Laos 2015: Tham Chang cave

The limestone hills around Vang Vieng have many caves. We decided to visit one of them, the Tham Chang cave, because it is on walking distance from the village and considered  by some to be the most famous one .

Not sure it that is true, I noticed considerable confusion on the Internet, probably caused by the fact that Tham means cave in the Lao language, so all cave names start with Tham..:-).

From the village it is a nice walk of not more than half an hour. You have to cross a resort (2000 Kip) and pay for the cave (15000 Kip). Not cheap, but worth it. Steep steps (147, we counted them!) bring you to the entrance of the cave, where a viewing platfom gives you a nice view of the surroundings.

Don’t expect an unspoiled cave here, this cave has a long history, it has been used as a shelter in the 19th century by the local population, during invasion by Chinese marauders. Here and there inside the cave you can still see man-made constructions.

But there is enough beauty to be seen. You can follow several routes in the cave, all of them eroded in the past by water. Fascinating

There still is a stream coming out of the hill, near the start of the steps up to the cave. A perfect place to take a bath. Never seen such crystal clear water! Of course we could not resist the temptation..:-)  The water was not cold at all.

And here is the GE map with the location of the cave

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Laos 2015: Pak Ou Caves

The Pak Ou caves are located about 30 km north-east of Luang Prabang and can only be reached by boat over the Mekong river. They are famous because of the countless  (often small) Buddha statues in the caves.  Every day numerous longboats bring hundreds of tourists to these caves.

Our first stop was at Ban Xang Hai , the “whisky village”. The villagers use sticky rice to make rice wine and a much stronger (50%!) liquor. Taste is not bad. They also do weaving. A bit of a tourist trap.

After a short stop at the village we continued. We were going upstream and the skipper was skillfully choosing a route where the current was less. Still it took us about 2.5 hour to reach the caves (a half hour stop at the village included)

Arriving at the cave, we were told that we had 45 minutes to explore. I had been here a long time ago, in 1998(!) and I have a vague memory that we were about the only visitors, which contributed greatly to the atmosphere. Now it was very different with the crowd. Not easy to take pictures without people in it.

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But we have done our best..:-) Here is a collection of Buddhas without people.

To reach the upper cave, you must climb a flight of steps. And you need a torch, no lighting here. Unfortunately we had hardly time to explore.

Going back took less time, because now we were going downstream. On our way back we dropped two passengers at the Elephant Camp, another tourist attraction of Luang Prabang.

Is the trip worthwhile? Yes, it still is, but better you rent a boat and avoid the peak hour. For the two of us it was too expensive, but when you are with a few more people it is worth it. Also you will have more time to enjoy the cave.

Here is a view from the cave of the Mekong river with the silhouette of a serene Buddha and a GE map of the trip.

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Laos 2015: Alms giving

In Theravada Buddhism, nuns and monks go on a daily alms-round  to collect food for there (only) meal around noon. At sunrise they leave the temple, carrying an alms bowl and in a procession walk along the row of devotees.

In Luang Prabang it is a big event and  a major tourist attraction.  Devotees  sit down on small stools and take off shoes and socks. They give rice and small packets of sweets to the passing monks. When you are not a devotee, you should keep a polite distance when taking pictures and not disturb the procession

Not all tourists know how to behave and we had heard about complaints from the local population. After some deliberation we decided to have a look ourselves

At 6 am it was still dark and quiet near our hotel. But when we turned the corner to the main street, there was a big crowd of tourists waiting for the procession to begin. The devotees were already seated. And soon the first monks appeared.

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First only a few, but later more and more. Very impressive. Notice that several monks are also carrying a plastic bag. They collect the rice in the alms bowl and the other food in the plastic bag..:-)

The orange color of the monk robes is so attractive that you keep taking pictures..:-). You will notice that many monks are young, sometimes really only kids. Does that mean that those boys have already chosen for a life as a monk? Not at all, poor rural families often “donate” one or more of their children to the temple, where they get food and an education. When they have grown up, they can decide to become a “real” monk or leave the temple, for example to become a business man…:-)

One more picture of the “tourist part”. The right picture shows food “dumped” by the monks. Not sure if this is just a rubbish bin, or that the food in in it is later given to the poor people. It looks lake a waste..:-(

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We walked away from the tourist crowd. The atmosphere became more relaxed with here and there a local squatting on the pavement, waiting for the monks to pass.

Finally a short video of the procession. Notice how a man hands over something to a devotee(?), by just stepping forward, reaching between two monks. Very impolite!

It was an interesting experience, but we went back to our hotel with mixed feelings

 

Laos 2015: Buddha Park

One of our targets during our recent Laos trip, was to visit the Buddha Park , 25 km south-east of Vientiane. The  park was started in 1958 by Luang Pu Bunleua Sulilat, a priest-shaman who wanted to integrate Hinduism and Buddhism and the park has now become a tourist attraction.

Access is easy, bus 14 from the Vientiane bus station, near the market. The bus was crowded, so many people going to the Buddha Park? No, the bus passes the famous Friendship Bridge, where you can cross over the Mekong to Thailand and most passengers did that. We were sitting next to a friendly monk.

Only a few visitors at the park. Most conspicuous is the giant “pumpkin” at the entrance. You can climb up inside, even in two ways..:-)  The inside is supposed to represent the afterlife (?). From the top you have a good view of the eclectic sculpture garden. A giant reclining Buddha (in concrete) and many Hindu deities. 2015-12-004

Some pictures of the pumpkin, inside and outside. I was expecting to see inside the pumpkin depictions of what your punishment will be when you have sinned, but it was all very peaceful.From the top you have a nice view of the rest of the park

The other dominating feature of the park is the giant reclining Buddha. Hardly any tourists, so the atmosphere was peaceful, although very hot…:-)

At the end of the park, near the Mekong river, there is a restaurant, where we had coffee, beer and french fries (!). Somewhere on the other side of the Mekong, in Thailand, there is another Buddha park, built by the same monk.

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Laos 2015: Hot Air Balloon

On our way from Luang Prabang to Vientaine we stayed two nights in Vang Vieng. If you have been in Laos, you may ask, why Vang Vieng? Isn’t that the notorious backpacker village where young people get drunk (and high), like Torremolinos in Spain?

True, but it is also situated in a beautiful karst landscape with numerous caves. And you can make hot air balloon trips there!  Expensive, but we had never done that before and we would like to experience it once in our life..:-).

At 4 pm we were picked up from our hotel and taken to the field where they were already busy preparing the balloons. Two this time, each can take eight people. First they blow air in the balloon, and after that they start heating the air with a kind of flamethrower.  Then it is time to enter the basket, not much space for eight people plus the skipper, so not easy to take good pictures.

Not surprisingly I was by far the oldest participant..:-). Here is a picture of the skipper and me, just before take-off. Everything was organised very professionally, walkie talkies, gps etc.

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In this video you see how the air inside the balloon is heated, while people are holding the basket, to prevent it from premature lift-off.

Take-off was very smooth, and when the flamethrower is not working, it is completely quiet, because you are “floating” with the wind. I did not find it scary at all, although I could see a few others who held the railing tightly. Here is a collection of pictures. In some of them you will see the second balloon

The skipper can control the altitude of the balloon by burning  (-> going up) or releasing air from the top of the balloon (-> going down). Because the wind direction depends (slightly) on the altitude, he can also steer the balloon a bit. We went so low that we almost touched the tree tops and up until 800 meter. Very exciting.

A video taken by Aric:

Here is the route of the balloon, and the altitude profile. The yellow track is the minivan that took us back to the village (halfway picking up the people form the second balloon)

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The whole flight took only 45 minutes and covered a distance of about five km.. At the end the skipper drops a rope/cable, picked up by the ground staff, who then take care that the balloon lands in exactly the right location. This procedure works well, if there is not much wind. When you book, you get a warning that there might be a last-minute cancellation when the weather conditions are adverse!

A very exciting adventure!

Laos 2015: Kuang Si waterfall

Luang Prabang is famous for its many Buddhist temples, but there is more to see. Nearby are two nice waterfalls. During our recent stay we visited one of them, the Kuang Si waterfall, located about 30 km south-west of the town. A tuk-tuk took us in about  45 minutes to the entrance of the park. The park is not far from the Mekong river.

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The park is a popular tourist attraction with restaurants and shops. Entrance ticket is 20.000 Kip (~ RM 10). We decided to have lunch first.

From the entrance it is about a twenty minute walk to the main fall. On our way we saw nice torch gingers and interesting trees.

Then there was the waterfall. And what a spectacular waterfall it was! A real wow-experience.

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The water is tumbling down in numerous cascades and has formed throughout the ages walls and ridges of what is called travertine , a kind of limestone.

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In the dry season, there is much less water, but now it was very powerful, with a mist of water at the main cascade. Here are a few more pictures. Officially your are not allowed to climb up, but of course some people do. Irresponsible and dangerous, but the photographic effect is dramatic (click on right pic to enlarge).

Here is a video of the main fall

Downstream from the main fall there are several places where you can swim in the attractive milky-blue water. Well organised, there are changing booths and toilets. Travertine rock is solid and not sharp, easy to walk on it.

Of course we had to take a swim too…:-). The water was not very cold, and it was quite special to swim in this milky water.

Ok, one more video. To prove that I really took a swim. And that at my age, I don’t take risks…:-)

It was a very rewarding trip. Not to be missed when you visit Luang Prabang!