Monday, January 4, 2010

The Monks.

With sad faces we headed out from Vang Vieng on another “VIP” bus. This one had fans too and at least Drew and I had a seat. We had a number of people saying it was a long and uneventful bus ride, but we had an amazing time. The bus wound through some amazing mountains that towered above the road and even though we were a long way up they were even taller. We wound our way up through the mountains past small villages perched on the sides of the narrow road. Some of the ones we went past had signs saying World Vision Australia or something similar. The beautiful green scenery moved and flowed and then flowed down into the valley that holds Luang Prabang.

Luang Prabang is a small town that has a long history which is strongly intertwined with the Buddhist faith. We arrived at the bus station and caught a group tuk-tuk into town. We found ourselves dropped in what we thought was the middle of nowhere. The street stretched for as far as we could see and there was almost no one around. All of us who jumped out spent a few minutes standing around trying to figure out where to go from here. Finally we mainly split up and after spotting a restaurant that we knew was on the main street we headed to where there seemed to be a market setting up.

We wound our way through the stalls and made for some hotels we had found in the Lonely Planet that sounded really nice. Sadly when we got to each we found that the room rates were around twice what the Lonely Planet had suggested. We were then directed off the main street to some more places a street or two back. Two streets back was the road that ran along the river and this sounded like a nice place to spend a few days we got some room rates and in the end these were even more expensive than the main street. Getting up to the hundreds of Australian Dollars. We stepped one street back to the middle road and found a range of midrange hotels. In the end we picked one on a cross street that cost about $20US but was one of the nicest hotels we’d stayed in so far.

It was late already and we decided to head to bed after grabbing some food. The next morning we got up to see arguably the most amazing and lovely cultural experience so far. The procession of the Monks in Luang Prabang has been happening for many many hundreds of years and probably more than that. The monks from each of the different Temples (of which there are heaps) walk in single file through the streets and are given food such as rice and in some cases fruit. This is how the monks are fed and they only eat two meals a day. So at the crack of dawn Drew and I stumbled downstairs and out onto the street to see several long lines of orange clad monks make there way along several of the roads.

Along each of the roads was a row of local ladies and men, both old and young. They sat on ratan mats with their feet tucked under them and in a practical fashion gave small handfuls of rice to the hundreds of monks that passed by them each morning, They sat back and chatted while waiting for the next temple’s group of monks to make it down their part of the street. After watching such an amazing thing we stumbled back to bed and (thanks to finally getting a comfy bed) we slept in very late. After waking and having breakfast we rented two very pink push bikes and went out for a ride around the town.

We rode all over the main part of the old town and made out way down to a funky new bar that had made it into the Lonely Planet before it was even finished. Utopia lives up to it’s name providing comfortable pillows and small tables so that you can lounge around and eat and drink in peace. It also comes complete with beautiful tropical garden and spectacular view of the river and mountains beyond. We spent a few hours chillin’ before heading back to drop off our bikes. They were great fun, though after 30 mins riding them back uphill we remembered why we loved motorbikes.

We wondered around the old town, had some dinner and after looking through the market started looking at the day tours available. We ended up deciding on doing something that was related to elephants again. We chose a provider that looked the most upstanding and non-dodgy of all of them and parted with a tidy sum so we could spend the day learning to be Mahouts. A Mahout is a person that works with elephants and the tour would include getting on and off and commanding the elephant all by ourselves. Drew and I organised to do it the next day.

We woke up and watched the Monks again and wandered up to the main street to see if it was any different there. This is where we were shocked to see people getting up close to the Monks and taking photo’s right up in their faces. It was a shocking and saddening thing. We couldn’t believe that people had such little respect for the culture and the people. We walked back down to our quiet little back street and sat and watched the ladies give out the last of their rice. We grabbed some breakfast and then were picked up for our tour.

We were taken out to a lovely site where the elephants were standing around with a huge group of tourists waiting to ride them. It was a long way from getting our own elephant for the entire day which is what we were promised. We made the best of it though and using the commands we were taught got the elephant to lift it’s leg up and push us up onto it’s back. Then using the voice commands we got it to take us for a small walk. We then waited and chatted with the others in our group. There were a few people from England and Australia including a mother and daughter, the mother was 84 and had kept having people say ‘but she’s still got all her own teeth’ to her.

They were all lovely and we climbed back on the elephants and headed out for a short trek through the jungle and along the river. We headed back and had lunch and then bathed our elephants in the river before they headed out to the jungle to forage for food with their Mahouts. We then headed upriver to a beautiful waterfall via a small speed boat. We all went swimming though the water was icy. Then after drying off we headed back down the river, half way down we actually ran out of petrol and after a brief flurry of hand signals with a local, a man came over and filled the boat back up. We headed back into town and found some dinner before crashing into bed after a very eventful day.

We again slept in the next day and missed both the Monks and the morning. After booking our slow boat up river the next day we decided just to wander around and chill out for the day. We ate at a lovely restaurant on the riverside and through the old town again. After walking up to the temple on a high peak in the middle of town with all the other tourists, we watched the sunset then we made our way down into the markets. We lined up with a bunch of freaked out backpackers and it was soon realised that something was seriously wrong.

The ATM was down and after trying several others and even a cash out option at a shop that used the same bank we realised that the biggest bank in Laos was down. NO CASH in a country without eftpos!!! I had just bought a lovely bag that took a large chunk of the small amount of cash we had left on us. We had no food and ended up having to eat noodles on the side of the road for 20,000 which works out to be about .80cents. In the end Drew got a small amount out of one of our cards but not enough to do much more than settle the bills at the hotel and leave us with about 200,000 Kip. We decided to head to bed, lest we spend more of that last lot of cash.

We woke up early again and after wash my hands carefully I headed downstairs to participate in the Monks procession. There are ladies that you can buy some rice off to give to some Monks along with the local. After negotiating hard I knelt down and participated in the ancient tradition. I placed rice and fruit in three different groups of Monks baskets we had a cheap breakfast and made our way down to the boats counting our last 190,000 Kip…