Sunday, July 23, 2017

Luang Prabang

Luang Prabang, Laos was always on the go-to list, but, because of time and budget constraints we weren't sure we would make it there.  It turned out to be one of the most memorable places we visited. 

Luang Prabang's 50,000 residents live around 1km above sea level near the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers.  Only open to tourism since 1989, LP retains some French influence from its colonial period (like a bunch of delicious bakeries and cafes), but the dominant culture is most definitely Buddhist.  LP is considered the epicenter of Theravada Buddhism.  We've seen a million Buddhist temples (Wats) in SE Asia, but unlike most Wats we visited on our travels, Luang Prabang's are full of robed Buddhist monks and novices going to school, conducting ceremonies and living their lives. Ancient Buddhist cultural traditions are still practiced and cherished, most obviously the alms giving ceremony pictured below -- at dawn 200 monks walk along LP's main street to gather their daily meal--steamed rice handed to them by the locals and tourists who quietly line the monks' route.

Getting ready to roll-- can't claim to be a big fan of prop planes but this one turned out just fine. 

We flew a surprisingly quiet turboprop from Hanoi, arriving in Luang Prabang around 8PM.  The airport was already stone quiet and shutting down--a harbinger for the peaceful week we'd end up spending in this enchanting town.

We stayed at the same place for the whole week--a pretty basic home stay-- but it had all we needed.  We shared one big room and had breakfast each morning next to the pond full of pink water lotuses. Fresh banana, mango and lime juice were consumed in mass quantities.

to get to our homestay you walk down a skinny walkway, not really an alley, not really a street.  We passed this "house" daily on our way in and out.  2 super cute kids were often playing outside.  We wondered how much rain gets in?  Is their bathroom outside?  Are the bugs bad?

Breakfast venue 

Loved our sweet patio area, much reading and ukulele playing happened here.  
this sweet dog decided we were cool and followed us back to our hotel

Luang Prabang is a hive of Buddhist activity, with active Wats and monks everywhere.  Wat Xienthong (also called the "Golden Tree Monastery") sits near the banks of the Mekong River.  Scott loved the tree of life tree mosaic.

Buddhas and saffron orange at every turn. 

Despite its incredible gilt facade, this structure is basically Wat Xiengthong's garage--storage for an ornate dragon/naga boat, various trophies, and about 50 undisplayed Buddha statues.

Nearly all of LP's wats are adorned with prominent serpents, or "naga," which in Theravada Buddhism are the source of all protection.  The nagas are an homage to Mucilanda, the seven-headed King of Serpents who used his hood to shelter Buddha from a week-long storm while he meditated under the Bodhi tree.      

Maybe we should have bought this hat, she does wear it well.  Have we mentioned Z is an Asian market seller's dream? 

A wat guarded by...polar lions?  Dragon poodles?

Another thing we loved about LP is its bikability-  if that's a word?  We could rent bikes and cruise everywhere.  No need to lock 'em up and no hordes of motorbikes clogging the streets. 

You see lots of people selling alms and offerings for temples.  This sweet lad let us take his pic.  Orange marigolds abound. 

Most SE Asian countries have night markets.  People sell goods, food, beers and it is the place that both locals and tourists hang out after the heat of the day has passed.  Now that  we have become market connoisseurs, we declare the Luang Prabang night market the best.  The food is delicious and cheap (Who doesn't like dinner at a picnic table?),  and the handicrafts are unique, local (aka not made in china), inexpensive and the sellers are helpful/not pushy.  We could walk there from our place.  Wish the bathroom was nicer but otherwise 5 stars. 


The makers of  above delish food. 


We tried some warm soy milk from a street vender.  Lots of beverages come in plastic bags with a straw.  Here the sweetener, liquid sugar, maybe honey came separately.  We rated it "meh". 

More views from our home stay, in case you wondered we officially hit the rainy season while in LP. They have hot and dry or hot and wet.  Lucky for us we stayed long enough in SE Asia to experience both. 

Classic street in Luang Prabang.  the plants were so lush and beautiful

                          2 kids checking out the Mekong River.  I'd like to hang out with them. 

Rainy season= Snails 

Oh the monks, they really are everywhere in this town, from young novices to old wise men.  Here this monk was picking flowers for an offering I presume.  You always have to ask to take their pic and he nicely agreed.  They also can never touch women so Meg made sure to keep my distance.

Its very hard to decide which fruit smoothie too have, this may have been Z's 3rd of the day.  She has lived on these.  I think she may be using our blender as much as Megan when we return. 

A rare find- a dog on a leash. And a cute little Frenchie at that. Finally we said yes to petting a dog. 

This is the bamboo bridge that crosses the Nam Khan river

Sometimes you just need to stop for a while and skip rocks.

The lads found Risk, multi-player, on the tablet. Good way to spend a rainy day.

There really is beauty everywhere you turn in this town 

Album Cover.  Our kids kicked a$$ on this trip.
Lachlan always looking for more things to climb and test his mother's comfort level

We never tired of seeing our kids see this part of the world. 

Top of the world for this sweet one 

Culture clash:  the remnants of a WWII-era anti-aircraft gun next to a hilltop Wat.
These 2 spent their own money to free small caged birds and offer up a prayer. 

Oh the bakeries 

Little help from the google for the Rubik's

5 am wake up for Meg, Scott and Fin.  We biked to the street to offer alms to the monks.  Sticky rice given hand to hand (really hand to bowl).  All done in silence.  
waking up...
It was clear this lovely Lao grandma participates in this ritual every day and has for decades.  A great way to start your day by giving to others.  Powerful. 

[guest entry by Lach]
In Luang Prabang we took a whole river tour on the Mekong river and did all sorts of stuff. We went to a temple which we took a long flight of stairs to get there and went inside and saw the Buddha. Then we walked over to a cave and there were a lot of Buddhas in there as well. We also saw a bunch of bats scurrying around us, as we slowly walked throughout the dark cave guided only by a small headlamp. It was very cool. After that, we took the boat to this part of the river where we saw a bunch of things. Now, let me tell you a bit about this boat. We were all sitting in small seats so it kind of felt like an airplane except wetter. As we traveled in this long boat we came upon lunchtime. We opened the basket that held all of our food that we were to put in our stomachs. Flabbergasted, we saw that on the banh mi sandwiches they had given us, placed inside, there was pork! NOOOOOOOO!!!!!!! As you all probably know we are all vegetarian so this was terrible to us. We were hornswoggled!!!! We decided that we would have to make due with the dead pig laid inside and adjust to our circumstances. Disgusted, we peeled the meat off of the sandwiches and filled our hungry stomachs. After that sad mishap we approached our destination a small village that would take us to water falls in a pickup truck! But, more about that later. We docked and hurried off the boat. We marched up the stairs following the boat driver who took us to an old house where a man walked out of it and talked to the driver in a language we didn’t understand. He then guided us over to a pickup truck where they laid a mat out where we could rest our bottoms. We hopped in the back and we were off. We traveled a far distance over a bumpy road running through rivers scaring off buffalo, and holding on tight as we drove through the windy road trying not to fall off. After a long and scary ride we finally got there.

Day trip on a banana boat down the Mekong River.  Super peaceful

Look at him.  Look at him.  HE is the captain now.
Walking up stairs to get to Wats, a regular activity for us.

Made it 

Views of the Mekong 

A well-dressed jade Buddha
Sometimes dudes need to rest 

These cuties checking us out as we checked out their temple 

There was Sprite on board our boat 

Alot of sprite!! 

Local kids swimming in the river

top notch ride--we even got a carpet!
Highlight- VIP taxi that was waiting for us as we disembarked from the boat.  So VIP taxi= back of pickup truck on back roads and through small streams.  Kids loved it and we didn't lose any offspring. 

Below is the Bear Sanctuary, another highlight for us all, These adorable moon bears are captured and held in tiny cages for as long as ten years so poachers can extract their bile for folk medicine.  It is a terrible way to live and then to die.  This non profit is working hard to save them and if they cant be let back into the wild they stay here, in what we thought were pretty cool digs.  We gave money, bought shirts, and learned a lot. 

Sad Lach Bear in a bear bile farm cage

Our hike not only took us to see Bears but also waterfalls. The chilly water did not dissuade this crew. 

Lach did jump, we have video proof on Meg's phone 

A rare sign prohibiting something.  

Banana flower

View from our VIP taxi, made it across the waterway. 

So nice when boat trips come with Beer

Did we mention the Sprite on board?

A great place for a little Hamilton recital

Mekong fishermen.  Wonder if they ever caught one of these:
Mekong Giant Catfish

These water Buffalo may have lost their way from the rice paddies. 

Z and I set out to see some women making things with fabric and looms.  We walked some dirt road and came upon the village with many crafty folks.  
We also saw many chickens and their babies

We found some gatorade-like liquid, it was really hot 

We found people, mostly women making the coolest paper and notebooks from fast growing Sa trees. We loved their products and bought many. 

Of course there were monks 

Z with all our Sa paper goods next to paper drying out.  
After our handicraft trek in the heat, it was time for a cocktail, a snack (including fried river moss) and some board games. 

One of our coolest experiences is captured below as the 6 pack volunteered to help teens and young adult Laos practice their English.  We showed up at a Non-profit called Big Brother Mouse at 5:00 where locals who want to practice their English chat with whomever shows up to help.  We arrived and quickly each had our own group of eager students.  Fin spoke with a novice monk who had lots of questions about the United States.  Z sang head shoulders knees and toes as she taught body parts.  Meg fielded lots of questions about our quirky language and pronunciation.  In trying to describe some colors--like red, yellow and green--by comparing them to traffic lights, it became clear these kids had never seen a traffic light.  It then dawned on us--there's not a single traffic light in LP.

They loved learning from our kids

We read about "Secret Pizza," a place in LP only open 2 nights a week.  After braving a treacherous tuk-tuk ride to get there, we were so glad we went for it.  Secret Pizza was so good. 

Secretly dunking at Secret Pizza
Apparently it's not unusual to have loud karaoke from next door drown
out the already over-loud music blasting at this pool.  No one batted an eye.  Thank God for Beer Lao.

sweet pool time

Of course Meg had to check this place out 

Scott researching options for the next move from here...

President Souphanouvong, who was born a prince but later became the first leader of the communist Lao PDR

On our way out of Laos, we visited the UXO museum in Luang Prabang, a museum dedicated to preserving the memory of the U.S.'s secret air war in Laos and the Unexploded Ordnance (UXO) it left behind. The Museum is really an eye opener, especially as citizens of the country that committed these acts. The Secret War was a Bombing Campaign carried out by the US against Viet Cong and their supply lines in Laos. The American Public was never informed of the campaign. Even now, over 40 years after the war ended, "bomblets" or "bombies" from the cluster munitions we dropped continue to kill and maim citizens across Laos. These weren't even designed to kill, they were designed to injure. This museum stands as a warning about the millions of tiny bombs still scattered across Laos, and a testament to the true cost of war.  --Finley                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  
cluster bomb + bombies

The UXO Museum provided powerful teachable moments about the unintended consequences of war.