Luang Nam Tha to Vientiane, Northern Laos

September 29 - October 7, 2009

Party time in Luang Prabang!




Kids heading home for lunch in Luang Nam Tha.

South of the China border, the lush rice fields and green mountainous terrain of Northern Laos unfolds out the bus window. We are surprised to find Route 13, the main north-south artery that runs from China to Cambodia, is paved for our entire journey to the capitol city of Vientiane (although with plenty of potholes!)

It is clearly poorer here, with thatch or corrugated metal roofed wooden houses and dirt streets. But we quickly take a liking to the mellow small-town vibe and friendly Laotians we meet along the way.


A local weaver with one of her creations.



Local transport is the sawngtheaw, a covered pickup truck with two benches for passengers.


The bus stops at a roadside market. The guy in camouflage hops out and starts negotiating with the villagers. Eventually he buys this little animal tied to a rattan string. Not sure what it is, but he has a pointy possum-like tail and huge front teeth like a beaver. Apparently a feast is on tap for this evening.

At one point, the poor little creature eats through the bag and escapes into the minivan we are riding in. This creates havoc as the passengers hop onto their seats! We pull over and, after a few frantic moments, he finally captures the animal who is hiding under our front seat...

Peaceful guesthouse on the Nam Tha River.




Laotian wildlife sighting.




Giant gecko on guard over our table in the dining room.


We arrive in Luang Prabang on Thursday evening and feel excitement in the air! The town is preparing for Bun Awk Phansa, a festival to celebrate the end of Buddhist monks' three-month "rains retreat". We settle in at a guesthouse located right across from from Wat Sirimungkhun, one of many temples that line the main street. Next morning, sound asleep at 4am in the humid darkness, we are woken by the deep throbbing beat of drums and clanging gongs, followed by magical chanting emanating from the temple. At 6am, orange-robed monks pour out of the monastery, joining a long line of monks on their morning circuit around town. Faithful villagers kneeling on the sidewalk place sticky rice alms in the monks' silver bowls, and receive blessings and good luck in return.

Later that day, we watch monks cutting colored paper and covering elaborate bamboo frames, creating beautiful paper boats, stars, swans, and an airplane(!) By the following evening, it seems everyone (monks included!) has procured a stash of fireworks, and flaming candles appear in every nook and cranny, encircling stupas, lining the sidewalks. The next two days are filled with the crackle of fireworks and joyful anticipation, as we all wait for Monday night's grand finale.

The morning of Awk Phansa is the most auspicious day of the year for alms-givers, so the sidewalks are lined with worshippers dressed in all their finery. In addition to traditional sticky rice offerings, on this special day they also hand out wrapped candies and treats. Soon the monks are carrying heavy Halloween bags of goodies and handing back many of these treats to impoverished street urchins, who wait in long lines along the circuit.



Venders feverishly create floating offerings, replete with sparklers and candles.



Laotians are superstitious folks and try to cover all spiritual bases. We find offerings to electric meters and transmission lines, and in a corner of one temple, Ngame Thorani (the female guardian spirit of the earth) has been freshly gilded.
On Saturday, we catch a crowded ferry to the far shore of the Mekong to watch teams from all the nearby provinces compete in longboat races. Each boat holds 25 rowers wearing bright blue, pink, yellow or green tee-shirts, cheered on by color-coded fans on shore. We join the rowdy crowd to pay homage to the river spirits and dispel bad luck, while sweltering in the heat and humidity and downing copious amounts of Beerlao.


Let it be said, the Laotians really know how to throw a party!

As the full moon rises, the local villagers gather at the magnificent Wat Kieng Thong to launch their hand-made paper floats and offerings into the Mekong. Through a dense cheering crowd, each village carries their bamboo and paper creation, brightly lit from within by candles and oil lamps (Danger!), down the middle of the Luang Prabang's main street to the temple, then down the steep concrete steps to the river.

On the street, towering arrays of massive speakers blair deafening music. And at the temple, happy groups yell, sing, clap, beat drums, and crash cymbals. Kids (and adults) light firecrackers, cherry bombs, spinning fireworks, and send rockets and flares directly over our heads. It's bloody hot, humid, and the cacophonous chaos is overwhelming. Down by the river kids swim amid the flaming offerings and help launch the floats into the current that sweeps them downstream towards Cambodia and the distant South China Sea.This unsupervised array of hazardous pyrotechnics would never be permitted in the US, but here everyone is gracious and friendly, and somehow it all goes off without incident.





This glowing flame and paper hot air balloon rises (right through the tree canopy) sailing up and out of sight into the moonlit sky.




It's very hard to leave Laos after only nine days, but now we are in a hurry to get to Bangkok and pick up visas for the next leg of our journey: Myanmar.