Robin and I took the "VIP" bus to Louang Prabang a few days ago. It wasn’t a great ride – no aircon, twisty roads, an unscheduled stop when the bus in front of us hit someone in the middle of the road and waited (blocking both directions of the road) until the police photographed its skid marks. The ride was interesting though. We got some nice views of the mountains of Laos, and passed through lots of little villages: sometimes a poor one with school children lined up behind a tap marked "World Vision" or "UNICEF" and sometimes a richer one with big C-band satellite dishes outside every house.

Yesterday, we wandered around Louang Prabang, visiting temples and climbing Phou Si, the hill in the middle of town. We also took a boat across the Mekong to visit an abandoned temple and get a good view of the city. The air everywhere was thick with smoke and we would learn the reason for this later.

Today we went on a trek through the jungle – a great experience! We started out in a Hmong village and the first thing we saw was men forging knife blades in a hut at the side of the road. This wasn’t a tourist attraction but how they still live. The next village over was a different ethnic group with a different language, and between the villages was a school teaching the Lao language to children from both villages. It looked well equipped and staffed for this part of the world – I wonder if all Lao schools are like that, or just when they’re trying to teach different groups the language of the majority.

From the second village, we trekked through the jungle, past small plantations of rubber trees and teak trees and burned fields. Our guide Tim explained that since the new year was approaching, it was burning season: time to burn off all the weeds and old growth in the fields in preparation for planting in the new year. I also reached a life goal of mine, which was to see pineapple fields. Now I know how they’re grown! I’ve always wanted to know, but didn’t want to ruin the surprise by researching it.

On the way up the trail, we met an old woman who was gathering, in the "hunter gatherer" sense. She was collecting wild nuts, and borke one open for us to try – it was tasty and moist. Along the way, Tim showed us a few more things: a tree with small berries that are bitter or sweet depending on the exact species of tree, and a spiky branch that can be used to tell if you have malaria. He cracked the branch and tasted the pulp inside and prononuced it bitter. Robin and I did the same with the same result… but about a year ago, he had malaria and the pulp tasted sweet! He then drank 5 pots of water boiled with the same branch, and when the fifth tasted bitter he knew the malaria had gone.

We stopped for lunch outside a cave. The lunch was amazing – a spread of fresh, traditional Lao dishes served with sticky rice. Then we went into the cave. It was huge! Not quite as big as Akiyoshi-dai in Japan but impressive, especially since it was spooky and undeveloped (we explored it with a flashlight.) There were a few Buddha statues scattered throughout the cave, apparently dating from when the cave was used as an air raid shelter, but otherwise the only sign of life was one bat sleeping on the ceiling.

After the cave, we saw the fresh, clear spring that acts as the source of the waterfall we were hiking to. It was full of fish. Local superstition says that a spirit protects the stream and misfortune will befall you if you even touch the water at this point, so we didn’t.

And onto the Kouang Si waterfall… we first saw it from above, then walked down the sides to see it from below and swim in it. There are three pools that you ARE allowed to bathe in, and one includes a rope swing and a small waterfall that Robin jumped off!

After that, back to Louang Prabang for some food and a sauna… what a great day!

Photos of Louang Prabang and area

(Entry written March 25, 2010)