Saturday, April 10, 2010

Kuang Si Waterfall

The main cascade is a good 50m high!
Walk to the outskirts of downtown Luang Prabang and you might find a little shop that rents motorbikes. Be sure to get one with a basket, though, it's much easier for carrying your picnic supplies (or camera gear). Next, get directions to Kuang Si waterfall ... or just "the waterfall," everyone knows which one you want to see.

Kuang Si is nearly thirty kilometers south of the city. It's not that hard to find as there are helpful signs along the way. If you're not sure of your directions, it's easy enough to follow one of the many tuk-tuks or little tour buses heading that way. Any vehicle packed with young Caucasians is heading to Kuang Si waterfall.

At the end of the road there is a large parking lot and many kiosks selling souvenirs and snacks. Walk up the hill and pay about a dollar for entrance to the site. A mud path leads through the underbrush beneath the huge trees. You'll walk over a few streams on your way to the first pool. It looks inviting, but keeping going up river.

You will pass half a dozen inviting cascades flowing into murky turquoise pools. The formations are the result of a high limestone content in the water. The mushy looking surface is actually hard rock. It's safe to walk through the water. In fact, the pools are terrific for swimming. Wear sandals though, because the riverbed has numerous rough rocks beneath the surface.
One of the beautiful cascades downstream from the main falls.

The travertine rocks make the falls look so gentle.
When you arrive at the main cascade, you'll recognize it immediately. It flows fifty meters down the hillside, in a series of falls, short and tall. On a breezy day, the wind kicks up a fine mist and blows it everywhere. At the bottom of the falls there are a number of vantage points to admire the cascade. The locals have provided short bridges and even picnic benches on which to relax and admire the view. My favorite view is to climb to the top.

The principle falls with tourists for scale.
The toughest route to the top is on the north-west (right hand) side. The path is not maintained and can be very slick from mist. Good footwear and steady footing is required to climb the steep path. The top is most rewarding, however. There are many shallow pools that converge to pour over the side of the cliff. The top is also a nice to place to explore if you want to wander through some untouched Laos jungle.

After walking through the pools on top of the cliff, going down the south-east side of the falls is a breeze. The locals have maintained the path with steps and even a couple of benches for resting. You can access some of the pools right on the cliff face, as well. Although signs strenuously advice against it, you can occasionally find daring Europeans going for a thrill swim near the precipice.

After exploring up and down the falls, I went for a swim at the bottom-most pool. Here, a tree extends out over a large, and reasonably deep, pool. It makes for an excellent diving platform. Someone took the trouble to tie a rope to one of the upper branches making a rope swing. This is where most of the tourists swim. It's a great spot to catch up on the news of the world with other backpackers ... or just take in the sights.

A rope swing adds incentive to go for a swim.

Swimming is not permitted in the sacred pool.
See more photos of the falls here.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Morning Monks of Luang Prabang

Sometimes you want to sleep away the morning during your travels, but sometimes you simply must wake before the dawn and greet the sun. That's the photographer's life, but more so when in Luang Prabang. The ancient capital of Laos is the monastic heart of the country and every morning countless monks go through the streets collecting alms.

Shortly before sunrise, the monks gather at the courtyard of the various monasteries and temples as they prepare for their walk. The younger boys mill about, passing time making sure their fellows' robes are twisted and draped properly. The air is cool at that early hour, but they are all barefoot and uncomplaining.

On the street, meanwhile, individuals and small groups gather on the sidewalk. They roll mats on the pavement and kneel, or just bring along a low stool. With a basket of rice beside them, they await the arrival of the monks.

Back in the temple grounds, the monks line up in single file. On some signal I failed to witness every time I witnessed the event, the monks quickly walk from their gates to meet the waiting offerings. As they file past the locals, they open their begging bowls to receive a small portion of rice, barely a mouthful. While seemingly a meagre amount, the number of offerings soon grow. With tourists taking part in the offering ceremony, most monks are actually overburdened and pass much of their collected food to someone who distributes it to the needy.

The tourists certainly do get involved. The main rode is practically clogged with kneeling foreigners, traditional sticky-rice provided by their tour leaders. An army of photographers also greet the procession.

The tourists can hardly be blamed for their enthusiasm. There are some terrific photo opportunities here.

Although the most interesting background, the white wall, is on the main road, the side roads offer fewer crowds to get in the way.

Once they finish their tour through the town, the monks return to their monasteries. Within sight of their home, they visibly relax, no longer walking stiffly, but almost ambling the final few hundred paces to the gates. They finally break the silence of their march and begin to talk quietly but animatedly among themselves.

They have a bit of free tie prior to their morning studies. This is the best time to get photos of the young men. Many of them find a quiet spot to meditate before attending class. I surprised more than a few as I explored some of the areas around the various temples. Of course, it's not all seriousness for these fellows. I would often meet boys eager to practice their English skills. These make particularly good photo subjects because they're all too happy to pose.

A few years ago, I managed to get a nice shot of two monks in front of their temple. On the off chance I would run into one of them, I packed the photo with me. Sure enough, some of the monks at the monastery identified him and searched the buildings until they found him. He was a bit perplexed over the image. I wasn't sure if he'd ever seen himself photographed. When I finally made clear to him that the photo was for him to keep, he was quite pleased. I handed out a few more photos during my trip, but most of the people I sought could not be located.

With morning break over, the monks settle into the classrooms. The younger ones study, the elders and laity teach.

See plenty more photos of the monks of Luang Prabang here.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Luang Prabang - Ancient Capital of the Kingdom

Luang Prabang is like no other city in South East Asia. Where the Nam Khan river meets the Mekong, a sort of peninsula is formed. a tall hill dominates the skyline here. The town is centered at this spot, consisting of four main roads and numerous intersecting alleys. The architecture is a fusion of French provincial and traditional Asian style. The town is also home to numerous monasteries and temples. There are few vehicles in the city, but this will soon change as more and more tourists discover this location.

My bus pulled in shortly before sunset. That gave me little time to find a decent place to spend the night. I headed through the town center to the back alleys I had explored a few years earlier. The high-end hotels are located at the north-east part of town, but there are some equally expensive places squeezed between the other streets. I managed to find a place that served primarily as a tour group restaurant that had a couple of nice rooms in the back. I negotiated a reasonable rate and dumped my stuff. On the way out I met my immediate neighbors. A couple of guys sitting on the floor of their room playing cards. I always think of playing cards as something you do when you have absolutely nothing else to do. I could not understand how cards could hold more appeal than just standing on a street in Luang Prabang. I mean, you can play cards anywhere, any time, but you can only do Luang Prabang stuff right now.

The main drag, Sakkarine Rd., is one of my favorite for a stroll. It is lined with guest houses, temples, curious shops and restaurants. At night, a large portion of the road is cleared of traffic and a night market established. Here can be found some of my favorite silk scarves in all Asia. I did a quick tour of the place just to get familiar with what was being produced. It had the usual fabrics, t-shirts and knickknacks as well as some nice handicrafts and antiques.

The bank to the river is very steep. The townspeople manage to produce gardens in the rich muddy soil during the dry season. Enterprising restaurateurs build terraced seating on the top of the bank so dinners can enjoy the spectacular sunset every night. This is where I spent every supper hour.

I planned to spend a few days in the town, so I was no rush to get anything done. I did have a plan, though. Every morning was dedicated to following the monks, every evening exploring the market. Day times were mostly open, but I was determined to visit the local waterfalls. To this end I had to rent a motor bike. After a couple of days of exploring, I ran into trouble with the local constabulary.

I had just turned off the main road and took a side street to another road leading to another part of town. A small group of policemen had gathered at the intersection. I proceeded toward them with some suspicion. I could see no reason why they were gathered there. Bike inspection? They waved me over and I pulled up. Through waves and gesticulations, they alerted me to the fact that the road was one-way. Of course, there was no sign indicating that the road was one-way and I politely pointed out this fact. Furthermore, there were plenty of locals dashing up the road not fifty meters away. Would I be let off with a warning or was this a plain ol' shake-down? I brought up the camera to confirm my suspicion.

Yeah, they did not want proof of who was conducting freelance tourist assistance. I asked how much they wanted; twenty bucks. Aside from being way too much, I had no small bills in my wallet (otherwise I'd hand over a five dollar bill and be on my way). I decided to stand my ground. I sat on my bike, shrugged my shoulders and pointed out the local violators. To the only cop who spoke English, I complained of the lack of signage. After several minutes of me not handing over any cash, he got fed up and had me follow him on his bike. I figured we were going to the main police station (fine by me), but he took me to the far end of town where a "don't turn here" sign was posted. Some lot of good that did when almost no one came up this far. I had him follow me to the road I came down, where there was no signage at all. He wasn't interested and kept driving. Now I'm on my own. The cops might still be staked out at the bottom of the hill, so I made my way around the other way and drove off into the countryside.

Arriving back in town at the end of the day, I decided to return the motorcycle in case I should run into that lot again.

See more photos here.