The morning started off normally enough, at least for what I was expecting in Laos. We were in Vientiane and headed out with Green Discovery, one of the local adventure/eco-tour operators, to the forest a couple hours out of town; we were going to play on the zip-lines for a few hours. We had breakfast and hopped in the van where we met our driver, a guide and another guest who was doing a similar trip. It turns out that he hadn’t eaten breakfast that morning, and that worked out VERY well for us. I offered him a granola bar from my stash but that wasn’t enough going in to a full day of activity. Our guides insisted on stopping at a small shop on the way out of town.
It was a tiny stand, tucked into the endless row of shops alongside the road leading out of Vientiane, past the airport and into the country side. I don’t know the name. I don’t even really know where it was. Even the driver didn’t really know where we were going; the guide pointed at what seemed a random store-front and we pulled over to park and grab our meal.
A few young women worked the counter, whipping up sandwich after sandwich (they make about 2000 daily) for the throngs who come throughout the day to eat. They weren’t cheap, at least by local standards, probably a couple dollars each. But filled with pate, various meats & veggies and then topped with a couple different sauces (assuming you said yes to the only question asked, “Spicy?”) they were oh so very, very, very good.
I only recognizes a few of the ingredients, mostly the vegetables. That didn’t stop me from chowing down. The French influence in the area is strong, particularly when it comes to food, and this sandwich certainly showed some of that influence.
It was a moment of travel serendipity, one of a few on this trip. No way I would have found the shop on my own and definitely no way we would have gone that far out of town just for a sandwich. Fortunately, we got lucky and didn’t have to figure it out on our own. Alas, it will never happen again. Just one of the many great things that happens when traveling.
Gear up, clip in and step off the platform. That’s all there is to zip-lining, right?
Not so much in Laos, where everything runs a bit slower and more relaxed. Getting to the site, for instance, was a 2+ hour adventure out of Vientiane, including a van, a transfer to another truck at a random turn-off and eventually a 20 minute boat ride up the river which was one of the high points of the day.
Puttering up the river we passed lots of locals, including these women fishing:
There was a lunch break and then some hiking; you have to get to the top of the canopy somehow. And the views along the way were nothing to sneer at.
From there it really was just a matter of getting the gear on and jumping off the platform, trusting that the wire would hold and that the ride would be worthwhile. It did and it was!
There was more to the day than just the zip-lines. The path through the trees also included "obstacles" of a sort, challenges to get past as we moved between the zip-line runs. They were both fun and a bit difficult, though we all made it through OK.
The longest of the runs was over 180 meters; the highest was 37 meters off the forest floor. That’s something like 20 seconds of flying, spinning and dodging the occasional errant branch. And there were a bunch of "flights" during the afternoon.
There were also a couple spots where we had to change elevations, with the guides lowering us down. Not nearly as exciting, but some great views as we did it.
And then it was back on the boat and back down river. More time to check out the locals and just relax before the van ride back into town.
Overall this was a great way to spend the afternoon. We knew that we’d be desperately bored in Vientiane and got lucky wandering past the kiosk downtown for Green Discovery Tours. It didn’t take long for them to get us signed up for their tour going out to Nam Lik. And their team was incredibly professional, helping and encouraging where needed, focused on safety and able to have a ton of fun while doing it.
More photos from the day here.
More from our trip through Laos here.
There isn’t much to recommend Vientiane, Laos, it turns out. It is a sleepy little town which also happens to be a national capital. There is a little bit of culture and history, but not a ton. Most of the tourist sites are not actually in the city center. And, despite sitting on the Mekong River, there isn’t much river life to be seen. Lots and lots of nothing going on, at least that we could find.
That said, there were two major temple sites we visited on the afternoon we arrived, and they certainly put on an impressive Buddha display. Hundreds of them. All over the place. And while Buddha fatigue was already starting to settle in, I have to admit that the collection was impressive.
In a separate area of the temple there was a collection of broken Buddhas, too.
The images themselves were cool, especially in such great quantities. Equally impressive were the ornate water troughs used for ritual cleanings. The detail and color were quite rich.
If you happen to find yourself in Vientiane I’d say definitely go visit the temples. There isn’t much else to do and they are a good way to pass a few hours. But other than that, try not to be stuck for too long in town.
More photos from the temples in Vientiane here.
More stories from Laos here.
Looking for something resembling a beach near Luang Prabang, Laos? Hop in the back of a tuk tuk or van and ride about 30 kilometers out of town and you’ll hopefully find yourself at the Tad Kuang Si, a collection of waterfalls which are the best option available for swimming, floating or relaxing away an afternoon. Following a short hike in from the parking lot you end up facing a series of limestone pools filled with some of the brightest turquoise water that I’ve ever seen. Swimming in the terraced pools is the main attraction for most visitors to the falls. The water is clear and warm enough; it is the closest thing to a beach in the area, at least one that you’d want to go swimming in.
The many terraced pools are awesome and despite a decent number of people at the site there was still more room for swimmers, meaning a reasonably relaxing experience, if not especially private.
And if a swim and relaxing is all you’re looking for then you’ll do just fine with that. But, should you be looking for a bit more adventure, another option awaits. Just off to the left of the main viewing area, hidden in the brush, is a path leading up the side of the falls. It is steep, slippery and often covered in water running down from the falls. But the reward for making the hike up is tremendous.
There are a few smaller pools at the top, and you get to look down off the top of the falls pretty basically from where they start their descent. It is quite impressive. And very few people make the climb; no crowds at all.
We spent enough time hiking up and down that we didn’t have much to spend enjoying the relaxing part of the falls. That’s mostly based on failure to properly negotiate the trip with our driver than anything else. The hike is easily an hour of time up and back, more if you are averse to the idea of sliding down as a reasonable means of descent.
The site is a great half-day excursion from Luang Prabang, but don’t short yourself on the total time spent at the site. If you want to both hike and swim you’ll likely need more time than the default the drivers in town are willing to offer.
More photos here.
Read any guide book, trip report or other account of a visit to Luang Prabang, Laos and there is a very, very high chance you’ll read about the daily sun rise ritual of the local monks walking through the streets, collecting offerings of food for their daily meal. And, just to be clear, this is yet another such story. But I think my take on the scene is a bit different; certainly what I saw was very different from what I expected. Or at least it was very different than what I had hoped to see.
Shortly before sunrise mats begin to be set up on the sidewalks near the main pagodas of Luang Prabang. Most are set by hotels so their guests can participate in this ritual. And most have food provided by the hotels rather than the street merchants. That’s actually what the monks want; apparently the street vendors have a habit of providing food which makes the monks sick which isn’t so useful when this is their daily nourishment.
And, for the most part, the people I saw setting up on the mats to offer food looked like they were taking it reasonably seriously. It is a spiritual offering, bonding with the monks, not a tourist excursion. Indeed, on the list of requests from the monks which I saw on a wall outside one of the pagodas they actually ask that people not give food if they aren’t going to take it seriously.
And then the monks began their shuffle down the sidewalks, collecting small offerings along the way.
One of the more surprising things to me was seeing the people – mostly kids, but a few adults, too – along the route begging of the monks for food. And, every now and then, they would be successful in getting some rice or other food. That was pretty nifty to see happen.
Overall I found the experience to be mostly a good one. The people who are taking it seriously make it rather moving. At the same time, however, I was quite disappointed in some of the behavior I witnessed from other spectators. It would probably do the monks some good to better publicize the "rules" of the event, things like avoiding flash photography and staying out of the way as the monks are walking along. Then again, I’d like to think that sort of respect comes naturally to most. Alas, it does not.
Most of the people I saw respected the rules, the monks and the sanctity of the event. But there were enough who did not that it made me feel guilty about being there, watching it happen. Maybe it is just because we were there at a peak time so the crowds were more unruly than normal (a friend later related that the day she was there during the wet season she was the only one offering food). Or maybe things have changed enough with the tourists in Luang Prabang that it is no longer a ritual and more of a spectacle. Looking at the faces of the monks many seemed bored or bothered by the event. I know that I’d be rather annoyed if my daily breakfast routine involved hundreds of random strangers getting up in my face and taking flash photos. I cannot say that I blame the monks at all in that regard.
We saw similar scenes in Yangon and Bagan, Burma and the spectacle part of it wasn’t there. Not quite as photogenic, certainly, but also not nearly the same level of "show" involved. Maybe I’m just bitter and disillusioned. And maybe I’m part of the problem. After all, I was there, shooting photos and video (though no flash!) and watching the parade as it happened. I just don’t know. When I got back to the room that morning to have breakfast it just didn’t feel right. Talking it over with @Veritrope the following evening over drinks it was still irking me. And now, three weeks later, I’m still a bit frustrated. Such is life, I suppose.
More photos in the gallery here or on Facebook here.
In a world where statues of Buddha dominate day-to-day life there is an important question which is often overlooked: What do you do when the statues are damaged or ready to be retired? Around Luang Prabang, Laos the answer was a voyage up the Mekong river to where the Ou river joins and a pair of caves known today to tourists as the Pak Ou caves. The caves have been used for more than a thousand years, accumulating quite the impressive collection of Buddha images.
The caves have changed a bit in the 1000+ years they’ve been used as a pilgrimage site. They are still a place for reflection and prayer.
And they are still a destination where one can find hundreds, if not thousands, of Buddha images tucked in to nearly every nook and cranny around the site. And pilgrims still bring an image to the site to add to the collection in the lower cave (Tham Ting). At the same time, however, there is now a dock at the base and ticket takers stationed at the site, welcoming the large daily influx of tourists.
Getting to the caves involves either a 2ish hour boat ride upstream from Luang Prabang or a rather shorter van or tuk tuk ride. The boats are narrow and loud but if a nice day on the water suits your fancy this isn’t a bad way to get that experience. Once at the site there are two caves to explore. The aforementioned Tham Ting (lower cave) is not particularly cave-like. It is reasonably open to daylight and seeing the massive collection of Buddha images there can be done without too much trouble.
Higher up the cliff face (just walk up the stairs to the left) there is Tham Theung, the Upper Cave. This one is actually a cave in the traditional sense. You walk in and it gets very, very dark very quickly. It is spacious inside – plenty of room to move around without bumping into anything, but pitch black at the back. It has more of a religious feel and is also less visited than the lower caves, meaning slightly smaller crowds. Combined with the extra space the relatively few Buddha images inside Tham Theung seem a bit more spiritual and "put together," at least it did to me. Seeing anything inside requires a flashlight/torch; there is a donations-supported station right outside the entrance with many to use.
Like most tours a Pak Ou caves excursion involves a visit to the gift shop as part of the adventure. In this case, however, the gift shop is not at the caves themselves. Instead you visit one of the local villages along the waterfront (don’t worry; your boat driver knows which one) to see the handicrafts available for purchase. The crafts themselves weren’t particularly impressive (few are to me) but the region is also known for its production of Lao Lao, a rice whiskey. And there are free tastings at the stop.
Lao Lao is not good. It burns and has minimal flavor to recommend it. Still, a small souvenir bottle was a dollar or two; I’m looking forward to tasting it compared to the Burmese whiskeys we picked up later in the trip. Definitely kitsch, but still fun. And then you sit back and relax for the rest of the return boat ride back to Luang Prabang.
Time-wise the trip is very much about the boat ride. If you manage to spend more than 30-45 minutes in the caves that would be a much more significant devotion to Buddha and tolerance for crowds of other tourists than I can typically muster. Still, the trip is a good way to spend most of a day and, assuming good weather, the time on the water can be quite lovely. It can be done via roads as well, but you lose a lot of the experience that way.
A few more photos from the trip can be found in the gallery here or on Facebook here.
Visitors to Cambodia and Thailand will have an easier time crossing the border in the near future, thanks to a historic agreement by the two nations to cooperate on issuing visas. The announcement this week is the first major tourism-focused cooperation implemented under the Ayeyawady-Chao Phraya-Mekong Economic Cooperation Strategy representing Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam. The other three nations are not yet participating in the common visa scheme.
Nationals of 35 countries will be able to apply for a single visa at either the Cambodian or Thai embassy and, upon approval, will be permitted access to each country for up to 60 days. That’s an increase over the default of 30 for US citizens as well as those of many other countries.
With just Cambodia and Thailand participating this isn’t a as huge an opportunity as it could be. Visa requirements for Myanmar and Vietnam are much more arduous for US citizens and this sort of cooperative visa could significantly ease that burden. And considering I’m on a plane right now headed that direction having gone through the visa application process I’d certainly appreciate the more streamlined process.