Thursday, November 5, 2015

Exploring the Rivers of Luang Phabang

                                       by Jim Goodman

Luang Phabang
       To the people of Laos, Luang Phabang is the capital of the first Lao kingdom in the mid-14th century and the home of its royal family down to 1975.  To practically everybody else, it’s a World Heritage Site, full of classic Lao temples, colonial-era buildings, traditional lifestyles, a place reeking with culture with one of the most beautiful locations in Southeast Asia.  As a consequence, it has become a favorite tourist destination in the region.  At high season in the winter, it seems more foreigners are walking the streets than local residents.
air view of the peninsula between the rivers
       There’s no denying its scenic setting, though.  Luang Phabang lies on the left bank of the Mekong River at its junction with the Nam Khan River, which flows down from the hills behind the town.  On its way to the Mekong it is blocked by Phousi Hill and has to make a right turn around a long peninsula to reach the Mekong.  Thus, the city has two parts.  On the other side of Phousi Hill lies most of the city:  the markets, boat landings, administrative buildings, residential neighborhoods, chedis and temples.  The peninsula between the rivers, which by the way run in opposite directions, contains the former royal palace, old shop-houses, colonial-era homes and several wonderful temples.  At the end of this peninsula the Nam Kham passes between two boulders, believed to be the resting places of mythical serpents called nagas, before it empties into the Mekong.
the Nam Khan River behind Phousi Hill
       Certainly there is much to appreciate within the confines of the city.  But excursions beyond Luang Phabang can be equally rewarding, exploring the rural beauty of the rivers and streams of the vicinity.  The easiest is to follow the Nam Khan from the peninsula northeast of the city as it winds in the general direction of the airport towards the hills bounding the valley.  It can be done on foot or bicycle, over a path along the modestly sized river, with views of the hills always ahead.
       After a few kilometers the river passes by Wat Pa Phon Phao, standing on a large mound near the river.  Unique to the Luang Phabang area, this golden temple stands on an octagonal base, with a chedi on top, instead of the usual angled roofs.  The temple is also noted for its interior murals, with some graphic depictions of the fates of sinners in Hell.
fishing on the Mekong
       Just beyond this temple is the famous weaving village of Ban Phanom.  The inhabitants here are Tai Lu, originally from Muong Singh in the far north.  In pre-colonial times the Court in Luang Phabang relocated them to this location to produce textiles for the royal family.  Eventually the village expanded its production to the commoner class and today, while not the only weaving village in the vicinity, it is the most famous and most productive.  Virtually all of the wonderful silk sarongs with the brocaded borders worn by Luang Phabang women come from Ban Phanom.
       The road continues along the river, but out of view of it for the most part.  A few km later, about 10 km from the city, a sign marks a trail to the grave of Henri Mouhot, the 19th century French explorer, the first to record in detail the ruins of Angkor Wat, who unfortunately died from malaria in Luang Phabang in 1861.  He was just 35, but had stayed in Luang Phabang long enough to write the earliest description of the royal capital before it became a French colony. 
Wat Pa Phon Phao
       When the French Mekong Expedition passed by here in 1756, its leader Doudart de Legrée had a simple tomb built over the grave and left a dedication inscribed in stone. The jungle consumed the tomb area, which was just above the flood line of the Nam Khan, and only in 1990 was it accidentally rediscovered.
       A little further upriver a tributary stream passes over a series of rock terraces to form the Tad Sae Waterfalls.  The stream tumbles through a heavily forested slope, so even on the hottest, most humid summer days this is still a refreshingly cool spot.  The water rushes down from a few different branches, sometimes cascading into round pools.  Trails ascend a little ways upstream, but are soon blocked by the jungle.  But there are plenty of big, smooth boulders to sit upon and listen to the sounds of rushing, splashing water.
Ban Phanom weaver
       None of the cataracts here are more than a few meters high, though.  For a more ‘proper’ waterfall, one that gushes over a perpendicular precipice of one kind of another, the destination is Kuang Si, about 25 km southeast of Luang Phabang.  Visitors can take a boat downriver most of the way, then switch to a jumbo for the last few kilometers.  But a road also leads there from Luang Phabang, so most people hire a motorbike or vehicle for the journey. 
       The water tumbles over a precipice about 200 meters above a pool, splitting into several separate streams, spilling over huge boulders interspersed with dark caverns.  This arrangement gives the falls an unusual, surreal, even anthropomorphic look near the bottom.  Just above the pool the water, boulder and cavern combination resembles a person standing in a downpour and wearing a raincoat with a peaked hood.
       Easy to reach from Luang Phabang, endowed with several restaurants and ample picnic grounds, Kuang Si is more popular than Tad Sae and not only with foreign tourists.  Lao families come here to spend the day and children from the nearby villages go swimming and bathing in the creek that leads out from the waterfall to eventually reach the Mekong.  In the rushing waters of the creek and its forks in the vicinity stand several small hydraulic mills--water-wheels that operate grain pounders.  The village houses are the traditional stilted, wooden structures, the fields and gardens well maintained, and the whole area is a representative example of rural life in Laos.
Tad Sae waterfalls
       North of Luang Phabang, the most popular excursion is up the Mekong River 25 km to the Pak Ou caves.  It is possible to go by road up to the village across the river from the caves and then take a ferry across.  But on the boat, one has a view of some of the finest scenery on the Mekong, especially opposite the caves, where limestone cliffs rise beside the confluence of the Nam Ou River with the Mekong.  The boat also passes by a small, wooded island with an abandoned temple near its southern shore, all but obscured by the jungle.
anthropomorphic portion of Kuang Si Falls
       The Pak Ou caves have been a Buddhist place of worship for a thousand years.  They are in a sheer limestone cliff right next to the river, the lower one fifteen meters above the waterline.  In pre-modern days the journey here was both arduous and hazardous, a true merit-making exercise.  Pilgrims brought with them a Buddha image to leave at one of the caves.  Thus, over the centuries, the Pak Ou caves have amassed a huge collection of images.
       They are of all different sizes and quality, in stone, bronze, clay and wood, doubtless reflecting the wealth of the donors.  The majority are small, but even some of these can be gilded, exquisitely sculpted, obviously the work of a master.  Many of the larger statues, in their fine molds and intricate detail, are equal to the best temple sculptures back in the city.
       Most of the images, especially the larger ones, are in the lower cave, which is adjacent to the cave mouth and so much better lit.  Devotees in the past carved tables and altars from the rock and filled them with images.  Other small statues they placed in various niches and on the tops of boulders.  Larger ones stand beside the stone staircase that makes a steep ascent to the upper cave, darker, with no opening to the outside.   A gilt chedi stands atop a multi-tiered altar at the back of the cave, each level loaded with small Buddha images.
view from Pak Ou
the lower cave
       The Nam Ou River, which makes such a spectacular merger with the Mekong across from the Pak Ou caves, begins in northern Phong Saly province near the China border and runs for 450 kilometers.  It is one of the major rivers of Laos and the only one besides the Mekong navigable by large cargo boats.  With the building of good roads in recent decades, commerce on the river has been much reduced.  While it is still possible to hire a boat to go upriver, most travelers take a bus to Nong Khiaw, on the river northeast of Luang Phabang, and the starting point for the best scenery on the Nam Ou.
Buddha images left by pilgrims at Pak Ou caves
       From here upriver the pleasant rolling hills that characterized the river valley give way to dramatic karst landscapes, with oddly shaped limestone mountains with steep vertical cliffs jutting up from the land all around.  Ferries from Nong Khiaw transport passengers on an hour’s ride upriver through the jungle to Muong Ngoi.  A row of bamboo and thatch houses lines the bank next to the boat landing.  An administrative office, exchange bureau and a small Buddhist temple, home to several monks who make their regular morning begging bowl rounds in the village, stand near the boat landing. A road running behind the riverside houses is full of shops, restaurants and villagers’ homes.
       With its admirable scenery, laid-back atmosphere and pervasive peace and quiet, it is hard to imagine this ever being a war zone.  But it was.  The evidence is the empty artillery shells that decorate gardens and the signs warning children not to pick up or play with any strange object wedged into the soil.  However, it’s been over forty years since any bombs shattered the silence around Muong Ngoi and today it is a spot where the most popular activity of its guests is sitting by the river, watching passing boats and enjoying the tranquility.
morning near Muong Ngoi
       About 75 families live in the village and just about all of them are involved in the tourist business to one degree or another.  Many of them run guest houses, restaurants and drink shops, while nearly all the village homes have signs posted beside them offering services as guides to Hmong and Khamu villages, boat rides further upriver and kayaking to nearby riverside caves.
       The easiest adventure, which requires no assistance, is a hike out the trail past the village’s sole road junction into the fields and jungles beyond.  After about a 45-minute walk the trail reaches a small cave full of stalactites on the left and a shallow stream on the right.  Near the shore men wade in the water and use electric stunners and spear guns to catch fish.  Others use nets cast from pirogues gliding in the stream.
monks on their morning rounds in Muong Ngoi
       Even as its popularity as a tourist attraction grew, Muong Ngoi still seemed like a village suspended in time.  Electricity only came here a couple of years ago.  But its recent prosperity faces an uncertain and probably negative future.  The government, with the assistance of a Chinese company, plans to construct seven dams on the upper reaches of the Nam Ou River.  This will disturb some of the most unspoiled, pristine natural environments in the country and severely deplete the fish population in the river. 
       Reports on the environmental impact of these dams (assuming they’ve been made at all) have not been released.  Altogether 89 villages will have to relocate.  Muong Ngoi is not one of them, but it is likely to be affected ecologically, threatening its reputation as a place to get away from development sprawl and revel in nature.  But that’s the trouble with modern times.  In any contest between the preservation of nature and its conquest/transformation in the name of development, the latter always wins.
       In the meantime, Muong Ngoi is still thriving, still beautiful, and still on the list of worthwhile excursions out of Luang Phabang.  The city is a World Heritage Site for its historic and cultural monuments.  But it is also blessed with superb natural and rural attractions in the vicinity.  Even if Luang Phabang had no temples, palaces or colonial architecture, these sights themselves make the time and effort spent quite satisfying.
the Nam Ou River at Muong Ngoi
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