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An Art Therapist Abroad

I'm No Easy Rider

LAOS | Wednesday, 1 January 2014 | Views [767]

The journey from Luang Prabang to Luang Nam Tha lasted twelve hours and consisted of two tuk-tuks, an epic bus ride through winding mountain roads, and a lot of unnecessary walking. Still the scenery was undeniably beautiful, filled with verdant mountainsides, emerald colored streams, and tiny villages of thatched wood and woven grass homes built on the sides of cliffs.

Plus, when the bus stopped for lunch I got to eat as the locals do. So good!

(FYI, those brown things are crickets.)

The city of Nam Tha itself left something to be desired but it had a few cafes and a booming night market (relatively speaking). However, and this is a BIG however - it was beyond freezing. Literally freezing. The northern location plus the high altitude made me and Brinn two absolutely miserable travelers. After finding our fingers numb and breath visible even while sitting inside our guesthouse, the prospect of sleeping in the jungle and bathing in rivers lost its appeal, so that morning we switched our multi-day trek to a single day, ten hour, jungle/village combo for the next day. Paying a visit to the local tourism center also revealed that, unlike many other parts of Laos, in and around Nam Ha the wet season is instead referred to as "adventure season" and is the best time of year to visit the area.

After spending several hours thawing out in a cafe, Brinn and I decided to rent some motorbikes and spend the day riding up to the Chinese border. Thus began the beginning of the end. Let me preface this by saying the so-called "roads" from Luang Nam Tha to China are made up of more potholes, gravel, and dirt than actual pavement. Let me also say, Brinn and I are idiots. Long story short, she made it up to actually see the Chinese border before crashing. I did not. Neither of us were hurt beyond some road rash and a twisted ankle (although the bikes didn't go quite as unscathed) but let's just say I won't be riding on anything other than well-paved roads again. Or driving motorbikes at all for the foreseeable future. Sorry Dad! Back in town we cancelled our treks for the next day and instead just bought bus tickets back south, found the most western food we possibly could for dinner, and hunkered down for our last frigid night in Nam Tha, totally defeated.

The ride back to Luang Prabang felt even longer than the ride there, and this time there wasn't even a cricket lunch to ease the pain. (Although seeing these guys chillin' at the bus station helped a little.)

When we got to the hostel we were informed that all the dorms were full, but the silver lining of looking so pathetic was we got to stay in a private room for the cost of a dorm! Yay for nice people!

We awoke to a gorgeous day and I decided to go around and revisit all the beautiful sights of Luang Prabang,

including climbing to the top of Phu Si hill to visit the That Chomsi temple

at sunset.

The rest of the day was spent lazing around in cafes and booking my bus ticket. I had definitely spent more than enough time in the north and decided to start heading south with a trip to Phonsavan to see the mysterious and ancient "Plain of Jars."

The next morning I got up before dawn to finally play homage to the monks on their daily walking ritual, which includes giving offerings of rice if you wish. I'm now going to climb on a soapbox I probably have no business being on, considering I haven't spent any time on this trip contributing to the betterment of anything (except hopefully myself), but the behavior of the westerners visiting this ritual was deplorable. Instead of sitting quietly to the side of yet road, either on their knees giving offerings or just as witnesses to this beautiful tradition, they set up huge cameras and flashes in the middle of the monks path! I highly doubt these were professional photographers, and even if they were there are ways to document a meditative, religious event without disturbing it. No wonder the existence of this daily ceremony is at risk!

Natural light:

With someone else's big 'ol flash:


I tried my best to ignore this and instead focused on the ritual itself: the austere walk of the monks, the draping of their robes, the slight nods some would give when accepting offerings, the way they were ordered oldest to youngest, and the reverence with which they were regarded by the locals and religious visitors.

I wondered what it must be like for a 7 or 8 year old to be given such respect by the non-monk elders in the community?

After the ritual ended, I headed back to bed for an hour before catching the bus (aka: minivan) to Phonsavan. Now, I have experienced some rough rides while traveling before, several rural roads in Guatemala come to mind, but this one definitely ended up being in the top 5. Nothing but switchback, hairpin turns up and down mountains for 7 hours. Not to mention the Laos family throwing up in the back seat nearly the entire time. I didn't get sick, but I definitely didn't feel good. Arriving in Phonsavan was a bit anti-climactic. It's not the most atmospheric place, mainly just a single dusty road lined with auto shops and insurance agencies, but I checked into a guesthouse and went to find dinner and a tour of the area for the next day. I got both of those things as well as a night bus out to Vang Vieng for the following evening. As excited as I was to see the historic sights of the area, I wanted this to be a "wham, bam, thank you ma'am" type of stop.

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