Luang Prabang: Day on the Mekong

Lori and I thought Grammy, Grampy & co. might enjoy some time on the Mekong, so we headed down to the navigation office across the street from Saffron Coffee and hired a boat to take us up to Pak Ou cave and back. We had heard this was the best (most official and cheapest) way to hire a boat in Luang Prabang and had looked for the office on our previous visit with no luck. This time, the staff at the front desk of our guesthouse were able to give us more specific instructions. There are public boats that run a couple times per day, or you can get a private boat for the same price (for six people).

The cave was a nice objective to have, but we knew that the boat ride itself would be the main attraction. Pak Ou cave is one of the most popular attractions in the area but Lori and I didn’t visit it in our first or second stay, though we passed the cave on our way into Luang Prabang on the slow boat in 2012.

It’s a relaxing 90 minute ride up river and one hour return trip, with quite a bit to see on the banks of the Mekong along the way. There’s really nothing that compares to being on a boat on one of the world’s great rivers, even if only for a few hours. It helped too that the weather was just about perfect for a river boat ride as well.

Just outside of town, there are a string of mansions lining the river bank. Hard to tell if they are restored colonial stalwarts or the champagne wishes and caviar dreams of Laos’ novo riche.

This guy appeared to be smacking the water over and over with a pole. We deduced that it had something to do with catching fish, but the exact mechanics behind it eludes us.

This guy slept most of the way.

Concrete pinnacles mark various permanent obstacles along the way, while brightly colored plastic containers serve as buoys demarcating shallow areas. For every clearly marked obstacle, however, there seem to be ten invisible ones unknown to all but experienced boat captains.

After about 90 minutes, we approach a vertical lime stone wall with a number of boats clustered nearby. Pak Ou cave.

The little cub awakes from his hibernation.

There’s an upper cave and a lower cave. The upper cave takes a bit more effort (i.e. stair climbing) to reach and was far less busy. Between the two, it is really the only one that could pass for a cave. The lower “cave” is more of a grotto or overhang.

As you might expect to find in a prominent and frequently visited cave in Laos, this one is filled with Buddha images. There are no lights in this cave, so a headlamp or phone light is helpful, though the cave doesn’t reach much farther back than what the outside light is able to illuminate.

On to the lower cave.

And, the view from the lower cave across the river.

If there had been any doubt that this was one of the area’s top tourist sights before we arrived, all doubt was cast aside the minute we reached the lower cave. Time for lunch?

Lori and I hadn’t factored a stop for lunch into the original deal with the boat people, but by the time we were back at the boat we were starting to think maybe that had been a mistake. We also noticed the “whiskey village” on our way to the cave and thought that might be a fun stop on the way back. A little renegotiating of the price and we were on our way across the river to lunch.

There appeared to be a few potential places for grabbing lunch, but the floating restaurant on the river side seemed like the most convenient and most interesting option. Boats do the classic parallel tie-up, so we climbed across three other boats to reach the restaurant. In some places, Lori and I have had to climb through windows or walk along the perimeter of neighboring boats to reach land, but the crew here made it almost too easy for all of us, making all of the platforms align with each other.

Pak Ou cave, as viewed from the floating restaurant — stairs to the upper cave are on the left and the lower cave is on the right.

Back on the boat, a short while later we arrived at Xang Hai, a.k.a. the Whiskey Village.

Yep, that be Lao whiskey.

And, the distillery.

Funny thing about the Whiskey Village is that there ain’t so much whiskey to be found. “Lao” textiles on the other hand…

The residents claimed that everything here is made here. While there were a number of looms around the village, and several residents appeared to be weaving or sewing diligently, the fabric and goods looked like the same stuff found nearly everywhere else, and certainly didn’t look like the handmade textiles in the high end handicraft shops in Luang Prabang or Vientiane. Who knows…

Regardless of whether the textiles and their story are legit or not, there was one dude in the village that was definitely doing some legit work.

With full bellies and LaoLao in hand, time to go back to Luang Prabang.

An eventful day, but not over for Lori and me. Lori’s parents were kind enough to offer up their service for another date night here in Luang Prabang. Before handing off the Mister for a few hours, we went to scout out a nice sunset happy hour location on the Mekong when this guy caught our eye.

Well, that settles that! If it’s good enough for Barack…!

All joking aside, this was in fact a very historic and significant thing that took place mere months ago — the first sitting U.S. president ever to visit Laos. Ever. Obama visited during last September’s ASEAN summit in an effort to build bridges, a capstone of sorts to the outgoing administration’s commitment to bolstering diplomatic and economic ties with often ignored corners of the Asia-Pacific region in a bid to counter China’s growing dominance. Along the way, he stopped for a few moments to have a fresh coconut at this unassuming riverside stall.

Perhaps most importantly during his three-day visit to Laos, Obama also took crucial steps toward making amends for the U.S. Secret War and its devastating legacy that still endures today, pledging more money than any previous U.S. president to clean up the millions of unexploded ordnance dropped by U.S. planes that continue to kill and maim innocent people in 2017. Many Trump supporters wholeheartedly believe that it was too much money. Guess what? It’s not even close to enough. Many Trump supporters say that taxpayers shouldn’t be expected to foot the bill for this sort of thing — that it should be the purview of civil society (charities, faith groups, foundations, etc.). But the thing is, in the last forty years, American groups, by and large, have not even attempted to address this issue. Not a big surprise if you have a basic understanding of the international sector and human nature, in general — but potentially earth-shattering for those who wholeheartedly believe that in the absence of government and regulation we’ll all just magically compel each other to pick up the slack and do the right thing. Bottom line is, if we are to support military action as taxpayers, we must be prepared to support 100% of the clean-up efforts for which we are responsible, particularly when the situation is as clear-cut as it is in Laos. It is the fair thing to do. It is the right thing to do. And it is simply wrong to expect others to do it for us, no matter the cost.

Obama’s visit was significant, and will end up dramatically impacting the lives of thousands of real people — IF the new administration doesn’t back out of this crucial commitment because it’s “dumb” or “awful” or “so unfair.”

Outside of our guesthouse, getting ready to hand off the Mister just as the sun sets over the Mekong across the street.

After getting the group situated, we couldn’t resist the cheesy photo-op with Obama. If you’ve been following this blog for a while, you know we never turn down a pic with a cardboard cutout.

Lori, per the usual, found us a stellar happy hour spot, away from the main tourist area — 525 bar a few blocks south of Wat Mahathat. Needless to say, we were a little early, which meant that we got the whole place to ourselves.

On our way over to dinner on a songteau, we got a phone call from Grammy. Apparently, the Mister felt his dinner had not been sufficient for the night and was demanding seconds. We diverted to the guesthouse, Lori addressed Noe’s issue, put the little guy down, and we were soon back up on the main street enjoying a full on charcuterie and cheese plate with wine at La Casa Lao.

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