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Sunday, Jan. 20 – Fly to Pakse, Laos

Nice breakfast at the Bopha Angkor Hotel – eggs and plates of fruit – love their pleasant garden environment.

We caught 7:30 taxi to the airport for out flight to Laos (on Lao Air). The plane was a new turboprop (ATR 72), small, half full and left 15 minutes early. We arrived in Pakse, Laos, 55 minutes later. There were three government officials required to process our visas – and a minimum of 7 stamps. Luckily, there were very few customers in that airport tucked way out in the boonies and we were free from airport red tape in no time.

NOTE: Why Paske?

Only a few tourists have found their way to Paske in remote southern Laos. Bill picked the place after talking to James, a Laotian who owns a video store in our neighborhood (Completely Video). He grew up in Champassak, not far from Paske. (We’d drive by the area where James grew up on his grandfather’s large farm. In the 70’s, the communists appropriated the farm when they declared equality for all – Yeah, right!)

We found our driver holding a KE sign (for Kingfisher Ecolodge) and we were off in his minivan. The lodge is about 40 miles from the airport, but we went farther because we hired the driver through the lodge to make a stop at a temple, Wat Phou, before we checked in at the lodge. The roads were paved and in much better condition than in Cambodia. The sights along the road (and in the road) are always interesting – We saw cattle, water buffalo, and goats to name a few. We knew our driver’s English was very good because he said “Shit” with the right intonation when a taxi pulled out in front of him.

We had to take a ferry across the Mekong River. Packing cars, trucks and motorbikes on a limited space is tough. There were a lot of local kids out selling things – the big item was bamboo soupspoons. Just a little farther down the road, after the ferry crossing, we stopped and paid our $3 each to see the Wat Phou.

Loading up the ferry first with cars

Next comes the walk-on passengers

Wat Phou is at the base of Phou mountain (1,400 ft., but still the only mountain we’ve seen in weeks). Cambodia and southern Laos are flat. The temple ruins were perfect in the mountain setting. UNESCO designated Wat Phou a World Heritage sight in 2001. It is the longest operating temple – started as a sacred site back in the 6 th Century and people still make a pilgrimage here today. On the full moon in February, they come from all around to sacrifice a couple of water buffalo. Long about the 12 th century, Wat Phou was in its heyday. The same king, who brought the Khmer Civilization, also turned Wat Phou into a first class temple. That guy really got around.

It was great fun scurrying around the old ruins and climbing up a series of very steep steps. The place is big on fertility. The pre-Angkor phallic symbols were everywhere. The water from the mountain once trickled over hundreds of these phallic structures, producing the equivalent of holy water for their sacred use. (The symbols were once part of Hinduism, and then merged with Buddhism in the13th century.) The water buffalo is another fertility symbol.


Temple at the base of the mountain

Temple at the top of the mountain

Carvings on door – What’s he doing?

Funky Buddhas in upper temple

View of the main road

Steps to the upper temples

Phallic symbols line the walkway

Phallic symbols

Temple entrance, viewed from the mountain

Remains of Naga (The Serpent)

We were becoming experts in Wat life. We noticed the holes in the huge blocks of stones. The holes were used to anchor the blocks onto elephants’ backs to be carried from miles around in to temple site. We also recognized traces of Nagas (the serpent), the funky lion guards, Ganesh (the guy with the elephant head) and some other new temple characters scattered about. We stopped at the museum (“The Exhibition Hall”) on the way out and looked at items collected from the grounds dating back to the 6 th century – mind blowing.

We drove back to the ferry and just missed it by a minute, so we had to hang out in the sun killing time and waiting for the next ferry. (Our driver used another appropriate expletive deleted word – Man, he really knows his English.) We made friends with Ngang Mio—an adorable 10-year old who reminded us of Zion. Her sense of drama and expressions were exactly like Zi’s. She charmed us and kept us entertained. I gave her whatever I could find – just like I do for Zi – only all I had were some pretzels and a few little toys. She especially liked the little racecars. She crossed the ferry with us and then said, “Good-bye.” Ngang Nio made me miss my little Zi.

Ngang Nio, Zi’s double

Oh the things that come off the ferry!

It was about 4:30 when we finally arrived at the Kingfisher Ecolodge and checked in with Massimo, the proprietor. Massimo built the Kingfisher Ecolodge two years ago. He’s an Italian who worked in Vientiane, married a Laotian woman and together they created this very special place. Bill picked it because Kingfisher Ecolodge got good reviews on Trip Advisor. We were assigned to bungalow #3 – a little house on stilts overlooking a beautiful meadow peppered with water buffalo and white egrets. The place reminds us of some of the lodges we stayed in on our African safari in Tanzania. We went to our hut and did the laundry. I hung out the clothes on the veranda (I would rather be relaxing in the hammock on the veranda – but type “A” personalities have things to do!) I watched some Laotian women returning from the fields. The place is so still, quiet and peaceful. We like being in the country.

Bungalow #3 - Kingfisher Ecolodge

No relaxing on this veranda

The main lodge – where we wined (I mean beered) and dined

Beerlao time for Bill

Home from the field, carrying baby

View of our backyard

Only a handful of adventuresome types find their way here. There was a young couple from Sweden, a couple of gals from the Netherlands having a great time, a proper British couple (she wore too much perfume) and Rob, a gynecological oncologist from New City traveling on his own. Most came to have an adventure right in the smack dab middle of nature – to trek, to mountain bike, to visit the remote villages, to bird watch. We signed up for a mountain biking / trekking combination. We went to the desk and finalized our arrangements for tomorrow and then had pasta for dinner. It hit the spot. We walked back to our little hut expecting silence in the country – wrong. The monks at a nearby temple were drumming to beat the band. They are fasting now and want the whole world to know. Lucky us! Why can’t they suffer in silence? I worked on the journal while Bill listened to his audio book and snoozed.

Monday, Jan. 21 – Hiking / Biking Adventure – Kingfisher Ecolodge

Woke up at 3:30 this morning – the monks were at it again, all that drumming makes you insane. Later on, when the sun came up, the birds started their racket – and I thought it would be quiet in the country. It also got chilly last night in our open hut built on stilts.

We had a delicious breakfast at the lodge – fried eggs, French bread and a huge plate of fruit – big breakfast, but needed it for our big adventure.

We left at 8:30 with our guide, Suam (pronounced Some). Dressed in a U.S. army shirt and a baseball cap with the playboy bunny logo on it, he was very playful. His English was great and he even sang a few tunes for us. He’s 26 and majored in English in college. He has 6 brothers and sisters, none of whom are married. His girlfriend works at the lodge. He made a delightful, but tough day for us old farts (25 miles of mountain biking and a tricky 2-hour hike to a waterfall).

Suam, Our Guide

Two old farts take a bike ride

We took off on our bikes (which were in good condition) and headed for a remote village. The biking was great – good dirt roads and light traffic. (This is the country, after all.) We didn’t see one car, only scattered motorcycles, bikes, people walking and one truck on the road – but in this dry season, everything stirs up the thick dust. The road got more and more narrow and more and more rocky. We crossed a couple of streams where we had to dismount and walk the bikes through the rushing currents. The cool, refreshing water felt good and washed our dusty feet.

After a couple of hours, we arrived in the village. It seemed very quiet, only saw a little boy watching us from his hut. I took a toy car over to him. He was very shy and didn’t know what to do with it or who the heck we were. In just a few minutes, the place was hopping. Mothers and children gathered to watch us. Suon told us they called us “Foreigners” – they’re not accustomed to anyone different in these remote parts. One little boy, who looked like he was two, screamed in terror when he saw us. He hid behind his sister’s shirt, and each time he got a peak at us he started to scream all over again. The villagers thought it was very funny.

There was so much activity going on that I didn’t want to leave the little village. A woman was weaving a fish net, another woman was boiling water over a fire to make Laos moonshine whiskey (lao-lao), and the children were everywhere. They loved getting their photos taken and then seeing the results on the digital display. Their quiet fascination turned into big smiles and giggles when their images appear on the back of my camera. There were lots of chickens, a few pigs tied up, some goats and lots of mangy old dogs, most pregnant or with a litter of pups.

The village

Little boy watching from his hut

Children everywhere

Can’t wait to see the picture

Proud mama with her little girl

Grandma with work to do

We left our bikes at the village chief’s place and then hiked off to the waterfall. A guide from the village sporting a machete followed us. The hike through the tropical jungle was rough, but beautiful. Soun pointed out some of the plants and trees -- herbs for flavoring Bamboo soup, coffee trees, rattan (for rattan furniture and a host of other products), and trees where resin was harvested.

Our guide with the machete

The waterfall - where we lunched

After about an hour of hiking, we arrived at a big waterfall where we had lunch. Soun carried a nice lunch in his pack -- an omelet, fried rice with chicken and veggies, and some fruit – apples and oranges. After lunch, the village guide rolled a cigarette and had a smoke. (It smelled like marijuana to me.) We took a different route back to the village – a very hard hike. The guide got a kick out of me scooting down the steep hillsides on my butt. The flat part of the trail required some fancy footwork along with some fancy machete work. It didn’t look like a trail at all to us. We fought our way over downed trees covered with wicked vines with mean stickers. About 2:30 we made it back to the village to photograph more children and get the animals stirring again. Finally, we climbed on our bikes and off we went.

Soun asked if we wanted to stop in at another village to see the temple where the celebration of the rice harvest that was going on. We weren’t going to miss a thing, so we headed to the temple and the open courtyard – more photos. A couple of monks were drumming away on ancient drums outside the temple. Inside was a serious young monk writing in his schoolbook.

The village welcoming committee

Two pals from the village

The village monk band

Playing the gong

Children in the temple

Elder in the temple

We hit the road again – I learned to trust my bike and let it fly over the potholes and protruding rocks. The sun was getting lower and it was cooling down. Right before we got to the Kingfisher Ecolodge, we stopped to watch a guy bathing an elephant in the river. That’s why I love traveling – a new amazing sight at every turn in the road.

Bathing the elephant

Walks past our bikes on the road

We got back about 4:30 – It was an over-the-top day with activity and adventure. We had a well-deserved beer and headed back to our room to remove a few layers of dirt – we were filthy. After a shower, we took a little walk to watch the cows (and water buffalo) come home. We also saw elephants in the distance – what a place.

About 7:00, we went to dinner – we both ordered pasta again. Mushroom for me – but the mushrooms were too rubbery to eat. We checked email – not much. We talked to Soun at the lodge. I think he was surprised and relieved that he got the old gal back to the lodge in one piece and asked if my legs were sore. Of course not, I may look pitiful on the outside, but I’m strong like bull on the inside.

We went back to the hut #3 to work on my journal and listen to the monk’s drumbeat – They’re at it again. Damn those monks – why’d we have to be here on a full moon and the rice harvest celebration?

Tuesday, Jan. 22 – Kingfisher (Paske, Laos) - Fly to Vientiane

In spite of the cold eggs, we had a nice breakfast overlooking a large pond (a lake during the rainy season) and the vast fields as far as the eye can see.

I bought a little wooden mask with bulging eyes. For only four bucks, it spoke to me. Besides, I wanted something to remind me of this dreamlike oasis from another time and another place.

At 8:30 am, we boarded a songtao (an open-air truck with seating in the back), but we sat upfront with another young, handsome driver. I watched the scenes fly by and relived yesterday’s biking adventure as we went over some of the same dirt roads.

At first we passed though jungle areas, then on to the main road lined with intermittent street vendors. Several women were busy barbequing chicken satay on their beat up portable BBQ grills. The smells were wonderful.

Items for sale along the road were practical -- everyday necessities – nothing that would be found in souvenir shop. I read that 15 years ago, when Laos embarked on capitalism, the inexperienced shop owners didn’t know how to value their goods. They placed a high value on food and priced it accordingly. The ancient relics and antiques, handed down through the family, were things they thought of as useless junk and thus, priced very low. After 15 years, the entrepreneurs have figured out the market and have finally adjusted their prices.

The market stalls that caught my eye were the ones selling fresh fish. I watched long lines of hanging large sized plastic bags each filled with four or five fish swimming around. It reminded me of buying little gold fish in a small plastic bag, but these were big fish in clear plastic garbage bags.

We arrived at the airport and went through our routine – check in, luggage, pay the airport tax, etc. We boarded the small plane and departed 25 minutes early. That Lao Air has got it together. Both flights we’ve taken on Lao Air were early and both had an efficient, organized ground crew. Haven’t seen that kind of airport action in years.

I tried to work on my journal in the cramped little airplane – not an easy task. An hour and 15 minutes fly by (no pun intended) when I’m pounding away on the old laptop. We landed 30 minutes early in Vientiane, the old capital and French colonial town. By the time we walked to the terminal, our bags were waiting. We found the driver from the Lani Guesthouse holding a Mr. William sign and off we went to do Vientiane.

Vientiane is the capital of Laos – but it’s a small and relaxed town that sits on the northern bank of the Mekong River. It was built as a fort, but not a very strong one. The original city was over-run many times by the Burmese and Chinese and was flattened by the Siamese (Thais) in 1828. The city was abandoned and turned back to jungle until the French got hold of it. At the turn of the 19 th century into the 20th century, they laid out and built a whole new town. We have the French to thank for the long, straight boring roads – but they did leave behind some mighty nice colonial mansions.

In ten minutes we were at our old hotel (Lani Guesthouse) in the heart of town, tucked away down a long alleyway. I noticed one wat after another in this old neighborhood. Hope the monks don’t have much to drum and chant about tonight.

Bill by the Lani Guesthouse

The wat overlooking our backyard fence

I really like our funky old hotel filled with antiques. I studied the relics in the lobby and the hallways. A taxidermist needs to re-do a couple of stuffed varmints who look like a cross between a mongoose and a cheetah, probably long extinct by now. I looked at all the treasures from bygone days and wondered who served tea in that delicate porcelain teapot, who used that walking cane with the elaborately carved jade handle, and what was packed in that old steamer chest? So many things to see and to wonder about.

Strange critters from the bygone days

Our veranda where we ate breakfast and drank beer

Our funky old, once elegant room is huge with high ceilings and the ever-present fan spinning overhead. A beautifully carved armoire sits by the door and antique hand-woven fabrics hang on the wall. The ghosts of the 1920’s were stirring.

We unpacked and headed into town to take care of some business before we had lunch. I was getting weary as the day was getting hot. We finally found the main office of Green Discovery Laos and tracked down Phoxay, Bill’s Internet connection. He had bad breath, but was very businesslike and efficient. We paid him $215 to cover 3 nights at a hotel in Luang Prabang. Bill spent about three weeks trying to book a place on his own, but came up empty. Phoxay’s booking was our 14 th choice – wonder how it will work out.

We’ll be taking a two-day trek and mountain bike ride into a remote village and stay in a chief’s hut with Green Discovery when we get to Luang Prabang. Huge posters depicting the Green Discovery’s grand adventures covered the walls. However, the posters gave me pause – a large section of each poster highlight the staff’s medical training and the assortment of medical services they provide. I just want to go on a hiking and biking adventure. I don’t really don’t want the medical stuff they so proudly advertise.

Finally, at 2:30, we stopped for lunch at the Lotus. The Lotus offers a variety of imitation foods from home to comfort the weary traveler (that would be me). I broke down and ordered a pretend hamburger. Whatever it was, it hit the spot – looked like a meatloaf patty, breaded and deep fried, but served on a homemade bun. Bill had a margarita pizza that would have been plenty for both of us. We washed our lunch down with beer and got to know our sweet waiter. He has a punky, spiky haircut and a few tattoos on his arm. We told him we were from San Diego and he lite up. His uncle lives in San Diego down by the beach. Our waiter is studying auto mechanics and wants to repair motorcycles – a great profession for this part of the world.

We headed down to the riverfront, stopping in at a few shops along the way. I was wilting and my tummy protesting (probably from the fake burger) so we returned to our room to wait out the heat and stay close to an available bathroom. Sure hope this thing passes fast – I have big adventures in store.

I showered and worked on the journal until about 5:30 p.m.. The guidebook said the sunsets over the Mekong River were not to be missed – so I wasn’t about to be sitting in the room with Mother Nature out there performing her dazzling show.

My energy was sapped when we arrived at what was left of the Mekong River. The dry season took it’s toll on the mighty Mekong, turning it into a little creek cutting through a mud pond. Our next surprise was a major disconnect with the guidebook’s description of lovely watering holes. Instead of inviting and peaceful, we found them dusty and depressing. We walked down another block and finally found a decent spot to enjoy a Beerlao overlooking the mud pit. I snapped a few photos of what the guidebook said was “a magnificent sunset over the Mekong.”

Vendors selling eggs on a stick along the Mekong

Sunset over the Mekong mud hole

I watched a young, beautiful, sexy young Laotian woman at the next table, waiting impatiently for someone or something to happen. Occasionally, she’d glance down at her English book and practice a few lines. She had the lowest cut neckline and the highest high heels in all of Laos, so naturally I assumed she was waiting for a client. I noticed a few other sexy, gorgeous young woman alone at the bar waiting. Scenes like that put my imagination into overtime. Would like to know the real story.

It was 7 p.m. – the show was over, the mysterious foxy lady had left and the sun had set. We finished our beer and caught a tuk-tuk to the restaurant Bill picked out. Bill thought the driver said 70 kip (35 cents each), but it ended up costing us $2. Percentage-wise, a big rip-off, but dollar-wise, forget it.

The Kua Lao Restaurant was in a wonderful old colonial mansion. The wait people, wearing nametags with big letters, were all graceful and beautiful. Our server was “Nalee.” “Air” brought us our water. The environment was most elegant with white linen tablecloths and gold utensils. What a classy place – that is, until a group of five adults (I believe they were French) and two little blonde children (approximate ages 4 and 2) came in and turned the place upside down. The children were completely out of control. They ran through the rows of tables. They pulled on the drapes. They screamed. They even pounded on the drums while the five-piece band was trying to entertain us with Lao folk music. I was a nervous wreck just watching them. Quick – somebody sign that family up for the TV show “The Nanny.” Luckily, the mother contained the little brats while two young dancers -- one male, one female – came out on stage. The dancers’ graceful hand movements were like birds flying. The dances were similar to the ethnic dancing we saw in Kuala Lumpur and Borneo last year. (Bill could tell I wasn’t feeling well because I didn’t even snap one photo.)

We shared a set menu dinner of Lao dishes. I stayed with the soup and sticky rice (served in a little basket). The 7 or 8 dishes were flavorful, most with a very minty taste. The big dinner, including a fruit platter dessert, was only ten bucks. If it weren’t for my tummy and those little blonde monsters, it would have been a delightful evening.

We walked back to our hotel, stopping in to check emails. We were shocked to learn that a good friend of Bill’s, Bob Roland, had died unexpectedly. Bill played poker with Bob on a monthly basis since the early 70’s. Quiet, with our own thoughts, we walked to the hotel in silence through that strange town so far from home. I worked on the journal until 10:30, trying not to think about Bob and how very sad his family must be.

Wednesday, Jan. 23 – Vientiane – Journal in morning – Tuk-Tuk tour in the afternoon – Fly to Luang Prabang

Woke up at 5 a.m. to dive into the journal – I’m way behind with so many things to document. I stopped at 7:30 to have breakfast on the classy old veranda filled with comfy rattan chairs – what a lovely way to greet the day. There was a chill in the air that morning – but we know it won’t last into the afternoon.

We went back upstairs to the room. I wrote the Cambodian report while Bill listened to his audio book on Abe Lincoln. I finished at 10 and let Bill take over editing while I did some yoga in that lovely old room. (Think I’m going to make it.) Bill finished about noon, just at checkout time.

We left our bags by the old wooden front desk and walked around the corner to have some lunch. I had a chicken sandwich in a baguette; Bill had noodle soup.

We hired a tuk-tuk for three hours to take us around all the sights in this old capitol town. It was a great way to cover a lot of ground and the sights were incredible.

Our tuk-tuk tour of the old city

The first stop was the Sisaket Wat. We browsed through rows of stupas (with pictures of the dearly departed displayed on the outside) while we waited for the main part of the temple to open. The ticket window opened at 1 and we entered the wonderful old wat. It was built in the traditional Thai style in 1818 and was the only temple in the city to survive the pillaging of the Siamese in 1828. The long, straight corridors surrounding the central courtyard housed over 10,000 Buddhas – all shapes, sizes and crammed into every nook and cranny. The Buddhas’ hand position intrigues me – palms forward for peace; right hand down and left hand up to call to Mother Earth for wisdom and so on. I noticed a different style of Buddha – one with pointy nipples and a square nose designed to emphasize that Buddha is no longer a human form.

Golden Buddhas sit in the outside courtyard

Stupas line the courtyard

Long buildings frame the inside courtyard

The main temple

Buddha with pointy nipples and square nose

Nooks and Crannies filled with 10,000 Buddhas

We crossed the street to enter another big temple, Ho Phra Keo. It was built in 1565 to house the emerald Buddha that the king took from Thailand. (The Thais took back in 1779.) We saw the actual emerald Buddha while traveling in Thailand seven years ago. As I recall, it was disappointing. The temple, with its grand Naga-headed front steps, was situated in a lovely garden. Unfortunately, our timing wasn’t good and we had to contend with a large tour group.

Temple overrun with tour groups

Grand Naga stairway

Buddhas decorate the building

My favorite Buddha

The tuk-tuk took us to the next temple on the list -- Wat Si Muang. Built in 1566, it houses the foundation pillar of the city. As the story goes, 300 years ago a young local pregnant village gal (Zi Muang) was inspired by the gods to sacrifice herself to appease the local spirits. (They did a lot of human and animals sacrificing back then.) She jumped into the pit right before the stones were lowered. Poor kid – probably went a little nuts and didn’t want to tell her parents – but now she’s forever part of the city foundation and is the honored patron saint of the city. Statues of Buddha draped in orange cloth (including a reclining Buddha) stand along the remains of the pillar where she flung herself. The temple is nice, but not particularly interesting, except for the very strange statues that dot the courtyard.

Statues of Buddha by the old city foundation

Statues sit by a tree

Half bird, half person

Buddha and Naga, together again

Funky guy, funky hat

We made a quick stop for gas, then made another quick stop at the statue of King Sisavang Vong, a pudgy guy standing in the center of a large city park.

Filling up the old tuk-tuk

King Sisavang Vong

We drove out of town to stop at another wat where I think King Sisavang Vong is buried. (I recognized his pudgy face on the magnificent stupa just beyond the gates.) However, we weren’t sure what we were looking for, so we wandered around the temple grounds. Before long, a young monk offered to show us around. (They like to serve as guides for tourists and practice their English.) Our monk was in high school and wanted to show us his school out back. At the front breezeway to his school were large murals depicting the life and times of Buddha. He told us fascinating stories about each painting – Buddha was a weird guy. We ran out of time and didn’t get to see his school. The monk pointed out a woman, a man and a child hovering over some ashes. Our monk said they were finishing up cremating a body – we’d never have guessed that without our guide. We thanked him and climbed back aboard our tuk-tuk to continue our personal tour.

Main gate to the temple

Guessing King Sisavang Vong’s stupa

Guessing King Sisavang Vong’s pudgy face

Bill befriends a young monk

Monk telling us the ways of Buddha

The tuk-tuk headed back towards town. Miles away we could see a huge golden stupa shining in the sun. Phra That Luang, 144 feet high, is the preeminent stupa in Laos – a national symbol, with its image printed on some of the money. First built in 1566 by King Setthathirat, it covered the ruins of a 12th-century Khmer temple. In 1828, the Siamese sacked Vientiane and destroyed the temple. Then in 1900, the French rebuilt it, but the Lao people weren’t happy because it wasn’t true to the original. Torn down in 1930, it was remodeled and stayed pretty much the same as it is today. I really liked the grand entrance and wide walkways leading to the huge golden stupa in the blue, blue sky, reflecting the blinding sun. A statue of King Setthathirat in his pointy hat sits out front. We entered the main stupa and then explored the 30 small stupas arranged in a square surrounding the enormous center stupa. The small stupas represent the 30 Buddhist perfections, or stages to enlightenment. We bumped into Rob (from The Kingfisher Ecolodge – small world) taking pictures. He was traveling alone. He’s a cancer doctor from New York City – nice guy, but he really needs to work on his eye contact.

Phra That Luang shining in the sun

30 small stupas surround the main stupa

King Setthathirat (built the temple)

King Setthathirat still guards his temple

Steps to the golden stupas

Our last stop of the day was Patuxay (or the Victory Monument), built in 1968. For a second, I thought we were in Paris because the huge monument looks just like the Arc de Triumph in Paris. Strangely enough it was dedicated to those who fought in the war of independence against the French – go figure. However, the outside was decorated with Lao figures – like the half woman, half bird. The monument was standing in a lovely garden on the main thoroughfare through town and oh, so stately. We paid our money (50 cent or so) and climbed to the top for some wonderful views. I bought Zi a set of silver turtles at the gift shop on top. (I know she’ll love them.)

Patuxay (Victory Monument)

View of main street from the top

A couple at the top of Victory Monument

A monk at the top

We finished off the Victory Monument with no time left for the Lao National Museum – catch it next time. By 4 pm, we were back at our old hotel with just enough time left to enjoy a beer on the tree-shaded veranda before the taxi came to take us to the airport at 4:15.

Vientiane has the sleepiest airport. We had to wake the napping customs agent. He was sitting in one of several beautifully carved wooden cubicles left over from the French colonial days. He was the only agent on duty. He was wearing a green military uniform and sporting a very bad comb-over. It must have taken him a while to awake from his slumber because he couldn’t find our Laos vistas pasted in our passports. Bill turned to the correct page and straightened him out.

Next, we checked in our bags. I jumped up on the baggage scales to weigh myself (mainly because I knew I could get away with it at this airport – In fact, I could get away with almost anything here). I weighed 58 kilos – around 128 pounds. (Haven’t gained or lost anything.)

We settled into the airport lobby where I worked on my journal – What else is new? The little prop plane took off right on time and 55 minutes later we touched down in another sleepy airport in Luang Prabang – the most exotic of Laotian towns. Our driver was waiting at the airport, welcoming sign held high. He drove us through the dark city to our hotel.

The hotel, Say Nam Kahn Guest House (on Ban Wat Sene off Kingkitsalath Rd., near Nam Khan River), was choice #14 on Bill’s list. Bill tried for almost 3 weeks to get a reservation in the sleepy little town of Luang Prabang. The nice ones with email were all booked. This one, overpriced at $50 a night, looked dreary in the dark – the beige drapes were barely attached to the curtain rod. The staff was strange. Our bellhop sang questions to us. Later we learned he had a severe tick and sang as a way of communicating. He had a nice voice, but we didn’t want him to drive us any place.

We settled in our room. Bill tried to do the wash, but the sink drain was disconnected and all the water gushed out on the floor. We gave up and took our weary bodies to town (less than a block away) to have a beer and dinner – that would certainly help. We ate at Café des Arts. I had chicken nuggets and fries; Bill had the pasta. The town is busy, filled with Westerners – rich Westerners staying at lovely guesthouses. (From his research, Bill knows every guesthouse and hotel in town.) We felt better with full tummies and went back to the room to see if they had fixed the plumbing, as promised. They hadn’t. It’s going to be a long four days.

Thursday, Jan. 24 – Luang Prabang

Woke up about 6:00am, opened our dreary drapes and were shocked by the sight – the most amazing view in town – a shining river (the Nam Khan River) with mountains as the backdrop. (I can’t believe in the last night’s darkness, I asked for a quieter room at the back – lucky they didn’t have one.) The little rundown hotel had a special charm about it and was starting to grow on me. The Western breakfast was good and the scrambled eggs were served hot. Things are going to be OK.

Our hotel in the morning light

View from our hotel window

We were off to do Luang Prabang, what I call “Wat City.” It’s not a very big place, but has over 40 temples – down from 70. (Sad to say the American bombing raids helped wipe out several.) Luang Prabang is one of the most exotic places we’ve been. We walked around town, stopping in some lovely shops. We checked our email and then stopped at Green Discovery Laos to find out more about our two-day mountain bike/trek to minority tribe villages leaving tomorrow. No one seemed to know anything about it – where the village is, who would be our guide, how many miles, the terrain, or what the heck we’d do. However, they did have our money and our names on the official list.

We walked to Mount Phousi, rising in the center of town and right across from the Royal Palace Museum. Mount Phousi is covered with wats and Buddhas and Nagas and crawling with monks in their orange monk outfits. To get to the top we climbed some 300 steps. We got panoramic views of the town with the Mekong River and mountains in the distance. People were praying to Buddha in the temple at the top. One person was shaking sticks in a cylindrical container. The first stick that fell out told your future. We saw a lot of young monks hanging around a huge drum asking for donations. We contributed to the restoration of their drum – the monks need something to pound on. Perched on the top of the hill, overlooking the city was an old Soviet anti-aircraft gun -- seemed ironic to be among all the peaceful Wats and smiling Buddhas.

Views from Mount Phousi – The Royal Palace

Views from Mount Phousi -- The main road

Buddhas in the temple at the top

The congregation

Monks asking for drum donations

Soviet anti-aircraft gun

We took a different route down from Mt. Phousi. There were surprises everywhere on our way down. We turned a corner and a saw several large shining golden Buddhas placed on the hillside – one for each day of the week. No kidding – they were each labeled Monday Buddha, Tuesday Buddha, etc. There was a huge reclining Buddha and a couple of Buddha’s footprints. Some Buddhas were tucked away in caves with other eerie figures. It was fun to see such an odd place from our Western eyes.

If it’s Tuesday, it’s Reclining Buddha

Buddha asking for peace

Buddha resting

Sleeping like a baby

Buddha guarding a cave entrance

Monks praying to Buddha

Shining Buddhas everywhere

Buddha with a golden cup

Buddha draped in moonlight orange

Buddha in profile

Bill and Buddha

Buddha and Naga

Steps lined with Nagas

Bill going down Mount Phousi

Next stop -- the Royal Palace Museum. We walked to the Palace front door on the grand thoroughfare. On one side was a beautiful carved Wat (not surprising) and on the one side is a Soviet-made statue of King Sisavang (the first king under the Lao constitution) raising his fist like a Lenin cartoon figure.

The Royal Palace Museum

Lao flag flies over the palace

The Wat on the Royal grounds

The Wat fit for a king

Going to the Palace

Golden Nagas protect the royal wat

Soviet-made statue of King Sisavang

Before we entered the palace, we had to check our bags – definitely no cameras … so I’ll just have to recall what we saw. The palace, built 1904-09, was for King Sisavang. It was the royal residence until 1975 when the Pathet Lao took control of the country. Prior to that, three kings (and their families) lived here. The last Lao king (King Sisavang Vattana) and his family were exiled to a remote prison camp in the north and never heard from again.

We saw the greeting room for the king with a wonderful mural of scenes from the town. The sunlight from the window highlights the scene of the mural that is active at that time of day – pretty clever. We visited the queen’s greeting room and the secretary’s greeting room. The secretary’s greeting room was filled with gifts from different countries. To me, the gifts represented beautiful craftsmanship from all over the world – ivory carvings, porcelain teapots, silver serving platters, etc. The gifts from the U.S. were not the handcrafted treasures like those from other countries. The U.S. gave the king a couple of moon rocks (representing our advanced technology) and a very ordinary desk set.

The throne room was magnificent (refurbished in the 1930’s for the coronation of one of the kings). The walls were dark red and covered with murals using colorful reflective glass mosaics. (Japan was the subcontractor.) Scenes of royalty, battle scenes, animals, people (your basic everyday life) were reflected in the reflective mosaics. The battle scenes were particularly strange because so many of the soldiers were beheaded.

After the throne room we viewed the private living quarters – queen’s bedroom, king’s bedroom, kid’s bedroom and dining room. The rooms were large, but looked Spartan. Apparently, a lot of treasures were hauled away after the king was overthrown in 1975. We saw three huge portraits of a couple of the kings and one queen all done by a Soviet artist. He really captured the essence of the person – one king looked disheveled and a bit nervous (his buttons weren’t lined up) while the other king looked full of himself – pompous, with shiny shoes. The queen looked like a class act.

The hallways were filled with lots of ancient relics – more bronze rain drums (about a thousand years old), wooden boxes (used to store the palm leave books), the royal china (very nice design), and clothing worn by the king and queen.

The palace museum was a jewel. We picked up our bags and I spotted a butterfly collection mounted in a glass picture box for sale for only $35. It spoke to me loud and clear, so we bought it. Bill wasn’t as enthralled as I – It’s too big, can’t get it through customs, etc., but he finally relented. The shop manager was glad to see it go – it had been hanging around for a year – but I think it’s a cool treasure. (By the way, we did get it home and it’s proudly hanging in my bathroom.)

While we were waiting for the clerk to pack it up, we talked to a young woman from Minnesota. Her father is from Laos and she was on some sort of “roots” journey. Very excitedly she told us, “Don’t miss the floating monk” and then she dashed off. We assumed it was a monk that did a levitation thing – bad assumption, but hey, this place is weird and anything can happen. We dashed around the palace and temple complex, even went down to the river – maybe the monk floated on the water. Finally we saw a sign to “The Floating Monk” and followed it to a building and dashed upstairs. Turns out “The Floating Monk” is a photography exhibit – you can also buy the book. What a letdown – we felt like a couple of goofballs.

We came back to the hotel, picked out a lunch spot and walked to the Tamarind Restaurant. All we could say was “WOW -- outstanding!” We had chicken cooked in lemongrass and fish cooked in banana leaves. We couldn’t believe the flavors – This place beats FCC in Siem Reap. We savored every bite. (I bought Lolly, my friend who’s a gourmet cook, some of their special concoctions.) Turns out the place is owned by Joy, one of nine children from a very poor village. With 50 cents in his pocket, he came to Luang Prabang, learned to cook (already knew about all the spices in the forest) and opened this place. Caroline, an Australian Internet travel writer and a restaurant reviewer, stumbled across Joy’s place. She fell in love with his cooking and then with him. They just returned from Australia, where their first baby was born. It’s just a small restaurant across from another Wat – but boy, does it have something. Wish Lolly could have been there.

We stopped in at a couple of elegant shops – a woodworking shop (bought a bowl) and a high fashion boutique run by Lisa, a Hungarian model-type who married a Lao guy whose family is into silk weaving. She was lovely so we bought a scarf (which was also lovely).

Lisa, the beautiful Hungarian and her beautiful shop

Nancy posing for Lisa in the mirror

After lunch, we came back to the room. We waited for the airline tickets to Hanoi to arrive. We waited for the guy to fix our plumbing and I waited to see if I’m going to be OK for tomorrow’s adventure. (Tummy is not 100% and it’s slowing me down. I suppose it’s too much to expect this ancient relic of a system to process all these new spices and various bacteria that insist on going along for the ride. I rested for an hour while Bill set up the web page for our next trip report.)

About 5 o’clock, we ventured out again. We walked over the bamboo bridge across the street from our hotel. (We had to pay the monks for the right to cross the Nam Khan River over the bridge.) The kids were swimming and some were riding inner tubes down the swift currents. It was a happy time and a beautiful scene. Lighting was perfect so we both went into our excited camera mode.

Our hotel on the hill, bridge over the river

Scene from the bridge

The old bamboo bridge

Bill armed with his video camera

Gardens line the river’s bank

Pathway directly across from our hotel

Down by the riverside

Boats docked in the dry season

Hotel in the background

Bronze swimmer

Playing in the water

We walked into town to get our laundry (some delays – come back in 10 minutes, come back in 5 minutes, etc.). We finally found a simple $3 sarong for tomorrow’s trip. We came across a fabulous street market and ended up buying more treasures – tee-shirt for Brian and a butterfly box.

We went to the Coconut Restaurant to get a Beerlao (the local brew) to mellow out and wait some more for our laundry. We felt better after the beer and after we collected the laundry.

We ate at another very fine establishment – a place called “The Three Nagas.” Bill had fish stuffed with pork and herbs and baked in a banana leaf – I went for the marinated chicken grilled in lemongrass and then we shared a pumpkin crème brulee. The dinner came to $16. (In San Diego, it would have been $50 easily.) The place was filled with rich Westerners coiffured and dressed in their beautiful silks and linens and exotic jewelry. I sat there in my backpacker attire – basic tee shirt and skirt that hasn’t been washed in 3 weeks. (My gray hair gave me away – I was no backpacker. I had long outgrown that look, but the style is me.) I’m sure most of the very proper ladies there spent the afternoon pampering – massage, facial, pedicure. I was feeling a little ragged until I remembered they weren’t going to stay with a minority tribe family tomorrow night.

Lovely Restaurant, The Three Nagas

Street Scene – Luang Prabang

Sidewalk market

Luang Prabang – French Colonial town

We came back to the hotel and organized our packs for tomorrow. I worked on the journal until 10:30 while Bill snoozed. I woke him up so we could go to bed and rest up for our big adventure.

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