Friday, December 9, 2011

Off to Nong Khiaw

Luang Prabang (bottom of map) to Nong Khiaw (designated by letter B, top right of map).
Early this afternoon a minivan, which Steve Rutledge had previously arranged, pulled up to our residence to take him, Mike Yap, Art Quickenton (who arrived in Luang Prabang late that morning), Sean Holt (who is staying in Laos for several months), Khamdee (our translator), and myself deep into northern Laos. Once we loaded up the vehicle with our backpacks and ourselves, we began our trek to Nong Khiaw.

With Luang Prabang falling behind us, the highway began to snake its way through the countryside. As we drove, the full majesty and beauty of the Annamese Mountains became quickly and readily apparent. Shrouded in lush vegetation, these natural edifices began to surround us and tower over us, which were simply an awesome sight to behold.

Main street in Ban Nong Khiaw
A couple of hours later, we arrived in Nong Khiaw, a sleepy little village nestled on the west bank of the Nam Ou River. Across the bridge and on the opposite bank of the river is the little village of Sop Houn. A dramatic backdrop of high mountains, some with vertical faces of exposed rock, dominated and embraced this region. The economic life of these two villages primarily relied on tourists, as evidenced by several guesthouses and boats for hire.

View of Nong Khiaw from Sop Houn

Our first priority in Nong Khiaw was to visit the local school, where Steve Rutledge was to distribute five water purification filters that day. The second priority was to load two trucks with fifty water filters for the trip to the village of Phonsavan, which was the following day.

Steve Rutledge assembling one of the water filters.
The five water filters for the school were unboxed and assembled at the front of the classroom. The students, teacher, and several officials, including the education minister for the region, sat down for the hands-on water filter demonstration given by Steve Rutledge and translated into Lao by Khamdee.  Later, students, teacher, and officials all had an opportunity to ask questions.

After the demonstration the students, teacher, and officials went outside to have their photographs taken with the water filters.

Students, teacher and education minister pose with water filter.
As part of the photo op that day, Steve Rutledge posed with the education minister (on the left) and the Nong Khiaw school teacher (on the right) below.

Before we headed over to our guesthouses to check in, we had one brief stop to make. Steve had to drop off a water filter for Khamdee's brother, who is living in a dorm not too far from the school. When I saw the place in which he lived, I was absolutely shocked.

Phanoy Restaurant

As the last vestiges of daylight succumbed to darkness and the air quickly chilled, Mike, Art, Sean, Khamdee, Oudom (Khamdee's brother), Khamdee's brother-in-law, and myself gathered at Phanoy Guesthouse restaurant in the village of Sop Houn for dinner.

While we chatted over dinner that night, I discovered that Khamdee's brother-in-law worked as a de-mining technician for UXO LAO. Prior to visiting Laos, I had done extensive research about this dark time in Laos' history and its deadly legacy - a legacy which hinders its economic development to this day. In the process, I learned about this organization which is dedicated to helping Laos rid itself of the tons of unexploded bombs - haunting reminders of the secret bombing campaign by the United States (1964 - 1973) - still scattered throughout its countryside.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Visit to the Buddha Caves

This afternoon my new Laotian acquaintance, Juck, and I ventured 25 kilometres north of Luang Prabang on his motorbike. Motorbikes are as numerous in Laos as cars are back in North America. Our destination was the Buddha caves (Tham Ting and Tham Theung, lower and upper caves, respectively) near Ban Pak Ou, a village located near the Mekong River and catering to tourists. But before leaving Luang Prabang, Juck took me to a local market where I purchased a helmet, which I needed to wear so that we didn't get fined by the police. The helmet cost 80,000 KIP or $10 US.

As we drove up to Ban Pak Ou, it was simply wonderful to feel the freedom of riding in the fresh and open country air. The Laos countryside with its majestic mountains and lush vegetation was absolutely breathtaking. An hour or so later, we arrived at our destination, where we parked the motorbike and paid the parking attendant 5,000 KIP ($0.63 US). Then we strolled into the village and wandered around for a bit before heading to the riverside. While I was in the village, I purchased a small bottle of locally made Lao Lao (or rice whiskey).

Ban Pak Ou vendor
Shops in Pak Ou
At the riverside, we hired a boat, similar to the ones pictured below, to take us across the river to the Buddha caves themselves. The roundtrip cost 10,000 KIP ($1.25 US).

Once we reached the other side of the river, we disembarked and walked along a dock constructed from bamboo. At the end of the dock, there was a small ticket booth where we paid 20,000 KIP ($2.50 US) for admission. From there, we walked along a short plank and then ascended a steep set of stairs to Tham Ting (the lower cave), which contained the greatest number of Buddha statues.

Bamboo dock
Stairway to Tham Ting (lower cave)
The collection of Buddha statues, numbering some 4,000 in this natural cavernous cathedral, in Tham Ting (the lower cave) was simply staggering. Each statue is different in some way. In the photo below is just a sample of what I mean.

Tham Ting (the lower cave)
After spending some time there, I visited Tham Theung (the upper cave) alone. Unlike Tham Ting, Tham Theung extended deeper into the rock face. By the time I reached the back of the cave, it was almost pitch black and soon discovered that there were only a handful of statues.

Tham Theung (upper cave) entrance
On our way back to Ban Pak Ou, the boat driver had some issues trying to start the motor. As he attempted to restart it, the boat began to drift through the water. After a couple of failed attempts, the driver sounded like he was getting frustrated. Eventually, the motor sprang to life and driver, now in good spirits, took us back to Ban Pak Ou, where Juck and I had some lunch with Beer Lao.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Day One in Laos

After having had a good night's sleep, I awoke to the sounds of cock-a-doodle-doo from the local rooster on my first day here in Laos. In Lao culture, the rooster symbolizes good luck.

Shortly after 7 AM I got out of bed and had a warm shower. After getting dressed, I made a coffee and had one of the protein bars for breakfast. Surprisingly, the protein bar was quite tasty.

Once Mike gets ready, we will venture into downtown Luang Prabang to run some errands and for me to visit a money changer to convert some of my US currency into KIP.

Blue Ice Bar: A Home Away From Home

On the way back from the airport, Mike suggested that we visit Blue Ice Bar. I responded that I would love to do that, but I understandably wanted to do a quick change of clothes and freshen up a bit before embarking on this little adventure.

Once we arrived at the house, Mike showed me to my room. Within moments, I opened my big suitcase, which my friend Jason had lent me for this trip, and quickly selected what I would wear. After changing into something more comfortable, Mike and I were out the door.

As we walked down the street, it didn't take long for me to realize that this was a poor country. We passed by many retail establishments, which by North American standards, were very basic at best.

About twenty minutes later we finally reached Blue Ice Bar, a warm and inviting little place popular with locals and tourists alike on the banks of Nam Khan River. The entrance to the bar, which I later learned was built in the 1960s, was flanked by the Laos flag on the left and the flag of the former Soviet Union on the right. Once we stepped inside, Mike introduced me to Phut, the bar owner, from whom he promptly ordered two huge bottles of Beer Lao, each bottle the equivalent of two pints and costing 15,000 KIP (just under $2 US).

We stayed at the bar until closing, which was around 11.30 PM, and then walked back home.

Since that first visit, this place has become a great spot to hang out because it and the cliente there makes me feel very much at home.

I'm in Laos!

At 9.25 PM (9.25 AM in Toronto) on Monday, December 5, my Lao Airlines flight, originally scheduled to land at 7.25 PM (7.25 AM in Toronto), finally touched down at the airport in Luang Prabang. As soon as I deplaned, I felt the warmth of the night air gently touching my face. It was an absolutely wonderful feeling. Considering the length of my journey and being my first time traveling internationally, I felt remarkably well.

From the plane to the terminal building, a small and the only structure on the airfield, I only had to walk a short distance. Entering through the main doors, one of the airport officials directed me to the customs desk where I needed to pay for and pick up my visa. While I waited in line, I could see Mike standing outside. I instantly and excitedly waved and mouthed hello. He responded in kind, and so did a young Lao man, whom I would soon learn was one of the students sponsored by Adopt a Village in Laos. When it came my turn, I greeted the customs official seated in the booth by saying "Sabaidee"(which means hello in Lao). He smiled and replied, "Sabaidee". Then, I presented my visa paperwork, which I had completed on the flight, and my passport. The whole process was surprisingly swift and painless.

With that out of the way, I walked over to the luggage conveyor, where I anxiously awaited the appearance of my two pieces of luggage. Two days had passed since we parted company at Pearson International Airport in Toronto. In that time, my luggage had been transferred from Delta to Korean Airlines in New York City, from Korean Airlines to another Korean Airlines in Seoul, South Korea, and then finally from that Korean Airlines to Lao Airlines in Hanoi, Vietnam. When they finally materialized, I joyously grabbed them both and ventured down the corridor. Once outside, Mike greeted me warmly and introduced me to Siphan, that young Lao man, who smiled widely and said, "Sabaidee".

Within a few minutes we boarded a tuk-tuk, a small three-wheeled vehicle, which, in this part of the world, is the equivalent of a taxi cab in North America. Like taxi cabs back home, these vehicles are ubiquitous in Luang Prabang. In addition to shuttling people to and fro, they are used for transporting goods and other things.

Traveling aboard this mode of transportation greatly appealed to my sense of adventure. It didn't take long before we arrived at the residence where I would be staying in Luang Prabang. The cost of the trip from the airport to our destination was about 30,000 KIP (8,000 KIP = $1 US), which, in this instance, works out to about $3.75 US.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Of Teddy Bears and Beanie Babies

While I will be traveling to Laos by myself, I won't be entirely alone. Packed in my luggage are fifteen teddy bears and thirty-one beanie babies, which were graciously donated by some new friends, as gifts for some of the hill tribe children.