Monday, November 05, 2007
Laos was great. On Sunday I took a longboat ride on the Mekong River to a nearby cave with Buddhist statues. The cave was so-so- somewhat of a tourist trap with a sidetrip to a "whisky village" where Lao whisky is made--but it was fascinating watching life along the mighty Mekong. The river soil is very rich, and you see all kinds of vegetables being grown along the riverbank. I took a lot of pictures of the river people going about their daily business, fishermen going out for the day's catch, men, women and children tending vegetable gardens. The long boat itself is a variation on the rice barges you see in India, a place where people not only work but live (no life vests, though). You can see some of these photos on top, in Flickr.
My impressions, and the things I noticed, often seemed in contrast to India. Luang Prabang is a quiet city, not very crowded, and very clean. In fact, anywhere I went in Laos seemed clean, and it finally dawned on me: no garbage in the streets, no men urinating in public. Cows and goats were fat and sleek, and the dogs in the streets were well fed, many with collars. There are more tourists than natives in Luang Prabang--at times it seemed that every other person was sporting the Lonely Planet guide to Laos. The Lao Democratic Republic has figured out how to cash in on the tourist interest, by charging a hefty $30 visa fee on the way in and a $10 exit tax on the way out. But, considering that accommodations run under $30 a night and meals a few dollars a day, it's probably a fair bargain. There were many backpackers from Europe--especially France-- and Australia, and most in singles and couples. For the most part, Japanese and Korean tour groups have not yet discovered Laos--though there was a huge contingent from Elderhostel. Due to the French background, the baguettes were great.
On Monday I took a hill trek into some nearby villages, and then on to the Kuangsi Falls. We visited villages of two of the several hill tribes of Laos--the Khmu and the Hmong.. They live quite differently, but both are animist (not Buddhist) and so there were no temples or other obvious signs of worship in the villages. The Khmu are said to be related to the Khmer people of Cambodia, whereas the Hmong migrated from China several hundred years ago. There were several Khmu about the village when we visited, including a group of women who were preparing vegetables to sell to a nearby market, and many young children--several of whom looked to be of school age. In the Hmong village, on the other hand, there were only a few old people--two women and a man tending a baby--as the children were in school and the able-bodied adults were in the fields.
There were other interesting differences between the two villages, which undoubtedly stem from their differing origins--e.g. the Khmu build their homes on stilts, whereas the Hmong are flat to the ground. Both groups are also found in Northern Thailand.
After leaving the villages, we took a three hour hike that took us through some fields, a dense forest, and finally to the top of the spectacular Kuangsi Falls. It had rained a couple of days before and parts of the trail were very slippery and steep, but despite falling three or four times I only had a banged up wrist which healed in a day or so. Along the way we saw people working in the rice fields--some rice is grown dry here.
And this was the reward for the hike--this is a view of the falls from the front, after we had climbed down from the top.
In Luang Prabang itself I visited several of the temples ( the shot at the top of this post is taken from the one at the top of a hill in the center of town) and watched the morning alms giving to the monks. More on that in a separate post.