I’m starting to feel really content here, the way you feel after a really great meal. All I want to do is sit back for a while and let things settle in.
Today I slept in and went for a lazy breakfast. At least I think that’s what I did – all the days are blending together nicely. Eventually I made my way over to one of the many ‘adventure tourism’ offices and got myself a decent mountain bike. I really had no idea whether there would be good trails to ride it on, and neither did the local guys, but I took it anyway. Naturally it was a far cry from what I am used to riding but it seemed adequate for what I had planned.
I didn’t really have anything planned, rather I just started heading out of town following the Mekong river, figuring that maybe I’d end up at a waterfall. Initially the road was paved and the traffic was typically chaotic yet organized. Cars and mopeds and bicycles all flow essentially the same way that people move on crowded sidewalks – everyone adapts and weaves around each other without any troubles.
After a couple kilometers, side roads started to branch off and I took them at every opportunity. I found that, generally, if you’re looking for a narrow footpath, just follow the road – they all seem to get narrower and narrower until you’re rolling through tiny villages, smoke wafting from ramshackle homes, children and old people out front saying the usual ‘sabaidee’s. At one point I stopped in front a school, at recess presumably, because all the kids were out on the far side of the school’s playing field. A small group of boys saw me and came running over and before I knew it all the other kids had taken notice and there were dozens of kids running towards me from all directions. They gathered around and laughed when I said ‘sabaidee’ and laughed some more when I said ‘hello’ and when I said ‘bye’ they all screamed “BYE!!” in unison. Good stuff.
I got the distinct impression that most Lao think you’re completely crazy to be riding bicycles in the countryside when you could easily afford a tuk-tuk or even an air-conditioned taxi, especially when you’re going up hills unnecessarily just to have a look over the top before coming right back down the way you came. And maybe they are partly right – remember its high-30’s by midday. After a few hours of exploring back roads, little villages, and the tiny trails that wind through the jungle and between rice paddies, I headed back to town for a much-needed cold shower and a session of laying on the bed with the AC blowing on me.
Video here: http://vimeo.com/39562919
Once that was out of the way, I walked down to the Mekong with the intention of getting a boat ride upriver to see some of the Buddhist wats and caves on the opposite bank. I was kind of dreading this – plunging back into the world of haggling for your transportation. But no one harassed me – in fact I had to ask around to find a boatsman. And the first price he offered was entirely fair. How Lao.
We pushed off in his long skinny skiff with the outboard motor pushing us against the current of the muddy brown water. The breeze was nice since it was still fairly hot. Motoring up the river, we passed fisherman casting their nets from homemade boats and water buffalo soaking in the shallows to stay cool.
At the far bank I hopped off and followed a crude bamboo bridge and then a snaking trail into the forest. At first I wondered if this was the right place and if my boat was already on its way back to town. But just then a young monk rounded the corner, confirming that I was on the right track.
Arriving at their wat I did what I normally do; assess the situation and figure out where I can and can’t go. But the situation was a bit chaotic – a contrast from the solemn polish and presentation of the wats in town. The young monks seemed to scurry in all directions, some hauling buckets and tools. They were building a new residence and, being in the preliminary stages, there was plenty of labor to be done digging the foundations by hand. A senior monk served as foreman, barking orders and admonishing the lazy ones and just generally being kind of a pain in the ass. It was quite a contrast from the image of the stoic monk, giving reverence silently, or perhaps offering some sage advice. I lingered around for a while but not long enough for him to put me to work.
From there I ventured further along the trail and through the thick jungle to the entrance to the buddha cave. There I swung open the creaky iron-bar door and descended into the blackness. As my eyes adjusted, I could see the various chambers of the cave, and as they adjusted a little more, the buddhas came into view. To my surprise, a single light bulb burned at the far end of the cave, revealing how much bigger the cave was than I expected. Hundreds of buddhas adorned the nooks in the cave walls, most of them beheaded, which kind of adds to the creepiness of being in a dark cave. This is where people bring their ‘old’ buddhas, so its really more of the grave than a cave. I stayed for a while, enjoying the cold air, but my boatsman was still waiting down at the river so I snapped some pics and headed back to town.
Dinner was typical – cheap and excellent. And another gem in Prabang is getting good-sized ice-cold $.50 smoothies in watermelon, lime, dragonfruit, or just about any other flavor you can think of. I get at least 3 every day.