Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Luang Prabang, Laos - February 27, 2011

Our travels continued north into Laos, another country that fell to Communist rule after the US withdrew from SE Asia in 1975. The hammer and sickle flag still flies, though the economy has gone free market. It doesn’t seem to have helped much. This is perhaps the poorest, least developed country we have visited, but a delight all the same. Thirty years ago, we could not have travelled in this part of the world and are lucky to be experiencing it now, in 2011.
This is SE Asia and we almost never lacked for cable TV coverage of Egypt, Libya, the Christchurch earthquake. Thought we tuned into the news every day, we didn’t learn about the deaths on S/V Quest until we got onto the internet several days after it happened. We were shocked, saddened, and sobered by that terrible tragedy and are stunned by the devastation (this is written a few days after the Japan earthquake and tsunami) and changes taking place in the world.
Laos – like much of SE Asia – is a land of slash and burn subsistence farming. Dust was everywhere. Our first sighting of the big Mekong River was from a Lao Air plane taking us to the sleepy capital, Vientiane, so we could obtain new extended stay visas from the Embassy of Thailand. That two day operation gave us time to ramble the almost charming little city, where a small vestige of the colonial influence still remains in the form of crumbling Tudoresque buildings and baguettes. Also on offer were a night of Lao music and dance, many Buddhist temples, and handspun, hand-dyed, hand-woven, intricately patterned silk.
To see the land of Laos, we bought first class bus tickets to the former royal capital of the country, Luang Prabang. The distance – about 250 miles. We were told it would take 8 hours. That was a significant underestimation. The two lane road – the major highway in the country- was only recently paved. In the mountains, it runs through a handful of villages where people live perched right on the side of the road in thatched huts, trudge up and down the steep hillsides to their gardens, and collect grass to make brooms to sell. Formerly they would have grown opium poppies for cash.
Luang Prabang turned out to be a jewel of a town nestled amongst hills and the Mekong River – filled with old, golden temples, saffron robed monks, nice restaurants and inns, scads of tourists from all over the world. Most of them fly in, the adventurous come or leave by river. Which is how Ellen travelled back to Thailand, while Tom flew back to Phuket to attend to the boat projects.

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