Laos Adventure Travel – And What an Adventure!
We couldn’t find Laos! All this way from Canada and the van drivers could not find the Thai – Lao border! After a few u-turns, a bit of paperwork, a 5 minute boat ride, we were in Laos.
Lao is about people, truly delightful people who let us see into their homes and their lives. It’s about villagers learning the lost arts of weaving and animal farming. It’s about the mysterious Plain of Jars – what are those things anyway? It’s about MAG and their tireless work ensuring kids are wary of bombies that fit into the palm of your hand but are meant maim and kill. It’s about 4000 islands in the south and chasing elusive dolphins into Cambodia. It’s about the daily dawn ritual of monks walking through their communities.
A highlight of Northern Laos on this Explore tour for me was a walk on day 3. It was described as a 3.5 hour walk but what they did not say was that we would leave at 9 and get back at 6 because we stopped a lot! They have set up a small area here as an ecotourism project: they are taking people into some small villages in this biodiverse area. In the meantime they are teaching villagers how to weave so they have a product to sell the tourists being brought in and also how to farm with animals rather than the traditional slash and burn ทัวร์ลาว.
I shot about 4 rolls of film in one day so that tells you how much I enjoyed the day. We were all sun burnt and hot so stopped at the internet café for chocolate cake on the way back to the hotel! Always a good idea to eat dessert first – life can be uncertain!
A day or so later, we took a boat from Nong Khiaw on a trip down the Nam Ou river which joins the Mekong just above Luang Prabang. The 5 – 6 passenger boats are long narrow skiffs with the motor at the back but the driver at the front.
The river is quite narrow so it was very easy to see what the people were doing along the way. You could smile and laugh with them and of course wave! Some people were even panning for gold if you can believe it! Others were washing all manner of things aside from themselves. We saw really little boys – age 4 even – paddling around in canoes all alone, parents nowhere to be seen. We saw some very primitive small “hydro” stations where the river ran a bit faster over the rocks. Just enough speed to generate a bit of power for their homes. Quite incredible. We saw people coming to the sandy outcrops mid-river to fill sacks full of sand to use for construction in their home area.
It must be a very steep uphill battle for the government and NGO’s in the area to teach people to look long term when there is such an immediate need for water closer to home than the nearest well and a little electricity.
Luang Prabang is the nicest little town. At one of the main temples they have made many mosaics of local life on the sides of two of the stupas. The mosaics are made from glass and of course shine in the sun. The scenes that are created on these walls are just amazing and so colourful. Life in Lao – people falling into a well, others praying, kids feeding a dog, fields of corn, monks strolling, elephants herds walking.
I have never seen anything like it before and it was great. It is a very lazy town and very hot here (even the main shopping is done at the night market). At dusk most of the group climbed to the top of the hill in the centre of town for a 360 degree vista of the area including the Mekong.
At about 5:30 the next morning we went back to that same temple to see the people offer monks their food for the day. In Buddhism, people gain merit by giving to the monks. Many tourists now go out to see the procession and as the Explore leader explained, it is almost more for the tourists now than for Buddha. Interestingly some street kids had set up a spot for themselves with plastic bags and bamboo bowls laid out so the monks would then scoop some food out of their bowl and put it into the kids’ bowls. Circle of life. It was quite a long procession – about 12 monks altogether and as the tourists scrambled about trying to get photos of all this giving of food, we must have looked quite the sight.
The basis of the ceremony is very human and I like that part of it. I had seen a similar ceremony earlier in the trip and I could not help but compare. As we waited outside our family-run guest house, 3 monks came along the road. The lady next door was waiting for them: she was sitting on a mat. They circled around her, she bowed her head, they said a few words – prayers perhaps, she passed them the rice, she bowed her head again, and the monks continued on by.
So which is Laos? Both most certainly. The enchantment of the place is that it still retains the one-on-one element: you can feel the people here and feel their humanity. But if you think about life from their perspective, they are keen to have farangi come, stay in their guest houses, buy their wares, see their sights, use their internet cafes. Laotians are ready for all these things. But given the historical events of the last 50 years, the one true thing they have is their religion. So it becomes a struggle to satisfy all sides of life.
I asked what the monks do all day. They chant / pray just twice a day and the boy monks go to school. They are taught in a school just for monks but in small village areas, they are in village school with all the kids. No one is allowed to touch them or play with them though. I thought this sounded quite lonely. You may know that everyone is supposed to become a monk for awhile in their life. Tough decision. As a parent, if you give your child to the monk-hood, the child will be schooled and fed for free and the family gains merit for the next life. Sounds pretty good – but as you grow older, there is no one to look after you so a bit of a downside as well.
During the Vietnam war, there were some air bases in Thailand. If the weather was bad and “they” could not drop their bombs on the Vietnamese target, “they” dropped them off in Laos on the way back to the airfield. “They” were too worried to land with bombs on board so “they” dropped them off indiscriminately in Laos. The estimate is 90 millions special cluster bombs. A cluster bomb is a shell casing with about 670 mini bombies inside. Each mini bombie fits in the palm of your hand. Inside the mini bombie, there are about 300 ball bearings. On impact, the ball bearings scatter to a range of about 30 metres. The bombs are armed somehow by the number of rotations they do in the air before impact. Some bombies did not explode when they landed because they had not rotated enough. And that is the situation Lao deals with today. Estimates here are that there are up to 30 million bombs still active. They landed anywhere and everywhere – in trees, on houses, in crowded people places – and so now they are trying to find these and set them off safely.