A Day on the Mekong River ~ Luang Prabang, Laos

“The mosquitos are our friends.”

These were the words of Beatrix, our pranayama (breathing exercise) teacher as we sat in a small, hot, darkening room in Nong Khai, Northern Thailand. Her voice embodied calm, as only a yogini’s can, as it floated through the buzzing, humming, mosquito-filled evening.

These words spun around my head as I sat in an open wooden boat, motoring up the Mekong River some four or five days later, wrapped tightly in my arms and my pashmina shawl, trying to contain the violent shivers wracking my body. Mosquitos may be our friends, but they are also friends with malaria, dengue, and other hemorrhagic fevers… and it was looking increasingly as if I had contracted one of these. But, who knew when I might have another chance to visit the wilds of Laos and I had already paid for my day trip! So, I popped another aspirin against the pounding headache (in retrospect, the worst thing you can do in the tropics) and desperately tried to stay out of the wind.

This was two years ago: March 2010. I had been looking forward to visiting Laos after a week at the Nong Khai Yoga Retreat. My husband was meant to meet me in Luang Prabang, but got called to China at the last minute. I love travelling and I don’t mind travelling on my own, but it makes getting sick (or other hassles) harder to deal with. On this occasion, I managed to stay semi-upright long enough to finish the tour, taking a number of photographs along the way, before collapsing in the room of my guesthouse for two days, only surfacing to catch my plane to Bangkok and go back to bed for another week.

This is the first chance I’ve had to revisit that trip, and see what I can remember of it.

View of a traditional wooden Lao river boat, from another. Mekong River and hills in the background.

The day started on a traditional wooden Mekong river boat, heading up stream...

Our first stop was Ban Xhang Hai (or Ban Sang Hai, or Xanghai, depending on the transliteration system used), a small village north of Luang Prabang on the banks of the Mekong, known for making rice wine: with or without snakes and/or scorpions in it.

Composite: Portrait of a middle-aged Lao woman and Scorpions in rice-wine, in bottles.

Rice-wine seller, Ban Xhang Hai ... . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Scorpions in rice wine: sealed for your protection.

View of people and long wooden boats on sandbars on the river: ragged karst mountains in the background.

People still pan for gold on the Mekong River; I don't think they find much.

Lao people looking through the rocks at the edge of a river.

Gold Panners ~ Mekong River

Twenty-five kilometres up-stream, at the confluence of the Mekong and Ou Rivers, we stopped at the Pak Ou Caves, which sit high above us, nestled into the limestone cliffs.

Composite: Steps up to Pak Ou Caves, and gated entry with people silhouetted.

The long climb up from the Mekong River boats... . . . . . to the dark entry way into Pak Ou Caves.

From time immemorial, these caves have been considered sacred. They were used for the worship of the river spirits until the arrival of Buddhism. For at least 600 years, the caves have been a site of Buddhist pilgrimage and worship for kings and commoners alike.

Composite on black: burning incense and two small, roughly carved Buddhas in low light.

The upper cave, Tham Phum, is in complete darkness until someone shines a flashlight.

Composite on black: Portrait:Lao boy in a GAP sweatshirt and Gold-painted standing buddhas

Kids hang around while their carers sell incense and offerings.

Over the years, the caves have been filled with Buddha images of all types and styles, some more than 300 years old. There are estimated to be more than 4000 in Tham Ting – the lower cave – alone. More open to the light and only 15 meters above the river, this smaller cave is more accessible.

Seated white-washed Buddha at the cave mouth of Tham Ting. Countless small Buddhas behind.

Tham Ting is the lower and smaller of the two caves at Pak Ou

Composite on black: two pictures of multiple buddha images in a cave.

Tham Ting is estimated to contain more than 4000 Buddha images, of all types and ages.

Our next stop was the Khmu minority village of Ban Thapaene for a simple rice-noodle lunch and a browse through the markets. The Khmu were the original indigenous inhabitants of northern Laos, but now number about 500,000 around the world. Most of these are still in villages in Northern Lao, but there has been a significant community in California since the Vietnam war.

Small water buffalo carved from wood

Carved water-buffalo in the market stalls of Ban Thapaene.

Following lunch, a short jungle walk led us past the Asiatic Black Bear Sanctuary which is home to more than 20 Asiatic black bears who have been rescued from the bile-harvesting trade. A joint project of the Australian and Lao governments, the sanctuary is funded by donations on site and through the Australian-based not-for-profit Free the Bears organisation. (I’m sure they’d love your support!)

Poles, nets and tyres in an enclosure.

Play-Space: Asiatic Black Bear Sanctuary, Laos

Behind wire fencing: the face of an Asiatic black bear

"You with the sad face..." ... a rescued Asiatic black bear.

Then onward, through more jungle, to the beautiful tiered waterfalls of Khuang Xi (or Kuang Si – that pesky transliteration again!).

Composite: Lao Theravada Buddhist monk on a wooden bridge, and low turquoise waterfall in jungle.

A monk on the pathway... . . . . . . . . to Khuang Xi Waterfalls

Low wooden bridge over a small turquoise waterfall in a jungle setting

A low wooden bridge is part of the well-groomed pathway along side the river.

Expanse of rocky limestone waterfalls in jungle.

Travertine falls amid lush jungle.

Trees growing in turquoise waters pooling in limestone ponds.

The limestone ground gives the water a glorious colour...

White waters falling over limestone into a turquoise pool.

... and provide multiple little falls, up the whole length of Khouang Xi Waterfall.

Woman in bikini climbing a tree over a waterfall pond.

Although the waters are quite cold,

Man hanging onto a rope over a turquoise waterfall pool.

many people took the opportunity to cool off from the jungle heat.

Portrait: lao baby

Last stop before home: another village.

Text: Stay Well - UrsulaClearly a full and varied day out. Perhaps one day I’ll get back there – when I’m actually well enough to enjoy it!

 Photos: 26 March 2010

Signe Westerberg - March 23, 2012 - 12:21 am

what is it about waterfalls? I’m not sure if it is their mystique, the colours or the simple elegance but aren’t they lovely. It strikes me you did very well under the circumstances and I have no doubt you will return. Thanks as always for sharing this

Ursula - March 24, 2012 - 3:53 am

Thanks for joining me, Signe. It was oone of the nicest waterfalls I’ve ever visited; although there are a few in Thailand that are similar… Stay tuned! ;-)

dietmut - March 24, 2012 - 5:48 pm
Ursula - March 24, 2012 - 11:03 pm

Thanks so much, Dietmut! :D

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