LUANG PRABANG

After another overnight train ride, this time in the reverse direction,  from Sapa back to Hanoi, it was time to say good-by to Vietnam and catch a plane to Laos.

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LUANG PRABANG

Luang Prabang was once the imperial capital of The Royal Kingdom of Lao, and is located in north central part of the country, at the confluence of the Nam Khan and Mekong Rivers.  In 1975, with the fall of the country to the communist Lao government, the capital was moved to Vientiane, and Luang Prabang began to assume her ultimate role of a sleepy backwater town in the hill-country of the north.  Today, there are roughly 50,000 people in the city, but everyone moves at a decidedly slower pace here; such a contrast to the cities of Vietnam we had just left!

The Mekong, of course, is one of the largest rivers in Asia,with its headwaters high up on the Tibetan Plateau.  It flows through  China, Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and meets the South China Sea in Vietnam.  It’s the longest river in Southeast Asia and one of the 12th largest in the world.  Over 60 million people depend on this river and it’s tributaries for food, water, transport and most other aspects of their daily lives.

China has recently been building a number of dams on the Mekong, and has several more planned: collectively,these dams threaten this complex eco-system in a variety of ways. The impacts on fishing and farming alone will be dramatic, and we were able to see a bit of this as we traveled upstream later in the week.  The Lao government is a very poor one:  thus, China has provided money and expertise in building all sorts of infrastructure here, such as roads, dams, hospitals, etc.  The result?  It’s hard to say ‘NO’ politically when they want to  build new factories in Laos and use the electricity from the dams for their own purpose.  Many told us they believe Laos is becoming another province of China.  The far north here does feel this way, but it must be noted that the Chinese have provided an outlet for many Lao goods and products, which provide much-needed income to some very poor villages.

On a short trip up the river to the north of Luang Prabang we saw the results of this when we visited some fishing villages.   The river had flooded just a few weeks before and ruined most of the planting of crops along the banks. (there is no such thing as disaster insurance up here . . . )  The prevailing thought is that China released water from recently constructed dams and failed to tell any neighboring  countries down-stream on the Mekong.  This is the dry season and the villagers use the rich soil of the riverbanks to grow corn, peanuts, beans and other crops.  A devastating event for them.

The old town of Luang Prabang is today very much a quaint tourist town.  Could be an early New Orleans or Carmel for all the wonderful shops and restaurants with French influence in both food and architecture.  But then again, so different with all the food markets, selling magnificently fresh produce daily, night markets selling hand-woven and -created articles (plus an awful lot of Chinese imported tourist trinkets), and the 55 or so unique ‘Wats’ (temple complexes).  Much of Laos, especially here in the north,adhere to  “animist” beliefs,  while Laung Prabang is still very much Buddhist, with hundreds of monks living, learning and working in the different Wats.

Downtown Luang Prabang
Downtown Luang Prabang
Morning market
Morning market
Variety of rice - your choice
Variety of rice – your choice
Our hotel
Our hotel outdoor-breakfast room
Enjoying the veranda
Enjoying the veranda, and not wanting to leave LB!
Evelyn, the manager at the hotel --
Evelyn, the manager at the hotel — had a recently broken collar bone — sound familiar?  (We had a LOT in common!)

More Temples

Wat
Wat
Wat
Wat
Monks heading to van for trip
Monks heading to van for trip

At one of the temple complexes we saw a group of monks getting ready for a trip.  They just kept coming–there must have been 20 who piled into the van along a dog. Looked like there was a picnic lunch put into the van also.

Palace
Royal Palace Museum, Luang Prabang
Wat at palace grounds
Haw Pha Bang or Palace Chapel
Wat
Fearsome gold Naga King Cobras guarding the main stairs to the chapel
Wat
Haw Pra Bang
View from top of
300 steps to the top of Phousi mountain gave us a view of Luang Prabang & the Nam Khan River
Novice monks playing on artillery on top of Mt.
Novice monks playing on old WWII artillery mount on top of Mt. Phousi
One of many Wats - this one  had ancient paintings on the wall
One of many Wats – this one had ancient murals painted on the walls
Tuk tuks in Laung Prabang
One of the elaborate tuk tuk’s in Laung Prabang.  Easy to find one anywhere, but walking is the modus operandi here!
Anyone know the make of this car we found on the streets of Luang Prabang
Anyone know the make of this car?  A beauty! (owned by the 3-Nagas Hotel)

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ALMS GIVING

We participated in the daily giving of alms one morning in front of our little villa.  There were ten or more groups of monks (barefoot) who pass by the hotel early each morning and locals, plus some touristas like us, offer portions of ‘sticky-rice’ for their daily rations.  The local people also cook the meals of soup, meat, and vegetables every day, but the monks traditionally only eat breakfast and lunch.  Gary and I often went without dinner as the breakfasts and lunches provided have been very large portions.  It is difficult to watch just how rude some tourists have become, trying to get pictures in every way possible, including sticking their cameras into the monks’ faces, and popping off a flash.  Hopefully what we encountered was an anomaly, and most are respectful of their lifestyle and religious customs.

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Waiting
Waiting
Monks receiving the alms
Monks receiving the alms
They continue to come -- approximately 100 came down this street
They continue to come — approximately 100 came down this street
Finally getting light -- we were there for about 45 minutes
[ a photographic ‘artistic’ impression of giving alms ]
Local devoted Buddhists waiting for Monks
Local devout Buddhists waiting for Monks to pass by.

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We spent some very enjoyable time at ” Big Brother Mouse “ , conversing and reading with students anxious to learn English.  Some of the young monks also attend hoping to improve their English-language skills.  Most of their language teachers in school, or in the temples, are not native speakers, so they actively seek out any opportunity to engage English, Austrialian, and American speakers.  Big Brother Mouse also provides books from donors so they can improve their reading skills.  A GREAT way to spend some time in LB, and they can use not only your time, but money as well!  😉  Here’s their website: look ’em up!

http://www.bigbrothermouse.com/about.html

http://www.bigbrothermouse.com/download/storyofbbm.pdf

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They were so eager to learn
They were so eager to learn and had many questions

 

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BAN KOK VILLAGE

The villages along the Mekong have been encouraged by the government for environmental reasons to stop the slash and burning of rice fields further up in the hills and need to find new ways of making a living by growing other crops to sell, create crafts skills to sell to the tourists such as weaving, whiskey making, paper making, etc. It has taken some of the villagers ten years to make these changes.

We stopped at the small village of Ban Kok and had a home cooked Lao lunch with the Chief of the village and his wife.  They were delightful and fed us so much food that we couldn’t eat all of it.  We enjoyed learning more about life in the village and the challenges they face to make a living.  This is one of many villages that is struggling to make a good living for everyone now that they can’t slash and burn their rice fields.  There are 30 families living there.  They had just planted peanuts on the river shore, but it was wiped out during the flood the week before.

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Our lunch
Our lunch
Our gracious hosts - The Chief and his wife
Our gracious hosts – The Chief and his wife
The village
The village.  Very basic; very small.
Typical village home
Typical village home
Walking back to the boat to continue our journey on the Mekong
Walking back to the boat to continue our journey on the Mekong

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PAK OU CAVES

We drove north of LB about 30 km to the village of Pak Ou, at the junction of the Ou and Mekong Rivers.  From there we boarded a small boat to  visit the Pak Ou Caves, famous for the thousands of Buddha statues left inside by pilgrims traveling down one of these famous rivers in time past.  Never have we seen so many Buddha statues!

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Our boat to the caves
Our boat to the caves
Entrance to Pak Ou Cave
Entrance to the lower Pak Ou Cave.   (Many tourist boats — we came in a much smaller craft)
Amazing how many Buddha have been placed in the cave over the years
Amazing how many Buddha have been placed in the cave over the years. Much merit gained by donaters!
Inside
Some of the thousands of Buddha statues left inside this cave by pilgrims
walking through the cave
Buddhas’ placed everywhere
Happy Buddha (If we continue to eat all this great food we will have a waistline like Buddha
“Happy Buddha”!  (If we continue to eat all this great food we’lll have a waistline like this Buddha…the gold one, that is)

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WEAVING, WISKEY, AND MEKONG FISHING VILLAGES

Along the Mekong River: we made several interesting stops at different villages along the way.  Each seemed to have a unique craft or specialty to offer.

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Along the Mekong
Along the Mekong at a fishing village
Checking the fishing nets (they do this twice a day)
Checking the fishing nets (they do this twice a day) only one small fish today
The fisherman and our guide
The fisherman and our guide — beautiful setting

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The Weaving Village

We visited a woman who had created a weaving cooperative  Local women would weave scarves, skirts, towels and other items at her weaving center.  She was quite entrepreneurial and had built a fairly large operation.  She is able to fill many large orders from local hotels and restaurants.

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on the way to a weaving village
the only way to reach the weaving village.  no cars here.
Home in the village
Home in the village
The owner weaving
The owner weaving
She demonstrated the whole process for us
She demonstrated the whole process for us — their system of a loom works well
Making the nature dyes from leaves
Making the nature dyes from leaves
The variety of natural dyed silk
The variety of natural dyed silk

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The Whiskey Village

This local “Lao-Lao Whiskey” producer had once been a farmer and had turned to whiskey production as an added source of income. He and his wife gave us a step by step demonstration of the process.   This village now makes their living primarily from whiskey, weaving, and other small handicrafts they are able to sell to any passing tourists on the river that stop by.  I should mention here, “lao-lao” is POTENT!  Depending on which village and which whiskey-crafter you encounter, the alcohol percentage can range from 40% to 75%.   This villagers’ product was somewhere around 60-65%; and proud of it!

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washing the rice
First step: washing the rice
Shaking the rice
Shaking and separating the wet rice.
pouring into jar to ferment
into a fermentation jar
Pouring into bucket
readying the mix for the fire pot.
Pouring fermented rice for fire
Pouring fermented rice into the hot pot
The fire is with wood
A wood fire that seems to be always burning
Making a tight seal
Making a tight seal for the distillate
The alcohol is dripping
The alcohol condenses and is dripping into a filtered jar
Tasting the finished product
Tasting the finished product.    WOW!!    and it only burns a little
Had to buy one of her scarfs
Had to buy one of her scarfs; they were beautiful
A delightful child and mother
A delightful child and mother we passed on our way back to the river
Can he have a small sticker
Would she like a small sticker?   UnHuh.

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‘BACI’ CEREMONY

“Baci” is an animist ritual that celebrates a special event or occasion , such as marriage, a homecoming, a travel blessing, a birth in the family, or one of the many annual festivals. It is a very old tradition: practiced in Laos long before Buddhism made inroads into the country.  We were invited to participate in a baci ceremony, referred to as su kwan, which means “a calling of the soul”.   It was performed by a local village elder and a number of his villagers.  We didn’t know what to expect and were very surprised that the ceremony was intended just for us.

In the middle of the room was the pha kwan, an intricate arrangement consisting of a dish, from the top of which sprouts a cone made of banana leaves, flowers, and white cotton threads. The cotton threads are cut at a length long enough to wrap around the your wrist. These are attached to a bamboo stalk and give the impression of a banner. Food is placed around the base of kwan.  The Lao believe that this blessing will bring the believed 32 khans (souls) that watch over you, back to your body so that you may be blessed and kept healthy.  There was a lot of chanting, blessings and pook kwan (the tying of the white baci threads on each of our wrists) from the villagers.

The white cotton thread is a symbol of peace, good fortune, honesty and comfort.  They are traditionally worn for at least 3 days following the ceremony, and it is bad luck to take them off before then!   This was a most interesting evening for us.  The contrast of the traditional ceremony being performed while a flat-screen television was on the whole time in the background, with several other children watching cartoons, made it seem surreal.

We did receive many positive comments from local Laotians over the next few days as they recognized the strings around our wrists and that we had participated in a baci blessing. They seemed pleased that we had taken part in something that represents an important tradition for them.  One young man was a new father and had strings on his wrists from a similar blessing. He stopped to thank us for our interest in all things Lao.

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The ceremony begins
The ceremony begins …
Beautiful centerpiece
Beautiful  pha kwan centerpiece, the focus of the tradition
The tying of the strings -- each person tied them
The tying of the 32 white strings — each person took turns tying them on our wrists
Each one would say a blessing as they tied them around our wrists
Each would say a blessing as they tied them.   Later that evening back in our villa, we counted them: sure enough – – there were exactly 32 on them!
The final blessing
The final blessing.   (the little guy had had about enough of this, and wanted to go watch TV)
These ladies created the centerpiece and food
These ladies created the centerpiece and the food — they insisted we take all the food!  They were delightful.

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ETHNOLOGY MUSEUM

The Ethnology Museum of Luang Prabang was a great place to experience the different traditional dress styles for many of the minority groups living up north here in the mountains region of the country.  The villagers usually wear western style clothes now (they can buy them so cheap imported from China) and wear their traditions clothes only for celebrations.  Weaving used to be practiced primarily out of necessity back in the day, and now is done only to make special traditional clothes and for selling some to tourists.

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Kmhmu
The Kmhmu are the second-largest ethnic group in Laos, whose ancestors are considered to be the original inhabitants of the country.  This village stopped weaving 25 years ago when they moved closer to a town, where they could buy cheaper clothing.
hm
Hmong – one of Laos’ most famous S.E.Asia ethnic groups, with a large overseas diaspora, particularly in the United States.  We often met Hmong in our travels who had family in Oregon, California, or Minnesota!
Hmong
Luma – a small ethnic sub-group, but with very distinctive dress.

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KUANG SI WATERFALLS

We took an excursion to a waterfall about 20 km south of Luang Prabang.  It was truly worth the experience.  If it had been warmer we might have taken a plunge or two into these beautiful pools, but were quite content to walk among them.  The falls coming over the canyon wall in a 200 foot cascade, traversed a series of stunning turquoise-blue pools. These falls are typical of travertine waterfalls (a form of limestone deposited by mineral water or hot springs).

The park-like area had a center for the rehabilitation of native animals, and we were able to view Asian Black Bears that had either been rescued from the wild.  The center is well done and the animals are very well cared-for.

Our guide  for the day had even packed a delicious lunch for us, and we sat by the waterfalls and the pools enjoying the ambience and tranquility of the moment.

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Beautiful gardens on the way to the falls
Beautiful gardens in the valley on the way to the falls.  Lao people are great farmers, and the local produce is some of the best we tasted on this journey.
one of many pools
one of the many pools
The turquoise color was beautiful
The turquoise color was stunning
At the top
At the top
If it was warmer we would have swam
If it was warmer we would have taken a plunge
Our picnic spread
Our picnic spread — we are missing our guides and drivers who took such great care of us
A small area for Asian Bears
An Asian Black Bear.  They are much bigger than I had thought; these guys were similar in size to the Alaskan black bears we saw on our last drive up north
Very healthy bears
Very healthy bears
Enjoying a snack
Enjoying a snack

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LAO COOKING CLASS

A highlight for Evie was attending a very special cooking class — anyone want a traditional Laotian dinner with us when we get back??

We have immensly enjoyed Laotian food while here, which has been regarded as similar to Thai, but we had been told not as ‘spicey’.  That depends on where you get it!  Rather than mix these delicious chilies, coriander, etc. in with the dishes they prepare (think varieties of curry), they are always available as sauces you can add yourself.  Thus, the spice is up to you!

One of the big differences is that Lao food uses sticky rice instead of jasmine or basalmic!  It’s the staple and is eaten with the fingers;  all northern Lao dishes are designed to accompany it.  They like strong favors and use bitter, salty, spicy, and sour favors to balance the bland rice.  In fact all of their dishes seem to be an intricate balance of these yin and yang principles.

Food is eaten communal-style with spoons, or more often, fingers.  Chopsticks are only for noodles.  A lot of the preparations use a deep mortar and pestle to release flavors of fresh herbs, chilies, etc.  Cooking is all done over a clay and tin brazier.  Anyone ready for stuffed lemongrass, fish steamed in banana leaves, green papaya salad, sticky rice with several different jeow (spicy dips made with chillies & tomatoes or a smoky eggplant)?  I am hoping I can find all the ingredients or substitutes to make these dishes back in Portland.  Luckily, we are endowed with many asian food stores in our hometown.

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The herb garden
The herb garden — the source of all good Lao ingredients
Ponds on both sides
Ponds on both sides. Did they get there fish here as well as in the Mekong?
Some ingredients for tonights dinner
Some ingredients for tonights dinner we all will share after the cooking class
Getting instructions
Getting instructions from the Chef
Preparing our dishes
Roasting peppers, tomatoes over the brazier
Stuffed Lemongrass
Stuffed Lemongrass.   Mmmmm!
Cooking stuffed lemongrass in hot oil
Cooking stuffed lemongrass in hot oil
Finished cooking -- time to eat!
Finished cooking — time to eat!  (Does Evie look proud?)

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ARTISTIC-LOOK PHOTOS

here are some parting images that Gary played around with to give a more artsy look to Luang Prabang.  See what you think of them.  He particularly liked the way the town began to resemble a small city maybe in southern France . . .

Love the Bamboo bridge -- only in use during the dry season
Love the Bamboo bridge — only in use during the dry season
Lunch overlooking the Mekong
We ate lunch here  overlooking the Nam Khan River
many shops
One of many Luang Prabang’s restaurants and guest houses, and ever-present ‘tuk-tuks’
and more
Many interesting shops
cross street
Our favorite cross street, heading down to the river
we fell in love with Luang Prabang
we fell in love with Luang Prabang!
Children in the school yard
Children in the school yard

About Smiling Road Warriors!

2 happy retirees, movin' along . . .
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