Day 11: Vientiane – Buddha Park

When Pati and BeeBee were in Luang Prabang, their guide told them that the monks gathered every morning at 6 am on a street near them to collect alms, which is the only way they are supported. Pati and BeeBee did not go to observe this, since they had early starts these mornings. Their guide in Vientiane told them that there was a similar ritual near their hotel, except at 4:30 am, since the monks had to finish the ritual before shops opened and traffic built. Since the entrance to the temple was directly across the street from their room, with an excellent view of the street for several hundred meters in each direction, BeeBee set their alarm for 4:25 am.

A few minutes before 4:30 am, therefore, BeeBee was standing on their balcony waiting while Pati was getting the camera ready. A skinny white dog trotted out of the gate into the street, followed by another almost-identical dog. They darted around checking out cars and searching for (what?). At just about 4:30, two monks appeared from the shadows below the gate. Gradually, they were joined by 11 others. The morning was chilly, and, although they were dressed in their long saffron robes, their feet were bare. Once they were all there, they drifted like ghosts down the street away from the river, silently except for the occasional cough. (The two white dogs took this opportunity to lope back inside under the gate. Their ritual was done.) When they reached the next street corner, they formed an irregular line and waited. The low sound of a drum was heard, and every dog in the neighborhood began to howl. The monks were still waiting when Pati and BeeBee returned to bed. At sometime after 5 am, the sound of a gong was heard from far inside the temple grounds: the ritual was complete for another day.

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Lao-Thai Frendship Bridge #1

At 9 am, Pati and BeeBee set off with the guide and driver out of town. About 30 km (18 miles) out of town, they stopped at the site of an old ferry across the Mekong River to Thailand. All that was left were the 49 cement steps leading down to the river. From this place on the river bank there was a good view of the Lao-Thai Friendship Bridge #1 (Pati and BeeBee had entered Laos from Thailand over Friendship Bridge #4). People from either country can buy a ticket from the police at their end of the bridge and walk out to the middle of the bridge, where they must turn around and return to their original side. There are cameras in the middle of the bridge to help make sure of this. The boundary between Laos and Thailand at this place is the middle of the Mekong River.

After another few kilometers, they reached Buddha Park, a blend of Buddhist and Hindu sculptures on parkland located by the Mekong River. The park was designed, built, and paid for by one man (whose parents had owned the land), although eventually he accepted contributions to complete the park. The largest sculpture in the park is a reclining Buddha, after he died.

The statues illustrate stories from the two religions, stories that Pati and BeeBee have seen on the walls and ceilings of temples on this trip.

The most popular structure in the park is the huge pumpkin with the tree of life on top. The entrance and exit of the pumpkin is through the devil’s mouth. There are three levels inside: hell is the lowest, earth is the middle, and heaven is the top. There are steep and dangerous steps between the levels. The most difficult steps are those between earth and heaven.

Just before entering the pumpkin, the guide told Pati and BeeBee that his tour company wanted him to take a picture of them in front of the pumpkin, so that his company could put it on their website. Since Pati and BeeBee’s tour company contracts out their tours to other tour companies, it is unclear just what website was meant. Perhaps someday they will find out! (Pati remarked that the company wanted the picture of them before they entered the pumpkin, because a picture of them in a hospital after falling off the pumpkin would not be good publicity.)

After the guide dropped Pati and BeeBee off at their hotel (his day’s work done), they decided to go to the little restaurant beside their hotel for a small quick lunch. (The guide had recommended this restaurant for its food.) They took seats at a table outside, and after a long while, a young woman brought them menus.  They quickly decided on an order of spring rolls to share and drinks. After another long while, she returned to take their order, which they accomplished by pointing at the items on the menu. She nodded and went to collect the spring rolls from a case near them. After a while, she brought them cut into smaller pieces, with bowls of peanut sauce for dipping. After waiting a few minutes for the drinks, Pati and BeeBee started to eat the spring rolls. They have become used to the problem that Lao waiters have with bringing all the food at the same time. They finished the spring rolls and waited longer for the drinks. Meanwhile, their waiter and others became involved in moving around large pots of plants in front of the restaurant, leaning on BeeBee’s bench and brushing her back with branches and leaves.  Giving up on drinks, Pati and BeeBee left their seats and found someone to pay for the spring rolls. The pot arrangers were happy that Pati and BeeBee were no longer in the way. Pati and BeeBee were thirsty. Pati will write a comprehensive review for Trip Advisor.

After “lunch,” Pati and BeeBee set off walking to find the Lao National History Museum. This museum is a bit run down, but it is somewhat close to their hotel. The first floor of the museum is dedicated to the culture of the Lao people, while the second floor concentrates on the military history of the last few hundred years: specifically, invasions by Siam (Thailand), China, France, and the U.S.  (the “US Imperialists and its puppets”). It highlights the revolution in the 1970s. Most of the commentary and labels on the second floor are translated into English. It is a shock to see pictures and commentary about a war that was kept secret from the citizens of the invading country. Yet everyone that Pati and BeeBee have met has been friendly and warm toward them. There is also a very small section in the museum about World War II. Here there are pictures showing Germany surrendering to Russia and Japan surrendering to “anti-fascists” without mentioning the U.S. by name.

Walking back to their hotel, Pati and BeeBee finally got their drinks: unsweetened iced tea, cool but very little ice.

Pati and BeeBee cooled off in their hotel room until the Night Market opened, because BeeBee was interested in a book she saw the night before. They walked straight to the bookseller’s stall and bought a paperback book, “English-Lao Picture Dictionary for Elementary – Lover Secondary Students” (yes, misspelled) for 25,000 kip (just over $3 USD). They stayed a few minutes to watch a large group of women follow an instructor in exercising to music.  A few hundred meters away was another group, also exercising to the same music, but with different leaders. Then they sat on the broad steps behind the market and near the Mekong River with other people and just watched the river and Thailand beyond for a while.

They went to a restaurant near their hotel for a dinner of shrimp pad thai and fried chicken with peanuts. (They had eaten their first dinner in Vientiane there.) Then they walked back to their restaurant of last night for dessert, profiterolles and lao coffee with milk. After this, they walked back through the Night Market to their hotel.

Tomorrow they will check out of their hotel and catch a flight to Hanoi, Vietnam.

 

Day 10: Vientiane – City Tour

This morning, Pati stepped out onto the balcony of their hotel room, looked south, and saw the Mekong River and Thailand beyond.  The huge Night Market of last night is gone, leaving only a strip of pavement that looks very small now. Across the street, to the east, is a large temple complex. Below the balcony, four floors down at street level, is a small black poodle in a sweater. Such is the morning view of Vientiane.

Pati and BeeBee started their official day at 9 am, meeting their guide in the lobby. This is their latest morning start so far, but they have been told that there is not much to see in the capitol city of Laos (!) and they will spend only half days with him.

The first area they visited included Wat Sisaket (the oldest major sight in the city), a temple with thousands of miniature Buddha statues, and the former royal temple of Wat Prakeo, that previously housed the famous Emerald Buddha.  Since the Emerald Buddha has been in Bangkok for many years (taken by Thailand when they conquered this part of Laos), Wat Prakeo is not truly a wat (temple) any more, but is known as the House of the Emerald Buddha.

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At one of their stops to look at a small garden of exhibits, there was a very large jar under a protecting roof. This jar was about 4 1/2 feet tall and several feet across. It had been broken but repaired. On the bottom inside it were coins and paper money, dropped there for luck. The guide explained that this was a jar from the famous Plain of Jars, an Iron Age site which was bombed during the Vietnam War. American soldiers stole the jar and transported it to an airport, intending to load it on a plane and take it home with them. They were stopped from doing that, and so the Jar stayed in Laos. Laos would like the Plain of Jars designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site (as Luang Prabang is), but it is still not cleared of fallen bombs, and until it is, it cannot be developed as a tourist site.

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Next they drove to see the famous and sacred structure of That Luang Stupa, which contains a bone fragment of Buddha. This huge gold stupa is the symbol of Laos. They also visited the National Cultural Hall, which contained elaborately-painted walls and ceilings illustrating stories of Buddha.

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On the way back, they stopped at the imposing Patuxay Monument, which is well known as Vientiane’s own Arc de Triumph. Pati and BeeBee walked to the top (fewer than 200 steps) to take pictures of the city from the top.

They decided not to visit Morning Shopping mall, which, from the guide’s description,  seemed more like what they would see at home.

 

The guide recommended that they eat lunch at Makphet restaurant, which was one block away from their hotel and actually shared a back wall with it. This restaurant teaches its students how to be waiters, and any tips collected go toward helping the students. The guide’s brother is actually a student there, and is learning English also so that he can interact with tourists. But the guide was not unduly influenced by his brother; the restaurant is actually the number 2 restaurant in Vientiane, according to Trip Advisor. Their meal was very good.

 

Next they caught a tuk-tuk to go visit the COPE unexploded ordinance (UXO) museum. During the Vietnam War, bomber pilots returning from Vietnam to their base in Laos dropped any remaining bombs on designated areas in Laos, because it was dangerous for them to land a plane carrying bombs. More bombs per capita were dropped on Laos than on any other country in the world. (Google “America’s ‘secret war’ in Laos”.) More bombs were dropped on Laos than in all of World War II. These bombs were still live when they fell on villages and farms.

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Sculpture of mother and child, made entirely of metal from bombs

Over the years, many Laotians have been maimed or killed when they accidently set off a bomb by plowing, digging, touching, or setting a fire on top of one.  COPE helps UXO victims as well as those injured by accidents or natural causes (e.g., birth defects). Trip Advisor rates a visit to the COPE museum as the number 1 activity in Vientiane.

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After some internet time back at the hotel, Pati and BeeBee walked to dinner at Chokdee Cafe and Belgian Beer Bar, which is a French restaurant that is rated the number 3 restaurant in Vientiane by Trip Advisor. They had spaghetti bolognese, an Italian dish in a French restaurant in Laos. It was very good.

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While they were waiting for their food, they could hear what sounded like a parade coming down the street. The sounds veered off the street toward the Night Market, and not long afterward they could see a procession heading through the middle of the market. After dinner, they walked over to the Night Market to shop and, hearing the sounds again, followed them to an area in front of a grandstand full of people. There was a circle of people surrounding the source of the sounds. Inside the circle were two dragons dancing around! Pati and BeeBee realized that they were celebrating Chinese New Year.

After walking through every part of the Night Market, Pati and BeeBee headed back to their hotel, just across the street from the market, to rest up for the next day.

Day 9: Luang Prabang – City Tour – Kuangsii Fall

When Pati and BeeBee went down to get breakfast this morning, they could see their breath on the air. It was freezing outside! They are very happy to have warm jackets to wear.

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Today, they visited the National museum, the impressive stupa of Wat Visoun, and Wat Mai.

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The guide explained story paintings found on these buildings in an understandable and interesting way.

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In the afternoon, they drove 30 km out of the town to see the beautiful Kuang Sii Fall. First they had lunch, choosing grilled chicken and vegetables. Also, they each drank coconut milk from a coconut and tried vigorously to scrape out some of the coconut meat to eat. Their guide told them that coconut meat scrapes out easily in younger coconuts.

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They walked up a wooded path beside pools of clear water until they reached the falls. The water was too cold for swimming, but they waded into one of the more shallow pools for a few minutes.

On the return trip to town, they made a short stop at Black Hmong Village, where hill tribe hand-made handicrafts were offered for sale.

Back in town, they had an hour free to visit a cofee shop for coffee, coconut ice cream, and coconut cake. And to use the free wifi.

At around 4 pm, they were taken to the airport for a short flight to Vientaine. They said goodbuy to their guide and driver, who had taken good care of them in Luang Prabang. (Thank you, Mr. Phew.)

At Vientaine, they were met by their new guide and driver and taken to their new hotel. They walked through a small part of the night market at the end of their street, and then had a quick dinner at a restaurant (Beerlao Gold) between the night market and their hotel. (Actually, the name of the restaurant was Papao Restaurant & Bar, but “Beerlao Gold” was in much larger letters.) They had drunken noodles with chicken and seafood. It was apparently karaoke night at the restaurant. A large group of South Koreans sat at a long table in front of the screen; one of the ladies was quite good at following the prompts.

Day 8: Luang Prabang – Living Land Lao Project – Traditional Hill Tribe Ethnology Art Centre

Just after 3 am this morning, BeeBee was awoken by the sounds of chanting by nearby monks. Chimes joined in, matching the chants as their frequency and volume increased.  Around 4 am, roosters also joined the symphony, even though sunrise was hours away. Finally came the smell of burning rubber, which might have been incense and part of the ceremony or might have been merely the city’s sanitation department at work. When BeeBee’s alarm went off at 5 am, only the roosters continued their ageless ceremony.

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After breakfast, Pati and BeeBee met their guide and were driven to the Living Land Lao Organic farm at Pung Van village. (See http://www.livinglandlao.com/index.php/en/riceexperience.) Upon arriving there, they joined other participants for a half day of the rice experience, which included hands-on participation in the 14 steps of rice production. The tour participants were also shown many rows of organic vegetables and herbs.

The rice experience was followed by lunch in Luang Prabang.

After lunch, they visited the Traditional Hll Tribe Ethnology Art Centre, a very nice exibition of informations about Lao Hill tribes, their food and their traditions. Especially interesting to BeeBee was the exhibit on women’s work, both traditional and modern.

Following this, they climbed to the top of Phousi Mount to see the sacre gilded stupa and to enjoy the beautiful views of the city and the two rivers meeting in Luang Prabang.

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Buddha and fortune telling box

 

Near the top of the mount was a cave containing a Buddha (of the Happy Buddha variety) and other religious artifacts. Also, oddly, there was a fortune-telling game spread out in front of the Buddha to encourage donations to maintain the site. The procedure is (1) place a donation in the large white box, (2) shake the red cup containing numbered red sticks until one falls out on the large patterned red mat, (3) from the large red box with numbered compartments, select the fortune from the compartment with the same number as the stick, and (4) ask someone who can read Laotian to translate the fortune for you. Fortunately (pun intended), their guide offered to interpret. Their fortune was travel-related and very positive.

The top of the “mountain” is 150 meters above the street level below. They climbed up the 300 steps on the river side of the hill and down the 150 steps on the Night Market side.

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Very near the bottom of the steps, as they were leaving, was a lady selling tiny birds in tiny bamboo cages. For 20,000 kip (about $2.50 USD), a visitor to the mount could buy two birds in a cage, take them to the top, and set them free. BeeBee didn’t really want to climb back up the hill, but their guide said it was o.k. to set them free where they were.  Spreading the bars on the tiny cage, BeeBee and the guide set them free one at a time. They both flew to branches on a tree high above them. Their spirits were free.

The guide then returned Pati and BeeBee to their hotel. After some quality internet time, they set off walking to the old town section of Luang Prabang to find a restaurant that Pati had read about on Trip Advisor. They didn’t find that restaurant, but after a long walk ended up back at the Night Market. Here they found a Western-style restaurant (full of Americans) in a very nice outdoor setting, and they indulged in American comfort food (a.k.a. pizza) as a break from tasty but unfamiliar Laotian food.

Following dinner, they speed-walked through the Night Market on their way back to their hotel.  After internet time (including blogging) was bedtime, for rest for the next day’s adventures.

Day 7: Pakbeng – Pak Ou – Luang Prabang

This morning Pati and BeeBee packed and left their cabin early, so that they could access the internet from the main reception area of Luang Say Lodge. After breakfast, they walked down to the boat for the second day of travel. As before, their larger luggage was carried to the boat by two strong young women.

Before 8:30 am, everyone was on board and the boat set off down the Mekong River again. Several hours later, they had a buffet lunch, and soon after that,  the boat stopped for a short  visit to a hill tribe village. Every woman in the village, it seemed, had laid out their handmade scarfs for sale on either side of the path that the tour group had to follow.  Since they all used the same type of equipment and thread, their products were remarkably similar (identical, even). A man of the village had a primative still set up, and the group watched the traditional process of Lao whiskey production. While the women sold a good number of scarves, the man also did a brisk business selling small bottles of Lao rice whiskey.

This day was colder than the day before, and everyone on the boat was soon cold from the wind and from the spray of water coming over the sides of the boad. The guide handed out colorful ponchos, and everyone huddled inside them. One of the ladies at Pati and BeeBee’s table had brought her Bananagram game, and she taught Pati, BeeBee, and another lady at the table how to play. This provided entertainment for the players and onlookers and diverted their attention a little from the cold. Everyone also consumed many cups of hot Laotian coffee .

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cave of a thousand Buddhas

The boat continued on to Pak Ou village at the mouth of the Nam Ou River. Here they climbed hundreds of irregular steps to visit the Tam Thing Caves of a Thousand Buddhas.

After this stop, the boat continued for several hours, arriving at Luang Prabang pier before sunset. Here again, there were steep steps from the river to the higher street level, and male porters carried the heavier bags  BeeBee noticed that these men seemed to find their job harder than the young women at Luang Say Lodge, who walked much farther on a more difficult surface. Perhaps they were just showing off for tips.

Pati and BeeBee’s new guide was waiting for them at the top of the steps. After stowing their luggage in the new van, the driver took them all to their new hotel, where the guide assisted in the check in process.

Since it was still daylight, Pati and BeeBee walked to the large Night Market, where they looked at the merchandise for sale (again, many duplicate offerings) and had dinner at a restaurant nearby. Walking back to the hotel after dark, they took advantage of the free wifi in their room and spent some quality internet time before sleep.

Day 6: Chiang Rai – Houei Say – Pekbeng – overnight on Luang Say Cruise

This morning Pati and BeeBee got up at 5 am for a 6 am breakfast and 6:30 am checkout from their hotel. Their guide and driver were waiting to take them on the two hour drive to the border with Laos, at Friendship Bridge 4. As they had spent so much time together, Pati and BeeBee were sorry to leave their new friends. The guide introduced them to the tour guides for their next adventure, and accompanied  them as far as she could on the Thai side before sending them on their way. (Thank you, Ms Bam. We will remember you fondly.)

Before passing through passport control on the Thai side of the border, they were given blank visa forms and entry/exit forms from the tour staff. Now, Pati had already prepared the visa application forms before leaving home, but the tour staff stapled the visa pictures onto the new forms to be filled out again.  They then boarded a bus for the Laotian side. On the bus, BeeBee hurridly worked on the new forms.

Exiting the bus, unfinished forms in hand, they joined the end of the very long Visa on Arrival line. As slowly as the line moved, they had plenty of time to finish the forms. As they all stood restlessly in line, they became aware of a second window under a sign Visa Payment. After each person handed in their passport and visa application at the first window, they joined the ever-growing crowd around the second window. Gradually, it became clearer what was happening. The young man who collected the application passed it to another young man, who handed it to the women who did the actual work unseen between the two windows.  Each passport, with visa pasted inside, eventually was handed to the young woman behind the second window. She opened the passport to the photo page and held the photo up to the window. That person would walk to the window, hand in the correct amount of money, and collect the passport. The passports arrived at the second window in roughly the same order that they were handed in at the first window, so the crowd converged upon the window at roughly the right time. That was important, because it was almost impossible to see the passport picture being presented unless you were near the window. BeeBee remembered who was ahead of them in the first line, and watched to see when they were “called'” Their passports actually came out of order, at least three passports earlier than expected. Jackpot! The passport process took around an hour, and then they boarded a minibus with six other members of their new tour group.

This bus eventually arrived at the slow boat pier, where the Luang Say boat was waiting to take them down the Mekong River. Porters carried their luggage onboard, and they found two seats together at a table. While there was not much choice of seats when they boarded (other tour members had spend the previous night closer to the departure point and had taken what appeared to be the best seats), the seats turned out to be very good. They were protected from spray from the river, and the other people at the table were good travel companions.

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Luang Say boat

The boat left the pier soon afterward and made good time. After an hour or so, a very good buffet lunch was served onboard. The boat made a stop to observe rural life along the Mekong River at Ban Houy Phalam; a Kamu village. The boat arrived at Luang Say Lodge before sunset for an overnight stay.

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long-tail boat

The tour members had to walk through sand and climb quite a way from the river to the lodge. Fortunately, porters (strong young women, mostly) carried all the heavy luggage.

While the Lodge provided free wifi, it was available only in the main reception area. Consequently, most of the tour members returned to this area after checking in to reconnect with their normal lives.

A buffet dinner was served on the terrace overlooking the Mekong River. Before dinner, the tour members were treated to a performance of traditional music and dance by a group of local school chrildren in tribal costumes. Their ages ranged from early grade school to late high school. The most sincere performer was one of the youngest, and the least serious performer was a typical inattentive teenager.

Pati and BeeBee were assigned to lodge #8, a very-well appointed “cabin” a long walk from the main reception and dinner area. Tall louvered windows opened on three sides of the main area of the cabin, each with a spectacular view of the river and hills beyond.

After dinner, they spend a few minutes on the internet before returning to their cabin, where the mosquito nets had already been arranged around the poster bed, ready for a good night’s sleep.