Of monks and Mirabelle

Day 72
Hanoi, Vietnam

A little after 5:30 a.m. this morning, the Tak Bat procession started. Without fail, as dawn breaks each day, the monks of Luang Prabang arrive by the hundreds from the town’s surrounding Buddhist temples to collect their daily alms. There are lines of big monks and “mini-monks” (not my expression) as they wait to receive sticky rice and small cakes — their food for the day.

In their burnt-sienna robes, the monks yield to traffic yet don’t say a word. They are focused and they are solemn. Soon the town is awash in color, complementing the quickly rising sun. And, just as quickly as they are here, they are gone.

This is a part of life in Luang Prabang. While it has become something of a tourist attraction, today was blissfully free of those interfering in a religious ceremony for a new Facebook profile photo. The government of the People’s Democratic Republic of Laos has also taken steps to protect this. A memo in our hotel room says: “Observe the ritual in silence, and contribute an offering only if it is meaningful for you and you can do so in a respectful manner.”

We got back to the hotel, rested for a couple of hours and then met Phet, our tuk-tuk driver from yesterday. He brought us to the town of Ban Ean, about 30 minutes away, where we boarded a boat headed down the Nam Khan. Yesterday, our captain belched a BeerLao burp before firing up his rickety engine. Today, our captain couldn’t even get the engine to start. Guess drunk is better than incompetent. Luckily, our destination was downstream, so we had a leisurely float in the baking sun.

After a short walk, we arrived at Tad Sae waterfall, a beautiful and secluded spot, with clear water gushing over many levels of limestone. There, we met Mirabelle, our beast of burden who would be showing us around.

The ride was, well, slow. It was pretty cool to sit in a basket on top of a gigantic elephant in the middle of the jungle. But, at the same time, Mirabelle didn’t seem too happy with her job — after a couple of minutes, we really just wanted to set her free. The guys who run the park would’ve been heated if we pulled a Prison Break, so we could only feed her some pineapple plants and wish her well.

Phet brought us back along the bumpy road to the Apsara, where we showered and rested up. With no other planes at the Luang Prabang airport, our Lao Airlines (motto: “You’re safe with us”) flight to Hanoi was delayed about 90 minutes due to a “technical problem.” We gladly allowed the maintenance men to work their magic on our tiny propeller while playing several super competitive hands of Chinese Uno! and drinking our final BeerLaos. For the record, Derek romped me, 4 – 1. The series is to be continued.

After touching down in the People’s Republic of Vietnam at around 7 p.m., a transfer brought us to the city’s Old Quarter and our hotel, the Hanoi Elegance 2, where we were cheerfully reunited with Burt and Andy. This warranted opening our Lao whiskey wine for a toast.

Burt had gotten rid of his Rangers playoff beard from Dubrovnik and Andy had shed some of his facial hair from Siem Reap. I’ve debated growing a beard, but after watching all those who have furiously scratch themselves all day, am now firmly against it.

We took a cab through this wild city, which at times felt like one big motorbike race. There are four million people in the capital of Vietnam and there might be as many vehicles. Forget about traffic laws or lights. Along the way, our driver sideswiped a BMW, whose owner was less than happy. We got to the restaurant, but it was closing for the evening, so with no clue of where else to try, we hopped into another cab and somehow ended up at a decent place.

After dinner, we raced around in tuk-tuks trying to find a bar but weren’t really feeling any of our destinations. When we asked the drivers to bring us back to the hotel, they had no idea where it was — even when we showed them its location on a map. Ninety minutes later, we’d finally found our way and arrived back at the Hanoi Elegance, whose lobby was now strangely filled with parked motorbikes. (Can we escape them?)

Hanoi is certainly one of the crazier destinations I’ve been to. A well-traveled friend of mine recently remarked, “It’s places like that city which make you happy to get home.”

Cooling down in Laos

Day 71
Luang Prabang, Laos

After ten hours of sleep, we awoke this morning feeling particularly energized and ready to find our way around this city. Sitting on the porch at around 8 a.m., we began sweating — while the temperature here is only in the low 90s, the humidity so deep in the jungle is much higher. Our egg breakfast at the hotel was decent and we met our tuk-tuk driver, Mr. Phet, who would be taking us around for the day.

We made a quick stop at the town’s only ATM, which almost made me a millionaire — the exchange rate here is 8,500 kips to $1USD. Afterwards, we were off to the Pak Ou Caves, about 25 kilometers away. En route, Phet stopped at Son Hai, a small village known for its home-brewed hooch. Although it was about 10 a.m., we couldn’t turn down a taste of Lao rice wine/whiskey — especially since it was 11 p.m. back home! It didn’t top Johnny Walker but it had a bite (50% alcohol) and we bought a small bottle for later consumption.

“We’re in the middle of nowhere right now,” Derek said as our tuk-tuk turned onto another dirt back-road. And he was right. I’ve traveled the world and have never felt this isolated while driving to the Pak Ou, two caves in the lower part of a limestone cliff. We snapped a photo before hiring a boat to take us across the Mekong. Our driver chugged a BeerLao, burped and we were off.

These caves are a religious shrine, where some 4,000 Buddha statues have come to die. They are big and small, some are wood, others metal, in various states of decay. It’s a solemn and peaceful spot overlooking the Mekong.

We hiked to the top cave and were assaulted by small children trying to sell us bananas, small birds in cages and crickets (no idea). One hit Derek with a stick before we cautiously walked into the pitch-black ether to see some of the oldest Buddhas.

On our way back onto the boat, a misstep almost landed me in the muddy Mekong. Luckily, the water only reached my knees and infection was kept at bay. Phet drove us back to the hotel for some lunch, where we changed for our afternoon activity, Tat Kuang Si.

Located about 30 kilometers south of town, this is a many-tiered waterfall that flows over limestone cliffs into cool turquoise pools. Jumping in was actually quite cold, we haven’t felt this chilly outside of our air conditioning in weeks, if not months. Here is the obligatory Vineyard Vines promotional catalog shot.

Afterwards, a Lao lady threw down a serious challenge for me to jump off a tree. Here’s to representing the U.S.A. Woot!

Our tuk-tuk returned us to the Apsara, where we rested up before dinner and hitting up the night market. Anticipating an early morning, we were tucked into bed shortly thereafter.

We have a winner

Day 70
Luang Prabang, Laos

It was a welcome sight to arrive at Siem Reap’s tiny airport this morning and see that our Vietnam Airlines flight to Laos would be aboard a jet, albeit a small one. Flying from deep in the jungle to deeper into the jungle, we feared a tiny propeller but instead got a Fokker 70 (whatever that is). The trip took about 90 minutes; for most of it, there was little to see besides mile after mile of thick foliage. We touched down on Luang Prabang’s short runway at around 2:30 p.m. and realized, holy cow, we were in Laos!

After buying a visa and collecting backpacks, our transfer was waiting to take us to the Apsara, what has been called Luang Prabang’s most chic hotel. It fits the bill, with an Asian décor, large and comfortable rooms and huge bathrooms. Walking to the town’s main drag, we passed monks in saffron robes and immediately felt the quiet and slow-paced way of life in Laos’ former capital. Luang Prabang is Unesco World Heritage listed, so trucks and buses are banned from the entire city; the multiethnic people here also lend to its relaxed pace.

We popped into a French-owned café for sandwiches and ordered this nation’s acclaimed beverage, BeerLao (killer website). Most everyone I’ve told about coming to Laos has raved about this tonic, it is said to be the best beer in Southeast Asia. And you know what? We have a winner.

With hopes that the Brickskeller would give me my BeerLao fix back home, we slowly climbed the slopes of Phu Si to visit the temples at its peak. From there, we were afforded some great views of Luang Prabang, bordered on one side by the mighty Mekong River and on the other by a tributary, the Nam Khan.

As could be expected, there were also some giant Buddhas, reclining Buddhas and Buddha footprints in the hill’s many shrines.

Melting from the hike, we made our way back to the hotel to shower up and have some dinner. Luang Prabang isn’t known for its nightlife — in fact, there’s an 11:30 p.m. curfew — so we used the opportunity to catch up on some much needed sleep.