Friday, 6 December 2013

Loving Laid Back Laos

Due to spending more time than I had planned in Vietnam and committing to a full week of volunteering with Elephants at the Elpehant Nature Park in Chiang Mai (starting Dec. 9th) I found myself very short on time to visit Laos.  I decided to spend quality time in one spot (Luang Prabang) rather than rushing around trying to see too much.  I am spending four nights and 5 days here and I couldn't be happier with my choice!  

Luang Prabang is a lovely little city in northern Laos positioned on a peninsula of land only 1km long and only 0.25km wide between where the Mekong and the Nam Khan rivers meet.  The rivers are wide, fast moving, muddy brown, and flanked by is jungle clad mountains.  Luang Prabang is known for its numerous Buddhist temples and the alms giving ceremony which occurs each morning at sunrise.  People line the streets with donations of food (sticky rice and food wrapped in banana leaves) while a procession of monks in orange robes file past in silent walking meditation to accept their gifts.  The town is friendly, clean, scenic, has tons of things to do, and has a relaxed atmosphere with lots of nice restaurants with patios overlooking the rivers, coffee shops, and gift shops.  It's a very nice place to chill out for a few days and a great introduction to Laos (I will definitely be back to see more of the country on another trip!)
Monks crossing the river on a bamboo bridge
Monks saffron robes on laundry day
Tree of life mosaic on Wat Xiang Thong main temple
Wat Xiang Thong main temple

I spent the first day finding a better/cheaper guest house than where I spent my first night (I moved from the mediocre Mekong Moon Inn at $20/night to the charming Pakham Guest House at $15/night), then having a leisurely breakfast followed by a long day of walking to some of the temples.  I also rented a bicycle for the duration of my stay and am really enjoying cycling around and checking out the sights.  I was able to attend a sunset yoga class on a wooden deck overlooking the Mekong River which was offered at the Ock Pop Tok Living Crafts Center as well as another sunset and one sunrise yoga class on wooden deck overlooking the Nam Khan river which were at a restaurant/bar called Utopia.  The yoga was challenging but I felt great after and the scenery was spectacular!
Sunset yoga
View from the Utopia yoga deck at sunrise

The following day I did a half day trip to see the Kouang Si waterfall which was incredibly beautiful with many layers of milky blue water cascading over flowstone terraces created by precipitation of calcium carbonate.  There was a short hike up to the top of the waterfall where you could swim in a natural infinity pool surrounded by the sound of the waterfall crashing below.  I saw beautiful dragonflies, butterflies, and colorful spiders in the jungle during the walk.  A nice surprise as you approach the waterfall is a few large enclosures holding a number of healthy, happy looking Asiatic Black Bears who have been rescued by an organization called "Free The Bears" ( from small cages, the gall bladder trade, inhumane circuses etc.
Emerald coloured dragonfly
Kouang Si waterfall
Top of Kouang Si Waterfall...natural infinity pool
Steps at Kouang Si waterfall slowly being covered by stone
Asiatic black bear "hunting" for food 

I ran (reran?) into some fellow travellers (Tom and Lotus) who I met about a week ago in Phong Nha National Park in Vietnam when we stayed at the same hostel.  We decided to check out the night market which was full of cheap, yummy, delicious food and some interesting-looking/unappealing local fare like pig face, pig feet, barbecued whole pigeon, bottled snake, and chicken feet.  A fresh fruit shake made with ice is 10,000kip ($1.25) and a big Lao style sandwich (sub with mayo, ketchup, cucumber, onion, tofu, egg, pork, lettuce, cilantro, carrots) costs only 15,000kip ($1.87).  There are also many blocks of stalls selling handicrafts and souvenirs including aluminum bangles and silverware made out of old bombs, lots of woven, embroidered, and appliqu├ęd textiles, iPhone speakers made of bamboo, and the usual souvenir flotsam and jetsam.

Pig face and feet
Snake in a bottle of booze... Medicine to make you strong apparently... The original snake oil!
Pigeons on a stick methinks...look close for their little heads and beaks

Jewelry, silverware and ornaments made of old bombs
Colorful embroidery at the night market
This hand stitched mural of animals HAD TO follow me home. ❤️

Tom, Lotus, and I decided to check out the alms giving ceremony this morning but we were over zealous and met up at 5am.  The sun didn't rise and the monks didn't get cracking until after 6am.  We think we picked the wrong street to wait at because we only saw about 20 monks and we were expecting hundreds!  I will try again tomorrow morning with a little more research as to the best viewing location.

Ock Pop Tok Living Crafts Center (where I did Yoga the first evening) is a short bike ride out of town but I went there for lunch today and to see their textiles and crafts.  This place is so cool!  They raise silk worms, harvest the silk from the cocoons, spin it, dye it using natural ingredients (indigo plants for blue, turmeric for yellow and orange, lemongrass for greenish yellow, Sappan wood and rusted nails for red etc.), then women weave it by hand on looms into the most spectacular textiles.  They make cushion covers, scarves, blankets, purses, tapestries and all sorts of beautiful and intricate designs.  The knowledge of how to weave has been passed down from mother to daughter and the weavers include Laos, Hmong and other minority tribe women.  They provide a free tour and you can watch how the women work on the looms.  It is really incredible to see the detail, planning, and focus they need to create the textiles.
Silk made, collected, spun, and dyed on site
One of the weavers
Another weaver
Hard to believe this intricacy can be done by hand!

I spent the late afternoon climbing up Phou Si (Sacred Hill) to see the That Chomsi stupa which is the highest point in town and to watch the sunset from this excellent viewpoint.  After the climb, the three yoga classes, and lots of  biking and walking I needed a massage.  I took the advice of my guidebook to check out the Lao Red Cross which, as well as collecting blood and clothing donations, also has a herbal sauna and massage where for 50,000kip ($6.25) you get an hour long traditional Laos massage (it felt really good!), and then you can sit in a steam room for as long as you like.  The steam room has steam infused with local plants and herbs to promote healing, health, and wellness and there is a steam room for each gender (MANROOM vs, WOMENROOM) with a common area outside for cooling off and having a drink.  You are given a sarong to wear, next you steam for a while, come out to cool off and enjoy complimentary herbal tea, back into the steam room, cold rinse, repeat until you are ready to leave.  It was mostly a Laos women and only a few westerners so the dark steam room was full of Laotian voices which made for a very authentic experience and I felt really great after my steam!

Sunset from That Chomsi, at top of Phou Si
Selfie near the top of Phou Si (sacred hill)
A very unassuming sign for a very unassuming place at Lao Red Cross Massage
His and hers steam rooms
Herbal tea and cooling off area

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