Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Vientiane, Laos

On the last morning in Luang Phrang we toured the Royal Palace which was built from 1904-1909 and served as the king's home.  Today it is a museum where you can see the royal throne and other artifacts, especially gifts from various countries.  The grounds were beautiful and contained some colorful stupas.  Below is a picture of beloved Laos tour guide.  We stopped to order lunch and then went to the airport for our flight to Vientiane which took about an hour.  Vientiane is the capitol of Laos and home to about 700,000 people.  And they seem to be all in the streets because, again, the traffic is terrible!  We checked in to the Sabaidee hotel and took an orientation walk around the neighbor.  Dean stayed in the room because he was not feeling well.  Todd and Chimeau bought us fried grasshoppers and silkworms.  We bought the beer.  I liked them and ate quite a few.  I brought some back to Dean but he was not impressed.  Dean stayed in this evening while the rest of us bussed to a local restaurant for more Thai-Laos food.  The rooms at the hotel are not quite as good as previous, king bed, no bathtub and shower that sprayed into the room, but it was good for two nights.  The breakfast was typical - eggs, bacon, rice soup, fried veggies and meat dishes, toast and jam.

On our second day in Vientiane we set out to explore the highlights of this city.  We started our explorations with a visit to the golden-domed Phra That Luang (Great Scared Buddha), a national symbol of Laos built in the 16th century.  This was the start of the full moon celebration and there were lots of people, monks, food stalls, etc.  The women had to put on sarongs to go into the Stupa area.  

Next we walked up to the top of Patuxay Victory Gate Monument which was built by the French.   It resembles the Arc de Triomphe in Paris.  Their are about 6-8 floors and over 200 steps but the views were very good.  

We visited the Haw Phra Kaew (house of the emerald Buddha) which contains some of the best Buddha sculptures in Laos.  It also had some incredible carvings on old tree trunks.  Nearby was Wat Sisket, the oldest monastery in Vientiane, dating back to 1818.  There were a lot of monks also visiting these temples.  It is so surprising to see monks with cell phones and cameras.  Young men are expected to become a monk for at least a month or longer starting as early as 10 years of age.  Some stay but most go in for the education.

We had a free afternoon and we went to a shopping mall and it got a massage.  Last night in Vientiane Todd, our guide, bought us a beer since he won $40 in the lottery and then we went for PIZZA.  it tasted pretty good after all this rice.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Luang Prabang, Laos. Day 3

Today we got up early (5am) and participated in the alms giving ceremony.  There are over 400 monks in this town and each day they walk the streets single file and people give them food or offerings.  They, in turn, give prayers to the givers and their families.  Dressed in orange robes, the monks provide a sense of calm and solemnity to the inhabitants of the city each morning. OAT had mats, chairs, rice ready when we arrived at our area of giving.  They also provided scarves since every one is to wear a scarf draped across their left shoulder and either tied at the waist or draped back over the shoulder.  It was a very quite, humbling experience.  Some of th monks were so young and a few very old.  It is a right of passage for SE Asia young men to become a monk for some time during their lives, usually when they are young.

After the alms giving we went to the morning market.  We had to buy everything we needed for lunch.  Each of us had a different item that we had to find and buy, and we only had the Laos name.  The market had fresh fruit and veggies, fish and meats, live chickens and ducks, eggs, dried fish, all kinds of rice, grasshoppers, worms, and even guienea pigs.  A very large market!

After a stop at the hotel for breakfast we set out to experience " A Day in the Life" of a Laos village.  This is an activity that all of the OAT trips have.  We visited the town of Ban Tin Keo.  First we were introduced to the village leaders and their families.  It is so nice to have guides who can communicate for us.  Then we walked to a blacksmith who was making knifes and he demonstrated how the knifes were made.  He does the hammering and his wife works the primitive bellows.  Some of the couples tried to copy the technique.

We met the young students of a local elementary school which is supported by Grand Circle foundation, at subsidiary of OAT.  These were first and second graders.  They were so cute.  When we arrived at their 3 room school house they came out, put flowers around our neck and took us by hand into the classroom.  My little girl was 7 and her name was Korn.  I had brought pencils, colored pens, and candy.  She kept eyeing my gifts until I let her pick a pen.  Some of the teachers in our group, me included, got up and taught the students some English words.  I taught eyes, nose, knees, and toes.  Then they sang us two songs and we all sang one together.  We went to the library where each student got a book and we helped our students with some English.  My little girl knew a lot.  When we left the students Korn hugged me and waved goodbye as we walked off to our next visit.

We passed from the Laos side of the village to the Hmong side.  These people were relocated to this village 7 years ago from the hills.  They live much more primitive than the Laos people.  Where the Laos people had brick walls and tile floors, the Hmong people had bamboo walls and dirt floors.  They believe in spirits and we visited the local shaman.  He explained how he became a shaman and how he could heal the sick.  He played his flute for us and then we went outside and everyone tried his wooden crossbow.  Some hit the target but most were high.  The shaman was dead-on.

We returned to the Laos leaders home where we participated in the cooking of our lunch.  We each added the ingredients we had bought from the market into the wok they had set up in the front of the house.  It was a wonderful Pad Thai.  We thought that was lunch but the leader's wife prepared sticky rice, pork wrapped in banana leaves, soup, and another rice dish in banana leaves.  Dessert was fresh fruit.

The above picture is their kitchen.  The only method of cooking is on the little stove in the corner.  No oven, no microwave and they have to squat down to cook.  My knees would be killing me!

Monday, November 3, 2014

Luang Probang, Laos. Day 2

We started our day visiting a local village, Baan Xang Kong, to learn about paper making and textile making.  We watched as a young girl made a beautiful large piece of paper made from mulberry bark.  And then I went shopping!  Such great prices.  I bought a paper lantern, paper wall hanging, picture frames, cards for under $20.  

Next we embarked on an excursion along the Mekong, one of the longest rivers in the world.  This river runs over 3000 miles and is home to over 90 million people.  Our cruise took us to a local village know for producing rice whiskey.  We did some tasting and the 100% proof was a little too strong for me.  I bought the 15% variety.

The above picture is the local monastery where some monks were having a meal.
After walking around this village we cruised to our turn around point at the Pak Ou Cave filled with thousands of Buddha icons.  It was very crowded with long boats and tourists from all over the world.  The first cave is 50 steps up with 3000 Buddha icons.  The second cave is over 200 steps up with only about 1000 Buddha icons.  The Laos people hid these Buddhas and some of them are very, very old.

While we were touring the caves, the owner of the boat's wife was preparing our noon meal.  The owner and his wife live on the boat.  They have a little cooking area in the back of the boat.  And a big bed over the engine which is not conducive to taking a nap!  The scenery along the river was beautiful.

Luang Prabang, Laos. Day 1

We arrived in Luang Probang on Saturday, Nov. 1 and stayed at the very nice Sada Hotel.  This hotel has the biggest beds we have ever seen.  After lunch and unpacking we went to the local temple - Wat Xieng Thong.  Luang Probang has 30 active temples and is located on a peninsula between th Mekong and the Khan rivers.  It is a world heritage site because of three reasons - the French architecture, the natural beauty, and the culture that has been preserved for years.  

We are using local transportation while in this city and it is nicer that our huge Bangkok bus because we can get to any part of the city in a few minutes. The local transportation is Tuk-tuks which is a motorcycle on the front end with a covered pickup attached in the back and can carry 6-7.

After the temple visit our group climbed Phousi Hill which is located in the center of the city.  There are 328 steps to the top and you have a great view of the area and the sunset.

It is so hot and humid here but the locals are dressed in jackets.  When we came off of Phousi hill we were all drenched in sweat.  I walked thru the night market which was very extensive.  Their speciality here is textiles and handmade paper products.   We had another wonderful dinner at a local restaurant before returning to the hotel for the evening.