Monk walks and on to Pakse

Day 126, Wednesday 9 May 2012, Luang Prabang to Pakse

Weird night, I heard voices on the street outside and thought – cool, it must be time to get up and go see the monk walk. I staggered out of bed, checked my watch and realised it was only 1:30 and not 5:30, back to bed. But I never really slept soundly again damnit.

I did get up at 5:45 when the alarm went off and was out the door soon after to catch the monk walk, though disappointingly I really only got the end of it.  Luckily I did not listen to the advice of the guest house and go at 6.30 as I would have missed it all.

At dawn the monks from the local monasteries walk the two main parallel streets in Luang Prabang and collected alms, mainly from the local people, though some tourists also buy food and give to the monks. This is of course, a major tourist attraction in LP, and I was amazed at how many westerners are actually here – they obviously wheel out all the gentle folk on package tours for this ‘attraction’ – the tourists I hardly ever see when travelling more cheaply. I had a similar experience at Bagan in Myanmar, very few people around until sunset when all these tour buses magically appear and discharge a flood of tour groupers, who rapidly consume all there is to see and then disappear back on to the air conditioned buses to return to the sanctuary of their resorts.

There are numerous signs around LP advising people to respect the monks, don’t fire flashes in to their faces, keep out of the way and don’t crowd them. As you would expect, this seemed to be largely ignored. I kept my distance and took what photos I could without flash.

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It was an interesting experience.

I cannot say this enough, I really liked LP, it is quiet and considered, a little cooler than Hanoi was – though still 33 degrees ! it is off season so things are a little cheaper than peak. My guesthouse is comfy and close to where I want to be, I have met some good people to hang with, and apart from being sick again I am pretty chilled. It is also very clean and tidy!

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After breakfast and a wee break I grabbed a tuk tuk to the airport, check in was an hour and half before the flight time so I was there very early, unbelievably I actually went to sleep in the departure lounge on the most uncomfortable seats ever, I only woke when a boarding announcement was made. We all got on the plane and it left almost forty minutes early : ) so cool…

A re-enactment of actual events…

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It was an ok flight, i regret not having my camera for the landing approach as there was some great shots to be had. The Mekong is so much clearer in the south of Laos compare to the north and the land is significantly flatter as well as far more arid.

I shared a ride into town with some other travellers and found my way to the Sabady 2 hostel, the guide book recommended place. I have a cheap room, fan only and share bathroom, but half the price of Luang Prabang, the advantage being there are other travellers here.

I checked in and then dumped myself on an outside table with a group of other people, all a lot younger than me, but got myself involved in the conversation and end up having lunch, and then dinner with the group, as well as a wee wander around Pakse.

We had dinner at a Mekong side restaurant, of the four things we ordered, only one person got what they expected, it wasn’t me. My veges turned into a chicken dish that was the hottest thing I have had in asia, I couldn’t eat it ! The good news is my stomach seems OK now – yes !

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Pak Ou Caves and Kuang Si Falls ‘tour’

Day 122, Saturday 5 May 2012, Pak Ou caves and Tat Kuang Si falls

I had another crappy nights sleep which is a real pain as the bed is just sooooo comfortable, so I was up early and in to town for breakfast before heading off on my boat tour to Pak Ou Cave a couple of hours up the Mekong River.

“please book now and you will have a full taste of happiness” – loved it!

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There was a bit of faffing around at the jetty before we got going and once we did get going it was a pretty slow ride up stream. Though very low the river is immensely powerful and I would hate to get caught in some of the swirling eddies and strong currents we saw from the boat. There was seven of us on the boat, and apart from two Russian ? women travelling together, no-one said anything to anyone else all the way to the caves.

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We stopped a couple of times on the way, the first time to get some gas and the second at the whisky making village, though there was no whisky making going on at all, nor any signs of it either.

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We were of course able to purchase silk scarves and other souvenirs… the highlight for me was the sign for the WC !

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These fast boats are water taxis to many of the small villages up and down the Mekong. They are quite popular with a certain type of tourist, but apparently a number of people are killed each year in high speed accidents. I only saw one boat go flying past and the driver was wearing a crash helmet – and I don’t mean the flimsy kind used here by motorcycle riders, this guy had a proper helmet on. The western passengers did not.

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It was a further half an hour up river to the caves. The area is incredibly beautiful and I would love to come back after the rainy season when the river is high, apparently it looks a lot clearer then. my photos really do not do it justice, it was close to mid day and the sun was incedibly bright.

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The caves are the home to about 4000 buddha figures, some dating back many many years. The caves were originally used as a place of worship by the animist villagers prior to the introduction of Buddhism about six hundred years ago.

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My favourite.

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There are two caves one just above the normal high water level and another up the hill, not many people took the walk up to the top as it was blisteringly hot again today, though the top cave was not as good as the bottom one.

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I thought it was all pretty cool, and worth the trip.

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While waiting for the boat to head back down river I started up a conversation with Bettina, Austrian working for the European union in Brussels. She has a very interesting job and is well travelled, so we shared travel stories all the way back to LP.
The afternoon session was a visit to Kuang Si falls by van. The falls are about thirty km from LP and extremely popular with tourists and locals – especially on a hot sunny Saturday. I met a couple of Aussies on the bus and we clambered to the top of the falls before heading back down for a swim in the pools below. The water here is an odd turquoise colour and I am assuming this must be due to some mineral or other. It is extremely pretty!

The falls also has a small bear rescue park run by an Australian bear rescue group that have sites around SE Asia. These Asiatic Black bears would likely have been sent to china to farms where they would be used for their bile

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The top.

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The biggest spider I have seen in SE Asia

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The falls

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The pools

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As expected large numbers of young westerners ignored this sign !

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Once back in LP I checked out the guesthouse that Bettina is staying in as I wanted one closer to the centre of town and also one with wifi that worked. The price was good so I have reserved a room at the Khong Savath guesthouse and arranged to move in tomorrow morning.

I had a quiet dinner of spring rolls, chicken and cashews with rice and lovely Lao beer and was in bed watching Arsenal draw with Norwich City by 7.30 !

Vhat Vat is Vat

Day 121, Friday 4 May 2012, Luang Prabang

Happy 22nd Birthday Dom !

Luang Prabang (LP) is a UNESCO protected town situated where the Nam Khan joins the Mekong River. The town itself does not appear to be particularly old but it does contain a large number of old temples or Vat’s as they are known in Laos. Architecturally the temples are similar to those in Thailand, and at first glance Laos shares many things with that country – food being one of them. There are also a number of colonial buildings and Laotian style dwellings in town, and I must say from first glance it is a pretty town, quiet and gentle and a huge relief after the hustle and bustle of Hanoi.

I had a miserable sleep, I obviously compensated for the awesome effort the night before by having a terrible sleep last night. So I was up early again, wifi was still not working and breakfast wasn’t part of the deal so I took a walk into town to find both, preferably in the same place. The main drag Sisavangvong Rd (and the last time I am going to mention a Laos street name) was about ten minutes from the hostel, with a good portion of that walk above the low but beautiful Nam Khan river. I soon reached down town LP, which is basically one main street a hundred metres long full of tour shops and restaurants. The town is of course, significantly bigger than this and full of nice shady, quiet streets to stroll down. It is now well past peak season for tourists so it is a perfect time to visit, with just enough people to keep most of the restaurants open, but nowhere near crowded.
I walked past Vat Sene, – the wats are Vat in Laos…

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And then Vat Sickharam

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I booked myself onto a tour to Pak Ou cave for tomorrow and picked up a decent map of LP, then stopped for breakfast and an internet session at a local cafe – before heading back to the GH for a shower and to get ready to start exploring.

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I decided I would do the peninsula part of LP first, walk up the side of the Nam Khan, stopping on one of the bridges and then down the Mekong to the centre of town and check out some vats on the way.

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Vat Xieng Tong is one of the main temple sites in LP, it has been restored over the years, restoration work continues at a number of temples throughout the town. Laos is a practising Buddhist country and a large number of the young men choose to do time as monks, so a number of the temples here have working monasteries.

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I really liked the decorated doorways.

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The glass murals

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The small woodblock prints on the walls and pillars.

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And these lovely old Buddha figures.

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The renovation work at Vat Pak Khan has just started so the monastery is still in semi-original condition, I arrived soon after the monks had eaten.

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Vat Sickhounmaung

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And my favourite, Vat Xieng Muan – as it was small and a bit quirky and I so loved these doors. Why do I love doors ? who knows !

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It was very hot and still here, as I had left early i had not really been a good boy with the sun screen, so around mid day decided I would have lunch and then head back to the GH for some shade and a cool down. You know it is hot and sunny when the bikes are covered.

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I stopped at Wat Siphoutthabat on the way.

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It was too bright for the view but i liked the sign…

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After a lie down I headed out to That Chomsi, it is on the top of a small hill in the centre of town and was worth a visit on its own. I got as far as the ticket office (I should say there is a fee of about $3NZ at the main sites, it is a bit frustrating, but supposedly the money goes towards maintenance, I hope so.

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Donations

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At the ticket office I ran into Karen, who i briefly talked to at the visa counter last night at the airport. We started chatting and it got too close to closing time for the Vat so I decided to flag it tonight and went for a walk around town and had dinner with Karen, always nice to have company ! We parted company about 9.00 and I went back to the GH to try and make up for last nights lack of sleep.

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You will all be pleased to know that I had a GOOD day, and am loving LP so far !