Saturday, October 18, 2014

Luang Prabang

We visited Luang Prabang last week, which is the original royal capital of Lao.  Luang Prabang is a 12 hour bus journey from Vientiane, through winding roads and beautiful mountains.  Our first night bus journey was thankfully eventless.  We emerged from our strange bus cocoon beds into the cool mountain air of the north, reveling in a sensation we have gone without for two months (cool air!!), and took in a lovely, clean, and green mountain town.  Entirely different from the dust, exhaust, and stifling heat of Vientiane, Luang Prabang is all misty green and colorful temples.  

I never stopped moving in Luang Prabang.  On the first day we went straight to a waterfall (on a beautiful hour-long tuk tuk ride) that was something out of a fairy tale. A series of lovely shelf-pools that led up a hill to a huge falls.  The water there was a color I'd never seen before and that can't be captured by a camera---a milky menthol color---...and the band of artistic gypsies that I was traveling with even struggled to capture the effect on paper. 

The next day, we met 6 really nice elephants at an elephant oasis by the Mekong.  We rode in pairs through a village with mountains climbing high over us. 

Over riding, I much preferred standing next to the elephants, stroking their trunks, and staring deep into their kind eyes.  It was an incredible experience spending time with such peaceful, giant creatures.

I may or may not have taken a selfie with an elephant.

After our ride, several of us took a boat ride across the Mekong to go see Buddha Cave.  Buddha Cave is an ancient cave that has drawn Lao people for years due to its mystical nature and spot right on the Mekong.  Years ago, the kings and queens made an annual pilgrimage to worship their gods, and later, Buddha. 

After the cave, we returned to bathe the elephants.

The elephants turned into little kids in the water.  They played together, swam around, and enjoyed the sensation as we threw water on their dry skin.  Each of us got the opportunity to ride the elephants bareback in the water and then our mischievous mahouts (elephant trainers) would give the command for the elephants to try to throw us off their backs...using any means possible and we each experienced the sheer thrill of being thrown off the backs of a full-grown elephant into the waters of the Mekong.  After bathing the elephants, I rode an elephant bareback back up to their home, and to let me off, my elephant-friend gently crouched down on her knees until I had slid off her back.

To make this day more incredible, we had the stupid-luck of being in Luang Prabang during the Festival of Lights- arguably the most beautiful festival in Lao.  For this festival, each temple makes a dragon boat out of wood and crepe paper and candles, and then during the evening of the festival all of the boats are paraded throughout the town accompanied by hundreds of excited townpeople and foreigners who follow the parade down to the river.  The boats are judged and then set one-by-one into the Mekong, and the boats float down the Mekong with all of the lights shining in the night.   Throughout this evening, hundreds of chinese lanterns are set off into the sky and little prayer floats with candles are set lovingly into the water after a prayer is made, so the entire town is swimming with lights.  We each set our own prayer float into the water, with a little boy helping us by scrambling out to a boat to make sure they found passage.  All of the little boys had the distinguished job of shepherding the tiny prayer floats while their uncles and fathers and grandfathers participated in shepherding the majestic, glowing dragon boats into the water.   It was the most beautiful night.

Preparing for the parade! 

Earlier that evening, we climbed up hundreds of steps to watch the sunset from atop the Phosy mountain in town and strangely set free four birds from cages that were being sold at the temple on the top.  This is Luang Prabang from high:

The next day, we decided to bike all the way back to the waterfall we had seen on the first day on rented mountain bikes, a debatable decision at best since this basically required biking up a mountain for 3 hours.  We met some friends along the way who were having a much more relaxing time than we were:

My last day in Luang Prabang was incredible.  I woke up at 5:30am to participate in the daily alms ceremony downtown.  Still half-asleep I stumbled down to the main street where some kind ladies scooped me up, sold me some alms, wrapped a prayer scarf around my neck and sat me down on a mat to wait for the monks. Starting at exactly 6:00am, silent lines of monks of all different ages began to walk by us for the offering. For each monk, I grabbed a ball of sticky rice and put it into their bag as they passed by, careful not to look any in the eye.  Besides tourists taking photos, the scene was silent.  Poor village children with large baskets were given food by the monks during the alms ceremony, a site that brought some to tears.  Something incredible I noticed was that there was one monk with down syndrome. 

 After the alms ceremony, I went back to the hotel to get ready for our Hmong village trek.  The next 7 hours were stunning.  We were driven an hour away in a tuk tuk and then crossed the Mekong on a tiny rickety boat to the other side.  Our guide then led us on a 5 hour trek through the mountains to visit different hill tribes like the Hmong and Khmu.  Partway through, we stopped in a Khmu village and ate delicious bamboo curry using ingredients that we had foraged for on our morning trek.  We met young boys setting out traps for birds and many people farming in the hills. 

The only part of our trip that was life-changing in a negative way was our bus trip home.  Ordinarily a 10-12 hour trip, our bus ride took 24 hours.  In the middle of the night, our bus broke down in the mountains completely in the middle of nowhere.  No reception, no water, no bathrooms, no food, we spent 12 hours there.  I was having some GI problems, so I had an especially rough time.  Near the morning, we all went outside the stifling hot bus to sit outside as our bus driver furiously worked underneath the bus covered in grease.  The morning mountain air was nice and we all started talking and laughing.  Two of our friends built a fire with help from one of the monks on the bus and roasted bananas for everyone.  Erica sat sketching the broken down bus, we talked with some Lao people, and played ukelele on the pavement.  Around 10am, our bus driver fixed the bus after spending 10 hours working on it. A ridiculous triumph that included taking apart the engine and putting it back together.  He then jumped back on the bus and spend the next 10 hours driving us back.

Love and Elephants,


1 comment:

  1. What a beautiful place. I especially enjoyed your descriptions of the elephants and riding them bare-back while being flung into the Mekong River as well as the alms ceremony. Luang Prabang seems like a magical place and it sounds like you have found yourself some wonderful (and thankfully patient!) travel buddies!