Laos 2003 Travelogue

March-April 2003

The slow boat harbor in Houay Xai, Laos
3/30-04/08/03 Laos...a Lesson in "Laid Back"
... We stepped foot off the little ferry boat that brought us across the Mekong from Thailand onto Lao soil on the afternoon of March 30. Even though we had our visas and all our paperwork was in order, we still had to complete an appropriate arrival/departure card. With that completed, I went to get my stamp...and the immigration officer asked for 15 baht. Surprised, I asked why. He pointed to a handwritten sign in the window, which stated on weekends, holidays, etc., they collected the money as an "overtime charge". It was Sunday. So we paid. Well, when I got my passport back and looked at my stamp, he had stamped that I had to leave the country by April 14 (but I have a 30-day visa). So I asked him why. He said 15 days. I told him I have a 30-day visa and handed the passport back. Oops. So, he WHITED OUT the mistaken date and restamped it. Great...I hope I don't have any problems on the back end with that one.

Kirk and I headed down with Anna & Sebastian (who we had met on the ride up from Chiang Mai) to the boat dock to see if we could find out when the boats left for Luang Nam Tha (for Kirk and me) and Luang Prabang (for Anna and Sebastian). No one really seems to know for sure, but we get answers of anywhere between 8:30 and 10:30 the next morning. And no one is really sure that there IS a boat to Luang Nam Tha. We all decide to stay at the guesthouse right next to the slow boat dock. Kirk and I got a basic room with in-room shower/bath for 160 baht (we hadn't found anyplace to change baht into kip, yet). We spent the evening hanging out, relaxing at a table overlooking the Mekong, chatting and playing backgammon. A couple of the local Lao family came over and watched the backgammon game, curious about what we were playing. Anna taught Sebastian to play...apparently he had never played before. The guesthouse had a little cafe overlooking the river and we ate was simple not to have to go anywhere. Our first Lao meal was wonderful! We had "minced beef" and "fried beef" and the four of us shared a pot of steamed rice (although Laos are particularly known for their sticky rice). After dinner, we taught them to play speed scrabble, which we played until we were all too tired to keep our eyes open! Sebastian did quite well -- he's FRENCH!! English is NOT his first language!

On March 31st, we rose early (not too early, mind you) and headed down to the ticket office to check into a boat to Luang Nam Tha or Xiang Kok. There were no slow boats going either place. They sent us to the fast boat dock to get a fast boat to Xiang Kok. The fast boat dock is 5k away, so we caught a songthaew and negotiated a rate. But as soon as he figured out why we were going there, he detoured to his house to "pick up the boat captain". After sitting there for 5 minutes while he was inside the house, we were steaming. We got out of the truck and started putting on our packs, which finally brought him out running. "Take us to the boat dock now!" He finally agreed, but was clearly reluctant to leave without whomever he had called. Well, we passed "whomever" on the road along the way. After some disagreement, he pulled over (over our objections) and then they said the "captain" would take us to Xiang Kok for 3000 baht. Now, you have to understand...that's about US$75, which is WAY more than we can afford to spend on one boat ride. And that's triple our daily budget (for, lodging, transport, entertainment). We didn't even consider it! We just said take us to the dock, which he did (but even then, he followed us, sure we would take up his friend on his offer). The boats, it turned out were just going to be too expensive. So, we walked around the corner to the bus depot and booked a songthaew to Luang Nam Tha for 260 baht each, a MUCH more reasonable price! They pointed us to the songthaew we were to ride in and it was completely packed already. It looked as if there were only 1 seat available. Eventually, they had one elderly man get off (which upset me...I would have been fine waiting for the next one) and put both Kirk and me on that one in his stead. The ride from Houayxai to Luang Nam Tha is...shall we say...a bit rough? It takes 7 or more hours to negotiate the "road" which is approximately 190 kilometers in length. There is not a centimeter of pavement to be found along the entire stretch. There were 9 people stuffed into the rear of the songthaew (like a pickup truck with a roof, but open-sided) and another 5 into the front cab. A couple of people got motion-sickness due to the extreme bumpiness of the terrain. During the latter half of the trip, we were going through several washed out portions of road and once had to evacuate the truck so it could cross the stream without all of our added weight (which probably would have either swamped it or gotten it mired in the mud). We crossed the river on a bamboo bridge.

When we finally pulled into Luang Nam Tha, Kirk and I were not looking forward to another road trip for a while, but wanted to get to Muang Sing. It was 5 PM. We managed to scrounge up enough people to get a truck to agree to take us the additional 90 minutes right then, rather than having to wait until morning! YAY! So, we and two German girls, Karen and Barbara, hopped in the back with our bags and a couple of Thais got in the front. We picked up a guy along the way and still had plenty of room. About 10 miles later, though, we were flagged down by 4 army guys, carrying guns. They hopped in the back and rode with us most of the rest of the way. It was a bit more crowded at that point.

We arrived in Muang Sing around 7, just as it was getting dark and started looking for a guesthouse. We ended up at the Muang Sing Guesthouse...all the places here are pretty primitive, but our room was huge, had a balcony and squat toilet/shower in the room for 30,000 kip (<$3). And most (?) importantly, a 24-hour light. The town only has power 3 hours a day, so when the power goes off, so do the lights. This one can be used when the power is off (battery-powered). The folks are very friendly, too! We had dinner across the street (yummy and cheap) and called it a night. Our friend Todd, by the way, said he was starving to death in Laos...we can't figure out why. The food here is great and there is plenty of it!

Interior of Wat Sing Jai
On April 1st, we woke VERY early to the sound of trucks, motorbikes and other assorted noises outside our window (which fronts the main street -- EVERYTHING in town fronts the main street). We did not, however, get out of bed, since it was well before dawn! (This was to have been our morning to sleep in!) It was REALLY loud, too! Some of the trucks sounded like the one-cylinder trucks we had seen/heard in Vietnam. We heard them going back and forth for hours. Finally, at 9:30, we crawled out of bed and took freezing cold showers. After changing some baht into kip, checking in at the immigration office for our "rubber stamp" and having some breakfast (banana pancakes in Laos are MUCH different from Vietnam, I discovered), we relaxed in the room for a bit. Then, we headed over to see Wat Sing Jai, which is just behind our guesthouse. It was painted in 1999 in festive Caribbean colors, but it was mostly faded when we were there -- in need of a new paint job. The interior was quite interesting. It had a rustic feel and there were a number of woven banners hanging from the rafters down the center part of the sanctuary. The outer walls of the temple had not been painted at all -- they were bare white. There was a large drum outside...perhaps that was the drum we had heard someone beating for about 10 to 20 minutes last night when the power was turned off!

Although we had originally planned to rent a motorcycle or bicycles that day, we decided to kick back and relax. We spent the afternoon hanging around the guesthouse, in our room or on the balcony, reading, people watching, relaxing or taking care of long-put-off "chores". I read "The Killing Fields", a book by Christopher Hudson about Dith Pran, a Cambodian journalist left behind during the Khmer Rouge genocidal campaign in the late 1970s. Kirk read "The Jade Window" by Maya Herman, a book we have previously mentioned. We discussed where we would head next in Laos and how to get there. We enjoyed the amazing views of about 8 to 10 different types of hilltribes people walking past our balcony to or fro, dressed in the garb indicative of his or her particular tribe. And, of course, we endured the endless streams of people who, despite our staying on our balcony, we SURE that we wanted to purchase items from our perch 10 feet above their heads. Late in the afternoon, we went for a walk through the village, observing people closer up. At one point, we happened to be following a young girl...a child, really (she couldn't have been more than about 7 or 8, at the most), carrying a pole on her shoulders with a large fishing-style bucket on either end, full of some sort of soup or stew. We must have followed her for close to half a kilometer at least, and she showed no signs of slowing down or coming close to her destination!

There were several kids of various ages who were already beginning to celebrate the new throwing water on any passersby (whether they be pedestrians or vehicles). The new year isn't until the middle of April!

After another dinner across the street, we chatted with a Canadian guy who had come into town. There are a LOT of Canadians travelling (and very few US folks...or as some people speculate, a LOT of US citizens CLAIMING to be Canadians). The Canadian had just cancelled his trip to China for fear of SARS or at least, of being stuck in China (either due to quarantine or borders being closed down).

Laos roads are the worst we have encountered so far. The people, on the other hand, are an interesting mix. They are not always friendly, but they are seldom unfriendly. They are very much a "live and let live" kind of folk. So far, we have encountered large numbers of hilltribe people.

It's weird being somewhere where there is no power at 7:30 at night. It was pitch black out and still the power was not fact, it never DID come on that night.

Overall view of the market
Can you spot Donna?

Women from different villages

More of the market atmosphere

An unusual truck at the market
On April 2nd, we got up early...when we heard the trucks cruising up and down the street, we took that as our wake-up call. The early morning market is supposed to be quite a sight to see, and it starts at dawn and is over by 7 or 7:30. We grabbed some cheese from our stores and headed out to find some bread to go with it. We picked up some baguettes on the way to the market. The baguettes in Laos (although Laos ALSO was occupied by the French) just aren't as good as they were in Vietnam. I have no idea why.

The main attraction at the market is NOT the wares. It's the people -- the vendors and the vendees. It's a colorful spectacle to see the Laos and hilltribe women wander the market with full headdress, vest, jacket, skirt and tights. Of course, each hilltribe has its own regalia, but that makes it all the more interesting and colorful. Add to that the regular Lao women who are out shopping (they tend to be in somewhat traditional woven or Thai silk skirts and a variety of tops with a simple headress or turban style headwrap) and you have quite a lovely sight! We tried to take a few photos without being too obvious or intrusive.

As we were leaving the market, one woman, seeing we were leaving empty-handed tried to sell me some bracelets, which we declined. A few steps later, a group of women first tried to sell me a woven purse. When we said no to that, one of them offered Kirk some opium! He emphatically refused! Opium is a big problem in Laos; many of the hilltribes still grow opium. It is a product that is lucrative for them and one of the few ways that many of them know how to make money. There are many organizations that are working to educate various hilltribes on other ways (less destructive ways) to make a living (but more on that later).

We stopped at our favorite little restaurant so Kirk could have some of the banana pancakes. I just had some Lao Coffee...if you think that sounds boring, let me set you straight. Lao coffee, like Vietnamese Coffee is served very simply (but deliciously) with sweetened condensed milk: the milk is on the bottom of the glass (a clear glass) and strong coffee is poured over the top. You mix it in. Voila! Excellent drink! Try it at home!

We chatted for a bit with a guy from Seattle we had met the night before. He has taken it upon himself to buy gobs of weavings of Lao women, take them home and sell them. Then, he tries to come back every couple of years or so and do it all over again. It's his little way of supporting Lao women and their weaving industry. Chatting with him, though, we decided where to go that day...we resolved to head back to Luang Nam Tha and eventually to hop a songthaew to Oudomxai to Pakbeng and then catch the slow boat on to Luang Prabang.

The frolicking water buffaloes
We spotted motorbikes for rent, but they wanted 100,000 kip! That's CRAZY!! It's $10! We have been paying less than $5! We decided to rent mountain bikes instead and rode them all the way to the Chinese border...well, it's not THAT far...only 11 kilometers one way! But, it was a beautiful ride and we had a nice view of some waterbuffalo frolicking in a flooded rice paddy along the way. At the border, of course, we had to turn around. Back in town, we packed up our gear and "officially" checked out of our hotel. Our hosts, who were so nice, seemed genuinely sad to see us go. We left our bags there for a while, though, and grabbed lunch before heading back out toward Xiang Kok on our mountain bikes. This time, we were about 10 kilometers out of town when the crankshaft on Kirk's bike started coming loose. We decided to turn around and head back towards town after tightening it the best we could with the tools we had available. We saw lots of townspeople along the way; many of the children, and even some of the adults would call out "Sabadi" and even wave as we passed by. "Sabadi" means both "hello" and "goodbye" in Lao. We, of course, returned the greeting.

When we returned to the guesthouse to retrieve our bags, we chatted with the owner for a bit. His wife wasn't around, but we pointed to the photo behind him, which looked like him at a much younger age; it 35. And it turned out that this was his 60th birthday! If only I knew how to say "Happy Birthday" in Lao!! If you go to Muang Sing, we highly recommend the Muang Sing Guesthouse. Though the room was a bit loud (from what we hear, all the guesthouses there have the same issue), the owners were wonderful and otherwise, we loved our room!

When the bus stops along the road, there are always vendors there to sell you whatever you desire!
We said our goodbyes and headed to catch a bus to Luang Nam Tha. We left when the truck was full. We kept picking up more people along the way (i.e., the truck got fuller). It was VERY full when we arrived in Luang Nam Tha. But, that is the Lao way.

Kirk and I headed into the main part of town to look for the internet (we had heard a rumor that they HAD internet) and find a guesthouse. We found the internet first. We heard that it had been out of service for five days and had JUST started working again, so we figured we'd better check email while we had the chance! It was, however, solar-powered (wow! I'd never heard of that before) and very expensive (650 kip per minute, which is almost US$4 per hour), so we didn't stay on that long. Then, we went and found a guesthouse, off the main road, called Soulivong Guesthouse. For 25,000 kip (~$2.50), we got a double room with shared bath, toilet paper and HOT water shower!! The room was nice and came with mosquito net and nice amenities. The bathroom, although with squat toilet, was the cleanest I think I've seen in a month. They clean it about once every hour! Let's just say we HIGHLY RECOMMEND this guesthouse! It's across the street from the Luang Nam Tha Visitor Information Center.

We met Nicola, a Canadian who was staying next to us, and invited to her have dinner. It was an experience as the power went out on us, while we were all in the middle of deciding what to order. Then, the backup generator at the restaurant apparently ran out of gas! But, a few matches and candles later, all was well and we had a nice dinner together.

Your two intrepid travelers on the boat trek!
On April 3rd, Kirk and I got up early. We had heard loads of good things about treks run by the Luang Nam Tha Tourist Information Center and we wanted to try and get on! Apparently, they run eco-friendly tours (which is VERY unusual in Asia) and even have some UNESCO backing). We walked over there (it was across the street from our guesthouse), but they weren't open yet, so we had some breakfast. When they opened up, we looked at the 1-day tours they had to offer and what openings they had for the day. We ended up liking the looks of a "boat trek" that 2 other people had signed up for (4 people minimum) and decided on that one. But then, we found the other 2 had bailed. So, we went searching the streets for others so we could do our trek! We found 4 others (including Nicola from the night before, Anna - another Canadian, Keren from Israel and John from Ireland). We were thrilled! The boat trek was GREAT! We took a pickup to the boat landing, which was about 8 kilometers out of town. We were split into two groups of 3 and piled onto two narrow long boats, each with a crew of three. The guide went with us (Kirk, me and Anna). Two of the crew rode in front, guide the boat with poles and paddles while the third worked the motor, rudder and when necessary used poles and paddles as well. In numerous places, we had to navigate very tricky rapids, particularly so in the low water conditions leading up to the monsoon season. At one point, we even had to get out and hike a bit, since our weight in the boats would have ensured that we would not have made it through the section. We stopped for a traditional Lao lunch -- there was a wide assortment of foods: Lao salad (assortment of greens in some sort of sauce), eggplant (not like we have in the US - it looks like tiny peas on grapes), chicken, a spicy fish sauce for dipping, eggs that had somehow been salted and peppered before being hardboiled in the shell (served in the shell still), fish eggs, pumpkin, tamarinds, bananas, tangerines, sticky rice and custard-filled cakes. It was delicious! When we couldn't possibly eat another bite, all the wrappers and trash was packed up to be packed out and the biodegradable stuff was left (like the palm fronds and banana leaves we had used as a picnic blanket).

Khmu Village Hut with disks

Women from the first Khmu village

A beautiful woman and others on the steps in a Khmu village
We continued down the river for a while and the boat eventually stopped. We were at our first hilltribe village, a Khmu village. The first of two we would visit. It was a very small village and had no school. The children in this village walked 35 minutes each way every day to attend school in a neighboring village. The houses were all on stilts and had an interesting distinguishing feature, especially on the huts that housed food stores. At the top of each stilt leg was a large disk about 6-8 inches below the bottom surface of the house. This prevented rats and other vermin from being able to climb the stilt and get into the food stores. The Khmu's also raise cattle and other farm animals, many of which we saw taking shelter underneath the stilted houses (to get out of the midday heat).

We headed upriver to the next village. Shortly after we left, we had a problem with our boat. We were going through a particularly difficult rapid...I could always tells when one of our little boat crew guys on the front knew when they had done something wrong because the boat with hit or scrape something and they would immediately look back to see the reaction of the captain. One of those times, it scraped pretty hard and it didn't sound good -- I heard another noise and was pretty sure I had just heard the propeller break. I looked at Kirk for confirmation and he nodded, but told me he had seen three extras on board. We didn't have enough power, though, to get out of the rapid we were in, and one of the crew had to hop out onto a rock and hold onto the boat while the captain changed the propeller mid-stream! Then, the boat had to start from a dead stop into the on-rushing took a bit of time, but we made it.

We didn't catch the other boat until we reached the next village. It was one we had passed earlier in the day, full of yelling, screaming children, playing in the water. Most, if not all of them had been naked, waving at us and calling "Sabadi" as we passed. But, now that we were coming TO their village, a few of the older kids were rounding up those that weren't climbing out on their own accord and either covering them up or herding them up the hill to their huts. We were clearly ruining their fun.

We disembarked and headed up the hill into the village, another, much larger, Khmu village. This is the one the other children come to in order to attend school. We were surprised to find a freshwater well near the top hill of the village, sponsored and installed by the government of New Zealand! It brought in water from a stream high up in the hills so that the entire village had water from an uncontaminated source! The village was full of people, some very friendly and curious, while others were quite shy. There were a number of puppies about, which we learned was probably due to the fact that they eat dogs for food -- once they reach approximately 1 year of age. As we left the village, a group of the children, who previously had been swimming, were sitting on a rock by the water, watching us. Some looked on sullenly, others, curiously. We climbed into our boats. The first boat (the other boat), started its engine and headed upstream. The younger kids, burst into smiles and started waving, calling "Sabadi!" They waved the boat out of sight. We were sitting in our seats, getting settled, watching this transpire. Our engines started. The older kids stood up. The younger kids turned and looked at us, waving at us now. "Sabadi! Sabadi!" Smiles everywhere now... but now, as they waved with one hand, we saw many of the kids shedding their clothes with the other, running for the water again, ready to resume their games. Finally, the falang were leaving and they could return to their fun!

Joeh and Kirk in the boat

Cute girl at the Lenten Village

They were building a house at the Lenten village
We headed upstream to the next village, this time, a Lenten village. This village had a MUCH different look than the others we had visited so far! The Lentens had immigrated from China and used to build all of their huts on the ground. In fact, almost ALL of their buildings were on ground level. One was, however, being built while we were there, and it was on stilts. The women wear black jackets with light pink stitching and black pants or skirts. The jackets seem to have a pink tassel hanging from the front. Some wore a silver band around their necks. The Lenten women shave their eyebrows. One little girl in particular seemed very curious and followed us around the entire village. She was one of the few girls who wasn't too shy to have her photo taken. The women there make very colorful traditional handbags and caps for their babies.

Silkworms munching on mulberry leaves
We left that village and motored a bit further upstream. We went to our last village, a Tai Dam village, immigrants from North Vietnam, near Dien Bien Phu. The Tai Dams are reknown silkweavers and were happy to show off their skills. We saw numerous pieces that had been woven there by different weavers. We even saw the silkworms themselves. The Tai Dams feed their silkworms mulberry, which is a sign of good silk (Vietnamese, for example, often feed their worms casaba leaves, which cause the silk not to be as high quality). The Laos and Japanese use mulberry.

As we left the village, we saw a huge party going on at one end... they were celebrating completion of a new house! Building of a house takes anywhere from 10 months to 2 years, depending on the size and is a project of the entire village. They were eating and dancing and yelled and motioned for us to come and join them. But, we kept going and headed back to the boats where we took a quick swim (downstream from some waterbuffalo...what were we thinking?!) before heading back in the boats.

Boat trekkers (John, Karen, Kirk, Donna, Nicola, and Anna) relaxing with fruit shakes after a "tough" day on the river.
After a quick ride back to town, we had a nice round of fruit shakes and then all decided to head off to dinner. If you are going to spend ANY time in Luang Nam Tha, then you have to be sure to eat at Panda Restaurant. They have an excellent menu. And, unlike most of the restaurants in town, they have quite reasonable prices. You can find them just down the road from the bus terminal (on the street that is one block west of the main road). All six of us had a most excellent dinner there!

On April 4th, I heard the roosters start crowing and out of curiosity looked at my watch. Can you believe it was 2:30AM?! And no, the sun was NOT up!! Kirk and I got up early (but not THAT early) and headed out the door. We had breakfast at Panda (yum!!). We also noticed that they have an owl in residence! It was quite an interesting owl. And it hisses when it's a bit annoyed. Then, we headed to the bus station to catch our truck to Oudomxai. We loaded our stuff onto the bus -- it was ACTUALLY a bus this time (shocker). A Chinese, 25-passenger bus. Bigger than a minivan, but smaller than a school bus. Of course, in Asia, 25-passenger doesn't REALLY mean 25-passenger. Then, we sat down and waited for "enough people" to show up for us to go. A bit later, a lady showed up with some sacks full of something very heavy...dirt or manure or something. And they needed to go on top of the bus. Kirk ended up helping the guy lift them up there (and they had to get another guy). One guy stood on top, one guy stood on the ladder and Kirk stood on the ground. Kirk sort of carried/pushed, the guy on the ladder pushed/carried/pulled and the guy on the top, when he could reach, pulled. It was good teamwork among guys who couldn't speak to one another! Especially when one of the sacks broke open spilling very smelly, dirty stuff all over them!

The bus ride to Oudomxai was, predictably, VERY VERY full. We arrived at the bus depot (a big dirt parking lot, by the way) at about 8:30 or 9. Our bus left at about 11:15 or 11:30, when they finally had enough people to call it "full". And that meant they couldn't possibly fit another breathing soul on board. I have since decided, I prefer the songthaews. Even though they aren't as "comfortable" as a bus and the ride isn't as "smooth", it's open-air and I feel like I have more room! A lot of our time in Laos has been spent trying to get from one place to another, which, often, isn't easy. But, the riding is often half the fun...seeing the countryside, interacting with the people around you. At one point, on the bus, two little boys were eyeing me as I ate a Pringle chip (yes, they have them here). So, I offered them a couple. They took them happily. I heard them crunching away. A couple of seconds later, I looked over and the smaller boy (sitting behind his brother) was stuffing what was left of the Pringles into his brother's hand (with a single bite taken out). They looked at me sheepishly. I looked away. When I looked back, I saw the older boy toss a piece out the window over the head of the man sitting next to him...I couldn't help it...I started laughing. I stuck my hand out so they could discard them more easily! Later in the ride, an old man got on the bus and sat next to me (the young boys had been relegated to sitting on their parents' laps again). He, too, was eyeing the Pringles, so I offered him some. I nearly burst out laughing when he immediately turned and offered some of his loot to the boys sitting next to him and I saw the look of terror in their eyes!

We reached Oudomxai about an hour earlier than expected -- not early enough to head to Pakbeng, but not a moment too soon! I was cramped and sweaty and ready to be off that bus! We found a guesthouse off the main road called Xienhoungggasehouse. It was nice enough, although we never figured out if it were owned by Lao or Chinese. I think, perhaps, it was Chinese-owned. For 20,000 kip, we had our own toilet and cold-water shower.

Oudomxai has internet...but only when there's power. When we first arrived, the power wasn't on yet, so it wasn't open. We went and had a fabulous lunch at Keomoungkoun Restaurant, near the bridge. It was recommended by the Rough Guide, and was excellent. We tried the Fried Pork with Ginger and Sour Vegetables and were quite happy with our selection! And they had excellent lemon juice -- they served it frozen! We did manage to get over to start our first post from Laos, but in the middle of it, the power went out...oh well. We went back to the restaurant, and spent the rest of the evening, reading and journaling by candlelight. It's a beautiful way to spend an evening. Imagine a town, city, village where everyone sits around by candlelight, no glaring city lights to distract you or blind you. The stars are beautiful and clear in the sky. That is Laos.

On April 5th, we got up fairly early. We had decided to get to the bus depot early, hoping to get a good spot on the bus/truck or whatever was going to Pakbeng. We stopped at the restaurant and got a couple of baguettes to go (we were going to use the last of our cheese) and some water.

As we were standing in line to get the tickets to Pakbeng, I was looking at the board. We were planning to go to Pakbeng, catch a slow boat to Luang Prabang, and eventually head back north to Nong Khiaw and then back to Luang Prabang. We were doing it that way because of my stubborn insistence that I wanted to do the slow boat. Pakbeng was known for its holding of tourists hostage (it has only 2 guesthouses, and 1 or 2 restaurants and all the slowboats stop there for the night, so they can charge whatever they want). It was cheaper to go direct to Nong Khiaw than to Pakbeng. And I knew that then we would only go 1 way then to Luang Prabang, cutting out the slow boat and 1-way of the Nong Khiaw/Luang Prabang trip. I tapped Kirk on the shoulder. Yes? Let's go to Nong Khiaw. Huhn?

View from Nong Khiaw bridge looking North

Nong Khiaw bridge with a working elephant crossing
We went to Nong Khiaw. Actually, we went to Pakmoung and then caught another songthaew to Nong Khiaw. We were the only falang on both of these trucks. We even had delusions when we arrived in Nong Khiaw of being the only falang there!

Nong Khiaw is a dusty little town set on the Nam Ou river. It's in a beautiful valley. It was, however, terribly hazy when we arrived. They had started the slash and burn agriculture that is so prevalent in this part of Asia and the air had filled with smoke. We didn't notice it so much on the drive up, although I was engrossed in reading my book (I'm rereading the Lord of the Rings trilogy) when I wasn't being doused with water by children celebrating the new year a bit early.

At the edge of Nong Khiaw is a bridge that was built in 1975, spanning the Nam Ou and connecting the town (which is barely 25 years old) to its 200 year old sister city, Ban Lao. The river seems to be the city center, in many ways, for both towns, (which almost seem to be one, and many tourists mistake them for one). The men fish in the river. It is used for transport. Commerce is conducted in and out of the town from the river. The children play in it. The women wash themselves and their clothes in it. The entire town of Nong Khiaw is built along the banks of the river.

We walked up the hill from where we were dropped off (at the boat landing) and got a room at a guesthouse on the main road, Somgnot Guesthouse. It is a pale blue cement building. The facilities are VERY basic, especially the toilets (squat toilets and pour water over yourself to bathe), but it was 20,000 kip and the people are incredibly friendly. Besides, we didn't realize at the time that there was much other choice.

We went for a walk around town and to find some food. We ended up at a restaurant recommended by our guesthouse -- at the Chittavong Guesthouse, right on the river. The service was a little slow, but the food was really good and fairly cheap. And they had lemon juice for only 2,000 kip. After sitting a relaxing with a view of the river over lunch, we walked out over the bridge and had a closer look. Then, we headed over for a brief walk around Ban Lao.

On the way back over to the boat docks (we wanted to check into getting a boat back to Luang Prabang instead of taking a songthaew), we stopped at the room. Kirk was terribly tired...he had hardly slept the night before, so he laid down and took a nap, while I read my book for a while. After a couple of hours, our room had gotten stifling, so we got up and went outside. It was very still...the wind had stopped completely (which explained the heat in our room). If anything, the smoke in the air seemed to be worse, hanging like a dark red veil over the sun. The boat ticket office was closed, so we would have to return tomorrow. We spent the rest of the afternoon playing cards on the front veranda of our guesthouse, watching the town stroll by. The family hosting us was intrigued, apparently, by our card-playing and stopped to watch every time we shuffled the deck. Later in the evening, Pep, the young man, came and told us that Mama wanted to give us New Year blessings. She came and sat down and tied string on both of Kirk's arms and then both of mine, telling us something in Lao, which, of course, we didn't understand. We thanked her anyway, of course.

We decided to go and get dinner before power went out. We went back to Chittavong. While we were sitting there, we observed another falang couple and spent some time trying to guess where they were from (they were not speaking English). When another couple came in SPEAKING English, we started trying to identify their accents (this is one of our new games)...identify the accent/country/region. I told Kirk I thought the guy was East Coast (rather than Canadian...we've been meeting a lot of Canadians lately). At a convenient moment, Kirk turned around and asked him where he was from. Boston. Bingo! :) It turns out that he (Garvin) and his wife (Karen) are on a year-long, round-the-world trip as well. We chatted with them for a good long time, discovered we have much in common, and ended up having dinner together. The poor restaurant people must have thought we would never leave! We finally paid and parted ways, the last to leave by a good while. We were both heading up to see a local cave in the morning, so it was possible we'd cross paths then.

On April 6th, we wanted to go and see the morning market Karen and Garvin had mentioned, but it wasn't very early, so we didn't know if we had missed it. As we were walking out of the guesthouse, Mama asked if we wanted coffee. Sure! Always say yes to Lao coffee!! So, we ordered breakfast too! Well, by the time all that was finished, we KNEW it was unlikely the market was going, but we HAD to check, so we walked through town, just in case. Nope, no market. But, it was a nice stroll through town anyway. We headed back a different route, taking the paved bypass road which led us back to the bridge across to Ban Lao. We stopped at Chittavong for a cold drink. While we were there, we met a former American-turned-Lao who is living in Ban Lao, Marko. He is starting a couple of businesses in Ban Lao and, but was also full of all sorts of information about local stuff. We told him we were going to the caves and he told us about the Bank of Luang Prabang cave that is around the corner from the one we were going to. Apparently, they had recently removed the sign pointing you to it. They don't seem to want the tourists to know it's there. He told us how to find it. Cool!

I promised you before to talk more about the various programs and things that are going on to try and help the people of Lao and hill tribes... many of the hilltribes in Thailand, Burma and Laos still cultivate opium for a living. It is their primary source of income. Although the governments of both Thailand and Laos are cracking down on the trade of opium, somehow the trade still goes on, and the hill tribes just don't seem to make progress toward finding another industry to support themselves. Enter Marko and others like him. Marko is starting a weaving school in Ban Lao. He wants to help teach the women in Ban Lao to weave (and boy, can Lao women weave!) the traditional fabrics and silks that sell so well. Similar programs have been started by the royal family in Thailand (quite successfully). Further issues that exist in Laos are UXO (unexploded ordinance -- i.e., bombs and such) removal. Laos is the most bombed country (per capita) in the world. And it is currently estimated that to remove all the UXO will take 100 years!! Hundreds of people, mostly children are killed or maimed every year by UXO. Removal of these deadly devices should be on the top of everyone's list. These are all things we discussed with Marko during our short (but not too short) conversation with him.

Then, we headed off to find the Phatoke Cave, which is supposedly 2 kilometers down the road (but is really more like three) and is technically in Mueng Ngoy. Along the way, we saw a number of people out practicing their slash and burn agriculture, contributing to the growing stench and the increasing amount of smoke in the air. The air was, if possible, even more thick with smoke than the day before. Ash was falling from the air...I wondered if this was a small piece of what Mt. St. Helen's must have felt like weeks after the eruption.

Kirk and Donna with Karen and Garven and two Nong Khiaw monks at the caves

Karen and Kirk at the Bank of Luang Prabang cave
At the caves, we paid our 3,000 kip entrance fee and headed up to the main cave. At the top of the stairs, we headed into the darkness of the cave and saw headlamps coming out. We heard a voice,"Is that Kirk and Donna?" It was Garvin! We laughed. We chatted with them for a bit (he and Karen were there with two monks they had met earlier) and told them about the Bank of Luang Prabang Cave. We decided to all go and find it together; we would explore this cave afterwards.

We headed back down the stairs leading into the cave and turned right, following the wall of the mountain as closely as we could. Marko was right -- the signage had been removed. As we walked along the burms in the rice paddies, we ended up along one that led into a very rugged area... I kept thinking I really was in a section I didn't want to be in and started looking for a way out. THAT was when we found the turn off leading up to the cave! The cave was cool! The only sign left there was the one over the door, identifying it as the home of the Bank of Luang Prabang from 1964 to 1972. All the signage within the cave, marking where the administrative offices were, the vaults, etc., was gone. However, we found a very narrow passage twisting and turning, leading down, down, down. Clearly, it was the vault. The monks had never been there. It was fun showing them something in their own town they had never seen!

After exploring it to our hearts' content, we headed back out and to the other cave where we chatted for a bit and parted ways for the afternoon. Then, Kirk and I went into the other cave. In fact, there are FOUR caves in the area, but we didn't know where to find the other two. The four caves are the home of the center of the anti-American resistance during the war. They played a central (and secret) part in the war and over 3,000 people lived in them! The second cave we went into was much larger than the Bank cave, but not as impressive, we least not as interesting.

We walked back to Nong Khiaw and had lunch at Chittavong. This time our service was so incredibly slow (we sat down first, but were served after 2 tables of Lao that sat down after us) that we decided NOT to have dinner there, even though we love the food.

We checked out the wat in Ban Lao next. There were three monks there... two of them spoke pretty good English and DEFINITELY saw us as an opportunity to practice! It seems tourists in town mean two things: 1. English practice; 2. money. They tried us for both. The wat was in much disrepair and we saw why Marko had been on a mission to try to raise money for its renovation and upkeep.

One of the fishermen casting his net
We headed back to the guesthouse for a little relaxation. Karen and Garvin walked by and we made plans to meet them for dinner at their guesthouse, the Sunset House. We spent the afternoon relaxing on our veranda.

We headed over to Karen and Garvin's for dinner. When we left our guesthouse it was dark outside. As we walked across the bridge (their guesthouse was in Ban Lao), you couldn't see another person even if they were only about 5 feet away. There were tons of kids out -- some were setting off firecrackers off the bridge. We could hear many more down below and occasionally glimpsed candles or dim torches on the beach -- the kids were looking for a particular bug that comes out (starting around this time of year) that they like to eat. The night had quite a festive feel as we crossed the bridge.

We had a tough time finding the right turnoff for the Sunset Guesthouse in the dark, and ended up being a bit late (we HATE that). But Karen and Garvin were graciously forgiving and we proceeded to have a wonderful dinner at a riverside, candlelit table, enjoying excellent conversation with our new friends. We meet a lot of people on the road, but more often than not, they are much younger than us. It was a rare treat to meet this couple as we had much in common. We talked late into the night and only left when we realized we were keeping the poor family that ran the guesthouse awake by not leaving!

On April 7, it was time to leave Nong Khiaw. We didn't get up early enough to try and catch the 6AM boat, but that was fine. We had a nice leisurely breakfast at our guesthouse and said our goodbyes. I was genuinely sad to say goodbye to Mama and Papa as they had been very good to us! We thanked them profusely and then headed down to the boat dock to see what the chances were of getting a boat to Luang Prabang. They still told us a boat was going to be 700,000 kip (US$70), but that the boat from Muong Ngoy wasn't in yet. We decided to wait on that one and see if anyone was going on. We had heard that it sometimes would continue on, in which case, it was feasible we could catch it for as little as $5. It was due to arrive in about an hour.

We sat down and started chatting with another falang that was sitting nearby. It turns out she is from the Czech Republic -- the only person we have met during our travels from there! We had a wonderful time chatting with her and exchanged email addresses before we left. We may end up meeting up with her again in India or Nepal!

When the boat from Muong Ngoy arrived, everyone disembarked. It wasn't looking too good. We ended up taking a truck. We loaded up all of our stuff... It was, unfortunately, a rather LARGE truck, and in Laos, nothing leaves until it is full. So, we sat there for over an hour waiting for more people to show up. A few did, but we still weren't full. We waited a while longer and then the truck finally started and we were off...up the hill to the other bus stop, where we got out and paid for our tickets to Luang Prabang. We sat there for a while (we got to chat with Marko and with Garvin and Karen as they each wandered by). Finally, the bus started (no new passengers) and we were off! Back to the boat dock again!

We waited a bit longer and the truck started again! We drove back up the hill to the other bus stop! Good grief! We're gonna get all of our miles and five hours in one town! We sat there for a minute. Then we turned around and headed back... I held my breath as we neared the turn off for the boat landing. The truck slowed down...slower. And it stopped right before the turnoff (and right in front of our guesthouse -- we had been waiving to Mama and Papa everytime we went by...they were laughing their heads off by now. So was Karen, who was now sitting on our veranda, catching up on her journal and sipping a cool drink). The driver hopped out and loaded an old tire from the house we had stopped in front of onto the top of the truck. Now THIS was new. Maybe it was a good sign...maybe we were LEAVING...

The truck started... we kept going PAST the boat landing turn off! "Bye!", we waved! We drove up a few houses and stopped again. Loaded another tire. Up a few more houses and stopped. This time we loaded a girl and a few boxes. Sigh. We might make it to Luang Prabang this week. The most fun was when we stopped and loaded a live pig and some chickens! The woman put the pig in what we call a "Thai or Lao Luggage" - it's a big, cheap woven plastic sturdy bag with handles and a zipper -- and the pig can't see out. That went on the floor of the truck...right by my feet. The chickens were in a woven basket, strapped to the outside of the truck. The pig would be still for a bit and then it would get really active. It was quite a scene! The ride to Luang Prabang was about 5 hours.

In Luang Prabang, we had promised to return a key for a guy at a guesthouse where he had stayed and accidentally left with the key (and turned up in Nong Khiaw -- oops!). When we got there, we liked the guesthouse, so we are now residents of the Chittana Guesthouse for 50,000 kip for a nice room with in-room hot water shower, real WESTERN toilet, toilet paper and fan. It's cushy! And the bed is NOT hard as a rock! We went out looking for some food and a bookstore to trade in our old books, so Kirk would have something to read. We found a bookstore, but Kirk couldn't find anything he wanted to read, so we didn't trade. We had dinner at Ole Ole (yummy curry rice with coconut) and then relaxed in the room.

On April 8th, we decided to make it a day of sightseeing (a little anyway). After a light breakfast at Naune Naphe Restaurant, we stopped at an internet cafe to see if my beloved Kansas Jayhawks had made it to the finals of the Final Four. First, you have to understand that the fact that I am in Laos instead of AT the Final Four in New Orleans says a lot! Never before, since I first attended KU in 1983, have I missed KU in a Final Four (well, there was the time when my timing belt blew on the WAY to the game, but I was on the way... so does that really count...?) Anyway, when I checked the website, I realized that not only did Kansas WIN the semifinal game, but it was in the middle of PLAYING the final game while I was online! Laos, for all its beauty and wonder, is NOT known for its ability to show basketball games, especially live collegiate games -- not even national championship games. For that matter, you're lucky to find electricity here most times! I immediately clicked on "LIVE STATS" and desperately tried my best to follow the 9 minutes or so that was left of the second half of the game "virtually". It is certainly no substitute for the real thing. When I started watching, they were 10 points down...then 12. With five minutes to go, they were STILL 10 points down. With under a MINUTE to go, they had pulled within 2 and had possession... but oh, they lost the game by three. It was a heartbreaker. I wish I had seen the game, really! I had an email from a friend right after saying it was a really ugly game...we had been down by 30 at one point! But I don't care! I would love to have seen it anyway. Kansas, whether they win or lose, is still my team and always will be! They are the best!

The main sim at Wat Xiang Thong

Interesting work on an interior wall in the funerary building at Wat Xiang Thong

Side of the reclining buddha building at Wat Xiang Thong
We left the internet place and went looking at wats. Luang Prabang is full of them, most of them are monasteries. First, we stopped in and took a look at Wat Saen, which had an interesting ornate boathouse for the wat's two longboats used in the annual boatrace festival. Next, we stopped in at Wat Sop, where we encountered yet another English-speaking monk (this one was 14-years old) who wanted to practice his skills. His english was pretty good actually. We chatted with him for a while until we had exhausted his vocabulary and then we headed on. We stopped in next at Wat Khili and the monks there knew all the right questions to ask in English, but knew nothing about the follow up...they didn't understand our answer or our returned questions! They did direct us to Wat Xiang Thong, across the street and perhaps the centerpiece of the city.

Wat Xiang Thong is known as the Golden City Monastery and the main temple (sim) was build in 1560 by King Setthathilat. Unlike many of the other wats in the area, this one exists substantially as it was originally built. We walked around for quite a bit and then decided to head back to the room and take a rest from the heat of the day. After an afternoon snack, we spent the rest of the day updating the internet and my journal.

We will be in Luang Prabang for another few days, perhaps until the Lao New Year, as there are many festivities planned and many Lao actually come here to celebrate the New Year!

So for now, Sabadi (good bye) and Sabadi Bi Mai (Happy New Year)!

04/09-18/03 Lounging in Laos
First of all, I'd like to apologize for not getting a post out sooner than this. It turns out that internet in Laos is often quite expensive and unreliable. We are now in Cambodia and the internet access is good and cheap. We will catch you up soon. Back to our story....

On April 9, we weren't planning to get up early and we didn't, but at around 9 AM or so, we heard a "click" and our fan started slowing to a stop. Oh no -- the power had cut off! We lazed around until the room was just too hot, took our now cold showers in the dark and went out for the day. We tried to go to the post office and museum, but they were both closed for lunch, so we went to buy our tickets for the Royal Theater that night. They have different prices for each row, and you can pay in US Dollars, Thai Baht, or Lao Kip. Each row also seems to use different exchange rates. After a while of figuring out our best deal, we got some tickets in the middle of row "F" (which is about half way back), for about $5 each and paid in Baht.

As we were walking, we noticed some businesses had fans and lights on. We figured that power must have been restored, and decided to head back, and do some internet since it was so hot. However, as we got nearer to our section of town, there was still no power! We got to our guest house, and I took a shower to cool off. After a while, we went to a nearby cafe that had a generator, and fans, and had some cool drinks while we played cards. Unfortunately, the gas in their generator didn't last long... Sigh... Back to the guesthouse. This time we went to the top veranda and played scrabble, hoping for a breeze to cool us off.

The Royal Theater Dance Troupe

Ritual Minority Dance at the Royal Theater
That evening we went to the Royal Theater. It was still stifling hot outside. The theater itself is upstairs. The floor is flat, so we were glad that we got seats near the aisle. The performers are on a elevated stage, but it isn't all that high. The show starts with some folksinging and after a while, the singers came into the crowd and tied blessing strings on all of the guests. They also handed out rice cakes, bananas and juice to us. Next came the dance troupe. They performed a rather complicated show based on the story of "Phra-Lak Phra-Lam" After all this, there was a short break and we moved outdoors. We saw two different minority groups perform dances. We stayed until the very end and then went to the night market for dinner.

We were a bit disappointed with the night market. Apparently we had been terribly spoiled while in Chiang Mai by the excellent night market at Chiang Mai Gate. Here in Luang Prabang, very little is cooked fresh. We did have one satay each, it was "Buffalo" meat (probably Water Buffalo). It was not that great. We went on down the street to a restaurant and had "Mixed Barbeque with fried Potatoes" It was a shishkabob and fries. The pork and chicken were good, the beef was average. After that we did some internet.

The next day April 10, the power went off again in the morning. It was very HOT! We spent most of the day relaxing and trying to stay as cool as possible. I bought an aerogram at the post office. Then we went down the street to a cafe that had power and sat under the fans sipping cool drinks, watching CNN, and I wrote my aerogram to Jerry, while Donna worked on the journal. While we were there, we saw a very hilarious scene on CNN. The US troops had pretty much taken over Baghdad, and the Iraqis were busy pulling down all the Hussein statues. The troops didn't want large groups of people congregating, but they wouldn't disperse until this one statue was taken down. They had already tried pulling it down, but that failed. So the marines decided to blow it up - live on CNN. CNN kept cutting to the scene while they set the charges, etc. Finally, they cut to it just before it blew. Then as the smoke cleared, we could see it was still standing....uh-oh... And then much laughter! They had blown out a huge gaping hole from about mid-thigh up to his belly button. The announcers kept making tacky comments about him being "dismembered" and "impotent". We never did get to see what the final resolution was - we left shortly thereafter. Obviously, there wasn't much of importance to show or cover on CNN that day!

Next stop was the Palace Museum. It was located in the palace of the former monarchy in Laos. They dissolved the monarchy during the revolution in 1975. When we got there, we had to leave our shoes, cameras, bags, hats, etc, pay our fee and go in. Our favorite part was the Throne Room. The walls had fabulous inlaid glass and mirrors depicting early Lao life and legends. As we were leaving the museum, they were literally closing the doors after us. We never did get to see the garage that holds a special 1959 Edsel used by the king, and the Prabang, the most sacred buddha statue in all of Laos. Maybe next time...

For dinner we had pizza at CT Restaurant. Pretty good. Then did some internet and made plans to meet with our friends Karen and Garvin the next day.

April 11, 2003, Luang Prabang: It stormed like CRAZY last night! Thunder, Lightning, and it rained so hard it woke us up several times.But, when we woke up, it was sunny! Hooray! We met Karen and Garvin for breakfast at Ole Ole and rented motorbikes there too. $8/day. The cheapest in Luang Prabang. Karen equipped us with a decorated water bottle to be used to drench people that throw water on us while driving the bikes. This is traditional in Laos near the Laos New Year.

After breakfast we hopped on the bikes and headed out to Kuang Xi waterfall, 35 KM away. It was Garvin's first time riding a motorbike in SE Asia, so he was a bit timid at first, but quickly got the hang of it. The drive out was quite beautiful. Lots of it on dirt roads heading up into the hills. Eventually we reached the parking lot, parked the bikes, paid our 15,000kip ($1.50) admission fee and walked up the path to the falls. There are several vendors there ready to sell you food or drinks, so you don't need to bring any. The also had an enclosure along the path that contained an Indonesian tiger. She had been an orphaned cub and was hand raised. The enclosure was quite large. A good thing. As we came in the tiger was lounging in her den.

Garvin, Karen, Donna and Kirk at the falls

Donna and Karen about 1/3 of the way up

The Lower Pools

Pools at the top of the falls

Kirk jumping in
On to the waterfall. The Kuang Xi waterfall is aproximately 80 meters high and is located 560 meters above sea level. It is enormous! There were really two separate streams of water. At the base there are several pools of water where we took some nice photos. From there we could see people up above us climbing on higher levels of the falls, so we decided to climb on up there. We found a trail to the right of the falls and followed it up. It had several branches off to the left that you could follow out to the falls at various levels on the way up. Eventually it goes all the way to the top of the falls, and you can walk right across the top. The top of the falls is a very beautiful place. The waters are flowing amongst these trees, and through highly reflective pools, and then smoothly over the edge. From the top of the falls, you can look down over them and we saw a rope swing at a pool that was about halfway down the falls. We decided to go there and check it out. To get there we went down the trail to the right of the falls (as you face them from below) and when we got to the wooden staircase we went off trail towards the falls. There was a nice pool for swimming, and a rope swing to swing out and fall into the water with. I swung out many times and jumped in to the water. There were lots of mini-falls going into the pool, and even a spot where you could duck your head behind one of the falls. We had a great time. Eventually many other foreigners joined us. After we all were turning to prunes, we got out and climbed down the trail to the bottom where we had lunch at one of the vendors.

The tiger
On the way out we stopped by the tiger enclosure again and she was out in her den this time, pacing back and forth in front of the visitors. Donna and I went up to the fence and watched with the others, and soon the other people left including me; Donna was left there alone with the tiger. Now the tiger was still walking back and forth, but now everytime it passed Donna it would make a purring gutteral sort of noise and rub against the fence. It was totally cool!

Kirk and Garvin chatting during one of the picture stops
After refilling our waterbottles with more ammo, we headed back to Luang Prabang on the motorbikes. We made a few stops along the way for photos. Several times on the way into town, Garvin and Karen were in front of us, and they would get doused with water by kids along the way, but then we would be right behind them and we could douse the kids before they had a chance to refill! Unfortunately we ran out of ammo about when we hit the edge of Luang Prabang. We got drenched the rest of the way in. One guy even threw an entire bucket full of water at chest level! It was still 3 days BEFORE new years! It would only get worse!

Once we got back into town, we split from Karen and Garvin, but decided to meet later for the beauty pageant at the fairgrounds. We then took a little tour around the peninsula on the motorbike and stopped for dinner at little Lao restaurant overlooking the Mekong. After dinner we headed over to the fairgrounds. The fair had lots of dart throwing games (break the balloons, win a prize), some ring toss type games, a ferris wheel, and many booths just selling stuff. Some other booths were product promotionals, too. We met up with Garvin and Karen and watched the contest. The contestants were mostly doing the talent events, nearly all of them were singing. Eventually it started to rain, and there was no cover over the stage. At one point in the middle of one person's song, there was some lightning, and the power went out completely. It came back on a few minutes later, and since it was being televised, the guy had to start his song all over again. As it started to wind down and the rain got harder, we headed back into town. We dropped off our bike that night to avoid having to get up early and bring it back in the morning. Just as we dropped it off, we had a big thunderclap and a deluge of rain. We hid under the awnings waiting for it to reduce before we headed back to our guesthouse.

A cute little boy dousing people

Motorbikes are a favorite target

Mother Earth

Kirk by the Mekong
On April 12, we woke up again to no power! Arrgghh! The day was a very hot one, but FORTUNATELY it was filled with LOTS of water fights! We weren't dry at any time during the day. Every where you walk down the street, people were out throwing water on whomever and whatever passed by. Their favorite target is people on motorbikes. Second, I think would be the riders and drivers of tuk tuks and any open vehicle (like jeeps, but tuk tuks are a LOT more common).

In between water fights, we visited Wat That. It had an unusual statue that we hadn't seen before -- a woman with a long hair, holding a knife. The hair is usually in a braid that comes out of the top of her head, and she is generally holding it aloft or out to the side. We found out later that she is "Mother Earth". Perhaps, we see her here due to the large number of animists in Lao.

That evening we ate a nice pizza at CT Restaurant and went to Le Tranger's Book & Tea to watch Minority Report.

The next morning, April 13, we met Karen and Garvin for breakfast at the cafe for Bounthieng Guest House. This turned out to be our FAVORITE restaurant in Luang Prabang. The food is great, the location beautiful, and the prices cheap! (Don't tell them that last part though!)

Pak Ou Caves as seen from across the river

Some of the buddhas in Pak Ou cave

Our boat is the skinnier blue one 2nd from the left

Donna by the trough in the upper cave

The bailer on our boat
After breakfast, Donna and I went to Pak Ou Cave. We hired a boat for $9 for the both of us. We were the only passengers in the boat. The ride up the Mekong was GORGEOUS! Along the way we stopped at the boat driver's village so he could drop off some coconuts with his sister. The stop there took a while and our bailer (his job was to bail water out of the boat), a young boy (possibly the driver's brother or son), got bored and started to play and swim with his buddies at the beach. Eventually the driver returned and we headed on up to the caves. It took us over two hours to get to the caves. After wrangling our boat in amongst the many others, we paid our 8000kip and went on up to see the caves. They weren't very deep, but were filled with many abandoned buddha images. Most were pretty small, usually less than 10 inches high. After the lower cave, we made the trek up the many steps to the upper cave. It was a bit deeper and had some other structures in it besides buddha images. Back down at the boat, we decided to head across the river to the little village and get something to eat for the ride back as Donna was famished! We had some sticky rice and sodas and headed back to Luang Prabang.

That afternoon, we spent much of the time enjoying the water fights surrounding New Years. At one point though, there was an unfortunate accident between a motorbike and a pedestrian. The pedestrian had stepped out into the street a bit to throw water on a passing tuk-tuk, while a motorbike was coming down the street. He ducked his head down and to the right to avoid the direct splash of water, and as he did so, his bike went closer to the curb than normal, and he actually was passing the pedestrian between her and the curb. Her back was to him, and as she turned around, the motorbike caught her and they went down. The people didn't suffer much, just a scratch or two, a few small pieces broke off the bike, but it started and ran fine. After everyone got picked up and sorted out, they were able to drive off. This sort of put a damper on the proceedings, and we decided to go back to the guesthouse and get ready for dinner.

We had dinner at Bounthieng Guesthouse's Cafe. In the evening it has a very relaxing atmosphere, by the riverside, lit with paper lanterns. Donna selected stirfried chicken with chili sauce and white rice. It was wonderful! Perhaps one of the best meals she has had in Laos! We hung out for a while playing gin before we headed back to our room for the night.

Stupa Day!

One of the rockets going off

A monk blessing the sand stupa

Kirk at the wat surveying the scene

Think we got a little messy?
The next day, April 14 was Lao New Year! Hooray! The waterfights were definitly at their peak today! After many waterfights in the morning, we headed across the Mekong to a little island where they were having a sand stupa contest. A "Stupa" is a conical structure that is built at many buddhist wats. Besides building the stupas, the trip over to the island is also a good time for more waterfights, although now flour and red and black makeup have been added to the mix. It seemed like the entire town was on the island, there was such a mass of people! You couldn't walk 2 feet without someone dumping water on you, dusting you with powder, or wiping makeup on you. We got completely drenched and covered with flour and makeup. It was a great time! In the middle of the afternoon, for a break, we walked up to a wat that overlooked the island. The view was great. They also were shooting off homemade rockets on the beach as part of the celebration. Some friends of ours had watched the monks making the bamboo rockets earlier in the week. Some were duds, but many went several hundred yards down the island! The stupas were much more simple than we had expected. They were usually a flower dusted cone with prayer flags stuck in it, and some balls of sand surrounding it. I think the winner was the one that had the biggest banner sticking in it. We found out that the powder is only thrown on this one day of the year and it signifies the throwing out of "the Old". We headed back down into the fray and took a few photos of the stupas. Donna noticed a little girl as we decided to take a last pass down the beach before looking for a boat back across to the other side. About 10 minutes later, we were suddenly doused from behind! Lo and behold, it was the little girl...she was still following us! A water fight/feud ensued! We had a GREAT time with her -- she was between 8 and 10 years old and was great fun. When a boat was ready to go and I told Donna to jump on, the girl looked positively crushed that we were deserting her to go back across the river! She stood forlornly on the shore as we climbed into the boat. I actually had to climb back out to help push it off the beach, and a few moments later, as I was climbing in, she and a couple of others rushed forward and started throwing buckets of water on us! She wasn't done!! We started laughing and scooping water back at her!! We laughed and waved until she was out of sight. Donna said she wished we could have brought her across with us, she was so much fun! We went back to our guest house to clean up.

And boy did we need it! After some long showers, I worked on getting the stains out of our clothes, and then we headed back to Bounthieng Guesthouse Cafe for dinner again! When we find a good place to eat, we stick with it!

Originally, we had planned to head to Vang Viang on April 15th, but we changed our minds and decided to stay in Luang Prabang one more day to see the parade. We again went to Bounthieng Guest House Cafe for breakfast. They smiled and laughed as they saw us sit down yet again.

One of the floats with beauty queens

Even the monks got drenched

A junior beauty queen
After breakfast we headed back to our guesthouse, got drenched several times along the way and then did a bit of internet in the morning. After that, we waited for the parade to come by. It came a bit later than expected, 2:00 PM. The first couple of things that we saw were a couple of trucks/floats with monks & a huge drum they were beating. There was a long procession of monks walking behind, many carrying umbrellas - with good reason. The entire group, float & procession was being COMPLETELY drenched by the crowd. It looked like this was going to be a very interesting parade! In fact, it was. With the exception of the 7 pageant winners and a few groups in traditional hill tribe clothes, EVERYONE who went by even the police got drenched by folks on the sidelines. The truck that was carrying the monks... someone opened the front doors and started drenching the drivers!

After the parade passed by, we followed along behind, because they were actually going down the road to a nearby wat for a ceremony. At the wat, there were some musicians milling around, several people in ancestor costumes, and a dragon costume. Generally people were waiting for the pageant winners to arrive. When they did arrive, some people pulled along some string to make an impromptu aisle for the winners to come down. People gathered around and the girls slowly proceeded to walk into the grounds. Then it was all over. People just hung out milling around. There was a ceremony going on inside the wat, but there was no way to get over there and view it with the crowd this big. We hung out, and chatted with some folks, and then headed back over to Bounthieng Guest House Cafe for dinner.

That evening we saw "Too Young to Die" with Brad Pitt and Juliette Lewis. Kinda depressing, but OK. We did meet a nice french couple there. Sebastian and Helene, who have a RTW website of their own. (A link is on our main trip page) and a nice Dutch couple Maartje and Stijn.

The next day, April 16, we headed to Vang Vieng. It was pouring when our alarm went off, so we slept in a bit, hoping that it would stop. It didn't so we got up, packed, checked out, and went down the main drag to get some breakfast. We saw Karen at breakfast and chatted with her for a bit. Garvin was downloading pictures to his CD. After breakfast, we got a tuk-tuk to the southern bus terminal and got tickets for a bus to Vang Vieng for 45,000kip. ($4.50) It was a little wait until the bus left, and when it did at 10 AM, our Dutch friends, Maartje and Stijn, had come aboard as well as our German friends, Barbara and Karen.

The ride to Vang Vieng was very enjoyable. We went over a fairly high mountain pass and had gorgeous views once we passed out of the rain storm. We had a half hour stop at one point on the trip, and as we were waiting, Donna had a good time having a water fight with some of the children of the local vendors.

Did you know a motorbike is a vehicle for the whole family?

View from our hut during the day

Same view in the evening
When we arrived, it was reminiscent of Vietnam. We were met by several tuk-tuk drivers and guest house people with pictures of their locations urging us to hop in and go there. We had been forewarned and instead walked the 5 minutes across the unused air strip to town. We ended up staying at a wonderful place called Riverside Bungalows. They are small bamboo bungalows with a double bed, mosquito net and fan. The toilet is shared with the other bungalows. The view is fantastic. Out your porch you see the river and mountains. After settling in and a quick dip in the river, we went into town and had dinner at a place called "Give Pizza a Chance" - it was delicious.

After dinner we walked around town a bit and found that the local people were having an outdoor volleyball tournament. Donna loves volleyball, so she watched it. I watched for a while, then went to see a movie in one of the cafes and came back after and watched some more with her. She was particularly interested in the reactions of the crowd, as much as the volleyball. There were some interesting and very boisterous cheering sections, complete with bongo drums, cymbals and loud, singing chants! It was hard to tear her away (thank goodness the tournament ended)!

The next day, April 17, we slept in a bit, and after breakfast, we decided to try out the tubing. For $2, they give you a big innertube and a tuk-tuk ride, 4km up stream. Where you hop in the river and float down back to town. Along the way, there are vendors in the river on little platforms calling out "Beer Lao!" "Beer Lao!" You can buy beer, soda, drinking water, chips etc. from any of the vendors as you float by. It is actually quite a peaceful, relaxing, and cooling way to spend a hot day in Vang Vieng. Along the way you also pass places where you can get out and go tour a cave. They have several caves in the area. Each charges 5000kip (50 cents) entry fee. We just floated down the river today. It took nearly 4 hours to make it down. The water was quite low in parts and you had to maneuver to avoid being grounded on the rocks or sand. We had several chats with other floaters along the way.

That evening we had dinner at one of the cafes in town that played movies on their DVD player. Nearly all the cafes have some sort of movie playing in the evening.

Donna in Nang Oua Cave

One of the many formations

Xay's Brother, Donna, Xay, Xay's Uncle and Kirk

Donna in one of the tight spots of the cave
The next day, April 18, we headed off to Nang Oua cave. We had heard from other travelers that this was the "Best" cave in Vang Vieng. I think they are right. Nang Oua is the most recently discovered cave in the area. They found it less than 6 months ago. It isn't far from town. Just go upstream from town and cross the first bridge after you pass the Riverside Bungalows. There is a sign in the center of town that shows you how to get there. It is a bit of a walk from the river to the cave entrance, about 2 km. Once we got to the cave, we paid the usual 5000 kip entrance fee, and they give us a headlamp and guide. Upon entry to the cave, you go through 2 or three small passages, and from then on it is just enormous. Parts of the cave had ceilings over 60 feet high. The cave extends for over 1.5 km into the mountain. There were many stalactites and stalagmites. Lots of fans and other formations. A very nice cave. The cave is active, wet and still growing. There are no lights inside, we just used the headlamps. As we were heading back out of the cave, we met two boys coming in. One of them, Xay, spoke excellent English. He explained that the man who was acting as our guide is his uncle. His uncle and his father are the two men who discovered the cave. Xay is trying to figure out how to better market the cave since it is so new. We had a great time asking him questions on the way out and making suggestions. We also cautioned him against some of the problems we had seen in Vietnam and in other caves that had not been properly taken care of.

As we came out of the cave it was starting to get dark and it looked like a storm was approaching. Xay went back to town on his motorbike ahead of us, and we started walking back with some monks who were there, too. We were chatting with them as we walked. Monks in Laos almost all seem to speak excellent English. And they LOVE to practice. Tourists inevitably provide an excellent opportunity for practice. After a few minutes, Xay came back followed by his younger brother on another motorbike and they offered to take us back into town on the bikes to avoid the storm. We agreed and climbed on the bikes. As we drove off, Donna looked back and said the look on the monks faces was completely pitiful. They looked like we had just deserted them to the wolves! As it turns out the storm caught us anyway. We arrived back at the bungalows quite wet.

That evening we had dinner at another of the cafes in town and watched the first Harry Potter movie.

04/26-19/03 Leaving Laos...
Gosh, there is sooo much to catch up on! On April 19th, still in Vang Vieng, we decided to laze around a bit (which is quite common in Vang Vieng). We did some internet and watched some movies at the local cafes. We ran into some Swedish girls who had bought the entire latest season of "Friends" on pirated DVD in Vietnam. We watched the last two episodes with them (they had had a marathon - watched the entire season in one day). They then offered to let us borrow the DVDs and watch them whenever we wanted, returning them anytime in the next few days, before the girls left Vang Vieng. At first, we resisted, but then agreed. The two episodes we saw were pretty funny and it was good to see a show that reminded us of home.

We also had an interesting conversation in the afternoon with a woman who owns Erawan Restaurant in Vang Vieng. Her mother is half-Vietnamese and half-Lao. We talked about the similar political histories of the two countries but how different the peoples of the countries have reacted. She explained her theory on the difference. In Laos, the community is basically one big family. No matter where you go (with the possible exception of Vientiane, which is the capital city), you won't find people starving, living homeless or begging. The community takes care of its own. She pointed to an old man walking by in the street. He was bent at the waist and looked likean upside down "L". She explained that he sharpens the knives of every restaurant in Vang Vieng (there are a LOT of restaurants in Vang Vieng). The restaurants don't necessarily NEED their knives sharpened, but this man consequently has both a job and his dignity. They ensure that he has enough to eat (and give him a little extra when necessary) and he does not have to resort to begging in the street, which would destroy his self-esteem. If they catch children begging from tourists, the children are run off and their parents are told (hence the kids will be reprimanded). No one wants to be known as the parents of children who are begging. Conversely, in Vietnam, rather than being part of a community family, there is competition, even within a family unit. So, rather than helping one another out, no matter what the cost, there is reason to sabotage one another to get ahead. Hence the vast difference we saw in personalities. It was both a relaxing and interesting day. We finished it off by watching Harry Potter 2.

On April 20 (Easter), it had rained like crazy last night and in the early morning, I got up and watched the lightning storm over the mountains. It was so beautiful to watch it come in over the mountains and then just sit above the river. I watched lots of little frogs start jumping around our bungalow, too. A little later, we had our own little Easter service on the veranda of our bamboo bungalow. For those of you who don't know, Christians are severely persecuted in Laos, therefore, there are no churches to attend here. In fact, Christians are often thrown out of their homes and property and even into jail, or deported. Proselytizing is prohibited. The few churches that do exist are underground, home churches; we had no hope of finding one ourselves, so we had our own private service, overlooking the mountains and river.

Eventually, we went to town for food. It was still quite rainy out, so nothing was going on really. We looked around for a while and ended up back at the same place where the Swedish girls had watched Friends. They let us put in the same DVDs and we spent the afternoon laughing at TV shows from home. Afterwards, at Erawan, I got a Lao massage. It was different than a Thai massage; I liked it better, actually. Then, Kirk and I watched a Bruce Willis flick we had never seen, "Tears in the Sun". I don't know if was based on a true story or not, but it certainly had a poignant plot.

On April 21st, we were awakened by the LOUDEST RACKET imaginable in the middle of the night. I couldn't for the life of me figure out what it was, but when I went outside, I realized: it was the frogs!! It was sort of screeching or shrieking noise, but very very loud, as if a ton of birds had surrounded us. The noise was deafening. It seems to stop, though, whenever someone was moving around in their immediate vicinity. We tried sleeping with earplugs helped...a LITTLE.

We went tubing again; it was so much fun last time, we HAD to do it again. This time, though, we figured we'd try out a cave or two along the way, as well. We dressed appropriately and headed into town. After breakfast, we got our tubes and took the tuktuk to the put-in area. It was another beautiful day. We floated down the river at a leisurely pace. At the first bridge we came to, there was a sign for a cave, so we decided to try that one. The guy took our money, gave us headlamps, a candle and a lighter and pointed us up a trail that headed up the hill. Apparently, this cave didn't come with a guide. We followed the path up a steep hill (rather treacherous, if you ask me - the path wasn't well cared for, although there was a bamboo railing to grab onto) and eventually ended up at the mouth of the cave. It was dark and very wet inside. We turned on our lamps and headed in. It WAS VERY wet inside...i.e., very muddy. The cave was quite big - similar to Nang Oua, but without all the amazing formations. Kirk postulated that the cave was too wet. I'd believe that. The neatest thing about the cave was getting deep in and looking back at the entrance -- seeing the light from the entrance, shining in. Otherwise, it was quite unremarkable (other than its size). Finally, we turned around and headed back toward the entrance. About half way back, we encountered some other folks heading in...without torches. The guy selling tickets had run out. They wanted our torches when we were done and were willing to follow us back to the entrance. As we were chatting with them, I was trying to navigate through a particularly slippery section of mud. In true graceful fashion, however, I slipped and managed to land right in the middle of a huge mud puddle on one side, almost doing the splits. Excellent! I had to try and rinse my Tevas off in the watery part of the mud puddle so that it wasn't like walking on ice...otherwise, it was a useless venture -- I'd have to just go barefoot. Eventually, we got close enough to the entrance that we turned over our torches to the other people and headed back out and down to the river. I got a pretty good laugh out of the guys at the bottom when they saw how muddy I was. It wasn't QUITE so funny to me, when I realized the the river water didn't actually wash the mud off! Even after scrubbing it with my hands, there was still residue left on my legs, arms and clothes. Oh, well, that's what showers and laundry are for!

We spent the rest of the afternoon lazing down the river. It is so much fun! And so beautiful. On the whole, the trip was faster this time; the water seemed to be moving faster -- probably from all the rains. After a shower, we headed to town and found a place for KIRK to get a Lao massage, Mr. Chanlai, who is a teacher by day and a professional masseuse by night.

Our hut in Vang Vieng, you too can stay here for $5/night!
On April 22, we decided it was time to move on. Our next and final destination in Laos was Vientiane, the capital city. We caught a 12:30 bus to Vientiane and sat behind a couple of monks on the bus, Lan and Vanxay, and in front of a couple from England, Lizzy and Luke. We chatted with all four of them quite a bit. Luke and Lizzy are on a round-the-world trip as well and gave us quite a few hints about India, where we will be heading soon. Lan and Vanxay are from Wat Sisaket in Vientiane and gave us all sorts of ideas of what to see and do when we are in Vientiane.

When we arrived in Vientiane, as the bus was passing the Nam Phu fountain, one of the girls on the bus called for the driver to stop, and all the falang started piling out. That is where all the cheap guesthouses are and it saved us from all having to walk several extra blocks from the regular bus station. After gulping down a couple of sodas (we were quite thirsty after several hours on the bus), Luke, Lizzy, Kirk and I went looking for a cheap place to stay. First we headed to MIC, supposedly the cheapest place in Vientiane. Of course, it was full. But just down the street, on the same street, we found several other guesthouses in a similar price range. One was called a "hotel", but they gave us a room for $6 (they actually charged us 66,000 kip when they realized we were paying in kip instead of dollars). The room wasn't great, but it had an in-room bathroom with fan and a double-bed. We took it. We checked email and then went to a place called "Saignam" that supposedly showed movies on a large-screen. We were looking for Maartje and Stijn. They had sent us an email to meet them there the night before (which we couldn't since we were in Vang Vieng still), but we were hoping we might find them there this night instead. We did! AND, they were playing "Rabbit-Proof Fence", a movie which we LOVE (those of you who have been reading since our New Zealand days might remember. We had a great night watching the movie (again) and then catching up with Maartje, Stijn and another guy we had met in Vang Vieng, John (from England). He had spent 4 months traveling around India and we spent over an hour talking to him about his experiences.

Maartje, Stijn and Donna at the spa

Stijn, Maartje, Kirk and Donna relaxing at the restaurant
On April 23rd, we got up and met Maartje and Stijn for breakfast at a little guesthouse down the street from ours. It turns out they have good and quite reasonably-priced breakfasts (unusual in Vientiane). After some discussion, and a little convincing by Maartje and Stijn, we agreed to go with them to the herbal sauna/spa. For 25,000 kip, you get to go into the sauna as much as you want (the sauna is the cause of our doubt and costs only 5,000 kip) and then get a massage for about 45 minutes (for only an additional 20,000 kip, which is about $2). Now, remember, the temperature here in Vientiane is about 35 to 40 degrees (celcius). We sweat all day no matter where we go. Why go somewhere to sweat more? But, the massage sounded good! And we certainly enjoy spending time with folks...

So, we walked to Wat Sok Pa Luang, which housed this famous herbal spa. It was actually quite a long walk and gave us quite a bit of time to chat. I had a nice time walking with Maartje and Kirk had a good chat with Stijn. When we arrived at the spa, we were immediately each given a sarong and ushered into a changing room. It turns out that we had actually arrived well before they opened, but they went ahead and fired things up anyway and got it all started for us. We sat around waiting for the sauna to heat us and chatted some more. They served us an amazing herbal tea.

When we went into the sauna, it was blisteringly hot!! It was like a combination sauna/steam room and it definitely smelled of herbs. Most saunas I've been to are quite dry. This one wasn't. The steam made it hard to see one another. We stayed in as long as we possibly could, which was longer than I thought we'd actually be able to stand it (ased on how I felt when we FIRST went in)! The miraculous thing, though, was when we walked out, I actually felt COOL! I had been sweating like crazy before we walked in because of the heat; now it felt so nice to walk out in the COOLness of only 35 degree weather! Ha!

They served us hot herbal tea! It was too hot for Kirk; I let mine cool down a little, but loved the flavor, so I drank it all. We went back into the sauna two or three more times before we called it quits for the day. By then, a few other people had begun to show up. We took "showers", which meant standing under a hose (with the sarong on, of course, since you are standing in full view of everyone at the wat) and rinsing yourself of sweat and anything else you may have accumulated on your body. Then, we each changed back into our street clothes and laid down on a mat for our massage. The massage was fabulous! Too bad we couldn't get as many of those as we wanted for one price!

Afterwards, we had a bit more tea and then said our goodbyes. We grabbed some food (it was rather late by now -- around 3 or so) at a little food stand we found along the roadside. They seemed SOOO happy to have us. We may have been the first falang ever to stop in there. We certainly got the royal treatment.

Then we continued down the road a bit further, where we had heard there was a public pool. For 6,000 kip (about 60 cents), we each gained admission. We went in and swam around, relaxing and cooling off a bit longer. The Lao at the pool seemed to accept us, but were also seeming to show off a little for us. It was kind of funny to watch. Finally, we decided to call it a day and headed back to town to shower and change, agreeing to meet back at Saignam for the movie that evening.

The movie was a bizarre one called "The Ring" (not one I'd recommend). After the movie, I struck up a conversation with some of the people sitting around us and met Yas, a guy from Japan. He was traveling alone and just arrived that day from Luang Prabang. He seemed to be doing a speed tour through Laos. He told me that the movie we had just seen was actually based on a movie that had originally been made in Japanese. We made plans to meet Maartje and Stijn in the morning for breakfast before they left for Vietnam and invited Yas to join us. Then we would take him sightseeing -- probably to the Buddha Park.

Buddha Park

Monks taking each other's picture

Donna and Yas on the pumpkin structure

Kirk climbs them all

Kirk and Yas at the buddha park

Ha Pha Kaew Museum
On April 24th, we got up and met Maartje, Stijn and Yas for breakfast. Maartje and Stijn were leaving for Vietnam as soon as they picked up their visas (right after breakfast). We chatted with them for a while (until they had to go) and then we left with Yas for the bus station. For only 1500 kip, we could take a bus the 25km to the Xieng Kuane Buddha Park. We walked to the bus station (by the morning market) and caught bus 14 (it's actually any bus that's on route 14) and off we went. Yas actually speaks pretty good Thai, which many Lao understand, so he sat behind us, chatting with a Buddhist monk. The Buddha Park is an interesting and odd place, as we soon found out. It's filled with massive concrete sculptures and was created under the direction of Luang Pou Bounleua Soulilat, a self-styled holy man who claimed to have been the disciple of a cave-dwelling Hindu hermit in Vietnam. Bounleua began the garden in the late 1950s as a means of spreading his philosophy of life and his ideas of the cosmos. When we arrived at the Park, we each paid our 3,000 kip entrance fee and headed inside. The park isn't particularly large, but it's jam-packed. The first thing you see is an odd pumpkin-like structure that is filled with three levels, depicting heaven, hell and earth. From the top, you have an excellent view of the entire park. We walked around the whole park, dodging from shadow to shadow trying to stay cool. It was terribly hot. At one point, we took a break, sat in a cafe by the Mekong and gazed across the river at Thailand, trying to cool off with cold drinks.

When, at last, we had tired of the park, we jumped on a bus heading back to town. Kirk had originally planned just to spend the rest of the afternoon catching up on internet, but Yas was really into the sightseeing thing, so we decided instead to go with him to see Ha Pha Khaew, once the king's personal Buddhist temple and now a museum of art and antiquities. The structure supposedly dates back to the 16th century by was destroyed when Siam sacked Vientiane in 1828 and restored by the French. The temple is named for the Emerald Buddha (Pha Khaew), which along with the Pra Bang (the most sacred buddha in all of Laos) was pilfered by the Siamese in 1779 and carried off to their capital. The Pra Bang was eventually returned and now resides in Luang Prabang (its namesake city), but the Pha Khaew has never been returned, much to the resentment of Lao Buddhists. The art museum was full of interesting buddha images (which we were forbidden to photograph), including one in a "calling for rain" position that I had never seen. After walking around for a while (I got to point out to Yas what a "Walking Buddha" looked like; he had never seen one), we headed out and across the street to Wat Sisaket. We tried to find Lan and Vanxay to see if they could show us around the wat, but they were sleeping, apparently. The other monks suggested coming back around the time of evening prayers, which they are not allowed to miss. That sounded like a good idea, so we left.

Having not had food since breakfast, we stopped and ate. Whew! Then, Kirk and Yas went to do internet while I went up to the room to do a little reading. Actually, I was cheating a little. We had finally found a book that I wanted Kirk to read: Ender's Game. But I wanted to reread it, too. I thought I might be able to read it (finish it) before he started it. So, I wanted to try. I'd already read about 50 pages at breakfast.

That evening, we all met up at Saignam. They were showing Apocalypse Now: Redux. I'd never seen the original, so I wanted to see it. It was intense! Yas apparently missed seeing the movie, but showed up later. We made plans to meet up with him for breakfast the next morning.

Donna and Yas at Patouxai

Patouxai's Ceiling
On April 25th, we met Yas for breakfast and then headed over to the morning market. Along the way, we passed by the US Embassy (yet another fortress). There was all sorts of information posted on a bulletin board outside and we stopped to take a look. It was also neat to see the American flag flying above the walls. It's amazing how much something so simple is missed when you travel away from home this long.

At the market, we all had different objectives, so decided to split up and meet back up in an hour or two. I managed to pick up what I was looking for pretty quickly at prices that were well worth paying. I got a beautiful traditional Lao silk wall hanging and hanger, a hand-stitched pillow cover, a couple of cotton t-shirts, a Lao tube-skirt and two sticky-rice woven baskets. Kirk found a little notebook and some batteries. Yas bought a t-shirt and a notebook and I'm not sure what else. When we had all finished our shopping, we headed up Lane Xang Avenue toward Patouxai, the Victory Arch. From a distance, the arch isn't all that much to look at, but up close, it's quite beautiful. There is fantastic tiling and inlay all over the interior of the arch. We paid the minimal fee and went up to the top to get a view of the city -- and so Kirk could have his long over-due "tower fix".

At the bottom, we met a nice girl from the Netherlands, Judith. She had just arrived in Laos and we chatted with her for a while about things to do and places to go (since we had just come from the direction she was heading).

Next, we went to the Lao National Museum. We arrived only about 70 minutes before they closed for the day, but it turned out we had plenty of time to look through the exhibits. They had all sorts of exhibits -- history, art, archeology, revolutionary, political. While we were there, I met two monks from Myanmar (Burma). One was Lao and one was Cambodian, but they were studying together at a temple in Myanmar and were traveling together during their time off of studies. They were very nice and the guy from Cambodia gave us all sorts of information about our trip there.

We grabbed some food after we left the museum. Then Kirk went and did internet and I spent the rest of the evening reading. We arranged to met Yas tomorrow morning. We are all going to cross the border back to Thailand tomorrow.

Kirk, Yas, and Donna at the fountain in Vientiane
On April 26th, we met Yas for breakfast again. We had a few errands to run, too. I sold back some books (we didn't want to carry them for ages) for 125,000 kip - it was about 5 lbs worth of books. Kirk had to run over to pay more money to the guy at the internet place...he didn't have enough money last night (oops!). We needed to find a place to change the last of our kip to baht... we ended up doing that at the Friendship Bridge.

Back at the bus station, we caught bus 14 again to the Friendship Bridge. The bus driver made us pay for an extra seat since our packs were taking up so much room. No problem. We went through immigration and had to pay an "overtime fee" of 2,500 kip (we always seem to manage to go through immigration on a weekend!) and then paid our fee to catch the bus across the border.

This is it. We're about to leave Laos. This is definitely one of my favorite countries! So long from Laos!!

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