Luang Prabang (Mar 4-8): Kuang Si, Tak Bat, and a (Half-)Day in the Life of a Rice Farmer

My time in Luang Prabang (pronounced Loo-ong Prah-bong) was quite long – perhaps a bit TOO long with the amount of stuff that there was to do there (I think that three nights would be the perfect amount of time). It was still nice to have a place to relax and not feel guilty about it. Luang Prabang is another UNESCO World Heritage City, and it has a sort of charm to it. However, one of the things that I definitely noticed was the amount of stray cats and dogs that didn’t seem to be cared for. There are stray cats and dogs everywhere, but most of them still seem to be taken care of (especially in Pai – many dogs are almost fat!). Here, many of the dogs (and cats especially) looked so sad, with really rough fur/skin, and they definitely didn’t look healthy. It was difficult to see, especially when they’d come up to your table while eating at a restaurant.

The tuk-tuk arrived in the “city” centre (which still has a village-like feel) just after 5pm, and I realised that I still had a ten-minute walk to my hostel. This was also the time when all of the vendors started setting up their stalls for the night market, so I had to weave back and forth around tents being set up, and be careful not to step on the mats that they had placed on the cement.

I was staying at Smile Hostel, which cost 70,000 kip ($11.52AUD) per night for a 6-bed female dorm. This was a bit more expensive than some of the other places in the city, but it had the best hostel breakfast that I’ve had on this trip (they have a menu of scrambled or fried eggs or an omelette or banana pancakes with ham or sausage, and fruit). Plus it had the cutest puppy!

I got to my hostel and reorganised for a bit before going to Nang Tao for dinner. It was an extremely quiet family-run restaurant, and when I saw Khao Soi, I didn’t hesitate to order it. However, I quickly realised that Lao Khao Soi is very different from Thai Khao Soi, and is made from minced meat, noodles, and vegetables in a broth (almost like a hamburger soup).

That and a coke only cost me 20,000 kip ($3.22). I walked around the night market, which I was excited about because I had read that the prices in Laos are a lot cheaper than Thailand because Thailand gets a lot of its products FROM Laos. However, I found that most of the things (not only at the night market, but also entrance into temples, transport, accommodation, etc.) were a lot more pricey than they were in Thailand.

On Tuesday, I was planning to go to Kuang Si Waterfall, which is about a 45-60 minute ride outside of the city. The hostel offers three minivans per day, but the van will only stay for 2.5 hours and I didn’t want to be rushed. Luckily at breakfast, I overheard some other people planning to go so I said I would join them in getting a tuktuk. We walked down the road and were able to talk one of the drivers down to 180,000 kip (so 36,000 kip/$5.80 each), and we convinced him to stay for four hours. The scenery on the way there was beautiful! Once we got there, I picked up some food at a street vendor and then made my way inside, and we had to pay 20000 kip ($3.22) each to enter.

In order to get to the waterfall, we actually had to walk through an enclosure housing a bunch of bears. These bears are part of the “Free the Bears” project, which saved the bears before they reached the bear bile farms. Bear bile is used in traditional medicine for liver and gallbladder problems, but bears live horrible lives on these farms, confined in small cages, where their bile is constantly extracted either by ‘free drip,’ where a hole is put in their gallbladders or they have a permanent catheter inserted. Obviously, it’s better for them to be in the wild but this protects them from the poachers, and is run by the Government of Laos.

We kept walking along the path and eventually came upon a pristine blue pool, with a few small waterfalls going into it. As we kept walking higher and higher, the amount of waterfalls seemed to multiply. We then made it up to the top, where there was a massive waterfall! It really was quite stunning, especially with the surrounding blue in the pools (which was very inviting to swim in!).

We all ate some lunch and then decided to climb up to the top of the waterfall, where we could walk over it and come back down the other side. There honestly wasn’t much to see at the top – just a viewpoint and a sign that said there was a cave 3km away.

We decided to make our way down the other side, but it was a lot steeper and difficult to go down. When we had gotten about halfway down, someone had walked by and asked if we had went to the cave and we said no. She said that it was really nice and worth walking to. I was already fine with going back down to enjoy the waterfalls, but the other four decided to climb back up so that they could go to the cave. I found one of the pools to swim in, set all of my stuff in an area that I could watch, and had to walk along the top of a set of falls in order to get to a quiet pool on the other side. Some people were nonchalantly running across the top of the waterfall, and it was freaking me out! I definitely took it slow and made my way to the other side, where I sat for two hours and people-watched. The water was so cold so I didn’t actually swim in it – I just sat in it with my feet in the pool. The group said that they would be quick and come back down as soon as they could so I was surprised that at 3:10, they still hadn’t come down since we were supposed to be back at the tuktuk at 3:30. However, I figured that maybe I just missed them when they walked by. I got out, changed, walked back to the tuktuk, and made it there RIGHT at 3:30. However, it was only the driver who was there. I sat in the back and we waited for about 15 minutes before everyone else showed up. They said that they left the cave at 2:30 and were going as fast as they could, so it took them over an hour to get back. By the time we got back to our hostel, it was just before 5pm so I showered and then all of the people from the slowboat arrived. I went for dinner with a girl from Russia, where we split a couple of dishes and paid 27,000 kip ($4.35) each. We then walked around the night market and headed back to the hostel.

On Wednesday, I decided to explore the city (which can take less than two hours), so it really ended up just being a day of walking around, sitting in cafes, and relaxing. Many of the temples ended up charging 20000 kip ($3.22) to enter, which was a bit too pricey for me and because I’ve already been in many temples, I decided to just look at them from a distance. Luang Prabang also has a few bamboo bridges, which are only there during dry season (during wet season, they get washed away and then they have to build new ones), and they charged 10000 kip to cross (which goes towards building the new one). Again, I decided to just enjoy it from a distance. It’s not that much money, but paying for little things multiple times adds up quick!

I was walking back towards the hostel right before sunset and noticed all of the people climbing up Mount Phousi to get the perfect few. I decided to walk to the riverside instead, get a smoothie, and enjoy it from there.

I went to @Phonheuang Cafe later that night for dinner, ordered fried sukiyaki (which is a noodle dish), and it ended up being the best meal that I had in Luang Prabang.

And only for 25000 kip ($4.03)! While I was sitting there, a German guy (Mike) ended up sitting at the table next to me so we ended up talking until after the restaurant closed.

On Thursday morning, I had booked a half-day tour at the Living Land Rice Farm. This tour was definitely the most expensive tour that I’ve paid for at 344000 kip ($55.38), but I knew I’d regret it if I didn’t go, and it had amazing reviews so I knew I’d enjoy it. The project was started almost 15 years ago by some local families who put their land together to grow rice and organic vegetables. They support community projects and offer free English classes to village children, as well as offer their land to the northern college for students who need to do practical work for agriculture school, so I knew that I’d be supporting a good cause. They picked me up at my hostel at 8am and drove me to the farm, which was only about 15 minutes away. It was absolutely beautiful!

Laos has surprised me with how lush and green it’s been everywhere. There were only five of us in the group – two sisters from the States, and two guys from the UK. We started by being shown how to pick out the good grains of dried rice (to later plant). Our guide added salt in some water, and then took out any of the grains that were floating because it meant that they were empty.

He then took us out to the mud, where we were told to take off our shoes and walk through the fields barefoot. He showed how to make a mound of mud to sprinkle the rice grains on, and eventually they’d start to grow. We had to rip out some of the already grown ones (roots and all) to replant in the fields.

However, before we replanted them, we got to meet Rudolphe, their buffalo, who had to walk through the muddy water to plow through the mud in order to mix it around.

Then, we were ready to replant the sprouts! We took four or five at a time and had to stick them into the mud about a foot away from each other. The guide said that they’d be submerged in water for ten days, and then they’d drain and block the water for ten days.

We then went to another field where the rice was fully grown, and had to use a sickle to cut and tie a bundle. Then we’d have to lay the bundles to dry for a few days.

After the bundles were dry, we had to thresh the bundles (hit them against a piece of wood) in order to loosen all of the grains. Then, we’d take a fan and swing it over the pile to get rid of all of the empty grains.

He then showed us the three main carrying methods used by different tribes, who would have to carry the rice many kilometres.

We were shown how the rice had to be hammered by using a huge device, and then sorted to get rid of the rest of the bad rice. The sorting is a woman’s job and if a woman couldn’t do it correctly, she couldn’t get married.

That definitely put the pressure on! The rice could then be further ground into a flour to make noodles. Then he showed us how the rice was steamed for 15 minutes, flipped, and steamed for another 15 minutes in order to make sticky rice, which is a staple in the Lao culture.

Between all of these steps, we were also able to find time to watch how weaving is done using bamboo (the men were so friendly and kept making us rings and bracelets!), how to use manual bellows to feed a fire, which would heat some metal so it could be hammered into a sickle or other tool, and then the two guys from the UK used another tool to squeeze all of the juice out of some sugarcane so that we could all enjoy a couple glasses of sugarcane juice. It was actually incredible how much liquid was able to come out of a bundle of sugarcane!

We were shown the nursery and garden, which had a huge assortment of vegetables. Then at the very end, we were able to enjoy multiple rice products! Everyone eats with their hands, so we took the sticky rice, squished it in little balls, and dipped it in a Chili paste/buffalo skin mixture (yes, you read that right!) – it was actually so delicious! I ended up being the only one who finished all of my rice. We also tried some rice wine, which was extremely strong!

It really was such a good experience and I’m so glad I did it! I went back to the hostel to relax for a couple of hours but then I was starving so I walked to a French cafe that a couple of the girls recommended to me. Although it was quite expensive, it was still nice to have some French pastries (there were so many French restaurants in Luang Prabang since it was part of the French Colonial Empire years ago – also, the amount of French people who travel Thailand and Laos is insane! I could hear French everywhere I went).

I went back to the hostel to visit for a bit, and then met up with Mike for dinner. We then went to the night market, where he bought so much stuff. This made it more tempting for me to buy things (I’ve been so good with convincing myself not to buy anything!). I stayed strong though, and didn’t get anything. I went back to my hostel and Abbey had just arrived (not by coincidence this time – I told her where I was staying), so we chatted for a bit before I went to bed.

On Friday morning, I was leaving for my next destination at 8:30. However, I decided to wake up to watch the Buddhist Alms Giving Ceremony (tak bat). It has occurred in many of the past cities that I’ve been in, but it starts before the sun rises (around 5:30), so I’ve been too lazy to wake up for it. However, I was told that they come on the street right in front of the hostel at 6am so this time, I didn’t really have an excuse. I tried to set an alarm a couple of days earlier and just rolled over and went back to bed, so I was determined to get up this time, especially since two other girls in my room decided to go as well. Tak bat is a daily ceremony when the monks go and collect food (alms) from the locals, who usually give sticky rice or fresh fruit to make merit. The monks go down the streets in meditation and collect this food for their one meal per day, and don’t have a kitchen so the food is already prepared. We decided not to take part in giving food (because we were told that they expect the food to be made with love at home and not just bought from a street vendor) and instead just watch. I’ve also read that this ceremony has become such a big spectacle for tourists, and many of the locals have refused to take part anymore because they feel like the sanctity of the ceremony is ruined. A lot of people take pictures with flash and then chase after the monks in order to get a good picture. We weren’t on the main street so it was pretty quiet where we were, but I was surprised as to how many flashes I saw in the distance, as well as how many people were following the monks when the ceremony was over. It was interesting seeing how the locals (and some tourists) just took a pinch of rice to give to each monk (there were hundreds of them) – I definitely wasn’t expecting it to be like that.

It was a very quiet and peaceful ceremony to watch, even though I still felt guilty for doing so. As interesting as it is to see other cultures and religions, I guess I wouldn’t go around taking pictures of people doing communion in church (maybe cause I grew up with it), so it’s hard not to feel disrespectful by being there. It still was a beautiful sight to see, with a sea of orange robes coming down the street. After about 20 minutes, we went back into the hostel and I knew I wouldn’t be able to go back to sleep so instead, we all just made coffee and visited until about 7:30. I went upstairs to pack up my stuff, came back down for breakfast, and then my bus came early so I rushed off to head to Nong Khiaw. Love always

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