This weekend, Kara, Emma, Cyra and I went on an adventure to Laos.
The things I’ve heard about Laos are mixed. From some I’ve heard of the desolation and emptiness- less than 7 million people in the entire country (a little larger than the UK), a nation that ranks among the 20 poorest in the world. On the other hand, people speak of Laos as a wonderland of beautiful nature and kind people. Now, even after a brief trip, I understand the fascination with Laos.
Arriving in Laos (which deserves its own story, to be told later), the differences from Thailand were immediately apparent. Looking out the bus window in the evening hours we passed miles upon miles of wooden shacks, more basic even than the homes of the hill tribes in Thailand. There was no tin for their roofs, only straw. As night fell, I could see small fires lit in each home or families huddled around fires outside their homes. A few towns we passed had electricity, each home alight with one lightbulb, but the vast majority of the communities we passed were living without the most basic utilities.
By morning we were nearing Luang Prabang, and out the window I could see mountains overlapping and glowing water reflecting the rising sun. This was what I’d imagined Thailand to look like- lush green land, with towering trees and serene lakes and rivers. The most apparent difference between the two countries, in fact, was the land. Laos is still untouched, still flourishing, whereas Thailand is far more developed. They have buildings, power lines, 7-11s, cars, trucks and vans. In Laos, our bus had to pause every once in awhile to honk at cows blocking the road, to navigate around a huge gap in the road or allow trucks to pass, as the roads aren’t wide enough for two large vehicles.
The city, Luang Prabang, felt like little Europe in Asia. Having been colonized by the French from the 18th century until 1953, the European influences are hard to miss. Riding into town from the bus station we passed several street food stands with Lao women serving sandwiches in French baguettes. I never see bread in Thailand, it is completely absent from the diet, and here we were in a land not terribly far away where baguettes are the norm: baguettes with nutella, tuna, chicken, peanut butter, whatever you want.
Once we reached the downtown area we saw buildings with French architecture and the most upscale downtown I have seen yet on my trip. They have fancy jewelry stores, cafes with croissants, wine bars, and several people selling handwoven silks and handmade paper products. Granted, it’s only about three blocks long, but the difference between the countryside and the city, as well as between Chiang Mai and Luang Prabang shocked me. It was very neat to observe the differences in culture and what the remaining effects are of the French rule.
Our time in Laos was cut short due Songkran, the Laos and Thai New Year, but we made the most of it. Intending to have three days, we ended up with only 2, arriving in the morning Saturday and leaving in the evening Sunday.
Saturday we settled in our lovely hostel (Nam Song Sai Eco Lodge, in case anyone’s planning a visit), where we had a bungalow for the four of us to ourselves, a balcony overlooking the Nam Song river and a great Western bathroom 🙂 🙂 all for $4 a person. After taking a brief nap, as the 20 hour bus ride was a bit lacking in comfort (“This is Lao VIP,” the driver said to me), we took a tuk tuk into town to explore. Cyra and Emma rented bikes and Kara and I decided to wander on foot, weaving in and out of the side streets. Songkran festivities had already begun, so we tried our best to avoid the kids wielding buckets and hoses, as we looked in stores and passed through residential areas. Hearing thunder approaching we ducked into an outdoor cafe to escape the rain. I had my first cup of Lao coffee and already knew I’d fallen in love with the place. Great scenery, cheap, wine bars AND great coffee? I couldn’t have been happier.
We munched on laap, a traditional Lao dish of minced chicken or pork with tons of spices: chives, cilantro, chilies, etc., and vegetables with water buffalo, another local dish that was surprisingly delicious. As the rain began to let up we got a Beer Lao for the road and continued our walk.
Later in the evening we met up with the girls for the night market. They shut down the main street of Luang Prabang and locals set up stalls of various goods to sell, including side streets dedicated just to food. The street is lined with lights and the scenery could not have been more perfect. The rain had stopped, the temperature was perfect, and we were in Laos.
We wandered for a few hours, running into people from our bus ride and picking up gifts to bring home. Then we all decided we couldn’t resist, we had to try one of the wine bars. Wine is absent in Thailand, except for extremely expensive or extremely bad bottles. It is by no means the norm. Whiskey is far more prevalent than wine. In Laos, the story was different. Perhaps due to the French influence or the less religious society, alcohol in general was everywhere, and finally great, affordable wine as well. We stopped at a cozy wine bar with bottles stacked along the walls and candles lit on each table. We decided on a Bordeaux and settled into our upscale environment. It was quite a treat, and still completely affordable. Best of all, the wine was great! We could have gone through one or two bottles more, but knowing we had to get up early in the morning, we headed back to the hostel.
The next day, we completed the common tourist route to Pak Ou caves and Tat Kuang Si waterfall. The Pak Ou caves are filled with buddhas from centuries of buddhists who come to the caves to pray. The higher cave has alters set up to pray and a large buddah outside. It looks like a graveyard for buddhas.
Our ride over was fantastic- we boated up the Mekong river, which was just spectacularly beautiful. There were trees with huge roots leading down to the water and lots of people fishing or logging at the water’s edge. It was very dreamlike, with the clouds covering parts of the mountains, slowly coming into sight as we moved further along.
We had an adorable 4 year old, Taiwon, to entertain us on the ride as well. He was a true flirt and he definitely knew how to entertain foreigners. It was nice to play for a little bit 🙂
Straight from our boat trip to the cave, we transferred to a car that took us to the waterfall (and gave us chicken baguettes, mmmm). The ride was quite an adventure because kids lined the roads throwing buckets of water. It took some serious coordination (keep sandwich in plastic bag, bite then check road, if safe, take another bite, it not, hide sandwich and take cover).
“Your side, your side,” we’d yell out and jump to the opposite side of the truck, attempting to avoid the shower. Of course, we almost always failed, and by the time we arrived at the waterfall we were already completely drenched. On the way our driver would creep up on motor bikers to let us dump water on them, and I must admit, it was a lot of fun.
The Kuang Si is a super long, tiered cascade of light blue/green water. It is hidden inside a public park area with jungle greenery. The area itself was a bit crowded for me, there were a ton of people as it was the weekend and super hot out, but the waterfall itself was one of the most beautiful natural sites I’ve ever seen. You begin at the bottom of the fall, at a shallow pool, and follow a walkway along side it up and up and up, passing different pools as you go. Deeper pools have rope swings and people jump from one pier to the other. It’s like a natural water park. An insanely beautiful water park. At the end of the walk you get to the actual waterfall, a sight to see in itself, falling from the cliff 30 stories high above us.
Families played in the water or picnicked on the side while tourists jumped and swam. We only had an hour there and I wish it would have been longer. Unfortunately, we had to head back to the dorm to get our things and head home.
Our time in Laos was brief, but in the 30 or so hours we had, I fell in love with the land. The waterfall is so magical I thought to myself it could be the perfect set for a fantasy movie with fairies 🙂 And the land hold so much depressing history, but maintains itself today dispite it, with a growing economy and investments in tourism.
I hope to go back to Laos, but for now, two days will have to do. Who knows, maybe I can take a long Laos vacation next year 🙂
In other news, last week we had English camps as the house in the morning and taught novice monks in the afternoon. Having the kids over was a lot of fun, as most of the kids we’d taught before and felt comfortable with. It was awesome to walk outside on the first day and have one of my students yell “Eve” and run at me with open arms. Super cool feeling.
The monks were, sadly, not nearly as much fun to teach. They were at a very basic level of English and only 14 years old so they were very quiet and reserved. And there are so many rules to follow! No touching, no games, no singing, no dancing, no running, no feet facing them, no handing things to them or taking things, you have to put them down first…and the list goes on. It was hard to reconcile the fact that they really are just 14 year old boys and the fact that we had to treat them as holy men…it was hard to interact with them, because I find that its best to kind of talk to kids on their level, but there was no consistent level for the monks. 14 year old boy and holy monk don’t entirely match up.
Anyway, the week on a whole was educational and a lot of fun. This week is my last week here, which I find hard to believe. There is no school because of Songkran, so tomorrow I will be in town throwing buckets of water and, I am sure, being attacked with water myself. I leave for Bangkok Saturday afternoon. I am there until the 20th when I take a bus to Siem Reap to meet my dad!
I’m looking forward to seeing a new part of Thailand. I’m also looking into Passover in Bangkok and it looks like there is a seder I can attend. Not the same as Passover at home or a Tovah’s, but it’s better than nothing. On to the next adventure!