Thursday, June 18, 2009

SE Asia Trip, Part 8 - Luang Prabang, the Third Attempt

09/03/09 - 12/03/09

And it's back in Luang Prabang for the third time! This time I will be riding elephants and learning how to weave!

I booked a half day elephant ride through Tiger Trails. There are a lot of places in Luang Prabang offering elephant rides, but not all of them are reputable places or treat their animals well. Tiger Trails is a pretty well established company who operate under the Fair Trek community-based tourism logo. They work with the Elephant Village, about 15km outside LP on the banks of the Nam Khan. It was originally established in 2003, by a German I believe. There are 8 elephants in the village, most rescued after being injured whilst working in the logging industry. They are all kept healthy and looked after by a specialist vet. The Elephant Village is endorsed by Stay Another Day, an initiative which promotes sustainable tourism in Laos and Cambodia.

The group I went with consisted of a Canadian couple and 4 Germans, so once again I was the single one! When I arrived at the Elephant Village I also met a couple who I'd met earlier in Muang Ngoi.

An earlier group riding their elephants through the river.

As the rest of my group came in twos, they all shared elephants. I was the odd one out, so I got my own! We climbed onto the elephants from a specially constructed platform. Each elephant was also ridden by a Mahout, who knew the elephant really well. My Mahout was a young guy but he had been doing this job for 5 years. You can check out all the elephants here.

Me riding an elephant!

Didn't feel hugely safe going down such a steep hill, but we made it!

Wading through the river!

I was the first person to try riding on the elephant's neck. The mahout seemed perfectly happy lazing around in the seat and playing with my camera!

Heading back up to camp.

After our ride, we helped to feed the elephants. They definitely eat a lot!

We were also provided with yummy lunch at the Elephant Village Eco Lodge, before heading back to Luang Prabang. It was a fun morning, though I wish I hadn't worn such light colours, I was filthy by the time I'd finished. They also run full day and overnight trips, and Mahout courses where you can learn a bit more about the elephants. We were supposed to go to Tad Sae waterfall as well, but apparently it is all dried up at this time of year.

The rest of the day I spent enjoying LP and meeting up with the other two girls I'd left in Muang Ngoi as well as two of the German guys I'd met on the elephant trip.

Over the next two days I'd enrolled in a weaving course. The aim was to make a traditional Lao silk scarf. The course is run by Ock Pop Tok, a Lao textile gallery and weaving centre founded by a Lao weaver and an English photographer in 2000. It provides sustainable employment to rural weavers. The centre itself is in a gorgeous garden location a wee bit out of the main centre of town. The course is quite expensive, but well worth it I thought.

The first half of the day involved learning to dye silk. There was only me and one other woman on the course. We had an interpreter, a young guy named Morn who was studying English at Uni. He was a really nice guy and very helpful. He first told us about the how the silk was made and dyed, and the origins of weaving. Then we got to choose some silk and what natural dyes we wanted to use.

Making my dyes!

We were learning how to make natural dyes. I chose tarragon root (yellow), sappan tree bark (purple) and some kind of berries (orange).

The range of colours you can get from the natural ingredients found in the Centre's garden.

The other participant was only there for the morning, so that left me on my own for the rest of the course - making it even better value as these people were solely focused on teaching me. They made me a yummy Lao lunch and then I got to choose two colours for my scarf and learnt to spin the silk onto the spools. I chose a blue-grey colour for the base and a pinkish colour for the pattern.

I was introduced to my teacher, a Lao lady who spoke no English (hence the need for an interpreter). She showed me how to work the loom and make the pattern. It was quite difficult but I eventually got into a rhythm. By the end of the day I'd done about a third, with a bit of help!

Before heading to the weaving class the next day I got up early to watch the Monks collect alms. This happens early every morning in Luang Prabang and is a big tourist attraction, although it really only involves the locals. We just stand around and watch. There are a lot of rules about not getting too close to take photos etc. I stood on the other side of the road and watched, well away from the snap-happy tourists.

After that I headed up Mount Phousi to check out the views. Unfortunately there really wasn't much of a view as the whole of LP is blanked in smog at this time of year.

The entrance of the Royal Palace, from the gates of Mount Phousi.

Random Buddha statues dot the mountain.

Yey, naga statues!

I spent the rest of the day finishing my scarf. Unfortunately lunch today wasn't so great - mushroom soup and fermented fish - yuk! But at least there was plenty of sticky rice!

I was pretty proud of my finished scarf - the edges weren't perfect, but it wasn't bad for a first attempt. I haven't taken a photo yet of the finished piece. It was hard work but well worth the effort to actually say I learnt to weave, Lao-style!

In the evening, my friend and I went to see the cultural performance at the Children's Cultural Centre. I saw something similar before in Vientiane, but actually I preferred this one. The kids were great and it was quite interactive too. They started with a Baci ceremony where they greeted everybody in the audience and tied white strings around our wrists and gave us food and water.

The Baci ceremony.

Some of the young performers.

There were some lovely dances, full of energy and fun. There was also a puppet show in Lao, depicting the legend of Pi Mai Lao or Lao New Year celebrations. Luckily we were given a leaflet to explain what was happening! It was pretty funny though!

Well, that's it for Luang Prabang. After the show I spent way too much money in the night market buying souvenirs and gifts, and got a great Lao massage before heading to bed. It was up early the next morning to head to Vang Vieng. My trip is almost over!

SE Asia Trip, Part 7 - Carry on up the Nam Ou

04/03/09 - 08/03/09

Further north of Luang Prabang, along the Nam Ou river, nestles the small town of Nong Kiaow. Even further upriver lies Muang Ngoi. And when I say upriver, I mean it. You can't reach Muang Ngoi by road, only by boat. Nong Kiaow is reachable by road now, but you can also catch a slow boat up from Luang Prabang.

I decided to take the minibus up to Nong Kiaow and then boat the rest of my journey. Judging by the amount of backpackers arriving into Nong Kiaow late in the afternoon and struggling to find rooms, it is probably a good idea to get to Nong Kiaow earlier - I arrived on the bus at around midday, and had no problems finding somewhere to stay.

Nong Kiaow is really two villages, joined by the bridge across the Nam Ou. I headed over the bridge to the east side where I found a cheap and basic bamboo hut (I think this was CT Guesthouse, otherwise known as Pha Noy Guesthouse).

View of the bridge from my balcony.

Some more bamboo huts - there were a lot to choose from!

View across the river to Nong Kiaow - you can make out the boat landing if you look really closely.

During the afternoon I wandered down to the beach below the bridge, where kids were swimming and a few fishermen were working. I stumbled across a female tourist topless sunbathing (though she was lying on her stomach). A few kids came by and started staring and laughing about it - I'm not sure she realised how much of a spectacle she was making of herself. It was really quite culturally insensitive of her to show that much flesh, particularly as this is a fairly rural, traditional area, not some resort. Lao people even swim fully clothed.

Nong Kiaow is a very quiet peaceful spot. I know a lot of travellers come through here, but honestly they must not stick around long - I barely saw any walking around the town. I had a good wander around the dusty streets, taking in the stunning scenery and chatting to the gaggles of local kids.

The gorgeous view of the Nong Kiaow boat landing from the bridge.

The next day I set off on the 3km-ish walk to some nearby caves where guerrillas and local people sheltered during the Indochina War. It's a pleasant walk, though I wouldn't recommend walking it in the heat of the day as there wasn't much shade.

A young boy was waiting at the makeshift ticket office to take my entrance fee. I asked him if he went to school and he told me he did sometimes. A short walk over a bridge and through some paddy fields brought me to a rickety bamboo staircase leading up to the mouth of the cave - halfway up the karst cliff.

The young fee collector.

I wonder if this existed when the Lao people hid there?? I doubt it!

Cool cave formations.

The cave was massive, probably could have fit a few hundred people in there.

There was another cave a little further along the path which I thought I would visit next. However on my way out of this cave I was accosted by a very smelly, dirty Lao man, who desperately wanted to tell me about the other cave. I told him I already knew about it thanks, and headed off in the right direction. The man started following me, really too close for comfort (he smelled REALLY bad) and I was getting a bit nervous and annoyed so I kept stopping and taking photos in the hopes he would pass me by. But no luck for a while until I stopped by a stile and he climbed over it. Then I quickly legged it back the way I'd come! Missed out on the second cave, but really my alarm bells were ringing that that guy was dodgy. I heard from another traveller later that she had had the same issue and when she reached the cave the man had confronted her and tried to kiss her and told her he loved her. When she attempted to leave, another man appeared and she had to give them money before she could get away. Not sure if it was the same guy, but I assume so. Beware if you are a female visiting on your own!

Paddy fields and karst mountain scenery. Lovely!

Sunset from the bridge - I lingered on this bridge a lot!

Nong Kiaow is a great place to chill for a few days, but there isn't an awful lot to do. There are a few treks advertised in town, including one to some waterfalls I would have liked to do, if I could have found anyone in the office to talk to me about it. The other problem that I have had continually on this trip is that because I'm on my own everything costs more unless I can find people willing to do these activities with me. So I'll be saving that trip for next time, hopefully I'll be back with a friend (or sister, hint hint)!

Of course, if you can't cope without cellphone reception and Internet, you probably won't like Nong Kiaow, and Muang Ngoi even less, if you can't do without electricity! But then you probably shouldn't be in Laos in the first place!

The next day I took the long tail boat up to Muang Ngoi, about an hour's ride up river. The scenery was absolutely gorgeous, I can see why people say this boat ride should not be missed. I'm glad I chose this route instead of the oversubscribed Huay Xai to Luang Prabang one.

Cows enjoying a swim!

Muang Ngoi from the boat.

I met three girls on the boat who had been travelling together for a few days and they invited me to find a bungalow with them in Muang Ngoi. We found bargain basic huts with hammocks for 30,000 kip (so 15,000 each for two people - $3NZ) - the cheapest accommodation I had in Laos.

Our rustic little hut :)

Beautiful sunset - always seem to be able to find one of these in Laos!

My time in Muang Ngoi was mostly spent relaxing by the river and reading. Again there are a few walks and tours you can do, but really the nicest thing is just to relax and enjoy the surroundings. Muang Ngoi is a very quiet place - there is just one main street which leads to nowhere, and no motorbikes or cars. The only noise comes from the generators which kick in for a few hours in the evening for a bit of electricity.

Whilst we were there a big delivery of Beer Lao arrived by boat. It was dropped off in large crates at the bottom of the boat landing. We came across a handful of women who were busy carrying these heavy crates up the steep steps to the village, whilst the men just looked on. I firmly believe nothing would get done in this country if it was left up to the men - the women seriously do all the hard work. The women were carrying 2 crates at a time - one on their backs tied on with a sling around their foreheads! Seriously worried about neck and spinal injuries in these women! We gave them a hand and carried up a few crates ourselves, much to the amusement of the local men.

The beach where I relaxed and went swimming.

An enterprising young Lao lady called Penny with a cute little baby had set up some bamboo sunbeds and umbrellas, which were free if you bought a drink or two. Bargain, Beer Lao and relaxing on the beach! I met a few other foreigners here, including an older American couple who had sold up their lives back home and were travelling the world. It was inspiring to find the adventurous spirit can still live on through years of marriage and grand kids etc.

The bustling main street of Muang Ngoi...

Me and the girls at one of our favourite meal spots.

After a couple of days of R&R up north, I felt it was time I headed back to Luang Prabang. One of the girls I'd met came with me, while the other two stayed a bit longer in Muang Ngoi. We caught the long tail boat back to Nong Kiaow, and were then switched to a slightly larger slow boat for the trip to Luang Prabang. Unfortunately because it was the dry season, the river was quite low. This meant there were a couple of times when the boat got stuck and we had to get out and walk!

Walking along the riverside while the boat was navigated through the shallows.

Wading back out to the boat.

The boat ride was pretty long and cramped, but the scenery was lovely to look at. The nice thing about boat journeys is that there is always a slight breeze so you don't have to deal with the sticky heat! We arrived in Luang Prabang at around 5pm and I headed to another Guesthouse I had been recommended that was slightly cheaper than where I had stayed before.

I really enjoyed my time up north and in retrospect I probably could have spent a bit longer up there. Still there is always next time! Hopefully the area will still be as tranquil as it was when I visited, but I'm a little doubtful. I heard the Chinese were planning to build a dam further upstream that would devastate the Nam Ou and this area of Laos. Let's hope that never comes to pass.

SE Asia Trip, Part 6 - Luang Prabang, the Second Attempt

02/03/09 - 03/03/09

I arrived back in Luang Prabang in time to have a wander around the peninsula at sunset.

The next day I spent the morning in Luang Prabang before heading out to Kwang Si Waterfalls in the afternoon. Practically every travel agent along the main street sells some sort of tour or trip to Kwang Si, or you can just hop on a tuk-tuk and negotiate a price if there is a group of you. I joined a minibus heading out to Kwang Si. I got chatting to an Australian girl on the bus and we spent the afternoon together exploring the waterfall.

Kwang Si Falls are located about an hours drive from Luang Prabang. The main fall is about 180ft (according to Wikipedia...) but there are several smaller cascades into the pools below the main fall as well.

As it is the dry season there isn't an awful lot of water - I've seen photos of the falls in the rainy season and they practically cover the above cliff wall.

We decided to climb to the top of the falls - unfortunately this is what the climb looks like if you go up the right side of them. As we learnt later there are steps on the left side...

At the top of the falls - a fence presumably to stop tourists falling over the falls.

The pools at the top of the falls.

Back at the bottom again, this is taken from the base of the falls looking out.

This is the swimming area further down from the falls. We had a good time along with all the other tourists swimming and relaxing. Certainly a nice break from the heat.

Near Kwang Si Falls there is also a Bear Rescue Centre, where bears which have been rescued from poachers are looked after. I think they are all Asiatic Black Bears. There used to be a tiger here too, but unfortunately she died recently of a nervous system disease. These bears are endangered and you have pretty much nil chance of seeing them in the wild. While I don't like seeing animals in captivity, at least these ones are protected from poachers and the destruction of their habitat.

Unfortunately I didn't get many decent photos of the bears, but it was fun watching them play around in their enclosures.

On the way back the minibus stopped off at one of those 'traditional' villages - the places that make you walk around a set path lined with stalls, trying to convince you to buy something. Argh. The highlight of that side trip was giving my Sprite can to a little girl to play with it with her friends, and also watching all the baby chickens following their mothers around.

Back in Luang Prabang I spent the evening with my new found friend, hanging out at l'Etranger and the Night Market, followed by some god awful lao lao cocktails at a bar. The bars close at 11pm for the enforced curfew, so not a late night for us as we had to make it back to our guest houses before the police rounded us up! I nearly got locked out...

I decided I would leave Luang Prabang the next day and head north up the river to Nong Khiew and Muang Ngoi. But I'll be back in Luang Prabang yet again before heading home!