Ugh, I really want to apologize for the long lapses here. I just haven't had it in me to update. I've been busy with school while at work and then a total sloth upon walking into my apartment in the evening. And weekends I do nothing. So, clearly, I have absolutely no excuse...but sorry anyway.
The last leg of our vacation was to Laos. We spent the whole time based in the northern city of Luang Prabang. The plane that we took from Bangkok to Luang Prabang was a little prop plane with only four seats across, which was enough to make Erich nervous. It was far from full so I got a row to myself which was pretty sweet. It took us about two hours and when we stepped off the plane in Luang Prabang (on to the single runway) it was surprisingly cold (overcast and about 50*F). We couldn't find our ride to the guest house, so we grabbed a tuk tuk and headed into town. Luang Prabang was a lot like I imagine Siem Reap was a few years ago...less developed, but still with signs of tourism popping up. The ride downtown was pretty quick (the whole town of Luang Prabang is not that big) and we were dropped off with all of our stuff at Rattana Guest House. The guest house was suggested by Adam who has spent a lot of time in Laos getting stuff squared away for the PoP schools so trusted his judgement. The first night they were overbooked, so they sent us out to a satellite Rattana outside of town. I made sure to tell the woman at Rattana 1 that we were supposed to meet up with Noy and confirm our visit to the school the next morning and she said Noy would find us at Rattana 2. I had corresponded with Adam and Leslie (the country director for Laos) before we left in order to set up a visit to the Pencils of Promise schools near Luang Prabang. Unfortunately due to scheduling, Leslie was out of town the entire time we were there and Noy (a Lao woman who helps coordinate construction, etc) was only going to be there Saturday morning before leaving on a vacation. We had agreed that since that was the only time available we'd head out to the school Saturday morning and return in time for Noy to fly out.
Rattana Guest House
After settling in at the new guest house, we caught a tuk tuk downtown and walked around for a bit before finding a place to eat dinner. We took some time to walk through the grounds of a wat downtown and I have to say that I love the gold leaf designs on the temples. They were really pretty. We spent some time in a tour office booking a tour out to one of the waterfalls nearby and an elephant ride for Sunday. We also made use of their free internet! Then we went over to the Tamnak Lao Restaurant where we scheduled an all day cooking class for Monday. We went to a random restaurant on our way back toward the hotel, where our dinner was decent though not amazing (I had Lao laab/larp/lab/larb/whatever other spelling you want to use, which was VERY spicy, even for me). Afterwards we walked through a part of the night market on the way back to the area where you could pick up taxis. We went back to the hotel and crashed in order to be ready for our 7:00am departure.
At 7:00am we headed out into the lobby with all of our bags packed, searching for the elusive Noy we were supposed to be meeting. The commotion woke up a female employee who was sleeping in a room off the lobby. I explained to her that we were supposed to be meeting Noy to go on a visit to the schools. After about 3 minutes of confused conversation we realized that this WAS Noy and no one had told her we were meeting her at 7:00am. Aigh. She suggested that we leave at 11:00am and said her plans had changed so now she wouldn't be flying out to Thailand that evening. We agreed to meet her at Rattana 1 at 11:00am and Erich, Mike and I headed downtown o get some breakfast. We walked around for a bit and settled on a lovely little restaurant overlooking the Mekong. The omlet and baguette I had were deliciously fresh and the sticky rice with coconut milk and bananas...well I could eat it every day for the rest of my life. SO GOOD. After breakfast we had a few hours to kill so we walked the entire length of Luang Prabang, all the way down to the end of the penninsula. On the way we browsed various shops, took in some beautiful scenery at different wats and checked out a photo exhibit of Buddhist monks. At 11:00am we headed back to Rattana 2 (walking distance from downtown) and met up with Noy. She told us that she had spoken to the principal at the preschool in Pha Theung and that they were very excited that we were coming. The principal requested that we come on a day when students were there, so Noy agreed that we could go on Tuesday morning before our flight left. We said that was fine and once again were at a loss about what to do with our time.
Perfect breakfast spot on the bank of the Mekong.
Streets of Luang Prabang. Totally laid back.
One of the gold adorned wats downtown.
We decided that Saturday was as good as any day to go visit the Pak Ou Caves. We went down towards the pier and chose a slow boat captain (that is a slow-boat captain, not a slow boat-captain, FYI) to ferry us down the Mekong to the caves. These caves, situated halfway up a craggy stone wall facing the river, are special because they are full of over three thousand different Buddha statues. They have been put there by different people over many years and are made of all different materials in all different poses. We were under the impression that the boat ride would take about 40 minutes. We set off down the Mekong on our slow boat. It was really relaxing. The water was very low (we are coming up towards the end of the dry season) so there were these huge outcroppings of rocks all over the place. The river cuts through a bunch of mountains, so there was always beautiful scenery to take in. There was also just the simple scenes of life on the Mekong: a family doing their laundry in the water, kids playing and swimming naked, fishermen out bringing in the day's haul, water buffaloes cooling off on the banks of the river. We stopped along the way to get gas and pick up two more passengers (older Japanese men who were adorable) and continued on our way. Forty minutes turned into an hour...then an hour and a half. By the time we got up to an hour and forty five minutes I had to pee so bad I was considering doing it over the side of the boat. They weren't joking when they said "slow boat."
Slow boat gliding down the Mekong.
It was a beautiful day to be on the river.
Finally we reached the caves and I sprinted (read: walked slowly on the terrifying bamboo floating dock I was certain I was going to go right through and then booked it once on solid ground) towards the caves in hopes of finding a bathroom ASAP. Of COURSE the bathrooms were on the other side of the world and up 1000 steps. Of course. On the way I had to dodge a million little children, dirty and underclothed, begging for money and trying to sell me things ranging from bracelets to live birds in tiny cages. But I was a woman on a mission. Finally I followed all the signs and, panting, find the "bathroom". Now its important to note that though squat toilets are widely available in Seoul, I have prided myself on never having used one. Thailand killed that streak, but none that I have seen were quite as bad as this lovely lavatory at Pak Ou Caves. The room was dark, the floors were wet, the toilet had no flushing mechanism other than a bucket full of rain water that you ladled into the hole. It was lovely. But pee holders can't be choosers, so I made do with what I had. And now we'll never speak of it again. Feeling much better, I headed back towards the cave. (Upon taking a closer look, I think you were supposed to buy the bird, make a wish and set it free. All I could think of was my mom being horrified that I held a wild bird and wondering if I had enough hand sanitizer to save myself from Bird Flu.) The caves were interesting. Lots of burning incense and offerings lit the way as you walked around looking at the many incarnations of Buddha. After a bit of exploring it was time to get back on the boat for the ride back to Luang Prabang (a little shorter since we weren't fighting the current anymore). The trip home was also quite pretty as the sun began to set. By the time we got back to the pier it was full sunset and really pretty with the last rays settling over the slow boats and reflecting off the river. We decided to enjoy sunset a little longer so we found a riverside bar and had a few drinks before heading off in search of dinner.
Pak Ou Caves from the water.
Buddhas inside Pak Ou Caves.
Looking out the mouth of the cave.
Sunset on the river.
Mike had done some research in his tour book (yes, he finally read it) to find out about where we should be eating and he had a few restaurants in mind. We went to the first one (L'Elefant) and it was all booked up, so we walked back up and settled on the restaurant called the 3 Nagas. I had fantastic grilled water buffalo and a really good curry. We slowly walked back through the market, scoping out future purchases and taking in all the sights. I swear, I could spend a million dollars and furnish 30 houses using that night market alone. There was a huge diversity in available products and I just loved browsing. We called it a night soon after and headed back to the guest house.
Night market stall.
Overall view of the huge night market.
Sunday morning we were picked up early in one of the ghettoest vans I've ever seen to head out on our elephant trek, waterfall tour and visit to Hmong village. After some vehicle switching and shuffling around, our group was ready to head into the Elephant Camp. The three of us were joined by a young (and adorable) German guy, a couple from Canada (whom I called the Vancouver vegetarians) that was attempting to escape the Olympics, and four French people (who were increasingly unpleasantly scented as the day wore on). We started with our elephant ride. It was... nerve wrecking. Yes, that is the first adjective that comes to mind. These were Asian elephants, so significantly smaller than their African cousins, but it was still a long fall to the ground! Mike and I were paired up and we sat perched upon this little bench on top of the pads on the elephant's back. The mahout (elephant rider/trainer) sat across the back of the elephant's neck. You climbed up on to this platform and then jumped right on to the bench as the elephant walked up. I was pretty terrified I was going to tip the whole thing over, so it made for an interesting ride. The trek was about an hour and a half. We went up hill (alright) and down hill (horrifically scary as I was certain I was going to pitch forward and face-plant), through trees and a river. About halfway through the mahout got down and told Mike he should sit on the elephant's neck for the rest of the ride. I was happy with this arrangement because
1) I was not sitting directly on the elephant and enduring what Mike called "one of the most uncomfortable crotch rides ever" as the elephant's bristly hair poked through my pants, and
2) I was able to scoot to the middle of the bench and prop my feet up on the elephant's back when we went down hill, making me feel muuuuuuch safer.
Mike and I on an elephant, of course.
Elephant slalom course.
Heading down into the river. Terrifying.
Feeding a baby elephant.
Overall, it was definitely something memorable and unique that I've never done before! After the trek I fed a baby elephant some pineapple tops (who knew elephants loved them?) and we boarded the van to head out to the waterfall. It took us about an hour and a half to get there on some very windy little roads that made me thankful we weren't in a tuk tuk. Also, sitting in the back of a hot van with the scent of unwashed Frenchmen wafting over you is NOT GOOD when you get carsick. By the time we got to the Kwang Si Waterfall I was super glad to be out of the car. There was a very nice gentle walk up to the lower waterfall and that's where we grabbed a picnic table and ate some lunch. Then we had a few free hours which we spent exploring the falls and watching people jump off a crazy rope swing into a deep pool. Erich did some swimming, Mike did some reading, and I just did a ton of people watching. While we were at the rope swing pool Erich and I kept looking at these two familiar looking people next to us. Turns out that they both work for SMOE and were at our August orientation. Small world. While its not entirely surprising that they were also in SE Asia on our common break, it was kind of surprising that they were at this random waterfall pool at the same time, on the same day as us. When it was nearly time for us to leave we headed back towards the parking lot and stopped at the bear park. Now those of you who know me might be able to identify why I get nervous when an Asian country advertises a bear park. The Great Wall of China's bear park was bar none one of the saddest treatments of animals I've ever witnessed first hand. The bears were kept in entirely concrete and metal enclosures with no vegetation and were fed animal crackers. The enclosures were full of trash and bottles that people threw into them. In short, it was horrific. But this bear park was awesome! It is a rehabilitation center for sun bears (Asian black bears) and the bears actually had tons of things to play with, plenty of room to roam around and lots of natural looking habitat to hang out in. It was all wooded and had nice shaded areas. Upon reading some of the descriptions there it was clear that these bears are well cared for, and that made me happy.
Mike and I posing at Kwang Si Waterfall.
Swimming area with a girl jumping off the rope swing.
Lower fall at Kwang Si.
Happy bears playing in the bear park.
On the way out to the car we had some time to shop and buy some tasty food (mmm, coconut dumplings) and then it was time to head back to Luang Prabang with a stop at a Hmong village. I was pretty excited about the Hmong village because a while ago I read a fascinating book called "The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down" about a young Hmong girl with a seizure disorder and how her family's culture clashed with that of her American doctors. It is an incredibly interesting book that gives a lot of insight into the Hmong culture. (Read it!) Anyway, I have been intrigued by the Hmong tribe since reading the book and I was excited to check out the village. Until we got there and realized that it was really just an incredibly depressing tourist trap where you walked through an impoverished village as half naked children begged you to buy things in their sing song voices. It was terrible and uncomfortable. Thankfully we were only there for about ten minutes.
I would buy 100 bracelets if it would make that little girl in orange/pink support that baby's head.
Sunday evening we had a late dinner at The Coconut Grove (absolutely delicious food, check it out if you're in Luang Prabang!) and hung out for a while before methodically going through the night market and making a ton of purchases. I bought a beautiful hand quilted/apliqued duvet cover (which I've used every night since returning home), slippers for myself and for Eun Kyung's baby, gifts for my parents, grandparents, cousins, etc. Lots of shopping.
Monday morning I woke up early with the intention of going to see the alms giving ceremony downtown, but Mike wasn't feeling well and we decided to wait. We were able to sleep in a little before our cooking class and we took advantage. We were told not to eat a big breakfast but I wish we had eaten something because I was pretty starving by the time we actually got to eat. We met up with our classmates at Tamnak Lao (three people from the Netherlands, two girls from England, a guy from the US via China, a couple from Canada, and a young backpacking guy from Canada) and our teachers before boarding a tuk tuk that took us out to the market. We got a tour of the market and as we wound through tight, busy walkways the teachers pointed out various ingredients and supplied some interesting information. After some exploring it was time to tuk tuk back to Tamnak Lao. When we got back we had a break for morning tea while the cooking school people set up all the ingredients/supplies we would need for our recipes. Basically one of the teachers would demonstrate how to make the dish and then send us back to our (2 person) stations with the cookbook to make it ourselves. Mike and I worked together and Erich worked with the backpacker from Canada named Krispin. It was a ton of fun. We made so much food! Mike and I have not ever cooked together in memory and we actually worked pretty well together. All the food tasted good, haha! For lunch we made a Luang Prabang Salad and Feu Khua (fried sticky rice noodles with chicken and vegetables). Then after lunch we watched four dishes being prepared and were able to sample them before picking three to make ourselves. We picked Chicken Larp (spicy chicken salad), Kheua Sen Lon (vermicelli noodles with pork, vegetables, and woodear fungus) and Geng Phet (a chili casserole in coconut milk), both of which turned out really well. We had a break for tea and then learned how to make sticky rice and chili paste. Finally around 5:00pm we all sat down to eat our dishes. It was not only informative and fun, but also delicious. I would definitely suggest a cooking class to someone staying in Luang Prabang and Tamnak Lao has the added bonus of the knowledge that part of the profits go towards helping keep a local orphanage and school open. It's a win-win situation!
Such vibrant colors.
Look at us go! We're cooking machines!
L to R: Chicken Larp, Beer Lao, Geng Phet, Sticky Rice, and Kheua Sen Lon
The entire trip Mike had been on the edge of being sick, and by Monday night he was definitely sick with a capital S. He was feeling terrible, so we all kind of split up and headed back to the hotel in a staggered group, stopping to shop, check e-mail, etc. When I got back to the hotel Noy asked if I could help her edit some pictures and send an e-mail to Adam, so I sat with her on the porch for a while and helped her with that. It was really neat to see the pictures from a recent opening ceremony at the Pha Theung preschool and talk with Noy about the projects that PoP will be starting in the very near future. After we were done with that I ran back up to the night market for a bit to get some last minute purchases and returned back to Rattana. I hadn't seen Mike get back so I was a little concerned. After knocking on his door a few times I taped a note to the door asking him to knock on mine when he returned. Now Luang Prabang has an 11:00pm curfew, so I was certain he'd be back by then. I waited up in my room, reading and listening to music until 11:00pm rolled around. At 11:30pm I went and sat outside and started a mental list of all the terrible, horrible fates that could have befallen my brother. I stayed sitting out there for an hour before finally knocking on the main door of the guest house to say I was worried and discovering that his key wasn't there (you leave your keys when you leave the building, so a missing key means you're in the building). By now it was almost 1:00am and I went back and knocked a lot harder on Mike's door. Turns out he had been in there the whole time! The combination of sleeping and the fan being on had prevented him from hearing my knocks earlier. I had left the note on the outside of the door (rather than sliding it under) because I was sure he wasn't home yet. Ugh! A comedy of errors, that thankfully ended alright.
Tuesday morning we got up and packed up before heading out with Noy. Mike was still feeling so sick he didn't think he'd be able to make the trip, which was probably a good idea because it took us over an hour in the tuk tuk to get to the first PoP site in Pha Theung. This village had an elementary school, but they had no preschool available until Pencils of Promise helped them build one. The kids are unreasonably adorable and were so excited that we were there to hand out markers, stickers and pencils. They were precious. Then we visited the elementary school where the kids sang a song and were also super cute. After Pha Theung we rode about 45 minutes to the town of Pak Pa. Pak Pa is the home of one of the Spring 2010 projects of PoP and though they were closed for the day we were able to see where the new preschool was going to be built (finished by April 2010!). After Pak Pa we went down the very dusty road to Bo He. On the trip we had to ford a river, resulting in the cab of our tuk tuk flooding! Oops. Bo He is a really spread out village with three ethnic groups living in three separate areas. Many kids have to walk quite a distance to school and cross these terrifying bamboo bridges. Noy made me walk on one and I quickly fled back to the safety of solid ground as Erich played on the rickety death trap. That boy... While in Bo He we got to walk around and see what actual village life is like (unlike at the tourist trap Hmong Village) and watch kids at work in school (they are doing really high level math). It was pretty cool to stand on the ground where a new preschool will be soon. We handed out supplies and headed back across the river (equally scary on the way out!). It is important that the school be built before the rainy season because when it rains the river swells and washes out the bridge. It would be impassable this summer so the supplies all have to be transported out now. The last area we went to was Xianglom, which happened to be quite near the elephant camp where we'd done our trek. The Xianglom elementary school and middle school are on the same grounds and we were able to see the newly cleared (you could still see the brush piles burning!) ground that will be used for the preschool. PoP hopes to have all three of these schools done by April 2010, so it was really cool to see it from the beginning. I can't wait to see the pictures of the finished schools online! Sadly, after Xianglom it was time to go back to Luang Prabang and get Mike so we could go to the airport. I am so happy that it worked out that Noy was able to be in town and take us around. She said she hopes that one day I can come back for a school opening ceremony and I told her I'd love that. I think that would be totally awesome, so hopefully one day it will happen.
Road to Pha Theung.
Pha Theung primary school and temporary classroom.
Kids in the primary school. They were all so bright and cheerful!
The preschool built with the help of PoP!
Passing out supplies.
Ready to learn.
Playground, so kids can be kids.
On the road to Pak Pa.
Gate and primary school.
The bumpy, dusty road to Bo He.
Just after fording the river (and, consequently, just after flooding our tuk tuk). This is the bridge that is washed out/covered during the rainy season. That is a lot of water!
Bo He primary school.
These kids are working on some pretty tough math for their age.
You can tell just by looking at the decorations in class that the teachers do a lot with very little.
It may be an empty field now, but soon...it will be a school.
Village of Bo He.
Rickety bamboo bridge that kids cross daily to get to/from school. That tree was as far as I would go.
Off we go to Xianglom.
Current elementary school in Xianglom.
Razed area where the new preschool will be built (on a hill behind the elementary school).
We said our goodbyes to Noy and got in a tuk tuk with all of our many bags. We checked in at the airport and didn't have a whole lot of time before it was time to board our little prop plane and make our way back to Bangkok. Just before landing in Bangkok my stomach sank as I made a horrible revelation: I didn't have my painting. The painting that had made it through three countries and seven hotels was sitting in the waiting area at Luang Prabang Airport. I was...beyond pissed. After we landed and collected our bags in Bangkok I filed a report of a missing bag and they said they would contact me (they did, and claimed no one had found/turned in the painting so I'm shit out of luck). Sullenly I checked into my Seoul flight and we got some food before it was time to leave. We had a flight that landed in Seoul at 5:50am and by the time we trudged through the Seoul airport I was thoroughly exhausted (even though I slept the entire flight home). We went through customs (an annoying process as always), collected our luggage, and boarded the bus home (the two hour trip that provided endless fodder for Michael's bitching). Then we were home sweet home.