Friday, September 12, 2008

Tigers, Bears and...Grub? (Luang Prabang, Laos)

Perhaps travel cannot prevent bigotry, but by demonstrating that all peoples cry, laugh, eat, worry, and die, it can introduce the idea that if we try and understand each other, we may even become friends.

- Maya Angelou

If you reject the food, ignore the customs, fear the religion and avoid the people, you might better stay home.

- James Michener


Photos Part I

Photos Part II

Laos, land of mastodonic hills and delectable scenery...renowned for having the most laid back vibe in all of SE Asia. So it was disheartening to learn that Laos also has the distinction of being the most heavily bombed country in the history of the world. During the Vietnam war, the US dropped more bombs here than all the bombs dropped in Europe during World War II – over TWO MILLION tonnes worth (that is one plane load every 8 minutes for 9 years). This was done to cut off Vietnam's weapon supply lines running through Laos territory. It is estimated that 30% of unexploded ordnance (UXO) remains, continuing to cause death and injury amongst Laotians (especially children) today. To learn more, visit:

My first stop in Laos….Luang Prabang, a city that oozes charm and loveliness! I elected to fly in from Hanoi vs. taking a 24 hour nightmarish bus ride. At that point, I had had my fill of overland transportation and corrupt border crossings but must admit that I was a touch unnerved to learn that Lao Airlines chooses not to have their safety records public (hmmm I wonder why). Regardless, I am thankfully still here to write about it!

I met a Kiwi couple while in line for our visas at the airport who had been going to school in Auckland; Andrea, a Jewellery Designer and Dave, a Painter. They were taking a tour through SE Asia on their way to London to work for a few months before settling at an artist’s retreat in the south of France. They had hooked up with Luke and Jenna in Vietnam, an Australian couple who had just met each other recently in Asia. We all shared a taxi into Luang Prabang where we happened upon a guesthouse, cozily tucked away down a side street. The price was right but we had no idea how enchanting and friendly the family who lived there were going to be.

I was on my way to meet Carolina and Rodrigo (who I had met in Halong Bay), so we all made plans to catch up later on. I zipped my way through the night market – a streak of shimmering jewellery, multi-coloured fabrics and glowing lanterns. I was amazed that I made it all the way through without getting pulled into a stall or receiving an auditory summons to buy something. I had already been quite impressed after arriving at the airport without any hassle from anyone. The atmosphere, the architecture, the sleepiness....was all very refreshing.

The 7 of us had a delightful evening at one of the many dimly lit restaurants on Luang Prabang’s main street. It was unfortunate that it was Rodrigo and Carolina’s last night as I know their company would have been very welcome in our newly formed group - we were all sad to see them go home.

The first week in Luang Prabang was spent frequenting the many shops, cafes and restaurants along the riverfront and within the city, lollygagging in the night market, getting $5 massages and giving homage to magnificent art and rich culture at the National Museum. Several wats dot the city and were of easy access and short walking distances and there was no shortage of monks waiting for someone to practice their English with – all of them very sweet and interesting to talk to. There seemed to be a photo op at every turn!

One stifling hot day, the 5 of us decided to go and check out Kuang Si waterfall, about 30 minutes outside of Luang Prabang. On the way there, we stopped at a sanctuary for the Asiatic Black Bear. Many of them were rescued from bile farms where bears are confined to tiny cages so their bile can be extracted regularly via a catheter. Bear bile is used as a traditional medicine in Asia but can be replaced by herbal or synthetic alternatives making this a very unnecessary process. Bones, claws and blood are also sold for health purposes, but their is no evidence that they have any beneficial effects on humans. For more info, visit:

Phet, a 7-year old Indo-Chinese tiger, was not there for us to visit as we were told she was sick and being cared for somewhere else. A malnourished 5-week old Phet had been rescued after being bought and sold 4 times. Her mother was shot and killed at the Plain of Jars by poachers and sold to Chinese businessmen for medicinal preparations (crushed tiger bone commands a high price in China and ‘cures’ really valid health issues like ‘eruption under the toenail’ and ‘demonic possession’....come on now please!).

Thanks to Care for the Wild International, a large forest enclosure was built for Phet where she was well taken care of for the remainder of her life. I was deeply saddened to recently find out that Phet did not recover from her illness and passed away after suffering from a central nervous system disorder in May. This tiger was a symbol in the fight to protect endangered species in Asia. Their are less than 1500 Indo-Chinese tigers left, down from 100,000 at the turn of the century.

Even more disturbing is that Laos was once dubbed, "Land of a Million Elephants", but now has only about 400 surviving in the wild.

Killing or trading endangered species is now forbidden in Laos but poachers are still very much at large.

To read more about Phet’s story and learn more about Care for the Wild Intl, visit: and type 'Phet' in the search box. You can also help by adopting wildlife here:

We carried on and hiked to the top of the waterfall. The views were spectacular but the best part of the day was jumping off the lower tier of the waterfall with Andrea and Dave into startlingly refreshing turquoise water. We ended the day with a picnic where we were visited by a butterfly who took a breather on Dave’s hand.

This was another one of those magnificent days in Asia that I will revisit in my memory for years to come.

Luke and Jenna were leaving the next day, so we decided to head out to the discotheque! The disco made all of us feel very....tall. We towered above the crowd while befriending many Laotions that knew how to seriously get down with their bad selves on the dance floor. The night was still young when the disco closed at midnight, so we tuk tuked it over to the bowling alley to throw a few big ones down the lane! Andrea wowed us all with the ridiculous number of strikes she made and Dave with his celebratory poses.

By this time, we had all become well acquainted with the family who owned our guesthouse. It took awhile for Gramps to warm up to us all but once he decided we were ok, we were treated like family. Dave and Gramps held a special bond after enjoying some fried larvae together.

We had been to the night market, visited the wats and waterfall and did just about everything one should do in Luang Prabang. We decided to go 'rural', northwards to a village on the banks of the Nam Ou River...

Some roads aren't meant to be travelled alone.

- Proverb

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