Thursday 26th December- Part 2 : Visit to Wat Souvannapoumaram & Pak Ou Caves

Impressed with what we’ve already seen we happily wind our way back through the quaint streets to:

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a temple considered, according to our local guide, to be ‘very beautiful, important & memorable,’ because of its age.

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I recall another guide mentioning other similar information, in Vientiane,  about Wat Sisaket – & even more, the Lao way of life – that I may have omitted to include; though it could be just as relevant to this temple complex,  & to the importance of one’s lookout on life – & towards the lives of those  elderly members of one’s community – in general:

‘Wat Sisaket is considered to be one of the most important temple, like a central to the community; &  everything in my country in the former time. This is important also because it is still surviving from the war. Vientiane’s temples were damaged, but only this one remains whole for exhibition; so it’s considered very sacred. No one knows why it remains while everything else was destroyed. But this one is still the same though it looks new because money from the donations of Buddhist people around the country … & refugees abroad who send money … help to restore this one; & to make it look new.

And why is it so central to the community? It’s because of the education [it delivers]. Almost everyone knows a young man changes when he’s allowed to be a monk. When he can stay here. Other men after working in the rice field they try to come to the temple, for to hear the monk’s teachings & to do everything in the temple while they have the opportunity to study.

The classrooms are over there, just as they were for the people of a former time. The other house over there is for the monks to sleep. So the number of monks to be here  is maybe not many; that way it was easier for the King to control everything.

There’s also a Library for the monks when they need information, or knowledge. In the past the manuscript was produced on palm leaves because there was no paper. Yet, about five years ago termites destroyed the Library; & now there is only a carved though empty bookcase inside to show people what may have been; something carved from the existing timbers that were still good; to show the importance of education over a long period of one’s life, like the survival of good timber, and our elders.

The carvings on the roofs are still a nice feature of all the buildings. Also the paintings on the underside of the roofs, the ceilings. And the top half of the walls have so many niches all round for Buddha images containing two images because one is considered lonely. But this is also a good lesson to pass on to the younger generations, about the importance of ‘a couple’ … parents … who are important in my country because after the old people get retired they don’t have any welfare from the government. Children [therefore] have to look after their parents. And if children don’t look after their parents the community complains, considering them to be thoughtless & bad people.

So it is important in this regard to ask the old people, ‘How old are you? Because if you are older than me I know I must respect you. And look after you.’

So old people are very important in my country. And how important someone is is up to the age of the person. And we mustn’t leave the old people to be lonely.

And because woman is a nice thing in the community we also have to look after her as well.’

So there we have it:

Wat Souvannapoumaram is old.

And beautiful.

And therefore must be looked after.

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All done with the information giving, we take the short cut through to the guesthouse …

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Beyond our walking tour, we make a unanimous decision:

to go together as an unaccompanied group to the Pak Ou Caves, apparently found  north of the town – and a place supposedly discovered by King Setthathirat in the 16th century –  though  we’re to go by tuk-tuk & river boat rather than the more-leisurely river ride, & while firstly moving at odds with the thrust of the current.

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Positioned in a cliff 15 metres above the fork in the waters where the Mekong joins the Nam Ou, the caves are considered one of the most treasured religious symbols of the Luang Prabang Province. In fact, together the upper (Tham Theung) and lower (Tham Ting) caves contain approximately 4000 carved wooden and gilded resin effigies of Buddha  in all shapes and sizes –  some thought to be more than 300 years old – all set out in haphazard arrangements upon a vast variety of prayer altars.

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Written about by Francis Garnier (1839-1873) – & sketched by its assigned draughtsman, Louis Delaporte, as part of the famous Mekong Exploration Commission (1866-68) – it’s in Catherine Clover’s excellent  article entitled ‘Retracing the Route: Mekong Exploration Commission (1866-68) to the Pak Ou Caves from Luang Prabang’  (2013) …

(written in 2013 & accessed at <http://www.electrummagazine.com/2013/05/retracing-the-route-mekong-exploration-commission-1866-68-to-the-pak-ou-caves-from-luang-prabang/&gt;  29 March 2014 

I learn that the monument – the Pak Ou Caves – was to stand as a “lasting reminder, both sad and touching, to the passage of foreigners in his country.”

In fact Clover goes on to enlighten by saying:

‘centuries of royal patronage by the royal family in Luang Prabang played a key role in the large number of statues seen in both caves. Every year the royal family from Luang Prabang would commission artists to create statues for the caves. This tradition continued until 1975.’

 

Nes helps negotiate a price for the journey to the caves with two tuk-tuk drivers

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until it’s decided to squeeze everyone into one, &  pay a little extra to cover ‘the fine;’ because it’s apparently illegal to carry any more than eight in a single tuk-tuk (& altogether we will breach the rules as we number ‘nine’).

All aboard – and with Hermann sitting up front as a fully-enclosed passenger in the driver’s cabin -so attempting to toss out the rule book with a little strategic positioning – we take a rather more exposed & chilly forty-five minute/ or twenty mile  journey towards the river; with our driver stopping to purchase something from a roadside stall …

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or to divulge some of our monetary ‘contributions to the cause of sustaining legalities’ to the local toll keeper ( though I rather consider it’s possibly more likely to be graft money, or sin bon).

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The sun is particularly weak as it tries to nose it’s way through the covering of morning cloud.

Along Highway 13, we’re tail-gated by a group of Swiss riders.

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They’re obviously also heading for the same cave, though after taking the turn onto a rugged dirt road they eventually overtake our tuk-tuk when they tire of swallowing our dust.

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At one point, being obviously overloaded the hill climb proves too difficult for the struggling tuk-tuk so we all hop out – except for Hermann who stays safely ensconced in the cabin – while the driver negotiates the remainder of the hill with relative ease.

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Back on board, & sitting in exactly the  same positions on the timber slatted seats, with our backs pushed against the metal side-rails & heads twisted towards the scenery – & any measure of sunlight we can find – we travel on through a variety of eye-catching landscapes –OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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even past the tourists taking the guided elephant rides –

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till we reach the riverside checkpoint

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& the tiny village, that aims to take further advantage of its position at the drop-off point to the river & the caves by offering souvenirs & crafts for sale.

After we pay 20,000 kip to the uniformed ‘guard’  at a shaded table,

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our driver points the way toward the river.

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There are no telephone wires, no bridges spanning the water.

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Merely those  captivated   by the exquisite beauty & variability of their surroundings…

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together with plenty of kids dedicated to their assigned positions – with intent & purpose –  in the open marketplace.

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We’re soon loaded onto our boats for the crossing.

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Once transported  across the river in two separate crafts, as guests we’re greeted by slatted bamboo plank-ways, man-made concrete stairways with concrete handrails, and modern wooden ladders .

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In fact access to the caves can only be gained by climbing up steep steps that cling to the cliff side facing the Mekong.

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Still inspired by Clover’s writing,

‘One can only imagine what it would have been like for members of the Commission and Lao pilgrims before such modern conveniences were available.’

Nonetheless, as we traverse the first section of the bamboo walkway built at the very edge of the Mekong where the boats remain for subsequent pick-ups, we find it sinks into the water if it’s in any way overloaded.

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Greeted by women sitting with official tickets in hand, we hand over an additional 15,000 kip to enter the caves.

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As forewarned, the lower cave is packed with an enormous variety & number of figurines.

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Almost everything seems worthy of more than a fleeting moment of our attention though there is seemingly just too much to gather onto our camera’s memory cards in the allotted time. Nonetheless we try our very best to retain remnants of what’s most impressed:

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for it seems memories are so easily swept away in the dust of moments …

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Moving through & beyond the cave, though there are many steep steps to negotiate, the view is worth any expended effort,

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particularly after the difficult climb to the upper cave.

We arrive breathless at the entrance & gather torches  from the two women seated at a dusty table nearby.

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When inside, being interested in different things, we journey separately.

And for a time I worry Ben might be lost in the crowd, or crouching in a corner, in thought .

But he does walk out of the darkness with a smile & a camera full of imagery depicting just some of the contents of the cave.

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And as Clover writes:

‘Knowing how dark the upper cave is … gives Delaporte’s detailed drawing great importance. It would not have been easy to accurately depict the contents of the dark cave, even with rudimentary lamps and torches. Back down below, from the shelter of the rocky overhang the Commission would have had a dry place to survey the two rivers and the Nam Ou valley beyond. Today the caves are in good condition thanks to a team of Laos and Australian conservationists who cleaned and catalogued the caves from 1992-1997. The Tam Ting cave is still used every April for religious purposes as a place to cleanse the household image of Lord Buddha.’

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The Pak Ou  are certainly worthy of the second look, because last time ( in 2008) I took only a couple of photos:

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This time we’re definitely armed with a sizable combined cache of memories.

After finally exiting from the darkness of the upper cave & returning our torches,

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I reward the younger girl with a Kit-Kat & give a banana to the older –  ‘more important’  – woman before taking a last look around …

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and venturing down the designated path to the boat,

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& making a successful looping assisted-crossing of the swiftly flowing waters to arrive again at the beach opposite.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Here, eyes light up when I surprisingly reward one of the gathered children with a spare banana – rather than money – for his offered trinket.

Having already bought a beige-coloured scarf, I by-pass the village stalls on the way back to the tuk-tuk, though Hermann bargains for elephant figurines & scoffs at the prices suggested for faux-silver items.

The return journey is pleasantly warmer because the sun has come out at eleven, as promised by our tour guide.

Outside the guesthouse we each hand over the pre-determined 26,000 kip for our two-way journey & book the same driver for tomorrow’s trip to the Kuang Si Falls.

It’s only when we’re inside our room – & probably quite soon after being so attentive to the truly exceptional details of Lao – my eyes light up as I notice the note & its attendant doll hanging from the door handle …

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I love being in Laos.

And no more especially, than here, in Luang Prabang.

And by the serene look on Ben’s face as he stretches out on his bed, I’m sure he feels the same.

 

 

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Thursday 26th December- Part 1: Orientation Walk through Morning Markets & to the Silversmith’s

2010-05-04 08.13.07Over the years, apparently travelers of all shapes, sizes & relative importance have ventured to Luang Prabang along a variety of routes.

From the original starting point of our journey in Hanoi, Vietnam, just one year ago it would’ve been possible to take a 30 hour bus ride for 850,000 VND (December 2013) to where we are now, in this beautiful heritage-listed city.

Yet  arriving by way of the waters of the mighty Mekong ( as I did the last time I visited), quite a number of foreign explorers of the nineteenth and twentieth century have written accounts of their journeys, & their observations on what they encountered along the way.

In fact Frenchman Henri Mouhot, who perished as a thirty-five year old from malaria in Luang Prabang in 1861, provided the most famous account that inspired future Frenchmen to follow his trail.

Differently-inspired, we’ve otherwise obviously taken the more relaxed, roundabout route, one  extending over seven days.

It’s light when I wake with a start & realise we’ve little time for breakfast before we must muster for our Orientation walk at 8 am around this former capital of Laos that’s now a UNESCA World Heritage city (since 1995) & certainly one of the most charming cities in South-east Asia.

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With the city owing its present name to the Pha Bang, a revered Buddha image (now in the Royal Palace Museum)  brought to the city by King Visoun during the golden age of Lan Xangin the early 1500s, according to wikitravel.org sources:

‘Luang Prabang is a wonderful patchwork of traditional Lao wooden houses and hints of European architecture; reminders of when Laos was part of the French colony of Indochine. Golden-roofed wats, decorated with mosaics and murals of the life of Buddha, sit under the gaze of wrap-around teak balconies and 19th century shuttered windows. All of this is set against a backdrop of verdant greenery and rugged mountains.

One of those small cities with atmospheric and charming personalities, Luang Prabang is now on the radar screen of most tourists who have been or dream of going to Venice, Salzburg, Dubrovnik, Ubod, Hoi An, Cuzco, San Miguel Allende, Guanajuato, Puebla, Morelia, Oaxaca, Napier, Santorini, or Santa Barbara …

The city fell into decline in the latter half of the 20th century following the reluctant withdrawal of the French, and the 1975 revolution which brought an end to the Luang Prabang monarchy. The relative poverty of newly-independent Laos perhaps helped save Luang Prabang from the ravages of 20th century city planning.

Wat Xieng Thong, or the Golden Temple, in the grounds of the former Royal Palace (Haw Kam), Luang Prabang

The reopening of Laos to tourism in 1989 resulted in a remarkable turnaround in the city’s fortunes, as crumbling timber houses and colonial mansions were sensitively restored and transformed into immaculate guesthouses and boutique hotels.

 

Still, when sitting at the breakfast table in a cute budget guesthouse with no view of the river – though imbued with what the French might term ‘charmant‘ style & energy –  two fried eggs, a baguette & jam, plus a selection of lady finger bananas are delivered, in turn, to each of the travellers who gather  – one-by-one – in the dining pavilion.

The potted Lipton tea is a welcome addition, though I decline the condensed milk that’s poured from a tin.

Once on our way our walking tour of the town, I guess, officially begins at the Morning Market.

It proves impossible to select just one or two signature shots, so there’s more than a dozen that leap into my camera & onto the Olympus ‘xD’ M 1GB Memory Stick for safe-keeping:

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Wending our way eventually closer to the river we follow our pink-jacketed & pony-tailed Nes along the riverside path,

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wondering whether we’ll meet up with the guy offering a taste of scorpion wine as before.

But he’s not around this time; only others more seriously engaged in survival.

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Then it’s following along again though this time behind our chunkier leather-coated local guide, somewhat intent on finding …

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the incredibly-long-finger-nailed silversmith’s residence.

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He –  the master craftsman, Thithpeng Maniphone) – along with his workers, is busily working, fashioning silver …

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(… and, it’s known fact,  ‘Lao silverware is more than 95% pure, unlike the silverware in most other countries, including Thailand, which is usually only 92.5% sterling silver.  The near 100% silver content of silverware in Laos is a testimony of the high quality of the workmanship of Lao silversmiths who work mainly by hand to mold, twist, twine, and pull the very soft high-grade silver into the desired shapes and patterns’) …

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with the most appropriate tools of trade

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I’m intrigued enough by the craft.

Especially when I learn from reading Erik Cohen’s article entitled ‘International Politics and the Transformation of Folk Crafts- The Hmong (Meo) of Thailand and Laos’ at <http://www.siamese-heritage.org/jsspdf/1981/JSS_077_1g_Cohen_InternationalPoliticsAndTransformationOfHillCrafts.pdf&gt;

the disturbance and eventual destruction of the “traditional”
tribal life of the Hmong of Thailand, and especially of Laos,
through insurgency, war and flight, wrought havoc in the
Hmong economy, and made the Hmong accessible to the outer
world and receptive to craft production for the market as an
important supplementary source of livelihood.

Cohen goes on to say that the commercialisation of these crafts became important for establishing an ‘external identity’ for the people; meaning ‘in the eyes of the world into which they had been precipitately catapulted by historical events over which they had no control.’

The Hmong peoples had engaged in a wide variety of crafts including textiles & silversmithing in relative isolation until the Second Indochina War and its ‘repercussions, which came in the wake of earlier sporadic attempts of national and colonial governments to penetrate the highlands of continental Southeast Asia and impose their rule upon the tribal populations.’ Such  events brought drastic changes into the lives of the Hmong communities in Laos, & impacted decisively on the commercialisation &transformation of crafts.

In the 1950s restrictive measures were introduced that led to the eventual rise of insurgency & then its heavy-handed response as the Thai army began killing a significant amount of Hmong tribesmen, &  napalming villages; even  arbitrarily resettling tribes from the sensitive highland areas to lowland villages to become what’s known as ‘internal refugees’ – though hellbent on the transformation & commercialisation of their crafts as a matter of survival & , I guess, resistance.

It was soon realised the use of brutal force would never overcome the insurgency nor safeguard the loyalty of the people. So measures were taken to improve welfare & gain trust. The Border Patrol Police was created in 1965 to help create supplementary sources of livelihood through the collection & marketing of tribal crafts. Christian missionaries & other interested foreigners also then expanded upon the marketing channels.

Traditional tribal designs were simplified to lessen the time of production. Material, colours & colour combinations were further adapted to the tastes & demands of an external public.

Alongside the ongoing insurgency by the Hmong tribes-peoples,  the emergence of the Second Indochina War meant:

the Laotian Hmong initially sought to remain neutral and outside the Indochina conflict; they were, however, drawn into it through Pathet Lao and Viet Minh reprisals against those Hmong who collaborated with the French colonial authorities[though] subsequently …  found themselves aligned with the Americans, who succeeded the French in the direction of the war against communism. The CIA eventually organized and equipped a Hmong army, under the Hmong general Yang Pao.

Though when the communist insurgents  proved too powerful, those aligned with the Americans found themselves ‘exposed to the harsh  Pathet Laos repercussions’ causing them to retreat to the safer lower grounds. In fact one half of the Hmong population was thus displaced; firstly in Vientiane, or across the Mekong & into Thailand after the Communist takeover of Laos in 1975 … until the rebellion was suppressed in ’78 – ’79 by the systematic destruction of villages & the massacre of the inhabitants.

Those who didn’t flee settled down to a quieter though bleaker existence in the refugee camps, hoping eventually to be settled again in the highlands. Their hope was eventually shattered over time. Many sought resettlement in the USA.

However for those who remained their crafts survived. Outside interest in the craft – particularly textiles, & even more particularly  patch-worked squares, or pa ndau – grew & the market expanded, though with the Hmong becoming more innovative in their designs beyond the traditional ‘authentic ‘ modalities … by more often ‘representing the glory and joys of their past, and the hardships and tragedy of their recent historical experiences.’

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Whether standards were compromised or improved  to produce items for a growing market was dependent on the skills of the artisans, & the standardisation imposed by the ‘pressurised’ market.

As for the Hmong men & their silversmithing craftsmanship. In the past the main source of their silver was through the working over flames to achieve the melting down of French coins.

But of course, as Shui Meng Ng states in his blog ‘Saoban- Village Handcrafts from the Heart of Laos’  – and in such a fine &  intensely eloquent manner I feel quite loathe to condense it in any way as I reproduce it – almost in its entirety – here :

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It is believed by Lao people that silver has the power to keep away evil spirits and will protect the owners from ill-fortune and bad health.  For this reason, parents and grandparents like to present silver beads, silver coins, anklets, or bracelets to children and make them wear these close to their bodies.  For this reason, silver crafting is such a well-developed and ancient art of the Lao people.

Luang Prabang had traditionally been Laos’ foremost center of silver art and craft where the country’s foremost silversmiths received royal patronage and commissioned to create the most beautiful and intricate silver pieces for the exclusive use of the royal family and royal temples. Here the most talented artisans learned and competed with each other for the attention of the royal households and the families of the rich and powerful.  For this reason, until the abolishment of the monarchy in 1975, Luang Prabang was a thriving silver center with numerous silver workshops operated by master silversmiths and their following of aspiring apprentices all horning [sic] their skills in the art of silver smithing and crafting.

Following the regime change of 1975 and the subsequent political turmoil, many previous government officials, business people, intellectuals, members of the royal households, and crafts people fled the country.  The few crafts people who remained saw their business plunged, forcing some to change their profession or leave Luang Prabang to seek employment in other cities, like Vientiane and Pakse.  Today, one finds very few silversmiths in Luang Prabang – most are either very old or have given up their crafts completely.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, silver trading and silver crafting declined quite drastically, since very few people could afford to buy silver anymore. However, the ancient art of silver crafting never died out; it persisted and was maintained by a few master silversmiths who loved the craft and despite weak demand continued to preserve their art producing mainly silver ritual objects, such as silver bowls used for temple offerings or cultural festivals. They also continued to produce some adornments such as silver belts worn by women with their Lao skirts (xinn), and simple but elegant silver ear-rings and hairpins.  Only the very rich during those hard times could afford pure silver; most common folk had to make do with silver-plated pieces, which while less precious, were none the less beautiful.

In terms of designs, the most common designs etched into the silver objects continued to be those taken from Buddhist art, Lao mythology and legends, and also nature, for example, Buddha images, mythical dragons (naga), birds, frog, flowers and insects, and so on[1]. Many of the designs typical of the silverware of Luang Prabang continued to be popular, for example designs of the 3-headed elephantstupaschampa flowerpi-khune flower;fish-roe, and naga head, and so on.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, most of the silver workshops in Laos were small backyard establishments where a master might take on at only two or three apprentices.  All the work was done by hand using traditional tools, a tradition which continues even today.  Since work was hard, and income from silverwork miniscule, few apprentices stayed on in the trade for very long.  Most gave up and took up other types of employment.  Those who were skillful were also often recruited to work in silver factories in Thailand.

Since about 2000, Laos’ economic and political situation took a turn for the better.  The Lao government adopted more market friendly policies and encouraged foreign investment, trade and tourism.  As trade and tourism thrived, demand for Lao handcrafts like silver jewelry and silverware also increased, thereby breathing life back to this ancient art form.

… Nowadays, the bigger silver workshops in Vientiane have as many as 40-50 workers and apprentices producing a large range of traditional and modern designs to meet the increasing domestic and foreign demand for Lao silver.

I feel incredibly fortunate we’ve witnessed such a craft; & the production of exquisite pieces in situ, here with Thithpeng Maniphone, in Luang Prabang; knowing he ‘used to be the official manufacturer of silverware for the royal family of Luang Prabang’ & is  ‘still very popular among royalty and famous personalities, this bearing testimony to the quality and exclusivity of his products. ‘

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Wednesday 25th December : Christmas Day

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Not too far from the river, the shower at the Khamphone Guesthouse delivers considerably warmer water so it’s difficult to turn off the tap; though I eventually do when every part of me is squeaky clean & ready for the day.

Breakfast is same-same, though equally delicious. Nearby the actions of our concierge appear somewhat culturally derivative –  & certainly indicative – of the rather relaxed parenting attitudes &  somewhat carefree nature – of the people …

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Afterwards as we sit round the chatting table positioned on the patio, in the spirit of Christmas giving, Nes hands both Ben & myself a little  chunky fridge magnet  & a hand-written, personalised  gift card: one printed with soy ink; both displaying the art works of Supachet Bhumakarn…

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Having determined to also give gifts to our fellow traveler-friends, we go for a morning stroll & gather an array of beaded bracelets for the girls & knotted rope-style wrist bands  for the boys, plus a double Kit Kat for Hermann (because I don’t feel he’s the bracelet-wearing type).OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Gift-giving then proceeds along with “thank you”s back at the Khamphone. And, being otherwise quite the chocolate – & caffeine – connoisseur, Hermann most appreciatively deals with his Kit Kat over a coffee, my instincts about his tastes proving right.

The youngsters – all connected to wi-fi – are all soon busy ‘Skype’-ing relatives at home, lifting & turning their tablets or  I-pads towards the end of the street to give parents at home some idea of the impressive mountain landscape, certainly a Christmas treat in itself.

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Our new local Laos guide arrives on the scene. He’s a spunky guy with pointy-toed shoes polished to a mirror shine, a black leather jacket & enough silver jewellery to indicate he’s doing well enough at his job to sling around spare kip in the right directions.

‘You gotta know the road to Luang Prabang is very windy; sometimes treacherous. Still this makes the scenery very beautiful,’ he says.

And he’s right.

As we settle into our places on the mini-bus & journey wide-eyed through a landscape that literally throbs with an immensity of purpose, the mountains – mostly grouped in three-dimensional formations that poke into Heaven – appear shrouded in fine mist while the road wriggles itself into what’s deemed to be the safest place. Still it’s  also the most indirect route when compared to the way God’s messenger – the crow – flies.

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This reminds me of a Laotian folk tale;

one re-told by  Dr. Wajuppa Tossa and Prasong Saihong at SEAsite Laos

& accessed at  <http://www.seasite.niu.edu/lao/multimedia/crowandpeacock.htm>

(though perhaps not referring to

the Wild Red Junglefowl Crow of Laos;

the fowl that resembles a sprightly rooster back home ):

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Once, long ago, the crow and the peacock were good friends.  Everyday they would go out together to work or to play.

Now in those days the crow and the peacock both had plain white feathers.

One day they were playing in a field of brightly colored flowers.

“Look, friend Peacock. Don’t you wish we wore bright colors like those flowers?”

“I think that would be wonderful, friend Crow. I am tired of these plain white feathers.”

Then crow had an idea.  “Why don’t we PAINT ourselves?  I can paint your feathers and you can paint mine!”

The peacock agreed.  So the next day Crow began to paint Peacock’s feathers. He used the most beautiful colors.  He painted peacock’s breast and head a magnificent blue.  On peacock’s tail feathers he drew elaborate designs. He created large rainbow spots like brilliant eyes on peacock’s tail.  Crow spent many hours painting his friend.  When he was finished Peacock spread his tail feathers and began to strut around. He wanted to go and show everyone his beautiful feathers.

“Now it is your turn to paint me,” said Crow.

But Peacock did not want to waste time drawing designs on Crow.  He simply took a pot of black ink and poured it over crow’s head.

“There you are. That should do.”

And the proud Peacock strutted off to show his feathers to the world.  So today the crow is all plain.

And even though Peacock IS beautiful,  it is clear that he is too proud for his own good.

 

On the distant ridge I recognise what’s possibly the hilltop lunch stop, the place affording an expansive postcard view, though one that proves to be only partly as magnificent as it is/ was when witnessed on a clear day; when I last stood at the precipice marveling at the scenery.

The man-made structures have completely changed.

And the toilets are especially modernised.

Though this is often what greets the traveler in search of relief in  Laos :

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and this was a happy room I’d discovered before when needing to squat on the same mountain …

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now each cubicle at the lunch stop has its own view, for a small price, when the tiniest denomination of kip  are handed to a female attendant . However  foregrounded by walls of glass, massive reflections  & poor camera skills make it almost impossible to capture the full beauty of the place from an internal perspective.

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So I must settle for past photographs to convey something of what’s possibly experienced

as a mesmerising mountaintop tourist seeking some sort of relief:

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Though really perhaps – in essence – nothing much seems to have changed in some places  –

except the removal of a waste bin & the addition of my son:

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The place also serves the best fried rice I’ve tasted so far, possibly because it’s fresh local steamed rice that’s grown, harvested, threshed and husked in the villages where it’s grown …

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Even Roly scoffs down a fair amount of food (courtesy of Hermann’s pills, I guess) then suspends himself into the void across a jutting log, performing his version of ‘planking in Laos,’ all without incident or cross-cultural displeasure.

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After all, the Laos people are known to enjoy a laugh; or the chance to embellish a story.

None more so than could be written around item ’16’ on a menu board located on another blog site belonging to AK Rider/ MotoQuest:

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A celebratory Lao beer goes particularly well with our Christmas luncheon, though it doesn’t afford me enough Dutch courage to drape my body over the jutting log into the blueness of Laotian space,  à la Roly.

Therefore with no further tales to tell of this part of the world, after a final personal pose of choice we say ‘adieu.’

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The afternoon winds its way through Hmong & Hmu villages :

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with Hermann playing the role of the trigger-happy opportunist, capturing Laotian families bathing as the sun warms bodies that must seemingly be doused only with cold water.

The women wear wraps – & the men their shorts – to bathe; but there’s otherwise something voyeuristic about our tourist passage through villages – at super-close range – when a total lack of privacy appears as an inescapable daily facet of life because every house is flush with the roadside & clings to the side of a mountainside like  an eagle’s eyrie.

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At other times there’s only a slightly more distant level of activity to admire …

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But all round, the mountains of the Kasi District continue to impart a sense of bewilderment & joy to the transient passer-by.

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A quick pit stop at roadside toilets managed by a family – for only those  few kip offerings dropped into cupped hands by those who bother to stop, & pay – also provides a much larger variety of snacks in the hope of swelling the family’s pockets & thereafter the bellies of customers …

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Well into the afternoon my camera indicates the battery is out of power, so I ask Ben for his camera when an elephant appears before us as cargo on the back of a somewhat tilted truck…

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and again as the Nam Khan River emerges to lead the way toward Luang Prabang.

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The guesthouse – Sieng Khaen – is in a central position in Chao Tonkham Road.

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Our room is ‘111’ & both beds are 3/4 size & especially comfy. The sheets & extra doona are pleasantly aromatic & pristine.

I deliver 2 bags of laundry to the desk & pay 23,000 kip when it’s returned, cleaned & neatly folded next day.

Nes (the tour leader) has plans for a special Christmas dinner. And Ben is dressed in his favourite Cambodian shirt & ready for the occasion:

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We all put in 25,000 kip & head off to the Food market, an offshoot of the busy night market, & a popular destination for visitors/ tourists & locals alike; stopping at nearby roadside stalls to observe the well-practiced preparation of  fascinating treats:

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Cruising down the narrow passageways at the Food Market,

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the youngsters are in their element choosing a variety of dishes: a veritable pauper’s banquet of fish, sausages, spring rolls, sticky rice & noodles, with a selection of chicken & pork dishes to excite Paleo palates. Placed into plastic bags or paper bag holders most things are far from steaming hot when laid out on the tables in the outdoor eating area – the little hut in the garden – but delicious nonetheless according to all those who polish off almost everything. And thanks to Roly we each have a Lao beer.

I eat more than the cashews I buy for 15,000 kip, quite additional to my monetary contribution but as a nice supplement to the mostly-non-vegetarian selection on offer.

The evening is rounded off with a Scrabble tournament. It appears  Roly & Kate are  Scrabble enthusiasts. They even have a sheet of acceptable (though hardly-known & never-spoken) two-letter words that create high-scoring blocks rather than towers on the board.

Quite out of my league I retire to the computer beside the front desk & catch up with the Facebook entries that have  inundated my page with Christmas wishes.

I send a special message to my mother & respond to a cousin’s  rather dispirited post announcing her lack of joy for Christmas; being that the time of year is forever connected to a son’s three unsuccessful suicide attempts just prior to the festive season a number of years ago. How can anyone ever begin to understand what such crises deliver to a family when others’ lives seem so superficially serene & perfect? It would be difficult not to wear your heart on your sleeve, bound as it is  by the ropes that keep the layers of bitterness, and guilt in place.

Roly apparently wins the Scrabble tournament, & that’s hardly a surprise.

We move off to room ‘111’ , shower & retire to bed for a dream-filled sleep though I rise in the early hours to turn ‘ON’ the air-conditioning system to remedy the stuffiness & warmth we’ve created with our breaths; & doona coverings.

We sleep like hibernating bears in the Arctic till 7:20 am.

Tuesday 24 December: A Honeyed Christmas Eve in Vang Vieng

We  pedal to the Luang Prabang Bakery, yet again.

I order a warmed croissant while Ben chooses the Banana & Honey Crepe.

laohoney685 ‘The honey is great,’ he says.

Perhaps it derives from the Khamu villages of  Senlath, Kungkhuey and Onmok in the remote, mountainous areas of Pongsali province. Or from the wild honey bee nests in southern Laos in the provinces of Pathoumphone & Champasak where the bees …  pheung phoum …       are known to feed on the flowers from the malva nut tree (a native to mainland Southeast Asia; with its seed used in traditional medicine as a coolant, for gastrointestinal disorders & for soothing the throat. No wonder it provides great honey!).

According to Ian G. Baird and Somphong Bounphasy  ( Non-Timber Forest Product Use, Management and Tenure in Pathoumphone District, Champasak Province, Southern Laos):

If somebody is walking in the forest and notices that a bee nest has been established in a particular tree, the person marks that tree by cutting into the bark of the tree trunk a few times, and then putting a small branch into one of the cuts in order to make it clear to whoever might pass that the tree later already has an owner. Then, in March or April when the nest is large and the honey is most plentiful, the owner of the tree (the one who marked it) harvests the honey and wax.

After harvesting, the tree reverts to being the common property of the village, and the individual rights to the tree are no longer recognised.

If somebody who did not mark the tree tries to harvest the honey, the temporary owner of the tree can fine the thief, based on the size of the nest and the amount of honey harvested. The more  honey harvested, the higher the fine. Villagers rarely steal each other’s bee nests, and the system seems to generally work well.

… harvesting is done during the day, and local ecological knowledge has led locals to believe that harvesting “pheung phoum” honey at night is destructive, leading to the demise of the bees. If a fire is made on the ground at night, and then the bees are chased out of the nest, they will fly directly into the fire and die. Therefore, it is strictly prohibited to harvest “pheung phoum” honey at night if I fire is made.

… smoke is used to chase the bees out of nests. The harvester climbs up the tree with the nest in it and then lights a bundle of small dry sticks wrapped in a dried banana leaf that have been prepared in advance. The harvester blows the smoke towards the nest, and the queen bees soon fly away with all the other bees, leaving just the nest, which can then be cut down and brought to the ground without difficulty.

… a single “pheung phoum” nest generally produces about five to thirty litres of honey, depending on the number of queen bees.

We settle our bill, hop on our bikes in the weakening heat of the day,and move off to explore further around the backpacker quarter, & even beyond:

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We eventually park our bikes and,  just because it’s there, cross a very rickety bridge on foot, …

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the one with its very own bottle tops cleverly utilised to secure loosening planks;

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and armies of scuttling orange-red ants busily traversing well-trodden pathways, often in more formations than the  ‘two-by-two, hurrah, hurrah’   recorded in Barney’s Campfire Singalong  Book…

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In single file we retrace our own steps back across the bridge :

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then  stop off for another cool drink riverside, at yesterday’s drinking spot …

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before deciding to gather up a few additional kip so we can indulge in a Laos massage, perhaps a bit of  ‘peculiar, slippery,  honey treatment’ for our over-worked limbs.

From past experience – in another Vang Vieng parlour four years ago – I realise Lao technique is ‘pleasantly rough,’ & uses firm thumb and palm pressure on the body’s energy lines, helping to relieve aches and pains and improve circulation.

I’d certainly been looking forward to repeating the experience, with Ben.

And what better place than here, in Vang Vieng

After settling on the type & price  – feet, legs & back, for 60,000 kip – though my request becomes lost in translation – we enter a simple setting, with eight white padded mats set out on the floor laid with  bamboo, & covered in frayed towels.

Only a hint of  daylight streams in through the curtained doorway.  

We change into looser cotton pyjama-type pants; though swapping Ben’s tight-fitting ones with the far-larger-and-looser variety I’ve been given.

We wrap our passports  in the clothes we discard & push these beneath the corner of  our mats, for safety, in case we happen to fall asleep.

No music plays, though after two young Lao men walk into the room & greet us, soon the tamarind aromas of the oil begin to dance with our senses.

I’m happy with the one who kneels at the end of my mat.

He starts at my feet, not totally unexpected.

He taps the palm of his hand so hard on to the balls and arch of my feet ; & , because my eyes are shut, I can only guess he’s wielding a hammer rather than a fist.  

My feet are then twisted inwards & across each other, with firm downward pressure, to fully release the ankles.

It’s then he literally ‘crawls’ up my legs, before applying oil in long washes to each leg – in its turn- and treating my legs to long strong upward & downward forces like a pianist executing a string of arpeggios, before rounding off the performance with a playful punch (or ten), quite resembling the pounding of perfect cadences  on a swathe of ivory keys.

Perhaps I need to know additional Lao phrases:

like haeng haeng (stronger);

or better still, bao bao (softer).

Nearer to the end of the ’30 minute treatment time’ I’m instructed to sit upright. It’s then I’m treated to what feels like donkey kicks down my back. In my suffering, I’m cradled from behind – his arms entwined beneath & round mine like jungle vines round a host tree –  before being swung 120 degrees to the side. One rotation is accompanied with a pleasing twig branch of cracks from a spine – and I guess it’s mine –  but the other side holds fast and will not make a sound.

Whoa, whoa. That’s enough,’ is all I can muster. ‘I can cope with a little imbalance in my life.’

All done with the experience, Ben is  super impressed with his Laos massage. He’s totally relaxed, & talkative. Even admits the massage he’d received previously in Ho Chi Minh City in 2010 seemed ‘a little too kinky’  in comparison.

Outside we slip into our shoes & pedal as if in a dream – for a short while – then again park the bikes outside the Bakery, though this time choosing to devour a chocolate chip cookie, with the pot of Lipton Tea we share.

We peruse the shops & the now-more-familiar street-scapes, take a photo or two of possibly Hermann’s hot air balloon ride (as it skims ever-perilously-close  to rooftops & power lines) …

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before eventually returning our bikes around 5 pm.

We walk straight across to the Elephant Crossing Guesthouse – an establishment owned by an Aussie woman – & choose to sit at a table overlooking the river.

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I sip on a cold Lao Beer, watching the sunset unfold from only a slightly-different perspective …

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and in quite the opposite direction to  the  final stages of the balloon ride:

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While we’re busy taking selfies, or capturing the final brilliant rays of the setting sun …

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around us the staff are otherwise busy, somewhat engaged in pre-Christmas preparations including the organisation of an open fire on the restaurant landing.

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We’re joined by Roly & Kate who share their day’s experience, especially photographs of their dawn balloon ride over the river & along the misty valley.  And every image expresses the magic of the moment, some even in panorama.

They also tell of their caving experiences:

of time spent floating in total darkness on tractor inner tubes while pulling themselves along a wire, their butts suspended deep into the chilly waters;  of  finding  their own way back on exactly the same wire route, though separated  from the wire because  too many other travelers are using it to reach the halfway, turnaround point before returning – almost blindly – to the cave’s entrance.

Of course our day’s activities pale somewhat into relative insignificance though they were essentially right for us;  in fact perfectly matched to the serene beauty of the place;  in this ‘Heaven’s Palace’ as the name of the town translates.

Following the usual 7 pm group meeting, we stride off together ( though without Hermann & Nes who are dining on cooked fish with the guesthouse owners & their extended families).

Though Roly suggests a Vegetarian Restaurant to suit more than his tastes, we settle on a busy corner restaurant that’s well supported by tourists …

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& sufficiently decorated for the festive season…

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The food proves to be ‘almost as good’ as last night’s offerings’;  those meals we’d found in the little restaurant directly across the road.

Ben even orders Mint Tea & is surprised when he’s handed a chilled version  that’s stacked with chipped ice & lashings of fresh green mint.

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Though warned to be wary of eating the ice, he simply can’t avoid trying  it.

‘It’s really very nice,’ he says as I’m busy asking for cashews to be added to the Fried Rice  I order (while really hoping the ice in the glass  has not been cut by a saw on the footpath, & is therefore clearly OK).

 Over & above the rice, egg, onion, peas and diced carrots and a few herbs that arrives on a plate carried by a waiter in a Santa Claus hat,   I’m to pay an extra 10,000 kip for a sprinkling of … SEVEN nuts.

Still the meal is delicious,though quite oily in comparison with most others I’ve tried in Laos ( & in this regard I could be considered  a Fried Rice connoisseur, having tried enough varieties in enough restaurants to really know my stuff!).

We settle our bill & walk back to the guesthouse alone, though unperturbed by the darkness we must pass through on the way.

Ben snores loudly throughout the night.

I have disturbing thoughts about catching malaria (& perhaps I need to worry because after all there were a lot of mosquitoes nipping at our ankles as we sat talking with Roly & Kate at the Elephant Crossing Restaurant; & we’re  not taking any precautions other than wearing light coloured clothing ).

However there’s quite a lot of commotion going on round about during the night to shift my mind to different worries:

  • babies crying
  • parents arguing
  • footsteps down the side staircase
  • furniture being shifted across the floor of the room overhead

Nonetheless I eventually fall asleep, do not contract malaria ( at this, or any future stage) & do not hear the landing of a sleigh ( or the Laotian counterparts of reindeer hooves) on the guesthouse rooftop.

Besides I’ve indulged in enough today to make my dreams sweet.

Tuesday 24th December: Making Comparisons in Vang Vieng

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERARather reluctantly we leave the lagoon & begin our trek back to the town. Yet with senses heightened by the prettiness of the place I become aware of the little things I’d missed on the way:

the grand geological make-up of the place (though I’d hardly been able to miss this before, at almost every step);

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the brilliant colour & variety of  roadside foliage;

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the simplicity of the communication system;

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the rustic appeal of  fittings & adornments constructed on withering power poles;

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the tinkling of  cow-bells in lush roadside pastures;

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the diagonal join – & capping – in a constructed, rustic wall;

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the smattering of blossoms along  a spindly bush

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the sign to raise both a camera and  a smile

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the array of rooftops on houses with an enviable view;

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indeed the simplicity of life – &  labour – that plays out everywhere.

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And while the other younger members of the group may be venturing elsewhere into the mysterious labyrinths that riddle Vang Vieng’s cliffs, at the bike-hire shop on the corner opposite the Elephant Crossing Hotel –  past the Lower Secondary & Primary Schools  – we farewell Nes, Hermann & The Vet,  & hire step-through bikes for the day, for 30,000 kip.

Now better able to explore the further sections of the main street – & even the outer reaches of the town at will – we pedal past the hospital

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and a string of roadside businesses before rounding the curve, stopping  roadside & pressing down our bike stands  outside the Luang Prabang Bakery (that, if it had a real address, would be said to be in Sisavangvong Road) …

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Avoiding the vast array of double brownie cakes, or chocolate – & even chocolate biscuit – encrusted cookies & slices that ooze calories from every fibre & crumb, Ben settles for pancakes …

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and dribbles super runny honey over the thick stack …

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Then its back onto the bikes for a bit of much-needed exercise.

Heading left out of the town centre along Rue Principale – though never ever straying far from the mountains –  it’s not long before we hang a left & cruise into the grounds of the very colourful &  ‘busy-looking’  one-hundred-year old Wat Kang, a temple complex –  at some time home to four monks, 21 novices & 3 nuns –  located on the southwest side of the old airstrip, with seemingly the typical emphasis on red & gold …

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Even Ben keenly records the images that most capture his attention:

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Our hearts rested, & our souls replenished, back on our bikes we head off in the other direction, stopping briefly to capture something I find totally too cute for words  …

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while otherwise on a mission to relocate a wat-found-previously-under-refurbishment-and-reconstruction; one  I’d visited – & even mingled, at ‘allowable’ close quarters, with the monks – on my previous visit to Vang Vieng; one I believe to be  named Wat Si Suman (& originally built in 1944 by a local named Chanthao according to <http://www.riversidevangvieng.com/downloads/Tourist_map>).

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As luck would have it, surely the same chief artisan/ monk  I’d witnessed in action four years ago, is still busy working, though this time  in the shade of a striped tarpaulin – yet still clad in his signature beanie – carving the eyes & facial features on a concrete Buddha about 5-6 metres high while sitting atop precarious bamboo scaffolding.

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This is how I remembered him busily engaged in creating the entrance way to the main temple :

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And this is the now-completed version of his work we see in 2013…

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Though we may not venture off in search of such previously-witnessed glories:

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there’s still a vast variety of new, beautiful structures & resplendent Buddha imagery to satisfy the eye & to capture on camera this time round; & it’s impressive to see the results of what was only taking rudimentary shape but four years ago:

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Much to Ben’s dismay I chat with a young monk who can speak a little English.

‘Sába̖ai-di̖i,’  I say in the best Lao accent I can muster.

Of course he utters  the expected ‘Where you from?’  (even though I’d much prefer he uttered ‘ jâo máa tae sai? or wrote ຈົ້າມາແຕ່ໃສ?  on his page).

‘Australia. A little town on the eastern coast called Lismore.’

He shows me the Book of Proverbs he’s studying …

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and I ask him to read in his Laos language what I can only read in English;

perhaps but wishing I could utter the words ‘Kállunaa wâo mai boeng duu ( ກະລຸນາເວົ້າໃໝ່ເບິ່ງດູ )’ while meaning  ‘Please say that again.’

Impressed with what I see I ask permission to photograph the page so I will remember some of the proverbs at least; especially the rather poignant:

‘Hating people is like burning down your own house to get rid of a rat.’

We say, ‘Thank you (  khàwp ja̖i  ຂອບໃຈ) ),

add,  ‘Thank you very much ( khàwp ja̖i lãi lãi   ຂອບໃຈຫລາຍໆ ))  

and then extend a final ‘goodbye’  – ‘ Sôhk dii der‘  –

to Wat Si Suman.

And I leave with rather a heavy heart, knowing it’s unlikely I’ll ever visit again; to make  further comparisons of the wats I’ve sought out – and found –  in this intensely peaceful &  exquisitely beautiful part of the world.