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Laos

What Do Monks in Laos Do All Day? (1 Good)

LUANG PRABANG (NORTHERN LAOS): WEEK 20 JANUARY (COOL AND MISTY IN THE MORNING WITH BRIGHT SUNSHINE IN THE AFTERNOON, 28 DEGREES)

sunny 28 °C
View Thomas's Great Adventure on edandsuet's travel map.

Thomas has had many questions about the Buddhist monks he has observed in Thailand and Laos - here are some of his questions and the answers.
Monks, Luang Prabang

Monks, Luang Prabang

What do Buddhist monks do all day?
Every day before sunrise, monks leave the temples in silent procession to ask for donations from Buddhist devotees (the tradition of collecting alms). They may then attend morning class in the temple before prayer time. The rest of the day might be spent tending to the temple complex or carrying out chores, and then it's final prayers before bed time.

Are monks allowed possessions?
The monastic rules forbid monks to own objects except for...eight things such as three robes, bowl, mosquito net, umbrella, medications etc)
However, today’s monks possess more than that, usually when they are taking residence at a monastery. Computers, televisions, cell-phones and even cars - It doesn’t mean they are ‘allowed’ to possess them, they just do. We saw queues of young monks in Chiang Mai, charging their smart phones at free charging points outside their wat.

Why do monks wear orange robes?
The saffron (for a more appropriate name for the color) robes monk wear dates back centuries. Orange was chosen mainly because of the dye available at the time. The tradition stuck and orange is now the color of choice for Theravada Buddhist followers in Southeast Asia, as opposed to a maroon color for Tibetan monks.

Why don't monks have any hair?
The Indian Prince, who was to become the Buddha, left his palace to seek a way beyond ageing, sickness and death and it is said that one of the first things he did was to shave off his hair and beard and put on the yellow cloth . Buddhist monks always completely shave their head and beard, showing their commitment to the Holy Life of one gone forth into the homeless life.

How young are novice monks?
It's a tradition for all Lao boys to serve some time in a Buddhist monastary during adolescence. Some boys go for only a summer; others spend their entire schooling there. For those who decide to continue as novices beyond their school days, it will usually take at least 20 years to become a full-fledged monk. Inside a monastary, a novice commits to a strict regimen of prayer and study. Many novices learn English and are quite eager to practice it whenever they can. A novice can be as young as eight years old and we saw many novices about Thomas's age roaming the streets of Luang Prabang. Thomas said he couldn't imagine being a novice monk as he has far too much energy to keep still.

Posted by edandsuet 02:26 Archived in Laos Comments (1)

Jungle Fly, Spider Bites and Heat Exhaustion (1 Good/1Bad)

NONG KHIAW (NORTHERN LAOS): WEEK 19 JANUARY (COOL AND MISTY IN THE MORNING WITH BRIGHT SUNSHINE IN THE AFTERNOON, 28 DEGREES, COLD IN THE EVENING)

sunny 27 °C
View Thomas's Great Adventure on edandsuet's travel map.

Boarding a minivan in Laos is rather like playing roulette in a casino, you are never quite sure of the outcome. We learnt our first lesson of minivan travel early on - don't ever leave your seat unattended.

Everyone pays the same price for a seat and the van doesn't leave until it is full. However, it's best to get there as early as possible to secure a seat otherwise you probably won't be sitting together or you may not get an actual seat at all as Thomas discovered! For over two hours we waited for our minivan to depart and Thomas had a seat by the window on the sliding door. Just as we were leaving, a Lao lady boarded and we assumed that she was going to try and squeeze herself onto the back seat (not sure where) so Thomas politely got up so that she could climb over. Instead, she plonked herself in Thomas's seat and refused to move. Poor Thomas was left sitting on a hinge with no backing and spent an uncomfortable four and a half hours without a seat all the way to Nong Khiaw. Torture worst than homework....

Even when you think the minivan is full, it isn't. As soon as the van has left the bus station, the driver will get a call on his smart phone and he'll stop just 100 yards down the road to squeeze someone else onto the van into a non-existent seat and pocket the extra money or stuff a load of parcels into your leg room. Minivan travel is not designed for anyone over five feet tall.

Nong Khiaw is a village set on the River Ou that is surrounded by jaw dropping, breathtaking limestone karst mountains. The view is always changing depending on the time of day and whenever I stepped out of our room onto the balcony, I could never take my eyes off the scenery. Luckily the village hasn't succumbed to mass tourism yet, it isn't on the Chinese tour group circuit so it remains relatively quiet and tranquil. Accommodation is basic but the village is worth it.
Nong Khiaw, Laos

Nong Khiaw, Laos

Nong Khiaw in the morning

Nong Khiaw in the morning

Nong Khiaw village

Nong Khiaw village

Nong Khiaw in the late afternoon

Nong Khiaw in the late afternoon


Nong Khiaw in the afternoon

Nong Khiaw in the afternoon


Barber Shop

Barber Shop

Our first adventure was Jungle Fly that started with a four wheel drive trip up a muddy, rocky track out to the drop off point for a trek into the jungle to reach our first practice platform. We had to learn how to brake as some of the zip lines are faster than others including the longest which is over 450m long. The sensation of being weightless skimming the canopy is sheer joy. There were some other challenges that I wasn't expecting including abseiling which I've never attempted before. There is also a sky-high walk and V rope-bridges. Lunch was a rustic affair in a tree house, traditional Lao food served in banana leaf (some dishes I recognised from our cookery course) all served with sticky rice. The whole day was rounded off by an hour trek across rice fields and a river to cross. Thomas loved every minute of it and would have happily repeated the whole day.
Start of zip line adventure

Start of zip line adventure

Up to the next zip line

Up to the next zip line

Next destination is that tree house via abseiling and zip line

Next destination is that tree house via abseiling and zip line

Tree house

Tree house

Abseiling down to the next platform

Abseiling down to the next platform

Rope bridge

Rope bridge

Another zip line

Another zip line

The last zip line...

The last zip line...

Wading through the river after trekking through the jungle back to civilisation

Wading through the river after trekking through the jungle back to civilisation

The village also has two community projects based around hiking to view points. The first hike was one and a half hours in the heat uphill to the top of one of the karst mountains from which there was a bamboo viewing platform. The view was gorgeous but unfortunately the trail is being blighted by litter and Thomas was disgusted by some of the behaviour of Lao tourists who discarded twenty lager cans and numerous crisp packets all over the platform. "Why can't they take their rubbish with them?" asked Thomas - I don't think rubbish collection features highly on the Lao priority list especially when you consider the conditions many rural communities live in. Unfortunately it really spoils the experience, so if travellers stop coming, may be the rubbish will be collected but where will it go? At least the Deen Indian restaurant in the village had the right idea - they had a water station so that you could keep filling up your water bottles rather than buying new ones and clogging up the planet with yet more plastic.

Nong Khiaw viewpoint

Nong Khiaw viewpoint

Bamboo bridge on way to cave

Bamboo bridge on way to cave

Viewpoint

Viewpoint

Having survived one hike, Edward decided that the next day, we would tackle another one. This trail was far harder and involved mainly rock climbing up sharp karst formations. After 15 minutes I knew that I had made a mistake attempting the hike - I was already being bitten to pieces by mosquitos even though I'd covered myself in repellent, I was dripping in sweat and everyone else was way ahead of me. By the time I made it to the top to take a photo (1 hour and 15 mins later), most of our water was gone and there was a long, hazardous climb down. Unfortunately, Edward got bitten by a spider after reaching out to hold onto a bamboo pole which is what I had spent alot of time doing to haul myself down. I narrowly missed the same fate myself as I was now watching out for any creepy crawlies on bamboo or tree branches. The hike had taken its toil though.

By the evening, Thomas was very ill and we were pretty sure that he had heat exhaustion. He spent the next day in bed recuperating as he was never going to be able to endure a minivan journey until he had recovered. And this time, he was determined to get a seat on the way back to Luang Prabang.

Posted by edandsuet 01:26 Archived in Laos Tagged nong khiaw Comments (0)

Saffron Robed World of Luang Prabang (1 Good)

LUANG PRABANG (NORTHERN LAOS): WEEK 18 JANUARY (COOL AND MISTY IN THE MORNING WITH BRIGHT SUNSHINE IN THE AFTERNOON, 28 DEGREES)

sunny 27 °C
View Thomas's Great Adventure on edandsuet's travel map.

Monks, Luang Prabang

Monks, Luang Prabang


While the view from the balcony of our new guest house was a sobering reminder that most locals live a basic existence in squalid surroundings amongst piles of debris and half finished dwellings, it was a relief not to live in fear of opening the bathroom door or having the constant smell of stagnant drains. Our guest house was run by an elderly man who could speak both French and English, had free refillable drinking water and tea/coffee available until 11am. This was absolute luxury.
View from our new guest house that had a decent bathroom in Luang Prabang

View from our new guest house that had a decent bathroom in Luang Prabang

After an inauspicious beginning, UNESCO protected Luang Prabang slowly wove its spell over me. Described as "one of the most alluring places in South East Asia", it is home to 33 gilded wats, dotted with shuttered, faded French villas and sits at the confluence of the Mekong River and Nam Khan. Not that I succumbed to its charms for a few days, first impressions were it was dirty, dusty and blighted by flies. The riverside promenade was a work in progress and was another example of missed potential when Luang Prabang's setting on the river confluence is magical and could be a stunning tourist attraction. Parts were dug up, clogged up as a parking lot for scooters making the pathway impassable or there were broken concrete tiles strewn all over or another patch of dust with random wire or metal objects to trip up on. If only there was a decent path with some benches in the shade.
River Ou, Luang Prabang

River Ou, Luang Prabang

Despite all of this and I can't quite put my finger on why Luang Prabang becomes seductive, but on an afternoon where there is not a cloud in the sky, meandering down shady alley ways or the main street lined with colonial shuttered villas round to the lesser known wats, we could just sit on the steps of a temple watching the sun glinting against the gold stupas and Buddha images. Here there is peace and tranquility, the odd saffron clad monk disappearing into a nearby doorway gives the scene a dreamy, hazy like quality. Before you know it, two hours have passed, the shadows are lengthening and its time for dinner at the riverfront overlooking the Mekong.
Ceremonial Drum, Wat Souvannapoumaram

Ceremonial Drum, Wat Souvannapoumaram

Monk contemplating, Wat Sensoukharam

Monk contemplating, Wat Sensoukharam


Wat in Luang Prabang

Wat in Luang Prabang


Wat Sensoukharam, Luang Prabang

Wat Sensoukharam, Luang Prabang

Alternatively when its early afternoon we discovered a few benches (a rare find in Luang Prabang overlooking the temporary bamboo bridge built every dry season (which is swept away in wet season). From here, we could leisurely observe a steady stream of monks shaded by golden umbrellas, traversing the bamboo bridge to the wat on the opposite bank, shrouded in vegetation.
Monks crossing the river, Luang Prabang

Monks crossing the river, Luang Prabang

Temporary dry season bamboo bridge over the River Ou

Temporary dry season bamboo bridge over the River Ou

At the morning market for breakfast, we were spoilt for choice: healthy fruit smoothies brimming with ginger and peppermint, savoury or sweet crepes and mammoth over-filled baguettes with an endless array of fillings. The night market was crammed pack with tourists and food stalls offering salted river fish, barbequed chicken, vegetable dumplings and the Lao staple of sticky rice served in a woven pot.
Street Food Stall, Luang Prabang

Street Food Stall, Luang Prabang

Our Lao cookery course was a blast that included cooking lunch and dinner plus a trip to the local market to source ingredients for our dishes including banana flower (used for texture) and woodear fungus. A thoroughly great and tasty way to spend the day - Thomas excelled at being the master chef!
img=https://photos.travellerspoint.com/774428/DSC04051.jpg caption=Thomas is in charge, Lao cookery course]Lunch is served, Luang Prabang salad and chicken noodle dish

Lunch is served, Luang Prabang salad and chicken noodle dish

Time to reproduce these traditional Lao dishes for dinner as demonstrated by the experts

Time to reproduce these traditional Lao dishes for dinner as demonstrated by the experts

Woodear fungus, we would be cooking traditional Lao dishes with this ingredient later

Woodear fungus, we would be cooking traditional Lao dishes with this ingredient later

Banana plant flower, Luang Prabang food market (used in Lao cooking for texture)

Banana plant flower, Luang Prabang food market (used in Lao cooking for texture)

Luang Prabang food market

Luang Prabang food market

Posted by edandsuet 01:06 Archived in Laos Comments (0)

Laos: Patience is a Virtue (1 Bad)

CHIANG Khong (THAILAND) overland to Luang Prabang (Northern Laos): WEEK 18 JANUARY (cool and misty in the morning with bright sunshine in the afternoon, 25 degrees)

sunny 25 °C
View Thomas's Great Adventure on edandsuet's travel map.

Most people have never heard of Laos, a land locked country of seven million dwarfed by its neighbours in terms of population and economy by China, Burma, Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia. Laos is a communist country, closely aligned to Vietnam and China, and is controlled by the LPRP (Lao People's Revolutionary Party). It is effectively a single party dictatorship where corruption is rife, Laos is rated 161 out of 174 countries in the Corruption Perception Index (one place below the Democratic Republic of Congo) - one to remember for all those "Pointless" fans out there. A former French colony, Laos is popular with French backpackers and retirees desiring a little bit more adventure, while sipping their filtered coffee in chic colonial cafes in Luang Prabang, nibbling on croissants, baguettes and pastries. Older Lao people can often speak French as well.

"Remind me why we came to Laos?", asked Edward as the stale sewage odour from the bathroom wafted into our chipboard walled room and I was faced with the grottiest Western toilet I had seen for a while. I managed to murmur something about "A boat trip down the Mekong River is one of the highlights of of visiting this country and Luang Prabang is meant to be one of the most alluring places in South East Asia - a traveller's Shangri La". I wasn't even convincing myself as I unpacked the bed bug sheets. After the first three days here, I was beginning to wonder whether we should back track into Thailand.

Of course, we had been spoilt in Thailand with a decent standard of guest houses/hotels and relatively easy transport we could organise ourselves whether it was the bus or train. Even in Bangkok, we always stayed at the same hotel which wasn't on any of the booking sites. It was a gem of a place with quiet, immaculately clean, spacious rooms (hard to find in Bangkok) even though they were shabby and faded, fresh towels every day and a hot shower that worked. Two doors down was Thomas's favourite Thai restaurant named "Nancy Home" that produced generous fragrant Thai green chicken curries with rice for just over 1 pound. I needed to adjust my expectations now we were in Laos.

Laos is one of Asia's poorest nations and is highly reliant on foreign donors, suffering from a lack of infrastructure and diversified industry. It relies on hydropower, textile industries and tourism for much of its income - only 75% of the country has electricity but this is rapidly changing. Most people in Laos depend on subsistence farming and the average monthly salary in Laos is approx 55 pounds. However, people in Laos are the most laid back I've ever come across in all my travels, to the point of being asleep or turning trying to avoid work into an art form. The French had saying about Laos, "The Vietnamese plant the rice, the Cambodians watch it grow and the Laos listen to it grow." In general, the locals are relaxed, calm and don't want to think too deeply, unless they are having a music face off with their neighbour and cranking up the volume to drown out their neighbour's choice of tunes. Primarily Buddhists, this is reflected in their cultural character and Lao people feel sorry for those who think too much and that too much work is bad for your brain. Sounds idyllic place to live in theory and yet ...

It is very easy not to be charmed by Laos after crossing the border at Chiang Khong, Thailand. After the usual shenanigans of paying many times over for a tuk tuk to the actual border exit point, a shuttle bus across no-man's land and a songthaew to Huay Xai on the riverfront, we were abandoned in a dusty border town with few accommodation options on the main drag and a multitude of travel agencies desperate to sell minivan and slow boat tickets to Luang Prabang at inflated prices. Overnight we became millionaires after visiting the ATM to withdraw the maximum amount per transaction of 1,000,000 kip (there are approx 10,000 kip to 1 pound). Our assumption that Laos would be cheaper than Thailand was incorrect, it came as a shock to find that food was more expensive and accommodation for three could be challenging to find at the right price and far inferior. The inflation rate in Laos is around 2% yet Luang Prabang tourist and food prices have far exceeded this at around 9% a year.

Not wanting to spend 11 - 12 hours squashed on a bus to Luang Prabang, we plumped for the slow boat down the Mekong River. The trip takes over 14 hours downstream over two days, stopping at Pak Beng overnight. Determined to secure seats on the boat, we were hiking down to the jetty at 7:30am in the morning mist with our backpacks, to buy a ticket from the jetty office that opened at 8am. Long gone are the days when there were only twenty backpackers a day taking the slow boat with oodles of room, sitting on rush mats on the deck of the boat, watching the world go by.
Mekong River Route, Slow Boat Laos

Mekong River Route, Slow Boat Laos

We passed the office of the luxurious Luang Say Cruise (same route down the Mekong over two days) that was being offered half price at $255 per person with an overnight stay at the boutique Mekong Village resort in Pak Beng. A world away from this was the long boat costing a fraction of the price at 21 pounds per person (no overnight accommodation included) which we plonked our bags on, securing seats relatively near the front of the boat after hearing horror stories of people trapped at the rear next to the extremely noisy diesel engine, inhaling diesel fumes and sitting in a haze of cigarette smoke (all the smokers hang out at the back). However, a German traveller struggling to lug his silver Samsonite trolley bag over the boarding plank on to the boat started waving a ticket, saying he had seats 1 and 2 reserved. I pointed out that I didn't think there was a concept of seat numbers in Laos and we decided to go with a wait and see approach - it turned out seat numbers/reservations are indeed a myth, there aren't any.
Jetty for slow boat to Luang Prabang, stopping at Pak Beng overnight

Jetty for slow boat to Luang Prabang, stopping at Pak Beng overnight

Ask four different locals when the boat with depart on its six hour journey to Pak Beng and you'll receive four different answers: 11am, 11:30am, 12pm and 12:30pm when the actual answer is "when it's full". Not just full, but full to bursting and probably overloaded so that barely anyone can move and there aren't enough life jackets. Indeed this was the case for our boat, we waited five long hours for the boat to leave and just when we thought no one else could be squeezed on, another group of ten backpackers would arrive.

Finally, the boat drifted off but we knew at this point we would be arriving late in Pak Beng when it was dark without any accommodation booked. The boat captain spends a few years learning the route before he can navigate safe passage down the Mekong. There is a different boat captain from Pak Beng as the route is complicated. I expected the river to be slow flowing but it often narrows with outcrops of rocks and fast flowing rapid sections. The captain was ever vigilant, steering a safe course through the deepest water so that we didn't get stranded on a sand bank. There are many small hamlets and villages perched above the river bank and the boat often stopped to drop off locals with huge sacks of supplies. Local children would run down the banks to wave. These villages are only accessible by the river, have no mains electricity, medical facilities or any infrastructure of note.
Mekong River in the morning

Mekong River in the morning


Life on the Mekong

Life on the Mekong

I could tell that Thomas was not enjoying the boat trip as he couldn't expend any of his couped up energy and found the scenery monotonous. A French lady spent the six hours gritting her teeth as an Amercian tourist in her vicinity related the whole of his life history in graphic detail, his booming voice being heard from one end of the boat to the other above the din of the diesel engine. "I don't think I can take anymore", she hissed as she tried to escape, but on a packed slow boat there was no where to escape to.
Fishing Boats on the Mekong River

Fishing Boats on the Mekong River


Life on the Mekong River

Life on the Mekong River


Down the Mekong River to Luang Prabang

Down the Mekong River to Luang Prabang

We arrived in Pak Beng when it was dark, the touts were already out in full force. Edward went on ahead up the only winding street of the town, perched on the vertiginous slopes of the river bank to try and secure a room. Many travellers had accommodation already as part of their boat ticket or had used one of the booking sites. Near the end of town, Edward found a half decent room but it only had two beds. We pushed the beds together and I requested an extra pillow. Thomas wasn't impressed as he can be quite picky about rooms but thankfully there was an Indian restaurant to take his mind off it. In fact, most of the boat had decamped to this restaurant probably because it was the only option in town. Ravenous Thomas could at least feast on chicken korma and naan bread.

After an uncomfortable night, no one was looking forward to the next installment of the slow boat: part 2 which would be 8 hours long. The boat had been changed, so if we could get there early enough, we could secure seats with a table (a complete luxury), so it was a race to the jetty to outrun the other backpackers. This meant Thomas could do some school work on the trip downstream. For once, we were glad we hadn't booked ahead after hearing many horror stories from other travellers about their pre-booked Pak Beng accommodation. Two young girls bolted after seeing their dirty, cell like room without windows and a door that didn't close properly or lock (they never made it to the bathroom) so they checked themselves into the Mekong Village at over $110 per night but said it was money well spent. Suffice to say, they didn't receive a refund.
Departing from Pak Beng on the slow boat (second day)

Departing from Pak Beng on the slow boat (second day)

Just as we were congratulating ourselves on finding seats with a table, the American tourist from yesterday eased himself into the last spare seat next to Edward. When he popped off to the toilet, the stressed French lady opposite made a point of coming over to make her views clear. "How could you let him sit there? I can't take anymore of his tales, his voice is so loud - there is no peace on this boat." I didn't like to state the obvious that the diesel engine drowns most sound out and he was entitled to sit wherever he wants.

Many hours later, six foot, 5 inches tall Dave, sandy haired and built like a truck, had regaled us with his 23 year long career in the US Army, his fluency in French which was never capitalised on by the US military (how ironic as I glanced across at the French lady), his community work with the Navajo Indians, the dire situation the US was in now Trump was in charge and his last 10 months of travelling with his gigantic trolley bag which was so heavy he could barely lift it up the steps of the jetty. I asked him if he had ever heard of Jack Reacher and he looked at me blankly. Just as well.

Another surprise was in store as we came into Luang Prabang at dusk or what we thought was the jetty in Luang Prabang. No, Luang Prabang was another 10km away which led to the inevitable bun fight for overpriced tuk tuks and a chance for blatant short changing as many travellers were still struggling with the denominations of the kip notes. Edward challenged his short change (50,000 kip is alot of money in Laos) and then warned the people behind us, as they tried to do exactly the same to them. We bade Dave farewell and wished him luck with his luggage.

At this point, we came a cropper as we hadn't booked anywhere to stay and Luang Prabang is the most expensive city/town in Laos and every where seemed to be full. It was now dark, we were all weary and Thomas was yearning for dinner rather than seeking out guest houses with our back packs. I don't know what possessed us, but we ended up in a squalid, humid room at the end of an alley with chipboard thin walls and a rather nasty toilet/shower combo that I refused to touch. There was blood on the sheets so we whipped out the bed bug sheets as a barrier. The paper thin walls did nothing to drown out the cacophony of barking dogs, crowing cockerels and revving motorbike engines from the alley below. The guest house was run by a friendly family who could speak French but not English, who lived just outside the room in the corridor behind a makeshift curtain, sleeping all on one mattress together, which put things into perspective but didn't make Thomas feel any better.

Worst accommodation on the trip so far, Luang Prabang

Worst accommodation on the trip so far, Luang Prabang

Worst bathroom on our trip in a guest house, Luang Prabang

Worst bathroom on our trip in a guest house, Luang Prabang

Worst shower on our trip in a guest house, Luang Prabang

Worst shower on our trip in a guest house, Luang Prabang

First thing in the morning, we would be changing rooms if we survived the night ..........

Posted by edandsuet 00:00 Archived in Laos Comments (1)

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