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Sat 28 Feb 2015

Through my travels I have grown tremendously. Here is the evidence.

Through my travels I have grown tremendously. Here is the evidence.

Luang Prabang, Laos.

Luang Prabang, Laos.

In addition to admiring the old vehicles, colonial buildings and monasteries, I visited some of Luang Prabang’s sites of historic and cultural significance, including the Royal Palace Museum and the Traditional Arts and Ethnology Centre (TAEC).

The Grounds of the Royal Palace Museum.

The Grounds of the Royal Palace Museum.

Wat Ho Pha Bang, part of the Royal Palace Museum complex.

Wat Ho Pha Bang, part of the Royal Palace Museum complex.

The Royal Palace Museum, the main residence of King Sisavang Vong (who ruled Laos in the early to middle 20th century) was fairly unremarkable. The rooms were oversized, with very high ceilings; there were the requisite oversized portraits of the King and Queen; there were some pieces of oversized and ostentatious furniture and various objets d’art. In the garage out back were four former “Royal Vehicles” in various stages of disrepair; a sign indicated that photos were prohibited, which was fine with me since the cars were not very photogenic.

From the TAEC Museum.

From the TAEC Museum.

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Rat trap made by Kmhmu Nguan group. Sakap Village, Luang Namtha Province. Wood, bamboo, stone.

On contrast, the TAEC museum was small but excellent. It provided a brief but thoughtfully curated overview of the various ethnic groups in Laos, with particular focus on the hill tribe cultures, of which there are many. I learned that there are over 100 ethnic groups and subgroups in Laos today. About one-third of the exhibit focused on the important role of women in their respective societal groups. There was a nicely detailed explanation of an ongoing project (called “Stitching Our Stories,” in English) in which women and girls are documenting their experiences through digital media and are provided with resources and mentoring to support this work.

From TAEC Museum, Luang Prabang.

From TAEC Museum, Luang Prabang.

View from top of Phu Si Hill, Luang Prabang.

View from top of Phu Si Hill, Luang Prabang.

I got some exercise by making the short climb to the top of Phu Si Hill, across from the Royal Palace Museum. There is a small stupa at the top of the hill, and when lit by floodlights at night it appears to float eerily in space above Luang Prabang.

I thought these were plastic. Then I saw the group of women skillfully stitching them together from banana leaves, flowers and dried plant stems.

I thought these were plastic. Then I saw the group of women skillfully stitching them together from banana leaves, flowers and dried plant stems.

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Disappointed that I didn’t want to hang around and play.

Ready for action!

Ready for action!

I found fascinating images around every corner in Luang Prabang, so in addition to seeing the “official” sights I spent some time each day wandering about and taking photos of anything that looked interesting to me.

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Having a Chinese Lapsang Souchong tea at Chez Matt, Luang Prabang.

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Thu 26 Feb 2015

I asked this family if I could take their photo, and they just smiled. Must be the language barrier.

I asked this family if I could take their photo, and they just smiled. Must be the language barrier.

Most of the vehicles in Luang Prabang are two wheelers: motorcycles, scooters and bicycles. The public transport consists mostly of tuk tuks (for local trips) and minivans (to shuttle tourists to the sites outside the city). There were relatively few cars in Luang Prabang.

Colorful tuk tuk.

Colorful tuk tuk. The circular symbol with “9P” inside indicates it can carry up to nine passengers. (!)

Old Vespa with sidecar.

Old Vespa with sidecar on display in office of tour company in Luang Prabang.

As I walked around I noticed some unusual vehicles and I had fun taking photos of them. I hadn’t seen one of these old VW Beetles in a long time. I think Mexico City still has hundreds of them serving as taxi cabs.

Old VW Beetle.

At first I thought this was an old mini, but on second thought it might be a Fiat. I could find no branding symbols on it.

At first I thought this was an old Mini, but on second thought it might be a Fiat. I could find no branding symbols on it.

Mercedes Benz Model 190 Estate. Germany, 1956

A sign inside the above Mercedes Benz explained that this model was “designed exclusively for governments around the world, in Laos was part of the Royal Escort fleet.”

Citroen.

Citroen Model 11 Family Version. France, 1952.

Parked near the Mercedes Benz, this Citroen also had a sign in its window describing it, stating, “This icon of Luang Prabang is one of the only two original Citroens in Laos. Custom ordered at the same time as the Citroen that belonged to the King, currently exhibited at the Royal Museum.”

A veteran river vessel at rest after a hard day's work.

A veteran river vessel at rest after a hard day’s work.

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Tue 24 Feb 2015

Luang Prabang, Laos.

Luang Prabang, Laos.

Luang Prabang is without a doubt a very touristy town. After reviewing much travel literature lauding its esthetic, historical and cultural significance, I wondered if I would be disappointed with the reality of the place. But I found that it matched its reputation.

Luang Prabang, near the intersection of the rivers Mekong and Khan.

Luang Prabang, near the intersection of the rivers Mekong and Khan.

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Wat Xieng Thong

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A UNESCO World Heritage site, Luang Prabang is characterized by peaceful Buddhist monasteries and quiet streets lined with pretty French colonial villas. During my stay the town was crawling with tourists and it was evident that the local economy was almost exclusively focused on serving us. Still, though I was visiting during the touristic high season, it did not seem crowded or overdeveloped to me.

Luang Prabang Map

The guesthouse where I stayed is located approximately in the center of this map.

The central area of Luang Prabang lies on a slim peninsula created by the merging of the Khan River into the Mekong. Most tourists moved about the city on foot or bicycle, thus limiting motorized traffic.

Incognito Tourist, Luang Prabang.

Incognito Tourist, Luang Prabang.

The Night Market, Luang Prabang.

The Night Market, Luang Prabang.

There was a bustling night market on the main road consisting of an endless line of stalls covered by tarpaulin tents, under which the vendors, mostly women, displayed their colorful wares. When business was slow, they would curl up for a nap or play with their babies.

As far as getting a glimpse of the culture and lifestyle of the majority of Laos, Luang Prabang was probably the furthest thing from authentic. But in contrast to Vang Vieng (and many other tourist havens I have visited), I perceived a healthy energy and respectful interplay between the locals and the tourists. 

A tiny corner of Wat P.

A tiny corner of Wat Paphaimisaiyaram.

I am a follower of this monk.

I am a follower of this monk.

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Sun 22 Feb 2015

The

The “VIP” Bus from Vang Vieng to Luang Prabang, Laos.

Luang Prabang is around 200 km north of Vang Vieng, but driving there takes several hours because of the hilly terrain. There were two options for mass transport between the two cities: shared minivan or “VIP” bus. I opted for the VIP bus, based on my prior experience that minivans plus hills equals queasy not easy.

Vang Vieng to Luang Prabang, Laos.

Vang Vieng to Luang Prabang, Laos.

The “VIP” bus looked like it had seen better days. The cooling system put out musty air and operated with a near constant whine coming from somewhere in the back of the bus. The seat covers were not only worn but torn too. But the bus appeared sturdy and throughout the journey I experienced no motion sickness. At least, not while we were actually in motion.

Houston, we have a problem!

Houston, we have a problem!

About an hour into the journey we had a breakdown. I was unclear as to the exact nature of the problem but it had something to do with the right rear inner wheel. The driver stopped the bus and a round of inspections ensued as driver and conductor slid themselves under the bus to explore the bottom of the chassis.

The bus needed to be moved forward to more level terrain and for some reason it would not start on its own so all the men in the bus were instructed to get out and push. We pushed, the clutch was engaged, and the engine sputtered to life long enough for the bus to be repositioned.

All the passengers alighted and some suitably sturdy rocks were positioned behind the outside rear wheel, then the driver eased the bus onto the rocks to allow better access to the undercarriage. About an hour later we re-boarded and resumed our slow meandering up, down and around the hairpin bends until we reached Luang Prabang just after sunset.

On the road again.

On the road again.

Moving along. Shutter speed of 1/800 does the trick!

Moving along. Shutter speed of 1/800 does the trick!

Moving along. Shutter speed of 1/800 does the trick!

During the ride I enjoyed the beautiful scenery and also some conversation with the young Chinese woman seated next to me. Her English was excellent and she spoke “ein bißchen” of German too, having studied Agricultural Economics in that country for three years. She now worked for a U.S. company in Beijing, lobbying the Chinese government to allow more imports of meat products from the U.S.A. (I didn’t tell her I was vegetarian). She told me her ex-boyfriend was from Bangalore, India, and that he used to brag about how rich his family was. (I didn’t tell her how poor I was either!)

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Not sure what they’re growing but I like the color.

She entertained me with a story of how she and her friends tried the “Happy Pizza” at a restaurant in Vang Vieng (the “happy” meaning it was apparently laced with marijuana) resulting in a mass trip to the emergency room due to uncontrollable vomiting. (Personally, if I want to vomit, I’ll just take a minivan through the mountains, thank you – no Happy Stuff needed!).

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Fri 20 Feb 2015

Nam Song (River), Vang Vieng.

Nam Song (River), Vang Vieng.

I stopped in Vang Vieng for a few days en route to Luang Prabang. Vang Vieng is a small town surrounded by natural beauty, set on the picturesque Nam (River) Song near hills and limestone karsts.

Another view of the Nam Song.

Another view of the Nam Song.

Numerous agencies in town offered all manner of tours, including kayaking, caving, tubing, trekking and biking. However I decided to pass on these opportunities and spend time simply walking around and appreciating the river and the scenic views.

Unfortunately my plan for a peaceful few days was foiled by a gigantic party in the paved courtyard of my hotel just outside my room. Somewhere between fifty and a hundred relatives had gathered to celebrate the death anniversary of an ancestor, and it was far from a somber occasion.

The festivities began the afternoon I arrived and continued, day and night, for the next 48 hours. My eardrums were under constant assault by a diverse range of sounds, from the joyous laughter of a family gathering to the upbeat, rhythmic thumping of Lao pop music, and (all night, until dawn) a seemingly endless call and response chanting that I presumed was part of some kind of Buddhist prayer vigil. In the daytime, every time I left or entered my room I had to squeeze past large ice chests then thread my way through an obstacle course of squatting women chopping vegetables, dressing huge bowls of rice, and tending cooking fires.

Giant bowl of rice being prepared outside my hotel room.

Giant bowl of rice being prepared outside my hotel room.

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After some badgering I finally got the hotel manager to move me to a room across the street. For a brief time I was furious with the hotel for knowingly putting me in a location that was not only incessantly noisy but awkward as well. But I was able to calm myself down and appreciate that this was a significant and meaningful event for the community of celebrants. The hotel may have made a bad decision regarding my lodgings, but I am sure the eulogized ancestor appreciated the auspicious energy generated by his or her descendants.

Nam Song, Vang Vieng, Laos.

Nam Song, Vang Vieng, Laos.

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Wed 18 Feb 2015

Victory Monument, Vientiane's version of Paris's Arc de Triomphe.

Victory Monument, Vientiane’s version of Paris’s Arc de Triomphe.

Vientiane is the small, slow-paced capital city of Laos. It is located on a bend in the Mekong, across the river from northeastern Thailand. Crossing the downtown main streets was a breeze, since even during “rush hour” (if you could call it that) the traffic was not overwhelming. The noteworthy sights were concentrated in a small area of the city, and there were but a few.

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Wat Sisaket, Vientiane.

Wat Sisaket.

Wat Sisaket.

Of course there were several Buddhist Wats, large and small, and a number of government buildings, some of which I passed during my daily walks around town. I enjoyed seeing the various quaint old French colonial buildings. But for me, the most interesting aspect of Vientiane was that it was fairly uninteresting.

The gigantic Lao National Cultural Hall.

The gigantic Lao National Cultural Hall.

Lao Presidential Palace.

Palais Presidentiel. (I tried to get a closer shot but was sent away by the guard at the gate!)

That’s not to say there was nothing to do here. Despite its small size and relaxed pace, Vientiane boasts a range of cuisine to spark the envy of cities much larger. Many of its French restaurants are highly regarded, and I took note of a number of Italian, Indian, and even Mexican options. My favorite Vientiane food: warm, crispy French baguettes and croissants.

In my opinion, a very hipster house.

An interesting looking structure, Vientiane.

Near my hotel I found a small shop, owned by a Frenchwoman, that offered a selection of several Lao and foreign teas and I dropped by on a few occasions to try some northern Lao teas.

Orange!

Orange! Found in local handicrafts and antiques shop, Vientiane.

I passed several storefront shops selling handicrafts of various sorts. Taking shelter from a sudden morning downpour, I stepped into one of these shops (I can’t recall the name now) and sat for a while at its upstairs cafe overlooking the street. Back in the shop downstairs I got lost amid the giant carved wooden sculptures, antique Chinese Mahjong games and colorful tea sets.

View from the top of the Victory Monument, Vientiane.

View from the top of the Victory Monument, Vientiane.

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Sat 14 Feb 2015

Crossing the Mekong River from Thailand to Laos.

Crossing the foggy Mekong River from Thailand to Laos.

The national flag of Laos.

The national flag of Laos.

I spent a few days in Nong Khai, Thailand, on the border of Laos. There were no real tourist attractions there, but I had found a peaceful hotel, the Mut Mee Garden Guest House, right on the Mekong River and it was a nice place to relax. There was a lively market near the river, and just off the market was a pleasant walkway along the water.

This morning I caught a tuk tuk to the Thailand-Laos Friendship Bridge about 20 minutes from Nong Khai. After getting an exit stamp by Thai immigration in my passport, I took a bus across the bridge and joined the short line of other foreigners waiting to get a Lao visa on arrival. Once I had my visa, I shared a tuk tuk to Vientiane with two friendly French women traveling together, and was checked into my hotel a short time later.

Laos!

Laos!

Although it seemed that most places in Vientiane accepted Thai Baht, I thought it would be best if I withdrew some Lao currency from the ATM near my hotel. I instantly became a millionaire! (One million Lao Kip is about $127).

I spent some already.

I spent some already.

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