Northwest Laos: Cruising the Mekong
By S. Michael Scadron
Waking early our first morning in Luang Prabang, the centuries-old cultural capital of Laos, my wife Terri and I lifted the mosquito netting from our bed, opened the doors to our second-floor balcony, walked out in our robes and peered down to the street below.
Our small hotel, The Three Nagas, is nestled unceremoniously on the quiet main street that runs through the center of town.
It was just past dawn. As we looked down to the street that passes in front of the hotel, we observed what is a daily ritual in Luang Prabang. Scores of Buddhist monks in orange saffron robes were filing along in procession, receiving offerings from the local faithful seeking to make merit. The merit seekers kneeled on mats or linen cloths in rows along the sidewalk placing their offerings, which consisted primarily of sticky rice or small amounts of currency, in baskets held open by the monks.
The merit seekers kneeled on mats or linen cloths in rows along the sidewalk placing their offerings, which consisted primarily of sticky rice or small amounts of currency, in baskets held open by the monks.
The merit seekers kneeled on mats or linen cloths in rows along the sidewalk placing their offerings, which consisted primarily of sticky rice or small amounts of currency, in baskets held open by the monks.
Some of the novice monks, distinguished by yellow sashes tied around their robes, appeared no older than eight or nine. As we observed this ritual we knew that we were about to fall under the spell of this city of temples that just ten years ago was named a World Heritage Site, but nonetheless, is, as yet, undisturbed by busloads of tourists.
We had planned our winter holiday to start in Bangkok, include some time in northern Thailand, followed by a tour of Saigon and the Delta region of Vietnam, and ending with a visit to Angkor Wat in Cambodia.
Thanks to a suggestion by our travel agent, we decided to make a foray into northern Laos instead. We are glad we did. We planned the trip for our winter holidays – late December through mid-January– because that is the coolest time of the dry season in Indochina.
Access to Laos
We began our excursion into Laos by flying from Bangkok to Chiang Rai and spending one night in a resort in the Golden Triangle region of northern Thailand within close proximity of the Burma and Laos borders. Early the next morning, our local Thai guide drove us through mist enshrouded valleys to the Mekong River, which we crossed in a small boat, after completing border formalities, and obtaining a tourist visa for Laos.
We had signed up for a two-day Mekong cruise originating in the Laos border town of Huay Xai and ending in Luang Prabang. We would spend the night at the Luangsay Lodge in the village of Pakbeng, approximately midway between the Thai border and Luang Prabang.
The lodge was owned by the company that operated the cruise. The boat, equipped with tables, cushioned bench seats, toilet facilities, a bar and a galley, carried about two dozen passengers divided and assigned to an English-speaking or French-speaking tour group leader.
Among the English speaking passengers were two young British women teaching school and living in Tokyo, an American couple living in New Zealand, a Swedish family of four, a British man and Bostonian woman, married and living in New York, a Vietnamese tour guide living and working and London and traveling with his British colleague, and, of course, us. There were several French visitors and one Italian couple assigned to the French speaking guide.
We cruised the first morning along a landscape of hills and lush green mountains. The chilly river breeze made me glad I kept my lightweight parka handy. We passed the villages of several ethnic groups along the river, none of which, we learned, had roads traversable by motorized vehicles. Thus, these villages have remained entirely dependent on the river for all manner of transport.
We disembarked at a Hmong village set high upon a steep embankment. As I am hobbled by a chronic neuropathy, the task of climbing this hill at first blush appeared daunting. However, the guides and boatmen were eager to assist me, first helping me maneuver along the makeshift wooden plank from the boat to shore, and then up the hill to the village. Their readiness to help throughout each stop along the cruise made what would have been for me a seemingly inaccessible environment, simply a physically challenging, but doable adventure.
Their readiness to help throughout each stop along the cruise made what would have been for me a seemingly inaccessible environment, simply a physically challenging, but doable adventure.
A Hmong Tribal Community
The Hmong people are originally a highland tribe engaged in harvesting dry rice and hunting and gathering. Restrictions on hunting imposed by the government, however, have led many Hmong communities to relocate to the valleys along the river bank. This particular Hmong community specializes in weaving cloth from cotton, and, indeed, being on the tourist track, several households were displaying their colorful woven products. These may serve as scarves or table linen among other possible uses.
The houses, which are quite large, are made of wood planks or bamboo with floors of dirt. Most are on stilts to protect against flooding during the rainy season. The Hmong, we were told, practice Animism, a belief that all things possess sentient spirits, and we noticed that each house had a small shrine to the spirit world.
A variety of fruit trees appeared to be flourishing and vegetables were growing along the embankment to be harvested well before the rains arrived in May.
The Hmong are known for their colorful costumes although these were not in evidence on this day, possibly being held in reserve for festivals or special events. We explored the village, stopping to observe a young woman weaving thread into cotton and another older woman spinning thread into cloth.
Nearby a shirtless man was cutting bamboo, perhaps to be used in constructing an addition to his house. Several children were using a bamboo pole to help boost them up a tree.
“Hello,” they hollered testing their limited English on us. “Sabaidee,” we replied, having mastered the useful Laotian greeting. “Sabaidee,” they answered, laughing.
Back on the River
As the time to return to the boat approached, we bought a cloth scarf for eight dollars that we learned later could have been had for three. So much for our bargaining prowess. Nevertheless, we consoled ourselves with the prospect that the village folks could use the money more than we could.
Back on the boat, lunch was served buffet style. Our options were curried chicken, meat with vegetables, steamed rice or the ubiquitous sticky rice. For those who like it spicy, the small, hot chile peppers were available. For one dollar I purchased a Beer Lao, which I felt I had earned from the morning activity. Although we had obtained some local currency, we quickly learned that in Laos the American dollar is as readily accepted as the kip.
As our journey continued into the afternoon, some of our fellow passengers discovered various games on the shelves beneath the tables. My wife joined in a game of mahjong, but I passed on the game, preferring to stand at the side of the boat, catching a breeze and gazing at the scenery.
We sailed by more villages, each set well above the river bank. I couldn’t help but be engrossed by the fact that each village was dependent on the river not only for transport but for just about every aspect of daily life, including social interaction with other villages.
We passed by jungle-covered mountains, and occasionally the river wound its way past large jagged rocks that appeared to make navigation dangerous. Our guide told us of an accident on the river that had occurred a week earlier involving smaller boats but quickly reassured us that our captain was familiar with every rock in the river.
Later in the day, we passed a sawmill where we could see elephants carrying logs down to boats that would transport the logs to the other side. Our guide explained that the unpredictable waters, rising and falling dramatically with changes in the seasons, together with the shifting river bed, made bridging a futile endeavor.
The Luangsay Lodge at Pakbeng
By late afternoon we arrived at Pakbeng, and, once again, I received a willing hand in climbing up the steep embankment to the wooden enclosure within which was housed the reception area, bar and open air dining room. Wooden walkways led from the reception area to about 15 bungalows. The lodge was rustic to be sure – water had to be turned on and pumped for a few minutes for the showers to work – but the setting was enchanting.
The walkways were flanked by flowers and a variety of fruit trees. The lodge sat high above the Mekong, and the sunset over the river was spectacular. Before dinner we were entertained by children in ethnic costume performing dances to traditional Laotian music. My only mistake was in accepting an invitation to join in the dancing toward the end of the performance. Mercifully, no one thought to take a photo.
A Whiskey Village and Cave Temples
The next morning, we set out early for the seven-hour journey to Luang Prabang. Two more stops were in store for us. The first one, in the morning, was to visit a village which specializes in making rice whiskey (Lao Khao).
Years back, opium was the main cash crop of certain tribal communities; however, just in the past decade, it has been officially outlawed by the Laos government. Now, each community specializes in a different money-making ventures.
In this village, each family distills its own brand of lao khao, and we cautiously accepted offers to sample this barely palatable brew. We noticed a satellite dish on a structure that appeared to be the village general store. Sure enough, as we looked in we could see children watching television in the back room.
Rather than disturb them, we headed down the relatively gentle slope back toward the boat. Peanuts were being grown on the sandy river front. No doubt these would be harvested well before the rainy season.
After lunch, shortly before our arrival in Luang Prabang, we stopped to visit the Tham Ting caves. These caves, which are set into high vertical cliffs rising sharply from the river, are an imposing sight. They are reached by a steep path and equally steep steps that lead first to a lower cave and then wind around and up to an upper cave.
I maneuvered my way to the lower cave and let my wife venture with some of the passengers, without me, to the upper cave. These caves are temples originally dedicated to the spirits of the river but converted to Buddhist temples in the fifteenth century. They contain thousands of Buddha images of varying sizes.
The caves are close enough to Luang Prabang to be accessible to those flying directly into Luang Prabang to arrange a half-day outing by boat, so they are a popular tourist destination.
Luang Prabang, City of Temples
By mid-afternoon we arrived in Luang Prabang. It was the day before New Year’s Eve, and we would spend our first of four days in this city. As we would soon discover, Luang Prabang’s royal history and alluring temples, combine with its splendid setting at the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers to give it a truly mystical aura.
In December, 1995, Luang Prabang was added to UNESCO’s World Heritage List. A friend familiar with Luang Prabang had told me that this was a good place to linger, so we included more time here than in some of the larger cities that we planned to visit.
While historical accounts vary somewhat, it is known that Luang Prabang was founded in the mid-fourteenth century when King Fa Ngum consolidated the first Lao kingdom, named Lan Xang (one million elephants) in the high river valleys of the Mekong and its tributaries. Even before that time, between the eighth and thirteenth centuries, various Thai-Lao city states occupied the area.
In 1512, the reigning monarch received from the Khmer sovereign the gift of a Buddha image called Pha Bang, from which the city gets its modern name. (Today, this image may be viewed at the Royal Palace Museum in the city center). Even after the capital of the kingdom was moved to Vientiane in 1545, Luang Prabang remained the heart of the royal kingdom.
During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Luang Prabang was one of three independent kingdoms in Laos, the others being Vientiane and Champasak. The monarchy gradually weakened, and the kingdom was forced to pay homage at various times to the Siamese, Burmese and Vietnamese.
In 1887, the kingdom accepted French protection. The French allowed Laos to retain the Luang Prabang monarchy, and the city soon became a refuge for French colonials. Kings ruled in Luang Prabang until the monarchy was officially dissolved by the Pathet Lao in 1975. The French influence, particularly in architecture and cuisine, may be seen and tasted throughout Luang Prabang, and indeed throughout Laos today.
After settling in at The Three Nagas Hotel, we strolled through the town center to orient ourselves to the layout of the city and to spot some of the important landmarks. We soon learned that Luang Prabang is easily traversed on foot.
We passed the Royal Palace Museum on one side of the main road, and, on the other, Mount Phu Si, a 330-foot-high rocky hill that one can climb by steep steps. There is a temple at the summit where one may look out across the Mekong and enjoy the sunset.
Much of the city center is a peninsula bordered by the Mekong and Nam Kahn Rivers. We circled back to our hotel by way of the Mekong.
Dining and Shopping in Luang Prabang
We dined our first evening at L’Auberge Three Nagas, across the street from the hotel and under the same ownership. We understood that this restaurant, although French in ownership, ambiance and architecture, did not compromise in its offering of authentic specialties of the region. We started with river weed (Kai Phen) which is fried with sesame seed and has a crispy texture similar to potato chips, but, in my opinion, much tastier. With it we sipped the lighter, sweeter version of the local rice wine (Khao Kham), which is red in color and quite pleasant.
We followed this with buffalo stew and a side order of Jaew Bong, a spread made with roasted chile, garlic and buffalo-skin paste that has the texture of jerky, and which is a specialty of Luang Prabang. This is an upscale, relatively expensive restaurant, but not too pricy by American standards. The bill for the two of us came to $40.
We would discover, in the days ahead, two simpler, but excellent eateries specializing in Lao cuisine: Indochine Spirit and Pak Huoy Mixay, where, at each, the bill for us came to under $15. Both are within walking distance of the town center. At these restaurants, one can try any number of Lao specialties, such as laap, a salad made from minced chicken, meat or fish, or papaya salad.
Lao food is not as similar to Thai food as I had been led to believe; certainly not as spicy. However, if, like me, one prefers it spicy, there is always chile sauce on the table and fresh chiles are close at hand.
After dinner, we headed to the night market where one can buy a variety of souvenirs, such as scarves made of silk and cotton, rice paper, wood carvings of Buddha images, painted wooden elephants, decorative boxes, silk outfits, and, of course, t-shirts.
I was especially intrigued by the bottles of the potent rice wine that contained dead scorpions or cobras immersed in the wine. We were told that the snakes helped to assure virility.
Bargaining is a must, but if one is uncomfortable with this system, a good approach is to select more than one item and ask for a discount based on multiple purchases. We especially liked wall hangings bearing multi-colored elephant designs, and selected several for our friends. The original price on each was cheap enough – considerably less than in the scores of boutiques that line the main road – but, because we selected several, we received a discount.
The Baci Ceremony
On New Year’s Eve our local guide, Kahn, arranged for us to participate in a Baci ceremony at a Lao family home in the early evening. As explained to us, a Baci ceremony is a mix of Animism and Buddhism. Such ceremonies are common to Laos, and are for the purpose of “calling back” one’s own spirits, which sometimes escape.
This particular ceremony was attended by some members of the family and neighborhood guests. After taking off our shoes, we entered what appeared to be the living room and sat Indian style, in a semicircle, with about seven family members or guests.
The ceremony began with a chant by our host, after which the participants tied strings around our wrists for good luck and a good life.
We were then served sticky rice (which one eats with one’s fingers after pulling a portion of rice from a basket and rolling it into balls), and other snacks such as spring rolls and fruit indigenous to Laos.
Since we did not share a common language with the Laotian neighbors in attendance, Kahn acted as interpreter. In this way, we were able to exchange some information about each other’s daily lives. As we went to leave, our host presented us with the centerpiece of votive flowers, which we decided we would, in turn, present as an offering at a prayer service at one of the city’s Buddhist temples the next day – New Year’s Day.
Throughout our stay in Luang Prabang we were ceremoniously greeted by the local people wishing us a Happy New Year. We also saw Christmas trees of varying sizes at some hotels and cafes. We thought little of it as anything other than a polite tribute to traveling visitors from Europe or America. However, going to and from the Baci ceremony we noticed Christmas trees lit up on lawns of residences – clearly Buddhist homes, for the Catholic population of Laos (unlike Vietnam) is very small. Kahn explained that many Buddhist families display the symbols of Christian holidays as a fashion or style.
A few days later, while waiting in the airport in Vientiane for our flight to Saigon, we observed a Buddhist monk talking on his cell phone. He hung up, and within a few seconds his phone rang. The ring was to the tune of Jingle Bells. I guess we didn’t miss Christmas this year, after all.
A Day of Leisure in Luang Prabang
Although we enjoyed our guided tours of the city, the day after New Year’s Day we were free to spend entirely at leisure. This is truly the best way to enjoy the ambiance of Luang Prabang. One might start out after breakfast with a stroll to the morning food market, set up along the road that parallels the Mekong. Tables line both sides of the road where vendors offer all manner of food for sale.
Local people can be seen bargaining over live frogs jumping about in a basket; insects, such as weevils, crawling about in small bowls; snakes, eel, buffalo meat; or birds of various sizes. Fish is sliced on mats laid out on the ground.
A variety of produce is sold, much of it quite familiar, but also banana leaves, or river weed, that one doesn’t often see in supermarkets back home. The small hot chiles are everywhere. Across the road from the river is a café where locals sit on tiny, low seats, munching on barbeque fish or chicken cooked roadside.
Thankfully, Luang Prabang does not yet have a Starbucks, though any number of cafes offer refreshments. Coffee lovers should not miss the iced or hot Lao coffee made with sweet condensed milk. This is a real treat.
For those who like to bargain hunt, most of the specialty shops that occupy the French colonial buildings on the main road stay open until late afternoon with a one-hour break for lunch. In Laos, lunch is never a rushed affair, and there are plenty of places to choose from. We opted for a quiet, leisurely meal at one of the many restaurants by the side of the Mekong, where we gazed across the river at children watering gardens of vegetables along a steep slope rising from the river’s edge.
If the afternoon heat becomes excessive, duck into one of the city’s many massage parlors. For only three dollars each, we were able to unwind with an hour-long full body massage. These massages are the best bargain in town.
In the late afternoon, we attended a prayer service at Wat Xieng Thong, one of the city’s more than 30 temples, to listen to the chanting of the monks of the temple. Two novice monks beat the gong in the sim (the prayer hall) of the wat to let the others know the service was to begin.
After the service, before dark, we found it a good time to explore the city’s back streets and alleys where, at certain corner crossings, the only pedestrians were roosters or turkeys. On such a walk, it is best to simply wander, for it is never difficult to find the way back.
Whenever we felt the need to connect with friends or relatives in faraway lands, we had no difficulty in doing so, as many internet cafes line the main road through town. It is routine to observe local residents, monks, and tourists, alike, staying wired.
As we departed Luang Prabang, it occurred to us that visiting Laos was, perhaps, like seeing Thailand a generation ago. We had just experienced the congestion and pollution of Bangkok, and would soon be dodging motorbikes in Saigon.
Laos, and especially Luang Prabang, offered a welcome respite. This might not be the case for very long, however. Although Laos has long been impoverished and isolated from the outside world, in recent years the government has increasingly welcomed foreign visitors.
The people do not yet enjoy political freedom, though economic reforms and religious freedoms have been coming along. At the same time, tourism has been growing, and is bound to continue to grow at an ever-increasing rate. As a consequence, Laos may follow in the footsteps of Thailand and Vietnam in adopting western traits, and, possibly, lose some of its own cultural soul. It is best to visit now.
For additional information about the cruise, contact:
Luangsay Co., LTD
023, Heangboun Road, Bane Anou
Laos P D R
Tel. & Fax: (856) 21 215958
In Luang Prabang:
Three Nagas Hotel
PO Box 722
Laos P D R
Tel: (856) 71 253 888
Fax: (856) 71 253999
Pak Huoy Mixay
47/5 Ban Vatnong
Savang Vatthana Road
Tel: (71) 212 260
Tel: (71) 253 020
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