Yesterday – 3 April 2012
5.45am awake, though for no particular or special reason. I sit on the little verandah off my room that overlooks a sleepy laneway. As usual, locals are setting up to provide alms for the ritual early morning monk amble through the streets. There are many, many temples here, and Luang Prabang is famous for its early morning monk parades. I am not sure how many monks there actually are, but it appears to be in the hundreds as I watch procession after procession of bright burnt orange robes glide through the streets. It is an incredibly beautiful, peaceful way to start every day, watching the processions, and possibly an ideal or fantasy image about life in far flung South East Asia, for travellers.
Novice monk-hood for short periods of time is required of every Buddhist male, any time from the age of about eight, and before the age of about mid-20’s. This does account for, I am sure, the significant numbers of young men and boys amongst the throngs. But, after several conversations with Lao locals, I am aware that many of the novice monks are not there through a religious or spiritual requirement, revelation or desire. The life of a monk is very disciplined, hard and austere; novice monk-hood need only last a week or two for the religious requirement to be fulfilled, and this is the time period that many novice monks actually complete.
But Laos is a very poor country, and families from previous generations are big – anything from five children up. If the family has not been lucky enough to capitalise on the new and growing economy resulting from tourism and trade – owning a property that can be used as a guest house or a shop, for example, then generally they are subsistence farmers. This accounts for the majority of the population. Many families need to choose very carefully how they will all survive, including choices about who gets to have an education, as it is an incredibly expensive enterprise to send children to school. Public education is not free. But, most monasteries do provide free education for novice monks, and so for many families, or at least those with multiple sons, there is no choice but to send one or two children to a monastery for anything up to three or four years. “At least” this provides a measure of education, and by and large enough food for sons to survive… I have no idea what happens for families with multiple numbers of daughters though, as there does not appear to be any Buddhist nuns here. Unlike in Burma where there are many hundreds.
Anyway, today I am trekking [hiking?] from the top of a mountain down through a few valleys and jungles, then over another mountain and down to the top of Kuang Si Waterfall. I contemplate [again] why I am choosing to do this, as by and large I do not like climbing mountains [it always turns into an exercise of dragging and crawling and panting my way up, all the while cursing my stupidity at having made the choice]. However, the guide has assured me it will be beautiful, and the climbing up part should only constitute about one or so hours of the five hour trek. I have already calculated that this will constitute for me about double or triple that time for the upward climbs…
I meet the guide, Fong, at the designated café, and we are joined by another traveller who is also doing the trek… Scottish Frank, whose accent, bizarrely, is about as Scottish as mine. He says he has no idea why this is so, not even his parents sounded very Scottish, but kilt-wearing , bag-pipe playing folk they are all the same, he assures me. We set off in a tuk tuk held together with string and rubber-bands – a little Diahatsu truck, possibly a 1960’s vintage, that has had two bench seats fitted into the tray, with a frame and roof structure welded [glued?] to the body to provide shade and rain protection. We zip through town and in minutes are climbing up a steep, narrow, gravel road winding its way up a mountain.
The views as we climb upwards are quite stunning and quite stark – tiny villages and sweeping valleys and steep hillsides newly planted with banana, pineapples, peanuts, all manner of produce, and others black and burnt and smoky after last season’s harvest, in preparation for planting the next rice crop in the next few months. The air is smoke-filled – traditional slash and burn agricultural techniques are still well and truly in use in this part of the world – and through the haze the mountain tops are barely visible in some places. The hillsides and mountain slopes are incredibly dramatic in places, almost vertical slopes with huge black karst rock formations in amongst the thick, dark jungle vegetation. Both Frank and I lament that we didn’t pay more attention in geology… it would be good to understand how these formations came into being.
We also chatter away in that obligatory way that travellers do – where are you from, where have you been, where to next, how long are you travelling… almost a recorded script, but an easy way to have a friendly conversation. Revealing a slight prejudice here, I was grateful that Frank was in the same age bracket as me, rather than some bright eyed barely 20 year old whose conversational abilities petered out or ceased at “where to next…”. And incredulity that I have no intention of visiting a famous tubing destination further south, well known for drunken foreigners doing stupid things. Including a few who won’t be going home after dashing out their brains on the rocks as they tubed down the river.
We grind to halt in a reasonably large, very dusty Hmong village. We wander through the village, peer at a woman shelling peanuts, and as I always do I feel vaguely uncomfortable trooping my healthy, well fed fat arse around such a place. Poverty and grinding hard work is obvious, there is only one tap in the village, and young children are splashing about under its trickle. The oldest of them is no more than seven or eight, and while it appears they are playing, they are in fact washing clothes. Most of the houses are traditional bamboo and thatch… no windows at all, and very dark inside Fong tells us. And smoky, as cooking is done inside. “Foreigners cannot stay in our homes like this” he says “It is too dark and smoky for foreigners and they don’t like”.
There are also a few concrete houses here and there. Fong tells us these have been built through donations and support of families of villagers who now reside in the US or Australia or other parts of the world. It’s astounding, though not surprising, to learn that the diaspora of Laotions living outside Laos is far greater in number than Laotions actually living in Laos, a result of a mass exodus after the “Secret War” waged on Laos by the US during their retreat from Vietnam, and the 1975 revolution and take-over of the country by the Pathet Lao.
Right, so now we’re off on our meander over the mountains and through the jungle. It’s actually quite a pleasant day, not too hot or humid, and I’m grateful that the first part of the trek is through fields in various stages of agricultural production and preparation. And then we begin to ascend. “Here it comes” I mutter to myself. But I am pleasantly surprised, and stupidly grateful, when the first ascent is completed – not too steep, and only about 20 minutes of puffing and panting. While there are a few more uppy bits to the walk, in fact it is a very pleasant ambling journey through gorgeous bits of country-side, with patches of dense jungle-y, shady paths.
We stop for lunch in a clearing in a forest that has a few thatched shades, and of course the obligatory stall selling warm BeerLao and soft drink and water and snacks. It appears the clearing is a meeting of forest-jungle paths, with a steep little hill rising up from the clearing, hiding a cave entrance. At the top of the hill, before the cave entrance, sits large golden Buddha, surrounded by beautifully tended patches of garden. Magnificent red and orange lilies are in bloom everywhere.
Before lunch, we explore the cave, and it transpires that Frank does caving for fun in his free time [ok I admit it, I generally think people who like caves are kinda weird, but Frank is really good company so I resolve to reserve judgement]. So he is very excited by the prospect and as we wander through he urges Fong to go further into the cave than he has before. It is one of the caves that people used to hide from the America bombing during the Secret War, and it’s freaking huge. And cool. And very, very dark and quiet.
Recently, somebody has added a few Buddha shrines inside the cave, I suppose as an act of religious devotion and/or gratitude left over for the shelter it provided during the war. It is very hard to get to the bottom of why Buddha shrines end up in sometimes seemingly random, and often very odd places. One of the stalagmite columns not far from the cave entrance has brilliant green moss growing on it. Some clever, and very creative person, has carved an almost Neptune-like face at the top of the column, with the moss forming an impressive beard.
After lunch we head off again, Fong informing us that there was only another hour or so of trekking before we reached the waterfall. “Wow!” I think to myself… this has been easy peasy! Fong has been inspired by Frank’s enthusiasm for caves, and tells him about a bunch of mostly unexplored caves near his home village. He suggests that Frank could explore them… not with a tour through is employer, but with he and his friend as a guide. Or maybe they could do a business together – Frank bringing foreigners to do caving in places that are at present, reasonably unknown and unexplored by foreigners. I can tell Frank is inspired and interested, but he tries hard to temper Fong’s enthusiasm, as he himself needs to find employment when he returns to the UK after a three month holiday in places far flung from his home.
On the way through some shady forest we come across a simply ENORMOUS tree. I stop to admire it, and ask Fong what it is. I am astonished, and disbelieving, when he tells me that it is a wild jungle mango tree. He picks up the fallen fruit and tells me to smell it, in an effort convince me that it really is a mango, and sure enough, there is that special pungent sweet mango smell, and undeniably mango-shape, even if they are one tenth of the size of “normal” mangoes. So this is where it all started, then…
We arrive at the top of Kuang Si Waterfall. Wow what a view, and wow what a relief to reach the cool streams and pools. The bottom of the waterfall can be reached by mini-bus or tuk tuk from Luang Prabang, but I am glad we’ve had to make the effort to get here, and to arrive at the top rather than the bottom… it seems more like a reward. That is, until we start the descent to the bottom of waterfall. I don’t quite know how to describe my thoughts as I peered down the “path” to descend to the bottom of the falls. Really, I have been on some slippery slidey very steep descents, but this was by far the scariest and most treacherous. I don’t know how many metres it is, but it mostly felt vertical, with hard, very slippery packed clay and tree roots forming the sort of path. Needless to say the reward feeling was replaced with an “I told you so” little voice in my head… And yes, it is true that in usual style I was not wearing appropriate footwear – though I can say I did have more than rubber thongs [but not by much]!
Much to my amazement we make it safely to the bottom. Taking in the waterfall and panorama from the bottom… was truly beautiful. There are a series of falls and rock pools, some of which are magical pea green and others the most azure blue you imagine. Swimming is not allowed in the upper pools, so they are clean and peaceful and almost dream-like.
We head further downstream, keen for a swim after our nail-biting slippery descent. Of course, there are zillions of tourists everywhere, but my, how grand it is to jump in the cool cool blue for a swim!
At Kuang Si there is also a sun-bear sanctuary. Although I am generally sceptical about these kinds of facilities in Asian countries – there is never enough money or resources to operate them really well, it seems to me – this one is great. Big signage informs readers of various bear facts, and how the sanctuary is operated. There are several excellent enclosures, with bears of similar ages and whatever other characteristics are needed to ensure they don’t beat each other to death, and really well designed observation pathways. Watching them ambling about is fantastic, even when a bear squabble does break out… which is quite a good reminder of how dangerous these cute creatures actually are.
Eventually, we wander to the car park and find the right tuk-tuk to take us back to Luang Prabang. I am pleasantly tired, and Frank and I agree to meet for a beer and dinner later that night. We’re going to Utopia, an absolutely gorgeous café/pub with sublime views of Nam Khan. We have a very pleasant evening chatting about this, that and everything, including the merits of shedding all wordly goods, which I highly, highly recommend, if the option exists, because it means you can visit places like Laos.
I casually ask Frank what the time is… 10.20pm. Good grief! This is the latest I’ve been up for weeks! And there is an 11.00pm curfew in place… and I have a 10 or 15 minute walk back to my guesthouse. We stride back through the lanes and part ways at the top of the hill. I get back to the guesthouse with what feels like only minutes to spare before the curfew. I bash on the very well secured doors, with no response. Great, I think, now I’ll have to sleep in the garden with the possibility that the police will come and poke their big machine guns in my face demanding to know why I’m still out after curfew. Yes, yes, I know I know, an overly dramatic response, but I was tired after a big day of walking, OK?! Eventually, after more urgent door thumping, the very sleepy, and very grumpy, reception man let me in. I apologise profusely, and rush up the stairs to my room.
Today – 4 April 2012
Today, I walked across a bamboo bridge.
And found this amazing café.
And made friends with a dog.
And took some photos.