After spending a hot, busy, but thoroughly enjoyable time exploring Bangkok, we hopped on the night bus and headed north to Chiang Mai, where we immediately felt better – the air was cooler, and the pace was slower and everything was within walking distance from our lodgings. We visited some fantastic temples, enjoyed lots of delicious food, and explored the wonders that the local markets had to offer. Yak took part in a great two day workshop which tied in with his breathwork training, while the kids and I visited the Royal Winter Palace up in the mountains along with the revered Wat Doi Suthep http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wat_Phrathat_Doi_Suthep, where our visit was rewarded with a holy water blessing from one of the resident monks
Many people that we had met on out travels had recommended the we should visit Laos,so we felt called to keep migrating north toward the Laotian border. For Valentine’s Day we found ourselves in Chiang Rai, where we had a crazy night taking in what seemed to be the only tourist attraction in town, the interestingly bizarre clock tower “son et lumiere” show, with loud classical music and constantly changing colored lights (go figure?!). The evening promptly improved when we joined the locals for some live valentines music and dancing at the night bazaar, it was here that Yak and the kids sampled a local delicacy of deep fried grasshoppers, spritzed with MSG for added flavor!
The sign says "KFG"...Kentucky Fried Grasshoppers maybe?
Apart from the great night market and the wide selection of “edible” insects on offer we were otherwise suitably unimpressed with Ching Rai as a town. So instead of spending four nights like we had planned ,the next day we continued north to the Mekong River to celebrate our 20th wedding anniversary at the Golden Triangle, right on the Mekong river where Thailand, Burma, and Laos meet.
In the past this area was notorious for opium growing and smuggling, so hats off to the late Princess Mother for building the Hall of Opium, a fantastic museum devoted to the history of opium and the devastating effects of its use. The entrance fee to the museum goes directly into supporting rural development initiatives to offer communities alternatives to poppy growing.
"The Golden Triangle" - Myanmar (on the left), Laos (on the right), Thailand (right under our feet)
Our last night in Thailand was spent at one of the best places we have had the pleasure to stay in. The Rai Saeng Arun Resort http://www.raisaengarun.com/index.php?raifile=introduction.php offered a wonderful bungalow, a great outdoor shower, and some excellent organic food direct from their garden which was served in a beautiful outdoor dining area that overlooked the Mekong river!
It also wins the award for the most steps ever to reach our huts…165 steps with heavy bags to be exact! However, it was completely worth it – tucked away up on a hillside, our huts provided us with a peaceful retreat from the outside world , sadly one night here was not enough.
Our cozy hut in the woods
It was an early start the next morning to cross the border into Laos, and catch the slow boat to Luang Prabang. Two days down the Mekong is a most recommended way to travel! The scenery was truly spectacular, a pristine Mekong with only a few remote villages dotting the riverside.
A misty Mekong morning
A couple of days later we arrived in Luang Prabang at sunset, to find a very pleasant small city perched on the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Khan Rivers. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which helps it retain a certain level of charm and history by mixing ancient culture with beautiful vintage french influenced architecture. Within Luang Prabang there are 32 temples with a very devoted Buddhist population and because of this, the city has become particularly famous for its morning alms procession, where the monks silently walk the streets every morning collecting food and offerings from the lay Buddhist townspeople.
Experiencing the daily alms ceremony is meditative and truly moving to witness. But despite a genuine effort within the city to educate tourists on the meaning and sanctity of this ritual and the respectful protocol involved, we sadly witnessed a number of Westerners who were blatantly disrespectful (for example, one women wearing spaghetti straps and skin tight capri’s walking right up to the monks and snapping photographs in their face).
Lela Mae and I were thrilled to find Ock PopTok http://www.ockpoptok.com/ (translation literally means East Meets West), a weaving center that provides work for local artisans by promoting traditional arts from the many of the different ethnic groups populating the area. The level of craftsmanship here in Laos is the best I have seen so far in SE Asia. They predominantly use natural dyes and each ethnic group has its own unique style.
Best of all, Ock Pop Tok offers courses! So, Lela and I delved into a two day weaving course. We harvested and prepared the natural dyes of the area, dyed our silk, and wove ourselves a pair of Laos style scarf on looms overlooking the Mekong River. Needless to say, we were in heaven, and quite pleased with our efforts at the end!
Lela's scarf. The silk was hand dyed on day one and the scarf was woven on day two
We also spent a most memorable morning at The Living Land http://livinglandlao.com/, which believe it or not is the place to learn about the arduous process of growing and harvesting rice. After eating rice daily for the last few months we realized we knew almost nothing about the actual production process of this staple grain, and this was the place where we could finally get those questions answered.
The Living Land was a project initiated by a group of locals, who work towards educating tourists and Laotians alike about traditional farming methods – hence, Susan, the water buffalo, who kindly allowed us to try our hand at plowing a muddy pit behind her! I don’t think we will ever be nonchalant about rice again, it just takes too much hard work to get each grain to the table.
Lela Mae and Susan. Girl and water buffalo working together in complete (muddy) harmony
Luang Prabang turned out to be a place where we felt we could refuel our energies, and we loved it so much that we ended up staying two weeks! I kayaked the Nam Khan River with Jule one day (Lela was ill, and Yak looked after her) and we had good fun navigating the rapids and cooling off in the calm areas where we could hop in for a swim (our guide even taught Jule how to do back flips off the kayak). We also took a long dusty roadtrip out of Luang Prabang to visit Kouang Si Waterfalls – featuring gorgeous cascading pools of turquoise blue water – swimming here was bliss!
On our last night in town we attended a fashion show at a hip and trendy local venue which showcased traditional clothing from various Laotian tribes, the evening culminated with the models wearing some amazingly beautiful tribal wedding attire.
The beautiful Kouang Si waterfalls
We met some fabulous people during our stay in Luang Prabang, Laotians and fellow travelers alike from various points around the globe. The Laotians here seemed to really want to interact with foreigners and were always starting up conversations so they could practice their English skills. They were warm and friendly with an ever-ready smile. They retain a real sense of pride in their culture and heritage, which I pray, gives them strength in the coming years as, no doubt, more tourists arrive.
We had hoped to travel overland down through Laos, but time was not on our side. We knew we wanted to make the effort to see a little bit of Cambodia in the form of Angkor Wat, so to get all the way down there, we would have to fly.
One day, “Buddha willing”, we will return to Laos.