Our #19th country, Laos!

We had had such a great time in Vietnam, we were sad to leave.  These feelings seemed to have become a common theme in our recent weeks traveling… we were excited to go, but hated to leave.  Next stop, was a country that we were going to skip over, except Kristen Gill told us some of her experiences there, and then we found a way to fit it into our schedule.  I definatly do not regret the decision of stopping into Laos for our 19th country, it was gorgeous terrain and a great vibe from the people.  We headed to Luang Prabang because there were a ton of sights to see there.

If I had to describe Luang Prabang in one word, I would use the word “Chill”.  Everything was relaxed, and had a quiet atmosphere.  No one was chittering away and even the street vendors would take it easy on you.  In our guest house at Thong Bay Guesthouses, we had our own little cabana overlooking a beautiful garden. where breakfast would be served on our porch in the morning by a seemingly happy Laotian woman who would chirp “Sa bai dee” as she brought it up to us.  This is their greeting, and you can’t help but smile back with the tone of voice and sincereness they use when saying it. 

Breakfast on the porch.

Laos has a ton of Buddhist temples called Wats, at which monks live and worship.  We many of these Wats to see the beautiful decorations on them.  They all seem to have the pointed roofs with red tile, the woodwork is layered in goldleaf, and all approaches have Naga(large serpents with multiple heads) on them.  A couple times a day, the monks could be heard banging their drums and clanging their symbols together in a very orchestrated way.  The effect of these instruments being played together would raise goosebumps on me in a very primal way.  Due to the cycle of the moon we were in, we woke up at 4 in the morning one morning and heard them performing, Jane went outside to the garden to listen, while I gathered a few more ZZZs.

A Wat near the central museum.

Monks praying at a Buddha statue.

On our first day in town, we roamed the streets a bit to get a feel for the town.  We stopped by several Wats, and climbed the large hill in the center of town.  At the top, was an old temple and repository for the ashes of monks.  There was a lady selling birds in cages, that you could buy to make a prayer and release to have the bird carry your wish.  I bought a cage with two birds, as I figured my wish might be a heavy one.  Sorry, I won’t share it.  At the top, I broke open the cage, and released the little sparrows into the wild.  The hill also had an old anti aircraft gun, two deformations in the ground which were called the footprints of Buddha, a large reclining Buddha, and a beautiful 360 view of the town.

A large reclining Buddha.

Me releasing the bird/wish from his cage.

After climbing back down the hill, we had a nice lunch by the river and discovered a sign to the Weavers.  Well, as you can imagine, Jane lightened up at the thought of the weavers and we crossed a bridge following the signs.  We passed monks and children bathing in the river, and walked through the next town over.  Most of what we saw was the women weaving cloth and the men making wooden furniture.  I watched the weaver women work their looms in awe, as they made the machinery bend to their will to make table cloths, scarves, and table runners.  Im pretty sure I would lose a finger if I tried using one.  Jane may have bought a thing or two.

Crossing the Bamboo bridge to the Weaver village.

Some weavers making some textiles.

The traffic around town didn’t seem very bad, so I mustered up the courage to rent a motorbike for us to drive to a nearby Kouang Si waterfall, I figured it would be a fun experience after fondly remembering our ride in Hue.  As soon as I made the payment on the bike, clouds closed in and began to dump rain down.  We had rain jackets, but we didn’t have very good protection for our packs and our tiny helmets meant for tiny people didn’t have a visor to keep the water out of our face.  I bought a cheesy umbrella to have Jane shield us while we were driving, and we bought some cheap plastic bags to line our bags with.  We began the 30km drive already wet. 


Along the way was a rather large hill that we had to climb over.  The motorbike was having difficulty getting us up the forementioned hill, so I pulled over and asked Jane to get off a second since the rain had let up a bit while I checked out what was happening.  As soon as she got off I pulled the “See ya later” gag and gunned it up the hill, cackling as I went.  I rounded the corner, and figured I had gone far enough and turned around and headed back to her.  Slightly down hill from her, I began turning around again to pick her up again, and between the wet road, my lack of experience driving a motorbike and the wet brakes I unceremoniously drove the bike into the ditch.  The bike fell over and I could smell the stench of gasoline, as I had flooded the engine.  It was now Jane’s turn to laugh, I think there may even have been tears.  Then the sky began crying as well, and we sat there in the rain with a stalled bike that wouldn’t start and Jane with a bemused and pissed expression at the same time.  I figured since the starter was flooded and we were on a hill, I might as well try a compression start, which luckily worked, an we were on our way again.  Jane says that her biggest regret of the whole trip so far is that she didn’t get a picture of these events unfolding.

"I get 70 miles to the gallon on this hog."

Even my helmet is small.... (or my head is huge... meh)

We made it to the waterfall without incident, and hiked up past the pools at its base that people often swim in.  The pools were turquoise in color, like many of the streams we experience when travelling through the Grand Canyon last year.  The waterfall itself was quite pretty, and the waters were teaming with life.  I even saw a large freshwater crab running on the bottom of one of the pools.  Jane and I decided to hike to the top, to see the sights from up there.  The hike up was a slippery one, and it was more of a climb than a hike.  Once at the top, we came to some small trails, but no vantage points to look from.  What a bummer.  After carefully navigating our way back down the trail we had come up (we couldnt find another way down) we decided it was time for a swim.  The water wasn’t warm, but it wasn’t too bad either.  Several other people went in for a swim as well.  We made it back to town with no other complication, I could totally see travelling this country and Vietnam on motorbikes as one of the best ways to experience it.

The Kouang Si waterfall.

The steep and muddy climb up.

Swimming in the pools below the waterfall.

Every morning the monks would wake up and gather alms from the townsfolk by walking around town en masse.  The donations were of rice, candy or bananas to feed the ancestors, and if you wanted to donate you could set up a little mat along their path.  Jane really wanted to see this, so we set the alarm and got up in the darkness of early morning.  We traded our motorbike in for a couple of bicycles built for small people and hauled butt to get into town, only to find out the monks weren’t coming for another hour or so.  I wasnt a very happy camper as you may be able to tell in my recounting of it.  Finally the monks did their circuit, and it was neat to watch the different people provide their offerings.  Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to capture much of it with my camera as it was still pretty dark.

A much safer alternative, although a bit small.

Monks walking the streets gathering alms from the townspeople.

We had heard that up the river there was a cave full of old Buddha statues that the rulers of the land would make a pilgrimage to go pray at.  This sounded like something we should see, so we hired a boat to take us up the river.   The boat ride took an hour and a half against the current, where we saw fishermen throwing cast nets, and what appeared to be a ton of other fish traps with bottles acting as floats to where they exist.  I could see how the river could be treacherous, as the boat driver appeared to navigate a very specific path, that other tour boats would follow as well.  Once we were well underway, I started checking out the boat and comparing it to others that were passing us.  I really think our boat was what was left over from a motocycle accident.  The driver was sitting on an old motorcycle seat on the ground, he had two motorcycle mirros pinned to the ceiling to look behind him, I bet the motor itself could have been from one.

The Buddha Cave.

We made it up to the cave of Buddhas… it was much smaller than I imagined, and I imagined many more buddha.  Don’t get me wrong, there were tons of buddhas in it, but I still figured their would be more.  After seeing the cave, we headed back down river into a beautiful sunset.  We hadn’t seen such a beautiful sunset since Africa.  The ride was a pretty one, and without it Im not sure the daytrip to the cave would have been totally worth it.

View from our seats on the boat.

The food here isn’t too different than Vietnamese food, although not as good.  They have some real spice to their dishes though, and I think Jane is starting to like it.  She may be eatting more spice than I can handle even, I expect that when we get home, she will be smuggling in jalepenos to her plate.  Speaking of food, we ate a ton at the night market in town.  One night it was pouring rain, and they had hooked up a tarp system to keep the water off the people.  This also made a barrier for the smoke, and of course my head was above smoke level.  I sat down to get some fresh breath, and the tarp gave way and dumped a ton of water down my back.  Oh well, nothing a fresh fruit shake wouldn’t cure.

Night market foods! Yum! Meat on a stick!

We explored many of the different Wats in town, we got to witness the monks praying and chanting.  We got to watch the monks play their music.  At one Wat, we talked with this Laotian tour guide who was practicing a new pitch and quizzed us on the meanings of words, and which words he should use.  At another Wat, one up on a hill, we were able to climb to the top floor due to it having different construction.  The inside of the Wat had large murals painted of what I guess to be what Hell is like.  Pretty disturbing images, when we climbed up to the top story it was a tiny room.  Over on one side there was a window, and hanging there was a sleeping bat.  I recognized it, and told Jane not to get close and not to wake it.  She said, why would someone do that in a disgusted tone of voice, and that she didnt think it was sleeping. I looked at her funny, as I wasn’t sure what she meant, as it made no sense.  Later, when we climbed down, I told her I was surprised she hadn’t freaked out being so close to a bat.  She looked at me and told me “I thought it was a dead frog!”.  No wonder she didn’t flinch at it!

Sleeping Bat!