The Secret Six in South East Asia! - Episode Seven - 'Is it Lao or Laos?'

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November 24th 2018
Published: November 30th 2018
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After her adventure with Security!
Can it be that time already? We can't quite believe it! Today, we leave Vietnam and move on to our next country in Indochina, namely Laos and the city of Luang Prabang, in the mountainous north west of the country. The tour does return to Vietnam to fly home in a week's time (when our group of six, together with one other (Christine, the lady who had the unfortunate fall at the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum all those 'weeks!' ago), have three days or so to relax on a beach east of Ho Chi Minh City), but for now, we say goodbye to this land 'South of China' and move on to, what is often called, 'The Jewel of Indochina'.

Our one hour flight to Laos departed at 12.50 pm, and with the drive to the airport taking about an hour, we were ready to leave by 9.30. Other than a few more near traffic misses on the way, the journey to the airport was uneventful. We all checked in without trouble, whisked through security and found our way to the boarding gate with about 90 minutes to relax before we were to board the plane. Well, I say 'all',
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Sarah finds her first elephant!
there was in fact, one exception! You may recall that Hazel from our Group, had a starring role in an earlier episode of this blog, when we lost her whilst checking in at Ho Chi Minh City airport. Well that was nothing, compared to how events transpired this time.

It seems that unbeknown to the rest of us, when Hazel reached 'Security', she was whisked off by armed guards to a side room. Her interrogators were babbling at her in Vietnamese for ages and kept calling her a terrorist, but she had no idea what was going on. She then noticed that her main suitcase, which she had checked in earlier, was in the room and they were rifling through it. And there, amongst her rolled up knickers, were the items that their scanners had picked up...........two 'spent bullets'!! Hazel had picked these up at the Cu Chi tunnels back in Ho Chi Minh City and had kept them as souvenirs. But the guards weren't interested in this 'story', they just kept asking 'where is your gun, where is your gun?'. I'm not sure what convinced them that she wasn't any terrorist and was simply, some harmless Brummie, but
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Our first view of the Mekong!
fortunately, they were satisfied in the end, let her through AND even allowed her to keep the bullets. Poor Hazel arrived at the gate, a bit flustered and proceeded to amuse us all with the story, although to be honest, it must have been pretty frightening. Especially, as it is quite possible that we may not have noticed that she was missing until we arrived in Luang Prabang! But fortunately, all was well and the merry band was on its way.

The flight was again pretty short at just under an hour and before we knew it, we were landing at Luang Prabang airport and our first task was to get a visa. It all looked to be fairly straightforward with the airline giving us immigration forms to fill in on the plane and as we reached passport control, there were the booths from which we could collect our visas on arrival. However, before we could join the (relatively short) queue, we were given yet another form to complete, requiring exactly the same information as the first form, but 'no', we still had to fill it out. Once done, we joined the queue and on reaching the window, handed
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The early morning walk.
over our form, passport and, of course, our newly taken photos. Was that it? No it wasn't, we then had to join another queue and when we got to the window this time, it was to hand over our $36 fee to get our passports back, with the new fancy visas inside. Then, it was on to passport control, more pictures taken, passport stamped and we were in! If the truth be known, the whole process didn't take too long, but it was just a bit of a phaff!!

Our new guide was called Vong and a lovely chap he was too. After checking we were all there (including Hazel!), we changed some dollars into the local currency (the Kip; 10,000 to the pound) and then set off for the 15 minute journey to the hotel; on this occasion, we were split into three smaller buses, due to the fact that big coaches are not permitted in the city.

In truth, Luang Prabang is probably more a town than a city, with a population of about 70,000 being only about 1% of the total of 7 million, across the country as a whole. 'Luang' actually translates as 'city'
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Paul and Julie dishing out rice.
or 'town' and 'Prabang' is the Royal Buddha worshipped by the Lao people for centuries, so 'Luang Prabang' means the Town of the Royal Buddha. The town was actually the Royal capital of Laos until 1975 when (like Vietnam and Cambodia), the monarchy fell to the communist forces (the Pathet Lao) in a largely peaceful revolution (mainly as a result of a surrender by the royallist forces in order to save lives and the ancient infrastructure of Luang Prabang, in particular). At that time, the capital city was moved 200 miles south to the city of Vientiane.

Laos is the only landlocked country in South East Asia, being surrounded by Cambodia, Thailand, Myanmar, China and Vietnam, but has one important natural resource connecting it to all of these countries, namely the Mighty Mekong River and the highlight of our second day here was to be a cruise on this iconic waterway. Laos is now officially known as the Lao People's Democratic Republic and therein lies the difference between 'Laos' and 'Lao', with many maps that we have seen, seeming to use both names for this country. In actual fact, 'Laos' is the name of the country, whereas 'Lao' is
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King Sisavangvong in all his pomp!
the descriptive word used when referring to things about Laos, e.g. 'Lao people', 'Lao culture' and 'Lao beer (!!)'. This is a very poor country, with an average income of only $850 per person, per annum and this is not helped by the official international view that the country is one of the most corrupt in the world, deterring inward investment that might help the economy and improve per capita income. Having said all this, the people we came across seemed inherently, friendly and happy and desperately eager to provide a good level of service.

We were soon checked in to our beautiful rooms in the Sada hotel, a couple of kilometres from the centre of town, or a very short tuk tuk ride, of which, more later. It was by now about 3 pm and we were being picked up for dinner at six, giving us a bit of time to ourselves. We took a stroll down the street from our hotel and after going through a small park at the end, we got our first view of the Mekong, in truth a pretty brown looking river, mainly due (as it turns out) to the clay soil all
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The new, community funded, temple.
Dinner was really good tonight and whilst the infamous 'sticky rice' was still there, the food in general was quite different to Vietnam, with a stronger curry influence. A couple of drinks back at the hotel (where the staff really couldn't do enough for you) and then, it was time for bed.

Although we weren't hitting the road until 8.30 the next day, there was the opportunity to be outside the front of the hotel from six in the morning, to 'enjoy' the procession of local monks walking down the road. Totalling around 100 in all (and of all ages), the monks walk through the town early each day, on their way to prayer and to collect offerings (Alms), particularly food, from the locals. Mandy, Lily, Tina and Sarah got up to enjoy the spectacle, but Steve and I decided that bed was a better option and...........that's where we stayed! We could always rely on the pictures! Two of our group (Paul and Julie) were asked by some enterprising locals, to sit on a couple of stools beside the road and help hand out rice to the monks, which they were glad to do, until that it, the
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A risky ferry ride, but fortunately, not for us!
locals tried to charge them $70 for the 'photo opportunity' privilege and the 'cost' of the rice - Paul and Julie refused of course, but did give them $10 in the end!

As an aside, Paul and Julie were amongst 4 vegetarians in our group (one other being our Tina, although her's was simply a decision to steer clear of meat on this trip). Anyway, at all the meals, the veggies were asked to sit together to assist the staff and more often than not at each restaurant, the veggies were shown to their seats first, with the rest of us being told, 'and the NORMAL PEOPLE should sit here!!'.....classic!

With the Monks done (and Paul and Julie, similarly 'done'), we enjoyed a good breakfast, before Vong picked us up at 8.30. Luang Prabang is yet another Indochina UNESCO World Heritage Site (mainly for its architecture and culture) and our first stop this morning was to one of those World Heritage sites, namely Haw Kham, the former palace of the King. Built by the French in 1905, the building was the home of King Sisavangvong, the longest reigning king of Laos, from 1905 to 1959, when he died.
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Mandy on the day bed!
Sisavangvong was considered a 'good and benevolent King' and an imposing statue of him, stands in the palace grounds. He was succeeded by his son King Sisavangvatthana who ruled until 1975, when the communist forces took over, after which he and his whole family were sent to a 'Re-education Camp' where they all died a couple of years later, reortedly from malaria. The King did also have a number of other children with his concubines, but these have been allowed to lead, generally undisturbed, albeit modest lives, by the regime.

The Palace itself is not especially attractive from the outside, but does have some very ornately decorated rooms and beautiful artefacts inside. Unfortunately, no pictures were allowed and a respectful dress code was required inside (including no shoes on feet and bags and cameras needing to be placed into free lockers), even though this wasn't a temple and is now classed as a museum. The grounds did, however, house a very ornate new Buddhist temple, completed 4 years ago, after a project taking a total period of 40 years to build, mainly because the construction was solely funded by community money.

Next stop was a short walk down
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Steve on the left, Christine on the right, with Malcolm and Penny just behind.
to the wharf, to pick up the boat for our cruise along the Mekong, or 'Mother River'. The boat itself didn't really look that much from the outside, but once inside it was actually very good, with lots of 'day beds' to lounge on during the trip and a fantastic lunch, cooked freshly onboard. The Mekong is a very atmospheric and evocative river, with not as much traffic as you might expect and surrounded by some pretty spectacular views. The river is approximately 4,500 kilometres long, rising in the Himalayas of Tibet and flowing through China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, before finally emptying into the South China Sea. The river is heavily affected by the rainy season (May to September) and at its peak can be 20 or more metres deep, before reaching a low point around March, of only 2 metres deep. 

Our first stop on the trip was a tiny village to see the production of rice whisky. About 600 people live in this village, which used to focus principally on making functional pottery; but the advent of commercially produced pots, made this business unsustainable. As a consequence, they have turned their attention to
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Lily in the front, with Cheryl (left) and Allison (right) behind and Rob with his back to camera.
rice whisky, especially for the tourist market. The process is very simple and takes about 10 days in total, before producing a sherry-like rice wine at about 14% proof and the much stronger rice whisky at a pretty massive 50% proof. This stuff is seriously potent and definitely shouldn't be drunk near an open flame!! Nevertheless, I brought a couple of small bottles at a dollar a piece as a gift for the son-in-laws.........that'll teach them!!. The villagers also produced a few 'special' brew whiskys said to have medicinal qualities, with some very interesting items in the bottles, such as a scorpion and a snake.........right up Mandy's street!

The rest of the village had a number of market stalls, most of which were selling the same things, mainly beautifully patterned scarves/shawls. The prices were very cheap, but I did feel a bit uncomfortable haggling here (although it is expected and encouraged), and also deciding which stall to buy from, when all the stuff was very similar and why help one stall holder and not the other? The question is, does the tourist trade help these poor people by spending money on their wares, or is the tourist trade simply
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Sarah and Tina in relaxed mode.
exploiting them and ruining their traditional lifestyle. I don't know the answer, but it is definitely a fine line that we tread.

Back on the boat, we continued upriver, passing under a partly-completed, new railway bridge, being paid for and constructed by the Chinese. Incredibly, Laos has no railways whatsoever at the moment and this bridge over the Mekong is being constructed to carry a new line, eventually linking up with other existing lines, to establish a railway connection all the way from Beijing to Singapore.
 The Chinese influence in Indochina is massive, with fortunes being invested in major projects across the region; here again, whether this influence is for selfish or altruistic reasons, remains to be seen.

Our next stop was the Pak Ou caves, a group of limestone caves about 25 miles upriver from Luang Prabang. These caves have been religious sites for hundreds of years and are packed with Buddha statues of all shapes and sizes and in all the various iconic, Buddha positions. The main cave was packed with tourists and I decided to leave the others and climb the 250 steps to a higher and deeper cave. On the way up, there were
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Not much to look at from the outside!
lots of locals (mainly children) selling all manner of 'tat', using the phrase most commonly heard in Indochina, namely 'One Dolla'. However, I barely had the energy to breathe, let only talk as I climbed in the searing heat, so I ignored all requests for the 'Mighty Dolla' and continued up! When I reached the top cave it was, to be honest, a bit of a dead loss, but the views were good, I suppose. On the way down, I succumbed to the pleading eyes of one lovely little girl and gave her a Dollar bill, only to then be surrounded by hordes of other kids wanting their dollar! I dished out a couple more, before managing to escape back down the steps, to the rest of the group.

When I got to the bottom, we were very excited to see our first elephants across the river. Several hundred years ago, the Lao kingdom was known as Lan Xang, which roughly translates as 'Land of a Million Elephants', and the elephant is classed as a sacred animal throughout the country. Unfortunately, the elephants we saw, were being ridden, which is very much frowned upon these days in Laos as
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The partly completed railway bridge across the Mekong.
well as in most other places (certainly for tourist entertainment), but I have to say that these beasts, looked as magnificent as ever and seemed to be happy and in good shape.

Caves done, it was time to head back down river and, more importantly, time for lunch. The kitchen onboard was very tiny and the Health and Safety police would probably have had a field day, but lunch was fabulous, with lots of choice and some great dishes that we had not seen elsewhere. After a 90 minute, post lunch, 'cruise cum siesta', we arrived back in Luang Prabang, tipped the crew and took a short drive to our final stop of the afternoon, Wat Xieng Thong (or 'Temple of the Golden City'), probably the most important Buddhist temple complex in Luang Prabang and trust me........there are a few!

Incidentally, I mentioned 'tipping' and it might be worth expanding on our tipping experience in Indochina. As I have mentioned previously, the US Dollar is King and the locals are very happy to receive tips in Dollars, but in most cases a dollar or two is the maximum you need to tip, for things like Bell Boys, Tuk
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Disembarking (carefully) at the rice whisky village, with Philip leading the way, then Cheryl, Lynn, Julie, Rob (with his back to camera again!) and Vong holding the bamboo pole.
Tuk or taxi drivers and the like. We went to five dollars for each of Mandy and I for this cruise crew and I think we paid about fifteen dollars in total for the crew on the Halong Bay cruise. The Mercury guides and drivers were the most expensive, with the suggested amount being five dollars a day, per person, for the driver and four to six per person for the guide; although amongst our group, there did seem to be differing suggested amounts that they had previously received from Mercury, the figures I have quoted were the most expensive. Either way, the tips for guides and drivers did mount up during the trip and were probably knocking on $300 per couple for the whole tour.

Enough of money, let's get back to Wat Xieng Thong. The original temple was constructed in 1560, during the reign of King Setthathirath an important monarch during Lao history and particularly at the time, during a series of wars with Burma (now Myanmar). In 1559, King Setthathurathirath moved the capital of Laos to Ventianne, where it stayed for the next 250 years, before returning to Luang Prabang. It is thought that Wat Xieng
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The centre of the rice whisky village.
Thong was constructed partly by way of compensation to Luang Prabang, for the loss of its status as capital. In any event, it is an impressive complex with some beautiful buildings, including one that houses the King's funeral carriage and although we were getting a bit 'templed out', it was definitely worth a visit. I said earlier that this was our final stop of the afternoon, but not quite it wasn't! Another short drive took us to the bottom of Mount Phousi ('Sacred Mountain') and the 329 steps to the temple and viewpoint at the top. Dee split us into two groups (those that wanted to climb and those that didn't) and the latter group returned to the hotel. Mandy, Steve, Tina and I were amongst those that made the ascent. It was a tough climb in the heat, but well worth it for the almost 360 degree view at the top and coming back down was a lot quicker!

Our organised day wasn't over yet, because before heading off to dinner, we were taken to Luang Prabang's large night market for a 90 minute look around. This was a far better experience than the other markets we have
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The snake in the whisky bottle!
been to on the trip so far and we did manage to pick up quite a few bargain gifts. Mandy and I lasted an hour, before we found a nice coffee and cake shop, recommended by Penny and Malcolm, to while away the remaining 30 minutes. I think dinner was pretty good, although as I type this, I can't bring the restaurant to mind! Then it was back to the hotel, pretty exhausted and to crash into bed. A really fabulous day, in a beautiful country.

Before I close this episode, there are no quiz questions today, but a little joke, courtesy of Andre (of Andre and Katherine fame) and when I say 'little'...................

Anyway, it goes something like this:

We all thought that with 10,000 Kip to the Pound, there were only notes in the currency of Laos. But it turns out that there are, in fact, coins as well, called 'Winks' and you know what...............there are 40 Winks in a Kip!!

Andre is a banker as well, so clearly, this sense of humour goes with the trade!!

There is a small matter of 34 pictures with this episode, so don't forget to check
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The great views from the Mekong........
out the Additional Photos at the end.

Additional photos below
Photos: 34, Displayed: 34


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......and more views.....
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......and more!
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Our first view of a real elephant.

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