Phonsavan and the Plain of Jars

I felt some sadness when it finally came time to leave Luang Prabang and the Manichan Guesthouse, though I was thrilled to be traveling with Sadaf, Georgina, and two Belgians, Roxane and Pierre, to my next destination, Phonsavan. Phonsavan is a little town in the middle of Laos, a staging point for tourists who want to explore the Plain of Jars and to learn about the current impact on Laos of the “secret war” of the late sixties and seventies. (The “secret war” refers to unofficial US involvement in the war in Laos which took place at the same time as the Vietnam War. This war has a heavy civilian toll today, as many of the bombs dropped during that time remain unexploded over the Lao countryside, and frequently explode when farmers or children find them.) I learned a lot about the effect of UXOs – unexploded ordnance – on Laos, and will write about the NGOs I visited in a separate entry so that their stories are given the weight and importance they deserve.

The five of us headed to the bus station in Luang Prabang to get our minivan to Phonsavan. When we arrived, we were dismayed to find that there were only four seats left. Luckily there is strength in numbers, so they got a second minivan out and we got to choose our seats. Thank goodness none of us had to ride in the fold-down bucket seats! It was quite a twisty, often bumpy ride on mountain roads with spectacular views.

The view from the rest stop on the way to Phonsavan

The view from the rest stop on the way to Phonsavan

The touts were insistent when we arrived in Phonsavan, and since Georgina, Sadaf and I didn’t have a guesthouse booked, we agreed to check out one of them and got a ride into the town. We told Pierre and Roxanne that we would meet up with them after we had found our lodging.

We didn’t love most of the places we saw, but finally settled on one towards the end of the strip of guesthouses. (Phonsavan looks like it’s a one horse town that sprang up to deal with the influx of tourists.) We tried to communicate with the landlady in English with limited success, so we pulled out our guidebooks and used the little dictionaries in the back to communicate in Lao. The guesthouse owner’s face broke into a huge smile – it’s amazing how a limited attempt to speak the local language can lead to so much goodwill!

Then we set out to book a tour to the various jar sites for the following day. We sat down to negotiate a cheaper rate at one tour office, letting them know that we would bring two more people to the tour so we should get a discounted rate for a five person tour. Before we could head off to find our two others (Roxanne and Pierre), we were told by a young man who came up that they had already booked a tour with him. This sounded a little fishy, since they had sounded happy to go in a group with us, so we headed over to their hotel to straighten things out. It turns out that this one individual, one of the touts who greeted the minivan, having seen that the five of us were traveling together but were staying at different hotels decided to be clever. He tried to divide and conquer to make sure we booked with the tour company he wanted us to. He had told Roxanne and Pierre that we had booked with this company so they should too, and since they had no reason to believe he was lying, they purchased the tour (at the full price and not, of course, at the lower negotiated price). This of course put all our backs up, so we trooped back to the tour agency to insist that they put us together on the same tour at the lower price agreed to earlier. Ultimately (thanks primarily to Georgina), they refunded Pierre and Roxanne the money, and we left for an early dinner at Craters (which I felt was completely overrated, by the way).

The next day, we set out on a tour that visited three jar sites. Nobody knows what these huge, megalithic jars were used for or when exactly they date from, but over fifty sites are scattered all over the plain. One theory is that they are ancient burial sites, though a more charming story is that they are the very large whiskey jars of some historical king who was celebrating something that clearly required a lot of whiskey. Most sites have not been cleared from UXOs, although the three shown on most one day tours have been. Nobody wants bits of tourists blown all over the site – it would look bad on the Lao government’s application for UNESCO heritage status.

Before we got to the first site (which was actually Site 3), we stopped at a little house where a lady made lao lao, or Lao rice whisky. She offered everyone a taste (at 9 in the morning, I refused) and then filled up a water bottle with it for sale.

Chilis drying in the sun

Chilis drying in the sun

The house was on the side of a dirt road, and I think these red dirts roads along with bright, bright green rice fields form one of my most vivid memories of Southeast Asia. You just don’t get this color road back home, and it will always be synonymous with exotic, less developed locales to me.

Dirt road, Plain of Jars

Dirt road, Plain of Jars

We also passed one of the little huts that we had seen throughout the countryside. Our guide took a few minutes for us to stop and check it out – it was a hideaway for someone to use to trap sparrows.

Sparrow trapping hut

Sparrow trapping hut

Jar site 3 lies in the middle of rice paddies, so we had a nice stroll through them to get there. We were warned to stay within the MAG (Mines Advisory Group) markers, as those designate the area cleared from UXOs.

Jar site 2 is at the top of a hill with a splendid view of the surrounding area.

We got to see the remnants of a Russian-made tank, though it was pretty anti-climatic. Everything of value had been stripped years before.

The famed "Russian tank"

The famed “Russian tank”

We had a decent noodle lunch and then were off to Jar Site 1, with a few jars scattered on a hilltop amongst the remains of trenches from the war, and a path down to a huge flat area covered in the jars. Nearby lay a cave where the Pathet Lao hid people and vehicles.

Weaving and Dyeing

I was super excited to be taking a dyeing and weaving class at Ock Pop Tok (translated as East Meets West). I was taking a one day class, in which I’d learn about natural dyes and weave a silk placemat. Georgina was taking a two day class, so she ended up making a silk scarf.

We headed over to Ock Pop Tok’s handicraft center, where we were greeted with some cups of tea and a beautiful riverside view. It turned out that we were the only people taking classes that day.

First came the dyeing. We heard about the silk production and dyeing processes. I was surprised to see what bright, vibrant colors can be obtained from natural dyes. And it was fun to see chemistry at work – part of the difference between an orange and a red dye, for example, was a rusty nail.

We then walked through the weavers’ section. We learned how the pattern is set up on strings that are set up at the back of the loom. Pulling up a string raises specific threads to run the loom shuttle under, thus creating a pattern. I still don’t understand how they can see the pattern in these threads because they have to know which thread to move up or down at what time. Later on, we found out that each loom may have threads for two different patterns strung on it. Master weavers definitely deserve the title. That walkthrough wasn’t intimidating at all!

Full of trepidation, we started off choosing what colors we wanted to dye our skeins of silk. I chose gold, orange and blue. Then we walked over to the master dyer’s work area. We chopped wood, peeled berries, and threw things into pots to simmer. The indigo had already been prepped, so we started dyeing our skeins. For the indigo, this meant squeezing the skein in the dye so the dye would get worked in deeply. Then rinse the skein off, shake it out, and “snap” it so the fibers lie straight and it can be hung up to dry.

While we were dyeing (and later while we were weaving), some groups came by to tour. Apparently we were one of the attractions! It was a slightly bizarre feeling, but good to know how all those weavers felt when we went through!

We took a break for lunch, and then headed over to the looms that had been set up for us. Each of us had a master weaver to work with, and a translator helped us out as well. I can’t help but feel how boring it must be for them! The translator said it depended on the weaver. An older master weaver liked teaching more, as her eyesight was getting bad for weaving.

"My" master weaver setting up the loom

“My” master weaver setting up the loom

First we got to spool our skeins of silk. Sadly, we weren’t able to use the skeins we had just dyed. I’m not sure why – perhaps they were still drying. Then we learned how to weave solid color, which was fairly straightforward (though I admit that every time I thought that, my attention wandered and then I came close to messing up!) Next came the pattern. The master weavers did most of the work, since they chose which thread to pull up or down to create the pattern. Nonetheless, I felt a great sense of accomplishment when my piece came off the loom!

Playgrounds, Waterfalls and Giants

I volunteered to help clean up the playground for the local preschool that Peter (our guesthouse owner) had helped to found. Georgina and I went over and scrubbed down the slides and merry-go-round, then took a break for the best Lao lunch I’ve had yet, made by Peter’s wife Manichan. It was Lao style, too, which means using sticky rice as cutlery. Then we started work on a sun shade for one of the swing sets. Georgina and I being fairly determined types, we finished putting up the sun shade that afternoon, despite the heat and incredible sun. What a feeling of accomplishment to do something for others and not just for myself on this trip! It took a bit longer than anticipated, so we weren’t able to go to the nearby waterfall as planned. Peter offered to take us along with his kids the following day since it was a school holiday.

Luckily, Sadaf was able to join us as well – the beginning of a beautiful friendship! Peter drove us all out to Kuang Si falls. At the bottom of the park is an enclosure for rescued sun bears. We spent some time observing them, then headed to the falls.
The lower part of the falls are quite accessible: a series of pools of a light, milky blue along with terraces and smaller falls. The shade of blue actually reminds me of the terraces and travertines of Pamukkale, Turkey. From the lower pools, it’s pretty easy to climb up to the foot of the larger falls, which are spectacular.

We decided to try to hike up to the top of the falls. I’m not great with heights (read: am terrified by heights) but I thought I’d try and then turn back if I had to. Little did I know that it wasn’t really possible to turn back! We went up the right side (when facing the falls from the bottom), which I had read was the harder path. To be honest, I’m not sure I’d have made it down that way, so it’s fortunate that we chose it to go up! There was definitely a bit of climbing involved. Georgina and Sadaf were also great, patient hiking buddies, always ready with a hand up or over as needed.

We made it to the top and realized that “hike over the top of the falls” was meant quite literally. There wasn’t a path, rather, we waded through pools at the top of the falls and looked down at the view. It was pretty incredible, and I’m proud of myself for having made it that far! We saw some little “fish” at the top that in retrospect I think might have been leeches, but we didn’t bother them and they didn’t bother us.

Then came the hike down, which towards the bottom included a flight of stairs. Of course, half of the stairs were under water, but hey! At least there were stairs!
After the incredible hike, we took a dip in one of the equally incredibly cold pools at the bottom of the set of waterfalls. It was lovely and refreshing.

On the way back, we stopped at Peter’s friends’ place. They are creating a butterfly garden, so we saw some beautiful examples. I can only imagine what it will be like next year, when they are done putting up some of the butterfly attractors.
Then it was a rush to the Royal Palace to be in time to see the Lao Ballet. We saw one part of a story cycle that involved giants, monkeys, and bridge building. (The monkeys were working to build a bridge, but it was disturbing the denizens of the deep. Their princess led them in undoing every night what the monkeys built during the day, until the monkey leader – or his imp, it got a bit lost in translation – worked his wiles on her and she agreed to stop.) Most of the dance was very stylized hand movements. It was very interesting, if perhaps a bit of an acquired taste for westerners (or at least for me).

Food Fun in Luang Prabang

Georgina and I were ready to head to cooking class! I had chosen to take classes at Tamarind because everyone had raved about how good the food is there, and I had high expectations for the class. I wasn’t disappointed.

We started out with a trip to the market. This was somewhat similar to the Chiang Mai market that I had visited with my cooking class there, but I did still enjoy it. Our charismatic chef-teacher Chai pointed out the various herbs we would be cooking with, along with the live bugs that are a delicacy in Laos. Luckily for our western sensibilities, we wouldn’t be cooking with those!

After the market, we got back into the songthaew and headed out of the city, to the lovely spot Tamarind chose for its classes. It’s down some steps, across a stream, and by a lilly pond!

The layout of the teaching area was quite smart. Tables and chairs bordered the pond for when we were ready to taste the results of our class. Long tables were in the shelter nearby, which was our prep space. Then there was the kitchen area where the clay pots of burning coals were kept, away from the prep area so we didn’t get way too overheated. (My first night in Luang Prabang, trying to find the guesthouse, I had passed a big pile of burning coals and wondered what they were for. Turns out, these clay pots are a common stove in Laos.)

We were going to cook a variety of dishes: choice of either tomato or eggplant dip to have with sticky rice (I of course chose eggplant), mok pa (fish steamed in banana leaves), buffalo laap, stuffed lemongrass, and the ever-present sticky rice with fruit. (Though there are actually different varieties of sticky rice, and the one I made at Tamarind was different from the one I made in Thailand.)

For the eggplant dip, we first roasted the eggplant right in the coals. Garlic and other ingredients were out on kababs and roasted as well. It gave the dip a delightfully smoky flavor that sadly I think I’m going to have difficulty in reproducing at home. imageChai told us that three green chillis and two red chillis would make it “Lao hot”, and Georgina and I both opted to try that. Chai seemed quite surprised when he tasted it, and I have to say that “Lao hot” does mean burn-your-mouth-off hot. (It’s supposed to be even hotter than Thai food!) I wouldn’t make it that spicy again, but boy, it was really tasty!
Mok pa is some kind of white fish (which they kindly filleted for us – Lao would eat the whole fish) marinated in spices and then wrapped in banana leaves to steam. I need to practice making my banana leaf packaging prettier!
The spices are pretty standard for Lao cooking, kaffir lime leaves and lemongrass being two key ingredients.

The stuffed lemongrass was another wonder of presentation. If you’ve never cooked with lemongrass, you might not realize it’s a twiggy, slightly woody, very slender plant. Stuffing it is like contemplating stuffing a leek. However, it’s the woodiness that works to its advantage, because you can cut through the stalk multiple times lengthwise and then push the ends of the stalk together so the sliced lemongrass bows outward like a lantern.

This is how it should look:

And this is my attempt:
Finally came the laap, what I’d consider to be the national dish of Laos, and something that Georgina and I were diligently taste testing in almost every Lao restaurant we went to. Chai made his the Lao way – with the buffalo almost raw, beef bile as an ingredient, and tripe in there as well. I have to day, it was really tasty. However, Georgina and I (everyone was partnered since the laap required so many ingredients) were a little hesitant to undercook our meat, and completely vetoed the tripe. Ours turned out pretty well anyway:
Finally it was time for dessert, though we were all terribly full from our multiple dishes. Still, everyone found room for some sticky rice and fruit!

After dessert, we all headed back into town, surprised to find that it was still only mid-afternoon. The choices were food coma or walk off some of the meal, so we were virtuous and chose the latter.

We walked to the National Museum, the former palace in Luang Prabang pre-PDR (People’s Democratic Republic). The main hall has wonderful mirrored mosaics like the wat I had visited the previous day. There was also a room filled with masks used in traditional Lao dance.

Afterwards, we decided to go for a foot massage, my first ever! I was wondering how they’d massage my feet for a full hour, and was relieved that it was a foot and leg massage so I was less likely to giggle from ticklishness (though giggle I did).

Utopia rounded off the day, a fitting stop after the relaxation of a massage.

Mice, Monks, and Drums


What do mice and monks have to do with one another? English conversation practice at Big Brother Mouse!

Big Brother Mouse is a Lao non-profit that works to bring Lao language books to village children who may never have owned a book before, or even been exposed to anything but a dry textbook. Laos has a big problem with illiteracy, so this is a great non-profit. (For more information, check out their website

Foreigners who want to volunteer are directed to the twice-daily English conversation sessions at Big Brother Mouse. Georgina and I headed over to see whether they needed any volunteers that morning. Speaking good English is key to getting a tourism job, which for many Lao is the path to (relative) prosperity.

We were greeted by a row of six or seven young men turning expectantly towards us. Apparently we were the only volunteers that morning – no pressure! We chatted and translated and explained for two really intense, rewarding hours.

Conversation with people of such a different culture, living under a communist government, can be tricky at times. We needed to steer away from any discussion of religion (though we could ask the two young monks there about their experiences as monks). Proselytizing is illegal and you don’t want anyone to say that your explanation of a term is actually proselytizing. Ditto for politics, of course.

One of the encounters that affected me most deeply was a high school senior who spoke great English and was planning on dropping out of school to get a job. He wanted to know what I would advise him to do, because he deeply respected my opinion as a “falang” or foreigner. (After we spoke, he gave me a very respectful “nob” – the gesture of respect where you put your hands together and raise them in front of your face. The higher your hands are, the more respect you’re showing – and his were almost completely in front of his face.) Foreigners need to remember just how much their actions may influence locals, especially in developing countries.

Then there were the little funny moments of language exchange, like when I tried to explain “jumpy” and one of the guys thought it a synonym of bumpy – as exemplified by Lao roads!

Both Georgina and I were tired out when we came out of our conversation sessions. We walked around a bit and had lunch, after which I popped out briefly to visit an incredible wat she had visited the day before, Xieng Thong. The last two editions of Lonely Planet Laos have had one of its buildings on their covers, the bright pink walls covered in shiny mosaics. I honestly didn’t think the walls in the wat would be pink, but I was wrong!

The main sanctuary building is actually red, but it too is covered in shining colored mirrored glass shards within mosaics. I haven’t seen anything like it in all the was I’ve visited thus far.

There is a little smaller shrine that is pink, also covered in the mosaic work.

The sun was beating down pretty mercilessly, so I headed back to the restaurant. We left around four, and heard drumming coming from each of the wats on “Main Street”. We later found out that it’s a local tradition. Legend has it that giants used to live in the area, preying on the people of Luang Prabang. The monks made a deal with the giants, who would stop eating people as long as they got this drum tribute every day at four.

From the main street we went to a laid-back bar/restaurant/cafe called Utopia. I had heard that it was “the” place to go, so I figured it for a backpackers bar. Not the case, at least if you’re there before eight or nine. Loved it!

Solo Travel Doesn’t Mean Traveling Alone: Luang Prabang

The night I arrived at Manichan Guesthouse, I met an Englishwoman named Georgina who was traveling solo and interested in many of the things I was – namely, weaving and cooking classes. The next day at breakfast, I met a woman photographer who ran a non-profit working with hilltribe women who were using cameras to document their lives. There was also a Dutch young woman doing an internship at a fair trade store in the Old Town. A few days later, I met a compatriot named Sadaf who is also a solo traveller (and actually traveled overland from Capetown to Cairo!). Two Belgians, Pierre and Roxanne, were also traveling around the world. This has been the first time in my travels that I’ve stayed at a place where so many people were solo travellers, many on career breaks, most at least in their late twenties or thirties. The atmosphere was fantastic, people sitting around the big wooden table in the courtyard talking over breakfast or after a day out. These were interesting conversations, discussing travel and Laos and wide-ranging topics. The guesthouse owner Peter would join in, often over a game of Uno with him and his son. In fact, it became the kind of experience that the books and blogs say solo travel is about – traveling solo so you can meet new people and do things with them. An adorable fur ball puppy just rounded out how ridiculously wonderful my stay was.

Georgina and Jacques

Georgina and Jacques

As part of this, my first morning in Luang Prabang was spent in part in changing my scheduled classes so I could do them at the same time as Georgina. I was very excited to be taking both a cooking and a weaving class, and we thought it would be fun to have company. My plan is to take a cooking class in each country, so I can better compare the cuisines.

I also got to meet up with an old college friend who currently lives in Cambodia but was in town for the first ever Luang Prabang half marathon that weekend. (What are the odds? Apparently pretty high since Georgina also knew someone running the race!)

Saturday's half marathon

Saturday’s half marathon

Then I just wandered through Luang Prabang’s Old City (a UNESCO site), soaking in the laid-back, former French colonial atmosphere. Wats line “Main Street”, while white houses with teak trim remind you of the French colonial presence. Heavy traffic is forbidden in the Old Town, so only an occasional car goes past, though tuk tuks and motor bikes may run you over! Cafés and massage parlors are everywhere. The Old Town is on a peninsula between two rivers, so it’s only a block down a narrow, stair lined alley to get from the main street to the Nam Khan.

I stopped in the small but interesting TAEC museum, a center documenting the different tribes and ethnic groups in Laos. They showcase the different textiles from the different (large) tribes, which I find fascinating. For example, the Hmong use crosstitch a lot, often in orange.

The shop at TAEC also has some amazing examples of textiles, not as cheap as buying it directly from the craftspeople, of course. I bought myself a reversible cap since packing away my wide-brimmed straw hat hadn’t done it any favors. (I was also planning on being around people more in Luang Prabang than I had been elsewhere, and wanted something at least a nod closer to fashionable!)

I ate lunch and blogged at Le Patio, the cafe attached to TAEC, in an effort to avoid the blazing sun. They use some of their textiles as table runners, which I enjoyed idly admiring as I sipped my (almost toothpaste-tasting) mint syrup and bubbly water concoction.

I managed to see a lot of the Old Town without going out in the worst of the sun too much, always a plus!