Star Date: January 2008
Hello Dear Family & Friends!
"Bo Peng Yang"!
(No Worries - Laotian)
"First and most important step
towards success is the feeling that we can succeed."
Elephants, golden temples with saffron robed monks, jungles reclaiming ancient ruins, remote villages in mountainous highlands, Irawaddy dolphins playing amongst the 4000 islands in the Mekong Delta. Southern Laos is an unknown land, home to incredible places and quiet gentle people. Their warmth and hospitality envelops you as you cross the border and get lost in this ancient kingdom.
Having explored northern Laos a year ago (click here for more on Laos) we crossed the border at the country’s capitol, Vientiane. One fun thing about visiting a place for the second time is that you have already “seen the top sights’ and can concentrate on finding out of the way places and meeting the interesting people hanging out there, hoping you will say hello to them. It is also amusing to return to favorite restaurants, market stalls or shops and have them surprised to see our faces again. Funny that they remember 2 quiet little wallflowers like us. We still get the deals of the day and maybe even our favorite table in the corner. Such was the case with the “Vegetarian Restaurant” near the palace. Big hugs by the whole family was the side dish accompanying their scrumptious vegan lunch buffet. We told them that we planned the trip just so we could see them again and enjoy their mouth watering food, which honestly was a deciding factor in our ‘plans’ of where to cross the border. In the last year the younger brother started his own place across from the museum and we had to try that too. We talked for a several hours on their favorite subject – health. They are hungry for information and books in Laos and usually Joseph would just give someone the whole file on health from his library. They studied our health page (click for health page) and were fascinated and full of questions. No computers around we decided to print out their favorite topics, put them in a folder to give as a gift. When someone is that excited about learning it is easy to join their enthusiasm. They kept offering to feed us for free but we wanted to support their new business, which is promoting better health and gathering a large following in the city. Don’t miss either noon buffet and say hi to Phot and family from us.
We spent our time wandering through the large market and the many, many wats peppered through out the city. All the saffron robed monks or novices welcomed us to their temples and practiced their English on us. A lot of Laotian men learn their English skills while spending time as a monk. Wats up?
Lao buses not only break down regularly but could barely navigate the bumpy dirt trail called a road. Notice I wrote in past tense, as one month before we arrived they finished a new paved road south. Smooth and straight they proclaimed to us that the bus ride to Savannakhet would now take half the time – 6 hours not 12. Well the road may be better but it will take time to change the habits of the drivers and passengers. Used to the old, slow, laborious trip they still stop at every conceivable widening in the road, chatting unendingly with buddies along the way, passengers stop to shop for the specialty items of each region and basically just when the bus gets humming along someone shouts and it’s time for another pit stop, while their bag from the top of the bus is excavated. Steady as she goes still holds true.
Savannakhet lies along the meandering Mekong river. This tree lined road is a great place to kick back with a fresh coconut, watching life unfold. We visited wats, the large northern market and went to the quirky Dinosaur Museum, complete with rebar connecting leg bones to the thigh bones connecting to the …
On to Pakse we
had another slow but colorful bus ride. Locals are always so
thrilled that foreigners choose to travel on private buses instead of
together with other tourists in exclusive vans. Pakse grows on you
with it’s interesting market, colorful temples and bbq stalls along
the slow moving Mekong. We cooked our dinners nightly at a
tiny noodle shop next to the vegetable market overflowing with fresh
produce. Yan was the talk of the town as we frequented her
tiny one wok place. It was in
Rickshaws, buses, sawngthaews (open back trucks) and a double flat river canoe brought us to the quiet riverside village of Champasak. Behind this lazy one road town lie the impressive hillside ruins of Wat Phu Champasak, once the capitol of the Laos Kingdom. Commanding sweeping views of the Mekong Valley below; these ruins were fun to poke around, trying to uncover the former Shiva Lingam temple, the crocodile and elephant stones, and the ever present Naga or dragon stairway. Walking amongst the carvings and stone ruins we imagined what life in this ancient Khmer Kingdom must have been like. There are even remnants of an ancient road, hundreds of miles long, connecting Wat Phu Champasak with the Cambodian Kingdom of Angkor Wat to the south.
Following the newly paved road south we caught a boat over to Don Khong, the largest island in Si Phan Don, where the mighty Mekong fans out displaying an intricate network of 4000 islands. One of nature's marvels, the islands are alive with fishermen, longtail boats, coconut palms, water buffalo, temples and squealing children bathing or washing clothes in the river. At night crickets keep the tempo with the flashing of fireflies and the flickering lights of the night fishermen. After exploring the meager temples and quiet streets of the island we found Mr. Pon (Peter?) and booked a 2 hour boat trip south through the islands. This exhilarating boat ride ended at the sleepy islands of Don Khon & Don Det. Connected by an old railway bridge, these islands are home to Khone Phapheng waterfalls (largest volume of water in S. E. Asia), shady tree lined paths amongst rice fields perfect for bicycling, and the rare Irrawaddy freshwater dolphins frolicking in the waters between Don Khon and Cambodia. We took an early morning boat out in search of these elusive beauties and were blessed with 10-20 dolphins rolling and surfacing off the longtail's bow. The rest of the day was spent biking through the rice fields, stopping by temples, gazing out at Don Khon's roaring waterfall, sipping fresh coconuts in the shade, following our noses to the delicious funky, riverside bakery on Don Det, playing with a friendly pet monkey, and ending with a mutual treat by mother & daughter of a massage. Setting aside regrets from the past, or worries about the future, traveling forces us to live in the NOW and experience what life offers today. And what a day this was!
Thanksgiving Laotian style. Thanks to my Mom sending a few spices and ingredients like dried cranberries, we had a 4 course vegan Thanksgiving meal cooked over 3 fires. Shane & Mariah knew the routine after cooking a similar meal in our '76 Volkswagen van in Tasmania for Christmas 04. We all pitched in peeling the potatoes & pumpkin, and helped create stove top (or fire top) stuffing, mushrooms in gravy and mandarin cranberries. The turkey somehow got away but as we rubbed our full bellies we were all very thankful for the chance to spend time together in this distant land. Tasmania, Laos; where will our orbits collide next?
After spending some serious hammock time, watching life on the river float by and laughing it up with Johnny from New Zealand, we watched as Mariah and Shane blended into the mighty Mekong, on their way south to explore the mystifying Cambodian ruins of Angkor Wat. As they flew between cities and luxuriated in deluxe hotels in Siem Reap and Bangkok, they finished their short but sweet 10 day Asian Honeymoon, ala Mom & Joseph, in style. I wonder what they found to do without "the folks" around??
Hanging in hammocks along the river we started discussing the fact that the borders of Myanmar had just reopened. A new adventure was about to unfold. We lingered for a couple of days then retraced our steps up to Pakse. As we had discovered in northern Laos, there are very few useable roads in Laos, especially in the vicinity of the southern end of the infamous Ho Chi Min Trail. The heaviest bombing of an area in history and the nightmare of 250,000 unexploded U.S. landmines and bombs has rendered great portions of this country unusable. These gentle people were in the wrong place at the wrong time. The legacy continues.
We crossed into N. E. Thailand
to explore the rarely visited corner of this popular tourist
destination. The improved infrastructure and higher standard
of living was immediately apparent. Nong Khai, a haven for
expats is nestled along the Mekong. This laid back place is worth checking out
for a few days. Harp and the friendly folks at Mut Mee
Guesthouse, serving excellent food in their garden restaurant make your
riverside stay memorable. Like we have said many times, "They
sure know how to make good Thai food in
Thailand. We got caught up in the frenzy of the legendary Naga
Dragon Fireball Festival and although we didn't see the fireballs
rise up from the Mekong we enjoyed the lighted floats, fireworks and
frantic activities. A walk through the eclectic sculpture park, Salakaewkoo, was a leisurely day's bike trip away.
Bangkok is a throbbing, modern yet exotic city just waiting to be experienced. We met our friend Stan and his lovely lady for dinner a couple of times. Another renegade from Hawaii living overseas. After enjoying the fast pace for a week we spent 3 days in Kanchanaburi. A rare once in a lifetime treat awaited us at the Tiger Temple or Wat Pa Luangta Bua Yannasampanno Forest Monastery. Established by Abbot Kanthitharo in 1994, it all started with an injured jungle fowl given to the monk by villagers. Peacocks were attracted by the call of the now resident fowl and when an injured wild boar stopped by he was cared for before being sent back to the forest. This boar returned with 10 of his family group and they never left. More animals arrived and soon buffalos, wild deer, horses, and wild goats were roaming freely.
The first wild tiger cub arrived in 1999. Her mother was killed by poachers and she was sold to a wealthy Bangkok resident who ordered her stuffed. A local botched the job and the terrified cub was brought to recover at the monastery. Although she died several months later 4 healthy but tiny male cubs were brought in. Soon after border patrols brought in 4 intercepted female cubs, achieving "tiger harmony". Although the Abbot had no experience in animal or Big Cat care he learned on the job. He assigned each cub to a monk who ate and slept with their new friend. As the cubs grew he built cement pits to keep the adolescents from killing the other temple's animals. They were fed cooked food to avoid the hunger for blood and killing and they maintained a close relationships with their monk buddies. As years went by they started to reproduce (18 cubs to date) and soon the Abbot knew he needed to make more space. He opened the monastery up for tourists to observe feeding these beautiful animals and have their picture taken with them- for a donation. After the tiger's daily feeding and bath they walk these massive creatures back into a steep canyon for their afternoon nap. Unrestrained, except for a loose chain lying by their side, the scene is unbelievable. Eight hundred pound tigers are lazing around and sleeping in the sun like docile house cats. In an organized fashion you are allowed to have your photo taken with several of the big cats, while petting them. It isn't until you are in the canyon, crouched down next to one of these massive cats, that the reality of the situation hits you. These Indochinese tigers are huge and could take you out with one swipe of their enormous paws. And here we are, petting them like little kitties. The tigers love it and are indifferent to the people milling about, just so they can get on with their naps. Adjacent to Burma and the Western Forest Complex, this area is believed to be the home to the largest surviving tiger population in the region. When a poacher kills a mother tiger he gets about $6000 US, several years salary for a farmer. They take the risk and many cubs are nabbed or left to fend for themselves. This monastery, with an active volunteer program and a meditation school attracts foreigners and is earning the money it needs to build a larger "Tiger Island" enclosure and a plan for reintroducing some of the cats into the wild. Where will this "by chance" project end? Rumors fly in town that the cats are drugged and money is being improperly used, all of which seem to be false. Filling a need, these simple monks are guilty of only drugging the tigers with massive doses of love and attention. Drop by and help soothe the wild beasts. "The monastery is not only for man, but for all animals who seek the peacefulness." Peace is always within us and these tigers remind us that peace is possible for every animal on earth, even mankind.
And so it goes.........................................Next Mysterious Myanmar. (Burma) Until next month Keep smiling and remember that the first step to our success this year starts with believing in our hearts that we can succeed. Thanks for keeping in touch. We are glad you stopped by. Take care.
Love, Light &
$1.00US = 4000 Lao Kip or 34 Thai Baht
Vegetarian Buffet I": Phot and
family serve excellent vegetarian food between 11-12:30pm. Menu
available at other times. Near Palace, Th Saysetha, see Lonely
Planet for instructions. Phone # 5666 488
Pakse to Bolaven Plateau: we rented a van from Nazim Restaurant, home to more of the same wonderful Indian food. We stopped at Tad Fan, Tad Niang, Tad Pasuam Cultural Village, Houay Houn Village and the colorful weaving market of Lao Nagam, ending at Tadlo to stay the night. A comfortable van with total flexibility in schedule, for only $50 (which can be split amongst 6 people).
Nazim Indian Restaurant: The best nan and vegetable curry around - the furthest south Nazims in Laos. Don't try the Thai food - greasy - cooked by the friendly Thai wife of the owner.
Fairly straight forward border crossing into Thailand & Ubon Ratchathani. Air Asia flies up here for next to nothing from Bangkok - one afternoon flight a day.
Tadlo: Down the road from the funky Tim's Guesthouse, at the right side of the bridge, is Sipaseuth?? Guesthouse. Located right on the river, these modern but basic rooms have balconies overlooking the river and a waterfront restaurant. Tim's Guesthouse can arrange the fun elephant rides starting across the road at 10, 1 or 3pm.
Don Khong (4000 islands):
Take the dolphin tour. You start out on bikes, get in the boat to see the dolphins, then can use the bike the rest of the day to stop at the waterfalls and cross the bridge to see Don Det. It is several miles to the backpacker village on Don Det. Don't miss the bakery on the right, run by a busy baker from Australia (been here 17 years). People hang around for the bread to come out of the oven, like I used to do at home. Worth the wait!!
Thai's wear yellow or white
strings around their wrists to keep them safe when traveling.
The 'bai sli' acts as a leash for important guardian spirits and ensures
safety. Some believe it must wear off rather than be cut so
strings come in all shapes and degrees of colors.
The Light and Sound show at the "Bridge Over the River Kwai" portrays the historical events of the Japanese occupation during WWII. Driven to build a 450 km. railway to transport supplies; by the time the Allies gained control of this bridge, (made famous in the Hollywood movie), 20 % (12,400) of the 60,000 Allied POWS, and approximately 80,000 civilian laborers had died under horrific conditions. A large cemetery and museum honor these unfortunate workers. If you aren't a war buff skip the show, but for sure just buy a 100 bhat ticket on the left side, not the fancy expensive reserved ones.
Don't miss going to see the 'circus' at night along Khao San Rd. and the lights along Chao Fa Blvd are spectacular, especially around the time of the King or Queen's birthdays. The Grand Palace and a ride up the Klongs are not to be missed. The list of sights in Bangkok is endless.
Ethos Vegetarian & Organic Restaurant. Left at Burger King on the end of Khao San Rd, right down alley, left into lane. Tasty food, juices and deserts.
Siam Paragon, Gourmet Grocery: Longing for a great salad bar or anything else familiar overseas? You can find it here!
Tamarind Vegetarian Restaurant:
Pantip Plaza: Computer heaven in Bangkok. If they don't have it, it doesn't exist. Bus #15 or 47 from near Khao San.