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Laos - 2012

January 22 - Laos Adventures

Our final day in Siem Reap Dave was entertaining a travellers bug, so Mr. Sokhoeun took me to the Bayon for a final look at the wonderful bas relief carvings. Around the outside gallery every column has lively dancing asparas. The walls contain scenes of everyday life, crocodiles attacking people, and tigers chasing people up trees, temple builders, people cooking, cockfights, naval battles. Too soon it was time to pick Dave up and head to the airport.

A few hours later we touched down in picturesque Luang Prabang, Laos, nestled on a peninsula formed by the junction of the Nam Khan and Mekong rivers. LP is full of monasteries. Each morning at 6am there is a procession of orange-robed monks through the city, begging alms and granting blessings. This is a tourist mecca, with lots of shops, guesthouses and restaurants. It is delightful, but not representative of this country, where 80% live in rural villages with no electricity.

Luang Prabang sits at the junction of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers.

The rivers drop 30 feet in the dry season.

Annual crops are planted on the banks as the waters recede.

Luang Prabang is home to dozens of beautiful wats...

...each a teaching monastery.

The roof dragon style is Laotian.

We had fun exploring, especially enjoying the bamboo foot bridges built across the Nam Khan. They are constructed in the dry season, and are destroyed each year when the rivers rise again with monsoon rains.

Each dry season a bamboo bridge is built across the Nam Khan...

...to be washed away by the following monsoon.

Hope it holds today.

Basket fishtraps are made of bamboo.

Our second day here we caught a 3-hour overcrowded minibus with no shocks to Nong Khiau, where we stayed at the NK Riverside in a thatch bungalow. Gorgeous setting - the river has carved steep walls. We booked a tour, advertised as "something suitable for your parents", a boat trip upriver to Muang Ngoi, and an all-day kayak ride back down. On the way up we got a preview of the whitewater weíd be descending, yikes. Muang Ngoi is a small village with a lovely temple. We walked both blocks on main street, and learned how river weed is prepared - a lot of steps to make this local delicacy.

Sa paper is made from mulberry leaf paste.

Ladies sell oranges at the bus station.

We arrive at scenic Nong Khiau...

...where we stay in a riverside bungalow.

Our bungalow is basic but comfortable.

Our Laos-firm bed has mosquito netting. We have a lovely deck overlooking the Nam Ou. A pail of water in the bathroom flushes the western toilet. Very comfortable!

A short walk brings us to Tham Pha Thok caves...

where villagers and the the provincial government lived during 9 years of American bombing.

The typical Loa house is pretty basic.

More than 80 percent of Lao people live outside cities, with no electicity or running water, far from schools and hospitals. There are few income-producing jobs. This is subsistance living.

Kayaks are loaded onto a boat for us.

We ascend the Nam Ou.

On the way there is a lot of white water!

An hour later we arrive at remote Muang Ngoi.

Graceful river boats are built of thin planks.

Our driver offloads our kayak.

Cane stalks are cooked to feed pigs.

Naga heads guard the Muang Ngoi Wat.

The Wat's drum wakes the village for alms-giving.

This log drum is the snooze alarm.

Cluster bomb shells litter the town.

This shell became an herb garden.

Dilemma! Which loom-woven silk scarf to buy?

All day we'd seen villagers collecting river weed.

In Muang Ngoi we saw the many steps to prepare it.

It is basted with spices, beaten...

...hung out on frames to dry in the sun...

...and finally, packaged and sold.

Our guide gave us a double kayak, and had us put on life jackets. We started our leisurely paddle downstream, past small villages, pigs rooting on the riverbank, and water buffalos cooling in the river. The river villagers wait until the water starts dropping in the dry season and plant vegetable gardens along the banks as the water recedes. Gardens are fenced in bamboo to keep the livestock out. Along the way we saw many people harvesting riverweed. Our boat driver and guide provided a riverside picnic - delicious eggplant dip, sauteed vegetables, tough beef, and sticky rice, a small feast. In Laos you eat with your fingers, both hands. We carried on downstream, until we came to the longest stretch of rapids. The kayak seemed stable, but halfway down we flipped. I came up underneath the kayak for a moment, then popped up alongside but didnít grab on quickly enough. Our guide caught me and got me back to our kayak. We righted it and Dave tried to climb up, but was hindered by his life jacket. So we rode the rapids hanging on to the sides of our kayak, occasionally bumping feet and knees on rounded river rock. A few minutes later the rapids spit us out into calmer waters, where our boatman caught us. He was waiting below the rapids to made sure no boats attempted to come upstream while we were in them as they are quite narrow. We hung onto both the boat and our kayak. The boatman skillfully brought us to a sandspit. While he motored us there, I was very aware of the prop spinning not far behind our feet. No drama, all was well. Our camera was in a ziploc, tied to the kayak. Amazingly, we did not lose it, nor hats, sunglasses. The guide even caught my flipflops!

We climbed back into the kayak and continued on, refreshed by our surprise swim in the cool Nam Ou. Late afternoon we pulled back into Nong Khiau.

We start down the Nam Ou...

...at a rest stop we enjoy a picnic.

Great scenery.

Safely back to Nong Khiau.

Our cooks gut and pluck our dinner.

Our waitress at dinner told us she works as a volunteer, teaching in a village far upstream, living with the wealthiest family in the village. They have a tiny store with not much in it, as no one can afford to buy anything. A couple times a week the villagers eat rats, about all they can catch. They have a few chickens but donít eat them - the hens are too valuable. She said they basically have nothing. She comes to town occasionally to work for money to buy shampoo and things she needs, and has been living in the village now for 5 months. Makes us realize we have not seen the "real Laos" yet.

This morning we said goodbye to Nong Khiau, and caught the 5 hour "ferry" back to Luang Prabang. The ferry, costing about $13, is a covered riverboat with hard wooden seats, about 4 feet wide and 40 feet long. The driver sits in the bow. No lifejackets this time. The boat descends the Nam Ou for 4 hours until it joins the Mekong. With the dry season, the river is steadily getting shallower, exposing more rocks, any of which would crack the fragile ferry like an eggshell. Rocks were in touching distance on both sides at times, as we threaded the rapids going downstream. We have no idea how the boat driver delivered us safely!

A plow is loaded onto the ferry.

And now an engine.

The ferry terminal snack bar is open.

We climb aboard for a 5 hour ferry ride downstream.

Life jackets are not provided.

Water buffalo cool themselves in the river.

We drift downstream.

White water!

The ferry runs the rapids.

We pass thatched homes.

and small villages.

January 29 - Home to Baraka

Dave and I explored Luang Prabang, checking out the ethnic museum, morning and night markets, and some of the monasteries as we moved from guesthouse to guesthouse, 4 in all. Itís Chinese New Year, and the town is packed with tourists. Our last morning we got up early to watch several hundred monks pass through town in a long, silent procession past alms-givers, mostly older ladies, seated on short stools holding their rice baskets. As each monk drifts past, the lady opens her rice basket and grabs a dollop of sticky rice to place in the monkís alms-bowl. Tourists line the road snapping photos, but this is not for the tourists. In a country with no government welfare, the alms-giving is important. Anyone in need can go to the local wat and find food and a place to sleep. The monks return to the wat, chant a prayer for those who gave, and have their only meal of the day.

Every morning at 6 am...

...monks and novices trail through town..

...begging alms.

Sunrise at the Wat...

...and a pink mosaic building.

The monks return to this building for their single meal of the day.

After the procession, we wandered through the morning market. We were told the Lao eat anything, and the market is proof. Dried rats are tied in bundles, small frogs leap in a bowl. Live chickens lay trussed on the ground. You can buy grubs and insects, and tiny sparrows roasted on bamboo spits. The meat counter (no refrigeration) is swarming with flies. We buy small grilled snacks - who knows what they are.

Luang Prabang has a colorful morning market.


River fish are arranged in baskets.

Produce is fresh-picked today.

A live hen in a wicker basket.

The Lao people eat everything.

Small frogs...

...and toads.

These roasted birds have heads.

As do the dried rats.

Saffron Coffee has several shops in LP. The Hmong traditionally grew opium for their own use. This blossomed into a bigger industry during and after the Vietnam War. Now the government discourages opium growing, so the Hmong hill tribe people have resorted to slash-and-burn crop growing, getting a harvest only once in 8 years. Saffron Coffee and Mountain Coffee encourage shade coffee growing, buying all that the Hmong can produce, hoping this will replace the opium and slash-and-burn crops. Around town are many NGOs helping get beautiful minority textiles to market. The library encourages tourists to buy a childrenís textbook and put it into a book bag, to deliver books to remote villages. The government has almost no tax basis as this is not a cash economy, so education, libraries, medical care, services we take for granted must be funded some other way. The shortfall is huge.

We hopped the plane to Vientiane, capitol of Laos, a big sprawling city on the banks of the Mekong. We enjoyed a French cuisine at Le Vendome. The next day we rented bicycles and toured the city, wet market and dry, and the Arc de Triomph-looking monument, climbing to the top for fine city views. We biked along the Mekong, though in this dry season the water has receded into a fraction of its wet season width, and is distant across a sandy plain. Dave and I are reading some entertaining books, set in the mid-70s after the Pathet Lao took over. Colin Cotterill writes the Dr. Siri Paiboun series about a reluctant coroner, appointed because he was the last doctor in Laos. They are well-written and funny, and capture a lot of what we are seeing. The author has given all proceeds from the sale to several charities that help Laos. We found the publisherís bookshop, Book Cafe, and bought the entire set.

Vientiane reflects French colonial days. Note the landing strip fence.

I bargain for sticky rice baskets.

The wide Melong looks half dry.

A fisherman with bamboo frame net.

Vientiane has lovely wats too.

A monk walks along the Mekong.

Our last morning in Laos Dave and I biked to the National Museum, then on to COPE, one of the agencies that gets the Dr. Siri royalties. COPE provides artificial limbs and training for bombie victims. Laos remains the most bombed country in the history of the world. The US dropped more ordinance on Laos in the Secret War (never approved by Congress) than was dropped in all of WWII. The targets were civilian, villages, rice fields. The US hoped to interrupt the Ho Chi Ming Trail, but if you look at a map that shows the bomb pattern, the country was carpet bombed. The tragedy is ongoing, as roughly 30 percent of the bombs dropped did not explode. Today villagers continue to find the bombs and try to salvage the metal, considered valuable. The result is devastating. The worst bombs are the cluster bombs, huge casings that contained several hundred grenade-like "bombies". The casings opened midair, and the baseball sized bombies had small fins designed to spin them as they fell, so one cluster bomb salted a large area. Children find the bombies, which surface after the monsoons, and the cycle continues.

Display of cluster bomb spawning several hundred "bombies".

Map (red dots) show US bombing missions over Laos.

Most of the time I am proud to be American. But not so much when I see the damage we have done to these very poor countries.

We rode back to our hotel and grabbed our bags. Two flights later we were back aboard Baraka. Great trip - we saw and ate and experienced some wonderful things, and learned more about our fragile world.

Click here for our Thailand 2012 journal.

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