Laos

Laos: Early Morning Photographs of Alms-giving to the Monks

We arrived in Luang Prabang and had a look around the evening tourist markets.  There is a lot of tourism here, so all sorts of businesses have sprung up to service the industry. I was keen to see the Pak Ou Caves (Buddha Caves), but we were both tired and decided to give it a miss, particularly as we knew it would be full of people. We were experiencing a feeling of ‘tourist overload’ after the calm of Northern Laos.

Getting up at the crack at dawn, we set out to watch the ‘giving of alms’ to the monks.   The practice of getting up before daybreak to donate food to the orange-robed Buddhists of Luang Prabang is as ancient as some of the city’s temples.  Those who participate hope that they will earn a few credits to come back as a higher life form.

What we didn’t expect was for every other tourist to be up at the same ridiculously early hour with the same intention. We were glad to have our long lenses, so we could photograph from a distance without disturbing the proceedings. As more monks appeared, more tourists (and cameras) filled up the streets, and the mood began to change a little.  There was a little jostling for space, as everyone frantically tried to grab their photographs.  A few times i had people stand directly in front of my lens so that they could get their shot. Those with compact camera and shorter lenses had to stand very close to the procession, and i was beginning to wonder what the monks thought of all this.  I never cease to be amazed at the politeness of the people from SE Asia, and the bad behaviour of some (mainly western) tourists.  After a while we began to feel quite uncomfortable to be a part of the crowd, and decided to leave and grab some breakfast.

Below are some photographs taken of the monks receiving rice, which are probably exactly the same as everyone else’s 😉

20081207-_MG_3617

20081207-_MG_3585

20081207-_MG_3588

20081207-_MG_3555

20081207-_MG_3599

20081207-_MG_3550

Nong Khiaw Bridge

I took a few shots from Nong Khiaw bridge, which squeezes between fantastic limestone mountains. I’m really happy with the colour one but thought i’d play with some black and white too.

20081204-_MG_3444

20081204-nong-khiaw-bridge-01

20081204-nong-khiaw-bridge-02

The next day i got up really early to get some morning photos. As the bridge is shrouded in cloud at this time I would advise anyone thinking of doing this to stay in bed where it is nice and warm.

We checked out of our accommodation with the intention of completing the journey to Luang Prabang by boat. The trip from Nong Khiaw would be wonderful, starting on the Nam Ou and finishing on the Mekong. Unfortunately, the improved roads in the area and ‘backpacker’ shuttle buses mean that no-one wants to do the journey by river any more. We managed to pull together 4 others who would do the journey by boat, but they wanted around 8 other passengers to depart. Reluctantly, we boarded the local bus for the journey to Luang Prabang.

Laos: Down the Nam Ou River

Day 1: From Hat Sa to to Muang Khua

Just a few short days in the north, but it was time to leave. It looked to us that we may be able to get to Luang Prabang by boat, so we thought we’d give it a go.  After all, we already knew a road trip back south would be a very long one.  The road network in northern Laos is still not up to the standard of neighbouring countries, so many people still travel by boat. Road building is progressing at a fast rate so it won’t be long before more people abandon this fantastic way to travel.

We caught the bus from Phongsali to Hat Sa (around 6 hours) as we were told a boat would leave at around 9.30 to take passengers to Muang Khua.  There is a faster boat that roars down the river but the slow boat is much more relaxing and also cheaper.  To our dismay there were 2 other tourists doing the same thing. This turned out to be quite handy though as there was no-one else to take the slow-boat, and they won’t make the journey unless there are enough people. Because there were only 4 of us we had to pay 175,000 instead of 120,000 kip but that was still a bargain. The scenery is spectacular and you pass many small villages on the way. Every now and again you see a kingfisher sitting on a branch, looking over the waters. There are some sections of minor white-water that the boatman expertly navigated. This is definitely the way to travel.

185-men-in-boat

20081203-laos

20081203-kid-in-boat

Day 2: Muang Khua to Nong Khiaw

At Muang Khua was noticed there were more tourists around than we had been seeing during much of our trip around Laos. There were 9 of us wanting to take the boat to Nong Khiaw in the morning, which was handy as the boatman was reluctant to move with fewer people. We set off around 10 am armed with our cameras and feeling very much like tourists on our boat of falang.

The river journey was much the same as the previous day but no less enjoyable. We had fewer areas of white-water and there were also fewer villages to pass by. As we moved south we noticed it was getting warmer. At last!

Around 6 hours after departure we reached Nong Khiaw. This place is hailed as the ‘new’ Viet Vieng of Laos so there were plenty of backpackers around and tours and activities on offer. We found a place to stay with hot water showers and relaxed. The bridge that crossed the Nam Ou has a very nice view. A few shots from the bridge in the next post.

20081204-girls

20081204-kid-in-boat

20081204-kids-in-boat

20081204-people-by-river

Laos: Trekking in the North, day 2

After a very strange night, where we shared the bamboo ‘bed’ platform with some of our hosts, we went on to the next village. Anke’s knee had began to really hurt from walking down the steep slopes with heavy backpacks, and so we decided to shorten our trek by a day. This meant our next night was not in an Akha village as per the initial plan. However, the people at the next village were so incredibly friendly we had a great time.

We stayed at the village chief’s hut, which he shared with his wife and just one son. It was at this point that we were about to give up hope on our guide. Despite requests on this and the previous night, he seemed incapable of relaying to our hosts the questions we were asking. Instead, he just made up the answers himself. He also answered our host’s questions about us himself, leaving us out of the conversation and frustrated. That evening our guide met a friend and got completely paralytic. On return to our hut he mistakenly got into bed with the chief and was promptly kicked out. He then tried to wake me up but i pretended to be sound asleep and eventually, after urinating in the corner, he crashed out. The next morning the chief had ‘a quiet word’ with him about his behaviour, and also apologised to us on his behalf.  No big deal really -pretty funny actually – and we were enjoying the trip so much it really didn’t spoil things.

The next morning we headed out to Phongsali, with us leading our guide, who stopped periodically to puke. We hobbled into town having had a great time, but also wishing we had gone with a better guide who could help us get the most out of the experience.

Photos below:

  • The village
  • Some people meeting in the morning to go to work
  • A friendly kid
  • Taking a rest and admiring the view, whilst our guide has a short sleep

20081202-_MG_3209

20081202-_MG_3215

20081202-_MG_3211

20081202-_MG_3227

Laos: North, North, North to Phongsali

We were a bit freaked out at suddenly arriving in the main tourist region of Laos, and decided to get out of there. At the bus station i looked at the name on the front of a bus, checked out where it was on the map, and we jumped on.  The destination was Phongsali, and – based on eyeballing the map –  i estimated it would take us 12 hours to get there, as it’s about as far north as you can get in Laos.  It took 28 hours.

The further north you go the higher and colder it gets. By the time we reached the end of our monster bus ride we were wrapped up in our warmest clothes and sleeping bags. Phonsali is at the top of Laos, close to the border of China. The town has about 6,000 inhabitants and is located at around 1430 meters on the slopes of Mount Phu Fa. There is no reason to hang around town as there is some great trekking in the region, visiting ethnic minority groups in out-of-the-way villages. We visited the local tourism office to hire a guide and realised they weren’t too organised. Apparently, a German guy has been working there for a year and a half to help with the running of the place but there was no evidence this. The fact that he hadn’t bothered to turn up to the office that afternoon and no-one knew where he was proved the point. The girl who worked at the office tried to burn us with a charge of 50,000 kip just to store your bag whilst you are trekking. She also offered to send two bags to Hat Xa (Hat Sa) for 160,000 kip! We politely told her that her prices are ridiculous, and stored our bag at the guesthouse we had stayed at instead. We met our guide, Suhkserm, at 8am and headed our for a 4 day trek. The scenery is fantastic as Phongsali seems to be above the clouds in the morning. It is verrrry cold.

20081130-_MG_3162

After some pretty brutal trekking, 7 hours down and up some very steep slopes, we arrived at an Akha village. There are no roads connecting the village to town, just the path that we had taken to get here. The photo below shows the entrance to the village. The wooden structure on the right of the image is the spirit gate, so don’t go walking through one of those things if you don’t want to upset the locals.

20081130-_MG_3170

The Akha are shy so we didn’t have the huge numbers of villagers coming out to see us arrive. In fact, the kids are so shy that they pretty much hide away. One of them had such a shock seeing my white face that he dropped his firewood and ran off.  Photography of people is pretty much out of the question at this village but there were a couple of women who said we could take a picture of them. As you can see, there is no electricity and little contact with the outside world.  The men can do the trek to Phongsali to sell produce at the market, but the women never leave the village. Clothes are traditional, and dyed with forest plants.  The women wear their wealth on their headgear. As with other villages we had visited in the more southern regions of Laos, the women did most of the work, whilst the men suffered the responsibility of having to make decisions. I’m not sure if they did much else.

20081130-_MG_3172

20081130-_MG_3190

The village had a school, which was just a little hut really. Unlike other people in Laos, this village was not on stilts and all buildings had a mud floor. We were told the men have a couple of years of schooling but the women did not. Toys for the kids were basic.

20081201-_MG_3191

20081130-_MG_3180

20081201-_MG_3201

After a rather chilly night sleeping on a wooden base with some of the family we stayed with, it was time to head off for the next destination.  I could have spent weeks here, although the cold was a little too much for me. I didn’t wash cos the river water was freezing! They are hardy people these Akha.

 

Laos: Vientiane

We hadn’t wanted to stop in Vientiane but we needed to extend our visa. There are quite a few sights around this city to see, including the famous That Luang, a Buddhist monument. We were very keen to visit COPE, a provider of prosthetic limbs. To learn how much unexploded ordnance there is out there from America’s illegal bombing of this country is shocking. We donated some money to the organisation to help, which is more than the American government has done as their financial help to date amounts to nothing.

Please have a look at COPE’s website and visit them if you are in Vientiane.

180-gold

178-bombs

179-legs

Laos: The Loop!

‘The Loop’ is a journey starting from Thakhek and covering over 500 km of some of the most fantastic scenery in Laos. Our guidebook tells us of terrible road conditions, steep mountain climbs, long hours in the saddle and to expect possible breakdowns and certainly flat tyres. Apparently the road conditions vary, but include sandy tracks, dirt roads full of potholes and steep ascents. This journey has a detour to a spectacular cave, Kong Lor, which we should be able to drive to seeing as it is the dry season. If the road is out then apparently we will need to hire a boat to get to the cave. What kind of vehicle will you use for this treacherous journey you ask? Surely a 4 wheel drive or a couple of dirt bikes? They are both sensible suggestions and  certainly suitable for the challenge, but Anke and I decided to do the journey on cheap Chinese mopeds instead; possibly the worst choice of transport for this journey with the possible exception of roller-skates. Why? Because we couldn’t find any other type of vehicle to rent in Thakek and we weren’t going to miss this road-trip.

20081121-central-laos-01

It seems that everyone who attempts to travel these treacherous roads does so on one of these cheap Honda Dream rip-offs. For some reason these crappy mopeds are all they have on offer in Thakhek, which is strange as the primary reason that travellers come to Thakhek is to do ‘The Loop’.  A few travellers who are cleverer than yours truly rent dirt bikes in Vientiane and drive south to take up the challenge. But can they knock back a beer on their return and say that they risked life and limb on a cheap 100 cc semi-automatic piece of crap thrown together in China using the cheapest materials possible with no thought for quality or durability? No! But we can!

Day 1 / Puncture 1: East from Thakhek along Route 12 to Mahaxai

Hey this road isn’t bad at all. Not too many potholes, although a fair amount of water buffalo and cows on the road. But where aren’t there cows on the road in central Laos? The scenery is spectacular and we stop off at every cave and lake possible. After a few caves I began to think they all look like big holes in the ground, but I was soon proved wrong when we stopped at Tham Nan Aen and were charged 10,000 kip each to see a spectacular cave themed with graffiti, multi-coloured fluorescent strips and  litter. I took a few photos and have decided that cave photography is not really for me. Feeling a little caved-out, we pulled onto the dirt road to Mahaxai to spend the night in a grubby hotel by the river. It’s the only accommodation in town so they don’t have to worry about competition and it showed. Oh, and I only got one puncture on the dirt road section to Tham Pha (Budda Cave); a cool little cave filled with 450 year-old Buddas that a farmer found one day when he was hunting bats.

20081121-central-laos-02

20081121-central-laos-03

Day 2 / North to Lak Sao (Lak Xao)

After a nice breakfast and a look at the local market stalls we headed out. What a shitty day of riding this was. The terrible road conditions our guidebook told us about have changed. We spend the day riding on a road that has been half-built. They had put the material down and made a good attempt at making it flat, but not top surface had been added yet. Big trucks carrying dirt or logged trees hurtled past us, kicking up so much dust I thought I was in a sand-storm every time one went past. Our guidebook mentions a guesthouse to stay in at Ban Tha Long that we like the sound of. The only problem was that all the villages have since been relocated in preparation for flooding the area because of the new hydro-electric dam. We did pass through the (new) village, it does have a guesthouse, but unfortunately all the villages in that area look like open prisons and the scenery is mostly flooded forest with dead trees poking out the water everywhere. It was most unsettling and we  decided to open up those cheap Chinese throttles and hopefully make it to Lak Xao before nightfall, which we did. Just.

20081122-central-laos-02

20081122-central-laos-01

20081122-central-laos-03

Day 3 / Punctures 2 & 3: East to Kong Lor Cave

We set off at 6 am to catch a beautiful sunrise over spectacular mountain scenery. The only problem was that we were actually driving in a cloud for around the first hour so we didn’t see a sunrise or much else really. We had to drive quite slowly because of being in a cloud, so it couldn’t have been the speed that made me get my second puncture. Luckily everyone in Laos drives cheap Chinese Honda Dream rip-offs, and so you never have to take your disabled machine very far before you pass a shack on the road where someone can help you out for the price of a packet of crisps.

As the day went on the mists cleared and we drove through some spectacular scenery. And on good roads too! It seems that they’ve been busy building roads since our guidebook was printed.

20081123-central-laos-01

20081123-central-laos-02

20081123-central-laos-03

Later on in the day we made it to Ban and stopped at the local tourist office. They told us that there was a new road to get to Kong Lor cave. They told us to drive 30 km to the T-junction and then turn left and it would be easy to find. It turns out that he meant to say drive 3 km and turn left. Oh i wish we had asked someone who had not been on their first day at work! It was on our little ‘detour’ that i got my third puncture, also on the front tyre. Anke says I get them because I drive too fast or not carefully enough or something like that but i’m not sure exactly because I wasn’t listening 100% when she was talking about it.

It was too late to go to the cave now so we found a cheap little guesthouse and relaxed.

Day 4 / Punctures 4: Kong Lor Cave and back to Thakhek

i will have to write this bit later, but there is definitely a puncture involved.

176-dawn

20081124-central-laos-01a

20081124-central-laos-01

Laos: Trekking to Ban Gnang

We woke up the next morning ridiculously early. This is the only place I know where the people get up before the roosters. No, they really do. After a short trek in the forest looking for monkeys – and not finding any as they’ve  been hunted out – we returned to the village for breakfast, and then headed out for the 18 km trek to the next village, Ban Gnang.

165-village-sunrise

20081113-central-laos-02b

 

After a fantastic few hours trekking through many different environments and finding plenty of wildlife we arrived at Ban Gnang. Again we were greeted with the sights of children pounding the rice to remove the grain from the husk. As in the first village, the light was fading so I wasn’t able to take many photographs. The people is this village are also Kalang, but they were less curious to our arrival.

172-beating-rice

 

20081113-central-laos-01

In the evening we endured a welcome ceremony. We were not keen for this, and suspect it may be put on for the tourists and not really the way they would normally greet visitors. A village elder sand a traditional song and we were officially greeted. They also wished us lots of luck and children whilst tying cotton bands around our wrist. Apparently, we are not allowed to remove them and they have to stay on until the fall off naturally. Three of Anke’s bands have already fallen off but mine are proving more stubborn.

The next morning the village chief and his assistant visited us in the house we were staying at. We asked them a lot of questions about life in the village and they were curious about our life too. Life is tough it seems, although they do not complain. They marry early, as early as 12 years old, and have a load of children. As with the first village, we gave the chief some pens, pencils and books for the children. We asked them what presents would be really useful to them. As with the first village, they asked for children’s clothes. From our observations we would agree that these are really needed.

What really amazed me was that this village, like much of Laos, was almost bombed into oblivion by the Americans. The village chief told me that many people from his village were killed and they also lost most of their livestock. Despite this he bears no ill-feeling to America or Americans and says that he would welcome them to his village. As I have learned more about the sheer scale and intensity of the bombing of Laos I find it difficult to understand how he can forgive so easily. Perhaps we should all try harder to be able to move forward and not bear grudges, as these people do.

 

173-kalang-chiefs

20081113-central-laos-02

It was a great trek and we were genuinely touched by the friendliness of the villagers. We returned to Savannakhet by boat. On arrival we bought a huge pile of kids clothes and a couple of footballs from the market and sent it to the villages with some of the photos we had taken. And then made our way north to Thakek….

20081113-central-laos-03

 

 

Laos: Trekking in the Central Provinces

If you are not sure where we are then viewing this map might be of help to you.  Savannaket is on the western side of Laos, half way down the thin bit.

The Central Provinces are the least visited in Laos so of course we want to explore as much as possible before moving north where there are greater numbers of tourists. The tourism office in Savannaket runs eco-trekking with stays in the villages of the Kalang ethnic group in the Dong Rhu Vieng National Protected Area. After a long and very bumpy journey down Route 9 (sometimes known as Route 9E) we headed into the jungle for our first day of trekking.

Our guide, Kamphat, led us along some barely distinguishable paths with two other guides who were from the village we were heading to. We were the only people on the trek. We got off to a shaky start when Anke virtually tripped over a pile of cluster-bombs, an all too common sight unfortunately due to the massive illegal bombing campaign by the United States over almost 10 years. Our guide told us that these particular bombies were no longer dangerous, although this is sadly not always the case.

The scale of the contamination is mind-boggling. Laos was hit by an average of one B-52 bomb-load every eight minutes, 24 hours a day, between 1964 and 1973. US bombers dropped more ordnance on Laos in this period than was dropped during the whole of the second world war. Of the 260m “bombies” that rained down, particularly on Xieng Khouang province, 80m failed to explode, leaving a deadly legacy.
The Guardian

Our first day was only 8 km walking and we reached ‘Ban Vongsikeo’ quite quickly. The sun was setting but the village was alive with children and women pounding rice. We were soon surrounded by curious kids and villagers who were coming to see the ‘falang’.

164-kalang-kids

 

Life is pretty simple in the village. We stayed with a family, all of us sleeping in a one-roomed hut. There is no electricity or running water, so bathing is at the water pump and evening chats are by candle-light. It was lucky we brought those candles as the villagers didn’t have any. The village chief told us about life as a Kalang and our guide interpreted. Most of their day is spent farming rice. They do not sell the rice, but keep it for their own consumption. They do sell a few goats, chickens and pigs at the nearest market, but for the most part they are self-sufficient. The women seem to do a lot of the work around the place and spend a lot of time cooking, cleaning, looking after the kids and pounding rice. The men work in the fields but seem to do much less day-to-day work around the village.

Below are photos of the mother, daughter and son of the family we stayed with.  The one at the end (smoking something in a leaf) was our local guide. I can’t remember who the other fellas were.

167-kalang-mother

166-kalang-girl

170-kalang-kid

168-kalang-man

169-kalang-father

171-kalang-smoking

 

Laos: Motorbiking around Savannakhet

With a population of around 120,000, Savannakhet is Laos’ second largest city. Motorbikes are easy to rent and ideal to get around the area for the day. First visit was to the salt factory. One of the workers showed us around and showed us where they pump the water up and how the salt is made. Having seen the way they make salt in Bali, which can be seen here, this seems like a big operation. It’s totally reliant on manual labour and the workers get around 4,000 kip per day, which translates roughly to US$ 5.

156-baskets-of-salt

155-basket-of-salt

After saying goodbye to our impromptu tour guide we visited the Stupa at That Ing Hang. According to the Tourism Office, this stupa was formerly built in the Sikhottabong Empire to mark the reputation of King Sikhottabong. The former stupa kept the bones of the 4th Lord Buddha. So there you have it!

157-monk-and-buddas

158-young-monk

159-monk-cutting-grass

160-monk

 

161-three-wise-monks

I was made particularly happy when I was able to talk with three young monks and they asked if they could take my photograph with their camera-phone. English is not commonly spoken in Laos, at least not in the areas we have been so far, so chances to interact with locals are particularly special. Of course I was able to take a shot or two of them too, resulting in one of my favourite photos (above), which I have titled ‘Three Wise Monks‘.

The shot below shows them checking out the photos they have taken that day.

162-monks-and-cameraphone

163-row-of-buddas