Day 18 – Luang Prabang, idling and watching

Well this must be halfway through now. In spite of good intentions to get up at dawn and watch the monks’ procession I opted for my very comfortable and warm bed. There were no bananas at breakfast and I set off on a bike over the river without eating. After crossing the river on the car-free wooden bridge I quickly found myself in semi-countryside with tracks instead of roads.

My first stop was Watpakha Xaingaram which has a ruined wat which has stood in that form for over 200 years. On the same site a new temple has been recently built. I cycle up and around a few times to get comfortable with approaching the monks working there. Two are painting white the lotus bud statues. Wearing orange marigold gloves to match their robes.

Two younger monks (one a novice, I think the monks wear yellow and orange, the novice just orange) are crouched around a couple of small wood fires. On nearing I can see the novice is shaping wooden handles for the multi-purpose long thick knives they use here and heating the blades before banging them into the handles to make a complete item. The monk is wearing a yellow hat and goes to get a pan of water which slowly boils. A very young novice flits between the action neither helping nor hindering. The monk with the pan calls out hello and invites me to sit with him. His name is Won. He is 25and asks me the usual questions of an elementary English speaker: name/age/family/origin etc. he also asks for my email address (not sure why, but if he writes I can send him one of the characterful photos I took). His mobile rings: his family calling. After 20 minutes or so of pleasant small talk in the sun I move off again.

The next Wat is on top of a hill, and I approach it passing a couple of houses where women are weaving at looms outside. The wat is surrounded by a wall with 2 entrances from the forest, each guarded by a pair of stone lions, and features a tidy temple, the main steps of which are flanked by a pair of three-headed nagas, a collection of sleeping buildings, a wooden kitchen/eating area, a laundry area, a drum house with a 2 tier roof and a couple of tree-shaded seating areas. There is also a much older crumbling. almost toppling down brick stupa. Skinny kittens, brightly coloured cocks, a small dog with lop-sided ears, some pigeons hopping up the steps, a butterfly or two…

Here I spend about 1 hour just absorbing life at the wat and trying to understand the roles and interaction the novices and monks have. There is constant activity between the buildings, the monks and novices are always on the move but not actually doing very much. In the morning much seems to revolve around food. A heavily swathed young novice aged around 11 climbs the steps to the wat from the road below with a bag full of fruit, maybe mango. Later I see another novice come from another direction with another bag. Meanwhile a couple of novices are fetching water and hand washing a big bundle of robes. Another 2 are breaking up wood which they use to build a fire to heat water on. An older monk who is reading from a book moves from the heat of the sun to the shade of the temple porch. The baby of the temple (the young one) shares out some of the fruit. He is loud, laughing, joking running around, a typically unself-conscious young kid. I notice later a huge scar of about40 cm that runs from his back round to his chest just above his breast bone. He also has a 20cm scar on the back of his head, which is clearly visible through his stubbled head. I am not acknowledged but accepted, and the atmosphere is happy and relaxed. One of the novices who was building the fire appears from his lodging house and stands on the steps peeling mangoes which he produces from his robe. He has a small bowl of chilli paste which he dips them in. The others come and join in, the baby novice runs over, his robes gathered up like anppy.. I cant imagine such scenes at a Catholic monastry (that suggests solemnity, austerity, discomfort, silence, coldness). I was thinking it felt timeless with these primitive chores, but through the stillness I detect tinny rock music: it’s coming from one of the novice’s mobiles. He holds it high as he crosses the yard. Meanwhile an older monk, wearing socks, has climbed up from the forest and entered the temple building (it’s called a sim, I think). other monks appear from the sim: they must have been praying inside. Two women arrive on a motorbike, one with a jug of orange juice which she leaves in front of the sim. They cat to the monks on the porch. These monks wrap and unwrap and rehang their robes as they talk. Seems there are hundreds of ways to wear them. Lunchtime (11.30) is approaching. The baby goes into the sim and brings out his bowl that he uses to collect alms (it’s gold and looks like a drum). Another novice takes his bowl across the yard to the eating house. I gather they are combining their alms and preapring the last meal they are allowed in the day. A gong is sounded. It must be lunchtime. The monks cross to that house. I leave.

The road takes me through many bans These are villages with temples. The road is lined with dwelling houses, many with yards where women are working: weaving, making paper; old women are cooking around fires, fowl are running around. There are a few stores: open windows selling drinks, snacks and household essentials. There are cyclists, people on motorbikes, novices going to see their families, holding umbrellas against the harsh sun.

And there are many temples…I come across a yard full of corn husks orange as they dry in the sun, then the local police station which is a house with a big open door. The policemen are eating and the only signs of technology are a white board with some notes on the wall above their dining table. Their vehicles are unmarked old motorbikes. To the side, next to their cages of poultry, an officer, in his khaki uniform is cooking at a wood fire.

This road runs more or less along the bank of the Nam Khan river and I retrace it to a path which descends to a little shack selling drinks on the edge of the river right at the confluence with the Mekong. About 100m up the river is a rickety bamboo bridge which takes you back into Luang Prabang.

This is rebuilt every dry season, as the rainy season swells the river and it can only be crossed by boat at that point. On the bridge I meet the very man who built it (with the aid of 20 others, over a period of 2 weeks). He introduces himself as Mr Ton Pan, 48, 4 kids and tells me that this is his job, and he maintains the bridge too. He has a lot of missing teeth. He makes me promise to return and share a beer with him at sunset, but I have other plans.

Across the bridge I pay the toll of 5000 kip and haul my bike up the steps. At the top are some Americans umming and erring about the bridge; “Is it safe?” “I hope they get the money, not the government”…..Just cross the bridge, damn it!

I take lunch at the same restaurant as yesterday, by the river with a spicy green salad and a marvellous red plum shake. I spend some of the afternoon drifting past the more ornate and more touristy temples in the town centre, then branch out and accidentally find myself at a funeral: two coffins burning on altars under massive towers with tiered pagoda-like roofs. Then climbing a hill to visit Santi Chedi, a big gold structure which you can climb all the way to the top of the inside, each floor getting smaller and smaller and each with paintings on the ceilings of the story of the buddha.

After that I visit the mosque shaped That Makmo (nicknamed the watermelon stupa) which is grey and mossy. I watch some young kids play keepy-up and football.

On leaving, the infant school has finished nearby. Kids in white shirts and red neckerchiefs clamber the walls of the wat like the monkeys at the Batu caves as they wait for their mums to pick them up on their motorbikes.

Back to Utopia bar for a beer, read, and sunset. They have tables and flowerpots made from the casings of US bombs. Strange, macabre, fetishistic recycling…

The same market stall for dinner and a night-time cycle around the peninsular. There is a lot more to write here, but I must go…

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Day 17 – Luang Prabang, Laos

Picked up from the Mixay Guesthouse in Vientiane by a van and take a tour of the city picking up other travellers destined for the nightbus to LP. The problem is that we are not all booked on the same bus and the sleeper that I’m supposed to be on departs much later than advertised. Waiting at Vientiane bus station I chat to a couple of Cambodian women who actually end up staying at the same place as me in LP. The sleeper bus is quite bizarre with three rows of upper and lower “bunks” which are actually reclining seats with minimal turning space. Hemmed in and no room for bags. We are all given a carton of fried rice and some water and the bus moves off. It is very cold and the road is bumpy, twisty, noisy and we stop several times, maybe for the drivers to change. It is a 10.5 hour journey and I awake as we are descending some misty mountains into Luang Prabang.

I am met by a guy who has some rooms available and he whisks me and some others into town. Th guest house is by the Nam Khon river (LP is on a peninsular at the confluence of this and the great Mekong). Free tiny bananas and tea/coffee are available, and I wait from 7.30 to 11.30 for a guest to check out so I can take on his room. He is from Laos and hurry is not part of the culture. I slowly warm up at this time as the sun comes out on the terrace, and I chat with some current guests ( a retired couple from Holland, who seem a bit Xenophobic) and an outgoing couple from Sweden. The wife is a retired teacher and she recommends a book by an Irish author who sets his books in Laos and uses the profit to fund education programmes here (Colin Cotterill is the name). Later I track down a book exchange store that has a whole series of his books on sale. Books and publishing are not very developed industries or activities at all here. The room is big, has a tv and en suite and costs a mere $9. And I was led to believe accommodation would be hard to find and expensive….

After a quick shower I take a stroll around the edge of the peninsular. The town is small and the riverside lined with little guesthouses and restaurants with terraces high up on the river bank. I stop at veggie one called Oasis to have a mushroom curry and a herbal shake. The sun is quite hot and I am overdressed. There is a ban on car traffic, so there are just bikes and motorbikes. A large percentage of falangs, and many monks. This part of town also houses many many Wats, most of which you have to pay to enter. I will see them another day. Today I just wanted to look around. I bump into the Belgian girls who I met In Vientaine, but who took a different bus to LP. We talk about meeting later but by the time I get to their rendezvous spot they have gone.

I spend a couple of hours at a blissed out bar just along the river from my guesthouse, with cushions and mats and a platform overlooking the river. I start reading my new book, doze a little, have a Beerlaos and watch some small boys playing in the river. Occasionally the idyll is interrupted by an incoming prop passenger plane (the airport must be close) and a passenger helicoptor. Lying here is so relaxing and makes me decide to stay in LP for a few days.

In the early evening I climb in darkness to the stupa on the top of the hill in the centre of the town,. Walking is a bit hazardous. There is no illumination at all. At the top I stand for a few minutes on the only side of the golden landmark that is spot-lit. There is a group of teen boys hanging out there too. They seem quite surprised to see me. Then I wander the handicrafts market with stall after stall selling bright coloured textiles, ethnic Hmoung bags, carved wooden boxes, silver bracelets, patterned throws…All ver nice but I don’t need or want anything. Actually I do need another layer to fight the cold night air, and buy a hoodie with “Sabaidee Luang Prabang” printed in Laos on it. Tourist….

Dinner is a 10 000 kip plate of buffet veggie street food. Great value. And a mango shake. Town is a bit too touristy for me do I go to a few local shops for beer and postcards and plan an early night to get the sleep that I didn’t get on the bus!

Day 16 – On the brink of getting out of Vientiane

i was planning to get the daytime bus to Luang Prabang and got up at 7am to sort myself out. But, the prospect of arriving there in the middle of the evening and having to search for a room put me off. I bought a ticket which means I will miss the passing countryside, but I hope I can see it on the way back.
After a chat with a guy from Singapore called Mervin I walk across the sands of the Mekong to sit by the water. and it really is like a beach with fine sand…and nobody there.
My novice friend and I have a chat by SMS (so weird when you think about it) and I get him confused when I mention my orientation. Either unheard of to him or just doesn’t get what I mean. I guess sometimes it’s better avoiding those issues.
Anyway I decide to spend my day on foot for a change and go to the veggie buffet place and am the only customer. It’s another 2 juice day, the best one coming at the end: lemon and mint…wow it really punches the thirst.I also devote some time to my book The Redundancy of Courage by Timothy Mo. Oddly it’s the second book I’ve read this trip on the subject of war. This is a satire on civil war in South East Asia. It could be Malaysia or Indonesia.
I spend most of the afternoon watching everyday stuff at the big central market, which was originally housed in a pair of temple-like cantilever-roofed houses.

The space between them has now been taken up by a newly constructed and unfinished modern shopping mall. There are a few shoe and belt stores on the basement and the first floor has a couple of jewellery stalls which seem to be being kitted out.

Other units are empty. The top 2 floors are reachable by escalator and there is no security to stop you wandering the acres of empty spaces and looking through unglazed spaces onto the roof of the old market and the haphazard overspill mess of corrugated roofs and tarpaulin covers.

Under these is a maze of stalls selling everything from washing machines to books to dried fish to yards of fabric. This is also where the hairdressers are. The smell of heated hair mingles with tossed threshed garlic and offal.

Women crouch on their stalls chopping meat, an old lady lounges among her baskets of oranges.

Porters wait to be called to wheel their handcarts across the broken concrete floor full of bags of goods. I am the only falang there.

This is not Tesco’s. Shopping is noisy smelly hot work, and selling looks exhausting. Brand presence? There is none.
Outside the new market (mall) there is a pick-up. On board is a Buddha statue, it’s a kind of portable temple. A young orange-robed novice sits in there cross-legged tying orange strings around the wrists of supplicants. An old man in regular dress sporadically bangs a gong hanging from the struts of the pick-up.

Now 45 minutes until my pick-up for the bus to Luang Prabang. Finally moving again.

Day 15 – Still in Vientiane

I based this day on meetings-up, which actually were short-lived. I should have left town today, but it’s OK, I’m still on schedule.

This is Christmas Day, but it just feels like a Sunday. Most places are closed. My morning is a gentle cycle to a few Wats, taking me to an Indian lunch. I have bought a Laos SIM card to facilitate rendezvous, but neither Sombath nor Em reply during the morning.

After a pineapple lassi I cycle out of town via Wat Si Muang, which is built around a stone pillar and worshipped as the founding stone of Vientiane. Planted there when King Setthathirath decamped his capital from Luang Prabang. Before the pillar was lowered into the hole it now stands in a volunteer sacrifice was needed to jump into the hole. They got this. Apparently.

Back to the sauna. Fewer people and I get chatting with Tobias. a German who is working as a volunteer marketing water processing plant equipment.

After some SMS chit-chat I meet Sombath, the novice, once more at the Mekong. He asks me to read to him the story of the young Buddha, and I teach him some words, but I don’t think he grasps them. Feels like the people around us are listening in. What a weird thing to be doing. Before we part I ask him about his dream and hope. He wants to be a “businessman” and earn money to support his family and develop his country. I thought he might say that. I take a last picture of him. It looks timeless. Orange robes, dignity, a background of the desert-like dry Mekong Riverbed.

I have also been trying to meet Em, with whom Ive been chatting on-line for quite a long time. I’m a bit confused by his texts and when he does turn up on his motorbike I have already gone for dinner. When we meet we barely talk and I don’t really understand what we are going to do. Anyway it turns into a 20 minute windy bomb around some of the sights (which I have already seen) with a few snatches of question and answer. Then back to my guesthouse and he rides off to work. So weird, we didn’t even have a conversation or even look at each other’s faces.

Evening again and nothing much to do once more.

Day 14 (Christmas eve) Vientiane Sauna and Massage

Seems like the next destination could be tricky: accommodation in Luang Prabang is full up. I find this out with the help of a girl in the tourist office who phones my Lonely Planet numbers. Everyone here seems to have that book. Thousands of trips are being shaped by one book..what power……

I decide to stay put today, take it easy, writing yesterday’s blog, having a dragon fruit shake then lunch at a veggie buffet place in the very hectic dusty market.

From then I cycle on to my destination for the day: Wat Sok Pa Luang, but get a little lost on the way. It’s not too far out of town, but I overshoot the turning, then ask some rather immature cops, who are busy stopping and intimidating motorcyclists. I notice the cartoon patterned white socks one of them is wearing as the fumble over my map trying to show me the way.

The Wat entrance is an ornate yellow and white gateway opposite the German embassy and a cafe made from the front end of an American plane. The path leads up a dusty forested track. Between the trees I spy an assortment of wooden huts. The temple is somewhere at the end but I dont need to get that far for my purpose: a herbal sauna.

This is housed in one of these huts on stilts in the forest. Chickens running around underneath. I’m called up some steps to the terraced area, given a sarong and undress. The sauna is up here. Steam billowing over the crack in the wooden walls. As I enter I can see nothing, just a point of light from the point where the sun must be, the light creeping in through the same cracks that are letting the steam escape. The experience is like Anthony Gormley’s Blind Light. You are in a small box, can see no further than about 50cm, yet are aware of others somewhere in the space. You hear conversations and reply to questions but the disembodied voices can only be placed to faces when we step outside sweat drenched to drink tea and cool down on the seats on the terrace. The sauna is heated by a furnace under the hut burning eucalyptus, lemon grass, basil and rosemary. Smells so invigorating and makes my skin so smooth. Outside and inside I meet a curious mixture of Laos professionals on a break from their work: employees of precious metal companies, who sound like they are ripping apart the mountains of northern Laos in an explosive search for gold and silver; an estate agent. A clutch of Finns arrive, no doubt to get a fix for what they miss from home. Two guys smoke and drink beer either side of going in the sauna. What a waste, as you sweat it out immediately. One of them has a fantastic job, working for the National Geographic Society teaching cartography to the Laos. His work involves flying in helicoptors over undeveloped and badly mapped regions taking aerial photographs then interpreting them. A slightly camp Laos with a slim body (oddly all the other Laos there are pudgy or fat – unusual in this country), called Mina flirts a little amd introduces me to his “friend”. Obviously gay and I know he picks up on this on me too. Anyway he is nice to chat with.

After the sauna on an adjacent platform I stretch out on a bed in the cooling breeze for a Laos massage of 1 hour, which involves a lot of prodding, thumping and pulling my limbs and digits to make it all crack. Relaxing.. By now the place is busy. Maybe 10-12 people there. Funny watching the new arrivals unsure of what to do, where to go. Arriving out of the forest and not really knowing what to expect. Just like I was!

Walking back to my bike I pas a young novice who is jiggling about on an old car tyre. I can hear some faint pop music. As I reach him I see partially concealed in his sleeve a mobile from which the music had been coming. Caught in the act he turns it off and stands still. I take his photo, then as I walk off he resumes his solo performance. This is forbidden behaviour, I learn later.

I cycle back to the city, I can feel a headache brewing, maybe from dehydration. I reach the promenade by the Mekong and see an orange gowned shape in the distance: it’s Sombath, my novice friend. We were both looking for each other, we greet each other with smiles. A half-conversation ensues about robes and I teach him some English words: “reincarnation”, “comfortable”, “take off”, “put on”. He gives me his mobile number and agree to meet again.

Darkness falls. At 6.30 I go back to my room and sleep off my headache. This has intensified following an annoying conversation with a humorless Frenchman who knows it all and does it his way….

I go out and walk around the block a few times. Guesthouse bars, Indian restaurants, 7-11’s. It’s a bit cold. Tuk-tuk drivers on corners, almost given up on fares, a few santa hats, a fairy-light strewn Lao Christian church, the same old man-woman prostitute calls out. He-she has been waiting for me (he-she says!). Town is dead, bars look empty. This is not a party town.

I call it a night and fall asleep with my i-pod plugged in.

Day 13 part 2 – Temples, novices, sunsets. Vientiane

The day continued with a hot dusty cycle to Pha That Luang: a park with a neighbouring Soviet monument that features a statue shrine of King Setthathirhat wearing a Davy Crocket hat, a crumbling Wat to the south with a wall lined with pointy stupa and an incomplete cement reclining Buddha, a pristine wat to the north with a cluster of Buddhas ringing a tree, and the centre piece – the symbol of Laos, a walled golden multi-teared angular stupa representing an opening lotus flower (awakening of knowledge) enclosed by a cloister. There are groups of cute little school kids running around and I watch a solitary Laos boy solemnly position his little camera on a small tripod to photograph himself standing in front of each monument. More of a chore and a proving of being there than experiencing the place.

I’m also becoming familiar with the tourist photographers. They wear big cotton sunhats and red numbered vests. They shoot your portrait as you pose in front of the monuments then print and frame on the spot. I guess the ubiquity of cameras hasn’t reached here yet, or that this is a special souvenir.

It’s rush hour, but no big deal. I grab a shake which I partially spill in my basket, and head for the Mekong for sunset. Here I bump into Marie once more, then I catch the eye of a cute novice monk who is walking the promenade. Suddenly he is in front of me asking if I am here for the sunset. He is so gracious, has a charming modest smile, sweet and calm, simple and serene, neat and clean in his orange robes and blue sash, and we ask each other many questions. He walks the river sometimes in the cool evening hoping to find somebody to practise English with. His name is Sombath and he comes from Pang Hong District. He is now 16 and comes from a poor subsistence farming family with 6 children. At the age of 11 on finishing primary school his parents suggested to him that he enter a monastry as a novice, as they could not support his education. He tells me it was not a difficult decision. For the last 5 years he has been rising at 4 and praying, collecting alms (food, but not pork), eating breakfast and building the library. After lunch he prays and studies Buddhism and English. He rarely watches TV, just the news, and has no internet, but wishes to save and one day get a laptop. He rarely sees his family but has a mobile to contact them. I ask him if he has friends, but he says not close ones. The ones he have from his home village are richer than him and not novices. He has never seen the sea.
I’m suddenly aware that behind him (he declined my invitation of a seat on the steps) there is a beautiful pink sky as the sun goes down on the river. I ask him to pose with the sky behind him for a memorable shot and souvenir of an eye-opening meeting and insight into another world. It makes me reflect on what the typical 16-year old in UK is like. I hope to meet him again. There is a lot more I’d like to find out.

I spend the evening with Marie drinking Laos Beer and eating Indian. we chat about this and that then get back at around 10.30 to the hotel.
A night of disconcerting dreams ensues. I’m being pursued endlessly.

Day 13 – Vientiane

Good morning Laos. I’m awake at dawn and get up by 8 for breakfast at the hotel. I then pop along the road to rent a bicycle. I bump into Marie, a French lady who I had met in the tuk-tuk at the Thai border, then again when I arrived yesterday in Vientiane. She is at the same hotel. The bike costs less than 1 GBP for 24 hours, and is sturdy, has a basket and perfect for investigating the hot city.
It’s small, compact, traffic is light, mainly motorbikes and people carriers and there are no high rise buildings. The streets arent very busy. The people I see, as with last night seem unassuming, gentle and laid-back. There isn’t a whole lot to see tourism-wise.
There is That Dam, a bear stupa that acts as a roundabout, which apparently was once covered with gold but this was pillaged by the Thais.

There is Patuxai, a kind of Asian Arche de Triomphe from the 1960s built of concrete. From a distance it looks quite decorative with Laos style motifs. I climb the 7 storeys to the top. The inside is bare undressed concrete and there are 2 floors of neon lit souvenir stalls. The view is nothing special but at least you can see the small scale of this capital.

I revisit the tuk-tuk station for some pictures of these remarkable workhorses: a motorcycle front end and a pick-up-style rear end on a single axle with 2 benches facing each other. I meet Marie yet again!

Then I cross the road and enter the food market: dried fish, eggs, fruit, women in wide Vietnam style hats crouching on the ground selling bunches on morning glory with yellow flowers.

Next stop is Wat Si Saket, the oldest wat in town, dating from around 1820. Its a bit shabby and you have to pay to enter. Also no photos. It’s famed for its thousands of buddhas sitting in niches in the walls of the prayer hall, also its crumbling and fading murals.
My search for some veggie restaurants in Lonely Planet fails, so I return to Setthatirath for a mango-pineapple shake, then to yesterday’s restaurant for the buffet. This is great value and has a number of Laos style dishes. The imitation fish dishes are too close to the real thing for me, but the curry and sushi are lovely.
This is my mid-afternoon blog. I’m now going to explore further afield and then decide what to do tomorrow. Stay here or move on.
Funny atmosphere among the travellers. Nobody seems very sociable.