slice-of-thai.com Journal 1/24/2003-1/31/2003: Luang Prabang

This is an entry from my travel journals about Thailand and Laos.

Support
This Site
If you have enjoyed this site, here are a few ways that you can help me get time to expand it further:
donate now   Donate Now
Use your credit card or PayPal to donate in support of the site.

get the best thai-english phrasebook app
Experience Thailand richly with my Talking Thai-English-Thai Phrasebook app.
get the best thai-english dictionary app
Learn Thai with my Talking Thai-English-Thai Dictionary app for iOS, Android, Windows.
get a cool thai-english paper dictionary
Don't leave home without the Thai-English English-Thai Compact Dictionary I co-authored.
get thailand fever
I co-authored this bilingual cultural guidebook to Thai-Western romantic relationships.
get the best chinese phrasebook app
Visit China easily with my Talking Chinese-English-Chinese Phrasebook app.
get books or almost anything
Pick a Thai learning book from my list or buy anything at all from Amazon.

24 Jan 2003

Micheal packed and left for the airport and Chiang Mai. There was a citywide power failure (just as I was about to get in the electrically heated shower, of course) but apparently the planes can fly anyway.

I met up with Sharon and Peter and we rented two motorbikes for $7 all day from one of the many rental places in town. We headed off south for Kuang Si waterfall, which (though I didn't realize it at the time) is the same place I went in a tuk tuk on the last trip. Nearly all the tuk tuk drivers in town say "you..go see cave and waterfall" and this is generally the falls they are talking about.

Along the long mostly-dirt road to the waterfall, I had a flat. Local Laos used Lao I couldn't understand and hand gestures I could understand to direct me to a tire repair place. I soon came to understand that any place along the road which prominently displays one of these ubiquitous, square, two foot tall concrete charcoal stoves is a tire repair place, and there's probably one every kilometer around here. As I had seen in Cambodia on a previous trip, these households are equipped to remove your inner tube, heat up a sort of branding implement red hot in the charcoal, and sizzle some sort of patch (which could just be some rubber from a previous tire :), on to your inner tube to make it "good as new." The guy looked at my inner tube and laughed. It had been patched too many times and one of the patches was coming off. Rather than fight the language barrier to explain, he actually took his motorbike a few kilos to the nearest place which sold inner tubes and bought a new one for me. I noted with interest as he removed the brand new inner tube from the bag and proceeded to inflate it and test it underwater, something we'd only be likely to do when repairing a broken one.

He and his other teenage friends then set out to install my new inner tube, a complex and somewhat distressing operation since it involved removing the rear wheel, brake, and chain. Parts kept falling out here and there as they rushed through the removal process. The re-assembly process, however, was a different matter. We sat for an hour or two as the crowd tried to figure out how to jam together all the parts back into a working motorbike, applying force in every possible way to get the wheel back on, all the while avoiding the still-boiling-hot tailpipe just centimeters away. One spring in particular remained on the ground quite a while and I wondered if they knew where it went. Finally they decided to use a hammer to jam in one last piece, the spring found its place, and they called it done. Total cost about $3. I was a little wary about riding this motorbike but then I realized this is probably the exact same maintenance technique used at the motorbike sales/repair shop where I had rented the vehicles.

We continued on past all the tuk tuks on the way to the falls. We ate some extremely watered down Lao food outside the falls (obviously the farang effect has taken over here relative to my last trip) and climbed up to the falls.

About now I was remembering that I had been here before. But I was about to discover that before I had not really seen the falls at all. There are many paths leading from the base to higher levels and none of them are labeled; many visitors (like me) miss the good stuff. It turns out that there is a way to stand at the very top level, where the water first goes from horizontal to vertical as it spills over the edge of a cup-shaped limestone pool only an inch or two thick at the edge and about 15-20 feet long. You can peer out over the gigantic falls and also get a panoramic view of the valley. From here you can also see that there is an amazing third level about 2/3 of the way down, not visible from anywhere else, because it consists of a tube of waterfalls which surround you about 200 degrees and offer another stunning view of the valley in the remaining 160 degrees. The only way down to this level is to shimmy your way down the same rocks where the water is flowing, but you quickly find the rocks are surprisingly abrasive and it's not so hard to get there.

The surround-sound waterfalls crash down on more abrasive rock where you can sit for a good back massage or shallow wade. These waterfalls all empty towards a central circular pool formed where the rock suddenly drops down about 18 feet. The circular pool is itself about 8 feet deep with a soft bottom. As on the top of the falls, the edge of this circular pool is the sole exit point for the water down to lower levels. A giant tree branch hangs over the circular pool and someone has hung a rope swing. You get your nerve up (or don't think about it), grab the rope, swing out over the circular pool, drop about 10 feet and wow, what an amazing experience. Contrary to your fears, the water pressure does not push you over the edge—in fact you can easily paddle over there and enjoy the view as long as you want, and then climb up some other rocks to jump again if you like. It's an awakening experience like one you might read of in Tom Sawyer.

Peter and Sharon were more wary of this sort of experience, having been scared by the Lonely Planet's coverage of Schistosomiasis, not to happy about climbing what looked like slippery rocks, and perhaps other factors, but I at least managed to get Peter to look at the neat level 2/3 of the way up.

On the way back we stopped for some pictures (Sharon's camera not mine, I don't have one remember?). We kind of got turned off and moved on when some village kids showed up to ask us for money (we weren't even taking pictures yet). Given the density of tuk-tuks, the road to Kuang Si is one of the most heavily frequented by farangs in the area and this hopefully explains why there were so many kids who had "learned" to beg. The villagers were not starving or anything.

We stopped at another village with a wat. As the kids started noticing us and converging on the farang, Peter had the idea to see if we could teach the kids how to play tic-tac-toe. At first Peter held up his notebook and drew the game on there, but the 20 or so kids ranging from 3 feet to 4 feet tall weren't getting it. So instead we drew the game with rocks on the dirt ground in front of the temple, and at least one kid started nodding his head at appropriate times. It took a while to establish that one person was X and the other person was O, and that there was some significance to three in a row, but we found that silly life-size hand gestures and bad acting over a defeat or victory helped here. Eventually Peter managed to convince the prodigy to grab a rock and make some moves, and although it's hard to tell I think he did actually get it. As this game was progressing some young monks came out of the temple, trying to figure out what was going on. Interestingly I think they never did (other than looking at each other and saying "len game" ("they're playing some game")); the kid was more adaptable than they were. One time when the kid won, Peter wanted make this clear and Peter wai'ed the kid. A monk shot a glance at his fellow monk murmuring "ooooh" with a rising tone and a small chuckle, as this goes contrary to the normal use of this gesture to elders and those worthy of more respect. The kid sort of smirked a bit in confusion but seemed more interested in playing again. After a few games and unsuccessful attempts at getting other kids to play we decided to move on; perhaps this kid will figure out how he can win every time and start teaching the game to the other kids. Maybe if we go back there we will find little grids scrawled all over the ground.

As we returned to Luang Prabang the town was still without electricity, but this was obviously a common occurrence as all shops had a full supply of candles and used charcoal stoves for nearly all of their food preparation anyway. About the only thing you couldn't order was the fruit shakes which require a blender.

25 Jan 2003

A rather lazy day overall. I slept in till about noon, and met Sharon and Peter for a lazy 3-4 hour lunch sitting by the mekong and talking about our former schoolmates' activities. Following that was by a bit more slouching and internet.

Finally at 5 we showed up at the Royal Palace Theater to see the show of "Traditional Lao Dance and Minorities." This show was advertised by roving troupes of costumed monkeys and giants who distributed fliers to farangs all around town. The show occurs 3 or 4 times per week. It looks like it just started running this year and so we watched about the 16th show. Again, not in following with the supposed communist/socialist theme, tickets were available at 6 different price levels and the large ballroom on the Royal Palace theater was equipped with 3 different types of seats ranging from comfortable (but overworn and collapsed) lounge chairs in the first few rows to red plastic stacking chairs in the back rows. On this evening they barely sold any seats, and most of those who had purchased the cheap seats snuck forward to the lounge chairs at the start of the show.

The performance began with what they called a "traditional bai-sii" ceremony, where the "elders" (who would usually be village elders, but in this case were all the dance, singing, and music instructors) would sit around a flower and incense arrangement and sing a traditional folk song involving a semi-tonal melody and clapping. After the melody, the elders walked into the audience and tied strings around each audience member's wrists, while uttering another incomprehensible prayer. The ceremony is meant to welcome or see off visitors, or to be used after someone has recovered from an illness, or for a few other purposes. It seemed a bit diluting to use the ceremony on this scale, but I guess it's better than having them sing "it's a small world" or something.

After the elders sung a few folk songs, the younger dancers came on and did a few numbers from the Ramayana using the sparkly costumes and understated and highly figurative dances very much like those I'd seen for Thai dance. The super-monkey Hanuman was orange instead of white though :)

After the intermission it was time to see the "minority" dances. This refers to Lao's ethnic minority hill tribes. For some unstated reason, these performances took place on the grass outside the theater instead of in the theater. I wondered if the Lao government was trying to make some statement that this wasn't "real art" or something. There were only two short performances.

First two Hmong villagers did a jig using some cool bamboo-pipe-accordion instruments, while they bounced up and down and intermittently locked feet. Behind them, four more villagers sang and tossed a little bag of something back and forth to keep rhythm. You could barely hear the instruments because they were too far away from the audience and they were swamped by the sounds of tuk tuks and motorcyles on the adjacent main road through town.

The second performance was louder and more lively. A troupe of 20 villagers dressed in red and black from another tribe ceremonially brought out 3 large metal water jugs and filled them with 3 liters of water each, while the remaining players played drums, gongs, clapped, and otherwise generated energy. Then the three oldest dancers walked up to the jugs, daintily placed a rag on them, picked up the jugs using only their teeth and stomach, and danced around with everyone else.

That evening we ate at the night market, and for the first of many nights purchased kanom krok, a really unhealthy but jummy Thai/Lao dessert consisting of half-spheres of gooey, sugary coconut milk and sometimes green onions inside.

26 Jan 2003

This morning we got up way early for a rather overpriced Hiking and Rafting trip which Peter and Sharon and I had signed up for on the previous day. This company, Tiger Trails (associated somehow with the Spirit of Indochina restaurant) has been operating the only kayak and mountain bike tours of the area for some number of years (although only with a license for the previous few months :). We purchased a trip with a short hike and a 2-3 hour kayak for $38/person, which is about half what it costs to fly to Chiang Mai or stay in a nice hotel here for 2 days. The operator later justified his rates by citing the heavy taxes ($10 per person he claims) he has to pay the government in order for him (a farang) to charge customers for tours in Luang Prabang. We found this doubtful; I have a feeling the $10 includes the money he has to pay in penalties from his earlier unlicensed business. But we will soon see: the day after our tour, another tour company from far away Luang Nam Tha, which had recently opened its doors in Luang Prabang, began to offer hiking treks in Luang Prabang. Competition is good.

Anyway the trip was pretty cool.

We set off around 8:45am with a Lao guide named Bun with extremely good english. We chose our kayaks for later that day and lashed them to a tuk tuk. We took a few hour journey on some extremely dusty logging roads which had recently been cut in the forest to allow extraction of teak trees and limestone. On several occasions we passed giant dump trucks full of limestone boulders which I am pretty sure were going to stop in town right next to my guesthouse where they were building sewer channels. Before this road was built, the villagers around here had to hike several miles through the forest to get into town to sell their crops and restock. All of the work, and all of the profits, involved with the logging and mining go to people in town. I am sure the local hill tribes are very pissed off about the constant sound of dynamite and trucks loading.

We stopped near the end of the road and hiked a few hours up a steep valley trail towards a Hmong village nestled in the mountains. We passed a little cave and some villagers guiding a couple of piglets, with leashes tied to both hind legs, down the rock path.

At the entrance of the village was a large pile of leaves. Apparently the Hmong's animist tradition demands that we tear off some more leaves and add them to the pile before entering the village, to appease the appropriate spirits.

They had a few other traditions which surprised some farangs from another tour agency who chose to stay overnight. Apparently it is very bad to sleep in a Hmong hut with your face (or body?) below the line formed by the top of the roof. If you do this, it is necessary for the village shaman to perform some elaborate cleansing ritual involving animal sacrifice. These farangs came into the village without being forewarned by their guide, and when they slept in the wrong place the village shaman said they would have to pay for the purchas of an animal for sacrifice and demanded ... $500! Although the guide could not believe the obviously outrageous sum, the shaman stuck to it, even when the farangs said they did not carry that much cash. The villagers surrounded the hut and wouldn't let the farangs leave until they paid up. Eventually the tour company had to reimburse the farangs.

Luang Prabang is an area where hill tribes are just starting to see farangs. A few years ago (or perhaps months) when Tiger Trails started taking farangs through on day trips and asking about stays, the Hmong villagers were suspicious. The only precedent they had was farang prospectors coming to look for gold or silver (who were inevitably followed by logging roads, strip mining, deforestation, etc.). Furthermore, the Hmong still make a ton of cash of technically illegal Opium crops and they are not happy about farangs (or anyone) sneaking around their fields, especially in this time of year when the poppies are near ready to harvest.

When we reached the village, there were maybe 10 or 20 families mostly going about their business. A few Hmongs came up to us offering the same kinds of little knitted bracelets as you get mobbed with in Chiang Mai (does this stuff come from China too?) but they were not pushy and went away as soon as the guide said we were not interested. This is what things must have been like in Chiang Mai 20 years ago, before hill tribes' economies twisted around to become totally dependent on daily infusions of farang cash.

The villages' huts were built on stilts about a meter off the ground, and they stored rice for emergency and wet-season use in little huts outside the houses. In this village there was one, totally stagnant green pool filled by rainwater each year. They used this same pool for washing, cleaning, livestock grazing, livestock cleaning, cooking, and of course drinking. Hmm.

We passed through another village (I think Khamu) near the bottom. Here they were closer to the city, had electricity, and conditions were better. One hut, the village headman's hut, even had some concrete and a satellite dish!

We had lunch amongst a pack of teak trees and talked to our very informative guide about Lao schooling, etc. We discovered to our surprise that he actually takes an anti-malarial. He takes some drug once a week which sounded like it was just penicillin (which our doctors tell us is ineffective now, hmm). He said that although the drug is very cheap, most Laos do not bother taking it. He also said that he exercises (jogging, trekking etc.) somehow every day and has never been sick his whole life.

We took the tuk tuk to our rafting put-in point and after the requisite flat tire and super-quick fix we were dragging our New-Zealand-built sit-on-top kayaks into the water. We actually completed our float in 2 hours, partially because we worked so hard and partially because the 4 hour alotted time assumes some of the passengers don't know how to steer a kayak and will flounder around for a while. There were some very small rapids and somehow, the guide and me were actually able to flip one of these extremely stable boats in one of them, but it was fun. We even found my bottle of sunscreen a few hundred meters down the river. Fortunately everything else was in a dry bag attached to the boat.

We stopped to see the tomb of french explorer Henri Mohout, one of many people claimed to have "discovered" Ankor Wat. Doctors say he died of malaria, but local legend says he died because he went exploring for valuable minerals in a cave that was said to be haunted by ghosts. I suppose both could be true.

Along the way we saw just tons of Laos yanking river weed off the rocks and spear-fishing with scuba masks.

We also passed by a giant concrete manufacturing plant with loud whizbang machines which crush rocks into a fine powder (just what we need, more dust in town). Then we passed hundreds and hundreds of Lao families, from small children to old folks, dredging small rocks and boulders from the bottom of the river into pickup trucks on the shore, and in some cases even to boats barely able to float! Apparently, the cement company was paying good money for anyone who brought rocks to them, and thus had created a massive workforce ready to dig up the whole river.

Nearly everyone we saw with low-tide river-bed vegetable crops watered them one laborious, tiny watering pail at a time. However, as we floated along we saw the house of Mr. Peabody of Luang Prabang. He had built this giant, rickety but effective river-powered water wheel, which spun around carrying tiny vials of water to the top, where a plastic tube then carried the trickle to a hose above the level of the highest field which the farmer could use anywhere. Pretty neat.

That evening we ate with our "Free" $2 vouchers for Indochina Sprit restaurant that we got as part of our $38/person adventure fare, during which we also had an opportunity to pick up our "Free" t-shirts covered with advertising for Tiger Trails. While we did not really appreciate this bundling the Lao food at this restaurant was surprisingly tasty. We made a point of ordering precisely an amount of food which would add up to the voucher price.

27 Jan 2003

After several days of activity and an extreme difficulty sleeping with the Roosters (4:00am - 8:00am) and Thai Pop music (8:00am - 10:00am) that seemed to blare into my non-glass window every day, I was short on sleep and had managed to catch a cold. I moved to a more expensive, quieter guesthouse and then met Sharon and Peter.

We decided to rent motorbikes again and set off in some random direction from town to see what was there. We had seen from a detailed topo map of the area in the Tiger Trails office (the only such map around, a map which the proprietor guards with his life) that there was a deep canyon north, so we went that way.

Riding on the main road, being passed by the occasional mad Lao driver was a bit disconcerting, but the northerly road was much more quiet than the one from Vang Vieng so it was ok. After a brief stop at a roadside vietnamese Pho noodle shop we eventually chose a random dirt road and headed up that.

We passed some beautiful submerged rice fields and other towns, and came upon a neat river bank with a swimmin' hole. On the other bank there was a small hydroelectric generator and I waded over there to check it out. As part of some Lao-Chinese venture, they had diverted the river a bit upstream into a long channel which was split off by a watergate for 3 purposes: some water went into the generator (which was currently, um, not quite working), some went into a reservoir for emergencies, and the rest went alongside a large rice field where it could be used for irrigation. Far from begging, the local kids were kind of confused to see a farang here and some of them were a little scared. When I walked along the waterway next to the field I got a double-take from one of the Lao ladies weeding in the rice field. But she seemed happy enough to hear me say that I was just going for a walk to see the beautiful hills.

We got back on the dirt road and went further. We passed a village where kids were kicking a soccer ball around a "field" of sorts. Pretty soon we came back there and Peter played soccer with the kids, soon to be joined by more and more of the village. Most of the kids were playing barefoot. Some of the kids got out their big iron machetes and started hacking on some pieces of bamboo which turned out to fit together in clever ways to become the goal. Sharon tempted some chicks to come near her by feeding them sticky rice. Wonder if they will be feeling ok. After 30 minutes of soccer we had to head back so we said "kawp jai" (thanks) and moved on.

We stopped at a little restaurant with an amazing mekong sunset view, and brielfly at a chedi on the hill above Luang Prabang for one final view, and then returned our motorbikes in town.

We ate at Malee again that evening and walked around town ending with a record-breaking-cheap 2,000 kip (19 cent) smoothie.

28-30 Jan 2003

At my new hotel I slept much better and recovered quickly. Over this period I had two, hour-long Lao lessons from a guy I met at the Lao Red Cross where, strangely enough, they offer really good Swedish style (with a little Thai/Lao influence) massages. After the last lesson I attempted to give him some money but he steadfastly refused.

Mostly I was just resting and recovering. I would spend over 9 hours typing this journal in an internet cafe. I helped fix their broken internet phone here and the lady has now started giving me free drinks and bananas.

Over this period both Sharon and Peter got sick from some food, perhaps the super cheap smoothies. I think the spirits had gotten word of their reserved airplane flight to Bangkok and to beach islands in the south, and didn't want to let them escape Lao without at least some stomach upset. But as now-seasoned travellers they knew it was all just part of the experience.

Sharon and Peter left on the 29th and for the first time I was back to traveling alone, as on my previous trips. Interestingly, within hours of their departure any my consequent return into the key demographic of "single, white male 30ish farang," I was propositioned by various shadowy characters outside the night market for both drugs and prostitution, the latter being so campily executed and conspicuosly placed next to a darkened van in a well-lit, heavily-trafficked intersection that it must have been a pathetic attempt at a government sting operation.

Support
This Site
If you have enjoyed this site, here are a few ways that you can help me get time to expand it further:
donate now   Donate Now
Use your credit card or PayPal to donate in support of the site.

get the best thai-english phrasebook app
Experience Thailand richly with my Talking Thai-English-Thai Phrasebook app.
get the best thai-english dictionary app
Learn Thai with my Talking Thai-English-Thai Dictionary app for iOS, Android, Windows.
get a cool thai-english paper dictionary
Don't leave home without the Thai-English English-Thai Compact Dictionary I co-authored.
get thailand fever
I co-authored this bilingual cultural guidebook to Thai-Western romantic relationships.
get the best chinese phrasebook app
Visit China easily with my Talking Chinese-English-Chinese Phrasebook app.
get books or almost anything
Pick a Thai learning book from my list or buy anything at all from Amazon.
See AlsoYou'll probably also like these sites...
allaboutpai.com
A site about Pai, my peaceful home in the mountains of Northern Thailand.
lurkertech: video tech and diversions
Buzzword bingo, bill the borg, MEZ, lurker's guide to video, and Thai, oh my!
mapfling.com: free custom maps with your own labels
Party? Meeting? Request a map, label it yourself, and easily fling it to your friends!
world's stupidest everything
See some of the worst the world has to offer, and add some of your own!

World's Stupidest Holiday and Birthday Presents - stupidest-presents.com
World's Stupidest Wedding Websites - stupidest-wedding-sites.com
World's Stupidest Baby Websites - stupidest-baby-sites.com
World's Stupidest TV, Movie, Music, and Sports Stars - stupidest-stars.com
World's Stupidest Politicians - stupidest-politicians.com
World's Stupidest TV Shows - stupidest-tv-shows.com
World's Stupidest Movies - stupidest-movies.com
World's Stupidest Blogs - stupidest-blogs.com
World's Stupidest Websites - stupidest-websites.com
World's Stupidest Company Websites - stupidest-company-sites.com
thailand your way
Travel with my friend Nang, who is a great nature, birding, and cultural guide.
jeed illustration
My English-fluent Thai friend Jeed is a freelance illustrator who is available for hire.
CopyrightEntire website copyright 1999-2016 Chris Pirazzi unless otherwise indicated.

License for use: