Before my evening flight tonight I have some time to wander the Rues looking at shops. Everywhere in Laos, the women wear an elegant, long skirt called a sinh. I thought one would make a nice souvenir, though finding one to fit my western shape proved troublesome. Last night I stumbled on a small back-street tailor. They had a lovely piece of cloth, and overnight they whipped up my very own sinh.
I’m going to miss the relaxed atmosphere and pace of life in Laos. Although I have learnt so much in the past week, I feel that I have barely scratched the surface of what there is to know.
Back down in the lowlands the temperature is again sweltering. Laos’ biggest city is a mish-mash of quality international restaurants, small local haunts, more monasteries, and crumbling European architecture. Humidity hasn’t treated it well, and many of the buildings don’t look as if they’ve had a lick of paint since the French left town back in the 1950s.
My favourite site of all though has to be the Patuxai or Victory Monument, which closely resembles Paris’s Arch de Triumph. It’s not its appearance that attracts me as it is not overly beautiful, but its story. Nicknamed the ‘Vertical Runway’, it was built in the 1960s using U.S. funds. The funds were supplied expressly to extend the runway at the airport (no doubt convenient for the U.S. to keep an eye on some of Laos’ neighbours). Anyway, instead of extending the runway as planned, the Victory Monument was built. With the two columns of the arch reaching into the sky, it serves as a nice little “up yours” to the U.S.
A dinner and show tonight was goodbye for the group. I am jealous as most of them are continuing on for another couple of weeks into Cambodia and Vietnam. Argh…Japanese holidays are just too short.
I know that there are plenty out there that wouldn’t recommend flying on Friday the 13th, but our 30 minute flight down to Vientiane was uneventful.
Vientiane or Viangchun as it is known to the locals is the end of the line for me on this trip.
The reason why most tourists make the trip all the way to Phonsavan is the Plain of Jars. The Plain of Jars is Laos’ equivalent of Stone Henge. It’s incredibly ancient and totally unexplainable – in both how and why it was made. A plain spotted by a few hundred jars remain. Once there were thousands, but the jars too became victims of the U.S. bombing. Some argue that they were for storing some form of alcohol, while others believe they were burial urns.
On arrival the jars are fascinating, but a little underwhelming. Though again like Stone Henge, the longer I spent wandering through them, their power and magic grew. The total scope and feat of them became quite awe-inspiring.
Our bus ride to Phonsavan in the remote province of Xieng Kuang took us all day. The rewards however were plentiful, with gorgeous mountain panoramas rolling off in every direction, cool highland air, and friendly locals in our village pit stops.
A visit to the MAG (Mines Advisory Group) museum in Phonsavan sobered us up quickly, and reminded us of the tragic consequences of the Vietnam War in Laos. Villagers, still to this day, constantly uncover cluster bombs dropped by the U.S. Army. Fifty years after the war, the ‘bombies’ as they are known, are still killing – particularly farmers, who accidentally hit them when ploughing their fields; and children, who pick up the yellow, tennis ball sized bombs thinking they are toys. Not a great deal for a country that wasn’t even involved in the war.
With feet back on dry land, it’s time to settle into the pace of Luang Prabang, Laos’s capital until the communist takeover in 1975. This pace admittedly isn’t a whole lot faster than life upon the slow boat.
This morning saw another 4 something wakeup, this time by choice. Luang Prabang is filled with temples, and the temples in turn filled with monks. At the crack of dawn each morning the monks walk throughout the city collecting alms in the form of sticky rice. Armed with my own bamboo basket of rice I joined some locals on an intersection that was soon to be busy with monks. I got a few pointers – shoes off, kneel, small ball of rice into every bowl, don’t touch the bowl, and don’t touch the monks!
There was something quite peaceful about the whole thing, with no words shared, just the nods of thanks from the monks as they shuffled by in their bare feet and saffron robes. The elders led the lines with the boys, some as young as 5 or 6 bringing up the rear. A couple of the youngsters struggled to conceal early morning yawns. I wasn’t so successful at hiding mine.
Finally all mouths had been fed. Rubbing my burnt fingers and picking off the sticky rice that had glued itself to the soles of my feet, I enjoyed the glow of satisfaction that comes with having done a good deed (and having gained good photo opportunities).
After an afternoon wandering around town taking in the remnant French buildings that vie for space with the temples, a pit stop at one of the multitude of Luang Prabang’s cafes was on the cards. The muddy brown water of the Mekong flowed silently by and whiffs of smoke from a mosquito coil drifted up my nose as I sipped my tea, chatted to fellow traveller Kim from New York, and relaxed into watching afternoon life unfold.
I had been warned that the roosters woke early in Pakbeng. True to word, they were up at 4 something (I was too dazed to note the exact time). Once awake, the roosters didn’t stop their crowing until they were assured that everyone in town was fully awake with them…some 3 hours later. Ouch! At least I’ll have plenty of opportunity for a nap back on the slow boat today.
In between the napping, a couple of stops were made along the river to stretch our legs and take in some local life. Our first stop was Bou Village. This village is obviously a regular stop for boats travelling down the Mekong, as the locals were ready for us with scarves and other wares lain out. Exchanging a few purchases for photo opportunities, I left with more scarves than intended. Back down at the river the village kids splashed about in the water, jumping off logs and generally having fun.
Pakbeng, halfway along the Mekong River between Huay Xai and Luang Prabang is our stop for the night and in fact the stop for everyone travelling down river. It is the only place with the guesthouses and restaurants to cater for guests. With the addition of electricity last year, I think it will grow quickly. Not much more than a village during the day, the place becomes a hive of activity as the evening boats dock in. Some enterprising local kids carried our bags uphill to the hotel for 20 baht each. I would have been quite happy to carry my bag the short distance, but their smiles and shows of muscles were too hard to resist.
Dinner was a comedic affair of mixed orders and missing dishes. The bottle of Beer Lao that I nursed while waiting for my meal though was light, crisp, and refreshing to drink as I watched the sun slip behind the hills, leaving a view as black as can be…and eventually I ate.
On the drive out, a lot of the houses in the Chiang Rai area reminded me of home and made me wonder why we ever stopped building this style. The wide eaves and raised floors really do make sense in this climate.
The border crossing from Thailand to Laos left me happy to be Australian. I only had to pay US$30 for my Lao visa compared to the $35 the Irish and American paid, and the $42 the Canadians paid.
After a tight squeeze into a small truck, our Laotian guide Soun transferred us to our slow boat, our ‘home’ for the next two days. It’s wonderful just sitting back, letting the cooling breeze blow gently over my face while looking out at the green hills that slide slowly by. I can feel the stress of work and everyday life slipping away with every passing minute.
Our ‘ships’ crew is a couple and their 3 sons, joining their parents river journeys for the school holidays. While the father captains the boat and the mother prepares lunch, the boys keep themselves occupied making miniature models of traditional pan-flutes…using spaghetti! Such is the ingenuity of children without Nintendos. Listening to the boys quietly sing as they play, I drift into a comfortable doze.
Returning to tradition, I arrived in the northern city of Chiang Rai under the cover of night. For us Chiang Rai is really just a stopover, before crossing the Laos border tomorrow. A late dinner in the open air market area accompanied by an ice-cold Singha beer was just the thing needed in the steamy evening weather. The air was filled by a repertoire of Beatles songs, played well by a couple of local guitarists. A strange interlude by a lip-syncing stripper left us both giggling and offering opinions on gender – we never did reach a conclusion on that one!