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Published: November 16th 2009
Our two car caravan.
One of the fundamental rules of the roadtrip, in any culture, seems to be that the driver gets to choose the music. Period. End of story. Non negotiable.
And everyone else just has to deal with it. This definitely was the case today.
But first, the morning. Every morning, the monks from all of the wats around Luang Prabang wake up at 4am to pray. At 6am, they're ready for breakfast, having not eaten anything since noon the day before (although one did tell us that they're allowed to have coffee, tea and Ovaltine). Instead of ordering up some eggs and bacon or grabbing a latte and cinnamon bun from the nearby bakeries, these guys walk down the main street of town, collecting food (and candy; money too) from the people who live in the village. It's an important part of the Buddhist culture here. The monks rely on the people in the town who, in turn, get spiritual "points" for providing for the monks. It makes everyone happy and apparently the procession of monks in bright orange robes in the morning light is a very special sight. So special, in fact, that the tourists come out in droves.
Our cabin in the pine forest.
Some participate and give the monks food; others just push their cameras in the monks' faces to try to get a great shot (there's a great grassroots campaign posted all over town to try to get the tourists to behave better - it features a large woman with a big camera knocking over another tourist to get right in front of a monk and snap his photo; it's not an attractive angle for her). It's worth mentioning here that monks are not allowed to touch women or even take something from them. This means that if you are a woman and are offering them food, you need to place it in their bowls, not their hands. Also, if you see a pack of monks coming down the street, women are supposed to discreetly move to the side to give them a wide berth.
We had wanted to see the procession but unfortunately woke up a little late. Adrian stayed at the hotel while Angelique ran into town for some last minute errands before our big roadtrip (and to check out the morning market - fortunately her stomach was feeling much better because the market gives off some pretty heady
View of Phonsovan from the restaurant at our hotel.
At 8:30am, we were picked up in a little minivan. It appeared to be in good condition. AC? Check. Comfortable seats? Check. Engine? Check. However, we then proceeded to pick up 8 more people . . . some of whom clearly subscribe to the "bathing optional" school of hygeine. So it was a huge relief when we pulled into the minivan depot to reshuffle. We ended up in a new minivan with six people total: the driver, us, a nice couple from the wine country near British Columbia, and a guy from Laos.
The drive took 7 hours (as promised) and was beautiful. Most of those seven hours were spent climbing up and over mountains and descending into lush valleys. The roads are in good condition (paved) but the lanes are narrow and our driver had to honk his horn before rounding every single bend.
But the most interesting part of the trip was our driver's music selection. He delighted us, at high volume and for seven hours, with an eclectic mix of:
1. 70s country (Country Roads Take Me Home, Rhinestone Cowboy - no, we're not kidding)
2. 90s soft rock, including Vanessa Williams and Whitney Houston
3. Contemporary Lao rock (think Bollywood on steroids)
Every time we perked up and laughed in recognition of a certain gem, the driver got really excited and cranked up the volume. Overall he seemed like a nice guy and we reasoned that at least there was little chance that he'd fall asleep at the wheel.
After about 6 hours, we descended our last mountain and entered a broad valley in the Xieng Khuang province. The Xieng Khuang province, which includes the town of Phonsovan, is one of the most prolific agricultural areas in Laos and farms dot the land (a mixture of rice paddies, fruit trees, green leafy vegetable and grazing areas for livestock - pigs, cows, even sheep). It's a beautiful area and looks a bit like rural areas in California - a big change from other areas in Laos.
The town of Phonsavan isn't much to look at. It feels like a frontier town (and it is, sort of, being only about 50 miles from the border of Vietnam). It's undergoing a huge building boom at the moment with monstrously large buildings going up next to simple thatched roof shacks. There are large populations of both Vietnamese and Chinese here.
We pulled into the minivan "bus" station and our car was immediately swarmed by guys with laminated photos of guesthouses in town. Fortunately, we already had a reservation and, even better, our guide for the next two days was waiting at the "bus" station to take us to our hotel. His name is Tay and he is a character - in a good way. He grew up in Luang Prabang, has been working as a guide in Phonsavan for the past 8 years and speaks excellent English.
Our hotel, L'Auberge des Plaines de Jarres, sits just outside town on top of a hill. The hotel is nestled in a - get ready for this - PINE forest. We thought we wouldn't see evergreens again until New Zealand but here they are at about 3,500 feet in Laos. It's a pretty setting and we have our own alpine style pine cabin. The owner is a young French-Lao man who speaks both languages (and English) fluently.
We were tired after our long drive so we headed to the restaurant/bar for a beer (BeerLao, of course) and then dinner. We met some interesting people on the patio while we watched the sunset - two Aussie couples in their 50s and a Belgian man who writes tour guides. One of the Aussie couples' daughters is working at the Australian Embassy in Vientiane (the capital of Laos) and they were finishing up a two-week trip in the country. We got some great tips on what to do in Australia (we haven't planned anything yet) and they also gave us their contact information. So nice of them!
We have a big day tomorrow with Tay, so off to bed we go. Our room is fairly comfortable with warm blankets (it gets chilly for the Lao up here in the mountains - about 60F at night right now). We should sleep well.
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