*** Lao's Enchantment ***
I can't say that I love a winter too much, but fluffy snowdrifts and cold clear air are fun. Sometimes. Unfortunately this year there is no winter. No snow. Temperature is around zero. Is this December?!
I returned from my trip to Cambodia and Thailand only 2 week ago, but I fly back there in my mind almost every day. Strange, but usually I do not feel those symptoms of "nostalgia for SEA" at least 2-3 months after returning home. Anyway, I must to do something with this problem.
Suddenly I remember that I have some unused days from my annual holiday. Plus long "Christmas vacances". Hmm. I have a good chance!
I had called to my buddy Pavel, who share my addiction to travel, especially to South East Asia, and after a short discussion the decision was made: we are going to Laos. Despite high season we arranged round-trip tickets to Bangkok without any problem and marked the "key points" of our trip: Bangkok - NongKhai - Vientiane - Luang Prabang - Pattaya - Bangkok.
Traveling with a flexible schedule is always better than using fixed one, and we got confirmation to this fact just after arrival to Bangkok. We went to the train station and tried to book tickets to the nearest train heading to the Lao border, but we could arrange tickets only for the next day. Ok, "One night in Bangkok and the tough guys tumble".
First impression. Vientiane
In the morning Dec, 29, our train arrived to NongKhai just in time (quite unusual for Thailand, huh?) and we were attacked by plethora of tuk-tuk drivers, wanted to drive us to the Lao border. Route had took only 5 minutes (price: 30 bahts / person) and we queued to the "Friendship Bridge" checkpoint. After 30 minutes of waiting we passed Thai checkpoint and headed to the bus which drove us across Friendship Bridge to the Lao checkpoint for only 15 bahts. Because most of foreigners must fill the form and apply for visa on arrival, there were very few "farangs" in this queue of Lao and Thai people. Yes, we are lucky; we don't need a visa to enter Lao PDR for 15 days. So, 10 minutes later we were heading to Vientiane by tuk-tuk.
You have never got a second chance to make the first impression. And Vientiane made it perfectly.
Because we had had only "short list of preferred hotels" and hadn't booked any accommodation in advance we asked our driver to drop us off somewhere in the city center, preferably near the "Riverside" hotel. While driving we were enjoying with the views of Vientiane in the morning. Vientiane is not so big city (in comparison with Bangkok for example), calm and green.
We settled at the hotel ($22 / room) and went for the site seeing. Because we had only one day for Vientiane our list was relatively short: "Black Stupa", Wat Sisaket, Wat Haw Phra Kaew, "Arc de Triumph" and of course - Wat That Luang. This "tour" can be
done by foot, but if you don't like walking too much, you can easily hire tuk-tuk. Before we begun our "city tour" we had arranged bus tickets to Luang Prabang for the next morning.
By that time I had already visited a lot of Buddhist temples, but ones in Vientiane impressed me. Wat Sisaket with its mondop (library), gallery of the small Buddha images (each resides in its own little "cavern"), dark brown roofs with chofas (a decorative element) pointing to the shinning blue sky.
Passages of Wat Haw Phra Kaew where you are blown by gentle wind while watching the images of Buddha and animals.
The famous stupa of Wat That Luang with unique "Lao style" shape which differs it from ones in Thailand, Myanmar and Cambodia. Just before sunset Wat That Luang looks as if built by aliens.
We finished our trip by taking some sunset pictures on the bank of Mekong River.
After long day of walking our bodies was so tired, and we went to massage. Lao traditional massage slightly differs from Thai one, but they have much the same techniques. Massage was followed by dinner with delicious Lao dishes and a few shots of "lau-lao", kind of local rice vodka (or whiskey?).
Overland to Luang Prabang
The next morning we woke up early and headed to bus station, where I drank a cup of strong and thick Lao coffee with freshly backed baguette before our journey to Luang Prabang begun.
The road ran through picturesque mountains, green rice fields and forests, across small rivers. We made a short stop after VangVieng for dinner and continued our way.
I fell asleep and woke up because it was too hot. Our bus was staying in the small village and driver was trying to repair the engine. Villagers came out from their houses to look at foreigners, who are rare guests in this small mountain site. Some children were looking at "strange white people" with mix of fear and curiosity, while other were trying to start a friendly conversation despite they didn't speak English.
During next two hours we were wandering around taking pictures. When the sun had started its way toward the horizon we asked our driver when we would be able to continue our journey. The driver said that he couldn't repair the engine and we had to wait for the next bus. May be for several hours or even till tomorrow. "Good" news! The night in the mountain village itself didn't frighten me, but we'd waste a lot of time in this case. So we pulled our bags out from the bus and started hitchhiking.
30 minutes later the driver of a Toyota minivan agreed to drive us (two crazy Russians guys, two Korean girls and a couple from Italy) to Luang Prabang for only $10 each.
Meanwhile the sun touched the mountains and quickly hid behind them. We were driving in full darkness. Sometimes we saw broken buses pulled off the road (kind of engine's epidemy?). Korean girls tried to start a conversation with the driver in Thai (Lao language very close to Thai, especially Isaan dialect). Because my knowledge of
Thai is very basic, I understood only a few words and couldn't join them. So I took my mp3-player, put on earphones and selected "random" mode. Guess, what song I heard first? "Death Car"! Now it makes me laugh, but at that time while we were speeding in the night on the narrow road with many sharp curves and without any street-lamp, the
song sounded ominous.
But eventually we successfully reached Luang Prabang.
It was December, 30, 11 p.m. Almost all the hotels were fully booked. However after 40 minutes of asking "Mee hong waang dai bow?" we found a free room in a small guest house - someone reserved it but didn't show in time, so the owner offered it to us.
Luang Prabang - an ancient capital of Laos
In the morning December, 31, we had got yummy breakfast in small riverside restaurant overlooking Mekong river, then headed to the nearest tour agency. We decided to book airplane tickets back to Vientiane because we had already fed up with a ground transportation. It's funny but take a lot of time. So we arranged airplane tickets back to Vientiane to the January, 4 and 2-day «Mahout Course» (elephant
keeper training) for the January, 2.
Luang Prabang - an ancient capital of Laos - is a small, quiet and peaceful town. All the major attraction are resided on "tongue" formed by Mekong and Nam Khan rivers.
We begun our self-made tour from view point overlooking the mouth of the Nam Khan river.
Then we proceeded to the oldest wat (temple) - Wat Xieng Thong. The main building of Wat Xieng Thong - sim (the ordination hall) was built in 1560 by the order of King Setthatherat. Later, in 1828 there was built Tripitaka library and in 1961 the drum tower was added.
The next several hours we were wandering around narrow streets and lanes, visiting temples, some big, some small but always charming. I took many pictures not only architecture and décor elements, but also people: playing children, monk reading the book, novice with a dog.
Just before sunset we climbed onto Pu Si ("Saint Hill") to view breathtaking panorama of Luang Prabang and it surroundings under last rays of sun and in twilights.
After short rest we went to the cosy cafe on the bank of Mekong to have delicious dinner, then headed towards central square of Luang Prabang for New Year countdown. Weather was a quite cool, but square had been crowded by people. After countdown night sky burst out with spectacular fireworks. People begun celebrate each other and lunch balloons, which must take out all the bad things happened during last year.
First morning of the new year was quite cool and cloudy, but this kind of weather is better for sightseeing than shining sun and hot. After breakfast we hired a long-tail boat and headed to the opposite bank of the Mekong - according the map there are two little temples.
We found one of them just after had disembarked - ordinary temple which can be found in almost every Lao village, so we continued uphill. Next temple was also not so interesting except it's mural painting, which, unfortunately, was in very poor condition. But as reward we got a breathtaking view of Luang Prabang and it's surroundings.
Last temple we reached during our over-the-river trip wasn't a human-made building, it was resided in the cave instead. A boy from neighboring village unlocked the door and showed us Buddha images and strange stone formations, one of which strictly resembles an elephant. While we were trying to take photos inside the cave (which
was quite tricky with only small torch as additional source of light), the boy cleaned up the area around cave's entrance. Looks like villagers do it everyday to pay respect to this sacred place.
Back to Luang Prabang we took a tuk-tuk to Quang Si waterfall.
Quang Si has several levels, some with relatively calm pools where you can swim. Despite weather wasn't hot enough I took a quick bath in one of the pool, because according the sign it will bring health and good luck. The upper level of Quang Si has a spectacular view - white stream falling from the high rock forms the large pool. The
best point to take photos is the bridge over the outfall, which, of course is always crowded. On the way back to parking we stopped at the large open-air cage with funny Black Bears.
Next morning we got up well before sunrise to see monks collecting alms. I have read about alms ceremony and saw pictures before, but seeing it with own eyes is totally different experience. In the quietness of the cool and misty morning endless queue of monks wearing saffron robes moving along the streets and lanes with alms bowls while kneeling people (both local and tourists) put some food (usually rice and fruits) into the bowls. I also noticed that sometimes monks gave the collected fruits to the children waiting them with baskets. I don't know is this an ancient tradition or nowadays improvement of the ceremony?
Our next destination is "Elephant Village" which is located only few kilometers from Luang Prabang, so we reached it relatively quickly.
After checking in and putting special ("mahout's") uniform we met our elephants. For the first ride "trainees" seat at the berth on the back of the elephant but after quick explanation "how to manage elephant" our instructor offered me to seat at the "captain place" - on the neck of the elephant. This were very exciting! Unlike horses elephants usually don't needed physical command - all you need is periodically encourage it with verbal command "pai!" ("go!" in Lao) and say "khua" (right) or "sai" (left) for change direction. Among other words understood by elephants there are
also "how" (stop), "thoy" (turn around), "map long" (lie down), "look" (stand up) and very useful "ya-ya!" ("stop doing bad!") usually shout by mahout when elephant gets off the road to eat something.
Our elephant, named Bounsoo, is a mature (40 years old) and very smart bull. He is the only in the whole herd who respond to "boun-boun" command correctly. This command means "spray some water on the back using your trunk", but other elephants often just
shake their heads while tacking bath. Elephants take bath twice a day: in the morning and in the evening before go to the pasture where they spend the night. Of course after this procedure all the mahout trainees have got wet as well.
In the morning we woke up early to get our elephants from the pasture to the river and participate in the refreshing procedure one more time. After breakfast we left "Elephant Village" for Tad Sae waterfall and rafting along the Nam Khan river.
In my opinion Tad Sae waterfall is not as impressive as Quang Si but still worth to visit. There are funny wooden pavements along the stream, several pools convenient for bathing, resting area, elephant riding service etc.
After visiting Tad Sae participants of mahout course have two options: trekking or rafting. We had selected rafting and soon loaded onto plastic kayak. I had previous experience with big kayak and catamarans but with this small one all my skills were useless. This kayak is good for two lightweight persons, but when me and my buddy
had sat on it, it begun to take water inside and became very unstable. Fortunately I had put photo and video equipment in my waterproof bag, so it didn't get wet when we turned over several times.
We returned to Luang Prabang just before sunset and quickly found accommodation for the last night in this cosy town.
Next morning we got up before sunrise again to take video and pictures of alms collection ceremony. But weather was too cloudy and I could take only few photos because of darkness.
Our next destination is Pak Ou cave located just 25 km from Luang Prabang up the river, at the confluence of the Nam Ou river into the Mekong. But before going to cave we stopped for a while at Ban Xang Hai village, lying just opposite the cave. This village specializes in producing a wide range of lau lao (Lao whisky) and lau hai (Lao wine) - you can observe process of distillation, sample some lau lao and buy it, if you like. There are also a little market where you can find textile, souvenirs and snack if you are already hungry or just want to eat something after lau lao [img]smileys/smile.gif[/img]. Don't forget to visit small village's temple. Nothing extraordinary, but it very quiet and charming.
Pak Ou caves consist of two caves - lower (Tham Ting) and upper (Tham Phum). Tham Ting is filled by miniature Buddha images deposited there by local people over long time. It relatively small so you can explore it within one hour. The higher cave, Tham
Phum, is deep and you need a torch to penetrate, so most people visit only lower cave.
Back to Luang Prabang we had some extra time before our flight to Vientiane and we decided to visit Wat That Luang RasaMahaVihane, which mean "Monastery of the Royal Stupa". This Wat was built in 1818 and differs from other wats in Luang Prabang its black-and-white ornaments. In front of the vihan you can see stupa containing remains of King Sisavangwong.
Meanwhile the day declined and we headed to the airport. Our airplane took off just before sunset and we got chance to catch last glimpse of Luang Prabang lighten up with the last rays of the sun.
In the morning January, 5, we said "good bye" to Vientiane and crossed the border. In our way to Golf of Siam we changed buses 2 times (in Udon Tani and Nakhon Ratchasima) and traversed Isan province from North to South. But that's completely another story.
Yekaterinburg, January 2009 - August 2011
In fact, those pictures are resided on my website and I have just put links to them using "[ url=link-to-big-picture][ img]link-to-small-picture[ /img]" tags (without extra spaces after "[") in HTML-mode.