Laos Part 2

More Laos – Part 2

Back on the river heading South…

Boarding a motorized long boat with a covered roof, we head
downstream on another tributary of the Mekong. Although our pilot
appears to be around 14 years old, he is extremely competent,
negotiating large amounts of river debris and small rapids. The muddy
brown river narrows and the mountains rise. These limestone (karst)
mountains show only thin walls of white rock since  the jungle
provides a full green cover. In any botanical contest, the vines win
as they overtake all other growth in a rush to the river.

Our only stop is at a Tai Dam settlement. These people fled
during the Vietnam war and lived in caves. When the war ended they
established this village approachable only by water. The village is
known for beautiful weavings in silk and cotton. A woman weaves
rapidly on a primitive loom with home spun yarn. Each day many houses
in the village hang their weavings outside in the hope of tourists. We
help pound rice in a hollow tree trunk creating much laughter from the
locals.

At our eco-lodge a lightning storm begins. Dinner is a breakfast
meal of muesli, fruit, and yogurt. One good legacy from the French is
baguettes and the sandwiches are luscious. When I ask about the
cheese, the young Lao waiter says,  “Vashee” and makes a triangle with
his fingers which is the giveaway. The cheese is “La vache qui rit” or
“Laughing Cow” as we know it. We have always called it (laughingly)
“Vashky-Rishky” and get a kick out of this transliteration.

The Laos Biathlon begins the next morning. In two kayaks we
paddle; Mark and a river guide are followed by Thon and me. The
kayaking is lovely as we do a long, slow glide downstream. Our
Riverside Lodge has mountain bikes and so we tour the countryside. A
young British couple assist at the lodge. He has been hired to develop
a climbing school and she teaches English to the locals. Maybe this
will become the Yosemite of Laos, but not for a few years.

The next day another long boat ride on the Mekong which is now at
least two Km. wide and muddier than ever. The Pak Ou caves deep inside
a limestone mountain are both a tourist attraction and a sacred place
for the local villagers. Inside the caves are hundreds upon hundreds
of old Buddha statues of all sizes. When a Buddha becomes disfigured
in some way ─ usually by aging, the statue is brought here. One spot
has been dedicated as a prayer area and people bring offerings and buy
flowers. We are ahead of the busy tourist season so only a few people
are at the site.

The caves are only a short distance from Louang Probang, the
cultural and spiritual center of Laos. The next day is spent touring
the many temples in this busy city. Our guide Thon explains the
similarities found in all Buddhist temples. There’s a central Buddha,
often covered in gold paint, and additional Buddhas of all sizes on
each side of the largest Buddha. Each temple is decorated with an odd
number (7, 9, 11 etc.- odd numbers being more auspicious than even
numbers) of dragons known as “naga”. On the roof are an odd number of
golden “parasols” that resemble line drawings of a Christmas tree with
ever widening circles from top to bottom. A number of the temples have
detailed drawings of the life of Buddha and his enlightenment. Two
temples date back to the 16th century and the rest are of more recent
vintage. There were once 100 temples in Louang Probang but during a
Chinese invasion of Laos, all but two temples were ransacked and
burned.

In one elaborate temple, we are privileged to view a ceremony
where a ten year old boy is undergoing his initiation into monkhood.
His entire family is there and a money tree has been erected for
family donations. Often young boys temporarily choose the monastic
life in order to gain an education. Later, they leave the order.
Immediately outside the temple the family is preparing an elaborate
meal. We are reminded of a Bar Mitzvah celebration.

A weaving center and school located at the banks of the Mekong-
Ock Pop Tok (East meets West) is worth a several hours visit.
Everything is made naturally from the local habitat. We see silkworm
cultures, trees harvested for their individual dyes, and hand operated
spinning wheels and looms. Often girls as young as 8 years old, who
learn how to weave from their mothers, are operating the looms. The
weaving is gorgeous. Several women in their 50s have been weaving
since they were children.

By 6 AM the next morning we are on a street corner kneeling over
a small rice basket and waiting. Hundreds of orange clad monks are
coming down the street for their morning food allocation. Each carries
a large bowl which is held by a bag that goes over one shoulder. We
join the “food givers” on the right side of the street. Thon explains
that even when there are no tourists the people in town support the
monks. Most of the tourists take photos but are not involved in the
food line. Only about 15 minutes but quite an experience.

In the late morning we bid Thon good-by and get ready to board a
prop plane for Pakxse. We meet our new guide at the airport and the
first excursion is to the Bolaven Plateau, a slightly higher and
cooler elevation with large coffee and tea plantations. The French
were instrumental in creating the Laos coffee industry. Today French
consultants are still active trying to make Laos coffee world class.
Depending on what part of the  plant is used, three different types of
tea can be made. There’s is an enormous amount of hand labor involved
in both the coffee and tea industry.

From here we set out to see the major waterfalls in the area.
Laos can definitely get boasting rights in this department. First is a
double waterfall that tumbles about 900ft into the river. Next is a
split falls where you carefully descend stone steps and actually stand
in the mist. The final waterfall was over a fourth of a mile wide and
just roars down over the protruding rocks. This was our lunch
accompaniment.

Wat Phou is an ancient Khmer temple site that pre-dates Angkor Wat.
From the nearby village, we bike the 12 Km or so to the site. Estimated
to be from the 12th century, secrets are still being unraveled from
the surroundng jungle. There is a long processional pathway lined with
stone columns topped with lotus flower buds. The high shallow, steps
are reminiscent of Mayan pyramids and lead us to the major temple.
Angkor kings honored deities from both Hindu and Buddhist traditions.
As a result, the temple has some well-preserved Hindu lintels and  the
centerpiece is an ancient Buddha where local people and tourists make
offerings.

The view below is glorious. The jungle surrounds the entire site
but the palaces and the processional make a striking scene. I can
imagine an
enormous royal pageant leading to the temple to pray to the gods for
whatever the need might be.

We bicycle back to the village, passing a heated game of Lao
“Bocce Ball.” The game could be in an Italian village rather than
Southeast Asia.

In late afternoon, a leaky boat takes us to an island resort, La
Folie ─ our most glorious hotel in Laos. A pool and 12 bungalows face
the Mekong. The manager is German and the food is first class, equal
to a fine San Francisco restaurant. Departing on a catamaran with a
deck connection and two bamboo chairs, we feel like a British Sahib
and Memsahib from another era.

Today’s escapade involves an elephant ride up a small mountain.
Our 50 year old elephant comes along with her driver who straddles
behind her ears. Atop her back and around her tail is attached a
cushioned bamboo love seat which has seen much use. We climb a flight
of stairs and from a platform we access our love seat. We are off with
a bit of sway from left to right. This is a major tourist attraction
so we start to climb on a macadam road. I know it will be 45 minutes
to the top where we can dismount and look at some ruins. The timer on
my watch says 40 minutes to go. Only 30 minutes to go as another
elephant comes down the mountain. Now our elephant turns in a downhill
direction. This gives Mark a photo op and my watch says 28 minutes to
go. When we hit a plateau I look for the ruins. Finally I spot the one
story staircase where we dismount and Mark says, “Would you rather
walk down?” I hug him and pronounce all kinds of accolades on my
darling husband. We survey the remnants of some stone posts and begin
our descent.

Our Kingfisher Eco Lodge has a lot of “Eco” but no
air-conditioning so we are a bit sleep-deprived by morning, having
survived our steamy night below a mosquito net. We have a complicated
day of van travel and boats to arrive at one of Laos’s famed 4,000
islands which are almost at the Cambodian border. Upon arrival, we are
hot and exhausted and  pass up on yet another waterfall and opt for a
long nap in our air-conditioned room.

Onto Australia and the next adventure….

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