Sunday, 31 March 2013

... Indochina: Feeling Laos-y

I was up at 5am yesterday so that I could go and watch the Tak Bat along the main street at dawn. This is where the Monks form a line to receive alms, an ancient and solemn ceremony where people make offerings in the form of food to the Monks. In return they give food to the poor. You have to make sure you do not make physical contact and you do not talk to them. It was well worth getting up for and interesting to watch. I was able to donate some sticky rice to a temple near the morning market where I was blessed by the head monk.

After that I took in the sights and sounds of the morning market.

Most of the sights in this town are in the old quarter on the peninsula bounded by the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers. The best way to explore is by bicycle and so after a light breakfast I was able to rent one for 20000 Kip including a lock for the day.

Big Brother Mouse is an organization that helps Laotians improve their literacy. Programs include heading to hard-to-reach villages armed with books for people that would otherwise rarely get the chance to read. Falangs can also hang out at the office for a few hours each day and read &/or converse with the people who attend. It was time to get my volunteer on! I jumped on my very pink bike and headed along the river to reach the office. What a wonderful experience. I spent over 2 hours there conversing with two novice Monks, 1 high school boy, a University student and a lady who told me she just wanted to speak better English in perfect English. Jallai, was 18 and was a novice Monk. He told me about his typical day and about his family back home in a village in the south. He told me all about being a Monk and what it entailed. How their robes are called "yellow robes" even though they wear predominantly orange. He was on holiday from school but was always kept busy at his temple, they're doing renovations to it. No hard hat and overalls here, they climb up bamboo ladders in their bare feet and robes. He told me that he shaves his head once a month in sync with the cycle of the moon. It was fascinating to be sat across from this young man listening to him talk so eloquently as he rested his hands on Steve Jobs memoirs - a book he had taken out from the library. He had a book on sayings and I had to laugh when he asked me to explain what "easy on the eye" meant. Win was 14 and felt it was his destiny to be a Monk for his life. It was like talking with a wise old soul. He asked me to help him with some exercises in his book and so we did that for a little while plus he had written the word "organize" on his hand, what did this mean. It was amazing to hear that all those whom I talked to had been studying English for less than 1 year with Win having only been studying for 7 months. They all wanted to know if I'd be back for the evening class, I would've loved to but unfortunately my day didn't go as planned....

I noticed it first as we were coming to the end of the session. My leg was shaking uncontrollably. Then I felt as though I was inside a furnace. I became incredibly hot and began sweating profusely. After a few minutes of this the chills kicked in and the two alternated. All of a sudden I felt like I was having an out of body experience and the migraine that followed was excruciating. I don't remember cycling back to the guest house, I felt that delirious. I somehow managed it though, fell into my bed and stayed there for 20 hours fighting a fever and soaking the bed sheets in sweat. Perhaps the Pescatarian gods are annoyed at me for eating meat and this was my punishment? Traveler's diarrhoea affects between 30 & 50% of people within two weeks of starting their trip. I managed to make it to just over a week. I wanted to die. Azithromycin, lots of water with electrolyte tablets and my bed became my three best friends.

And isn't it just fantastic that I had a 7hr journey the next day?!?

The road from Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng is not in the best condition. Like a snake with the way it winds through the mountains, it is full of potholes. I'm going to need another massage after what I've just put my back through.

I am not sure how but I managed to make the entire journey without any embarrassing "incidents". After 28 hrs since my last meal I finally had some food in the form of steamed rice. I suspect that is going to be all I am eating for the next few days.

It appears that Vang Vieng is somewhat divided between the travel circles. As I type this I've just heard some chick screech about "where is the vodka?" Oh joy. Yep this is primarily a tourism-oriented town as in young backpackers looking to party. Don Khang is known as the "party island" with bars that are open until 4am. It was probably telling when you see signs posted everywhere asking the foreigners how to behave. Locals have said that the tourism is destroying their town's culture and encouraging crime amongst the children. Drugs are a problem here and are easily accessible to both travelers and locals. Some people appear to have forgotten about Laotian modesty and act like they're in Ibiza instead. I'm more of the tranquility-seeker myself and feeling a little better than I did 24hrs earlier I decided to go off and explore.

The scenery away from the town is breathtaking. To the west of the Nam Ou river you lay your eyes on the jet black jagged karsts. These are home to tunnels, caverns & lagoons and caving is one of the main attractions here. 

I'm not sure where I was going but like Dorothy I crossed a bamboo footbridge and began following the yellow dust road through rice fields and jungle. Overhead the heavens grumbled. No lightning but the thunder went on for a good hour.

I kept walking until I reached a padlocked and barbwired gate that led up one of the karsts to Lusi cave. Looks like I'll have to come back a little earlier if I want to do some caving. Still it was wonderful to be away from the hustle & bustle, the "thud thud thud" of music and screeching drunks. I listened instead to all the insects and birds before returning to reality.

Dinner was more steamed rice & water, all whilst watching Friends episodes on TV at a place by the river. If it's not Friends then it will be The Family Guy. This is apparently Westernization for you. There are a small but few places that haven't succumbed but for now, in my fragile state, this will do.

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