Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Hello Laos

Day 15 (Sat)

So today we had our diving adventure! Lindsey officially has her Open Water SCUBA certification and I joined her for two dives today. I have to say the coral was definitely not as good as I have seen in the Philippines but there was an abundance of fish! Right after we finished our descent, our guide tapped his tank and made the hand motion for barracuda! and sure enough above us a few meters away was a serious looking barracuda, scoping us out! We also saw a bluespotted stingray, which are so beautiful, a puffer fish, filefish, trigger fish, parrot fish, and schools of other reef fishes.

Blue Spotted Stingray
(Photo: http://static.ddmcdn.com/gif/stingray-ig.jpg)

And on our second dive we ran across a sea turtle! Now I have been lucky enough to see sea turtles on just about every dive I have been on in the Philippines but I was not expecting to see one here in Thailand. But this was probably the best sea turtles sighting yet! It was a beautiful and healthy looking Hawksbill Sea Turtle looking around the reef for food, and she didn't seem to mind us one bit! According to our guide, this particular turtle is known to hang around the reef so she is pretty used to SCUBA divers being around. We hung around her for a while, just watching her look for food, so amazing!

Hawksbill Sea Turtle
(Photo: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/b/ba/Hawksbill_Turtle.jpg/240px-Hawksbill_Turtle.jpg)
After while it was time to continue on our dive, but I felt like I could have watched her forever (or at least till I ran out of air).

Now we will spend the rest of the day relaxing on the beach. It has been a really awesome detour to Thailand but it's time to move on. Tomorrow we start the long journey to Laos!

Day 16 (Sun)

We left around 6:30 am from our resort on Koh Chang Island. It took about 3 hours just to get off the island since our van had a few other stops to make picking up other people and the ferry took longer than expected. All in all though I am very impressed by public transportation in Thailand. The infrastructure is well maintained and well organized. Minibuses are the popular mode of transportation for tourist, and tend to be a faster and more comfortable way to get around. These minibuses are really just big vans, but they have good working aircon and the drivers almost always seem in a hurry. They are sure to make plenty of bathroom and snack breaks along the way but still get you to your destination in a good amount of time.

Although we could have gotten to Laos in a more direct path via bus, it would have been probably a longer and more frustrating journey, consisting of many bus transfers. So we decided to head to Bangkok and take the night train. Our minibus dropped us off at the airport and the railway station was on the other side of town. But again the Thailand public transportation system impresses. There is a "airport link" metro that runs from the airport into town and connects with some of the other sky train metro lines. It was an easy ride and train transfer to the MRT, which ran right to the railway station. The metro trains are clean, easy to use, cheap and announce all stops in both Thai and English. Thank you Thailand!

So we bought our train tickets for the night train to Laos and then took the sky train again to the mall to get a bite to eat and kill some time. We have a 12 hour train ride but Laos here we come!

Day 17 (Mon)

Our train arrived into Nong Kai this morning, at the Thailand/Laos border. Despite the sleeper beds on the train being pretty comfortable, I wasn't able to get much restful sleep, but I have to rally for another long day of travel!

After exiting Thailand, we were able to ride a shuttle bus across the Friendship Bridge into Laos. Getting through Laos immigration was pretty painless, especially since we had printed out our visa application ahead of time, allowing for us to be one of the first ones to get our visas. But after getting through immigration, it was a little more confusing to determine how to get to the Northern Bus Terminal. (We decided since we had a detour in Thailand, we would just go straight to Luang Prabang so we can maximize our time there.) After two somewhat stressful tuk-tuk rides we finally made it to the bus station. Unfortunately we missed the 9am bus so we waited around for the 1:30pm bus. Despite being only a few hundred kilometers away, the trip from Vientiane (where we were) to Luang Prabang takes an estimated 11 hours via bus. This is due to (as we found out) the many break downs of the bus. In the first three hours alone we made three stops to allow for the crew to tinker with the bus engine. Although these stops were nice for bathroom and snack breaks, I was really hoping to stay on the road longer so we could get to LP before it was too late.

Although the trip is long, the scenery is pretty breath-taking. Rice fields melt into mountains and jungle landscape. It certainly makes the bus ride less dull.

We eventually made it to LP at about half past midnight. We took a tuk to a cheap guesthouse recommended in the guidebook only to find that it was full. So were the next two we checked. But finally we found a cheap place to stay for the night. After getting some semi-restful sleep, we set out to look for a guesthouse located a little closer to central town. After checking in and dropping off some laundry to get done (some of my clothes are getting a little too smelly...) we went to book our much anticipated elephant trek!

Now there are a lot of elephant treks you can go on but I am always worried about how the animals are treated, so we went to a company called Tiger Trails. Although their tours are a bit more expensive, they have a good reputation at being sustainable and doing what they call "fair treks" which involve and benefit the local community. We planned a one-day trek for Friday, that will include lessons on how to properly treat  and ride the elephants, then we will take them on a trek through the jungle and a bath at some waterfalls. Should be fun!

Day 18 (Tues)

This morning I wanted to get up early and witness the cultural event that happens every morning at dawn in Luang Prabang - alms giving. Luang Prabang is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. And part (or most) of the reason why is that is is home to numerous Buddhist temples and monasteries. It is home to monks, old and young. If you aren't familiar with Buddhist Monks, they are they guys with shaved heads wearing orange robes. They live their life as simply as possibly, attempting to eliminate suffering and temptation from life, spending much of the time in meditation, trying to achieve the Buddhism goal of Nirvana.

As a way of living this life, they rely on the support of their community to live. A few times now I have been riding a tuk-tuk somewhere and we will pick up a monk who will sit in the front with the driver, who will give him a free lift to wherever he is headed. And every morning at dawn in Luang Prabang, the community comes out to the street to give alms, mostly sticky rice, to the monks as they pass down the street. The food that they collect will be the only food they consume for the day.

So needless to say one of the things I planned on experiencing in LP is to wake up and witness the giving of alms to the monks. So this morning I woke up and headed out to the street. I barely got out the door of the guesthouse before women approached me to buy sticky rice and other foods to give to the monks. I wasn't planning on participating in the ritual because I am not Buddhist and don't want to offend practicing Buddhists, so I just kept walking. When I arrived to the street where the monks walk down to collect alms, there were tourist lining the sidewalk with alms to give. Again I was confronted by women telling me I needed to give alms. I was quite confused at what I should do but ended up deciding that if I was going to come to take pictures that I might as well give alms in return. She wanted me to buy bananas and some small wrapped candies but I insisted on only getting a bowl of sticky rice to give, and I am very glad I did..

Further down the road from me there were many more tourist so I stayed near the end and positioned myself after three local women so I could watch and mimic what they did. I have to say that I was very disappointed in the attire of some of the tourist. I was wearing long pants and a t-shirt since you are never supposed to have exposed knees or shoulders in temples or around monks. But there were women wearing short shorts and mini-skirts with tanktops. Um really?! It's not even that hot outside since the sun is barely up and these girls are wearing beach wear when they should be wearing temple attire. I just don't understand coming to a country to experience the culture without first researching what is culturally appropriate. I think it is very disrespectful for them to come to such a cultural and spiritual ritual dressed like they are going to a bar.
OK end rant.

So the monks came down the street and I did my best to give them alms of sticky rice as they passed by but I noticed as they came past the local Laoation women sitting next to me that they were taking the candy packages out of their alms buckets and giving them to the street children. In fact the street children had bags full of candy, bananas and rice, as it seems the monks were getting too much alms. They are trying to live a simple and modest life, after all, and eating too much would be sinful. Meanwhile tourist are almost getting in the monks' faces to take pictures of them.

After awhile I was getting uncomfortable being there. I felt like an intruder. And I didn't like being associated with the other tourist wearing skimpy clothes and getting too close with their cameras. So when there was a brake in the monks' procession, I quietly got up and left.

I thought that witnessing and participating in the alms giving would be a great cultural experience. But as I walked back to my guesthouse, all I felt was sadness and guilt. Sometimes tourism can benefit the community, but other times I think it just slowly destroys it. When I got back to the room I looked over the few pictures I had taken and couldn't help but to feel a pang of guilt. That is why I have decided not to share the pictures. I won't be posting them on facebook or this blog, or anywhere for that matter. I deleted all but two and will only keep them as a personal reminder of how I never again want to cross the line between respectful observer and cultural intruder.

So although it was nice to get a glimpse of this spiritual ritual, I won't be going back. I think some experiences are better remembered as quiet observer. But it would be hypocritical of me to say don't visit  Luang Prabang to witness the alms giving. So instead I will just recommend that if you do, sit across the street away from the alms giving, be as less intrusive with your picture taking as possible, and for God's sake (or in this case, Buddha's sake) wear appropriate clothing. And if you can resist the temptation of taking any pictures, you might find you enjoy the whole experience better, as just a bystander in a sacred community ritual.

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to be continued...

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