Of Riverside Huts and Two LaoLao Cups: North Laos
The mother of water. The cocoa coloured wonder. The Mighty Mekong. Call it what you like, this river rich in history, legend and adventure had us awe struck from the moment we set foot on our long, slim slow boat to begin our 2 week trek from the Northwest to the deep South of Laos.
More Stray adventurers had joined our group (check out our Thai trip!) over the last day to now collectively gawp at sunny rays softly illuminating the incredible scenery of lush green rainforest covered hills, elephants being bathed nearby little villages and kids back-flipping into the rushing river. Apart from filming, there was little to do but take in the scenery, and it was so spectacular that even after 5 hours straight, we got off the boat and still stood staring in wonder at our surroundings.
Our first night was to be spent in a homestay village right on the Mekong. We arrived around 4pm, just in time to join the local kids for a few games of football and some singing and playing tag at the local school. Newcomers Rick, Jodie, Matt, Paige, Brian and Anna did us proud by jumping straight into the fray with everyone else as we ran, hollered, laughed till we cried and rolled around on the floor with equally enthusiastic local kids from three to 20+ years old. It was HUGE amounts of genuine fun and luckily for everyone there was a head teacher monitoring that all kids (he included us in this definition) played nice.
We also had two groups of older and way wiser Dutch (Ellie, Michael and Jolien) and Kiwi (Amanda and Kayla) travellers with us, who had kept mainly to themselves (we can’t blame them as we’d turned into a bit of a rowdy bunch), but joined in in full swing, which was fantastic. Playtime ended when Ellie was hit by a near scoring ball but it was getting dark and everyone was hungry so both teams decided to call it a draw – apart from the goal Rick scored, but for some reason this still made it a draw. It struck us over amazing candle lit dinner under the stars (the generator had kicked the bucket after the entrée) that everyone was so uncomplicated, that there was no resentment or “that was definitely offside” or arguing at all – everyone’s sheer joy at playing together was so infectious that the usual dinner conversations that, at least in the UK, inevitably involved complaining about something were replaced by everyone chatting about how amazing life was.
The power cut had other positive effects as we sat on the floor in one of the small houses, our tummies full to bursting with delicious food, and were treated by the village elders to a Ba Si Soul Calling ceremony, that was rendered all the more magical by the necessity of being candle lit. The villagers had spent hours that day painstakingly preparing a small offering of sweet banana sticky rice, an egg, a bundle of flowers, a candle and incense in a small banana leaf tray for each one of us. In the middle of the room stood a beautifully decorated centerpiece of fresh flowers, banana leaves and white cotton threads – 32 per person to symbolize 32 parts of the body – that the elders proceeded to tie around each person’s wrists individually in order to call back lost fragments of the soul and tie them back together for peace and harmony. Even describing the ceremony as magical, moving and thoroughly wonderful wouldn’t do it justice, as every one of us agreed it was one of the most beautiful things we had experienced on our travels.
After a good nights sleep in bamboo stilt huts, we headed further down the Mekong and stopped off at the Pak Ou Cave filled with Buddha statues (where our hand made flower, candle and incense bundles came in handy) and amazing views across the river. Soon after we arrived at the shores of one of the top destinations on our wish list: Luang Prabang.
Unesco world heritage site (we keep on bumping into these!!) since 1995 and originally founded in 698 AD, Luang Prabang is teaming with history, art, awesome food, great markets and saffron clad monks. You can get the best view right from the centre of town, after climbing aptly named ‘Phu Si Hill’ (*cue giggles from our Rat & Rebecca*), and we can see why people get stuck here. Most things are within walking distance, and there so much to do, including marveling at over 30 distinct temples, mountain biking to nearby turquoise-coloured Kuang Si waterfalls, learning how to cook amazing food at Tamarind and enjoying the most talented of the South East Asian movie business show off their latest projects at the yearly Luang Prabang Film festival.
One activity we most enjoyed during our short visit was visiting the Living Land Farm where assistant manager and all-around small, nimble and smiley guy Sia Lee walked us through the numerous stages of rice farming. It was an utter joy watching Sia, who was incredibly knowledgeable, humble and sweet as he showed us in true hands-on Laos style how to germinate, plant, plough, weed, harvest, dry and process rice plants and the entire group relished getting stuck in the knee deep soft and squelchy mud whilst singing planting songs, clearing space for young rice saplings and steering ‘Suzuki’, the obedient but massive water buffalo through a flooded paddy in need of a plough. Sia told us all about the project, that he had set up with his brother Laut, to employ locals who would otherwise not find work due to their low educational background and supplies Luang Prabang’s restaurants with organic rice, vegetables, herbs and salad greens.
After all the planting, dodging Suzuki’s horns and breath, grinding rice flower, squeezing juice from sugarcane and picking salad fresh from the pristine gardens, Sia instructed us on using all sorts of ingenious contraptions made out of bamboo, including steamers, fish & rat traps, irrigation systems, bowls, baskets and most fun of all – a crossbow. As we took aim and mostly missed at a flaming yellow flower perched on a haystack, an incredible smell seeped through the hut – the food we’d been gathering was cooked and ready to feast upon. And what a feast it was. Refined and flavoursome as a high-class restaurant, we munched on deep fried rice crackers, coconut waffles, chili & buffalo skin sauce, garden fresh salad and carrots. It was incredible and we’d visit the Living Land Farm again in a heartbeat.
Time was pressing on and, over an amazing dinner only reachable via a small bamboo footbridge that gets washed away by monsoon each year and subsequently re-built (fairy lights and all), we said goodbye to most of our group who continued to Vientiane. We on the other hand had heard rumors floating around Luang Prabang of a mystical and long-forgotten place: The Plane of Jars in North-East Laos. The magnitude of one of our most surreal trips to date simply won’t fit into 5 lines, so check out the lowdown here.
****** short break due to possible alien abduction******
Go! Grab a quick pee-break, a cup of tea or stiff drink. For you insatiable spirits, we continue our travels in TLC: Southern Laos.