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Published: October 13th 2020
Morning came very early today. The alarm went off at 4-30am for us to be ready to get the hotel shuttle at 5-15am to take us the short distance (but, too far to walk) to see the monks on their morning alms walk. This is a morning ritual in most Asian countries.
The driver took us down to the post office (the post office seemed to be the central meeting point during our stay in Luang Prabang 😊) where Katy had arranged a vantage point nearby, for us to be able to not only see the monks on their morning rounds, but had also arranged little stools for us to sit on. She had also organised two bamboo steam baskets full of sticky rice for all us to shape into little balls to place into the alms bowls of the monks as they walked down the footpath.
A carpet runner had been placed along the part of the footpath where we would be sitting; little stools had been placed on the rug with a cushion on top of that, for us to sit on. We were also requested to wear a sash across our chest and around our shoulders
as a mark of respect.
We were all settled and ready by 5-40am, just awaiting the arrival of the monks who began coming towards us along the street by about 5-50am. It had just become light. They seemed to come in small groups of about a dozen or 15, with some of the monks no more than young boys who appeared to be no more than about 7 or 8. Many of them were young men from about mid-teens to perhaps 20. They passed us first in one direction and then, a few minutes later, would come back from the other direction.
We had about 5-6 groups come past us altogether. Ted and I had used up our two baskets of sticky rice after about the 3rd
group, much to Katy’s amusement, as we were supposed to make it last until the end which made that a bit difficult because we didn’t know how many monks we had to feed. She laughed and said that we must have been too generous and made our balls too big! 😊
Whilst we were waiting, I had time to ponder about the hygiene factor in all of this, even though
before we began rolling the sticky rice into little balls to deposit into the monks bowls when offered, we were smothering our hands in antibacterial solution, I must admit that I was still very conscious of this fact. Apparently, so were the government authorities because, during our visit to Laos, there was a proposed motion to stop this practice and only have packet food presented to the monks, although, fresh fruit would still be acceptable. At least you could wash, or peel, that. However, we don’t know whether this practice was ever adopted, or not.
I always feel somewhat uncomfortable in situations such as this and I wonder how the monks themselves feel, with a whole bunch of tourists around, taking photographs. I know it is a time-honoured tradition with them receiving gifts of food from the devout in the community but, what concerns me, is that, over time, these rituals have been added to the list of being considered as a tourist attraction. I can understand that tour companies want to give their clients the best possible cultural experiences that they can, of the country that you happen to be in at the time but, I don’t know
how I really feel about activities such as this.
Anyway, it was all over Red Rover within about 20 minutes (6-10am) so we walked around the corner to where our hotel shuttle bus was waiting to take us back to the hotel.
We weren’t leaving until 8-30am so, plenty of time for another breakfast of cold eggs, bacon and sausages. At least the tea and toast was hot, as we did have a toaster this morning! Interestingly, the hotel would just put the cooked food out on plates on the buffet table so, consequently, the food got cold in no time. They didn’t put it in a bain-marie or anything to keep it warm, let alone hot.
We’d done most of our packing last night so, there was only a little to do this morning to be ready in time. We’d finished breakfast a bit before 7am so, had at least an hour and a half before we had to leave. We were to meet down in the foyer at 8-30am.
Giving our room one last scan to make sure that we hadn’t left anything behind, off we went about 10 minutes beforehand to give us
time to get our bags down from 302 as, there are never any elevators in these provincial hotels/guesthouses.
All of us, plus our bags, fitted into the shuttle in one go as it had to take us to join our mini-bus for the day-trip to Vang Vieng, which will take us about 8 hours. For some reason, our mini-bus couldn’t pick us up at our hotel due to traffic restrictions of some kind or another.
We were away right on time and were travelling in a Toyota Coaster, so plenty of room for all of us, plus our bags and, it was also air-conditioned, which was very pleasant in this humid climate, with us having our own personal air vents.
We were heading off on Highway No 13 (hoping this wasn’t an omen for things to come on our journey 😊), which is the main highway through Laos, from China and all the way to Thailand. It was a winding, mountain road, as we passed through small villages and communities. Some of the crops we saw growing were chilli, sticky rice, hops, bananas, mangoes, papaya, melons, pumpkins, pomelos (a citrus fruit that looks like a giant grapefruit)
cucumbers and many teak and rubber plantations.
The countryside we were passing through was beautiful. It was lush, verdant green, mountain scenery but, we could only get glimpses of it through the thick jungle that grew right up to the edge of the road. Seeing everything so lush and green with such rampant growth, was a feast for Aussie eyes that were more accustomed to seeing drought-affected communities and countryside back home, once you got away from the cities.
The steep mountainsides are ideal for growing sticky rice. Farmers clear the land once a year around March or April, and then plant the rice. Harvesting is in October and there is only one crop a year. Sticky rice needs less water than rice grown in the lowlands in padi fields, which need a lot of water, yielding two crops a year.
About an hour into our trip, we stopped at the summit of the mountain, at Salavewikiov Muang, for a photo op, which gave us a great view of the valley below. Like much of the infrastructure throughout Laos these days, the Chinese government built a hydro-electric scheme here, in recent times, relocating the city that would
have been submerged when the dam was built (same as they did when they built the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River in China). Most, if not all, of the power generated, goes back to China.
Since leaving Luang Prabang, we had been passing through small communities dotted here and there and, from our vantage point here, across in the distance, we could see villages perched precariously on the steep mountainsides in an oasis hacked out of the dense jungle.
A couple of hours out from Luang Prabang, we were still climbing and winding our way around the narrow mountain roads. Our driver couldn’t do much more than about 60 k’s an hour, at best. The views were spectacular, as we gazed out on the misty mountains in the distance until the mist became clouds, the higher we climbed before we ended up in a total whiteout.
A short while later, we made a pit-stop, for about 20 minutes so that we could stretch our legs, use the bathroom or buy some snacks, etc for the journey ahead. A few days earlier, I had come across a tasty travelling snack. During our stop here I was
delighted to find another can of the same delicious, vacuum-sealed coffee-coated peanuts which are yum! These set me back KIP10,000 or about $AUD1-50. Bargain! I was once again, a happy camper, with my tasty travelling snacks close at hand!!
We were now well up into the mountains so, it was much cooler and had also started drizzling rain. Even though the road was tar-sealed, it was very pot-holed and with very rough edges in many places, with road conditions now becoming quite hazardous and slippery. We were also encountering a lot of huge, heavy transport vehicles on this narrow, winding mountain road. This also wasn’t helped by the fact that we had just passed a huge front–end loader perched precariously on a steep embankment by the side of the road, clearing vegetation and soil from the top of the bank which then all cascaded down onto the road! An OH & S nightmare! I couldn’t imagine this happening back in Oz. They’d have the road blocked off, with reduced traffic flow and witches hats strung out for a kilometre in both directions, at least! 😊
Approaching midday, we were now just over half-way to Vang Vieng, with only
127kms to go and were now passing through quite a large town. We couldn’t see anything of the valley below or the bomb craters (CIA) from the American War that Saly, our guide, was going to show us, because everything was now totally shrouded in cloud so, visibility was very limited. It was just like driving in fog. The road had rapidly deteriorated in one place to become a pot-holey, slushy, muddy bog which our driver had to negotiate very carefully. It reminded me of Highway No. 1 when we were in Cambodia years ago, when we were on our way from Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam, to Phnom Penh – 180 kms - and it took us all day! There, most of the time, it was better to drive off, and alongside the road, rather than to try to drive along it. 😊
As we were driving through this area, Saly had been telling us that his father had worked for the Americans during the Vietnam (American) War whilst his uncle (his father’s brother) worked for the Vietnamese so, the two were on opposing sides at the time. Happily, years later, after hostilities had ended, they were
finally, both reunited once again. In many parts of Asia, the conflict is known as the American War and, certainly, in Vietnam itself.
12-45pm we stopped for lunch at a mountain-top restaurant. The food was excellent here. I had the stir-fried chicken with ginger and it did have lots of ginger in it, which I love. Ted had Chicken Tom Sum soup which he said was really good too, and, also had lots of chicken.
It was while we were here that, like most of our group, I took the opportunity to visit the bathroom, which boasted the rather modern, tourist, “clean” toilet, (their words, not mine) which was a western-style toilet so, no crouching required, for which I was truly thankful, as were my creaky knees 😊 The bathroom was completely private, except for the “window” on the external wall. This was rather disconcerting as, it was a window in name only. There was no glass, just a rather large, oblong opening, which looked out onto the world before us. Unfortunately, I couldn’t take any photos of the (apparently) beautiful 360deg view from here, let alone the beautiful view from the bathroom “window”, as we were now
completely clouded in.
We left around 1-45pm and still had about 3 and a half hours to go to get to Vang Vieng. It was still drizzling rain when we left to continue on our mountain road for the next hour or so until finally coming down the other side of the mountain range where the countryside flattened out into rice padis and farmland.
The weather had cleared a bit and it had also stopped raining. The cloud had also started to lift and we could see some of the limestone karst rocky outcrops which were truly magnificent. Similar to the karst outcrops we have seen in Guilin in China but, these were different in the fact that they were totally covered in vegetation.
A little earlier, we had stopped at a village market to have a look at the produce and other foodstuffs. We weren’t allowed to take any photographs because of a cultural aspect for the villagers but, seeing some of the food on offer for sale was certainly an education. Things like, fresh-water crabs from the river behind the village; fungi; small bats - for medicine, said Katie – sinus problems. I think if
I had that complaint, I’d keep quiet about it. 😊
There were some small furry animals that looked a bit like a guinea pig only bigger but, also had a small tail. We asked Katie what they were and she knew the name in Laotian but, not in English. Ted told me later that they were moles.
While we were there, Katie had cleaned the windows of our bus for us so that we could see out, as the muddy mountain road and the rain had covered the windows in muddy splashes and smeary streaks that made it difficult to see through and you certainly couldn’t take any photos through them. 😊
It was still raining when we arrived in Vang Vieng at 4-20pm, which didn't seem to worry the locals all that much, as they rode along beside us on their motor scooters and bicycles, many without raincoats or any other covering against the rain - guess they are used to such weather and, suppose they would dry fairly quickly anyway, once the rain stopped or they got themselves to wherever it was they were going. Perhaps they may have welcomed the rain, as it may
have cooled them off for a short while in the hot, humid conditions.
We have travelled a lot throughout Asia over the years and, have seen some interesting things involving motor scooters and their occupants. Years ago, in Vietnam, the most incredible combination we saw was, a man, his wife (sitting side-saddle) and their three small children, all travelling on the family motor scooter. As well as this, they also had two small, live pigs encased in cylindrical cane baskets that they were carrying with them, as well! If we hadn't seen it with our own eyes, we would never have believed it!
Until then, I couldn't have imagined that you could fit so much stuff, on one small motor scooter! What a balancing act! But, they seemed quite relaxed and used to travelling that way. 😊 However, one amusing sight we did see as we were coming into the city outskirts, maybe not quite so spectacular but, fascinating, just the same, were two ladies, riding along on their motor scooter, both with their umbrellas up, trying to shield themselves against the wet weather. I could just imagine you trying to get away with that escapade as you
rode along the street back home in Oz. 😊
It had been an interesting but, somewhat long and tiring day and we were more than happy to be going straight on to our accommodation that would be our home for the next couple of days. We would be staying at the Khamphone Hotel, an attractive, multi-level peach-coloured building – complete with the usual cute, chattering, resident geckos that abound all throughout Asia. 😊
Some stats of Laos:
At the time of our visit, there were 29 hydro-electric schemes in Laos, mostly built in conjunction with the Chinese Government; 70% of Laos is mountainous – ideal for hydro-electricity projects;
Approximately, 20,000 people live in Vang Vieng;
There are still many unexploded bombs in Laos from the Vietnam (American) War. 2 million people were killed here during this time. Today, all these years later, a number of countries, including Australia, are still helping the Laos government locate and destroy the unexploded armaments …
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