This is 3 days out of date: long haul journeys and holidays keeping me away from a computer.
30 December. Woke at dawn, up at 5.30, thinking it was 6.30 and onto the deathly quiet and empty street in complete darkness. Like passing ghosts an apparition of novice monks in orange robes, barefoot passed by in single file their alms bowls around their necks, and then gone again into the blackness. A second line passed right by me on the same side of the street, in descending height order, sleepy and looking like they would rather be in bed. An old woman, crouching on a cushion, with a bowl of sticky rice, waiting for the next contingent. I thought about climbing the mount to watch the sunrise, instead, I did a circuit of the peninsular, So still, so quiet. A couple of locals offered me some rice for the monks (for sale)… On reaching the main road, the one lined with the spectacular temples and guest houses and cafes, a few mini-buses and tuk-tuks were arriving and discharging their cargoes of tourists with cameras ready for the “performance”. I really didn’t want to be part of this. Light was slowly coming. The street busying with those taking vantage points either to give alms or take pictures. I wandered the fresh food market, Women cooking and preparing over fires in big pans their dishes, Men browsing the vegetable stalls, some with torches, some apparently with night vision. I couldn’t even make out what the produce was, let alone the quality. Back on the main drag, I sensed then saw the next troop of monks and I watched from a respectful distance. On a side road I chanced upon another, where an old woman, head bowed was dropping a handful of rice into each monk’s bowl.
As they turned the corner onto the main street through the half-light there was a series of dazzling flashes, Like media stars being ambushed by paparrazzi the monks’ daily chore was rudely disturbed. This happened with the next 2 groups of monks too. These assholes with flashes obviously haven’t read any of the polite notices asking tourists to desist from this kind of disrespectfulness of what is a solemn ritual. Or, he thought it doesn’t apply to him. What does he think when he takes then looks at those pictures? A special moment? A moment ruined for those giving alms, those collecting and everyone else observing with dignity. I decided I had experienced my own special moments and didn’t want to see any more. Zoo animals and people offering us (the zoo visitors) bamboo shoots to feed them. Most sights are raped of their magic by idiots with camera or phones. Those who think a picture is worth a thousand words. The point is they wouldn’t even have 5 words to say, so little do they actually engage and reflect on their experiences. Cameras make us lazy and give us something to hide behind.
I enjoy the first light at the temple near the guesthouse and witness the bizarre sight of an over-dressed man in his thirties wearing a red and blue shell-suit jogging circuits of the grey stupa.
I take a little sleep and dream of sitting in a cafe at a window with a woman. In the street outside is a procession of high-powered super cars, some with big spoilers.
I have breakfast at the Mekong and watch the long boats ferrying monks, locals their baskets empty, now they’ve sold their produce and other folk on some kind of business over the river.
I visit the library where you can swap books to replenish the stock, Here, the Children’s Library, which relies on donations is managed. They collect clothes and other recyclables. Most importantly they encourage people to but books from their stock to give to local remote communities, where books are a a scarce commodity, and schools are to few. Children by law only need to attend school to the completion of primary level. Some villages have no teachers. Distances are great and travel across the mountainous areas is hard. This organisation also has a river library which is trying to spread reading habits and increase the availability of materials to the harder to get to places. Books are a luxury. I think about all the stuff we throw out in UK. I think about all the books we threw out at Regency.
I do my bit. I buy a couple of books. They are are cheaply published and do not look fun to learn from. I’m touched by the plight of kids here. On the one hand I don’t like being a tourist, but on the other hand tourism brings money to this country. As the volunteer worker told me, all kids should learn English as they need to connect with the outside world.
On my bike I cross the wooden bridge, over to the rural side of the town, and end up once more at the ruined temple (incidentally I just got an email message wishing me a happy new year from the monk i met there). I was drawn there by the large group of people and a spectacle. I was at another cremation. Opposite the altar, which stands beneath a tower are 2 shelters, one for the men and one for the women (they are dressed up in white, the men are slightly less casually dressed than usual), I summise.There is evidence of a kind of feast/picnic, but now the proceedings are quite advanced. On the altar stands a big cream gilded coffin. This is lowered by monks with newly shaven scalps into a hole on top of the altar. There are some set-piece photos. A group of women, a couple quite elderly pose before the altar, one ( a sister of the deceased) holds a framed photo of an old woman (must be the coffin recumbant). This is watched by a solitary standing old man. The sole man there who seems moved by the gravity and dignity of the moment. As the women return to the shelter area, I notice the old woman has tears in her eyes. This is the only show of sadness seen. Everyone else is quite sociable and jolly. A fire is lit under the coffin and a huge ball of fire engulfs the coffin. The monks stand in a group for a photo and video opportunity before the fire, then begin to take their leave. A could light cigarettes. The crowds disperse quicky with the pyre still burning. Strange there is no smell.
I cycle into the compound of Wat Phan Sa-At which is high above the Mekong and take my time to take in the view of the 2 rivers converging, framed nicely by a small group of novices and some shady trees.
I follow the road through the Bans with the textiles and paper workshops, til the road comes to an abrupt blockage: an open-sided marquee straddling the road where some party is taking place. There are some young guys playing a keyboard and the microphone rotates between a number of others. Laos pop, strangely soothing and up-beat. I’m spied from the wings and invited to sit, and a beer is poured. Beer Laos with ice. Then I’m beckoned to the swelling dance floor where both old and young (I don’t mean kids) are jiggling, moving, rotating in a merry way. The girl who invites me insists on my downing countless BeerLaos in one. Soon lots of people want to dance with the falang, Everyone smiling at me, laughing, and Beer being our common vocabulary. One of the PA speakers falls over, the numbers dwindle, then there is a second wind.
By 4pm we are all drunk, and I decide the time is right to retrace my path. I’m drawn back to the Wat by the river for sundown and am entranced, almost hypnotised by the chorus of novice voices led by an older deeper monk voice chanting in the prayer hall as dusk descends. A special moment.
I roam the night market and to my deep joy discover several stalls selling bountiful cheap and delicious veggie buffets. I eat at the first place I see, but really should have browsed first, as each one along the same lane looked better and better. I stymie my excitement by buying a takeaway box from more stalls for my long journey tomorrow. Here I bump into Marie, once more. Somehow it didn’t surprise me. We meet up later after i have done some souvenir shopping (I didn’t want textiles, so I bought a painting of a tree with some Laos text on hand-made paper). Marie and I go to Utopia bar, with its little winding paths and coloured lanterns it feels like some kind of fairy land. By the river we drink. The 1/2 hour of reclining chat and stargazing is eventually disturbed by a large loud sweary drunk group of British (some) backpacker types. Shouting at each other about cliques, hostels and beer.
I have many calming dreams this night.
Once more I didn’t get up at dawn, and anyway a bit bad-tempered after being woken up and kept awake by noisy neighbours, but still haven’t put a face to the din.
I rent a mountain bike, as yesterday’s one-speed heavy iron thing was useless for rough roads and hills. After buying some stuffed beyond capacity baguettes for breakfast and a picnic later I ask at tourist information for a good local map. What I get is useless and pointless.
Ive read about Route 13 and I missed it on the bus as it was dark. It goes all the way to Vientiane, which is 384km, but I’m not going to do that. It winds gently up the mountains and for a main road it is rather low-key, poorly finished and with no markings.
After about 30 minutes I come to a turning marked Tadhong Waterfall and take the steep dusty mud road/track, passing a couple of locals with sling shots, searching for food, some small houses and a boy doing something with large planks of wood, possibly preparing them for seasoning. It’s hot and I’m not sure how far I will have to go, but 20 minutes later I descend to a pond and a cluster of buildings labelled Snack Bar. Nobody there, just a local standing on the crumbling brick bridge.
The surroundings are beautiful, mountains all around, lilac coloured bushes a waterfall gently falling over the rocks. A woman appears from the shacks and sells me a ticket for 10,000 kip, which seems a lot just to stand at this clearing but she explains there are more falls higher up.
I take the wrong path immediately, and find myself climbing the side of the mountain through semi-cultivated slopes and past the workers’ shacks. As ai limb the view becomes more dramatic. The trodden path (not well beaten) takes me higher into the forest. There are hundreds of twisty vortex-like spider webs at knee height in the grass and bushes, and some spiders too.
Many types of butterflies, yellow, dirt colour, a red and white one the size of a child’s hand, 15cm long green dragonflies, blue-black ones near the water courses, and dirt coloured jumping cricket-like insects about 6cm long, hopping all over the place. And no people, just me.
Over the top of the mountain the path flattens then descends a little leaving the forest and I see it doesn’t lead to a waterfall, but a village, I later learn is called Ban Huay Ton. Seeing this remote village brings a moment of excitement. It looks just like the places I read about: remote, undeveloped, poor and not used to falangs.
I hesitate about proceeding, knowing I will be stared at and feel like the stupid whiteman looking at the natives, but I know I cant miss this opportunity. The approach is strewn with waste and on the edge of the settlement a small girl of about 6 or 7 is crouching and learning to weave the grass panels that are used for the walls of the huts. Her sister works behind her.
The village comprises about 25 similar houses with thatched roofs and grass panel walls, on stilts with wood stored underneath. This space is also used for keeping animals and has a platform for sitting on in the shade. There is a lot of sitting around: 4 boys are being taught something by a teacher: a woman standing on a small mound in front of them. Kids playing in an empty oil drum, another with an old bicycle tyre, some chase a skinny half-plucked chicken.
They are all shoe-less and have old dirty, some ripped, clothes. There is a gathering of people, mostly kids watching a truck unloading some stone. 2 monks also. Smoking. I know this is taboo. The place has 2 stores, which are just houses with big open window counters holding soft drinks and tissues.
Only the kids call out Sabaidee, the adults respond to me, but I’m tolerated rather than welcome. Anyway nobody objects to being photographed. There is electricity and there are a few satellite dishes. There is a dust road and motorbikes. I don’t think these people travel far, and I wonder what they make of and feel about the world they view on their TVs. I regret not having anything to give the kids. That was titillation, and leaves me a bit sad and awkward. Like going to a zoo.
The route back over the hill takes me through more forest and I’m passed by some locals who are not very responsive. Eventually I find the initial goal: a series of pools linked together by little cascades, sparkling in the dappled light shooting through the canopy. Its soothing, beautiful, peaceful.
Back at the Snack Bar pond area, a man is fishing with a rod, and a couple are wading the stream searching for something with a large net.
I return to Route 13 and carry on up the mountains away from Luang Prabang. It’s a joy to have a good bike. I’ve never ridden a bike that makes such big hills effortless. After passing through a number of villages and 30 minutes later, I decide that I should turn back..though, to be honest I just wanted to keep on going. The scenery is so awesome and the watching of everyday life so engrossing.
Back in town I go to the UXO visitors’ centre. This is an information centre run by UXO Laos, who are an NGO who are systematically removing all the unexploded ordinance left over from the Second Indo-China War. Laos had more bombs dropped on it than the total number of bombs dropped in the entire Second World War. The poorest areas were worst hit and the carpet bombing and use of chemical weapons is still having a significant effect on the people there. Lives being taken, children being maimed, livelihoods lost. Last year there were still 300 incidences of injury or fatality. This is 4 decades on and there are victims who weren’t even alive when these things were dropped. One of the biggest problems are cluster bombs. These are now illegal. The Americans dropped thousands of these. The casing breaks apart in mid-air scattering 400-600 mini-bombies, brightly coloured (nice for kids) and the size of a grapefruit. 30% of these never exploded. When one goes off anyone within 30m of it faces injury or worse. These are being dug up, found almost day by day..in school fields, paddy fields. I read that it will take another 100 years to completely remove all these bombs. Another problem is that poverty drives the locals to trade bombs and bomb casings as scrap metal. This is out-lawed but not enforced. This trip was really emotional and it made me angry to see that the USA isn’t more involved in righting this affront to humanity.
Another evening of shakes, crepes, and cycling in the cool dark evening. Ive found this part of the trip a bit solitary. Couples here, groups of friends with money, families, retired people. Anyway, I’m doing what I want to, and I was getting bored with the traveller’s chat: where are you from/where have you been/where are you going next?
I’m looking forward to being with someone: Cyrus and wonder how he will respond to this kind of travelling. 7pm here feels like 1am!
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…
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I’m back at pak Chong station at 11. A pjamed station master with missing teeth sends me to the VIP waiting room, which is a glass-walled area with curtains and benches for sleepy important foreigners, whilst the Thais camp out on the platforms. I sink into groggy half-sleep but am jolted awake by the grinding through and halting of slow local trains and piercing tannoy alerts. The station master re-assures me he will fetch me. The train is already 1.5 hours late when he fetches me at 12.30 am and leads me over the track as a train pulls out to reveal mine waiting behind it.
The sleeper car is sleeping and my bunk is made up. The Thai guy above me is singing along to his MP3 and cannot hear my protestations. Sleep comes slowly and I wake up cold in Khon Kaen. The train is at least 2 hours behind time now.
On getting to Nong Khai we flocks of bewildered and ignorant travellers are ushered into waiting tuk-tuks and taken a short distance to the Thai immigration point at the Friendship Bridge. After the first obstacle we have to get on a shuttle bus that takes us over the great Mekong to the entrance to Laos on the other side. Getting a visa and getting through the checks is actually hitchless but takes a while. Then there are the options into town. I take the first one: 50 Baht in a tuk-tuk bus with 8 locals. The 22 km is hot and noisy and Laos begins to reveal itself. Dust roads and food stalls.
Arrival at the tuk-tuk bus station is initially a bit of a “oh God now where am I?” moment. But it quickly turns out that Vientiane is small, I am near the centre, and locals even if they don’t speak much English are enthusiastic to help.
The main drag is lined with juice bars, banks, motor cycle rental shops, and there are a lot of guesthouses on the side streets that lead down to the Mekong. It’s 1pm, no food or drink since last night and the sun is beating on my heat. Probably the hottest sun I have felt this trip. I check out a couple of guest hoses before settling on a clean airy double called Mixay. It’s around 8 GBP per night.
A quick shower then out for a shake and a watching of the sleepy world in early afternoon. I stumble on a veggie restaurant with a shady terrace. I’ve missed the buffet lunch but anyway have a very nice mushroom lap. This is a meat-free version of a famous Laos dish: a salad of shredded tofu, a variety of mushroom, spices and fresh mint. Then I find an air-con tourist office with free internet to while away the rest of the hot day.
As dusk approaches I cross the road and am on the banks of the river. There is a large park here, recently built which becomes the focus of life as the temperature cools. A temple, baby palms, joggers, kids in a playground, boys on bikes, couples strolling women spinning hula hoops which look like car tyres and are over 1m across, badminton, haki with large balls, and a sound system or two playing intially a kind of rhumba pop to which there is a small group of women and a couple of men learning some dance steps. They aren’t very good and remind me of the dancing elephants I saw in Pai…The sun is beginning to go down. A red glow over the Mekong which is in fact about 1/2 mile away as the water is low revealing a vast expanse of dusty mud. Some people are walking down to the water. There is also a football match in progress there.
After sundown over Thailand a market begins to open selling tourist-type stuff. I begin to walk south to a statue which I can see from my window, he is holding out his arm in salute pointing over the river to Thailand. I am later told by Dao, a Laos French teacher, who thinks i’m 25, that thia is King Anuwang from the nineteenth century. As I near the illuminated king there is a blast of siren and a convoy of assorted police vehicles and coaches surge down the promenade and halt right in front of the statue, which is also a buddhist shrine.
It looks like some very important people are coming as photographers with cheap old cameras and no flash, and a videographer assemble, directed away from the steps by the handful of police.
Then from one of the buses a raggle-taggle group of teenagers descend wearing blue tracksuits. They climb the steps to light incense, kneel and have a photo moment. They then return to the coach and the convoy rushes off with a cavalcade of horns blaring. Apparently this was a visit from some young sportspeople (I have to say they didn’t look very athletic) to mark something to do with some youth games. Nobody was able to clearly explain.
Walking back towards the end of my street I could see around 80 people dancing. Getting closer I saw that the dancing practice had morphed into an outdoor full-on dance aerobics get-together, with a man and a woman leading the moves from the top of the steps by the promenade. a crazy sight.
I return to my room for a rest at around 7. This rest becomes a nap from which I descend into sleep for 12 hours. The best bed so far and the first good night’s sleep since Singapore