Escorted Tour - Coach
A few days in Laos
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A Grand Tour of Indochina Part 2: Laos. November 2014
It’s not every day 15 women queue up to tie a piece of string around one of my wrists, but today’s the day! I was at a Baci ceremony in Luang Prabang, the former capital of Laos now a World Heritage Site, with 20 others from our tour group. The ceremony calls up the participants’ spirits which may have wandered, and binds them back with the string. It’s used on many occasions, including welcoming guests.
A shaman (former monk, now local elder), 15 or 16 elderly women and several musicians were already seated on carpets on a lawn when we arrived. The ceremony started with the Shaman saying some prayers and calling up the spirits, then he and each of the women tied the cotton string around our wrists. We were each given a small glass of locally brewed rice whiskey and a banana before the women came around again to put a single flower in our hair, both men and women. At the end of the ceremony the Shaman left, but the women and musicians stayed to accompany local dancers who performed for us. Teenage girls from various Loa regions performed 7 or 8 dances and a single male dancer did the monkey dance wearing a mask. This dance is said to date from the 15th century. I very much enjoyed the Baci ceremony, I felt that it was genuinely meant by the Laotians who were there. They asked us to speak well of their country when we returned home to encourage our friends to visit Laos and bring much needed trade to their region.
The following morning we rose before dawn, so that we could take up positions in town to witness Tagbat, the giving of alms to the monks. Our guide told us that there are 12 or more monasteries in Luang Prabang, and that the monks of each monastery walk barefoot to the main temple at dawn each day. On the way, the townspeople give them gifts of food. It was dark when the first group passed us but it soon got light to make it possible to take some photographs. Again, I enjoyed this experience, it was worth the 5 o’clock alarm call to be there.
I’ve mentioned the number of monasteries in Luang Prabang. It’s easy to get overloaded with Buddhist history and culture here, suffice it to say that the monasteries, temples and stupas we saw in Vientiane and Luang Prabang were some of the most beautiful we visited on our tour of Indo China. But going into the countryside and seeing other things was very welcome.
Our main destination on one such excursion was Kuangsi waterfall, 32 km to the west of Luang Prabang, but on route we stopped at a Hmong village. Members of the Hmong race from the north of the country have very distinctive facial features. They make up 8% of the Laotian population. We’d seen some of them dance at the Baci ceremony. Their “conservation village” is conveniently located by the main road, and was designed with a circular path starting and ending by the road. Tourists alight from their coach, walk past any number of stalls selling wrist bands, purses, bags, aprons and the like, and rejoin their coach a few hundred metres further on. Many stallholders have their young female children dressed in their national costume as an added attraction to visit their stalls. The children are very photogenic and are happy to pose for photographs in the hope that you’ll buy some of their trinkets. Sadly, if I’d photographed girls of 9 or 10 in this country, I expect I’d have been thrown in prison as a suspected paedophile.
It was quite a climb from the Kuangsi car park to the base of the waterfall, but well worth the effort. After the main falls the water flows down several minor cascades, most no more than a couple of feet high, this produces three distinct swimming places. The Kuangsi falls don’t compare with Iguazú or Niagara, but they were lovely to visit on a sunny day. Some of our party took advantage of the swimming opportunity and ventured into the water, our guide had thoughtfully brought a supply of towels. I admired the view whilst staying dry. The forest walk back to the coach passed all three pools and went through a bear sanctuary. I don’t know how many bears there are in total, but we saw three or four.
A separate excursion took us on a 2 hour boat trip up the Mekong River. The boat seemed solid enough, but the seats seemed to have been taken from old motor vehicles. We could see seat back pockets on some of them, I suppose they could have come from a coach. During the course of the day we visited several villages which specialised in various crafts, including weaving, whisky making and paper making. There was no shortage of sellers at each place, most commonly selling "silk” scarves and wraps. Many of the stalls had a weaving loom behind them, with a girl working away. The gullible in our party believed that the silk scarves they were buying for a few dollars each were hand woven there. I’d be prepared to bet they were factory made in China or Taiwan. Or possibly even Laos. The whisky, made in a primitive still was very strong and said to be 50% alcohol. We bought a small bottle of 5% red wine and drank it that evening. It’s a long way from Rioja but it was palatable none the less.
The main cultural point of the trip up river was to visit the Buddhist Caves. There are two of these, both stuffed full of Buddhas. The first cave is 50 steps above the river level, the second nearer 300. I climbed up to the first and saw the contents. I figured that once you’ve seen several hundred Buddhas of various sizes in the first cave, you’re unlikely to see anything much different after another exhausting climb up to the second. So I sat a while admiring the contents of the first cave, then slowly made my way back to the boat.
I very much enjoyed our short stay in Laos, and especially the three days we had in Luang Prabang. I’ve never seen myself as the sort of man who wears string around his wrists, but we were told at the Baci ceremony that the strings should stay there for three days then be taken to a temple. One member of our party removed his within 10 minutes but I entered into the spirit of the event and tolerated damp string on my wrists every time I took a shower. On the way to the airport on our last day I gave those strings I could untie (cutting is forbidden) to our guide. He promised to take them to the temple. So having complied with all the rules I know about the Baci ceremony, I’m now happy to fulfil the request made of us. I thoroughly recommend that UK travellers should visit Laos.
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This review is solely based on the opinion of a Silver Travel Advisor member and not of Silver Travel Advisor Ltd.