Welcome to the blog of the sailing yacht Sea Bunny.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

UXOs, waterfalls and moon bears

We had learnt that there was an orphanage run by COPE which had a visitor centre similar to the one in Vientiane, which we had failed to visit. The minibus driver we had hired with another couple found the orphanage with no difficulty but no visitor centre. After several false trails were followed we eventually ended up at the visitor centre of UXO LAO, one of the NGOs involved in clearance.  A sobering display of the extent of the problem included an opened cluster bomb containing 680 inert bomblets.  Apparently some had up to 3000 bomblets.  An etimated 30% of all ordinance failed to explode.

 Following this the waterfalls are places to chill out.

Tad Sae
Tad Sae is accessible by boat along the Nam Khan - we went as part of our Elephant Village tour.  As well as the swimming area it has a multi-stage zip-wire where customers descent on a series of wires, finally crossing the bathing pool.  It is also the site of another of the elephant parks.

Tad Kuang Si
Tad  Kuang Si is about 25 km from LP by road and much more commercialised with a large area of stalls and restaurants clustered around the entrance.  The main cascade is around 100m and very impressive.  The river then enters a series of pools, suitable for swimming, which Susan braved. As at Tad Sae the water is a pale turquoise colour, very similar to glacial melt water, presumably because of very fine sediment.

Moon bear at the rescue centre
Within the centre is a well maintained bear rescue centre. It has 23 bears, mostly asiatic black bears (moon bears) which have been rescued from the illegal trade in bear bile (used in Chinese medicine) or donated by people who have misguidedly bought cubs as pets. Unfortunately because of the nature of their capture few of these can be returned to the wild.

The real Laos

Across the Mekong from Luang Prabang one enters a different world, away from the relative prosperity and, one might say "disney world" of the world heritage site.  Although the river is only some 300 m wide the wealth gulf is immense.

We had the privilege of visiting the high school in Chomphet district in the company of a group from "A Helping Hand" charity from the Round Table in Perth, Australia who had donated a library to the school through the locally based NGO Community Learning International (CLI) and attend the basti (animist) celebratry ceremony.  Are there really more NGOs''here than in Cambodia?

The new girls'dormitory
CLI had also been responsible for the construction of a 150-bed dormitory for girls from remote hill villages attending the school. Click on the location link to see the exact location of the dormitory (under construction at the time  of the image - now completed).  The library is the roofed building to the south of the dormitory (click on the location link below and zoom well in on satellite view).

Previous (and still used) boarding accommodation
The girls'"parents are reluctant for them to attend the school because of a lack of chaparones and safe accommodation. The present accommodation is 100 or so very basic huts each with a central fireplace, each housing 2-5 students. You can see the huts to the west of the new dormitory on the location image.The stream that is present the source of water and sanitation is  to the west and south of these.  This stream  dries to a trickle in the dry season.

To supplement the new provision there remains a requirement to provide adequate sanitation, a safe water supply i.e well and food preparation facilities for the boarding students.  The school is the only high school in the district. We were told it caters for 2300 students.

Susan's ties of friendship
After the visit the school teachers entertained the group to snacks, various blessings in Lao and the tying of numerous lengths of cotton cord around our wrists - a gesture of friendship

The Book Boat
 Another project run by CLI is the "Book Boat" which travels to remote riverside villages to provide reading books to children who otherwise have no or very limited access to reading material.  We were able to visit Ban Sansouk village some 15 km away with them. 

Avid readers
 Some 100 children came to the riverbank to meet the boat and after some games led by a teacher and one of the volunteers the youngest ones were given pictues to colour while the older ones chose a book from the boat and spent an hour or so reading before the sun became too hot and the boat had to leave. 

For many of the kids this is the only access they have to reading books. At other villages the organisation leaves a "book bag" containing 100 books so that children can borrow them for a longer period.  Bags and/or books to go in them can be purchased at the Luang Prabang library.

Luang Prabang - Elephant Village

View from Elephant Village
One of the popular tourist attractions in Luang Prabang is an encounter with retired or rescued logging elephants.  With the rapid decline in the need for them in the logging industry some are being given a new role in the tourist industry where their work is less arduous.  While some of the operations are exploitative others aim to really care for the animals while enabling them to earn their living.  The most recommended elephant encounter business near LP is Elephant Village.  The village is some 15km from LP on the NamKhan river, with an excellent view across the river to fields and the mountains.  Options range from a half-day tour with elephant riding through one to six day "mahout training" packages. We opted for the half-day tour.

Mahout Richard & passenger
This involved an introduction to the work of the village, a 40-minute ride (two customers per elephant rather than the 6-8 we have experienced in India) which took us down a steep slope to the Nam Khan River, about a 200 m  walk in the river to an island, where the mahout got off to take photos and there was an opportunity to take his place.

Feeding time
On return to the village the elephants are fed.  "Ours" clearly did not like the bananas that were on offer as a addition to the grass that was the bulk of the feed.  Apparently the dung is collected and made into paper, the elephants having commenced the pulping process.  And we had thought the hand-made paper on offer as notebooks, cards and bags were made from mulberry bark!

A boat trip to a nearby waterfall,.lunch and a short swim in the pool completed the trip.

Luang Prabang

Luang Prabang - part of which is a World Heritage Site - is a mix of temples that have been renovated, Laos traditional buildings and French colonial period architecture.  Buddhism, since the revolution, is making a revival so the temples are not such a hive of local activity as they might be except for tourists.The city is still uniquely divided into villages or Bans. From the temple of each Ban the drums beat at 0400 hrs to wake the faithful and the monks who walk round the ban at 0600hrs collecting alms from the devout.

Recycled flower pots
Recycling has yet to take hold here - except for some of the ordnance dropped by the US (see earlier blog).  These flower pots were on the hill overlooking the town.

The river and cargo boat
The city is situated on a peninsular between the Nam Knan and the mighty Mekong.  The riverfront is busy with people offering sunset cruises, trips to various waterfalls and to the caves 2 hours upstream and with travel shops offering bus trips around Laos including claims to reach Vientiane in 8 hours. It is more commercialised than we thought it would be with old houses renovated for guest houses, caf├ęs, travel agents or massage use and the neat pavements all built with UNESCO assistance!.

Vat Xiang Thong
The most important temple, Vat Xiang Thong, is typical of Laos temple architecture with its sweeping low eaves.  Inside are gold leaf murals on a black background. Only Laos has buddha statues where the arms are held straight down the sides of the body -  praying for rain.

Bamboo bridge across the Nam Khan
At the confluence of the rivers at the northern end of town where there is a bamboo bridge over the Nam Khan leading to a small bar overlooking the junction and on to weaving villages.

Evening view from Tha Heua Mae balcony
Our guest house, Tha Heua Mae, overlooks the Mekong, run by Russians and only opened a couple of months ago.  We have the front room with a view of the river and there is a balcony for people watching.We breakfast at the Manichan Guest House just around the corner where Peter provides an excellent spread.  Both are highly recommended, particularly when combined as for us.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

VIP bus Vientiane to Luang Prabang

From Vientiane to Luang Prabang by road is around 370 km.  This took 12 hours with about 2/3 of this is over mountain roads rising to around 1300 m.  The 0700 tuk-tuk pick up was punctual and after the town pick ups, the 0800 VIP bus left on time.  The bus was comfortable enough with semi-effective airconditioning, passable legroom, reclinable seats and a toilet (which we did not brave).  Water, rubbish bags and hand wipes were handed out on departure - very civilised for this park of Asia.
We made one short stop at 1030 and another at 1400 for lunch, which was included in the ticket price (although, not being able to read the ticket, we found this out after ordering) - we chose the noodle soup.  Other than a few brief stops to take on or drop off passengers it was then non-stop, arriving at around 2015. 
Lunch stop
The scenery initially was flat farmland.  Around Vang Vieng, about 1/3 of the way, there were large karst formations - rather like Phang Nga bay except these rose out of the land not the sea.  After the lunch stop we rose into the mountains, which were impressive.  The road was sealed (mostly) but very winding, passing through several mountain villages.  Too bumpy to do suduko! The bamboo houses clung to the edge of the road with vertical drops behind.
While the trip was long we were pleased to have an extremely cautious driver.  Up in the mountains there are nearly vertical drops of several hundred metres.The driver was extremely cautious,the sort that you would gladly have a whip round for in the UK, but the guy hardly got a thank you.

Vientiane, Laos

Patoxai - Victory Gate
  Laos' answer to the Arc de Triomph is definately asian style close up and gives a view down the main boulevard to the palace and  the river.  It was apparently built with American cement donated for the airport runway!  The view from the top is good as are the surrounding gardens.

Does this mean you shouldn't share a joint?

The water level in the Mekong appears low, unlike the Chao Praya in Bangkok where there is still flooding.

That Luang
A few km outside the city centre is That Luang, the principal stupa in Vientiane, surrounded by cloisters.  A solid looking structure with none of the charm of Shwe Dagon, Rangoon.  Vientiane suffers greatly in that it has been razed on several occasions in the past and its treasures carted off to Thailand including the green emerald buddha.

We tried to go to the visitor centre at COPE (Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Entreprise) where there is a display covering the bombing of Laos inthe 1970s.  Laos is the most heavily bombed per capita country in the world.  Over 2 million tones of ordinance was dropped on the country in 580000 missions - with a population of 6.5 million that comes out at around 300 kg for every man, woman and child! The continuing problem of making safe the estimated 8 million bomblets from cluster bombs that remain is immense and the human cost in terms of injuries and fatalities continues.  Unfortunately on the day we went - our last in Vientiane - the centre was closed, the staff having gone to a charity bazaar!

Our hotel in Vientiane, the Hotel Beau Rivage, was excellent as was the co-owned Spirit House Restaurant next door.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Langkawi Cable Car - posted from Rebak

One of Langkawi's tourist attractions is the cable car (actually a gondola) leading to a mountain top overlooking Telaga harbour and the west of Langkawi.   Since our first arrival in Langkawi in November 2008 we have made several attempts to go up.  These have been thwarted by various impediments - too windy, too misty, Wednesday morning (closed for maintenance) to name a few.  It is somewhat reassuring that it is regularly maintained, unlike many things in Malaysia which suffer from a severe lack of maintenance.

Well - we finally made it!  We arrived shortly after opening time to find a short queue heading for the turnstiles and the steps up to the departure platform.  We bought our tickets and joined the waiting line.  What we hadn't appreciated was that the stairs did not lead directly to the gondolas but to a large waiting area through which the queue snaked, controlled by barrier, similar to the queue at an airport immigration area but longer than most except LAX.  A visual assessment led to the estimate that there were around 600 people waiting  Each gondola took a maximum of 6 and they left at 30 second intervals so we were in for an unanticipated lengthy wait, made longer as the staff were having limited success in ensuring that each car left full - groups wanted to stick together.  It was a Saturday and a holiday weekend at that so our timing was particularly poor.

Telaga harbour & anchorage, airport & protective
breakwater & Rebak  (top right)
When we eventually got to the top patches of cloud were drifting over the observation platforms, but clearing sufficiently to give us some good views over Telaga, the airport and the north of Rebak.

Aerial walkway
 As well as the gondola itself, which is quite impressive, there is a walkway suspended out over a sheer drop of some 500 metres, affording good views of the cliffs.

On descending (no queues) the crowds at the bottom had virtually disappeared!

Inle Lake - Phaung Daw Oo Paya festival - 28 & 29 September

Our visit to Inle Lake was designed to coincided with the first few days of the Buddhist Phaung Daw Oo Paya festival. Here four Buddha inages, normally housed in the temple of the same name, are ferried by boat around the 100 odd lakeside villages in golden barges shaped like the swan from Burmese mythology. This allows all the locals an opportunity to pay their respects and apply gold leaf to the images. 
Young monk gets a snack
On day one we were at Inn Dien village, up a fairly narrow channel from the lake, where the images make their initial stop.  There was a huge crowd awaiting the arrival, and a serious party atmosphere.  Snacks were on offer catering for all tastes, including deep-fried chicken heads - probably an acquired taste which we didn't try!  Actually they are very cheap and give an opportunity for even the poorest to afford to buy.

An escort boat
Soon after 1000 hrs the first of the escorting boats arrived.  Each boat was powered by some 30-40 men, some using the traditional scullling technique, some using a more conventional paddling motion.  There was some chaos as the boats jockeyed for position, some running aground at a fork in the river.  After about 15-20 boats had arrived the barge carrying the images came into sight.  For this village a small barge was used because of the narrowness of the river.  The barge docked and the images were carried into the local temple.  The jolly crowd prevented a good view at this stage.
View from the hill top
Above Inn Dien village is a vast area of ruined stupas and a modern temple and above these a hill with a viewpoint giving an excellent view both of the temples and of the lake.  It was a convenient place to wait until it was less crowded to view the Buddhas.

Gold leaf encrusted Buddhas
Later we were able to get a good view of the Buddhas in the temple - at least Richard was able to get close, women not being allowed on to the platform where they are housed. So much gold leaf has been applied over many years that the images look more like golden snowmen than any representation of the Buddha.

Awaiting the Buddhas
On day two the images were brought back down from Inn Dien en route to their next destination and transferred to a larger barge.  The crowds to greet them at the transshipment point were, if anything larger than at Inn Dien, most of them in a fleet of boats.  All quietly waiting in anticipation of the barge.

The ladies' escort boat
We had an excellent vantage point from a bridge over a branch of the river.  Once again there were the escorting boats; this time there was even one crewed by women. Some doing traditional dancing.

The large barge
The images, coming down from Inn Dien are moved onto a much larger barge and continue on their way to the lake and their next destination.
What a barge!


Inle Lake trek - 30 September - Posted from Rebak

Local "car wash"
Back at Nuang Shwe on the mainland after two nights at an hotel over the lake, our last day at the lake was taken up with a guided trek.  Starting at 870 m we ascended to our lunch stop at 1420 m, passing through hilly farmland and some forest.  For this we had a local guide, who spoke good English, having worked in the hotel industry and also with NGOs following flooding catastophe in the delta.

Lunchtime - time for a siesta
Lunch was taken at a local house, where some delicious noodles were prepared for us and we could rest after the exertions of the climb or slip as it was so muddy! 

Cottage industry - sorting tobacco
At the house the main occupation was sorting and drying tobacco leaf for the cigar and cheroot workshops down at the lake villages

View to the lake
A day in peaceful rural surroundings, pleasantly cooler and without temples, stupas or monasteries giving time to reflect on all that we had seen. 

Inle Lake - 27 September to 1 October - posted from Rebak

It is only a short flight from Mandalay to Heho, the airport for Inle Lake but the scenery is quite different as we leave the Ayeyarwady River plain and head into the mountains. Having said that, the plateau around Heho is also quite flat - perhaps the remains of an ancient lake.

Paper making
 A visit to an umbrella making workshop is fascinating.  The traditional umbrellas are made from handmade paper, using mulberry bark as a raw material.  The process differs from tapa making in the South Pacific in that the bark is ground to pulp with water and then placed on a fine mesh to drain and dry, sometimes with the addition of flowers or leaves to create a pattern.

Traditional umbrella nearly finished
The frame of the umbrella, including the spring catch, is made out of wood and bamboo.  Rainproof ones are treated with creosote.

Drawing fibres from lotus stem
Weaving is another traditional activity practiced in the villages on the lake.  Silk is a common material but the premium products are made from lotus stem.  The fibre is labouriously removed from the stem by making cuts at about 1 inch intervals and drawing out about 10 fibres per cut.  This is then spun and woven on traditional looms.  The asking price for a lotus cloth shirt, which has the texture of coarse linen, was USD 550!  Silk was significantly cheaper.

Hydroponic tomatoes
On the lake, crops are grown in floating gardens, mats of compost and fibre anchored to the lake floor by bamboo poles.  Tomatoes, cucumbers and squash are among the products.  Culture and harvesting are by boat, with the rows of crops set just wide enough to allow passage.

Traditional sculling
The local men have developed a unique form of rowing or sculling using their legs, leaving hands free to handle their nets or tend their crops. Women are not permitted to do this so are confined to rowing only.

8 hoof drive - probably more effective than 4WD here
The local market is held at a different lakeside location, on a 5-day cycle.  Goods arrive at the market by bullock cart or by boat.  On sale are the necessities of life as well as tourist-oriented souvenirs.  Being beside the lake during the rainy season there is also a lot of mud!

Shan women at market
  As well as being the local shopping centre the market is an opportunity for a bit of gossip.  The girls haven't just washed their hair - this is traditional Shan headgear.