We thought Vietnam was hot, but we realized our folly when we stepped off the airplane in Laos and felt the blast of 100+ degrees on the tarmac. Goodbye fresh coastal air of Hoi An, hello tropical inland sauna that is Luang Prabang. April is one of the hottest months here, just before the monsoon season hits, and we were expecting to feel warm. What we forgot to anticipate was the extreme humidity and the density of the heat. Our clothes stick to us within minutes of being outside, and we are drinking water constantly to replenish our systems. Our daily schedule is dictated by the scorching temperatures — activities in the mornings and late afternoons/evenings, with the bulk of midday spent in the hotel pool or in the comfort of air conditioning.
While the heat has slowed us down a bit, it has not entirely hindered our ability to enjoy the beauty and tranquility of Luang Prabang. Encircled by lush, green mountains and nestled in along the Mekong River, this ancient town is dotted with gleaming Buddhist temples, french provincial architecture, and traditional Lao dwellings and storefronts. Scarlett flowering trees and the bright orange monks’ robes provide bursts of color everywhere you turn. Because of the town’s Unesco World Heritage status, buses and trucks are banned from the center, so there is a calmness that pervades the streets of Luang Prabang. After the chaos of Vietnam’s roads and the hustle and bustle of their tourist industry and infrastructure, we feel as though we have almost stepped back in time.
On our first full morning here we stumbled on a Buddhist ceremony taking place at one of the larger temples along the main street of town. Dozens of worshipers were giving alms and offerings to a large, golden statue of Buddha that was traveling around Laos in honor of the New Year festivities happening throughout this month. We joined in, wrapping the girls in sarongs to cover their legs and shoulders and purchasing our own offerings to present to the statue.
Later in the day, we took a 45 minute drive out to the beautiful Kuang Si Falls for a refreshing swim in the bright turquoise waterfalls. When you arrive at the falls, you have to walk for about 15 minutes through the tropical forest to actually reach the water. Along the walk there is a a rescue center for Asiatic bears. Random, yes, but entertaining all the same.
Once we got to the actual waterfalls, we were hot and sweaty and ready for a long swim. There were a lot of people with the same idea (young monks, Lao families having picnics, backpackers from around the world etc.), so we climbed to the top level terrace of the falls in search of quieter waters. We spent a good two hours splashing around the various terraces and had some chatty conversations with other travelers (which often is a highlight of any activity – the girls love swapping travel stories with other global nomads!).
SCHUYLER: Our experience at the waterfalls was so amazing. We met three backpackers, one American and two Israelis, who were so friendly and we talked with them a lot. It was especially fun to talk with a fellow American and hear her accent and speech sound so much like our own, and so familiar! The thing that I enjoyed most about the waterfalls was when Zoe and I had to figure out by ourselves how to climb UP a waterfall. Every time we swam toward the base of the falls to try and grab hold of a rock, we were swept away by the force of the water. Eventually, we figured out we should climb up the side, which shouldn’t have taken us as long as it did. We explored the different tiers of the waterfalls for a long time. The water was so beautiful, the color really striking. It felt SO great to splash in the pools on such a hot day.
OK POP TOK
One of our favorite days in Luang Prabang was spent at Ok Pop Tok, a Living Crafts Center promoting Lao textiles, handicrafts and design. Set in a tropical Mekong garden, the center offers educational tours of the work in progress (predominantly weaving and dyeing) and classes for children and adults to experiment with and learn about the local craftsmanship.
We had planned on just a half day at the center with a basic class on natural dyeing for the girls, but after the initial tour Schuyler and Zoe both opted instead for a full day course on dyeing and weaving. Flanked by some lovely 20somethings from the U.S who were traveling through Southeast Asia, they spent the morning mastering the natural dyeing techniques and choosing their colors, and then they wove the afternoon away on huge looms with a friendly Lao weaver by their sides. Thayer also participated in the dyeing class in the morning, as the photos will attest. We all enjoyed a delicious Lao lunch together at the Center before Jeff, Blair, and Thayer left in search of the cool waters of the hotel swimming pool for the afternoon while the weavers worked their looms.
THAYER: At Ok Pop Tok I made a scarf. And I dyed it purple with bark. First I had to cut the wood. Then a woman gave me a scarf made of silk and I put the bark in a pot of boiling water. The water turned purple and then when the dye was ready I put the scarf in the dye and mixed it around a little. I took it out and washed it so all of the dark dye would go away and it would be a lighter purple. Then we hung it up to dry. The scarf is for my new teacher named Flor and I can’t wait to be in her class next fall.
ZOE: I chose to make orange dye for my silk, and we had to use Annatto nuts which are spiky hollow shells with red berries inside. The berries are really tiny, so it takes a lot of them to make the dye.
First we had to get the nuts out of the tree with a long bamboo pole. It was so fun to try to get them because it was almost impossible and we were laughing. The pole was so long I could barely hold it! My new friend, Molly, and I were yelling instructions to each other like “Go Straight! Almost there! Turn it! Grab it!” Finally we had to have the staff person get them for us – we need to hone our skills a little.
Next I had to karate chop the nuts to get them open. They were pretty soft actually, so it didn’t hurt my hand. I scooped all the berries out into a big bowl to grind them into a pulp. My arms got really tired so Mom helped.
When we were finished, we scooped the ground berries into a pot of boiling water and let them cook! Making the dyes was really fun and I’m so glad that I got to learn about the natural techniques.
SCHUYLER: We spent our morning dyeing silks with natural dyes that we had to make ourselves. We could choose three colors and I chose indigo, purple and lavender. To make indigo you have to harvest indigo leaves (it’s a plant), boil them, and then ferment them for something like 2 months. The longer you ferment them, the darker the blue. The dye that I used for indigo was pre-made because it would have taken me a long time to make my own.
For purple I took pieces of wood from a sappan tree (you can only use the heart of the tree because it has to be really soft) and splintered them, then boiled them in a pot. When the water starts to turn color, you add a rusty nail which fixes the color. In order to get the color to turn deep purple, you have to ferment it like with the Indigo.
For my last color, lavender, we had to take dried Teak leaves, rip them up, and boil them. Usually you use fresh leaves to make the lavender stronger, but we only had dried ones so my lavender was a little more creamy.
When everyone’s colors were ready, we all took turns dipping our silks into the dye three times. Then you leave it in the bowl for a couple of minutes. With the indigo dye I had to wear gloves because you have to squeeze the dye through the silk really hard. The harder you squeeze and ring the color through, the darker and more beautiful it will be. My hands would have been blue forever if I didn’t have gloves!
We rinsed the silk in tap water which clears any extra gunk out (but doesn’t effect the dye), and then we hung the silks to dry. We got them at the end of the day and are bringing them home. For the weaving, we used pre-dyed silk from the center.
Finally, time for lunch!
ZOE: Next, it was time for the weaving class. We were all going to weave one placemat (or wall hanging) with a big loom. We used something called a shuttle, which almost looks like a small canoe with two spools of silk in it, both the same color. You had to have lots of hand eye coordination to be able to do the weaving because it was so tricky! There are two bamboo pedals that you have to push with your right foot, alternating pushing the pedals with weaving the shuttle through the loom. In between each shuttle run, you “tamp” which means tighten the weaving. It’s kind of hard to explain, but it took a lot of focus. The woman who was helping me kept laughing with me as I messed up but she was so patient and nice. I was so surprised that I could actually make something when I saw my finished product! I admit I got a little impatient because going back and forth and back and forth and back and forth with my shuttle, and with my feet figuring out the pedals at the same time… for like a thousand times… was tiring! It took 3 and a half hours to finish my mat. Phew! Here are some photos of the weaving.
We spent another full day in Luang Prabang cruising along the Mekong River for a tour of the Pak Ou Caves. The Mekong is the 12th longest river in the world, and flows from the Tibetan plateau through southern China and all of Southeast Asia, serving as the lifeblood for the people here. Fishing, commerce, transportation, irrigation, power, and now tourism are a few of the Mekong’s many purposes. From what we saw, we should add swimming pool, bath tub, elephant swimming pool, elephant bath tub, and water buffalo hot spot.
We cruised the Mekong with new friends (yeah!) — a lovely Australian family with two young children who live in Hong Kong and have been vacationing at our hotel this week. Our two families crammed into one of the impossibly narrow river boats that ferry people around the murky Mekong, and enjoyed a 2-hour journey north to visit one of treasured religious symbols of the Luang Prabang Province: the Pak Ou Caves.
The Pak Ou caves, while small in size, are impressive because for hundreds of years Lao Buddhists have been bringing small effigies of Buddha to the caves as a form of worship. Now there are an estimated 4,000 statues crammed into two caves – pretty amazing! The girls were mildly interested (that might be a stretch) in all the statues, but wildly interested in the bats hanging from the ceiling and the bat poop everywhere.
ZOE: We took a 2.5 hour boat ride up the Mekong River to the Pak Ou caves. These caves are very special because in the caves are thousands of statues of Buddha, some of which are over 100 years old! There are bats all over the cave that we could actually see. It was amazing to see all the offerings and the number of statues there. But I might have liked the bats even better!
While Jeff and Blair were glad that we all had a chance to see this much talked about religious display, the girls were far more excited about the small elephant camp across the river from the caves. We wandered up the sandy bank and soon found ourselves riding elephants directly into the Mekong and splashing around with them for about 45 minutes. No one at the camp spoke English and no waivers were signed, no instructions given, no safety measures taken, just get on up and hope your elephant remains sane for the hour you spend with him/her. In hindsight, perhaps a bit risky, but thrilling all the same.
THAYER: I rode on the elephant’s back with Mom and my sister, Zoe. I didn’t want to get on it because it was so big and I am so small. So I only got on for a little bit and then got off and watched from the sand near the water. Then I decided to get on again but before I did, this guy called out something to the elephant that Schuyler and Dad were on and their elephant flipped them off. I was more nervous now. But I still wanted to try again so I got up again but still got scared because the elephant moved his head. I didn’t want to fall off, so I got off again and played with my friend, Ysabel.
SCHUYLER: The elephant riding was so ridiculously cool and silly, it is hard to put into words. All I can say is that it felt extremely dangerous and thrilling all at once. To start with, the Asian elephants are one of the most beautiful animals I’ve ever seen. They look really clumsy but actually are surefooted. They are much smaller than African elephants which makes them more appealing to ride. At first when we arrived, we had to wait for a little while and we had fun socializing with the baby elephant on site. We fed it a green banana! Then, before I knew it, I walked down to the riverbank with Dad and was basically shoved onto an elephant with Dad and a guide behind me. Even though there was a guide on the back, I didn’t feel secure that we would live through the experience. When the elephant rose up from its knees it was a very scary moment in time because I was sure I would fall off his head and then he would stomp on me and crush me. You had to have a lot of balance to stay on the elephant – it kind of felt like you were always about to fall. We got straight into the water and the elephant went under water with us on his back! Then the guide started calling up all these commands to the elephants and the animals started playing, trying to throw the tourists off their backs. Once, when I felt brave, I stood on the elephant’s head, and our guide made a command and my elephant whipped his head to the side and threw me off. It was so fun. The only problem in the whole experience was the floating elephant dung all around us! By the end of this experience, all I could think about was the fact that this would never be allowed in the U.S.
There is a lovely tradition in this town at 5:30am every morning called Tak Bat, where the hundreds of resident Buddhist monks process silently down the street and collect alms (food offerings) from the locals. Each monk carries a large lidded bowl that hangs from a strap over his shoulder. As they file past the kneeling almsgivers, these containers are filled with handfuls of sticky rice and other Lao staples which amount to the monks’ meals for that day. The monks process single file from oldest to youngest, and the ritual is done in silence; the almsgivers do not speak, nor do the monks. For hundreds of years, the ritual has cemented the symbiotic relationship between the monks and the almsgivers who maintain them; by feeding the monks, tak bat supports both the monks (who need the food) and the almsgivers (who need spiritual redemption).
Interested tourists may participate in this tradition, and our hotel helped to arrange an alms basket for our contribution. With Schuyler suffering from some intestinal issues (welcome to Southeast Asia), Jeff brought Zoe and Thayer to the early morning ceremony and the two girls gave alms to the many monks who filed past them.
ZOE: We woke up at 5:00am to go see the monks and give alms to them. We gave out sticky rice that I put into small balls with my own hands, and some jasmine rice wrapped in banana leaves, and also some cookies and sponge cakes. I guess the monks have a sweet tooth! The monks walk in a long line down the main street of town, and they get their food for the day this way. Villagers line up on the streets, sitting on mats, and give out the alms. I don’t think I would ever want to have to eat those alms because everyone is touching them, and it didn’t look too appetizing. But I guess that’s the tradition and part of the culture here!
Temples of Luang Prabang
There are over 70 temples scattered throughout this small city, and each one is an oasis of calm and beauty in its own way. We found one of the most glamorous temples next to the Royal Palace Museum (also gorgeous). A few photos worth putting in here…
Due to the extreme heat at this time of year, we gave ourselves a lot of down time this week as well. We resumed our homeschooling and journaling after a hiatus in Vietnam. We took short shopping forays to Luang Prabang’s night market, where vendors line the streets with local textiles, crafts, and souvenirs. Schuyler unfortunately nursed an upset stomach for a couple of days. And we played a lot of cards!
And we spent a great deal of our time in Luang Prabang cooling off in the hotel pool and getting to know some of the other families and travelers here. In addition to our new Aussie friends, we met Americans, French, and Kiwis vacationing here (many living in Hong Kong), and there were always at least half a dozen kids splashing around the pool with our three. It turned out to be a surprisingly social week in this small, developing country, and we enjoyed getting to know so many international families and hearing about the paths their lives have taken as expats.
Off we go (again)…
Without extended family with us, our week in Luang Prabang was in many ways a reintroduction to life on the road as our little group of five intrepid travelers. We once again found a nice rhythm between sight seeing and just living life, spending time together and carving out alone time for each other when needed. Our pace is slow and steady now, matching the general pace of life here in Southeast Asia. Heat and intestinal troubles have contributed to perhaps an even slower pace than we would have liked, but have not deterred us from experiencing some of the many wonders of Laos. At this stage in our journey, we feel like we have really hit our stride and are trying to soak in as much as we can in this part of the world. So it’s onward to Chang Mai, Thailand now – far more developed than Laos, yet again teeming with local textiles, ceramics, spicy food, Buddhist temples, and monks galore! See you soon!