Friday, February 5
With several more days in Luang Prabang we signed on for two more tours with the next one involving waterfall climbing. Thinking this could be a bit unnerving I wore my bathing suit under my clothes and took an extra set figuring a big body splash was in my future.
We joined three young women from London at the tuk-tuk pick-up stop for our day’s excursion. Soon Holgar arrived to escort us to the waterfall. Turned out Holgar, an expat from Germany, was our host for the day. Having arrived in Laos nine years ago he decided to stay after being seduced by this country’s natural beauty. He married a local and soon purchased a lodge about 15 km outside of town. He and his wife converted the lodge into an eco-retreat and settled into life with their son amidst the hilltop lushness surrounding their inn.
In exploring their surroundings Holgar happened upon a waterfall, which is kept as a secret location in an attempt to maintain its pristine and unspoiled nature. This was our destination followed by trekking to his hillside retreat.
Hopping out of the tuk-tuk we began our waterfall walk.
It was lovely. And, surprisingly easy to stride straight up the limestone rocks. The sensation is a bit like defying gravity. With water rushing over our feet and knowing we had to scale some steep inclines I thought for sure I’d be tumbling down into the falls. But, no. Only a few slips occurred and those happened during the foraging of muddy streams.
Because it was winter (the dry season in Laos) the water level was a lot tamer than during the rainy season.
In spite of the sun beginning to peek out from an overcast sky, it was still cool enough to discourage all but one from diving into the milky blue waters. Yep, Maxman was at it again as you can see from the action shots.
We all posed for photos…
with Holgar doing the honors, proving just how grippy the limestone rocks were…
After three hours we made it to the top. But, here is where the untouched wilderness lost its purity for on one side of the falls the land had been stripped and the other had construction in the treetops. Another change were dams being built to provide hydroelectric power, one right above this waterfall causing the water to flow over land, which had been clear-cut.
Holgar explained the land had been sold to a guy who professed wanting to support the environment; yet, his plans for the land were to build an eco-lodge complete with swinging bridges between the tall trees and luxurious treehouses as cottages for wealthy visitors.
Some of the bridges were already there along with preparation for future construction based on the trunks and stubs of vegetation we saw. I’m certain it’ll be thrilling to be staying in a treehouse but seeing how the owner was going about it didn’t inspire much confidence in his professed concern for the environment and eco-tourism.
At least the five of us with Holgar’s guidance had been amidst the splendor of a Laotian waterfall prior to reaching the top. And, having been the only ones around during the hike was truly a gift. Over the few years Holgar’s been in Laos he’s witnessed the influx of tourists. The country is building its tourism and endeavoring to promote it as environmentally sound; yet, seeing the construction and later reading a NYT article about the corruption and lax enforcement of conservation laws throughout Laos and neighboring countries, being able to monitor and maintain the country’s natural sites seems challenging at best.
We then trekked to Holgar’s lodge along a dirt road with school children returning home and the occasional scooter loaded with provisions keeping us company.
Once at Holgar’s Hillside Resort we entered a hidden paradise complete with a tourquoise swimming pool set at the foot of wood, glass and stone buildings perfectly set amidst the lush foliage. After changing out of suits and into dry clothing his wife catered a typical Laotian meal, which we all devoured. With sated bellies and spirits we spread ourselves on the grass outside and conversed with Holgarin a desultory manner as butterflies floated by and Buddy, the family pup, kept us company. Ahh, life is good.
Saturday, February 6
I had mentioned it was in Luang Prabang that we finally met some kindred spirits, one being Laurie who was staying at the same guesthouse in Luang Prabang. She stopped her job as president of non-profit organization Children of the Eternal Rainforest in the fall and has been making her way around SE Asia. With her background in environmental projects she arranged to volunteer in some locations throughout her journey.
Traveling independently including taking motor scooters through northern and southern Laos, Laurie is what I call a singlehander, a nautical term for sailors who do solo sailing (not the easiest). We were lucky to have met her and even more fortunate to hear that she has strong ties to Maine since her mother grew up in Fryeburg. We’re hoping we’ll eventually meet up again once we’re back in the states.
We met other travelers throughout this trip who voyage the same way, many of them women of all ages. Another was Meghan who wanted to change jobs (she’d been working the past ten years in an NGO raising funds for breast cancer research). And Romney, a young Dutch woman who was taking a break from school. Through her we met Lisa from Germany and Celeste from Canada. Romney and her two friends had just met on the grueling thirty-hour bus ride from Hanoi, one we’d heard about but thankfully avoided.
All of the above joined us for a Japanese dinner and traditional dance show one night, recommended by a friend we met in Ipswich. Travelling really does feed the soul considering how many wonderful folk we meet along the way. But, I digress… back to our Saturday excursion.
During our morning conversations Laurie had mentioned a bike trip on Saturday. It sounded fun, so we signed on especially when hearing the route featured relatively flat roads and just a few hills. My type of biking.
There were five of us along with the head guide and his assistant. The guide was gentle, kind, and knowledgeable. He couldn’t have been more earnest in his desire to impart information about what we were seeing during our trip. The only issue with two of the stopovers (representing two tribes, the Hmong and the Khmu) was either no one was really around or they were enjoying quite a few beers at the little cafes dotted along our route. But, no matter, as we still saw silkworms munching away on their mulberry leaves (Laos is known for its beautiful silks)…
and the traditional Sa paper being made, a paper made from the bark of a mulberry tree by beating the bark into pulp, wetting it, and pressing it onto a screen to dry in the sun. Dyes and sometimes flowers are added.
Another Laotian product, one Max and I devoured anytime we saw it, was Kaipen or riverweed. This green algae is plucked from the northern rivers during the low-water season, enhanced with some seasonings including sesame seeds, tomatoes, and garlic then dried on screens. It was delicious, especially when lightly fried and served with a salsa.
Just down the path from the drying riverweed was the Mekong River. To cross it we were paddled across by two women, one carrying our bikes and the other us. I could have done with a longer boat ride. Matter-of-fact I wouldn’t have minded taking it all the way back to Luang Prabang.
Speaking of sumptuous tastes, when we were ready for lunch our guide led us to a mounted picnic table and then cut some huge banana leaves as a table cloth. He then proceeded unveiled a Laotian spread (some still warm and wrapped in banana leaves) from his backpack. Watching him reach in and pull out dish after dish was like Mary Poppins with her magic carpet bag from which she kept hauling out items that now way could fit inside a tote bag.
All of us dug into some of the best green beans I’ve ever had as well as a tomato salsa, sticky rice (it really is sticky), fried egg mix, potatoes, and finished off with clementines for dessert. (Our friend Laurie is in the middle.)
Mounting my trusted steed of a bike wasn’t very appealing after that feast. But on we went.
Seeing some little boys fishing by the side of the road we stopped to watch. It was only then we noticed how they were catching the fish: with home-made bows and arrows (!).
One of the kids proudly held up their catch while the others returned to the stream. Although how they shot those tiny fish I don’t know, but their bow and arrow resembled the handmade one at the Living Land Farm.
By now my butt was getting extremely sore and, once again, I was the caboose. I couldn’t believe how out of shape I was, and many times throughout the trek I would fall further and further behind with just the poor young assisting guide treated treated to my sighs and “I can’t believe I’m so slow!” exclamations.
The last 10 km entailed roads crowded with trucks wheezing fumes and motor bikes scurrying past. To say I was ready to hop off this tin, two-wheeled torture vehicle is putting it lightly. Finally we reached the city limit and I saw an end in sight. Hallelujah, I’ve been saved.
What we discovered after the fact was we should have read the full description of the day trip, which said “This tour has been designed for fit cyclists wanting to ride a long distance to see a lot of countryside.” And, it was a “circuit of 60 km, approximately 65% paved, 35% dirt roads…”.
End of my cycling experience in Laos! But, must say, like previous tours, the guide was wonderful meeting and I saw sights I probably wouldn’t have on my own.
Next, a trek using a boat and two legs versus wheels.