Thursday, March 17, 2011

Mango Rain

Lovin' Laos - non-stop fun with our mates from Melbourne

Plans for a big breakfast and final day with our Aussie friends came to a screeching halt this morning.  A steady rain greeted me as I stepped onto our porch, overlooking a Mekong River that's shrunk into it's deep banks over the last few months of dry season in Laos.  We haven't seen a good rain like this since we left Indonesia two weeks ago.
When in Bangkok - pose like all the other tourists

As a result, we've been going strong.  We learned quickly to explore Bangkok's wats in the morning before the sun started it's daily scorch, and to use the afternoon to duck into museums and malls and navigate the city's cavernous food stalls and markets.
Just getting started - a dining car between Bangkok and Nong Khai

An air-conditioned overnighter carried us in comfort to Laos, and surprised us with a festive dining car where everyone got footloose.  Even the uniformed train officials partook, except at stations, of course, where they would quickly finish their beers, put on their hats and dark glasses and step off onto the platform with a stern, serious face to usher on new passengers.  They'd quickly make their ticket-punching rounds and ultimately end in the dining car for another cold Beerlao.
Dry and dusty - the Mekong River in Vientiane, Laos

We had time to rest the next day in Vientiane, but not enough to savor the capital's Francophone charm.  Instead, we hurried off to Vang Vieng, to rendezvous with our good friends from Melbourne, who we met three years ago in Guatemala.  Within an hour of arriving in town, the six of us were floating downstream in inner-tubes, beneath towering limestone cliffs, splashing along in cool water with no concern for the blazing sun.  Nor did we have much trouble finding refreshments - our 2 kilometer stretch was dotted with riverine watering holes, varying only by the height of their rope swings, zip lines and water-slides into the river.
Vang Vieng - adventure tubing mecca of the world

A good night's sleep and a 10 hour bus ride delivered us to the confluence of the Khan and Mekong Rivers, surrounded by mountains, in the former royal city of Luang Prabang.  Although the French placed their colonial capital farther downstream, they left their mark with their dainty architecture, patisseries and street-corner crepe stands.  Wats, stupas and tangerine-robed monks maintain a sense of Laotian reality and the dry, dusty mountain roads that weave through impoverished villages differentiate this town from the one on the Seine.
Sign in - Reviewing a Hmong village's visitor's log with a village elder.

We hiked for two days with a commendable eco-tourism company, Green Discovery, who since the early 1990s has pioneered socially-responsible tourism throughout the country.  Our guide grew up as a child of communism, dedicated to his family, people and town, but with education and hopes to better serve them all, moved to the city and began sharing his country with foreigners.  He offered compassionate explanations to the human poverty and environmental degradation that we explored on our trek, and offered a wealth of ideas of how individuals, organizations, and nations can improve the way of life of the rural people in Laos.  We finished up on the Ou river, in kayaks, with a few standing waves and a unmissable chance to surf this landlocked country.
Laid back - Just another float trip on the Nam Ou

He gave us the name for this rain, which now falls in the middle of the dry season - Mango Rain.  Without the occasional deluge amidst the dust and dryness, flowers would not flower and the trees would not fruit when their time eventually comes.  For us it's a welcomed chance to stop, rest and reflect on the incredible flood of experiences we're having, and how we will respond when our time comes.
On top of ole Phou Si - overlooking Luang Prabang

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