Waking up early to see the monks of Laos

davThe slow boat collided softly with the tyres bound to the ferry port at Luang Prabang, and the tourist horde disembarked, stretching and yawning. Caramel waves chased each other down the Mekong like energetic children playing tip. Luang Prabang old town was pretty, neat and straight. Quaint guesthouses and corner stores were splashed in creamy yellow paint, proudly exhibiting small green gardens, urns of tiny fish and lacquered wooden signposts. The clean, empty streets were deafening with silence, palm trees vaulted from sidewalks, narrow cobbled alleys oozed invitations to explore.

I was immobilized by a bout of gastro for a day, but soon felt well enough to wander the city. Cindy and I walked around the many colourful monasteries, with their tall pointed roofs and monks on laundry duty hanging up fluoro orange robes to dry in the heat. Streets packed with restaurants baked under the sun by day, and blossomed with Hmong tribal night markets after dark. The riverfront boasted tree-shaded cafes, with timber balconies lined up along the Mekong.

Dawn on the morning of our departure to Phonsavan. Monks streamed single file (oldest to youngest, the little kid monks bringing up the rear) from their monasteries. Devout locals and sleepy, curious tourists alike waited roadside to give food, placing rice and cookies in the monk’s jars. As quickly as they appeared, the silent donation was done, and the monks were gone.

Phonsavan was not an attractive city by any stretch of the imagination. Straight, broad streets were framed by angular, Soviet-era hotels and shuttered shop fronts barred with lattice iron gates. Locals on motorbikes shielded themselves awkwardly from the weather with umbrellas, passing the slow makeshift tractor-engined carts. Cold, dismal rain fell silently and filled the gravelly streets with puddles of brown mud. It was mid-afternoon when we arrived, but we didn’t come for the sullen grey view. We were here to see the enigmatic Plain of Jars.

Rain continued to fall into the next morning, but nevertheless, going outside to find the jars still seemed preferable to killing time in town. We rented a motorbike, an old red Honda. Riding a moto with proper wet weather gear may protect from the rain, but my raincoat was ten years old, and was letting plenty of water through as we arrived at site 1. We waited undercover until the rain slowed to a drizzle, and walked to the plain.dav

They differed in size, some waist height, others to the shoulders, some lopsided and lumpy, but all similar in shape. The jars were cup-shaped blocks of solid stone, mysterious hollowed out boulders, smudged with flecks of lichen and collecting rainwater in stagnant puddles. Nobody knew who created them or for what purpose, though it’s thought they served as food storage or for human burial. The prehistoric jars clustered in their dozens on the grassy field, weathering the rain with more patience than Cindy and I, so we moved on.dav

Site 2 was a mission. Unluckily, the rain started dropping in buckets, and the way was a rocky road of gravel, mud and water. I swore loudly as I rode through a muddy puddle and my blue converse turned to brown, my feet drenched. I decided to smile though, once I accepted that I was wet and muddy, and didn’t fight it, I was free to enjoy the challenging ride. Cindy, riding pillion, was less convinced that the ride was fun, and hung on.

At the site 2 gate, we got off the bike. I shook a cup of rainwater from each sleeve, wringed my shirt, and warmed my frozen knuckles over a steaming hot noodle soup. I was a drowned rat, cold to the bone. Cindy, with me as the shield, was less wet.

The next plain of jars was up a hill of deep red mud like glue. Inches of mud stuck to our shoes as we walked, and the bike’s tyres and undercarriage were clogged with thick muck, which needed clearing with a stick. The jars had waited patiently for us here on the hill, amidst the trees, collecting rain falling heavily from the branches above.

Vientiane, Laos’ unpretentious capital, served brooding grey skies and occasional spitting rain. I had been hoping for a bustling city, a Saigon or a Bangkok, with shops, sights and a cinema to watch Batman, but besides a few interesting temples, there was not much to do. A strip of trendy French cafes alleviated boredom and satisfied hunger. Moving south, we chanced upon eerie Savannakhet. Crumbling walls and boarded-up windows, few people, few vehicles, deserted streets; Zombieland. Staying only one night was an easy choice, and at the bus station we met a throng of other travellers who also could only stand one night.

By the time we reached Pakse, our patience with tortoise-slow Laos was running on fumes. Hopping from place to place, we failed to find another town as pretty or interesting as Luang Prabang. We were fed up with droll, raining towns, hotels lacking character or charm, consistently late, filthy buses, and ATMs that never worked. One more bus, this time to Cambodia. Late. Patience…

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