2nd – 8th December 2013
Happy New Year
After over two months it’s time to farewell Luang Prabang. But first up is the Hmong New Year celebrations, for which we delayed our departure.
The Hmong are one of the larger minorities in Laos, a country which is a multi-ethnic society, representing approximately 8% of the population. Based on a lunar reckoning, the Hmong celebrate their New Year festival around November/December – it is traditionally a time for villagers to celebrate, travel home and to meet outside the villages. In Luang Prabang, there is a festival that straddles several days, primarily determined by the ancient calendar, but also with one eye to coordinating with the mandatory national public holiday on Laos National Day, 2nd December.
Our experience of the festivities commenced with a visit to the house of one of our Hmong friends, Mr Wang. Mr Wang lives in the airport village, in a compound with his parents, several siblings and their families. We took a tuk tuk out to the village, and were greeted into his house. Early in our visit, Mr Wang’s father, who is a Hmong Shaman, was performing a ritual to cleanse the compound’s buildings of bad spirits. This was followed in short order by calling the spirits of the ancestors into the house to join him for food. During this time we enjoyed sitting around the fire, munching on fire baked rice cakes and sweet syrup (sticky and hot!). Two chickens from among those clucking around the yard were selected, caught and killed. The boys joined in with the other kids to chase and catch them. They were plucked and cooked, the first share being taken by the shaman for his ritual meal.
As the cool night gathered around us, the compound was visited by various people – friends and relatives gathering, and occasionally a fellow villager seeking the assistance of the shaman. We were shown the paper altars, decorated with chicken feathers, which give a portal to the spirit world, and some of the shaman’s tools: a buffalo horn split in two used for diving rituals, a handmade knife and the iron discs cast to call or banish spirits. All of the objects were described with a simple, practical reverence.
We finally sat down to a simple meal of chicken soup, rice and wild greens, and were toasted with a lidful of Lao whiskey, our journey home under the moon in silent appreciation of this age old culture of the forested hills.
The next day, we were pleased to discover, was the first of the less formal, but equally traditional phase of the festivities. In a large riverside field, the Hmong gather under tents and trees to meet, eat, trade and celebrate. One of the key activities, still upheld in this world of mobile phones and modern communications, is the ball tossing game pov pob. In this game, teeange boys and girls, some dressed in traditional costume, line up in rows, and gently but repeatedly throw a tennis-ball sized ball back and forth (underarm throw, overhand catch). If the ball is dropped, a song must be sung or a token offered in recompense before the game can recommence. This was traditional way for young people to meet, and, in the clan-structured Hmong community, court those from an acceptably different clan and village.
The festival also included the usual array of food tents serving barbequed meat and fruit, as well as goods to sell and temporary photo-booths to capture memories. A smattering of Chinese merchants were also there with an array of toys, clothes and sideshow games.
The Bamboo Bridge
One of Luang Prabang’s many sights is the bamboo bridge. Taking foot traffic across a big shortcut from the foot of the old town to the big Phan Leung suburb, we’d heard and read about a bamboo bridge before we even arrived here, but when we got to town in late September, the strength and power of the Nam Khan still carried enough force from the monsoon rains as to prevent the structure being erected.
We asked several people, who always suggested it would be there ‘later’, so after a while, we stopped asking – crossing the bridge seemed a mirage always receding into the distance.
Over our months here, we watched the brown waters slowly drop. Each time we walked along the road which winds along the river bank beneath Phousi Hill, we could see a bit more of the slope. A careful eye can see that the locals are eking out more of the rich soil thus exposed to grow their vegetables, and the boat for the Dyen Sabai restaurant, marooned across the fast flowing waters, dropped from a crew of two to a single powerful rower.
One walk in late November revealed new activity across the river: a gang of workers had set up, steps remade, bamboo poles lay stacked around. Could this be it, we wondered? Soon every stroll along the river became a guessing game – it was the bridge for sure – but would it be finished in time for our departure? No one knew.
At last, passing the river again on our final weekend of our stay – we could smile. The bridge was complete and yes, those silhouettes were people crossing it. Our turn was not long coming.
The time had come for us to move on from Luang Prabang, our home for over two months. We sussed out the options, and despite our reservations, decided to hire our own minivan. The minor cost difference aside, the chartered transport means that we can stop as we require, rather than enduring the windy mountain road at the mercy of someone else’s schedule.
After a touching exchange of gifts from our hosts – now friends – at our guesthouse, it was at a brisk 6 AM that we loaded our bags and left behind the familiar streets, cafes, trees, corners and buildings. We waved goodbye to the place where we discovered the finest combination of rice-porridge and Lao Coffee in the known world, we nodded to the spot where soon our ‘baguette ladies’ would be setting up for the day. In the half light, we zoomed along the tree-lined road by the Mekong that we had walked so many times….
Soon we were on the road, winding upwards into the mist-covered mountains, northern Laos waking up for another day all along Highway 13. We climbed up ever higher, out of the haze and into the sunlit passes, the world we blanketed by morning mist below.
Eventually the sun broke through and we wound down off the passes, our final run taking us along a grassy valley, with meadows, cows and streams. Aside from the distinctive steep-sided karst mountains, and the scattering of Wats, this could be the foothills of the Alps.
Vang Vieng is a town that has thrown in its lot with tourism – specifically backpacker tourism, with all the hard currency and hard partying that goes with it. Every corner features a venue selling food and Beerlao, there are travel agents on every street offering caving, river tubing, mountain bike hire or balloon flights. You can dine in a hotel on dishes from any corner of the Western world, and drink Lao whisky cocktails from a communal bucket. Lay back on a recliner, and enjoy ancient episodes of Friends, if that’s your thing. Fortunately this mix has been watered down somewhat in rent years – after a series of tragic accidents involving excessive drinking or drugs and a fast flowing river, the local authorities have made some effort has been made to dial things back a bit. The crackdown has not extended to Friends episodes though.
We arrived and secured a room on one of the main streets – pleasant, clean and, unlike the minivan, not lurching around every corner. Following our self-imposed rule, we booked for two nights.
In Vang Vieng for a stopover, it made sense to experience some of the activities that focus on its water and its mountains. We decided on a long half day, and, having left the decision quite late in the morning, ended up on a tuk tuk by ourselves, with our very own guide. We were driven back a few kilometres up the valley to the Elephant Cave, which is a temple fashioned from a single colossal rock that projects from the valley floor. Near this is a series of low slung caves in the main mountain range which can only be explored on the back of a floating inner tube, propelled against the slight but persistent current by hauling on a fixed rope. Great fun for the boys. Our guide took us off the water into a side cave where we explored at little using the light of our head-lamps
Drying off back outside the cave, lunch was presented to us, and we chatted with some Korean tourist on a day out. Sated, we wandered back across dry, freshly harvested rice paddies in the warm afternoon sun. A short road trip back toward the town, and once again we veered off the highway, down a gravel road to the broad banks of the river.
Here kayaks were unlashed from atop the van, and we took to the Nam Song River. It’s a pleasant five kilometre meander back into the middle of Vang Vieng, past shady riverbanks with the occasional bar offering beer stops for tubing backpackers with a penchant for the old tricks. The water is cool and crystal clear from its journey through the caves, and the riverbed lined with smooth pebbles.
All too soon the Chinese hotels of Vang Vieng appeared around the next bend, and we cruised up to the green bank of the river, thus ending a most pleasant trip, and bade farewell to our day’s guide. He was, like most of the people who have led us on these kinds of day trips, very tolerant and accommodating of our boys, helping and encouraging them (and therefore us too!) to enjoy their experience.
We finished the day out with beer/ice cream on one of the many balconies overlooking the river and plank bridge. All this backpacking is a tough gig…
To the Capital
Next morning we took the ‘VIP’ coach to Vientiane. For a while Highway 13 winds through the tail end of the mountains, before allowing the bus to speed up as it hits the straighter, flatter roads on the Mekong flood plain. Soon and increasing aount of built up land heralds another city, and the signs proclaimed the winding down of the distance to Vientiane.
In Vientiane we lined up a couchsurfing place – a house in a quiet Ban (village) near the Mekong. The area was quiet and somewhat distant from the ‘action’ of the town centre – a relative term when one considers Vientiane is the smallest of south east Asia’s capitals, at a mere 750,000 people. We wandered the area, smiled at the locals and ate at restaurants on the busy highway that flows east past the airport into town. There were three other travellers at the place, and we had a nice chat about their life and experiences. After a somewhat uncomfortable night on the floorboards – it didn’t help that our young Felix was unwell – we decided to bid farewell and relocate to the city centre. Our host here – a friendly but mostly ‘absentee’ Chinese guy clearly has a different idea of the concept of couchsurfing than we have in mind…
Next morning we switched to a nice guesthouse in the centre, and our experience of Vientiane really got started. Noodles, local food at the “Nice Too Meet You Cafe” and a couple of sundaes at Swensons which shall remain a secret between you the reader and us.
All in all our week on the road again was a good one – we’d settled into the pattern again – and the sights we’ve seen remind us what its like to have the open road before us. Next week first thing Monday morning – the Indian embassy, passports in hand.