Below My Feet

Elephant Ride - Luang Prabang

“I think the thing to do is to enjoy the ride while you’re on it.”

 – Johnny Depp

Today has served to consolidate the idea previously budding in my mind: Laos is my favourite destination from my selection that I’ve passed through on this trip through South East Asia. The beauty of the countryside is simply outstanding and the people here, in my opinion and from my experiences, are incredibly accommodating and generous.

A few of us were up before the sun this morning. We headed into the beautiful UNESCO sight of Luang Prabang town to watch the ‘giving of the alms’. This daily procession consists of the saffron-clad Buddhist monks of the local monasteries walking in their groups around the town to collect food offerings from the town’s people: the only meal they will eat all day.  It was a charming and humbling experience. Particularly touching was noticing the monks reverse the process in giving some of the food they’d received to the elderly beggars.

Giving of the alms Luang Prabang

Giving of the alms Luang Prabang

The next excursion I had my doubts about: an elephant trek with the ‘Mahout Eco Camp’.  My expectation of poorly treated animals and masses of tourists, however, was completely turned on its head. The elephants seemed at the height of health and very well loved. They’re left to roam free through the jungle throughout the day – only being called into the camp in the early morning for the rides. I asked if I could sit on the Elephants neck as opposed to a seat and was rewarded with having an elephant (called Tong Kun) all to myself! It was just me and four friends, on two other elephants – not the vast crowds I’d been dreading. I was taught by the trainer of Tong Kun how to instruct her, with ‘pai’ meaning ‘go’, for example, and then left to it! She was surprisingly obedient and, of course, utterly adorable.

Elephant Ride - Luang Prabang

Elephant Ride - Luang Prabang

Elephant Ride - Luang Prabang

 

 

 

Elephant Ride - Luang Prabang

Elephant Ride - Luang Prabang

 

 

With only one day in this beautiful town, we had no time to lose. Next stop: Kuang Si waterfalls. Despite the slight increase in the crowds, these ascending tiers of soft, milky turquoise water are not to be missed. There are also numerous areas where you can head in for a swim – lots of jumping off the waterfall opportunities to be had! The site also is home to a ‘sanctuary’ for Asiatic black bears and sun bears, rescued from highly inhumane conditions such as minuscule cages or forced ‘bear dancing’.  They’re now set up in the equivalent to a zoo-like habitation which, although still not ideal, is unarguably far preferable to their previous situations.

Kuang Si Waterfall

Kuang Si Waterfall

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Kuang Si Waterfall

We stopped at a little village on the way back into town. Naturally, we were bombarded by the local salemen...in this case, children.

We stopped at a little village on the way back into town. Naturally, we were bombarded by the local salesmen…in this case, children.

 

The final exertion for the day was climbing up the steps to the tallest peak in the town: Phu Si temple. Undoubtedly the best place to view the sunset over the Mekong River. Other delights not to be missed in this enchanting little town include the friendly and vibrant night market, full of irresistible locally crafted goods. Down a side branch of the market you can find the equivalent of a food quart, where a vegetarian all-you-can-eat Laotian buffet costs as little as a dollar. The smoothies/shakes available at stalls throughout the streets are also to die for. The perfect way to end a fantastic day.

Sunset Luang Prabang

Food at Luang Prabang night market

N.B. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LnKUD_OztRE

(This would have been my preferred song for the post but it just seemed a little too obvious!)

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The Importance Of Being Idle

Vang Vieng Rice Paddy, Laos

“It is important from time to time to slow down, to go away by yourself, and simply be.”
 – Eileen Caddy

I’ve become so infuriated by organised group activities and general ‘tourism’ that today I decided to break away from the gang. We arrived into Vang Vieng in the monsoon rains last night, so this morning I indulged in a lie in, which was absolutely glorious. Eventually emerging at around eleven, I donned my hiking boots for the first time since leaving home and strode out in a general ‘countryside’ direction.

Vang Vieng, being essentially a backpacker haven, is mostly known for tubing and kayaking tours. I don’t find either option remotely appealing, largely due to the fact that I’ve done both a number of times with far more freedom and with far fewer crowds. One particularly fond memory is of heading out across the French vineyards near Carcassonne, one summer, fully equipped with all of the inflatables from the pool. We floated down the river on assorted lilos and rubber rings, occasionally getting caught on the odd bit of shallow water, having a hilariously good time. In comparison, heading out with three tour guides, full instructions, routes mapped, proper equipment etc seems somewhat less spontaneous.

Exploring the local area, however, was incredibly rewarding. The general landscape out of town is absolutely breath-taking. Limestone ‘karsts’ are dotted about the place, very much like Ha Long Bay but with vividly green rice paddies replacing the ocean. You can wander out on the magical little paths through the paddies, with precarious bamboo bridges and rivers that you have to jump across (almost inevitably resulting in mud splattering all the way up your legs). Mesmerising arrays of butterflies and dragonflies are chasing and courting each other all around you and the soothing noise of the running water pouring out of bamboo structures creates the epitome of tranquillity.

Vang Vieng Rice Paddy, Laos

One of the more lacklustre of the bunch...

One of the more lacklustre of the bunch…

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Vang Vieng, Laos

After ambling down a dirt road for a while I decided to follow a very poorly translated signpost which pointed towards a cave “where you bath”. This took me down a tiny little path winding through banana plantations and lush wilderness which was actually a little disconcerting as there wasn’t a soul in sight and the tight turns resulted in very poor visibility. What’s more, the screeches of the crickets were quite alarming; they were exactly like that horrible sound you make when you scrape cutlery across an empty plate. Round one tight corner I spotted an incredibly bizarre snake – around a metre and a half long but so thin that it can’t have been more than a centimetre or two wide. It reared up, with some little creature in its mouth that was screaming its heart out, and darted quickly into the jungle. I’m not sure what it was exactly, but having looked online the closest I’ve come is a ‘painted bronzeback’. By this stage, my stomach was obstinately reminding me that it was lunchtime, so I decided to give up on the rather unnerving trail and head back to the open space!

A small herd of cattle, blocking the route back to the road - thankfully they were very docile!

A small herd of cattle, blocking the route back to the road – thankfully they were very docile!

Calf seeking shelter from the heat.

Calf seeking shelter from the heat.

Vang Vieng , Laos

Rambling about the place was such a fantastic opportunity to get a sneak peek into the genuine lives of the locals: families gathered in the dark of their bamboo huts around a pot of steamed rice, farmers tending the cattle and paddies, little kids splashing about in the mud whilst the fishermen work their traditional nets in the rivers, young boys proudly sporting their smart uniforms as they cycled to and from school. One boy, perched up on a tiny little branch at the top of a tree, like a sparrow, shouting out ‘sa bai dee’ (hello), jumped down and ran over to me to offer his half eaten guava, which was rather adorable. Such a shame that I was unable to communicate in any way – hello and thank-you are the extent of my Laos linguistic abilities, unsurprisingly!

Bridge across the fast-moving river.

Bridge across the fast-moving river.

Vang Vieng River

Laos fisherman

Vang Vieng road

 

Boy in tree Vang Vieng

I’m getting to grips with the local street food increasingly as time passes – the basic concept initially was just entirely foreign to me and nobody explained it, so it’s taken a while! You get the basic ‘canvas’ of the meal given to you, most often rice noodle soup, and then you’re able to choose all the flavours and seasoning yourself from the things available to you on the table – what I initially mistook for a salad is pot of fresh herbs: here it’s mint and a strange lemony tasting leaf that looks a little like basil. Then there are sauces – in this case an additional delicious thick peanut/chilli sauce, chillis, garlic, curry powder etc

The basic 'noodle soup' has morphed into varying forms in the different countries.  Here in Vang Vieng it came with a sort of dark gelatinous tofu, a side of fresh bean sprouts and topped with fried garlic.

The basic ‘noodle soup’ has morphed into varying forms in the different countries. Here in Vang Vieng it came with a sort of dark gelatinous tofu, a side of fresh bean sprouts and topped with fried garlic.

Rice Paddies, Vang Vieng, Laos

 

Coconut Skins

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Here’s evidence of the, almost obligatory, wearing of the cone hat as we were paddled downstream…

ImageWe headed out yesterday morning in the direction of the ‘mighty’ Mekong Delta. As far as ‘tourist-traps’ go, this was fairly high up on the list, but was, nevertheless, an interesting experience. We hopped on a motorboat and went first to see some of the local ‘coconut candy’ production – using the flesh of coconuts to make cream and then a sort of toffee which is actually rather good. The rate at which the team of ladies were wrapping each sweet was extraordinary.ImageWe then were herded into a cart pulled by an impossibly small horse and taken through the village to eat at a restaurant. The menu was pretty eccentric, including the delights of crocodile, snake and turtle.

I bumped into some Australian guys the day before who’d been to the restaurant and ordered snake. The staff brought out a live snake and proceeded to cut its head off with a pair of blunt scissors and pour its blood into shot glasses to drink. The still beating heart was placed on the table for them to watch as it slowly came to a standstill. This is all deadly serious– I had the pleasure of watching the video recording they’d taken of the whole gory scene. Obviously I stayed well clear of that dodgy side of the menu.

Another local speciality which we tried was their honey tea into which they mix the local honey with bee pollen and the juice of little Asian mandarins. (Of course the whole aim of the exercise was that we were then expected to buy a bottle or leave awkwardly, as ever.)

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Honey/pollen tea!

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They were also selling these bottles of some sort of coconut-based spirit with whole snakes inside – some with scorpions in their mouths! Disgusting!

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To break up the two hour return to Ho Chi Minh City we stopped off at our first Vietnamese temple. Although, to be frank, the inordinate number of Buddhist temples scattered across these countries is resulting in them already becoming a little repetitive!

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It seems that in an ironic way, the Dalai Lama would agree:

“This is my simple religion. There is no need for temples; no need for complicated philosophy. Our own brain, our own heart is our temple; the philosophy is kindness.”
 – Dalai Lama

That being said, they aren’t exactly an eyesore.

 

Palace Of Brine

Christmas Eve: we headed out to Moreton Island off the coast of Brisbane. The ‘luxury catamaran’ transfer to Tangalooma resort turned out to be a ferry full of Asians. We then proceeded to be herded around like livestock. Absolutely everything had a hidden price –the epitome of a ‘tourist-trap’. What little we managed to get out of the sand-boarding trip was fun though, granted, a face and mouth full of sand seemed inevitable but that was sort of part of the fun. We considered burying our sand boards and sneaking back later for a proper go but got distracted by the all-you-can-eat buffet. The snorkelling in the pile-up of shipwrecks off the island was absolutely incredible. We saw a couple of green turtles, all the usual suspects: parrot fish, box fish, clowns, angels etc. Melissa even spotted a golly wog/wobbegong/wolly gog wog (whatever the hell the thing was called, stupid bloody Australian names) hidden in one of the wrecks. A wobbegong is a large bottom feeding shark – they’re pretty stunning – see the photo below.

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The end to the day was the ‘feeding the wild dolphins’ experience. It was quite possibly the touristiest thing I’ve ever done, perhaps in close contention with the camel ride in Morocco. A large crown on the pier (predominantly Asian) watched us strip into our bikinis and be herded down into the water in pairs. We only actually got a minute or two in the water it was ridiculous. Don’t get me wrong, the actual feeding of the dolphins was fantastic but we only got one fish and weren’t allowed to touch them as apparently they don’t like it. I beg to differ; mine was rubbing up against my legs like a domestic cat and poking my hand with its nose, hoping for more fish. It was hilarious watching some of the other tourists having a go – the marine workers were having to swat away their hands, molly-coddling the hell out of everybody, of course, but you can sort of see why it was necessary!

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