While my love of train travel remained strong as we made our way toward Laos, The Captain’s fondness for it was starting to wane. He was looking forward to flying back to Italy for the Salone Nautico of Genova to present his new book, Amandla. La vita, la quasi morte e i miracoli del Capitano. I was just starting to consider how I might entertain myself during his absence.
Given our non-stop trip through Myanmar, both of us were exhausted by the time we arrived in Vientiane, so we spent the predominance of our limited time there catching up on sleep. We only ventured out of our guest house long enough to enjoy the amazingly delicious and affordable French food and wine on offer. I failed to capture any images of the feast as it wasn’t on our plates to snap a photo.
After two days, we hopped a bus to Luang Prabang. Here we wandered the streets touring several of Luang Prabang’s thirty-four Wats (Buddhist monastery / temples).
While visiting Wat Choumkhong Sourintharame, we befriended Phon Savanh. She educates monks and novices in art of sky-lantern making to keep the ancient craft alive. Her lanterns were the most ornate we saw in SE Asia, decorated with a multitude of characters. The lanterns are flown during Lai Heua Fai held in October.
We spent most of our evenings walking Luang Prabang’s night market, although one evening, we dined at Son Phao where we were treated to delicious food (Japanese!) and five different Lao traditional dances performed in an intimate dinner theater at an affordable price.
Still recovering from our Myanmar tour, we were often in bed by ‘Cruiser’s Midnight’ (9:00 P). But before sunrise, my sweet dreams were infused with the rhythmic sound of drumming that emanated from each of Luang Prabang’s Wats to announce the start the morning meditation.
There is not much that will get me out of bed before sunrise voluntarily (no matter how early I retire the night before), but I was so excited to observe the ritual to follow that I quickly dressed and was on the streets shortly after the drumming commenced.
Because at sunrise, following the morning meditation, all the monastery residents from the most seasoned monk to the youngest novice leave the Wats and proceed through the streets to meet devotees who have lined it to offer alms (sticky rice and sweets) in return for blessings.
The procession draws a lot of interested tourists to observe or participate along Kitsalat Road, but I had a much more intimate view as the monks and novices made their way along Ban Thong Chaleum toward Wat Hosian Voravihane.
The monks are very approachable. After The Captain left for Italy, I made my way up Mount Phousi to take in the views. There I met Monk Phout, a very energetic, intelligent and giving young man.
He divides his time between his own studies (hoping to earn a scholarship for study abroad) and educating young students in the countryside. I am still in touch with Monk Phout. If you’d like to make a contribution to his efforts, please let me know and I can ensure he receives your contribution.
After leaving Luang Prabang, I started to make my way toward Vietnam via Phonsavan. I hopped a minibus filled with locals and traveled along one of Laos’ many switchback roads. Although a short distance, the trip was lengthened by a mudslide.
Tey developed his deep knowledge of the 90+ Plain of Jars sites while working as a translator for UNESCO team during their efforts to document, rehabilitate and safeguard the Plain of Jars.
The Jars pre-date recorded history and their purpose is speculated but not fully known. Locals think the megalithic vessels were used to store water and food. Research by French archaeologist Madeleine Colani has substantiated their use for burial.
I opted for a full-day tour with Tey which included visits to the famous Plain of Jars Site 1, a remarkable Mulberry Silk Farm, and local Hmong Village.
But the sights visited that will be etched in my mind forever are those that bear silent witness to the tragic events of the Secret War here such as the Tham Piu Cave where 374 villagers met their deaths while seeking shelter when The US bombed this location thinking it the stronghold of Laos’ communist government. Will we never learn?
I had planned to make my way from Phonsavan to Minh Vietnam the next morning, but my friend James from SY Mahiti alerted me to inclement weather there in the form of Tropica Storm Doksuri, so I opted to stay an extra day and travel to Hanoi via Sam Nuea, Laos and Thanh Hóa, Vietnam.
There is zero traffic at this lengthy walk-across border in Na Mèo so it was a surprise gift when a beautiful teacher and her entourage of three handsome men offered me a lift across in their brand new Lexus SUV. It is times like that where I feel that my friend Mary is still traveling by my side and looking out for me.
What will I remember about this final road trip through Laos? The comfortable temperatures in the higher altitudes so welcome after months of oppressive humidity of the tropics, the jaw-dropping landscapes along endless switchback roads, the delightful fragrances emanating throughout the sparsely populated mountainside, easily accessible remoteness (I saw only one westerner from the time I left Luang Prabang until the time I arrived in Thanh Hóa, Vietnam), and most of all, a forgiving population that seemed to harbor little animosity toward the United States although the scars of our ‘visit’ there 40 years ago were evident everywhere.