Twenty-one Days in S.E. Asia (Laos)

Early morning along the Mekong River

 
 
 

Laos, officially named the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, is a mountainous and landlocked country in Southeast Asia.  The country shares borders with Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Myanmar, and China.  Laos was once a part of the kingdom of Lan Xan Hom Khao (the Kingdom of a Million Elephants Under the White Parasol), which for four centuries stood as one of the largest kingdoms in Southeast Asia.  This kingdom split into three factions before being reunited in 1893 under a French protectorate, officially making the three regions the country of Laos.  The country struggled for independence during and after the Second World War, finally achieving autonomy in 1949.  Four years later, Laos became independent with a constitutional monarchy under Sisavang Vong, only to be plunged into a long civil war resulting in the Communist Pathet Lao movement (backed by the Soviet Union) coming to power in 1975.  The same year King Savang Vatthana abdicated his power and was arrested.  The Lao People’s Democratic Republic with the help of the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party – became the only legal political party.  During this time Kaysone Phomvihane became Prime Minister and the United States was involved in resettling some 250,000 refugees from Laos into non-Communist countries around the world.  Laos today is one of the world’s few remaining Communist countries, though its borders are more open than ever and tourism is the nation’s fastest growing industry.

We flew out of Cambodia in a jet-prop driven airplane to Luang Prabang, Laos and arrived just as darkness was beginning to fall.  The trip in was uneventful, but the landing into the airport made my eyes get big as the plane flew over the airport and turned up a valley surrounded by mountains into the airport. Clearing customs and immigration was quick and easy as our papers were verified, visas issued, and we were on the way to the hotel.

Our introduction to Laos began very early with a time-honored tradition of the “tuk-bat” where hundreds of saffron-robed monks collect alms from their fellow Buddhists.

Residences of the city providing food for the monks. 

The monks silently walk the streets of Luang Prabang and receive helpings of locally made sticky rice from townspeople.  It is a symbiotic relationship; the monks are sustained by the food, while the local residents receive spiritual redemption.

 
 

Next we saw a glimpse of Indochina as we visit the colorful open-air morning market.  This was really a treat, and this is one of the grocery stores for the community. It also gave us an opportunity to view the food consumed by the community.  Pam said to me, “We are a long way from Iowa.”

 
 

Rice the main staple of the people

I don’t know.

Fish was a major part of the diet.  Also identified were bats and rats.

A mixture of spices.  Start at the bottom in the center and go up the picture to the top where it gets very red.  At the bottom is hot, then hotter, then hottest, and the top one is Cowabunga!  If you have to ask, don’t try it.

It was early morning and was cool.  We wondered about keeping meat cool as the day moved on.  The market had only been opened a short period and we got there before the locals. 

After touring the market it was back to our hotel for breakfast.  Then we set out to explore this ancient royal city nestled between the mountains and the Mekong River.

Stairway to the temple.

Buddhist Temple

The picture does not do justice to the beauty of the temple entrance.  Pictures were not allowed in this temple.

This is called a Stupa.

For centuries the best architects in the land have focused their attention on Buddhist temples. The results are most impressive in Luang Prabang where a plethora of styles and types await the interested traveler. However, it’s not only in temples that Laos has its own peculiar architectural traditions. The Stupas found in Laos are different from those found anywhere else in the Buddhist world. Stupas are essentially monuments built on top of a reliquary which itself was built to hold a relic of the Buddha – commonly a hair or fragment of bone. Laos has its own unique style of Stupa combining hard edges and comely curves.

Luang Prabang’s best-known monastery is centered on a 1560 sǐm (ordination hall). Its roofs sweep low to the ground and there’s a stunning ‘tree of life’ mosaic set on its western exterior wall.

Buddhist temple.

 

The walking tour of the old city where we toured the beautiful 16th century Wat Xieng Temple Complex was topped off with a tour of the National Museum.  This was formerly the royal palace, housing the personal collection of the last Laotian royal family.  Pictures were not allowed. 

Before dinner, we visited an owner’s house in a village outside of Luang Prabang for a firsthand look at how local residents live. 

Home of a Luang Prabang villager.  

 

Our Vietnamese guide on the left, the villagers in the center and our Laotian guide on the right. 

Cooking was done outside but covered with a roof.  There were 4 places to cook with two more behind these two spots. 

The lady of the home cooking on a stove and our Laotian guide. 

We could roam the entire home and take pictures.  It was very spartan.  The downstairs was a kitchen but the cooking was done all outside in the covered area.  They had electricity, a refrigerator, and a TV.  Sleeping quarters were upstairs. 

At first Pam and I felt very awkward, and hung back a little, but the homeowner was so nice and courteous, and while we could not communicate they made us feel right at home.  We have noticed civility and courtesy in other Asian countries we have visited.  They gave us total run of the house and then rewarded us with some Laotian snacks.  

We  dined that evening in a family restaurant built in the style of the traditional Laotian stilted bamboo house. 

Next morning it was off to visit a traditional Laotian rice farm.  This was absolutely amazing.  With all the automation in the world to grow rice, the farmers here are growing and harvesting the crop like they have done for centuries.  

 
 

This is the tractor in Laos when rice farming.  The water buffalo is literally part of the family and is highly regarded.

This is how you plow the ground to plant the rice plants.  One person steers the water buffalo and one person does the plow.  Notice that they are wading around in mud and water.  People on the tour waded into the muck and tried it out and tried out planting in the muck.  Pam and I checked out on that as we could see ourselves falling over into the muddy morass. 

The rice farm central house and where all the action took place. Notice the rice patches growing in the plots of ground. 

Pam and I stayed high and dry at the farm.  

This is what you get.  This is sticky rice cooking and is one of the main dishes of Laos. 

After all that, we were off to lunch.  I have no idea what I ate, but it was outstanding and went down very well with a bottle of Laotian beer. 

 

I have no idea what we were eating, but it was very tasty.  

We then visited a water buffalo dairy farm.  We toured the farm and had the opportunity to milk the buffalo.  We sampled some of the products made from the milk and the ice cream that was made on the farm.  Having lived in the Midwest all my life, I found it was unusual not having dairy cows similar to the dairy farms in America. The reason was that the water buffalo is more suitable for the climate which consists of periods of extreme heat and rain.  The plant life the water buffalo graze on is not favorable to our dairy cows.  This is the difference between animals and climates. 

Young water buffalo

 

Milking the water buffalo.  The buffalo does not produce as much milk as our dairy cattle.

Pam feeding water buffalo calves. 

The next morning we left the road behind and took to the river. We boarded a private riverboat for an upstream voyage on this remote stretch of the Mekong River.  A traditional wooden river cruiser, the boat’s long, narrow shape allows us to sail leisurely along the Mekong with unobstructed views of the lush banks.  Though simply outfitted, the boat offered a bar and dining area, and has more than enough room to spread out.  Along the way we made several stops to visit villages of ethnic hill tribes and observe scenes of daily life by the river.  One of the first stops was the Ban San H “Whiskey Village.”  Laos is famous for its homemade whiskey, and we had the chance to observe the distillation process and enjoy a sample if we chose.  I chose.

Making whiskey, Laotian style. To me it tasted like very strong sake.

I bought a bottle for a friend that considers himself to be a connoisseur of whiskey.  The last time I talked to him, he still had his eye sight.

Look for the scorpion and the cobra in the bottle.  The Laotians told me this was a cure for almost everything, however over indulging may cause a loss of morality.

 

Our boat for the two day trip to Thailand. 

Pak Ou Buddha Caves

 

We stopped to visit the Pak Ou Buddha Caves, which have been home to many thousands of Buddha statues and images since King Setthathirath declared the caves a holy spot in the 16th century.

As we sailed along we enjoyed lunch on board the boat.

Meats with fish, fruits and vegetables, excellently prepared which put you to sleep afterward. 

We cruised along the Mekong with the next stop at Ban Bor village.  This is a traditional weaving and fishing village where we had the chance to meet local residents. 

 

Scenes traveling up the river.

More River scenes.  We shot hundreds of these. 

Approaching the village.  There was a steep climb up the bank of the river and then up the side of the mountain.

Village school

Main street in the village. 

We cruised on to Pakbeng, where we disembarked and checked into the riverside lodge in time for dinner.   The lodge has modern amenities, but no air-conditioning.  It was not hot but rather cool and muggy.  Otherwise the room was clean, neat, and comfortable for the night.  Perched on the side of the mountain, we had a beautiful view of the river below.

Looking out our balcony of the lodge with the Mekong River below. 

Sunset from the balcony of our lodge with the Mekong River below. 

 

Back on board the riverboat, we cruised through more wild and diverse scenery, with mountain views framing the Mekong.  One of the highlights of the morning were the elephants coming down to the Mekong to drink and bath.

This was a surprise and everyone got to the side of the boat to get photos.  More were coming behind these two. 

 

Fishing nets along the Mekong. 

Laotian women panning for gold on the Mekong. 

 

Kids along the Mekong.  Kids are kids wherever you go.  We wondered if their parents knew what those boys were up to. 

Entering Thailand and the boat check at the entrance to the infamous Golden Triangle. 

After crossing the border into Thailand, we cleared customs and immigration.  We then transferred to our hotel in Chiang Rai, where we enjoyed an outstanding meal of Thailand food.  The two day trip up the river was one of the most exciting adventures we had ever done. We shot several hundred pictures on the river, and have shown only a few here.  

 

Good hunting, good fishing, and good luck, Hank

Check out my website at www.outdoorswithhank.com for excellent bargains from leading outdoor suppliers.  Plus click on the book on the front page and buy my book for great entertainment. 

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