Friday, March 2, 2012

A short stop in Laos

Laos was like a short beautiful dream that ends sooner than you were able to relish it and understand was was going on. When we planned our trip we allocated 1.5 months to South East Asia: 3 weeks in Thailand and Laos and 3 weeks for Vietnam and Cambodia. Inexperienced and uninformed in the ways of backpacking, we thought it would be easy to get around from one place to another. We didn't take into account how big these countries are, how long it takes to bus from one place to another, how you need a few days to recharge your batteries in-between two long bus rides. Or else travel fatigue gets to you. In hindsight, I would allocate 1 month to Thailand, 2 weeks for Laos, 3 weeks for Vietnam and 2 weeks for Cambodia. 3 months in these parts of South East Asia sound like a generous amount of time to see enough things. We're doing it in half that time, and it often feels like a marathon.

We spent a total of 5 days in Laos: 2 days on the boat down the Mekong river and 3 days in Luang Prabang. Given that the visa costs 36 USD and you are granted only one entry, we should've made the most of it, but we had to be in Hanoi by February 24 to meet up with Anne's friend, Daniel. As we keep saying on this trip: "Oh well, another time..."

Waterfall 30km outside Luang Prabang.
With most of its surface covered by gorgeous forests and mountains and a population of only 8 million people, Laos is still "virgin" territory, loved by more adventurous or eco-friendly travelers. A lot of people claimed it to be their favorite part of South East Asia. Given that it's one of the poorest countries in the world, Laos is quite-underdeveloped. There's no industry and big cities that ruined the countryside. While this sucks for the poor people who live here, it is a paradise for travelers searching for pure places. Tourism might be the key to bringing a lot of money into Laos without ruining its beauty. But tourism also means that prices will go up and backpackers will no longer afford to travel as cheaply as they do now. So if you're planning to see Laos, hurry up! The best way in my opinion is to bundle up Laos, northern Thailand and Burma.

The bamboo bridge that connects Luang Prabang to a neighboring village. Tourists are charged a small fee equivalent to about 1 USD to help build the bridge next year. Because the water rises a lot during the rainy season, the bridge functions only 6 months of the year, after which it has to be dismantled. Every year they build a new bridge.

Cute little street in Luang Prabang.

Utopia is a Canadian-owned bar/restaurant overlooking the river. You can come here early in the morning for yoga classes held on the suspended wooden deck. They also serve delicious steak sandwiches, but a bit overpriced for Laos. You pretty much pay the same amount for a dish that you would back in the States, but in Laos dishes normally cost around 1USD.

Lounging on the suspended bamboo deck at Utopia is pretty much the most relaxing activity, especially when you are waiting for the noon heat to be over.

Dinner on the deck at Utopia with our new friends from Eugene, Oregon: Scott and Mitch.

Communist flag decorating a Western-style lounge area. A reminder that Laos is still a communist country, although it doesn't feel like one at all.

We woke up at 6am one morning to go see the local women give alms to the monks. On the way back to the guesthouse where we were staying we caught this beautiful sunrise.

Sunrise over the river in Luang Prabang.

The four of us rented bikes one day (for 1 USD / 24 hours) and went for a ride around the city. We didn't really see anything special, the roads close to town are densely populated. You have to go on a longer ride to reach forests and fields. That said, the roads aren't busy and it seems like a wonderful country to see on a motorbike. Unlike Thailand, you drive on the right side of the road, which may be easier in confusing traffic situations.

Going off-roading for a bit in a village outside Luang Prabang. Nothing but heat, dust, stray dogs and smiling locals.

The place where we rented our bicycles doubled as motorcycle workshop, and I loved how each tool has its own spot, outlined by marker and properly named. If only my garage looked like that...

 Street in Luang Prabang.

Our first and only massage in Laos. They call it "Lao massage," but it's just a crappy imitation of a Thai massage.After all the amazing massages we had in Thailand, this was nothing to write home about. I wish there was a Yelp for massage parlors in SEA because it's often a hit or miss.

From 5 to 6:30am every morning, all the monks in Luang Prabang walk down certain streets to collect food that local women prepare for them. Women line up in a row sitting on carpets, with a bowl of sticy rice, bananas and sweet sticky rice wrapped in banana leaves. All monks have identical metal bowls with a lid on. They walk quietly in a row, removing the lid in front of every woman. She then uses her bare hands to make a lump of sticky rice from her bowl and puts it into the monk's bowl. This daily ceremony is called paying merit or giving alms to the monks. The monks spend their entire time in spiritual learning, so they are not allowed to work or cook. The food they receive in the morning represents their only source of food for the day. With my Western mindset, I cannot help to think of all the hands touching the lumps of rice and how each monk has to eat many lumps of rice touched my many different people. It doesn't seem very hygienic to me, but I guess it works for them.

Also, during this procession, all monks are quiet, have a blank stare in their eyes, they don't say thank you or anything at all, and walk barefoot. Normally, during the day, they wear flip flops or leather sandals, and many of them have cell phones. I've even seen one checking his iPad. I actually love how their ancient spirituality is not frowning upon modern technology, but instead embracing it as an aid to foster education and information.

One day we took a pickup truck to the major attraction in the area: the Kuang Si Falls.

 Jungle Jane, climbing back up after a quick dip in one of the many layers of the waterfall.

View from one of the tops. The waterfall kept going up, but we didn't hike all the way to the very top.

 Road to the waterfall.

The prude side of Laos. Because God forbid someone who just swam might walk around in their bathing suit until they dry up. But seeing how foolish and ignorant of local traditions some of the young backpackers are, a little sign like this might help keep their clothes on. I remember back on Koh Phi Phi seeing a white girl walking down the street wearing a string bikini exposing her entire butt cheeks, when travel guides explicitly tell you to cover yourself, as many of the local people are Muslim and it's offensive for them to see all our shameless nudity.

It fell on my hair, I picked it up, photographed it, made a wish and let it fly again.

Afternoon siesta.

I found it weird that they were selling Red Cross bottled water at street food stands. It tasted a bit bitter too and I'm wondering if it really was drinking water, or rather sterilized water for hospitals. If anyone reading this has a clue, please enlighten me.

On the way to the waterfall we hiked past a bear conservation park, where bears rescued from poaching were kept in captivity for their own sake. Despite the small size of their enclosure, the bears had plenty of cute hangout spots, play toys and food hidden around, which kept them busy and playful throughout the day. I especially liked this bear hammock, that even has a roof to provide shade.

And finally one photo of me at 6am, as we were heading out to see the monks. I am sporting my new $4 baggy pants bought from the night market in Luang Prabang and my new $5 fake Teva sandals, bought in Chiang Mai. I'm slowly turning into a hippie, not giving a shit about how I look, and feeling more comfortable than ever. I rocked those pants a whole week straight, day and night, on buses and trains, and absolutely love them.