Wednesday, February 10, 2016

"Kingdom of a Million Elephants"

Greetings All,
We got a very chilly reception when entering Laos on January 25 - not from the people but from Mother Nature.  A Siberian cold front had swept down reaching most of Southeast Asia.  It was cold, just at freezing.  A parked van had ice on the windshield and icicles on the roof. 

Ice on the Windshield!

We said goodbye to Zang and Hung and met our new guide, Choy (pronounced Joy) and a new driver, Mr. Ping.  It was easy getting out of Vietnam but more complicated to get into Laos.  We went to one window and gave them our passports and a photo.  They gave us our passports back and 2 forms to fill out.  It was cold doing this outside.  We handed in our forms and passports and had to pay $36 each for a visa.  It took awhile to process.  Many locals and a couple of Israelis showed up so it got a bit chaotic.  We had to go to another window to get our passports and pay another $3 each.  At yet a third window we had to pay another $2 each before going to a final window to get our temperature taken and pay another $1 each.  Finally, we cleared all windows and were on our way into Laos.   

We rode in the van on a cold downhill stretch of road.  It was warmer at the bottom and not raining so Marc and I opted to ride our bikes.  We rode about 8 miles to the lunch stop.  Riding wasn't too bad,   there was little to no traffic and it wasn't raining.  Only 7 million people live in Laos, less than the population of Hanoi.  It was nice to see forested hillsides and few people.  We reached our lunch stop in a small town where the locals were watching TV.  The news was on and showed John Kerry arriving in Laos.  Supposedly he was here to offer the people of Laos compensation for bombing the heck out of them during the Vietnam war.  Marc also saw that the Patriots lost to the Broncos so they're out of the Super Bowl.  We continued to ride after lunch but as we were leaving town it started to rain.  We climbed gradually which kept me sort of warm but it started to rain harder.  We reached the top where the van was waiting.  We wimped out and climbed into the van and drove the rest of the way to Muang Khoua.

Sag Van to the Rescue

We checked into our hotel which had no heat, hot water or a hairdryer (to dry wet clothes).  We hung our clothes from every available surface in the hope that they would dry overnight.  Clearly this town is not accustomed to such cold temperatures.

Drying our Clothes the Hard Way

The next day we took a scheduled break from cycling to do a boat ride down the Nam Ou River which was a good thing since it was raining cats and dogs.  Our boat was outfitted with what looked like car seats.  At least we'd have a comfortable ride.  Once we got settled, I asked about life jackets and our driver had to run and get them.  We couldn't see much as we had to put the side tarps down but most of the views were obscured by clouds anyway.  It was cold once the boat got moving.  Here we were in Laos and I had to put on 7 layers including a fleece vest, Gore Windstopper jacket, down jacket and a 3-ply Goretex jacket just to keep warm!  

Peggy Bundled Up!

We passed Vietnamese gold dredgers in the river.  We wondered if they used chemicals to leach the gold from the river gravel.   Choy said "no" which was a good thing since many people depend on this river for their livelihood.

Gold Dredger

We saw little else.  It was too cold for the fishermen, water buffalo and birds. We continued downriver passing a bridge.  The Chinese are going to build another dam here, the fifth one that they have built on this river.  Choy told us they have a 30-year lease on these dams during which most of the revenue and power goes to China.  We stopped at the village of Sop Jam.  The women in this village are weavers.  They had many colorful scarves for sale.  I wanted to buy some but not in the pouring rain. 

Woman and Scarves in Sop Jam

We passed one house where the men were drinking some sort of whiskey through a long straw.  
One Way to Keep Warm!

The women sat on the other side of the house around a fire presumably doing the same thing.   This was one way to keep the chill away!  Another hour downriver brought us to the town of Muang Ngoy.  We climbed steep steps to this riverside town and checked into our bungalow.  

Our Tropical Resort, Where's the Sun??

There was no heat so instead I climbed into bed to get warm.  We had dinner at a nearby restaurant where an evil-looking cluster bomb, dropped here by the US, was on display.

Cluster Bomb

Everyone knows about the Vietnam War and Cambodia but few have heard about the "secret war" against Laos.  American pilots knew the area as the head of the Ho Chi Minh Trail and a transit point for troops and supplies heading from North Vietnam through Laos and Cambodia to South Vietnam.  In a vain effort to stem that flow in the late 1960's and early 70's, United States forces subjected Laos to the heaviest aerial bombardment in history.  More American bombs were dropped on this stretch of territory than in Europe during World War II or in Vietnam!  After dinner we returned to our cold room and buried ourselves under blankets to warm up.  I can't believe how cold it is in Laos.  The locals repeatedly told us they didn't remember it being this cold in their lifetimes! 

When we woke the next morning the rain had stopped.  Yippee!  We took an 1-hour boat ride to the town of Nong Kiau.  Along the way we could see a bit more of the river and forested limestone mountains beyond.  Some of the forest had been cleared to grow oranges, bananas, corn and other crops.  There were even a few fishermen out today.  

A Limestone Mountain Emerges

We explored the area around Nong Kiau by bicycle and stopped at Pha Thok Cave.  To get to the entrance we had to cross a small river on a log bridge.  It was a little tricky with our bike shoes.  Marc was almost across when the log broke.  Luckily he didn't fall in.  

Crossing a Log Bridge

To get to the cave we had to climb steep, narrow stone steps. 

Stairway to Pha Thok Cave

The stairway led to a large limestone cave where the governors of the area hid during the "secret war" when the US carpet-bombed the area.   

Pha Thok Cave

On the return Choy had to help us across the broken log bridge.  A few local girls became impatient with these clumsy tourists crawling along and instead waded across the creek. 

What's Taking so Long??

After another cold night we set off for our last and longest day of cycling.  It was still pretty cold but at least it wasn't raining.  We set off around 8:00, crossed the bridge over the Nam Ou River and rode through town.  

Crossing the Nam Ou River

We were beginning to see patches of blue sky.  There wasn't much traffic but what there was was moving at a fast rate of speed.   Finally about 44 miles in we arrived at our lunch break.  We shared a chicken sandwich before heading off.  In about 16 miles we reached the village where Choy grew up.  His parents, two of his sisters and a young nephew still live here. 

Choy and his Parents

Choy showed us the inside of his parents' house.  There was a store room with sacks of rice which the family grows in fields across the river.  There was also a large living room and kitchen which Choy's mother was working in.  

Choy's Mother in the Kitchen

We were served a couple of kinds of sticky rice before heading off to do 6 more miles of riding.  We told Choy that we would stop after biking 66 of the planned 90 miles.  The weather had cleared nicely and we stripped off our tights and long sleeved jerseys.  We biked past some jagged limestone peaks where the van had stopped to pick us up.   It was a nice way to end our bike trip of over 575 miles through Vietnam and Laos.

The Weather Finally Clears!

We arrived at our final destination of Luang Prabang as the sun was setting over the Mekong River.

Sunset Over the Mekong River
Many legends are associated with the creation of this city, including one that Buddha smiled when he rested here during his travels, prophesying that it would one day be the site of a rich and powerful city.  From the 14th to the 16th century the town became the capital of the powerful kingdom of Lane Xang (Kingdom of a Million Elephants), whose wealth and influence were related to its strategic location on the Silk Route.

We had an extra day in Luang Prabang so we decided to visit the Tat Kuang Si Rescue Center about 19 miles south of town. Here 23 Asiatic Black Bears are housed.  Most of the bears arrive at the rescue center as very young cubs having been confiscated by the Lao Government from illegal poaching and trading. It is likely that they would otherwise have been destined for a life of torture in a "bile farm" outside of Laos.  The enclosure was smaller than expected but the bears seemed healthy.  The center has put in a lot of structures and toys to keep the bears occupied.  To learn more about the center and how you can help, go to Free the Bears

Play Time

Wrestling Time

Feeding Time

We continued to the Kuang Si waterfall, a many-tiered waterfall tumbling over limestone formations into a series of turquoise pools.  At the end of the walk was a 160-foot cascade.  

Kuang Si Waterfall

Our last stop was to the nearby Kuang Si Butterfly Park.  The park was recently created by a couple, Olaf and Ineke, from Holland.  The sun had just come out so the butterflies, all native species, were more active.  Ineke showed us the chrysalis house and the netted butterfly garden.  It was such a lovely spot with waterfalls, orchids and gardens.

Kuang Si Butterfly Park

On our final morning in Laos we were up early to see the procession of Buddhist monks.  Every morning the monks walk past locals and tourists to get food donations for the day.  A woman sold us rice and candy bars to give to the monks.  You have to place the food in the monks' bowls, they won't take it themselves.  

Peggy Giving Food to a Monk

Monk Procession

In 1995 Luang Prabang was designated an UNESCO World Heritage site for its fusion of Lao traditional urban architecture with that of the colonial era.  The many pagodas or "Wat" in Luang Prabang, are among the most sophisticated Buddhist temples in Southeast Asia.  We walked to the oldest temple in town, Wat Xiering Thong, an ornate complex decorated with sculptures, mosaics, engravings, paintings and gilding.  

Wat Xiering Thong

Wat Xieng Thong was built 1559-1560 by the Lao King Setthathirath near where the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers join. Until 1975 the wat was a royal temple under the patronage of the royal family and the Lao kings were crowned in the Wat.  We walked up to Main Street which is lined with French Colonial buildings.  

Main Street in Luang Prabang

All too soon it was time to return to our hotel to get ready for our evening flight to Kolkata, India.  Despite the unprecedented cold, we were warmed by the humble hearts of the Laotian people.  Our sincere thanks to Choy for sharing his country and childhood home with us.  May the sun continue to shine on "The Kingdom of a Million Elephants"!
We hope all is well back home,
Peggy and Marc 

Our route:

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