Last evening, as I was moving to the Sok Dee Residence, Peter introduced me to Phoukong, who oversaw matters at the hotel. This morning I reached out to him for suggestions to do a bit of sightseeing. He suggested the Ban Pak Ou caves, Whisky Village and a Buddhist temple. I was definitely interested in the first two and the third, time permitting. I was under the impression that the caves could be reached only by boat because I had seen many tourists being approached by boatmen in front of the Mekong Sunset View Hotel for a boat ride to the caves. Phoukong corrected my impression. I asked him if he could suggest someone who could take me to the caves and the village. He said he himself could show me around if he could find a replacement to relieve him. When I returned from breakfast he confirmed that he could accompany me and that we could leave around noon. That suited me fine as I wanted some time to complete the blog and update the expense statement, which could not be left in arrears.
In a couple of hours, as I completed my work, Phoukong announced that we could leave for the caves, which are nearly 30 kms north of Luang Prabang. The last 8 kms are a dirt track, which could be most challenging during rains as there are some tricky summit climbs. The Whisky Village and Manifa Elephant Camp are two other attractions on the dirt track. The car had to be parked at the entrance to the Ban Pak Ou village which had sign boards mentioning it as a healthy village and a crime free one, evidently put up by the Village Women Union. At a small booth the parking fee and the fee for the boat ride are collected, which came to 31,000 LK, the equivalent of about Rs. 240. We walked through the village that had many shops vending locally woven shawls and sheets, besides wood carvings, musical instruments and food. There are many restaurants in the village that advertised Mekong River fish, as fishermen directly sold their catch to them. We reached a boat landing centre where flat plastic bouys served as temporary jetty. A motorised sampan was waiting for us.
The boat ride across the Mekong River was a lovely experience. The place from where we took the sampan was at the confluence of the Nam Ou and Mekong rivers. While the smaller Nam Ou River was green, the much larger Mekong River was brown and muddy. On my drive from Sop Hun to Luang Prabang I had noticed many dam projects on the Nam Ou River, of course with Chinese inputs of men, money and material. Besides the road projects the Chinese are involved in most of the major infrastructure works like mining and power generation. The most important exports from Laos are wood and electricity, mostly to its neighbours. Large mountain tracts have been ‘shaved’ and trees felled in large numbers to facilitate road projects and setting up of power transmission lines.
The Tham Ting and Tham Theung Caves, the lower and the upper caves, overlook the confluence of the two rivers. The exact vintage of the caves is not known, but the caves are famous for the numerous Buddha statues of various sizes from the very large to the tiny 10 centimetre ones, most of them wooden and some badly damaged. Most of the sculptures have been left there by worshippers. The lower cave has a small spring which serves as holy water during the annual New Year festival on 16 April, which is celebrated on the Ban Pak Ou beach. I am told that the event is so prestigious that the President of the country participates in the celebration. Tourists, most of whom arrive from Luang Prabang by boat, normally visit the lower cave, worship and then leave. I wondered why, till I began the 230 step ascend to the upper cave! It was steep and winding. By the time I reached the top my thighs felt leaden and refused to move an inch. I sat down to assuage the aching part. The entrance to the upper cave has two massive wooden doors, which are not used now due to extensive damage. The cave extends inside for more than 50 meters and a small stall at the entrance has torches for hire. The cave is pitch dark and requires some form of light to explore. I saved money by using my mobile phone.
The descend to the jetty was more torturous than the climb! These are sure signs of approaching the ‘Vanaprashtha’ stage in one’s life. Anyway, travelling six months a year is perhaps a modern version of it. On return to the other bank we made it to a restaurant for lunch; most of them had downed shutters for lunch as it was almost 2.30 pm. Phoukong ordered papaya salad lao style, fried fish with ginger and fried noodle with pork. I had a green mango juice to slake my thirst. All the three dishes took time to appear. But when it did, it was worth the wait. The best was the fried fish with ginger. The papaya salad besides being spicy had a fishy smell due to the sauce. The fried noodle with pork was a humongous portion. However, the hunger in two bellies saw to it that nothing was wasted.
The leisurely walk back to the car gave a glimpse of the village life. Time did not seem to matter since there was a lazy ambience in the village that accompanies uncomplicated rural life. People were smiling all the time, greeting you in the local lingo. You are free to take pictures and savour their life without being intrusive. The village is totally dependent on tourists and tourism. As we were leaving the village a group of westerners landed in a bus to do the round of the village and visit the caves. A couple could be seen thoroughly enjoying an elephant ride from the Manifa Elephant Camp. The next halt was at Ban Xang Hai, commonly known as the Whisky Village. The famed lao whisky is distilled here from sticky rice. It is 50 per cent alcohol. Free samples are passed around in one of the corner shops at the village. I did not try one as I was driving, even though I saw no evidence of checking for drunken driving in any of the countries from the time I left India. The shops prominently displayed bottles of whisky with venomous snakes and scorpions in them. A lady in one of the shops explained how the live snake is stuffed into the bottle and it gradually dies when the alcohol hits it! Besides sharing the recipe (!) partly she also giggled when she told me that a few shots of the snake whisky could make me strong!! This village, like Ban Pak Ou, was totally tailored for tourists. It had wood crafts, antiques, woven fabric and shawls besides vines and whiskies.
I was intent on cleaning the car once I got back from the villages. Phoukong said that I could use the hose and water line in front of his hotel to do the washing. When I got there I realised that the hose was badly leaking, which would mean a lot of wastage of water. I postponed the car wash and did a lot of repacking and reorganising of the luggage in the car. My father used to tell me that I had inherited this trait from my mother. Whatever, for me, everything has a place and everything should be in its place. Call it an obsession or a trait, I love to pack and repack. After that was done, Peter and Duong, the smiling twins at the hotel, plied me with a fruit platter and a couple of tall glasses of orange juice. For sheer service these two guys top the charts. Every customer checking in or out were handed special treatment. Many of them leaving the hotel would hand over some gift to them as a token of their appreciation for the service. For me it will definitely be the Mekong Sunset View Hotel anytime I come back to Luang Prabang.