As I checked into the Saynamkhan Hotel last evening I was shown the balcony of the room from where I was told I could watch monks go in procession at 6 am collection alms from those who volunteered on the road side. The Buddhist tradition is called Tak Bat in the Laotian language. There are certain ‘rules’ attached to the practice of Tak Bat. Silence has to be observed and the offering must be made only if it is meaningful to the giver. Sticky rice, which is offered, should be fresh and not bought from street vendors. Those not making the offering are expected to dress appropriately, stand at a respectful distance from the monks, not touch them or in any way disturb them. I watched the morning ritual from the balcony of my room as groups of monks in single file went through the street, opened the bowl they carried for givers to drop a ball of sticky rice into it. It was a very solemn ritual and many tourists had lined up to experience the tradition.
Last evening I was engaged in updating expense account and the like at the reception when Vanh Xay, who was manning the hotel reception at the time, asked if I wanted a cup of coffee. I did and I said so. He got me a steaming cup of excellent Lao coffee. After I had completed my work I chatted with him for a while about the sights to be gone around in the town. He downloaded a map for me and gave me the required guidance to spend the evening. When I got back to the hotel, after a pork orlam dinner he had suggested, he was still there. Cloey, who I met as I was driving into the town, had suggested a trip to the Kuang Si waterfall, which she described as ‘magical’. Vahn agreed to accompany me to the waterfall at 8 am. I returned to the Hotel after a hearty breakfast at the Mekong Sunset View Hotel and Vanh was ready for me.
Vanh is a graduate student engaged in learning the French language, which he hopes will fetch him a good job in the town, maybe in the hotel industry. He now works part time at the reception of the Saynamkhan Hotel where he gets paid about 800,000 LK (about Rs. 6200) a month with accommodation. He spends nearly 20,000 LK a day on food, skipping many meals to keep within his means. To him the 2.5 million LK (about Rs. 19,000) annual tuition fee is a heavy burden and hence, is not able to support his mother and sister who stay in the village, tending to the small farm. Vanh lost his father two years ago when he was in the final year of school. He suggested that I should stay in the town for a couple of days more and visit his village in the outskirts of the town to experience the Laotian way of life. I told him that it would not be possible of this trip, but maybe on the next.
The 30 km trip did not seem to take long because of the conversation. I did not mind the 5000 LK parking fee and the 20,000 LK entrance fee for the The Kuang Xi Park and waterfall as the facilities were excellently maintained with walkways and wooden bridges. Tourists normally arrive here after 11.30 am and hence, we were almost all to ourselves in the park, since it was not yet 9 am. A market vending food and other essentials stand in front of the large gate opening into the park. I walked past the gate and up a winding road through thick vegetation to reach the waterfall through the longer route. Vanh said we would return by the shorter route and the Bear Park. The three tiered waterfall was, in every way, magical, as Cloey had described it, as I set my eyes on it. After a few minutes soaking in the experience of the falls, the turquoise blue pools and the cascades below them I asked Vanh to lead me up the trail to the shallow pools on top from where the waterfalls begin. I took the climb to the right of the falls, which was steep and challenging. I stopped numerous times and used the support of strong vines to prevent a fall – unfortunately, there wasn’t a Jane around to do a Tarzan! Many times I was on my fours, using hands and feet to climb! Huffing and puffing I reached the top where the water flowed noiselessly from shallow pools to the edge of the waterfall. I took my shoes off, walked around the pools and the edges of the waterfall; the waters were cool, but not cold. I could see right down the three tiers of the falls and the lovely pools through which the water flowed downstream. I could make out that the place is a regular haunt of tourists as there were evidence of vending food and drink. Yet the place was absolutely clean with garbage collected in bags awaiting collection. I returned to the bottom of the falls through an easier path that was more trodden. From there I walked past numerous pools and all of them were open for swimming except one that is considered sacred. By this time tourists had started arriving and many were already in the pools. Vanh told me that at this time of the year it is mostly Vietnamese and American tourists who arrive into the town.
The Bear Rescue Centre near the entrance to the park was set up in 2003 and is nurtured by the Laotian government. Bear poaching is considered illegal and most of the inmates in the park are rescued ones. The environment provided is every bit what they will have in the wild. Even the diet is regulated in like manner. As we exited the entrance the smell of food wafted from everywhere. When Vanh asked if I was hungry I did not reply in the negative. One of the restaurants had grills on display, particularly large river fish. Vanh ordered two helpings of sticky rice and a large grilled fish. The fish was grilled on coals after cleaning it and stuffing it with lemon grass. The food was in every way bland, but a chilly chutney was placed along with the sticky rice. People have sticky rice all by itself or just with the chilly chutney, as I found Vanh doing most of the time. Sticky rice is a bit strange on the palate at first. I enjoyed the meal and the chef placed a skewer of grilled chicken before us, and said it was for free. After enjoying the meal we drove back to Luang Prabang through Hmong villages and the Elephant Park, where visitors in mid-sized vehicles were being conducted around. Big buses are prohibited in the town owing to its status as a World Heritage City.
Vanh suggested that I have a peep in at the historically significant Wat Xieng Thong and is an important monument showcasing traditional art and the spirit of religion. The Wat was built at the confluence of the Nam Khan and Mekong rivers in the 16th century by the Lao King Settathirath. Till the constitutional monarchy was in place and Luakng Prabang remained the capital of the country the Wat continued to have royal patronage and the Kings were crowned at the Wat. The Wat is worth a visit for people on a pilgrimage and in search of Buddhist traditions.
Luang Prabang remains the most French of the Lao cities. Many buildings still bear French names and there are many French restaurants in the town. Two schools in the town still teach French. Late in the evening I met Christian and Sylvia, two French citizens, when they were trying to make sense of the stickers on the car. They, I learnt, are frequent visitors to India; the former has visited India 10 times and the latter 13 times! They are planning to go to Manali and Leh next summer. They spend 6 months in France and the other six months travelling, almost always to Laos and Cambodia. They were mighty impressed by the car and said they had seen it the previous night in front of the Saynamkhan Hotel. Vynh said many cars had been parked in front of their hotel but none has received so much of attention as this one did last evening.
In the evening I walked around the Sisavengvong Street – the main street of Luang Prabang, which is closed to traffic by 4.30 pm every evening and the night market springs up. I enjoyed the mango with banana and pineapple shake and sometime later an oreo shake, which is considered a must try while in Laos. I took some of the lesser known streets and on one came across the snake wine vendors. Venomous snakes, including cobras, were pickled and displayed in huge jars; the advertising boards welcomed people to sample the wine to build up their ‘strength’. I chose a rejuvenating foot massage instead and a pork lap and steamed rice for dinner, which was excellent.