Thursday, January 28, 2010

Winter Vacation-Laos Part III

If you missed it, check out part I and part II of our time in Laos.

Luang Prabang, in the northern part of Laos, was not only an incredibly beautiful town to pine away our days, but it also provided a good base for some explorations out and about in the countryside. The first was just a short walk over this toll bridge ( cost 20 cents to cross) to the village of Ban Xang Khong:

Bang Xang Khong is a traditional weavers village. Most of the women there make their living by raising silkworms, and then weaving the resulting silk into beautiful creations to take to the market in Luang Prabang:

Silkworm harvest the silk, the cocoons are first boiled, and then unraveled to produce a long single-strand of silk fiber:

The village is home to other traditional artisans as well, including mulberry paper-makers and wood carvers such as these guys. They produce beautiful Buddhist-inspired carvings using nothing but a hammer and a variety of chisels. We purchased a piece from them for about $3.00!

Another destination was about 35 kilometers out of town by tuk-tuk into the jungle to one of the most beautiful places I've ever been to: Kuang Si Waterfalls. Hiking up, you pass by many cascades crashing into gorgeous turquoise pools perfect for swimming in:

Once you get to the top, a dream world awaits (although people told us that since it was the dry season, the falls weren't nearly as majestic as usual...still beautiful to me):

As Laos was once hailed as the "Land of a Million Elephants," I was really hoping to see one during our time there. Through a sustainable tourism organization (Stay Another Day), we were led to an elephant sanctuary just outside of Luang Prabang that rescues elephants from disappearing jungles (due to Chinese outsourcing) and the logging industry to give them a good, healthy retirement.

During most of their lives, the elephants were made to work 18-hour days lifting loads that were at times too heavy for them. Many of them were drugged to prolong their work, beaten, and not given adequate nutrition. The elephant sanctuary provides them with healthy meals, full medical care, mahouts to help them adjust to their new home, and plenty of play-time in the jungle. The tourist rides (only 3-hours a day) provides the money to pay for all of it. So, here we are riding an elephant through the jungle:

Back in town, it's hard to get enough of Luang Prabang's cafes, markets, people, and Lao-French fusions...especially as the sun goes down:

And if you ever make it to Southeast Asia, your time there is definitely not complete if you haven't caught the sunset over the mighty, mighty Mekong River:

Two countries, three weeks, and five blog posts later and it's back to chilly Hokkaido for us! Of course, as I save the "story-telling" photos for this travel blog, you can check out the best pics from our trip to Cambodia and Laos over at my photo blog. Or, head to our flickr site for even more of our travel photography!

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Winter Vacation-Laos Part II

To read part I of our vacation in Laos, head here.

From Vang Vieng, we headed north through some incredible country side to the UNESCO World Heritage town of Luang Prabang. The formal royal Lao capital is a beautiful fusion of Lao-style architecture mixed with charming French influences from the colonial days (hence the whole town being listed as a World Heritage site). Luang Prabang is literally dotted with wats (Buddhist temples), old French trading houses, cafes, tree-lined riverbanks (it's on a peninsula in the Mekong River), and orange-clad monks. It was an amazing place to spend seven days:

Something that has become a tourist destination within itself is the town's huge Night Market. Ladies from the surrounding villages come into town just before sunset and set up their wares (silks, wood carvings, prints, clothing, spices, lanterns, etc.) all along and in the middle of the central main road. As it is one of the most laid-back markets in Asia, not to mention the fact that it has incredibly cheap prices and haggling opportunities, this place is a shopper's dream:

Luang Prabang is regarded by many as not only Laos's cultural hub, but its religious one as well. Because of this, it takes its traditions very of which is the early morning alms-collecting by the Buddhist monks. At around 6:00am everyday, the monks head out of their wats to collect their food (rice, fruit, etc.) for the day from devout townspeople. For the givers, this ritual bestows merits upon them and their household. I peeled myself up at 5:30am twice during our stay to witness this incredibly picturesque and meaningful tradition:

Imagine a hot, steamy, dark closet filled with talkative Lao ladies in sarongs and one tall, white Westerner, and you have an idea of what my herbal steam bath down at the local Red Cross was like. Best cultural experience ever? Perhaps. My skin has never felt so smooth and fresh, though, that's for sure:

Just like in Cambodia, Jacob and I decided to take a cooking course to learn how to prepare some local Lao dishes. We went through Tamarind restaurant (highly, HIGHLY recommended) and, once again, our class began with a tour through the local market to learn about and purchase our ingredients:

And then we were whisked away out into the country to our outdoor, riverside group kitchen...not bad, eh:

One of the most outstanding organizations we came across while in Luang Prabang was a place called Big Brother Mouse. As many children in Laos, especially in the villages, have never seen or read a book that's fun, BBM creates, publishes, and distributes Lao books for Lao readers. As a visitor, you can sponsor a book party in a village, buy books to support BBM, or even sponsor the publishing of a new book itself. We purchased a few books to pass out to kids in the villages we passed through, which was really cool. If you get a chance, check out BBM's website and what they're all about:

If you ever make your way to Luang Prabang, might I suggest renting a one-speed bicycle on one of your days, and riding around town as slowly as you can, taking in the sights, architecture, food smells, and people (including a little monk-hunting...they're everywhere!)...this was one of the best memories of my time there:

Tomorrow, the thrid and final part of our time in Laos, as well as the end of our winter vacation posts (yes, back to Japan for all of us)!