Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Laos, part 1: Christmas in Luang Prabang

 To be completely honest, I wouldn't know French Colonial architecture from a bar of soap. But, just like love, it was all around us at Christmas time (awww...)

Free-hand shot... thank you very much!
At least, that's what we're told. Apparently we have the Frenchies, who colonised this, and a few other corners of South East Asia, to thank for the incomparable charms of Luang Prabang.

We couldn't enjoy a white Christmas in Vancouver, or an Aussie Christmas in Brissie - so, failing those two preferences, it was Luang Prabang's reputation and our dumb luck that we landed here, after a scenic and memorable two-day boat cruise down the Mekong on December 23rd.

Even after acclimatizing to a slower pace in Northern Thailand, it took us a little longer than we'd expected to ease into a whole new level of laid-back in Laos, especially in Luang Prabang. It's like coming from a live show to relax in your comfiest old beanbag - even though you couldn't be more relaxed, you're buzzed, and it takes a minute to settle in.

Luang Prabang was a place where we just didn't feel like sightseeing. There is a selection of tours available, but we enjoyed nearly a week just wandering around, letting the ambiance of the place just soak in. The backstreets are an extremely pretty picture, with bougainvillea cascading down from the wooden-shuttered homes, shading the paved streets and the beautiful souls that eat, live, work and play in them.

One lazy afternoon wandering through the historic quarter, a live version of Dire Straits' "Your latest trick" came on shuffle as we walked through the un-crowded side streets and the unhurried feel of a backstreet market. The smell of freshly peeled and sliced sun-drying garlic permeated the air and I found it hard to believe we're in the heart of one of Laos' biggest cities.

We enjoyed cups of tea by the Mekong and occasionally Laos coffee by the Khan (we heard someone make the joke: they forgot the 'y' on the end of 'Laos' there – and we tend to agree). Fruit shakes from stands beside the many temples and cold Beer Lao darks when we crammed in the food alley at the end of the night market. 
These FRESH sandwiches make Subway taste like playdough
  We have stayed in some of our cheapest accommodations to date, which have also been either beautifully restored old buildings or lovingly run guesthouses - some of the restored buildings are so cool I understand how people justify paying for the experience of staying in such expensive but truly beautiful places.

One lunch, while we were sitting, enjoying an unbeatably-valued lunch (a freshly-baked baguette, stuffed with freshly roasted chicken and salads, with a freshly blended fruit smoothie (all on a sesame seed...), all for 3 bucks - thanks v. much) ....lunch - a friendly local bloke my age turns to me: "HEY - YOU TRY!?" - hands me a plastic cup with a very honest drop of Lao Lao - Laos' own rice whiskey.

I take a sip - it tastes (and feels) like straight metho, maybe cheap vodka at a stretch. I'd read forums with Lao-Lao aficionados waxing about tones of vanilla etc, but I decided to explore that part of my palette another time. My mind was with an etiquette paragraph I'd read somewhere: "try any food you're given" - I assumed this extended to drinks, but drew the line when he went to top me up after I'd drained the cup.

Our big expedition from Luang Prabang was to 'The Waterfall'. TukTuk drivers around here have to be able to say 'Hello, Waterfall?' - it's a major attraction. We thought we were due for some light exercise, so we bought a map, rented a couple of mountain bikes, slept in, had a lazy brekkie and took off.

Steve Wehlow, I hear your 'hmpfh' of disgust.

Feel the burrrrn!
What a highlight! We had support from the passing convoys of TukTuks, full-to-brimming with those sensible enough to spend the extra kip on a ride. Some laughed; a few cheered and clapped as they sped past us peddling uphill into their cloud of exhaust and dust. But the real treat, by a mile, were the kids.

My best crew were more than ten in number, all under ten years old - they saw us coming downhill from where they stood playing together in front of their shacks and dusty fields. I crouched low on my bike to achieve max-aerodynamics and, as I reached terminal velocity downhill, they ran to the side of the road to form a line, their arms outstretched for high-fives.

Our hands slapped together as I sped past them at warp speed, bringing cheers. As we disappeared around the next bend, my right hand was still tingling and the sounds of their raucous, satisfied laughter carried us on with a smile that I still have as I write about it.

If that was a hard act to follow, the Kuang Si waterfalls were the perfect headliner.

We didn't have a picture of the falls, so here's
another pretty picture to feast your eyes on
instead :)
Cloudy, menthol-green pools of mountain-fresh water, cascading over picture-perfect after picture-perfect waterfall. And there was a rope swing - the cherry on top! We spent most of our time (and, unfortunately, all of our camera battery) at the bottom half. Like Ulu Watu in Bali, my first thoughts were of the pioneers who saw this place wild, for the first time. I actually think it would've been quite similar - the focal points of the falls were natural and untouched.

There was a swim, three goes on the rope swing, a couple of bomb dives off the falls and a few solid minutes of slack-jawed navel gazing after being flattened by the spectacle of a skinny, trembling Asian kid. He shakily made his way up the tree overhanging the pools, gingerly reaching for the rope swing, before straightening and letting out an al-mighty war cry and managing to scream the words "EV-RY-DAY-I'M-SHUF-FL-IN'" as he fell a few ungracious metres to plop into the pool, clutching at the rope. We, along with the rest of his audience, just stood about silently; shocked, stunned and completely amazed.

I was, of course, a modern-day Tarzan.

Modern day Tarzan wears bright coloured boardies
and has a jungle call like that of a prepubescent teenager..
Only after our swim did we discover the other two-thirds of the falls. Equally picturesque, the first seemed man-made, with level-after-level of rippled tiers. The top was the boomer - straight out of a Disney movie, the enormous waterfall reached into the canopy, with cascading sheets of water scattering across a lush, broad rock face all the way up. Absolutely spectacular.

Halfway home, as we were rounding a corner, we noticed a motorbike draw up behind a flat-bed truck. He then veered off onto the rough track beside the narrow road, and, in slow motion, lost control. Incredible, considering some of the traffic we've seen in Indonesia and Southern Thailand, that the first accident we witnessed was in rural Laos. A few bad cuts aside, the guy was relatively unhurt - we helped him back on his bike and he rode away.

With a face this innocent, he couldn't possibly be on Santa's naughty list.... Could he?
Christmas was great. Despite the inevitable homesickness, Skype and phone calls with our fantastic (extended) families were highlights in an otherwise pretty typical Christmas day - Bailey's in the coffee at breakfast, a Nanna nap in the middle and a solid Chrissy dinner.
The variation was starting the day at 6am, not for a stocking-raid, but to give alms (offerings) to the monks. Not strictly a non-Buddhist exercise, it's nonetheless a regular tourist activity in Luang Prabang. I was still rubbing my eyes sleepily as I stepped out of our hotel at dawn on Christmas morning, when I was assaulted by an entourage of locals putting piles of rice and bananas in my hands. I was only coming out to watch, but, in the spirit of Christmas, I took off my shoes and my nine baht Santa hat and kneeled on a roadside mat.

As the monks approached, Kimee took photos from a respectable distance, doing well to get some fantastic shots that didn't have the four girls, side-by-side, shooting the monks point-blank on their iPhones. We're thinking about renaming this blog "The realities of travel in 2012" - a cathartic traveler's digest".

As the monks whizzed by, I hastily grabbed handfuls of sticky rice and bananas, soon realizing I'd gone out too hard: 20 monks deep and I was running low on everything. Spotting my grains-to-monk ratio dwindling to pathetic levels, an enterprising local appeared with a salesman's smile...and another tray of bananas. Every monk got something from the Aussie on the corner.

Leaving Luang Prabang we opted not to visit the Plain of Jars in the Phonsavan district of central Laos, but we still read about the region's history, more recently created than the mysterious stone carvings that litter the fields. It's the other litter that is the problem.

What things do we grow up taking for granted? I'm not talking so much about food, nor housing. Simpler things. The fact that, back home, we can walk off into fields, off tracks, into the bush? All our friends who are young parents back home, who will let their kids go out and explore Canada and Australia without worrying about a legacy of unexploded weapons.

Near the end of the Vietnam War, Eastern Laos (then a Neutral country following the Geneva Convention) was blanket-bombed in what is known as the CIA's Secret War, primarily to devastate the North Vietnamese supply-line of the Ho Chi Minh trail.

Traveling here we have read statistics of such a scale they are, at least for us, impossible to fathom. A bombing campaign that cost US$2 million per day...for nine years? 26 tonnes of bombs per minute. The most bombed country in history. You can be angry, bewildered, feel sorrow, but never on a scale equal to the suffering of entire provinces' populations. You just can't balance that ledger.

This little munchkin
could melt the iciest
of hearts.
Yet these people are beautiful. Generous. Non-confrontational and polite. The children are the epitome of childhood innocence; curious and blissful. Laos gave us and the Americans beside us Visas at the border!? Why? How? We got deep on the subject, but the best we could come up with is 'they just are'. History isn't bland when you see it in a a face. And here, it's not even history.

We have a bunch of notes from our time in Vang Vieng and the rest of Laos beyond - we're looking forward to sharing them, but have been very busy either on the move or not leaving our hotel bathrooms. We wanted to share some stories from Luang Prabang while we were still on the road - for those of you playing along at home - we're Brissie-bound!! Kimee's visa was approved just a few days ago, and we've booked flights to come back on February 3rd, just in time for Mum's birthday!

Stay posted for some memories from Southern Laos, and we're hoping to get some notes on Cambodia in before we fly home as well.

For now, love from Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

Kimee & Hedge

(Here's a smattering of photos because blogspot is a bitch to work with and I can't line them up properly. ENJOY!)

Christmas phone call from the family!
The most convenient hair-do I've come up
with for this trip!

Realities of traveling in 2011/12

Josh, this is actually your Christmas pressie that Hedge is wearing..

The first non-festy, snuggly dog we
come across on our trip!
Offerings to the monks

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