Sunday, December 27, 2015

Northern Laos

I was going to take a bus to Luang Prabang (LP) from Pakse, but the US Embassy kindly requested I avoid the roads between the two towns for a while because of some conflict that had happened near the road. So I took a plane, which meant I would no longer visit Vientiane or Vang Vieng, but instead would stay in LP for almost a week.

Landing the plane in LP was an experience! We had clouds engulfing us, and every once in a while a break from the clouds would happen during the turbulent landing and you’d see sharp mountain peaks stabbing threateningly in the plane’s direction. Clearly, and happily, we landed safely.

I came into LP on a rainy and cold evening. The rain didn’t last during my trip, but the cold stuck to the skin of my formerly-sweaty body for the remaining days. It’s good that the area is so gorgeous, charming, and peaceful, otherwise I would have been weepy the whole time for being cold and poorly insulated.

LP is full of tourists more than the other places I visited, which I grumble about, but the country began to grow on me, and I felt happy to be there. The people are genuinely kind and caring, the views are unbeatable, and there’s a laid back quality of life here that works still, even in modern times. I really enjoyed the overall pace and pretty backdrop for the week.

Something that surprised me about LP was the presence of old bombs everywhere. The US shelled the hell out Laos during the Vietnam War, and the history of bombings is still very clear when walking around LP. If you didn’tknow, hundreds of Laotian people die every year still from old bombs or minesthat haven’t gone off or “been discovered” yet. Most of the nicer restaurants I went to hosted at least one bomb as a sort of a chic d├ęcor. Many poorer villages sold in the nightly market shrapnel of bombs that are re-purposed as necklaces and bottle openers. I found it fascinating how the people have taken a bad situation and turned it into scenic relics in LP – making lemonade, I guess.

I went to the obligatory tourist spots while there, of course. Namely, the wats; the whole town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and it beams with temples on nearly every corner. Each temple is different than the others, though they all share a similar architectural layout. One was all red, one was mostly black and gold, while another was all green! I was dazzled.

I also hiked up the large hill in the middle of town, PhousiHill (pronounced “poo-see” – please maintain your maturity); there I saw the panorama of the whole mountainous area, which was stunningly beautiful. The undulating hills were hugged with low-rolling clouds, and I felt like I had been transported to some filming of the LOTR. The Mekong glides around the town’s edge, the clouds doing their things, the looming nearby mountains - everything is beautiful.

I am not much of a shopper, but there are so many beautiful handmade things sold at LP I felt mildly ashamed of my purchasing frenzy all week. The nightly market was a rainbow of beautiful cloths and pictures and assorted useless yet beautiful things that I badly wanted. I bought two scarves and a nice shirt to wear in the heat, as well as some presents (I would have bought more there but I had to remember my weight and size limit for my travels). There was also this super nice store that I loved called Ock Pop Tok with handmade fabrics from local tribes, and I bought a $40 scarf which may very possibly be the nicest piece of clothing I now own.

Food-wise, there were ample fruit shakes made on the sides of the street and lots of coconut tasty snacks being cooked right in front of everyone. There’s a little alleyway in the center of town that at night turns into this giant buffet of meats and noodles and rice and soup and everything you would want to eat while in SE Asia, all for a buck! It was excellent and awesome and oily and gave me stomach problems while I was there. Je regrette rien.

One of the first nights I was there I went to a local Lao folk storytelling show, Garavek. It was fun to listen to local stories from way back when about the local geography and agricultural/fishing lifestyles, and most of them were very strange to me. Stories of giants plucking out eyeballs of sisters to be put back in blows my mind. Others had people dying for love to be turned into mountains while other people harbor magical powers if only for a second without much thought to it….it makes me wonder how people in ancient times came up with these elaborate and complicated stories for a simple mountain.

One day I went to the Kuang Si Waterfall; it is a 30-minute zigzag drive around some hills from LP, and our driver was in a particular rush to get us there; most of us left our bus an unhealthy shade of green. But the waterfall was awesome – the fast rapids on the limestone made the water take a jade blue-green color, and I sat and admired the different areas of the rapids for a while. There were also some cute sun bears lazing in a park near the rapids, but they looked pretty bored to me. After the waterfall, I went to explore a nearby butterfly sanctuary and got lost in the prettiness. There are loads of butterflies in SE Asia for some reason, and the sanctuary did a good job showcasing a few of the local types in a way that seemed happy and peaceful. The sanctuary also had a free, natural fish pond – you know, the fish that nibble/peck at the dead skin on your feet. Yes, I tried it. No, I didn’t really like the feeling. Sure, I’d try it again if it’s hygienic.

The next day I took a (very) long boat ride to the Pak OuCave, also known as the Buddha Cave, since it’s covered in Buddha statues. The cave was cool, albeit crowded, and there was a surprise upper level I liked a bit more because it was quieter and more mysterious/darker. The surroundings of the cave were, again, incredible. We also stopped at a whisky village (where they pickle scorpions and snakes in whisky bottles), and I yucked my way through the tourist trap until we finally got back on the boat to LP.

I also practiced some yoga at a tourist-heavy bar called Utopia, and ate some tasty food in other tucked-away spots. I made some random friends in and around LP, which always feels great and exciting…but I am also starting to get tired of the constant traveling (too bad for me – only half of the way to go!), and it can get lonely for the extrovert in me. Some days I just want to see consistent people and build deep/meaningful friendships over a long period of time, but that is more challenging when you and everyone around you is on the go. I’ve been lucky to make a few friends, I know, and I do love meeting such interesting people from all walks of life…but many days I am with only myself, and my inner extrovert is starting to talk to herself a bit more than I’m comfortable with.

Anyways, after a glorious week of admiring nature and relaxing in a quiet place, I made my way to Hanoi for the holidays.

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