Thursday, February 9, 2012

Indochine Adventure pt.3 - Laos, days 1-3

Exploring the mighty Mekong River in central Laos
FROM JANUARY 10, 2012:
           We arrived in Laos on New Year’s Eve. Before we even left the airport, I knew that Luang Prabang was no Vietnam. The city of around 100,000 is Laos’ largest tourist center, and former capital of the Kingdom of Laos before the communist takeover in the 1970s, yet it felt like hardly anyone was there. The airport was hardly larger than a house, and the customs room was so tiny that would have felt small as a living room.

At a waterfall outside of Luang Prabang

Lots of trippy-bridges in Laos
            Luang Prabang (which I will refer to as LP) is nestled deep in the mountains of central Laos, and is surrounded on all sides by abrupt hills and steep mountains. It also is right on the banks of the Mekong river, the very same river where I was in early December, but now I was on the other end - deep in the heart of the mighty Mekong. We would spend the next six days exploring all that the town and surrounding countryside had to offer. As we arrived late in the afternoon, we took a short rest at the hotel, and then had a New Years Eve dinner on the main street. All the fancy restaurants had increased their prices by about 100% for the night (but for some reason I doubt that the quality increased much), since that's what all the fancy places do. We chose the more casual pizza restaurant for the night, planning to eat at the fancy places when their prices dropped. There wasn't much of a fireworks show, but that might have been because I fell asleep at around 10. The one neat celebration we did see was the launching of giant paper-bag balloons carrying there own self-sustaning fires - just like the Christmas farolitos launched in Santa Fe, New Mexico, but much, much larger. They were alternately beautiful to watch as they slowly drifted hundreds of feet into the air, and then terrifying to be under as they inevitably lit themselves ablaze and came crashing back to Earth.

Claira enjoys some chocolate soup with her lunch

Hiking along the Mekong
            On our second day in Laos, we took a bike ride and saw a beautiful (yet crowded) waterfall: After breakfast we were picked up by our guide and then chose out our beach cruisers that would serve as our trusty steads for the morning - we let my sisters and my mom have the only bikes with functioning brakes while my dad and I went with Flintstones-style drag your foot brakes. For the next few hours we cycled all around LP, and left the tourist area behind. It was quite a pleasant time, although there were quite a few hills to climb with just a few gears to choose from. Being able to leave the air-conditioned comfort of the car and getting out and feeling the cool village air on my face made me feel like I was really seeing an unobstructed view of the country. That afternoon we traded in our two wheeled steads for a large four wheeled stead, which took us up to a waterfall, around half an hour from LP. It was a beautiful waterfall that could have been even better if there weren’t so many people there. But then again it was peak tourist season and this is one of the places where everyone goes. The water was amazing, it was a light blue that, combined with the green of the trees and the sand just looked simply incredible. On the way back to the car, we also saw a sad sight. There was a pen with an endangered species of bear. The sad part was that their enclosure was obviously not large enough for them to properly exercise, and were going a bit crazy in their cages.

We had Broiled fish, Grilled fish, fish Stew, Fried fish, Steamed fish, Curried fish....   we had a lot of fish.

Lao lao Whiskey distillery
            The next day, we drove around 1 hour through the mountains to a small village along the Mekong, where we boarded a small fishing boat (hardly wider than me) and crossed the Mekong to a village that makes alcohol, lao lao whiskey. They were also having a large party at the time as well. We could hear the music blasting across the river, and after we arrived on the shore, we went up and saw how they make their drink. It's actually a pretty interesting process. They take aged, fermented rice, steam it, collect that steam, and distill that into the lao lao. My dad tried it and said that it was really strong. Soon after we once again hopped aboard our little craft and returned across the river. We had lunch aboard a large boat, with many other tourists, though we were the only Westerners. The meal was mostly fresh fish caught from the Mekong that day. We really enjoyed the entire meal, we ordered six different styles of preparation - steamed, broiled, curried, fried, grilled and cooked in a soup - and every dish was unique and delicious. With our meal complete, we boarded another, larger vessel that took us across the river to a cave that cut into the side of a cliff just above the river. It was filled with Buddhas. Little Buddhas, big Buddhas, golden, silver, glass, stone… every Buddha statue you could possibly imagine were crammed into this cave, placed there by pilgrims for hundreds of years. It was Buddh-tastic. And finally, we enjoyed a nice relaxing cruise down the Mekong, and after a two-hour or so float, we arrived back in LP. So far we were having a great time in Laos, and with another 2 full days in Laos, it was gearing up to be an awesome adventure. 

Monks along the Mekong

We ate a lot of fish, but we didn't have much luck catching them

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