Cave of a Thousand Buddhas

About 25 kilometres north of Luang Prabang, a cave sits high up on a cliff face above the Mekong River.  Inside this cave are hundreds of statues of the Buddha placed here over the past several hundred years.  A concrete stairway leads up to this lower cave.  Another longer stairway climbs to the upper cave which is much deeper and nearly completely dark.  In the poor light, you can make out the shapes of the golden Buddhas within.

These caves have been a place of worship for many years.  Some of the older statues were made of wood and have obviously seen the passage of time.  Other more recent figurines range from dusty to shiny.  Candles flicker, incense fills the air.  For the many Buddhists in the region, this is a special place.

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Throughout our travels, we’ve seen many interesting and compelling spiritual sites.  We’ve talked with many people of a wide variety of faiths and spiritual experiences.  I am thankful that our kids have seen these and experienced the various ways in which both individuals and whole cultures throughout the world search for meaning.  I believe our children’s experiences on this trip will give them a better understanding of their own faith journeys and a more wholesome compassion and understanding for others in the world.

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Drinking snakes and scorpions

On one of our last days in Luang Prabang, we took a boat trip on the Mekong River, heading upstream.  Our family was joined by a young Israeli man.  The river must be fairly low at this point in the year since the boat captain had to navigate through eddies and around shallows, puttering from side to side in the kilometre wide river.  We chugged upstream for several hours.  On the way, we passed lush jungle, small fields of vegetables at the river’s edge, grazing buffalo, fishermen casting their round nets, people panning for something(?), and villages made of bamboo houses on stilts.  The river is flanked by hills, some at a distance and others at the riverside.  For the first few hours, these hills were hidden in mist.

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We stopped at a village where the villagers make Lao Lao, the local moonshine.  We scrambled up the bank to find a table of the interesting liquids.  As you can see in the pictures below, the bottles of wine and other alcohols are also host to snakes, scorpions, bear paws, worms, huge centipedes, and lizards.  I tried a few kinds but was blissfully unaware what animal had been marinating in these tasty brines.

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Thankfully, the villagers do more than make these interesting drinks.  They are also known for the textiles woven here.

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It was a cute village of artisans, craftsmen, and whatever you call people who make alcohol with animals in it.

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We headed back to the boat to continue upriver to a place called The Cave of a Thousand Buddhas.

Luang Prabang

Luang Prabang is a city of about 60,000 located on a peninsula formed by the confluence of the Mekong River and the much smaller Nam Kham River.  The Lonely Planet guidebook describes this place as “one of the most sophisticated places in Southeast Asia”, a place of “old-world romance”, “a travellers’ Shangri La”, and “a place you’ll stay longer than planned”.  From our experience, we heartily agree.

Like the rest of Laos, Luang Prabang is laidback and friendly.  The tourism industry here is well established, catering to all but the high end of luxury.  No large chain hotels or restaurants are here, thankfully.  Due to the influence of the French, who dominated this country for years, bakeries and restaurants offer fantastic cuisine, great breads, and pastries.  The night market is a bustling place, filled with interesting artwork and clothing.  Hawkers and touts are helpful and not aggressive.  That in itself is worth a lot.

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Buildings constructed by the French have been preserved and are now used as shops and cafes.

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While the number of pictures of food below might indicate that all we did in Luang Prabang was eat.  That’s not the case…almost.  The food everywhere was terrific!  Emily-Ann and Mary-Anna took a cooking course one evening and made fish soup, pork lark, and sticky rice.  In the first pictures below, we’re at our favourite bakery where Aaron had one of his favourites…pumpkin pie with whipped cream.  Mary-Anna and the girls enjoyed Nanaimo bars and great cakes.  I had a super cinnamon bun.

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Cafes overlooking the river were hard to resist.

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In the pics below, rice cakes and peppers dry in the sun.

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Fruit sellers would walk the street with their wares.  Lychees, rambutan, and other luscious fruits were always available.

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We had a fabulous meal in the market where you picked the raw ingredients from an assortment then gave it to the cook who threw it into a wok before serving it up to you.  Sort of like Mongos back at home but this one cost 10,000 kip per plate, about $1.20 for all you could eat.

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We ate street food frequently.  The first pictures below show a rice and banana concoction on a stick which we ate for breakfast.

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Luang Prabang is well known for its many Buddhist temples and schools.  Monks, particularly younger ones, are seen throughout the town.

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We saw small balls of rice placed into the crooks of a tree’s branches.  I suspect this has some religious symbolism.

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Luang Prabang is also home to many artists.  A wide variety of artwork is created here and sold in shops and the market.

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We spent Christmas eve and Christmas day in Luang Prabang.  As you can see in the first picture below, someone made a valiant attempt to create a Christmas tree. 

As part of our Christmas celebrations, we ate at Juanita’s Restaurant (the name of my oldest sister) and then stopped at another restaurant for a banana split (a Christmas meal tradition in the extended Doerksen family).  To be honest, I didn’t miss the uber-emphasis on Christmas and its nauseating commercialism that we can’t help but experience each year in Manitoba.  A quieter more selective Christmas enjoyed as a family was refreshing.

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Check out the cool tuk tuk below.  On December 27th, we took this tuk tuk to the airport from where we left Laos and flew to Hanoi, Vietnam.  Laos certainly has been one of our favourite countries of the trip.

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Last look at Don Khon

As I mentioned in an earlier post, we left Don Khon and went to Pakse from where we flew to Luang Prabang.  Here, however, are pictures I took early in the morning on the day we left Don Khon.  The new day’s sunlight filtered by cooking fires and the Mekong silently journeying southward.  The air was still.  The only sounds were the roosters announcing a new day.  Two monks walked silently by me.  They stopped and received alms from villagers who were waiting with their gifts in the roadway.  The monks chanted a blessing before continuing down the road.

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We left for Nakasang where we waited for our ride to Pakse.  This really is a special place.

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Laid back, listless, or something else

There’s something about the people in Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos that’s hard to put a finger on.  Something remarkably pleasant and attractive about their demeanour and their approach to life.  They are friendly, peaceful, and nothing seems to stress or faze them.  I’ve noticed that this ‘something’ has been more pronounced in Cambodians than Thais and then at least or more pronounced in Laos than in Cambodia.  On one hand, with the violent history Cambodia and Laos have experienced, you’d think there’d be an air of bitterness or a sense that they are owed something.  This doesn’t seem to be the case.  Due to this turbulent history, is their attitude towards life simply a learned resignation that they don’t have control over their destiny?  I haven’t seen or heard evidence of that either.  Why are they so serene?  Why do they smile and laugh so easily?  I tried to find some answers to this online, to see if others had commented on it.  I found the following Laos Travel Guide article about the national psyche of Laos.

It’s hard to think of any other country with a population as laid back as Laos.  Baw pen ny?ng (no problem) could be the national motto.  On the surface at least, nothing seems to faze the Lao and, especially if you’re arriving from neighbouring China or Vietnam, the national psyche is both enchanting and beguiling.  Of course, it’s not as simple as ‘people just smiling all the time because they’re happy’, as we heard one traveller describe it.  The Lao national character is a complex combination of culture, environment, and religion.

To a large degree “Lao-ness” is defined by Buddhism, specifically Theravada Buddhism, which emphasizes the cooling of the human passions.  Thus, strong emotions are a taboo in Lao society.  Kamma (karma), more than devotion, prayer or hard work, is believed to determine one’s lot in life, so the Lao tend not to get too worked up over the future.  It’s a trait often perceived by outsiders as a lack of ambition.

Lao commonly express the notion that “too much work is bad for your brain’ and they often say they feel sorry for people who ‘think too much”.  Education in general isn’t highly valued, although this attitude is changing with modernization and greater access to opportunities beyond Laos’s borders.  Avoiding any undue psychological stress, however, remains a cultural norm.  From the typical Lao perspective, unless an activity – whether work or play – contains an element múan (fun), it will probably lead to stress.

The contrast between the Lao and the Vietnamese is an example of how the Annamite Chain has served as a cultural fault line dividing Indic and Sinitic zones of influence.  The French summed it up as: “The Vietnamese plant rice, the Cambodians watch it grow, and the Lao listen to it grow.”  And while this saying wasn’t meant as a compliment, a good number of French colonialists found the Lao way too seductive to resist, and stayed on.

There certainly is something to learn from this perspective.  While I don’t think this article gets at all of what I’ve observed in these people, it does point out that their culture, environment, and religion shape this nation’s psyche.  Spending time with people who view life and live life differently in this way is reason for pause and reflection.

An enduring legacy

In an earlier post about Cambodia, I mentioned the aerial bombing the U.S. had done in that country during the Secret War, killing many civilians.  The Lonely Planet guidebook points out that Laos too was hit hard by the United States during that same war. 

“Between 1964 and 1973, the USA conducted one of the largest sustained aerial bombardments in history, flying 580,344 missions over Laos and dropping 2,000,000 tons of bombs, costing $2.2 million a day.  Around 30% of the bombs dropped on Laos failed to detonate, leaving the country littered with unexploded ordinance.

For people all over eastern Laos, living with this appalling legacy has become an intrinsic part of daily life.  Since the British Mines Advisory Group began clearance work in 1994, only a tiny percentage of the quarter of a million pieces has been removed.  At the current rate of clearance it will take more than 100 years to make the country safe.”

In our developed world, clean up of something as comparably benign as an oil spill is given national priority and massive funding in order to protect an ecosystem and economy.  To have 250,000 unexploded bombs strewn about by a developed nation throughout a developing country for 45 years, waiting silently to spell death for an unwary populous…well, it leaves me scratching my head.  How do you explain that to the child whose parent died in an explosion from a bomb dropped there 40 years before the child was born?  Now that’s some legacy.

Falang in the 4000 Islands of Laos

Just to give a taste of some of the travellers we meet, here are a few we met during our time in the 4000 Islands area of southern Laos.  Since Laos used to be a French colony, we found many people travelling here from that country.  The word ‘falang’ means ‘foreigner’ in Lao.

1. A man from Brittany in France; about 60 years old; a former financier for Moodys and Barclays; former head of France’s Cultural Department for the province of Brittany; he said, with a chuckle, that Brittany is its own country within France; Bretons, he explained, are a Celtic people like the Irish and Scots; Why is he traveling? His answer, “Why not?”

2. Another man from France; about 65 years old; an engineer by training; he spent most of his career in Gabon; Why is he traveling? His answer is that he misses the equatorial jungles he spent so much time in.

3. A woman from Britain; about 30 years old; a teacher by training; sheDSCN3116 (Medium) taught in Zimbabwe for 2 years; she learned Swahili; she has a tattoo in the Swahili language on her neck which means “Everywhere you go you are protected”; she says she needs to chill before getting back into the rat race; she says that Laos and the 4000 Islands area in particular are bringing the all good out of her; she is liking who she is becoming as result of her time to think and relax; she has started yoga again which she also credits with her ability to relax and focus; yes, she gave me permission to take this picture of her tattoo Smile

4. A young family from France; they live in Vientiane where the mother teaches and the father works for an NGO; the maternal grandmother has joined them for this vacation; they had worked in Harare until recently where she was teacher and he worked for an NGO; they believe the experience their children are getting in various cultures is invaluable; I saw their youngest about 4 years old playing with a young child from the village

5. Another French man; about 65 years of age; my main conversation with him was about his concern that no one talks to each other anymore now that many people have electronic screens in front of their faces; he wonders what really is said and learned via those electronic devices

6. Another Breton; about 30 years of age; met him on our drive to Pakse; he is an engineer by training and worked for a company who designs glow plugs; he is travelling in a loop through Asia for an undetermined length of time; this trip will take him to Russia, China, southeast Asia, India, Pakistan, Iran, and then he’s not sure); he wants to and plans to be a farmer in Brittany; the farm, he says, doesn’t have to be profitable; his aim and priority is to live a satisfying and happy life

7. A British man; about 30 years old; once lived in Gainsborough Saskatchewan just west of Melita Manitoba; his family emigrated from Israel; he now lives in England; he carries passports from Israel, Canada, and Great Britain; he has been working in China for several years but needed a break so he is traveling in southeast Asia; he has visited much of southern Asia

This is a brief look into some travellers we’ve met.  I love talking with people to find out what motivates them, who they are, and why.  Everyone has an interesting story.

Longtail, songthaews, and a turboprop

A songthaew is an adapted truck that is used as a share taxi.  It has frame and roof over the truck box with two benches on either side of the box and one down the middle.  Luggage is put onto the roof.  It was in one of these vehicles that we made the 2 hour bouncy journey north from Nakasong to Pakse.  We were packed pretty tightly together with about 15 others and 1 chicken.  What a hoot!

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Once in the city of Pakse, we transferred our stuff to a smaller songthaew.  We took this downtown where we got something to eat before heading off to the airport.

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I had a good chuckle at the ‘In’ and ‘Out’ signs at the airport.  I also thought that the name of the ‘Departure Immigration’ office seems rather counter-intuitive.

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We took a Lao Airlines turboprop for a 90 minute flight to the northern Laos city of Luang Prabang.  This city is fairly near the borders with China and Burma.

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The owners at our hotel in Luang Prabang said they’d pick us up from the airport.  So, with anticipation, we walked out of the airport looking for someone holding up a sign with our name on it.  You know, like the bigwigs and movie stars get at airports.  None of the dozen or so signs being held up had our names on it.  Then, better late than never, a man showed up with a sign that said, “Mr. Garth”.  We were thrilled!  We followed the man to…perhaps a limo or maybe a new van like some other people were getting picked up in?  Well, we walked past the new shiny vehicles and headed a little way down the road until we left the pavement and streetlights.  There, we came to our ride.  You guessed it, another songthaew!  In the dark, we threw in our luggage and scrambled into the back of the truck.

On our way to the hotel, we had great fun laughing at our apparent lack of star power as evidenced by the not-so-fancy ride our hotel gave us.  What would really have finished off the evening on that note was if, when we got to the hotel, a sign would say that there was ‘no room in the inn’.  After all, it was Christmas eve.

It’s not everyday that one’s transportation ranges from a long-tail wooden canoe to two sizes of open-air songthaews, to a turboprop airplane, and then is finished off with another songthaew.  Hey, at least we had no mechanical troubles or breakdowns today.  We all had great fun!

Falls on the Mekong

Together with two men from France and the Laotian boatman, we took a trip up the Mekong River to an impressive set of falls.  I’m amazed how quickly the Mekong flows here and was very thankful to have an older, experienced Lao man controlling the narrow boat we were in.  Along the way, he negotiated our way through tiny islands and turbulent water.

Our first clue that the falls were ahead was the spray suspended in the air above them.  As we drew nearer, we veered towards a small island from which we could more safely see the falls.  The man who took us here is the only one who brings people to these falls by boat.  Others will get there via roads.  As a result, few of the paths we used were well travelled so we had to climb fallen logs and disentangle ourselves from jungle vines as we made our way through the jungle.

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Our second stop saw us walk about a kilometre through the jungle to a small gorge which we had to cross using a rather rickety platform and pulley system.

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Once we made it to the other side, we made our way along the small gorge, past elaborate bamboo fish ‘ladders’, to get to the base of the falls.  Here we waded across a pool to get closer to the falls.  Our boatman cooked up some fish on an open fire.

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It started pouring rain as we set off back along the gorge, across the pulley platform, and down the trail to the boat.  We soon were soaked.  Thankfully, the rain let up as we made our way back up the Mekong to our bungalows on Don Khon.

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The rugged and raw natural beauty of the Mekong River is breathtaking.  It was simply mesmerizing to sit at water level in a narrow wooden canoe, feeling the pulse and tumult of the water beneath and around me.  Another adventure in paradise.