There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Monday, 24 February 2014

Luang Prabang (2) Back on the Mekong: Part 11 of Following the Mekong through Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos

Upstream from Phnom Penh the Mekong crosses Cambodia, then forms the border between southern Laos and Thailand before turning to cut across northern Laos. We had diverted from the Mekong to visit Siem Reap, but returned to the banks of the world’s twelfth longest river at Luang Prabang, the most northerly point of our journey and the furthest upstream we would reach.

Over-sized boats, Luang Prabang
Next morning we walked down to the river bank and embarked on yet another in our series of grossly over-sized boats. These monsters – they can seat a dozen or so - were doing good business, though four passengers were the most we saw on any of them. They are made even longer by the living quarters of the boatman and his family which form a large part of the stern.

Lynne has plenty of space
As we left, N pointed out the hill on the far side of the river. Just about everywhere has a hill from which unrequited lovers are reputed to leap. This, apparently, is Luang Prabang’s but the rounded green hills would not seem to offer much scope to the suicidally inclined.

Lover's Leap, Luang Prabang - well, up there somewhere

We pottered gently upstream. The Mekong here is broad, though much narrower than the mighty river it was just north of the delta, but it is not very deep.
Heading up the Mekong from Luang Prabang
 The boatman skilfully rounded shoals and rocky islets and slid gracefully over turbulent sections - not quite rapids - and through nascent whirlpools while his wife sat silent and motionless in one of the rear seats. She did that all day.
The boatman skilfully rounds the shoals and rocky islands....
The sun shone, the breeze over the water was refreshing, the hills were shrouded in mist and the banks were lush and verdant. All seemed right with the world.

Trees cling to the bank
The Mekong River above Luang Prabang
After a couple of hours the boatman turned towards a set of steps apparently leading up into the jungle.
The mooring at Ban Xang Hai
 We moored against a couple of boats that had arrived earlier, climbed the steps and found ourselves in the 'whisky village' of Ban Xang Hai. I chose the Scottish spelling of whisky in the last sentence, though with little justification. On the labels the spelling is 'wiski', though the residents of Tomintoul, Tullamore or Tennessee might experience some difficulty in recognising the product as whisk(e)y of any sort.

Ban Xang Hai Lao Rice Wiski
Rice is boiled, soaked and sweetened, yeast is added and the whole thing allowed to ferment. There is more than enough sugar to take the resulting rice wine up to 15% alcohol, at which strength the yeast dies off.

A 'white wine' is made from ordinary rice and a red from 'sticky' rice. Both are sweetish, the white retaining a little acidity and the red tasting as though some fruit had been added.

Lynne tastes the 'white wine'
Some rice wine is sold as such, the rest is distilled. The still is basic, the vapour cooled by sticking a hose into the bath at the top. The product is 55% alcohol and from sucking my finger after dipping it in the stream of warm distillate, I know it is a strong clean spirit.

Wiski still, Ban Xang Hai
Bottled and aged - or at least allowed to cool - the spirit becomes more complex with a flavour that lingers for hours (and tends to repeat on you).

After making a few purchases we tore ourselves away from the distillery and found that Ban Xang Hai is a larger village than we had thought.

There were plenty of visitors and they all filed past the usual array of textile stalls. No-one seemed to be buying but business could not have been that bad, judging by the satellite dishes sprouting from almost every house.
Satellite dish, Ban Xang Hai

I doubt many Europeans were attracted to the medicine shop, where wiski is bottled with various allegedly strength giving additives. I have no objection to snakes, scorpions and geckos finding their way into the jars, if people imagine it will do them good, but the one on the right in the photograph contains bears’ feet and I cannot approve of that.
Medicine shop, Ban Xang Hai
After the shops we descended a second set of steps and found our boat had moved to this end of the village to pick us up.

Forty-five minutes further upstream the On River joins the Mekong. Opposite the confluence are the Pak On (mouth of the On) Caves.
Pak On Cave, Mekong River

Climbing up the concrete steps from the landing stage we entered the lower cave (Tam Ting) which is packed with Buddha images. The cave is not big, and the images are not in the best of conditions. Buddhas cannot be thrown away but when they are damaged, riddled with woodworm, or merely superseded they are sent here to live out a peaceful retirement. Compared to the spectacular Buddha cave at Pindaya in Myanmar it was nothing special and we could not be bothered to walk up the next flight of steps to the upper cave which, N assured us, was bigger but less interesting.

Part of the collection of retired Buddha images, Pak On Caves, Mekong River
Opposite, on the neck of land at the confluence, is a restaurant on stilts. We landed on the sandy shore and climbed the steps to the huge open-sided barn which had attracted less than a dozen other lunchers. The beef stew and chicken curry with rice were both excellent but they were served with a plate of Chinese-style mixed vegetables which were pleasant enough in themselves, but belonged in an entirely different meal.

Lunch opposite the Pak On Caves
Still, the inevitable Beer Lao was good and the view was fabulous.

A warm day, a fine view, a Lao Beer...
As we were about to leave a group of elephants appeared bearing tourists towards the confluence. The riders dismounted and we passed them as they were making their way up to the restaurant.
Here come the elephants.
Near the confluence of the River On with the Mekong
The journey downstream was pleasant if inevitably shorter than the journey up.

Returning to Luang Prabang
Sometimes the stress of it all just wears me down
We arrived back in time to sit on our balcony as the sun went down, drink another Beer Lao and write up the notes on which this blog is based. We also popped out to photograph the back of our hotel from the garden...

The rear of the Chitdara Villa, Luang Prabang
...and also this butterfly, which stubbornly refused to open it wings for the camera, but is still beautiful. I am fairly confident it is a Eurema, but which of the 70 Eurema species is another matter. Eurema Andersonii (One-spot Grass Yellow), I think, but it could be Simulatrix, or possibly....

Eurema Andersonii(?) Villa Chitdara garden, Luang Prabang
Later we went out to visit a restaurant I had earmarked earlier, but due to my incompetence we sat down at a different, though superficially similar, establishment a few doors away. I was disappointed when I read the menu, but did not realize why. Lynne ordered a full meal for the first time for days. Spaghetti Bolognese may be comfort food, but it is real food. It was good to see the doctor's pills and potions were working. I had a red curry which is as Lao as it is Thai; the two peoples are closely related and speak similar languages which they write in not quite the same alphabet. I enjoyed it, but I was beginning to feel just a little riced-out.

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