Wednesday, 2 October 2013

Off to Laos!

On our way to the border between Thailand and Laos we stopped at the White temple or Wat Rong Khun in Chiang Rai.

This is a modern development and pretty impressive, it was designed in 1997 and is being built through donations so they estimate it will be completed in 2070. The main temple building is white as the name suggests and unfinished, but still spectacular. You walk through some interesting sculptures on the way in - some very freaky, like the hands grabbing out and some more surreal such as the predator torso coming out of the ground.

As a very modern temple there are references to popular culture from all areas of the world - e.g. The mural inside has batman, superman, pirates of the Caribbean, Harry Potter and some Japanese cartoon creatures.

We made wishes in the wishing well and bought a charm that will be hung up forever in the temple.

Then we stayed overnight at Chang Khong to be the first in the queue to leave Thailand in the morning! The border with Laos is a boat border here, so you check out of Thailand, grab a boat and then check in to Laos the otherside. They are soon opening a bridge up the road so no longer will you have the same experience :(

After getting our Laos visas and Kip we headed to the shop for baguette fortification and then to the slow boat down the Mekong river. Usually a boat that size would have way more people on it so we had the luxury of spreading out and having a sleep.

The boat lady made us an exquisite lunch with a Thai style curry, chicken with ginger, veggies and rice - so food coma and another nap was in order afterwards!

As its the end of wet season the river is still quite high - lots of hidden rocks and sand banks which make the navigation difficult, the boat drivers have to memorise the river and stay in the same paths wet or dry season. The river actually looked like it was boiling around the rocks under the surface - like a thick stewed tea perhaps (very brown!). We could see that the water level was decreasing as the drop revealed large sand banks built up at the sides of the river - not very stable as I found when one partially collapsed whilst I had my big bag on - that gave the boat people a good laugh!

As we were going on the slow boat our journey would take 2 days, however if you needed to get somewhere fast then there was the option of a speed boat. These fast boats overtook us frequently and were a fifth of the size of our boat and everyone on board wore motorbike helmets (for the spray and the bugs and the protection in case they hit rocks!). I would not want to be stuck on one of those for 5 hours....

We stopped for the night at Pak Beng which was where we sampled our first beer Lao and saw a beautiful rainbow over the Mekong. We bought some exercise books and pencils for the school at our home stay the next day.

Whilst waiting for the boat the next day we saw the locals toting moles trussed up with string to look like handbags, except they were still alive and wriggling lots. Turns out these plump things were for eating on the BBQ, but they wouldn't let me take a photo :( 

That afternoon at the home stay at Ban Lad Khamoune we got to see the village school, the temple (closed as there are no monks living there at the moment), the traditional houses, the locals drying out and milling the rice (by hand! hard work!) and we also joined in a game of boules - gotta love the French colonial influence!

One thing that was particular to Laos is their very cheap rice whiskey - every village brews up this stuff and we got to taste it during the boules game (think they were trying to put us off) as well as later at the Baci ceremony.

The Baci ceremony they performed for us is a blessing and starts with the lead man chanting whilst you all hold the metal platter in the middle. When he is done with the chanting you take some of the food from the plate and eat it and do a shot of Lao Lao - next all the villagers take the cotton strings and tie them to each wrist one by one - blessing you and giving you good wishes as they do this. The ceremony made me feel really special - it was great to interact with the villagers in this way, but they weren't done with us yet!

The school had a dance troop practising for a local competition and whilst we thought we could just watch them dance, they were more interested in showing us how bad we were compared to them! It was fun to 'learn' the local dancing, which seemed to mainly be line dancing!

When all the dancing was done we gave the school teachers our gifts and crawled under our mosquito nets for the night. We were up early with the house (roosters and dogs won't let you sleep in!) and back on the boat by 7am.

Our final stop before arriving at Luang Prabang was Pak Ou cave - also filled with Buddhas, but not a patch on the one I saw in Myanmar!

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