luang Prabang, a city which they say is like the Dubrovnik of South East Asia: you’ll stay longer than you planned. Having lingered in that European gem for some time, we ask ourselves – will it be true for us?
We are greeted at the bank by the usual offers of bed and transport: the arrival of our little boat of sixteen passengers is perhaps, in this low season, one of the slim new infusions of opportunity to the Luang Prabang day for these operators.
Leaving a base camp of piled up packs in the cool green shade, Prunella strides into a nearby lane on a quest for a lodging in this world heritage town. Guesthouses abound – some invite, others seem to shrug the wide-eyed traveller away, as if disturbed momentarily from a low-season snooze. At last a deal is struck and we settle into a well used but clean two bedroom one bathroom french provincial guesthouse rooms for the princely sum of $7 per night. Things are already looking good.
Dinner is at the night markets is where you choose a plate of ingredients it is wok-tossed before you. A Beerlao washes it down. We stroll home, our path obstructed briefly by a power cut that elicit gasps and scurrying for candles no sooner lit than the electricity system creaks back into life. The boys are quiet, and soon mustered readied for bed. The streets fade to quiet, and soon they drift off to a blissful sleep to the murmur of an audio of Peter and the Wolf.
Throwing Down the Anchor
The next few day stretch out into a languid haze of exploration, food and fruit shakes. We gradually settle into the rhythm of the place. Out travels take us to among the Wats, into the cafe with their treasured fresh baguettes and among the quieter laneways, where vestiges of French Indochina gracefully sit in the afternoon heat.
We soon become orientated – it’s not hard: our guesthouse sits on the Mekong side of the long peninsula, in the heart of the World Heritage Old town. Two short blocks up is the main drag, home to the night markets and all the grander hotels, as well as the post office, library, ‘palace’ and baguette stalls. All sit under the watchful presence of Phousi Hill. On the other side of this forested and Wat-covered hill is a tiny precinct of pubs and home of Luang Prabang’s ‘night life’ – if such a thing is needed in this a slow-moving place.
Over the time of this post, our adventures take us to Ock Pop Tok, a local fair trade handicraft centre a few klicks out of town, which is developing into a volunteer work prospect for Prunella. We check out the enthusiastic and energetic hip hop show at the Hive bar.
A Day of Orange and Green
On Thursday, we start early, getting up into the rainy dawn to find a place to watch the daily Alms-giving. This is a local and, in recent times, touristic ritual. Before the drums beat out across the waking town, people gather to watch the silent procession of saffron clad monks emerging from the Wats, to walk the streets with silver bowls in which devotees place offerings of food to sustain them.
The daily rite stretches back into the past, but as posters all around town declare, is being trivialised and commodified by the less sensitive parts of the tourism industry. Alms giving is a form of worship for the faithful, but for some tourists, buying ‘donations’ from unscrupulous vendors and placing them in the bowls has become another item on the Luang Prabang itinerary. Like them or not, a set of standards is required of alms-giving (sitting lower than the monk; keeping a respectful distance; not participating if it is personally meaningless), but these are widely flouted by the tourists.
We selected a corner of the street across the road from the procession’s path, in the shelter of the yet-to-open l’Elephant restaurant. As well as providing the appropriate separation distance, it provided a shrub-screened vantage point from which to take (non-flash) photos. An old lady slowly padded up the street, set up her plastic stool across from us, and installed a mighty basket of sticky rice, which she doled out with long-practiced economy in small handfuls to each monk, leaving none empty-handed. Glancing up at the boys who were closely following strict orders to curtail their endless games, she cackled and waved. It seemed we had passed the test, avoiding the scorn with which some locals must view the touristic intrusion…
Inspired and invigorated, and with the weather clearing, we venture out of town: a tuk-tuk driver is chartered to take us to the Living Farm – an excellent and recommended community farm just off the highway south. Not bothering with an organised tour, we simply turned up.
We are immediately greeted by one of the farmers, and he launches us into a fascinatingly detailed close up of the tools and techniques of wet rice farming – planting, picking, winnowing, threshing, grinding: all the time-honoured skills of the land. We see how chicken feathers are used to seal the bellows pumps that allow a furnace to be heated, and witness tightly tuned bamboo strings harnessed to make snake and rat traps. It’s a great place, which gives context to much of what can be glimpsed every day beside the road, tucked under houses, and hanging from the walls.
We stroll onwards into the organic farm, where neat rows of herbs, mint, lemongrass, citronella stalks and sesame pods suggest a well-trained hand and a tender appreciation of the finer flavours.
Firing up his three-wheeled carrier again, our driver skirts the town and grinds up the mud-washed road to the Thad Thong waterfalls. Not far from the city, we find ourselves back in a quiet corner of jungle, where another waterfall plunges off the hills into a placid lake. We follow the well made walk trail up and up through the hot green shade, stepping over ant highways and around mossy tree trunks. As invigorating as it is green.
On Friday, we are having breakfast in one of the cafes along the Mekong shore, when our eyes wander to the ferry that is plying the river, shuttling cargoes of people, motorbikes and the odd car back and forth across the eddying brown water.
Putting off homework and doing our eTax, we head on down the ramp and, at the vague wave of a cowboy-hatted boatman, clamber off the dusty concrete wharf up the battered steel ramps. The barge shudders into life and we swerve out into the stream. In a minute or so, we have traversed between the green riverbanks, and an identical hardstanding leads away. The motorbikes scramble away up hill in their cloudy blue smoke, and in their wake we follow in the morning sunshine, blinking at a bright blue and black butterfly which momentarily alights, somehow paradoxically, in the litter and mud beside the road.
Our path takes us into a village of the usual mix of ceramic tile, rough-poured concrete, faded bamboo mat and orange satellite dish which is typical of Laos. Here a child walks to school in an immaculately pressed white shirt; there a hen chases her chicks into a muddy stand of banana trees. All around people sit on their porches, chopping vegetables, stacking packets of water bottles, or running the numbers on the curious, baffling local lotto game.
Few of these people fail to return a smile or reply to one of the boys’ calls of “Sabaidee!”
We fall into step with a saffron-clad monk, who turns and points to himself: “Poo-pai”, he smiles. He motions us forward with one phrase: “Wat Lam Khoung!”. Every time we stop to navigate muddy patch of road, or greet a cheeky child’s face in doorway – he is waiting ahead of us with his happy visage and yellow sun umbrella.
Finally, the village strings out and fades into jungle, and after another few hundred metres, we arrive at the promised Wat, on a slight rise of the river bank. It’s by no means the most polished we’ve seen, and seems to be undecided as to whether to crumble into the green forest which surrounds it.
This place has a certain timelessness to it – inside the main hall are some very faded wall murals, suggesting some antiquity. It’s not that important – we were shown here by one who clearly calls it home for his aging bones and his apparently youthful soul. He smiles and waves as we wander around, then disappears into some darkened lodge. After a while, we climb down the temple’s water steps, and join a German girl for a trip back across the river to the town.
A pleasant episode, all the more enjoyable for its spotaneity.
Sampling the tastes…
This week our taste buds are treated to such delights as humble larp, pho and noodles in roadside eateries which blend with people’s living rooms, to ‘five bites’ tasting plates and chicken-stuffed lemongrass at the upscale Tamarind restaurant. In the background are the delicious baguettes and crepes, a taste for which was left to Laos by the departing French. Our palates are cleansed by icy shakes of banana, papaya, dragonfruit, refreshing lemon and mint, and more than a few bottles of the ubiquitous, serviceable, Beerlao.
…and a taste of home.
On Saturday morning, we head over to the ‘Aussie Pub’ and watch the Fremantle Dockers go down fighting by a mere 15 points to Hawthorn in the 2013 AFL Grand Final. We’re not mad keen on footy – this is the only game we’ve watched this season – but this is Freo’s first go at the flag, and it’s as close as it comes to our local team. It is odd to find ourselves among Antipodeans again, but the boys don’t decline their share in a plate of sausage rolls and sauce.
Luang Prabang joins Tallinn, Estonia in our list of ‘Unusual Places to Watch the Grand Final’…
Sliding into week 6
Sunday and Monday are relatively quiet.
Sunday is over almost before we know it: emails are posted, Felix and Graham sleep in, some school work is done. We overcome a technical hitch with our photos – finally acquiring a decent card reader to replace the flaky one we brought with us. The minutiae of life on the road.
By Monday we a ready for a little outing again. Prunella takes the boys to the Chinese Shopping Mall where there is a bouncy castle and play gym, complete with rice-pit (cleaner than sand!), and a supermarket which yields muesli bars and Milo.
UXOs – A Deadly Legacy
Meanwhile, Graham visits the UXO-LAO Visitor centre. UXOs (Unexploded Ordinance – let’s call them Bombs) are one of the great tragedies of modern Laos. In the ‘Second Indochina War’ – more commonly called the Vietnam War in the West – both sides involved Laos in the ‘larger’ struggle for control of neighbouring Vietnam and the region.
The Americans tried to foment anti-Communist sentiment among the hill tribes, and the Communists employed the jungle trails to move men and war materiel south, around the DMZ, into southern Vietnam. It was the latter tactic that prompted the US to bomb parts of Laos around the clock for nine years. As is their practice, the war was never declared.
The cruellest legacy of this campaign is the 80 million or so unexploded bombs – mainly cluster bomb submunitions or ‘bomblets’ – which haunt the country to the present day. These devices, mainly designed as anti-personnel weapons, continue to reap a harvest of death, disablement and destruction, and it is organisations, both official and non-government, who are fighting to rid Laos of this scourge.
The small visitor centre is an explanation of the history and techniques of the UXO-LAO, which spearheads the Lao government’s effort, supported by other countries, organisations and the UN. The UXO-LAO organisation conducts a three fold job: to identify the bomb sites, to clear the bombs, and to educate the Lao people in the danger of this hidden menace.
The tragedy of UXOs is a sad but very real part of the life of Laos. They and the lessons we can all learn should not be overlooked on any travel here.