We had been enjoying the fiddle playing of one of our fellow travellers, Peter, over breakfast each morning. Nothing like an Irish jig or a rendition of Waltzing Matilda when staying in Laos!
Peter joined us in hiring a boat for the day to travel up the Mekong River to Pak Ou Caves. The trip up the river took a couple of hours, against the current. It gave us insight into life along the riverbank, and a great deal of beautiful scenery.
We stopped along the way at Ban Xang Hai, also known as Whisky Village. This was a small village that sold locally made whisky – many bottles containing critters of a variety of species – and plenty of textiles. We were the only tourists there when we visited. Many of the women were weaving the same scarves and skirts as they were selling, and others were doing cross stitch. Some of the items in the stalls appeared to be factory mass-produced items, but plenty were also made by the vendors. This time I couldn’t resist and bought four lengths of fabrics. I’m not sure yet what they will become!
The whisky – called lao Lao – is made in simple home stills from rice. Apparently it’s around 40% alcohol. The locals use it in ceremonies. Unfortunately many of the additives that can be seen in found in the bottles are wildlife – illegal and unethical!
I keep on wondering about life for young women in Laos. We get information from the novice monks about life for young men, but it’s harder to get information on life for young women. There aren’t as many girls at the English conversation sessions, and overall they seem to have less English. It’s the same at the villa – the cleaning staff are women but don’t really speak English, whereas the serving and reception staff are all young men. The women that we see at market stalls are often quite young and are breastfeeding infants. I need to find out more.
Once back in the boat we travelled for another fifteen minutes or so to Pak Ou Caves, located where the Nam Ou and Mekong Rivers meet. These are two very sacred caves, one of the most respected holy sites in Lao. The caves are in a limestone cliff, with an upper cave that is dark and needs a torch to explore, and a lower cave where light filters in. Both caves are packed with Buddha figures in their thousands. There were a whole lot of stairs that needed to be climbed to get up to the top cave – we are getting fit! The caves have a strong smell of wax – all those burning candles and incense over thousands of years.
We had late lunch at a restaurant across the river from the caves. Yet another delicious meal! We could see school kids running down to the river and filling up small boats to get home from school.
Then it was back in the boat again to travel downstream back to Luang Prabang. It took around half the time to get back, as the current was rather strong. We arrived back in time to watch the sunset over the river – much more peaceful than watching it from the top of Mount Phou Si!
We were back just in time to head down the road to the Gavarek storytelling theatre. They present traditional Lao myths and fairytales, accompanied with music from the traditional Lao folk instrument the Khene. It is like a mouth organ, with bamboo reed pipes. It was fascinating to watch the musician at work. The storyteller was extremely animated and there were plenty of giggles involved in the story. An added bonus was when Peter and the Khene player had a jam session prior to the storytelling.
What a superb day!