Cruising the Mekong Delta into the open arms of the local hilltribes

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It was time to leave Laos, but rather than fly out back to Thailand we were leaving on Laos time, slowly, slowly down the Mekong Delta. We hobbled down the river bank with our heavy backpacks and jumped, quite literally as the boats were quickly separating leaving a big gap to fall into the water, onto our long boat where we would spend two days sailing down the river, eight hours each day, with a stop off to overnight at a local village. We quickly settled into our seats and got comfortable for the long journey ahead. We powered down the muddy waters, with an endless expanse of green forest on either side, until we eventually reached a small beach area. We jumped off the boat again and hiked our way up into the hills eventually reaching a small village. In the village lived three different tribes, the Hmong, Khamu and Laos. We dropped our bags off at the chief’s house, the only house made from bricks and mortar, the others being wooden shacks, and went for a walk around our home for the night. As we started walking two new members joined our group, a beautiful young girl around eight and her naughty little brother who started swinging on a few members of the group as we made our way around the village. The little girl came to hold my hand as we walked past chickens, pigs and other children playing. When we arrived back at the chiefs house a feast of local Laos dishes had been prepared for us and after we enjoyed the best meal we had eaten in the country we set about handing out the socks we had bought for the children. One by one all the children from the village arrived and they stood, quietly and patiently, in line to receive their gift. The smiles on their faces when they received such a small gift that we take for granted was so humbling and their appreciation was overwhelming. After we handed out all the socks the children sang a thank you song in the local language for us and then came to play with us before it was time for us all to go to bed. One little girl pointed at my camera straight away so, through spontaneous sign language I asked if she wanted me to take her picture and she nodded her approval. She held up her new pair of pink socks and when I showed her the picture she started laughing which started off a whole hour of taking pictures and laughter. They were fascinated by seeing themselves on screen and when one member of the group started to show a little boy the photos she had taken of our trip so far he was amazed at all the things he was seeing on this tiny little device. Each time he came across an image that delighted him he would show it to the other children with animated chatter. We couldn’t understand what he was saying but it was clear from his body language that he was very excited about what he was seeing. One by one everyone’s iPhones came out as each child flicked through the photo libraries and compared images in excited voices. Photos were being shown to each other left right and centre until at one point two children showed each other an image on the different phones they were holding and it happened to be the exact same picture of a reclining Buddha statue that they had stumbled across at the same time. Of course this brought a round of enormous laughter from them both, and from the rest of us who were just as amazed as them at the coincidence. It was unfortunately soon time for bed as the sun had set and the village only has a few lights operated by solar power as they do not have electricity. The village sleeps when the sun goes down and wakes when it rises; it was exactly my kind of place. The group was separated into trios and we headed off to the homes of our hosts. A small woman with long, dark hair greeted us with a shy smile and showed us to our mats on the floor protected by mosquito nets. As a thank you we had bought a scarf for each host from the local night market and when we handed it to her she accepted it with a shy smile and nod. As we were getting ready for bed she came into the room, after opening her gift, giggling and smiling and nodding at us holding the scarf in her hand and then wrapping it around her neck and shoulders, you could see the sheer delight and gratefulness in the smile that touched her eyes. I asked her if she would like a photo, again through made up sign language, and she held up her finger to tell me to hold on one minute whilst she quickly fixed her hair. When she was ready she sat with a very sombre and serious look on her face and I quickly took the snap. I showed her the image and she fell into a fit of giggles again as she saw herself on my screen. ‘You look beautiful,’ I said and again she giggled away whilst bowing with her hands in prayer position to say thank you. Her reaction was the icing on the cake to what had been a brilliant evening spent with these warm and welcoming people.

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The giving of alms to monks – Luang Prabang

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Luang Prabang, a small quirky little town, filled with temples and little streets with cafes and shops that lead to the Mekong on one side and the Nam Khan River on the other. I liked this place immediately; it is definitely the nicest town in Laos. What makes this place so special, however, is the century’s old tradition of giving alms to monks, every morning before sunrise. I had read and seen photos of this practice, and I was excited to see it, however I didn’t just want to be another tourist with a camera. I wanted to pay my respects to this tradition, as opposed to treating it like a tourist attraction. The people that give the alms to monks are all lay Buddhists, who are not only local, but come from all over the world. But I wanted to take part, too, out of respect for the monks, the tradition and the religion, so I asked my Buddhist friend who I was travelling with if she would come with me so that if the monks wouldn’t accept the donation off me she would be able to place the food in their bowls instead. After some research we settled on bananas as our chosen food. A lot of people give sticky rice, however the monks won’t accept anything that has been contaminated or isn’t clean, with products such as insect repellent, so bananas seemed like a good alternative, even still we made sure not to have any products on our skin. We searched the market for a stall with enough bananas to feed all the monks. We eventually stumbled on a lady sat by the side of the road with a blanket full of the fruit we desired. ‘How much to buy them all?’ we asked. She looked at us like we were playing some kind of practical joke on her. It was 9pm and she had probably been sat there for hours trying to sell her products, all to no avail. Two tourists turning up and asking to buy all of them must have seemed inconceivable. We asked her again, ‘All?’ ‘Yes, all.’ Eventually she realised we were being very serious and she bagged up what felt like a truckload of bananas and we dragged them home ready for an early start in the morning.

The streets were shrouded in darkness as we made our way to sit outside the temple. We passed people sat by the side of the road on their blankets with their rice baskets and baskets of snacks. We found a spot and sat down on the cold, hard floor envious of the people more prepared than us sitting on their mats. We were so tired that we couldn’t speak; we had rolled out of bed and straight to the street, no time for our usual cup of coffee. We waited and waited and more and more tourists arrived as we sat on the ground surrounded by bags full of bananas, ourselves and the lay people on one side and the tourists on the other. After what seemed like hours we saw movement to our left, the process was starting. Shoes off, we kneeled on the ground, feet behind us and bananas at the ready. The monks came thick and fast, one by one they stood in front of me with their alms bowl as I tried to place the fruit in the very full bowls making sure not to touch the monks at the same time. At first we presumed we had bought too many bananas, however we ran out of the fruit when there was about five monks left in the line. We quickly collected our bags and ran to the opposite side of the street so as not to be in the way. The process had gone so fast, it seemed like we were throwing bananas everywhere, we just about kept up with the pace of the monks as they made their way down the busy streets. As we walked back to our hotel we both felt a sense of pride that we had actually participated and made a donation, as opposed to standing there pointing a camera.

 

Vang Vieng – Nature, balloons, caves and kayaks

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I had expected that I would fall in love with Laos, that the scenery would blow me away and I wouldn’t want to leave this country. It had a lower population than the other countries I had visited and it was mainly rural, exactly my kind of place. After visiting the capital city of Vientiane, the first destination on my Laos list, I hadn’t been blown away as I had anticipated. That was, until, we approached the town of Vang Vieng and were confronted with cragged karst mountains covered in a thick forest of green trees. The town itself, Vang Vieng, is not impressive. In fact it is a very touristy little town, a backpacker haven. The countryside that surrounds the area, however, is beautiful and the best way to see it is from the height of a hot air balloon. Floating up into the sky in a little wicker basket, the heat from the flames warming my cold, tired skin was a wonderful feeling. Just as we climbed above the buildings the sun started to make its appearance above the mountains and the sky changed from grey to orange. The only sound from high on above was of the gas, pumping life into the roaring flames. Down below people started to go about their daily routines and Vang Vieng turned from a backpacker shanty town into a beautiful place. We had been warned that on a previous ride the hot air balloon had landed on some trees and as we made our descent, looming just above some houses, it appeared that we too would be making an unconventional landing. The children below, however, didn’t seem too concerned as they waved to us on their way to school. Eventually we did make it back safely to the runway, much to my dismay, landing on the trees sounded like a fun adventure. After we jumped out of our ride we headed up into the mountains to go tubing. I had expected to sit in a rubber ring and float down a river, relaxing and feeling the warmth of the sun on my skin. What our tubing adventure actually entailed was sitting in a rubber ring and pulling ourselves into a dark, limestone cave by a rope. The further we went in, the darker the cave, luckily our small head torches provided just enough light to be able to view the stalactites hanging down. As I pulled myself along I started to hum the tune to Indiana Jones, I had always wanted to be Indiana when I was a kid, finally it seemed like my desired occupation had become a reality and I was grateful that my idea of tubing had turned out to be the opposite of what we were doing, as cave exploring was much more fun. After we made it out of the darkness and back into the light we jumped into a kayak, two by two, and paddled our way down the Nam Song River. The view was amazing, the mountains rising up so high that trying to lean our heads back to look to the summit would mean an eventual capsize. The sun was beating down, and our skin was being cooled by the splashes of water from the paddles. On and on we paddled immersed in the nature of Laos, filled with happiness and excitement until, that was, we had been paddling for two hours and our arms and backs began to beg us to stop. But stopping was not possible until we reached our destination, and the more tired we got the more it seemed our destination was China. As we dragged our paddles through the water we passed people floating down the river in their rubber rings, relaxing with a beer in their hands. This type of tubing now seemed a lot more appealing again. ‘Do you want to swap?’ I asked one guy. ‘No, thanks,’ he replied ‘but you can have a drink of my beer if you paddle over here.’ As appealing as this was a detour only a minute to the right would set us back even further, if we stopped we would never start again. So on we went, through currents and dodging rocks, swinging from left to right, until finally, just like a mirage, the finish line came to view. We made it to the end, just.