A Travellerspoint blog


Kouang Si Waterfall and Muang Ngoi

Note that this was first posted out of order and should be listed prior to Xiamen. On the main chapter page it has been corrected, but that is why subscribers received it after the Xiamen post.

After a week, we were ready for an day triip to Kouang Si waterfall. We set off on a cool, misty morning with a bunch of young folks and our friend Terry from Nicaragua. We all piled into a sangtheaw to get there, about an hours ride away . Because it was Sunday the place was full of Lao families and monks on what I assume was their day off. There were a series of turquoise pools that reminded me very much of Semuc Champey inGuatemala, but the water was a bit colder. We spent the afternoon lounging about and swimming.


The piece de resistance was climbing up to the top of the falls.


We noticed that there was another pool, high on the cliff. To get there we had to descend slightly and then climb up another steep, but small waterfall, A bit hairy, but luckily the rocks were not at all slippery, so you could walk right up where the water was cascading down. It was a magical place with small and medium falls plunging down all around and very lush tropical vegetation. In the middle there was a large pool with. yes, a rope swing to jump into the deepest part. It's hard to convey the beauty of the place, and unfortunately I did not take the camera for fear of dropping it on the way up.

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After a few more days, we were ready to take a longer excursion further into the mountains, first to Muang Kuai by minibus, and then an hour boat ride through rapids on the Nam Mu River to Muang Ngoi. It was a quaint village with thatched roofs and bamboo houses, but it was not undiscovered. No matter, the cows, chickens, water buffaloes, and people, were all friendly. As soon as we got there, we ran into our young friends from the Kouang Si waterfall trip who whipped out a case of BeerLao and handed us a cold one upon arrival. They were all sitting around a fire trying to keep warm, because unfortunately the weather had taken a turn for the worse. It was unusually cold, and overcast.

The Gang's All Here

Author with Local Woman

Streets of Muang Ngoi

We went on a hike through fields


to a couple of smaller villages and some caves. Lots of bats and these were the first caves that I have ever been in where the air was warmer inside than outside. It felt a little like a sauna. These villages were relatively untrammeled, but not that many people were about, perhaps because of the cold.


Even the water buffalo huddled together to stay warm.


We returned to Muang Ngoi the same day and again sat around a fire while the locals went about their business.

Making Hooch



The next day, the weather was even worse, drizzling and colder, perhaps upper 40's F, so we decided to return to the comforts of Luang Prabang. After an hour back downriver though, we were unable to get a minibus, and so had to take a sangtheaw , basically an open pick-up truck with small uncomfortable seats. We shivered for the entire bone jarring ride. Needless to say, we had left our warmest clothes in Bangkok, never thinking we would need them in tropical Southeast Asia.

Posted by jonshapiro 13:38 Archived in Laos Comments (2)

Luang Prabang, Laos

No longer the sleepy provincial capital it was just a few years ago, this small city has come of age with expresso bars, upscale restaurants and lodging. Despite that, it retains much of its charm with quaint alleys and somewhat dilapidated old French mansions. There are many wats, and young monks, as Luang Prabang is the center of Buddhist training for all of Laos. They are often eager to engage in conversation to practice their limited English.



Daily ritual of monks with begging bowls

Every evening the monks chant in the wats and you can hear them all over town as you walk by. It sounds vaguely familiar to us, maybe because of the time we have spent at other Buddhist monasteries. Sometimes we would join them for 20 minutes or so.


And then go off to a Mekong riverside cafe to enjoy a Beer Lao, while watching the sun go down.


The food is simply incredible. For about $10 US the two of us can eat like royalty. My cooking class. which I took at our favorite restaurant, Three Elephants, was a gastronomic delight. We spent the better part of a day making several Lao curries and salads from scratch, and then we got to invite our spouses or traveling companions to join us for the feast.

Three Elephants

While I took my class Nanette had what she called her hair adventure. . She decided it was time to get her hair colored and figured it would be easy to just repeat her natural brown color without speaking any Lao. At the hair salon she pointed to one of the hairdressers and tried to tell her that she wanted the same color. Midway through the process she realized the color was going to be a cross between red, pink and orange. She started to feel scared that she would come out looking like a clown, just in time to teach English in China in two weeks. She tried to explain that there was a serious problem. Although they didn't understand her words , they could see from her body language and the hair color that something was amiss. After washing and drying another attempt was made to change the color to a dark brown. The process took two hours. Now the roots look bright red in the sun and dark brown on the surface.

As Nanette says, " It's a little psychedelic." A few days later it didn't look too shabby, but it was whole lot straighter.


On a rather different note, we have met a number of interesting people here, including some Americans. Yesterday, we ran into a woman who runs a hotel in Granada, Nicaragua, who invited us and about 100 other people to have Thanksgiving with her when we were there two years ago. See the entry on Granada, Nicaragua for more details. How incredible to just run into her in the street here. She has been all over the world, including Iraq and Afganistan, working on various aid missions for different NGO's. Then there's Basil, who's having a foot message next to me, a doc and a philanthropist with his brothers money, working in a hospital in Siem Reap . Ilene, an Irish woman close to 70, has worked for 20 years with US soldiers who have AIDS. She comes to Thailand and Laos every year for 3 or 4 months on her own, speaks some Thai, and has also volunteered in some of the hill tribe villages north of Chang Mei.

Not everyone is helping others. Last night we had dinner with Jim, who we also just met on the street.

Main Street

He's about our age, and although he is relatively sedentary now, for 23 years he constantly traveled throughout the States, Mexico and Canada in his van. At some point he reconciled with his estranged, but wealthy mother, and when she died she left him some money. He bought land in Santa Fe and converted his van into a permanent home. Hardly a hippie, he is a Cornell and RISD dropout, who now gives talks on the radio about the stock market and the devaluation of the US dollar. A very bright, if eccentric misfit.

Another place to meet people is the outdoor vegetarian buffet near the nightly craft market.

Setting Up for the Market
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You load up your plate with noodles and veggies for about 75 cents and sit on benches at a long table. Next to you might be someone local, a young euro-traveler, or someone with a doctorate in anthropology or physics. It's quite a social scene.

I can't say enough about the Lao people and their extraordinary grace, joy in living and generosity. As I was typing this, one of the women who works in our guest house was sitting down to eat fish soup with her daughter. She asked me if I wanted to share her meal with her. I can't think of too many other places where this might happen. The Lao feel that to eat with others is always a happy occasion. They are very social and are often laughing, cracking jokes, and teasing each other in a good natured way. They remind me very much of the Sherpas in Nepal and the Ladakis in India. I can't help thinking that Buddhism, which is so much a part of daily life here, has infused the culture with its values of acceptance and serenity.

The contrast between the government and the people is extreme. We talked with a well known Laotian artist who divides his time between Canada, where he is now a citizen, and Luang Prabang. He told us about the massive corruption, and how, in the past, the Pathet Lao would often confiscate property, especially of Laotians who lived abroad. There have also been many disappearances of anyone who has challenged the ruling junta. Right now things are modestly better, but the government does little to help the average person, and there is still, as he puts it, a climate of fear. We knew most of this, but to hear it from someone who has lived through it is something else. The interesting thing is, you don't really get a sense of heavy police or military presence.

It's also hard to imagine that Nixon dropped more ordinance on Laos then was used in all of WW2 on a per capita basis. Most of this was not around Luang Prabang, but near the Cambodian and Thai borders.


Posted by jonshapiro 07:28 Archived in Laos Tagged cities_postcards Comments (3)

Wat Pho and The Journey Home

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On the day before my departure, Elona and I took a short excursion to Wat Pho, an Angkor temple. It is somewhat reminiscent of Angkor Wat,
though on a much smaller scale. What makes the place special is the location up in the hills, next to a vaguely phallic looking mountain that is worhipped as a lingham.

It doesn't Look Very Phallic here.

The old temple is slowly crumbling, although attempts are being made to prop it up and prevent further damage.



Looking down into the valley below, the view is expansive.


As in so many other temples, there are women making offerings to the Buddha which they sell for a few cents to tourists and locals.


My favorite part however, was this rock.


It took a while to get down all of the stairs.


On the way back to Pakse, in response to a question from Elona, I got started talking about how I work as a therapist, the notion of taking charge of your own Self-esteem, as well as my own relationship to my mother, who I felt never gave me much approval. This conversation took place in our taxi, which was a small pick-up truck with benches in the back. As I was discussing all this, rather incongruously given the setting and the heat, our driver suddenly gave me a thumbs up, as if he agreed with what I just said. His English was pretty good, but it seemed unlikely that he had heard and understood the conversation. When we got back to town, I asked him about it, and he said yes, he did understand, and added "very good," indicating his agreement once again. I wondered about his own family but didn't ask. How incredible that he could hear, given the wind in the back of the truck, and that he would actually listen and understand, given our cultural,language, and educational differences. Obviously these differences didn't mean what I had assumed.

The next day when I started the three day journey home, I thought it would be straight forward, despite the Bangkok riots and the ash cloud over Europe. However, the local travel company that sold me a bus ticket to Ubon Ratachani, across the Thai border, had put the wrong date on it. When I showed up at the station, I was told the bus was full and that my ticket was no good. I more or less forced myself on despite being told this, saying I would stand if necessary. I had a flight to catch the next day in Ubon, and this was the last bus out. As I stood in the aisle, there was a major argument between a Thai and a French couple, who refused to give up their apparently double booked seats. The French did a lot of cursing and yelling, and refused to move, despite the fact that stools were placed for them in the aisle. The Thai's were equally intransigent, though they did not lose their cool. There was a stand off for about a half hour, while the driver tried to sort it out. In all the hubbub, my own predicament was ignored. Finally, a different Western couple voluntarily got up and sat in the aisle, and the bus pulled away with me on it. In the end, there was one empty seat near me which I took.

Another take on the issue of cultural differences.

The next day I caught my flight to Bangkok without a problem, and then a taxi to my favorite hotel near the airport, riots notwithstanding. Early the next morning I left for the last 15 hour flight home.

Posted by jonshapiro 10:28 Archived in Laos Tagged buildings_postcards Comments (2)

Don Dhet and the Four Thousand Islands

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It took Elona, my Israeli traveling companion and I, about three hours on the bus/boat ride to get to Don Khong, the biggest of the Four Thousand Islands. We stayed there one night, but when it became apparent that there was nowhere to swim and little to do, we moved to the southern and less crowded part of Don Dhet, another nearby island. We had our boatman take us to the River Garden , in what turned out to be a basic guest house close to the Mekong.


It was highly touted by the Lonely Planet, undeservedly so, as the rooms were not particularly clean and I spent most of the night dodging the spiky bed springs. Even more disappointing, we found that there really weren't good places to swim here either. We were were told that the river was very low this year, which might help to explain the many places where garbage was visible at the waterline.


The heat was OVERPOWERING, as it was the hottest time of year, close to or over 100F on most afternoons. For most of the day it was impossible to do much of anything except stay in the shade and sweat. Walking and biking were next to impossible, and even when I got into the water, the bathtub-like temperature and the burning sun made it less than refreshing.


We did manage to walk across the old French bridge connecting Don Dhet to ]Don Khon, , to see the water falls, half an hour away, by leaving at 7 AM before the sun was too high.


The falls, a series of them, are carved out of black volcanic rock and even at low water levels they are impressive. There is a small beach, blissfully clean, and I went for a quick dip.


Alas, no shade, so we didn't linger. The falls are already being developed as a tourist attraction, and normally admission is charged to see them, but because of the hour no one was there to collect.

At our guest house there was a lot of hype about the river dolphins at the end of [Don Khong, but when we spoke to someone who had taken the expensive boat ride to see them, he said they were few in number and too far away to really get a good look. We passed.

After suffering in the heat for two days we opted for a more expensive bungalow, Pan's, across the bridge on Don Khon. Nothing fancy, but the AC did work. The downside is that there were many squawking roosters. We managed to avoid the big parties for Lao New Year, though nearby there were booming speakers grinding out bad Lao pop music more or less constantly. Luckily they stopped fairly early at night.

Main Street on Don Khon

Before I came here. I pictured a collection of small islands with bungalows on stilts in a wide and pristine estuary, good swimming and fishing everywhere. Instead there are a few islands with a variety of bungalows, mostly overpriced, some on the river but many not, and there is already ramshackle over- development in several places. The pictures you see here do not show most of that.

There are other islands, but most are tiny and inhospitable, and in the main, uninhabited. Development of both cheap and more upscale accommodations is proceeding at a furious rate. Though the locals are still friendly, the days when Four Thousand Islands was a collection of simple fishing huts are long gone. It is hard to see what the fuss is all about. Granted, this was not the time of year to come here. November through February is much better, but with the poor swimming and the generally unexceptional landscape, I can't understand the rave reviews.

After a night at Pan's, I was more than ready to leave and return to Pakse

Posted by jonshapiro 11:41 Archived in Laos Tagged postcards Comments (2)

Hill Tribes on the Bolaven Plateau, Laos

A Pictorial Essay

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With negotiating assistance from Anselm, we arranged a day long tour of some of the tribal villages on the plateau with Ba, our guest house host and owner. His brother accompanied us in his pick up truck. Ba was surprised by the improvements made to Nong Khan Don Sa in the two years since he had last been there. Now there was full time electricity and the road was much improved. Nong was a sizable place of perhaps a few hundred people.

Outside of Village

Although there lives were simple, they had more than enough to eat because the price of coffee, their principal crop, had increased four fold in the past few years. Previously they had been dependent on a small wooden generator located on a nearby waterfall, now in disrepair because they no longer needed it. There was also a large water driven contraption with a ladle that once filled with water, then knocked into a wooden bowl containing rice, and separating it from the hull. This was still very much in use.


They also had an old tractor and a gas powered machine to shuck the coffee beans. In addition to making some cash with their coffee crop, the women weave elaborate cotton cloth with beaded patterns, some of which take months to complete. I felt I should buy something, but as we had purchased something similar in Indonesia, I did not. There was no pressure.


The fields were fenced and obviously well cared for.


The children, some curious, others frightened of us, were either naked or dressed in western style clothing.



This particular village had not yet seen many tourists. No one asked for money or other gifts, and generally everyone seemed friendly, perhaps because they knew Ba. Nearby we could see a cell tower and satellite dishes for TV, and yet the villagers remain animists still holding to many of their ancient beliefs. Most smiled sweetly and were pleased to allow me to photograph them, both children and adults.

Several walked around with large bamboo bongs which they used to smoke tobacco.



It was hard to stop taking pictures.




We had a brief meeting with the village elder. who told us how happy he was to see farangs visit his village and hoped that our future travels would be good, all of this translated by Ba. I replied by telling him that the Lao people are my favorite in all the world, generous and loving, and he seemed really pleased to hear this.

We stopped at a nearby market town for lunch, which was quite good.



And then continued on to another village, Kok Phuong Tha. This place was on a main road and the people were obviously much more used to tourists, but friendly nonetheless. We were greeted by a chorus of children squealing with delight and jostling with one another to get into the pictures that I couldn't take fast enough.




Girls Playing with Elona

Very young children were also smoking large bongs with tobacco.


When I asked about this Ba said that they told him that tobacco is good for you and good for the spirits all around as well. I guess the spirits like to smoke. There were piglets and puppies along with naked and dirty children, some with swollen bellies.



They grow tobacco in this village, which has been here 30 or 40 years, after a few families were relocated from an even more remote location to a place with richer soil.

Again the strange juxtaposition of old and new. Men were busy trying to construct a new house with a power saw and sander that they barely knew how to use. We saw at least one cell phone and I'm sure there were more, and yet the only medicine was doled out by the village shaman. School did not seem a high priority, though there was a new school house supposedly built with money donated from the tour groups out of Pakse. We spent over an hour in the village walking and talking to the people , but when one of the tours arrived , they barely stepped foot in town and only stopped for a few minutes to look at the new building.

Change is clearly coming fast which as always will bring good and bad. The road is newly paved and widened. Perhaps children will stop smoking tobacco, but they and their parents will no doubt want more of the same material goods that the rest of us have. For now, as in the first village, they continue to hold to their animist beliefs, and they sacrifice a buffalo upon a death or marriage. They still continue to construct their own coffins prior to age 30. though perhaps they will use power saws to do so in a few years. Upon their death, maybe not much more than 45 or 50?, they are kept in their coffins for a period of time and then cremated.

I felt privileged, as I often do, to witness the ancient ways of village life as most of it may disappear in 10 or 20 years. At the same time it seems somehow voyeuristic to do so, and even a bit demeaning to the people, though most appeared to welcome our presence. Ba said there is talk of charging tourists a few dollars to walk through the village in the future. Understandable, and yet is seems to fly in the face of their own generous culture and will further make them into a commodity. Once this is the case, they will make sure to bring out their bongs and native dress to put on a good show.

Tat lo too, has already changed a lot. Ba said that farmers are suffering as their land is sold off to make way for hotels and tourist amenities. He will probably do okay with a small guest house and restaurant though others may actually be worse off than they were in the past. When I asked how TV has changed his life he told me that when he first saw it 10 years ago, he too wanted all of the things that he saw. Before that, he only thought about having a simple life with enough food. Now he wants more for his family. Hard to blame him for that, and yet....

Modern Villagers with Cell Phone

Posted by jonshapiro 11:34 Archived in Laos Comments (9)

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