Category Archives: 2016 02 SE ASIA – Laos

SE ASIA: V

Heading North

NONG KHIAW

Sunday, February 7

I had mentioned sharing information among fellow travelers, which is how we ended up on a side-trip to Nong Khiaw, a four-hour van-ride north of Luang Prabang.

This riverside village had quickly grabbed onto tourism, and the result exploded into guesthouses and restaurants popping up like mushrooms to capture backpackers, trekkers, and tourists wanting to see the more remote areas of Laos. Of course, because there were backpackers, trekkers, and tourists flooding the area, I can’t say it felt remote, more like a fairly rugged holiday spot alongside the Nam Ou River, a river one guide called the most beautiful in SE Asia (another reason we headed north).

After a fifteen-minute walk from the bus station and across a bridge connecting the older and newer town areas we located our guesthouse. In spite of no heat (and, it was freezing at night), light hot water, and gruff hosts, the best thing about our room was its location: river views and porch neighbors Sandra and Chris from Ottawa. These inveterate adventurers were taking sabbaticals from their government positions to explore this part of the world. We agreed to meet back for the sunset view from our perch along the river bank, which we did,

IMG_5215

being welcomed back with cold Beerlaos compliments of our friendly Canadians (actually, I don’t think there’s any need to add ‘friendly’ to ‘Canadians’ as aren’t they all?).

IMG_5197

As the temperature dropped we decided to find a restaurant with heat, if possible. Sadly, there was no heat and almost all eateries were open-air. At the most, they had one side enclosed. But, the company and the spicy Indian food we inhaled helped stave off the chill. We trundled back to our rooms where warm blankets and wearing all of our clothes enabled us to get a toasty sleep.

Monday, February 8

Waking up to mist rising from the river…

IMG_5217

and a woman’s scratchy voice over a loudspeaker. We later asked the owner of a tour office what she was saying. The young man said he didn’t really listen; however, he mentioned it was some government propaganda (my word not his) but every now and then he learned something. Don’t know if that was for my benefit in case speaking totally against the mornings’ speeches wouldn’t sit well with any authorities. We were careful not to probe as, unlike them, we can quickly exit. Later, we heard others speaking out against their government’s communism; however, this was more so in southern Vietnam.

We had signed up at this tour guide’s office the day before since we wanted to see some more of the countryside. The day trek promised a knowledgeable guide, river rides, village visits, and a stroll in another backpacker haven, Muang Ngoi, that had sprouted further up the river.

As we left our room we looked across and saw boats loading up with Chinese tourists here for the Tet holiday week. Throughout our five weeks we ran into Chinese tourists; and, at our guesthouse we noticed parked cars with China license plates. It was a du-uh moment when we realized we were only a car-ride away from that huge country to the north.

IMG_5220

Helen, a solo traveller from France, accompanied us and the three set off with our guide. He had grown up in the Laotian capital of Vientiane.  His father had worked in the US embassy office hence our guide and his siblings studied and learned English. After working in the city he ended up in Muang Ngoi running tours, which is where he met and married his wife. He said he still missed this smaller town and was obviously well-known and liked measured by the greetings he received when we were there.

The temperature was still brisk as the three of us huddled in the wooden skiff as it motored up the shallow waters.

IMG_5328

Laos, like Vietnam, has a wide variety of ethnic tribes. Our first stop was Ban Houahoy, a village set aside by the government as an example of a traditional tribal ______ .

IMG_5228

At first it seemed more like a display for tourists but not to the extent where we felt we were in Laos Disneyland. As we walked down the dirt road our heads swiveled as we absorbed the traditional sites.

While heading towards the primary school a little boy left his mother’s side and ran towards us.

IMG_5237

Before I knew it a wee hand crept into mine and hung on as Helen showed him photos she’d taken of him and his mom spinning. We continued our stroll to the school where we peered into a classroom.

IMG_5239

IMG_5244

Back to the boat where it was docked among smaller fishing boats

IMG_5312

and motored further up the river where we began a two-hour walk through rice paddies and bamboo forests to Ban Phayong. Here, two former warring tribes, the Hmong and Khmu, have been co-existing peacefully for a long time. Each tribe inhabits its own neighborhood within this small hamlet; and, instead of one chief, there are two, one per tribe. Decisions for the village are discussed and decided within a community house. Hmm… dialoguing in a group to arrive at a consensual agreement. Sounds like a good way to govern.

We stopped here for a Laotian lunch. Our meal wasn’t quite as expansive as the bike trek one but nourishing nonetheless and a welcome repast.

IMG_5277

Max opted to try the local firewater (my term), and our host only too happily enjoyed dosing him several shots from the bottle.

IMG_5280

We saw some young girls using the local water source as we walked through the village.

IMG_5297

Being a larger village we saw more prep for commerce, such as produce being weighed and loaded

IMG_5292

and stretches of drying brush.

IMG_5303

As we started our walk back we met a young girl with her pink cell phone carrying a bundle. She posed for us before turning and continuing her trip home.

IMG_5287 IMG_5288

We spotted this brush gathering and scattering in front of homes all over Laos.

IMG_5282

IMG_5283

Gathered by locals it’s dried and shipped to China for manufacturing into brooms.

During both visits we felt welcomed and unintrusive in spite of standing out as obvious foreigners. The children greeted us with shouts of ‘sabai-dee!’ (Hello!).  Whenever we asked the people graciously allowed us to take photos, including all the kids.

IMG_5301

IMG_5298

An hour hike back to the riverside through more gorgeous countrysides,

IMG_5262

including Max’s pose,

IMG_5306

brought us to our boat where we carried on to Muang Ngoi, a village with a hippy-ish feel.

Helen had arranged to be dropped off here, so after strolling up and down the one-street town we said our good-byes

IMG_5318

and returned down the river to Nong Khiaw and our Canadian Beerlao friends, passing local fisherman along the way.

IMG_5251

After another with the Ottawans we stopped at a bar showcasing a glowing fire. Ahhh! Heat! Then we heard a shout of ‘Max and Lynnie!’. It was Meghan, our Coloradian singlehander. She had arrived earlier that night. It was so great seeing her as we hadn’t really had a chance to say good-bye in Luang Prabang.

After twenty minutes of standing in the still-cold outdoors, we exchanged hugs and wished her best of luck in her continued travels.

Just a side note, our guide and others have told us this has been the coldest winter in history in northern SE Asia. Devastating freezes have killed people and livestock, created uncertainty regarding growing seasons, and contributing to concerns over the enroaching effects of climate change. We heard this repeatedly through our journeys around this part of the continent. And, only recently we read that the Mekong Delta is experiencing the worst drought and salt water intrusion in 90 years. Not good for those relying on their annual crops for a livelihood.

 

LUANG PRABANG

Tuesday – Thursday, February 9-11

Back in Luang Prabang after arranging for a shared van with eight others, we checked into a different guesthouse, one we had found before we left for Nong Khiaw. Being Tet, the Chinese New Year, SE Asia was loaded with Chinese vacationers. We had purposely stayed out of Vietnam where we had read a lot of the country shuts down for the week, which is why we opted to stay in Laos.  What we hadn’t counted on were those celebrating Tet would travel to neighboring countries such as Laos. The only issue we had was when looking for rooms.

Which is how we ended up in a guesthouse on the fancier side of town (closest to the tip of the peninsula). In spite of this, our room was similar to the less-expensive one the previous week, only this one would occasionally run out of water. However, the balcony view was lovely. It’s here we met Carol, a former US citizen whose first husband worked in the diplomatic services in Cambodia in the early 1960s. Currently living in France after having lived and travelled throughout SE Asia, she’s authored quite a few books on Vietnam, the most recent for Hue’s 1,000 anniversary.

IMG_5451

Another place we were looking forward to experiencing was the Elephant Village about 15 km outside of the city.  Instead of taking a formal tour, Max had discovered we could just catch a ride out there and explore on our own. So, we hailed a tuk-tuk and left for communing with these ancient animals.

Upon arriving we paid a small entrance fee and then another $1 per bunch of bananas to feed the elephants. And, man, can they eat! No sooner had we snapped a banana off a bunch, placed it in the groping trunk, than the elephant was back for more. I swear the animal ate ten bananas in less than two minutes. 

Billboards educated us on just why these animals are so magnificent, and we perused the facts as we made our way around the compound. Below is just a sampling.

  • Elephants don’t sweat except around their toes.Because of the flexible lower lip, which holds food and passes it into the mouth, makes them appear smiling.
  • An average adult elephant’s four molar teeth are each about the size of a brick.
  • The reason why they stuff their mouths at every opportunity is because they absorb vegetation diet poorly and must eat hundreds of kilos a day.
  • They can communicate over long distances often using a pitch too low for humans to hear.
  • There are only about 35,000 elephants in Asia versus approximately 500,000 in Africa.
  • and, one of the more interesting:  Thailand’s King Mongkut offered President Lincoln elephants to use in the civil war battles.

I may have mentioned this book in a previous blob blog but, if anyone would like to delve more into the magic of these animals, read ELEPHANT COMPANY by Vicki Croke, recommended to me by our friend Carol W.

We decided to look for the baby elephants across the river. With a short ferry ride and walk down a path we found two babies age 2+ years.

IMG_5390

Once again we enjoyed feeding these animals and, once again, were amazed at their food capacity.

IMG_5381

This village was begun by a German, Markus Peschke who, like Holgar of Hillside Resort, fell in love with Laos and settled, first opening restaurant in 1998, then “Tiger Trail Outdoor Adventures” (which we used for several of our day tours) in 2001, followed by the “Lao Spirit Resort” in 2003. It was during this time he opened an elephant camp due to the plight of working elephants who were losing their habitat as the jungle diminished and losing their value as the logging industry declined. In 2008 he sold his shares in Tiger Trails and the Resort and expanded the camp into Elephant Village.

In addition to his efforts regarding elephants Peschke wanted to preserve the virgin valley surrounding the Elephant Village, and in 2009 he received government approval on a proposal that protects the valley as well as other locals an alternative means of earning a living in a sustainable way. Since then this endeavor is a private business led by Germans and managed by Laotians.

The motto of the camp is simply “Saving elephants is our mission”, a perfect fit for a country once called Land of a Million Elephants.

Back in Luang Prabang we enjoyed pizza at an excellent French cafe (sometimes one just craves a good, crusty disc :)…

IMG_5450

visited some Buddhist temples, some buildings storing a parade of statues…

IMG_5424

and later listened to monks chanting (please excuse the horizontal viewing; I haven’t done any editing on it).

Contemplating our leaving Laos, I realized I would miss it. Here is where we first interacted with fellow travelers, explored the countryside, shared fabulous meals, and absorbed the tranquility exhibited by a Buddhist outlook.

IMG_5449

I had fallen under the spell of this lovely country, and I promise:  I will return.

 

SE ASIA: Part IV

Laotian Countryside

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.

IMG_5121

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.

IMG_5125


IMG_5127

IMG_5129

 

IMG_5139

We all posed for photos…

IMG_5120IMG_5143

with Holgar doing the honors, proving just how grippy the limestone rocks were…

IMG_5157

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.

IMG_5159

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.

IMG_5161

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)…

IMG_5168

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.

IMG_5173

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.

IMG_5174

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.

IMG_5176

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.

IMG_5188

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.)

IMG_5192

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 (!).

IMG_5182

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.

IMG_5185

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.

 

SE Asia: PART III

Rice Ballet

Wednesday, February 3

We had heard that Laos was a favorite for many visitors to SE Asia, and we understood why having stayed just briefly in this landlocked country. In Luang Prabang, a UNESCO World Heritage city located in northern Laos, we had our first experience of meeting fellow travelers. After whipping through two cities in two countries in six days, Laos began our slow-down traveling.

But, it’s also here we began a diverse group of daily tours, one of the most interesting being a half-day of learning about rice agriculture.

IMG_4993

The Living Land Farm was formed by two brothers, Laut and Si Lee, as a community enterprise suppling organic produce to local area restaurants. Employing Laotians who lack higher education and/or are from remote tribal areas, the farm grows chemical-free crops using traditional methods including their own hand-made tools. Our half-day rice tour provided a glimpse into this activity similar to one of those films where months are collapsed into minutes.

To actually experience rice from seed to table was amazing, primarily because I’m so removed from agriculture. And, to literally see brown husks transform into the kernels I purchase in the store was magical.

One of the co-founding brothers was our guide, an excellent and exuberant teacher who told us just to call him ‘Lee’ since he obviously realized most foreigners butcher the pronunciation of his first name, ‘Laut’.

IMG_5072

I’ll just run you through the 14 steps so you, too, can experience the transformation:

  1. Lee demonstrated the traditional seed selection method using an egg, salt, and pail of water. Tossing in salt until the egg began to float, thereby achieving the proper water density, Lee then poured some grains of rice from a previous year’s harvest into the pail. Those that floated like the egg would be used for feed while the heavier ones would sink. The latter are denser and filled with healthy matter, not just air.

IMG_5022

2.  Next, seeds are placed on wet mud where they germinate after 3-6 days.

3.  We moved to irrigated paddies where we tried our hand at tilling with Rudolph, one of the farm’s water buffalos. (You may recognize the guy behind the plow.) During plowing, the previous crop’s detritus is plowed into the soil to provide nutrients.

IMG_5012

4.  Then accompanied by Lee’s lilting song we planted seedlings. The field is kept flooded with water in order to help prevent weeds from growing (but not so deep as to cover the the rice shoots).

5.  The paddies are weeded, including picking snails to keep them from eating the crop. Northern Laos (where we were) generally has one rice crop a year while southern Laos’ rainier and hotter climate allows for two crops.

IMG_5020

6.  After about 10 weeks the paddies are drained and the stalks, heavy with ripe grain, are cut with a sickle then left to dry in the sun.

IMG_5030

7.  After 4 days or more the green stalks have dried to straw-colored branches. We then tried our hands at thrashing them to flush out the individual grains. This entailed repeatedly hitting a bunch of stalks against a slanted board forcing the grains to scatter across the ground.

IMG_5035

8.  To remove stray bits of debris from the thrashing the grain is fanned then swept into piles.

IMG_5047

9.  Showing how rice is transported for storage, Lee paraded three different carrying baskets as developed by different tribes. Seeds can be stored for two years and used either as seeds or in cooking,

IMG_5053

10. To extract the kernel from the thrashed grain a foot-powered sledgehammer is used for husking.

IMG_5055

IMG_5058

11. To finalize the separation of kernel from husk, we tossed the wicker tray resulting in billowing beige husks wafting from the creamy rice kernels.

IMG_5067

Out of this winnowing process any broken kernels are milled into rice flour using a granite grinder.

IMG_5103

Lee’s movements were so graceful and rhythmic watching him was akin to viewing a ballet. We all tried to mimic his actions but couldn’t even come close to his style. Think Mikhail Baryshnikov to Bullwinkle and you’ll get the picture.

12 & 13. To create Laotian sticky rice, the kernels are soaked before cooking…

IMG_5069

then steamed over a charcoal fire.

IMG_5070

As we watched we sipped fresh sugar cane juice extracted using a beautifully carved rosewood mill, still in use after 100 years.

IMG_5078

While waiting our final step we tried our hand at shooting arrows at a bulls eye.

IMG_5095

 

14. The end of our tour was a repast of various rice items including a potent saki that was surprisingly smooth in spite of smelling like nail polish remover.

I don’t think I’ll ever be able to eat a spoonful of rice without remembering the ballet Lee danced. His tutoring represented one of the richest learning experiences I’ve had in awhile. Rice ballet is definitely worth savoring.

IMG_5111