A Travellerspoint blog

January 2013

Lazy Luang Prabang

The book party had been confirmed for 22nd Jan so we still had a couple of days to kill in Luang Prabang and we were more than happy to take it slowly and have some time out. We needed to catch up on the blog and get a few things. I had lost yet another replacement engagement ring! Having left the real one at home it turns out it was a wise decision as I have either lost or broken 4 since travelling, that's nearly one a month! We found another one randomly in a book shop (which has since turned my finger green...oh well will keep an eye out for number 5!).

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In the centre of Luang Prabang is Phu Si and we had heard that it gave great views of Luang Prabang particulalry at sunset. We decided to make our way up early at 4.30pm to get a good spot. It is 100m up steps to the top where the temple That Chomsi overlooks the city.

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On the way up kids tried to sell us jewellery and there were women selling tiny birds in little cages so you could release them over the city. I think that the birds are taught to be homing and so even if you release them they ll be back in a tiny cage for the next tourist to buy to 'set free' the following day so we didn't get involved.

The view over the city was stunning and the first time we realised how big it was and that that the mountains surrounded it in all directions.

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We had over an hour to wait till sunset and randomly we bumped into the girls Dan had gone climbing with the day before. It was fun chatting with them and helped to pass the time, as did taking loads of photos!

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It was a good job we had got up early as in no time 100s of other people had made the climb and were jostling for position to get the best sunset shot!

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On the way back down it was interesting to see the night market from above with red and blue awnings as far as you could see.

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We headed to the Lao Lao Garden for some dinner and pool. Whilst looking through their menu we found a section which was a Q&A about Laos which was quite interesting so thought would share them here...

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I also liked some of the sayings they had at the bottom of each page, particularly this one...
"Worry does not empty tomorrow of its troubles, it empties today of its strength"

As we were deciding whether to move on a cat decided to jump on my lap and buried its head in my arm to go to sleep. It was the snuggliest cat ever and ended up sleeping on my lap for about an hour, which meant I didn't mind staying whilst Dan watched the footie on the big screen!

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After seeing the views we had decided that the next day we would rent some bikes and explore a bit further out of town. Without a detailed map we just made our own way and at one point we somehow found ourselves at the airport!

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With no real direction we enjoyed aimlessly cycling around and we stopped for lunch and I saw a wine with the below name, how could we not give it a try!

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In the evening we crossed the rickety bamboo bridge to check out the bar we had heard about on the other side of the Mekong but as we had an early start in the morning we didn't hang out too long. We had a book party to go to :)

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Sxx

Posted by doyledan 03:42 Archived in Laos Comments (0)

Rock Climbing the Gecko wall

Luang Prabang

I had been pondering over whether to go rock climbing for a couple of days whilst we were in Luang Prabang but I was so glad I did it because it was so much fun. I had done a little bit of indoor climbing with friends a while ago but had never done it outside so I was excited at the prospect. At one point it wasn't going to be possible simply due to the cost because there needed to be more people in the group. Fortunately having checked back a couple of times with Jewel Travel there were two other people on the day trip so I snapped it up and would be tackling the Gecko wall.

When I got to the office in the morning there was a little wait for the other two and I was beginning to think they would be a no show but thankfully they did turn up and we got kitted up with shoes, ropes, harnesses, belays, carabiners and lunch and made our way to the riverbank to catch the boat down river to the climbing site.

The boat ride was about 20mins and I got a chance to find out about the two girls who were joining me to do the climb. Anya and Claudia were very nice and I was able to give them some tips about Vietnam as they were making their way there from Luang Prabang.

When we got to shore it was a short trek up a hillside before we made it to the first climb. The guide began explaining how to tie the ropes to your harness by starting a figure of 8 knot then you pass the end of the rope through the harness and re-tying the rope around the figure of 8 knot so that it is mimicked twice creating two lines of rope that should come in twos as you count each cross over. I didn't take a picture of it at the time but here is what it looked like.

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We then were shown how you belay another climber by using the belay device that passes the rope that is at the other end of the climber through it and you pull or let the rope loose depending on what the climber requires. The main lesson to learn from this was that it was essential that you never let go of this rope when pulling it taught because it would be the only way of saving the climber should they fall! Only when they abseil down would you be able to guide the rope with your hands loosely so that their abseil was a smooth ride.

After that lesson it was the job of the guides to set up the safety line for us and he showed his climbing skills attaching rope to the hooks that had been set up on the rock face, he was up there in a flash.

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The first climb was 5a grade according to the French system which was about 8metres high and I took to it pretty well getting up in a short space of time. The abseiling down from it was great fun.

We then tackled the next climb which was a 5b and 12 metres high and had this really tricky pass that required alot of strength to pull yourself up which I was dead chuffed with when I made it up to the top.

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We alternated amongst us three until we all made it spurring each other on but unfortunately Anya was finding it tough so wasn't able to continue before we stopped for lunch, which included the standard sticky rice, fish, chilli mix and river weed all of which was very tasty and I ate a little too much and found the next climb a little uncomfortable.

The last climb was a -6a climb which was 25 metres high. The first part of it was the hardest part as you had to get over a ledge before you came to a rock face with loads of small holes which was good for climbing but they were also really spikey so you had to grit your teeth a bit. I couldn't take my phone up to get a picture to show you but was I rewarded with a fantastic view of the mountain range that circles Luang Prabang.

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After finishing that climb I was on cloud 9 and knew that I had to take this up when I get back home, I also knew that the rest of my travels would offer some good places to climb so you will be sure to hear about it if I do .

The boat ride back was a little longer as we went up stream dodging one or two rocks that were perturbing due to the lower level of the river but was a smooth ride and as soon we docked and made our way back to the office it wasn't long before Sarah met up with me and we spent that evening finding about each others day.

I was thankful to get an early night to rest.

Stay tuned for more tales

Dan

Posted by doyledan 02:21 Archived in Laos Comments (0)

Looming Marvellous!

Ock Pop Tok - 1 day natural dye and weaving class

We decided to split up for the day...but don't panic not in a relationship sense! Dan went to go rock climbing, which he'll tell you about in the next blog, and I spent the day learning how to dye silk and weave it on a loom!

Throughout our travels we had seen local women sitting at looms outside their houses weaving textiles that they would either use themselves or sell. We'd often been mesmerised at how they work these complicated machines so effortlessly sliding the spindle from one side to the other whilst simultaneously changing the tension with the foot peddles and pulling all the threads back together. I was keen to give it a go myself so when I found out about the classes that Ock Pop Tok do at their craft centre on the Mekong I had to see if I could do it!

I chose to do the full day course learning to dye silk in the morning followed by an afternoon sitting at a loom learning to weave. I was the only person doing the full day but was joined in the morning by an American couple on their honeymoon and a British girl who would also be learning abut natural dyes.

The course started with us being introduced to silk worms and we were told how when the silk worm is ready to turn into a moth it spins itself a cocoon of silk. It takes 4 days for the silk worm to make its cocoon which is made up of 300m of silk filaments which then get woven into silk thread.

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The cocoons are put into boiling water and stirred with a stick to loosen the filaments, when the stick is pulled out this creates the thread which is reeled and collected. Interestingly the filaments from the outside of the cocoon are thicker than the finer filaments on the inside and the people in the know are able to separate these out producing two types of silk with varying quality. It is said that making silk was discovered by a Chinese princess in 2700 BC when a cocoon fell into her tea!

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Raw silk is not like the soft silk that most of us are familiar with. This is because it is coated in sericin which is a gummy substance created when the liquid silk secreted from the silkworm meets the air making it hard. The raw silk is separated into smaller bundles known as scaines which are then boiled in soapy water to get rid of the sericin. This process needs to be done before dying the silk and we would later be dying 3 scaines in colours of our choice.

Our guide Chan took us through the different types of natural dyes. It is amazing how many different vibrant colours can be made from plants, flowers and fruits. As well as the different types of dye there are also different traditional beliefs that go with them. For example it is believed that the indigo dye has a male spirit inside which must not escape because the dye will die and so a knife is kept on top of the lid so it does not attract unwanted spirits.

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I chose to dye my 3 scaines bright orange, red and green.

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Whilst we waited for the scaines to be prepared we were taken to see the master weavers at work. There are 3 different types of weaving Ikat, Nam Lai and Chok & Kit. Ikat weaving is kind of like tie dye where it uses threads that have been dyed alternate colours by binding the silk in undyable thread before adding the colour.

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Nam Lai is a freestyle weaving technique when the weaver adds coloured yarn by hand and is a commonly used in northern Laos.

Chok & Kit is the technique we had mainly seen in our time in Laos. It was to be the technique I was to learn and we were told was the most complicated!

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For this technique the blueprint for the pattern is held in rows on the heddle (the threads hanging down from the top of the loom. If you look closely you can see the pattern here in the photo below.

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The overall design is made by weaving rows of patterns one after the other. Once is row of pattern is completed the warp strings on the heddle need to be lifted for the next row to be woven. One piece of textile can include 100s of rows of patterns and so you can see why this was one of the most difficult techniques and I was a bit dubious about how well I would do in the afternoon!

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We headed over to the dying area and put on our aprons ready to 'get to work'. The first dye I needed to make was for bright orange. This involved collecting the fruit from the Annato tree using a long stick and emptying the fruit from inside easy to be pummelled.

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Whilst I was doing that the girls were chopping up rosewood which would be used to make the red dye.

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The last dye for me to prepare was the green. This was made from crushing indigo leaves. If you do other things to the leaves first like ferment or boil them then you get different shades of blue.

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Once the ingredients were ready they were out into boiling pots of water over the fire.

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I felt a bit like being a witch watching over bubbling multicoloured potions but I resisted the urge to let out a witch like cackle!

When the dye was ready we dipped our scaines of silk 3 times before leaving the to soak. Due to the type of dye the green needed a bit more hands on work so it was on with the gloves to work the dye in. The others who were just dying in the morning got to dye a cotten scarf too to take home with them. It took several dips and a lot of working the dye into the scarf to get the dark blue colour.

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Once we had rinsed out the dye it was time to dry our handy work in the sun.

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The group were now finished for the morning but there was no rest for me as I needed to chose two colours to use for a placemat I was to weave in the afternoon and then wind the silk onto bobbins in preparation. I opted for a slate blue for the background colour and a pink for the pattern. It was quite a time consuming task winding the silk onto the bobbin as I had managed to choose probably the most tangled scaines in the pile and it also kept breaking.

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I definitely enjoyed a well earned lunch that I shared with Chan and he told me that he was a novice monk for a year which is why he does not have a girlfriend yet. It was interesting hearing about his time as a novice and his aspirations to become an English teacher. When he is not a guide he is practicing his English and going to teacher training college. I'm sure he will be great at it.

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My teacher for the afternoon was a woman called Tu although Chan would be our translator. She had set up my loom and despite the relatively simple pattern that I would be weaving it had still taken best part of the day to set up the blueprint on the heddle. Tu had started off the placemat and demonstrated how to weave by sliding the shuttle between the threads to the otherside, you then press down the peddle on that side with your foot to make the threads taught and pull back the central paddle with your other hand to push back the thread into a neat line. This is then done in the other direction. I repeated this over and over again building up the blue background colour. It was complicated remembering to change feet but soon I got into a rhythm.

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Then it was time to add my second color, pink. Lines of colour were simple, 4 rows of pink and then 4 rows of blue but then it got even more complicated as the technique changed slightly depending on which part of the pattern I was weaving. Each time we completed a line on the pattern Tu removed a row of string from the heddle lifting into position the next row of pattern. Then I had to slide another paddle between the strings and flip it upwards to open them before weaving the next row. Then it needed to be turned down for the next row, whilst remembering when to use the foot peddles etc... I'm not sure if this description makes sense but this was the patten that started to build.

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Once about 10cms of pink pattern had been done I then had 20cms of the blue to do to finish my first bit of silk weaving. I was soon back in my rhythm again and was left to complete it. As tours of the centre were being done I almost became part of it with people asking me questions about weaving and watching me try not to muck up under pressure. It was really fun and after best part of 4 hours my masterpiece was complete! I was definitely going to feel it in my back the next day. Tu added the finishing touches once she had cut the placemat out of the loom by rolling the ends of thread down her leg creating the fringe. Chan said that Tu was impressed with my technique as usually students break the main threads pushing the shuttle through but I had not broken one :) Pleased with my days work I set off back into town to find out how Dans day had gone and have a drink!

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Sxx

Posted by doyledan 01:26 Archived in Laos Comments (0)

Lao Masterchef!

Tamnak cooking class - Luang Prabang

The day before we had done a bit of research and we found that for the price and the time you get that the Tamnak Lao Restaurant's Full day course was the better option as it included lunch and dinner. Starting at 10am we met the other 5 people in the group over a coffee/tea and then our chefs Leng Lee and Phia Yang took us to the local market to collect the items we would need for our dishes.

The journey took all but of 5 mins and we turned up in the hustle and bustle of the morning trade to be given a walking tour through the stalls whilst one of the chefs gave a running commentary about the items for sale and how they were used for things like flavouring. It was a pretty quick tour but we did get to ask a few questions and we even bought a clever little peeling device before we left.

The array of items meant there was lots of colour and different smells to ensnare your senses. Some of the items on sale were not so pleasing to the eye, such as the nose of a pig or the buffalo blood in large chunks pictured below.

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Once the mini tour was over the chefs bought all the items and we made our way back to the cooking classroom. After a short while waiting for the food to be prepared by the chef we all got a our aprons on and were given a walk through of how to prepare the dishes by the chefs. The first one we were shown was Luaang Prabang salad, which had a simple but delicious mayo mix that I definitely would use back home. Sarah, inadvertently forgot to peel the cucumber on this dish but to her defence it was only because it didn't say it in our instruction book.

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Once we were shown the ropes of the other dishes it was then our turn to follow the instruction in our book and prepare what we would later eat for our lunch. The cooking area was a bit small for two people but we managed to make it work albeit stepping on each others toes a couple of times and within 20 minutes or so all our lunch dishes were made. Again, the simplicity of these dishes meant that they would be really good to continue making back home. The other dish we prepared was Feu Khua -fried sticky noodles with chicken and vegtables.

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After tucking into our dishes we had a break and we chatted to the other people in the group and found out that two of the girls were cycling from Luang Prabang to Vientiane which we both were thinking was a daunting prospect mainly due to the hills that they would need to contend with but also we thought that we should defintiely do some sort of cycling trip in the future.

After the break we repeated the same process with the chefs demonstrating how to make the dishes but this time there were 6 to choose from so by the time they got through making all of them and us sampling them before choosing which three to make some of the preparation details slipped out of our minds and consequently a few errors occurred. We found that although the chefs were good at their job their interaction with us was very limited once we started cooking and therefore we made a few decisions ourselves which didn't quite work out, and admittedly my stereotypical male impatience meant that I ploughed through a couple of instructions before realising the mistake. Consequently my concentration went up a notch which you can see from this picture (look at those eyes!!).

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The last demonstration from the chefs was how they make sticky rice which I was keen to know about. First they soak the rice for 24 hours before placing it in a basket which is then placed on a hot pot of boiling water, covered and left to steam for 2 hours. Even without the basket I would want to try it back home, because it would be perfect for lunches.

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Here is a list of the dishes we were shown for dinner

Chicken Larp - Traditional Lao cold salad
Kheua Sen Lon- Vermicilli noodles with pork, vegtables and Woodward fungus
Khua Maak Kheua Gap Moo - Fried Eggplant with Pork
Oh Paedak - Lao Pork Casserole
Geng Phet -Chilli Casserole

We chose the fried eggplant and chilli casserole ...yum yum!

We noticed the mistake too!

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It was a fun experience and was only slightly marred by the chefs limited interaction during preparation. We have enjoyed the Lao cuisine very much since being here and have certainly been inspired to take these dishes back home. So much so that we later went and bought from the market some sticky rice pots made out of bamboo that are very common in Laos. We bought four of them so next time you visit our home (wherever that might be) you'll be sure to be introduced to this fantastic cuisine.

Stay tuned for more tales..

Dan

Posted by doyledan 19:16 Archived in Laos Comments (0)

Long and winding road to Luang Prabang

Phonsavan to Luang Prabang

It would take us 10 hours to get from Phonsavan to Luang Prabang. As Kong and his family seemed to own or be involved in most of the businesses in town we got our ticket cheaper from him directly than from the shop on the main street and it included the tuk to to the bus station.

The night before Kongs brother had taken us to see some Laos gambling in a warehouse across the street. We had heard lots of commotion and were interested to see what it was all about. It was a simple game made of 6 animal pictures with 3 matching dice that you bet on, if the dice face shows the same animal picture or combination of pictures you bet on, then you win...so simple even a child could do it. We all got quite into it with shouts of "chicken! chicken!" "no not the shrimp!" etc... When we mentioned this to Kong he told us that actually there was a real problem with children getting addicted and spending their lunch money on gambling as there are no age restrictions in Laos on gambling but he hoped that this would change. In the morning his brother admitted he was down 50,000 kip, when we had left he had been up.

At the bus station there were about 7 minibuses waiting to be loaded up and fortunately we were allocated to one of the larger more 'comfortable' ones. It was still a bit of a squeeze with all of our bags but soon we were off on what would turn out to be one of the worst bus journeys of our trip so far! Having suffered from travel sickness as a kid, not helped by my brother finding it funny to sway in front of me whenever we were on a ferry (thanks Jez!) I had hoped I had grown out of it but the roads we were going on had more bends in it than a bent corkscrew!! The only way to cope with it was to close your eyes and plug into some music and hope to sleep through it! On the few occasions I risked looking out the window the twisting mountain pass had some great views and also an insight into life on the side of the road as on many occasions houses lined the road on seemingly impossible stilts that went down the side of the mountain to keep the house level with the roadside. Also there was the occasional near miss when another bus/truck came round the corner from the opposite direction. Sometimes we saw cyclists trying to take on the steep inclines which looked so tough. Just keep peddling!

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We were more than a bit relieved when we finally pulled into the bus station at Luang Prabang.

Drained from the journey we decided to go with the tuk tuk driver to the guesthouse he recommended, however when we got there it was further out from the centre than we wanted and a bit dreary so we hauled on our backpacks and after getting orientated with the map we walked into town. We found a side road near Joma cafe that headed down to the Mekong and was full of guesthouses. After going to the first two to check out prices we definitely realised we were no longer in southern Laos as the costs of rooms where more than double what we had been paying. Leaving Dan with the bags I continued down the street trying to find something we could afford that was worth the extra cost. Finally after being quoted some ridiculous costs for rooms right next to reception or with a shared bathroom we found a great room at the Phonemaly guesthouse. We were going to be in Luang Prabang for about a week as we waited for the book party I was trying to sponsor with Big Brother Mouse to be confirmed (more on that to come in later blog) and the friendly service made it easy for us to decide to stay here than try to look around further.

As we were going to have some time in the city we decided to slowly explore, it was nice to stop in one place and started the next morning with a cheese and chive scone and a cup of tea :)

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Luang Prabang is definitely a charming place and very pretty to walk around and explore however it is very touristy with the main road full of restaurants, bars, cafes and tour company after tour company selling trips in and around the area. Although there are handicraft stores it seems detached and different from the Laos we had been travelling through.

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Wondering around we ended up down by the Mekong and just kept on walking until we had gone round the peninsular and come full circle. Here are some of the sights.

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We found Tamnak restaurant and booked ourselves on a Laos cooking course for the next day.

Luang Prabang is famous for its night market which starts to set up about 4.30pm. It is quite a feat watching the market come to life and out of nothing suddenly the street is full as far as you can see with stall upon stall of local handicrafts from silk scarves to paintings and jewellery. Multicoloured lamps glow as the sun goes down and it is almost hypnotic so you could spend ages going up and down looking at all the things on sale and maybe buying a few things too!

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We were soon hungry and were keen to find somewhere a bit cheaper for dinner. Following our noses we found a hidden alleyway we had not noticed the night before that was rammed with food stalls and benches with plastic chairs. For 10,000 kip you could make up a plate of what ever noodles, rice and veg you wanted. You had to pay a bit extra for some meat. It was buzzing with other backpackers and locals shouting over steaming dishes and vying for the next free chair to sit and eat at. It was a great atmosphere and we met a nice French couple who gave us some tips on where to go diving in Malaysia and Indonesia.

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We definitely were looking forward to learning more about Laos cooking the next day.

Sxx

Posted by doyledan 01:38 Archived in Laos Comments (0)

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