Laos: Monks, Hmong, Bears & Kuang Si Waterfall

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At the top of Kuang Si falls: looking over the edge

We were up bright and early for the monks, aided by the local rooster as well as my phone alarm. Sure enough our friend at the front desk had procured a large straw basket of sticky rice, a bowl of packaged crackers and rice cakes and a straw mat for us to kneel on. We crossed the street in front of the hotel, laid out the mat and set out our offerings. Several yards down the road, the ladies running a nearby store laid out their own mat and offerings.

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Soon, we glimpsed the first monks, clad in bright orange robes, appear to our left at the far end of the road. They chanted as they walked single file, but stopped as they neared us, filing by in silence. Each carried a metal pot on their right hip, held by a rope holder slung over a shoulder and a bag on the opposite hip. As they passed us, each paused and removed the lid from his pot for us to add our offering. David pulled off small balls of sticky rice and deposited them in the bowl while I dropped a packet of crackers or rice cake in the same bowl.

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Morning alms-giving to the local monks
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There were approximately 70 monks in the group that filed by us.

The monks continued on to the ladies down the road who added their own sticky rice to the bowl. These offerings would be used to make the monks’ two daily meals…along with some vegetables one can only hope. It was a little disturbing to think of all the fingers that touched the mix of rice and other offerings in each bowl. The practice seemed less than sanitary, but they’ve been doing it a long time.

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The ladies next door giving alms

After the alms-giving, we had a little down time before our appointment with a tuk tuk driver arranged by My Dream to take us the hour drive to Zuang Si Waterfall for $32 for the day. We were surprised and pleased to find our private tuk tuk was a large “bus” style with a real small truck cab (rather than the 3-wheelers we’d used in Siem Reap) and a rear sporting 2 facing benches that could easily hold 10 people. After a quick discussion, we decided to do a stop in a Hmong village along the way and I sent David back for more money. Sadly–or maybe luckily–he didn’t realize what I had in mind and we were relatively poor for the day.

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David in our big tuk tuk

Barring the occasional massive pothole–which our driver adeptly slowed and crawled through or around, the ride was relatively smooth and the scenery fascinated us: farms and jungly forest, villages and schools, rice fields and water buffalo. The tuk tuk sped along making a comfortable breeze. With no seatbelts and an open back, we laughed that the tuk tuk brought happy memories of rare rides in the back of a pick-up truck. Thank God we didn’t have a wreck or we’d have been thrown out the back in a heartbeat.

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In a Hmong village, our driver pulled to a stop in front of an open stall where a woman spun cotton thread at a spinning wheel while a man beside her slid small tufts of cotton between the rollers of a wringer to remove the seeds. The welcomed us warmly, demonstrating how the machines work and gesturing me to sit at each and try my hand. Spinning is tricky, but I finally started to get the hang of it. Behind the stall, a loom was set up, a colorful cloth only just beginning to take life. The man brought a basket of flowers out, crushing them between his fingers to show me how that obtained the natural dye. Beautiful wall hangings, scarves and table runners hung around us. I’d have happily bought one or three, but we were short on cash. Oh well, most everything we own is in storage these days anyway and the last thing we need is house wares. Still…

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Hmong couple demonstrating removing the seeds from cotton (on left) and spinning
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Fluffing the cotton
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Flowers used to make dye
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Hmong girls

Right at an hour from when we left My Dream, our driver pulled to a stop in a dirt parking square surrounded by stalls selling dry goods and food. He gestured us to the entrance to the waterfall and agreed with our plan to stay 3 hours, including a lunch break.

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Market square outside Kuang Si Waterfall

We paid our 20,000 kip entry fee ($2.47 each) and headed towards the falls. Only 30 yards or so into the wooded path, we came to the Tat Kuang Si Bear Rescue Centre that works with http://www.freethebears.org/. White-chested Lao bears rambled, slept and played in tree-shaded open air pens filled with hammocks, climbing platforms, tire swings and toys. We spent time watching the bears and reading signs telling how local bears had been hunted to near extinction and captured to milk for bile used in Asian medicines. Other signs described each bear, his or her markings, characteristics and personalities. Visiting the centre is free, but they raise money by selling t-shirts a few other items.

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Beyond the bear sanctuary, we came to the first of many beautiful pools that lie at the lower steps of the falls. We changed into bathing suits in a path-side building then headed further up (pulling on shirts and shorts–for me–over our bathing suits out of respect for the modest culture). The main fall is a spectacular cascade, spilling down the mountain in steep stages. A footbridge crosses at the base where a fine spray cooled our skin and made photo-taking tricky as lenses quickly spotted. Wild poinsettias bloomed in the rich environment along with huge ficus trees, massive vines and other plants I couldn’t name. Although you can climb to the top of the falls on either side, we opted for the side closest to our original path after a quick examination of the lower climb revealed both ways up to be steep and possibly muddy, but the closest maybe less so.

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A lower pool at Tat Kuang Si
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Part of the lower falls
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Misty Kuang Si Waterfall
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Wild poinsettias thrive in the mists of the waterfall

The path took us away from the water at first through thick jungle and we quickly warmed as we moved away from the cooling effects of the falls and lower pools. Early defined steps gave way to dirt steppes that were only moderately-helpful bumps of dirt. At least it wasn’t muddy and our trusty Teva sandals handled the terrain fine as we scrambled up slopes, pulling on vines and using tree roots as footholds when available. Although we were alone much of the way, we passed a couple of young women who confirmed we were going the right way and hiked around a slower group of three going our way. Part way up and finally back closer to the main falls, we came to a steep flight of wooden stairs over which water cascaded down one side. We waded through enjoying the cool spring water spilling over our sandalled feet.

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The path to the top; not exactly steps here

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Reaching a level open clearing near the top, we came upon a sign indicating the top to our right and more swimming holes 3km to our left. Easy choice. We turned right and soon joined other hikers enjoying the pools at the top of the falls. It was a reasonably light crowd, though, and we peeled off our over clothes and waded in to a sun-dappled pool. We caught our breath as we first slipped into the cold spring water, then sighed in pleasure as we adjusted to the change. Little fish darted ahead of us as we waded to the waterfall’s edge, protected only by a bamboo rail and our own good sense. The view over the falls to the lush mountains beyond was breathtaking.

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One of the pools at the top of Kuang Si Waterfall
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View from the top of Kuang Si Waterfall

After enjoying the water for awhile, we hiked back down, intent on swimming in some of the beautiful pools at the base. I didn’t pull back on my shorts for the hike and was embarrassed when I came upon a monk at the base wearing only my bathing suit and a t-shirt. I lagged behind him while I fished a towel out of our bag and improvised a quick sarong.

We chose a beautiful pool with low waterfalls for another swim, using vines and roots on a bank to try and pull ourselves against the current toward a higher falls. The coolness was delightful and a Canadian woman with whom I struck up a conversation smiled at how great it was after being so hot all the time. We knew it was only a matter a time before we were sweating again, but for the moment it was heaven. Actually, we were so thoroughly cooled that David and I stayed comfortable through lunch at a stall by our tuk tuk and the breezy ride home.

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David in one of the lower pools

The heat only began to catch up with us as we neared Luang Prabang, a combination of lower elevation, city heat and the setting sun shining through the open rear of our tuk tuk evading our sheltering roof. Oh well, another shower took care of that and we were off for our second meal at My Dream. We just couldn’t rustle up the energy to do more…and why should we when it was so good?

The night’s dinner started with more Mekong river weeds (I really did love them!) and dried water buffalo meat for appetizers. The meat, as expected, was basically jerky, very lightly seasoned and served with crisp-fried lemon grass shreds, garlic and kafir lime leaves. Frying made the lemon grass and lime leaves crumbly and edible, letting their full flavors come through.

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Mekong river weeds and dried water buffalo meat

Main courses were red curry duck and laap kai, a local dish of minced chicken in a salad with herbs, garlic, chili served with sticky rice. We opted for a couple large Lao Beers, nestled in an ice bucket and poured out in small, cold doses. Perfect…and only $33.25, all in.

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Red curry duck and laap kai

 

Siem Reap to Luang Prabang, Laos [practical stuff]

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Roberto booked us another $6 taxi ride back to the Siem Reap airport for our evening flight to Luang Prabang, Laos. All went smoothly on exit, even though the passport control people were once again the crabbiest of any Cambodians we met. They did their job, just with an unfriendly attitude and lots of barked directions. Oh well.

Although the Siem Reap airport is relatively small, it’s modern and very nice. We wandered past lots of upscale duty free shops to find the Plaza Premium Club, a lounge covered by our Priority Pass “Select” memberships. Priority Pass “Select” is a perk of some of our premium cards that we’ve found to be almost useless in the U.S. (The “Select” version of this paid lounge membership is often excluded by American airline and airport lounges.), only moderately useful in Europe, but really great in Asia. Siem Reap was no exception.

We were quickly processed into the Plaza Premium Club, given two free drink vouchers and a free membership to the Plaza Premium Club effective outside the Priority Pass network. The lounge is elegant with attentive service and a nice buffet of Asian, Western and dessert items. There are newspapers in English as well as Asian languages, English-language television, lots of electrical outlets, private work carels, and free wi-fi.

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A sudden heavy downpour had us wondering if our flight would be delayed…and glad for the lounge access. When boarding was called on-time, our worries changed to whether we’d be drenched getting on the plane as it’s a walk-on tarmac. Happily, a bus was supplied, and the rain broke before we actually boarded, taking off only slightly late on our Vietnam Airlines flight.

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We arrived after dark at a much smaller airport in Luang Prabang, Laos. An escort walked us from the plane across the tarmac to where we rode an elevator to the 2nd floor immigration. Visa applications were on a table just to the left as we exited the elevator. Filling them out quickly, we beat 90% of our plane-mates to join the line for visas. Some snafu had things backed up for awhile, but once things were sorted out, the line moved very quickly. The visa is $35 for Americans, with the prices varying by country from $20 to $42. They prefer U.S. dollars. An extra $1 apiece bought a scan of our passport photos. Since we knew about this workaround, we didn’t bother bringing actual photos.

Luggage was waiting on the carrousel by the time we got through immigration. Just before we exited into the small main area of the airport, we bought a Lao SIM at a table set up by the door. We hadn’t planned to buy one for such a short stay, but at $9 for 4 days, we figured what the heck and picked one up, using , my phone to hotspot David when out of wi-fi range. Departing the arrival area (Customs forms were not collected.), we found the Taxi Service booth just a few steps away where we purchased a $7 coupon for a taxi to our hotel. All in all, a smooth and efficient entry.

 

Two-and-a-half months in Asia!

So we leave tomorrow on the trip that inspired me to start this blog: a 77-night ramble through Asia. This trip runs the gamut of lodging, transportation methods, and weather. It’s been a challenge to plan (and a challenge to pack for). We’re excited!

In a (large) nutshell, this trip includes:

  • Our first trans-Pacific cruise [the Aleutians, northern Japan, Yokohama/Tokyo]
  • 2 weeks in Japan [Tokyo, Kyoto, Hiroshima, Miyajima island (where we’ll stay in a ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn), Fukuoka]
  • a ferry to South Korea [Busan, a Buddhist temple stay, Seoul, the DMZ]
  • a cruise from Shanghai to Singapore [Okinawa, Hong Kong, Chan May/Hoi An and Phu My/Ho Chin Mihn City, Vietnam]
  • Singapore and Kuala Lumpur
  • Siem Reap, Cambodia, to see Angkor Wat
  • Luang Prabang, Laos
  • a 2-day open-boat trip up the Mekong with a stop at some to-be-determined-when-we-get-there guesthouse in tiny Pakbeng, Laos
  • 2.5 weeks in Thailand: Chiang Khong, Chiang Rai, Chiang Mai (a day with elephants and a Thai cooking school), Krabi (scuba diving the Phi Phi islands), the Bridge on the River Kwai at Kanchanaburi, Bangkok
  • a 1st class mega-flight on Korean Air from Bangkok to Seoul to Dallas (courtesy of airline miles and credit card points, a favorite game of ours)

I’ve tried to anticipate the trickier bits and done an incredible amount of research, but I know there will be things I overlooked or had no way of knowing. There are liable to be things that don’t pan out as we’d hoped (or maybe don’t even pan out at all). It’s the nature of travel, and also part of what makes it exciting and interesting. And besides, I don’t want to plan every moment anyway. I intend to focus on experiencing the trip rather than documenting it, but I’ll blog about it when I can. Hopefully, there will be fun as well as useful info to share…and, no doubt, our portion of clueless-fools-in-a-strange-land moments. Wish us luck!

[We’ll be incommunicado for most of the 16-day Pacific crossing, so other than a possible post in the Aleutians 5 days out, we’ll be in Japan before I do any posting. I know going off-grid is a weird way to start a blog, but that’s the plan.]

– Tamara

August 31, 2016