Coughs and Splutters and a Cave Full of Buddhas ...

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September 29th 2016
Published: September 29th 2016
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We had an even earlier start this morning when the alarm went off at 5-45am and, with a little time to acclimatise to the day, then up and get going.

We could have had breakfast at the hotel this morning but, opted to walk the little way down to the bakery in the beautifully cool early morning stillness. The bakery had been recommended to us by Katy, our tour leader, as being a good place to eat. As well as that, it was about half way back to the landing where we had to re-board our boat. We had to be back at the landing by 7-20am for a 7-30am leave, as we had a fair bit to fit in today.

Most of the others in our group were also there when we arrived, so we sat with Rick & Libby (Bellingen) to have our American breakfast. Amusingly, the bakery had run out of toast 😊 so, as an accompaniment to our meal, we were served a lovely, fresh baguette as a substitute, which really hit the spot. It came with butter and strawberry jam which, like all the orange and fruit juices, jams, marmalades, etc in Laos, are very sweet. Seems that products proclaiming, “no added sugar”, haven’t arrived in Laos as yet. 😊

We were travelling down-river today, to Luang Prabang, a distance of 160kms, which is where our Mekong cruise will finish. It was very relaxing cruising along the river as the boat is completely open with no glass in the “windows” so, the breeze flows straight through. Mekong means, “brown river”, which is exactly what it is in colour.

The river was fast-flowing with lots of eddies, whirlpools and a strong current. Looking at it, I remember thinking that I wouldn’t have liked to have fallen in, as you would soon be carried away by the current.

We were free to do whatever we wanted – chat, read, snooze - drinks, tea and coffee available all the time, for a very cheap cost. Tea and coffee – LAK5,000, soft drinks – LAK10,000 or 40 Baht; Lao beer – LAK20,000. As a comparison, AUD$1 = LAK6,000, or thereabouts! The local currency is called Kip.

On board, there was a rather animated game of Uno going on at the time between Anita, Katy, Kit and Ted. Katy had brought the game on board and, from all the noise and hilarity that was going on, it appeared that she was an avid fan of the game.

Kit, our Laotian Intrepid tour leader was also playing in his quiet, inimitable way but, enjoying himself just the same. He lived in Luang Prabang, was married and had an 8-year-old son and a 5-year-old daughter. He didn’t look old enough for all of that. Anita asked him if he lived at home with his parents, to which he smiled and replied that, no, he lived at home with his wife! 😊

Dave, Rory and Rick were also playing cards but, I had no idea what the game was. We all came away without any packs of cards this trip but, Rory managed to find some somewhere in one of the shops in Pak Beng last night.

As we cruised on down the river, we could see quite a lot of crops growing on the riverbank and hillsides – some of these being: corn, hops, green tea, bananas, sticky rice - grown differently from ordinary rice ie not in padis but, instead, on the steep hillsides and not requiring the vast amounts of water that ordinary rice requires. In the dry season, farmers also grow potatoes and peanuts on the riverbanks when the river levels are at their lowest.

The green tea plants grow into large trees. I asked Kit how they harvest it and he smiled and said, “they climb up and then cut.” 😊 Green tea trees can grow to incredible sizes and ages. In the north of the country, he said, there are trees there that are over 1,000 years old and several metres around the base!

We had also seen several animals this morning. As we were boarding the board at the landing, on the opposite bank were two elephants with their mahouts, just standing on the riverbank. Further on, I spotted a couple of small pigs down by the river as well as several water buffalo and then several small goats. Kit said that there was a goat farm nearby.

Some of the occupations of the local inhabitants along the river were: fishing (by net) for catfish that can grow very large; farmers growing the crops mentioned above, or raising animals to sell.

There are communities all along the river. Sometimes they are quite large, with numerous buildings, and sometimes just small kampongs nestled in the jungle with just a couple of thatched huts. Boats are the main form of transport.

Whilst we were taking the leisurely way down the river, our reverie was often broken by the high-speed river “taxis” that went whizzing by us in either direction with a plume of water spray flying out the back, either going to or coming from, Luang Prabang.

Looking something like a shortened version of a long-tailed boat, these took the form of narrow, sleek and streamlined speed boats, seating up to about 6-8 people. However, for those locals in a hurry, or for that quick trip into town, this is the way to travel the river which, from Pak Beng to Luang Prabang, took a bit over an hour, Kit said. Guess it’s a bit like taking an express train into the city. 😊 Anyway, it was good to see that some OH & S principles had found their way there for, at least the passengers all wore helmets – pity about the driver though. 😊

The Uno game was still raging, with a change of some of the players – Libby had a few hands and then she and Dave changed places so then we had Katy, Anita, Ted, Dave and Kit. The name of the game had now been changed to, “Get Katy”, by Ted, because she was continually winning most of the hands even though, Ted had just won 6 hands in a row! There was no point-scoring being kept, just winning hands being counted. 😊

Lunch was at midday – son’s-in-law eggs (hard boiled) with shaved toasted onion, coriander, shreds of kaffir lime leaves – lovely. Stir fried bamboo shoots with glass noodles; fried chicken with mushrooms and a selection of other veges, carrots, etc.

After lunch, we pulled into the riverbank a bit further down-stream to stop and have a look at the Pak Ou Caves. These caves have become well-known by tourists over the years and are commonly known as the Buddha Caves.

The caves themselves are situated on the riverbank overlooking the Mekong River, about 25 kilometres north of Luang Prabang or, about two hours upstream of the city. There are two caves, an upper and a lower, and are noted for their collection of hundreds of miniature Buddha figures, sitting, standing or lying, in a variety of positions and, mostly carved from wood. The figures are set out in every available space on the natural rock shelves all throughout the caves. The caves are also a place of worship for the local people and there is a small altar where they come to pray and make their offerings to Lord Buddha.

The climb to get up into the caves is via quite steep flights of stairs from the boat landing. I was still suffering from bronchitis since before leaving home, with my breathing still somewhat impaired but, as I really wanted to see the cave, I thought that I would just take my time and go steadily, stopping for breaks as we went slowly along. This method seemed to work and, eventually, Ted and I made it into the cave on the lower level.

The others of our group were already there and, as visitors, we were also allowed to pay our respects if we wanted so, we all made an offering of the pandanus leaf rosettes that Katy had showed us how to make yesterday on board the boat and specifically for today’s visit.

After spending about a half-hour in the cave and marvelling at how tiny some of the Buddha figures were – some only about 1” (25cms) tall, or less, but so detailed – we headed back down the stairs and onto the walkway which led to the upper cave.

Several of our group had already headed off on the path which wound around the side of the mountain, and which also contained more flights of steps. Once again, the climb was quite steep and, even employing my method of earlier and stopping for short breaks because of my limited breathing capacity, I soon found that I couldn’t continue.

The day was hot and humid and, with the thick jungle closing in us on all sides, the further we went, meant that there was very little air movement. Because of this and with the exertion of the climb, this brought on more severe shortness of breath on my part.

Soon, I found myself struggling for breath as the exertion had brought on an asthma attack so knew I had to get back to the boat as quickly as possible. I had my medication with me but, didn’t even have enough breath to be able to use my puffer.

Libby is a trained nurse and she was on board the boat, as was Katy, when Ted and I managed to make it back. Seeing that I was in distress and having difficulty breathing, when Ted told her what the problem was, she and Katy quickly scrounged a paper bag from somewhere, giving it to me to breathe into in a bid to try and regulate my breathing enough so that I could use my puffer.

After a few minutes, I managed to get enough breath to try my puffer and, after about half an hour, was reasonably recovered and breathing fairly normally so, spent the rest of the afternoon sitting quietly on the boat watching the world go by, until we arrived in Luang Prabang - not even attempting to try and go and visit a local whisky factory with the others a short time later for that, too, had to be reached by a multitude of stairs leading up the riverbank from the boat landing.

By now it was around 3pm and Kit gave us a rundown for tomorrow and our stay in Luang Prabang for the next couple of days.

We arrived Luang Prabang around 3-45pm, with another steep bank to have to get up so, we paid the 10,000 Kip (about AUD$1-60) for each of our bags, to have the porters carry them up and bring them with us to the hotel in the large tuk-tuk’s that abound here. Again, worth every penny, whilst I took my time and taking many “breath breaks”, getting up the bank.

We were staying at the Sunway Hotel which was very nice. We had about an hour and half to relax before meeting Katy and the others in the foyer at 5-45pm to go for a walk along the riverfront (Mekong) to see the sunset but, before heading out, dropped our 3kg bag of washing into the laundry lady just down the street. At 45,000 Kip or, around $7-$8 for the lot and, able to pick it up at 5pm tomorrow, we felt was a good deal.

Our walk soon became a leisurely stroll beside the river as we watched the day fade away in the last rays of the setting sun and the city lights begin to appear. This beautiful part of the city is also an ideal setting for the numerous restaurants that abound along the riverfront, many of them accommodated in the beautiful old French colonial buildings that have been faithfully restored.

Dinner tonight was to be at the Garden Restaurant. Ted and I decided to go western-style this evening and had the pork steak, chips and veges. Unfortunately, the pork was a bit tough but, the banana split that I finished up with for dessert, more than made up for it (hadn’t seen one of those since before leaving home! 😊)

After dinner, we took a short-cut home through the night market, which was in full-swing by now, and selling just about every type of handicraft that you could imagine. The night was hot and humid and as we had some distance to walk back to the hotel, decided to get a couple of tuk-tuk’s to take us home which included Katy, Dave, Jim and Rick but, the boys were going on to the Aussie Bar near our hotel for drinks, whilst Libby and Anita went and had a massage.

I’d had enough for one day, so Ted and I continued on back to the hotel where I then spent a bit of time on the internet, trying to get a blog published but, the internet was being temperamental and kept dropping out so, becoming frustrated with all of this, I called it a day and headed off to bed …

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