We’ve just spent an amazing week on this beautiful wooden boat visiting villages and waterfalls along the Mekong river in Northern Laos. The villages were all quite different from one another, being made up of different ethnic groups found all over the country. When describing the people of Laos they used to classify them by where they lived. For example the Hmong live in the high mountains. Other groups live in the lowland valleys etc. But that simply isn’t true anymore. All the villages we visited were located on the banks of the river, and they were all different groups. The boat itself was the highlight of the week I have to say. Pure luxury. I’d never experienced that before. They turn down your beds at night, clean your shoes when you come on board and leave them by the door, serve you refreshing drinks after you go on an excursion! Ok, I see why people like this kind of thing. Mostly it was peaceful on the river. No cars, motorbikes, pollution, noise. I was surprised at how little people actually seem to use the river anymore. Every year more and more places are connected by road. Sure they still fish, but many environmental factors are changing to make the catch less and less all the time. Our cruise director gave us a copy of a documentary film that we can watch once we get home about the effects of dams on the Mekong. We got really lucky on this cruise because only 4 passengers signed up to go! The other couple was from Switzerland and you couldn’t have picked nicer people to travel with! One night we all had a big BBQ on the sandbank in front of one of the villages and the head of the village, his wife, and a few other individuals (and I think every kid in the village) came to join us. We couldn’t speak the same language, but good food, local whiskey called laolao, and some music, and we were all buddies in no time! It was kind of a magical night actually. I will cherish the memories for a long time to come.
Laos has been my favorite part of our trip to date! The streets of Luang Prabang in the north are filled with families selling traditional bamboo baskets or groceries out of a front room in their home. Noodle shops on every corner! Good coffee. 33 working temples. A night market everyday where you can buy handmade textiles or mulberry paper products. And a morning market everyday where you can shop for food from the delicious to the ridiculous! Our guesthouse has 4 baby cats, so naturally I’m in heaven. We visited the Traditional Arts and Ethnology Center to view some original Hmong clothing, now worn only during the New Years celebrations in April. I took a weaving class in a village outside town. And a visit to the UXO Information Center was really important to me. UXO stands for unexploded ordinance, and it’s an enormous problem in Laos, historically the most bombed country in the world per capita. From here we catch our boat, The Mekong Sun for a 6 day cruise on the Mekong River!
We just finished spending some time on an island with my niece’s Thai grandparents, and her Thai aunt and uncle. This was the first time we had met any of them, so it was kind of emotional. By the time we had to say goodbye we were all so happy to have met, and talked of when we will see each other again. Jon and Jojo are back on their tandem bike cycling around the country and Andy and I are now in Luang Prabang in Laos. But we will fondly remember Koh Kut and the excellent times we had with family!
As expected I have absolutely loved the north, though my experience was rather limited. I spent nearly all my time here at the metalsmithing workshop at Wat SriSuphan. The first day I took a short class on the basic metal chasing technique that has been practiced here for over 700 years. The next day I began a more in depth project under the tutelage of a master named Kru Tu. She grew up in a metalsmithing family right next door to the temple, and completed much of the work you see adorning the Wat today. They made me my own set of tools and I worked on a smallish picture frame. 3 days later I had progressed, and I feel I finally started to hit a bit of a stride with the technique, but now we must leave to go meet family in the south. I would willingly stay a month or more here, studying and practicing. Maybe one day I’ll be back. Andy was such a trooper here! It was raining much of the time, and he managed to keep himself amused. On our last day the weather finally cleared and he was able to get out and about the city, and even rent a motorbike and visit some outlaying areas. He actually saw more of Chiang Mai than I did. But I’ve had an outstanding experience and feel so privileged to have been a student of Kru Tu’s!
Alison B. Sweeney
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