Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam travel blog

Lobby of the Grand Luang Prabang

View of Mekong River from our room

Map of ethnic groups in Laos

Our guide Vinny with the unbelievable stories

Hands down Buddha

Food vendor at night market

Night market offerrings

Repurposing the bombs

Visit to local food market prior to cooking class

National food in Laos is sticky rice

our instructor Sit giving instructions

Chef David with his Mok Pa--steamed fish in banana leaf

Students in action

The fruits of our labour - a great lunch

Sticky rice with coconut milk for desert

We have spent the past three days in Luang Prabang, Laos. The city is situated between the mountains and has 7 rivers in near proximity. The location of the city was selected by the king because it was protected by the mountains and the water. The country borders China, Myanmar, Cambodia and Vietnam. From 1964 to 1975 the country was involved in the "Secret War". The Americans bombed them non-stop because of a threat of communism. The Laos population went from 3 million to 1 million during that time period. Fortunately the city of Luang Prabang was not bombed. The Americans dropped 3 million tons of bombs during this time period. The impact of the war remains today as many people are impacted by both the bombing and the effects of agent orange. There are still many bombs throughout the country that have not yet been detonated.

The country of Laos is 1400 years old and they celebrate their New Year on April 14 - 16. The celebration includes wearing traditional tribal clothing and soaking everyone in water. They have a monthly festival to celebrate various things which typically last one or two days. Eighty percent of the country is mountains and the majority of them are covered in trees so not very inhabitable. They have unique Buddha images in Luang Pabong in that they stand with their hands pointing straight down which is their way of praying for rain to water their fields. When praying to Buddha, you bow three to five times to each of the following: Buddha, Buddha teachings, monks, parents and teachers. After the revolution in 1975 this marked the end of the monarchy. Since then a number of royal structures including monasteries and royal palaces have been converted to museums.

We are staying at the Grand Laung Prabang which is located a short 10 minute drive from the town centre. The hotel is situated on the side of the Mekong River and last year they hosted former President Obama's advance team for his visit to the city. The property used to be the home of one of the princes' and now it has been converted to a museum and hotel.

The town centre has a great vibe with shops, restaurants and bars. Everyday the main street is closed from 5:00 pm until 10:00 pm for the night market. Local vendors from all around the area including those who live on the mountains sell merchandise, many handmade items, along the street. There is also some great food vendors who set up shop as well.

The country is comprised of 4 ethnic groups and a number of sub groups under each of the tribes. The groups are situated in various geographical areas throughout the country. It is both interesting and sad to hear of some of the traditions that still exist with the Akha group. When a women gets pregnant the family builds a hut on the property where she stays until the baby is born. If the mother has twins the babies are killed by placing them on hot coals. Another abominable tradition is when a girl reaches puberty, the boys of the village are invited over to have sex with her. If she becomes pregnant, she is auctioned off to the highest bidder for marriage. The other ethic groups and government are working to influence the Akha to alter their traditions. It seems strange for a Buddhist culture to practice such barbaric acts.

The country has some other interesting traditions. In the past people married based on class. Teachers married teachers, doctors married doctors, farmers married farmers etc., etc. People are not allowed to have pre-marital sex. The only people you can hug is your spouse so there tends to be a great deal of bowing in the country.

Our experience with our guides has been amazing. They are all very well versed on their country and the local communities. Our guide, Vinny toured us around town for most of yesterday--more temples and royal structures, however, what we enjoyed the most was to learn more about him personally. Vinny has lived a fascinating life. Born in the middle of 13 children in a mountainous region of the country, his father sent him to a monastery at age 11 to avoid being drafted into the army. After a few years in the monastery he is moved to a city 300 kms away. They travel by boat but only at night to avoid being seen and captured during the "secret war". At 17 he was given the opportunity to do a school exchange and went to Chicago for 3 month term. When he returned from the US he went the mountain village to look for his family who he had not seen since he was 11. The village had been destroyed by the war and his family was no longer there. When he was 28 he visited a market and came across a women that looked like his mother. He asked her if her name was x (don't recall her real name) and she said yes. Is your husband named y and is your oldest son named z, yes to both. She wanted to know how he knew this and he told her that he was her son. She started to cry and the vendor at the next stall wanted to beat him up because he thought he was upsetting her. She walked him 10 km to her home that day. She had a tombstone on the property in his honor as they had assumed that he was captured an killed. Since then, he has kept in close touch with his family who all live close by to Luang Prabang.

Another Vinny story...On one of his mountain hikes he was bitten by a cobra. This snake bite is deadly and fortunately his best friend was with him to carry him off the mountain to get medical attention. Fast forward a few years and the same friend was working in a field and denoted one the US bombs and was killed instantly. He was a widower with two chilren at the time--a 3 and 1 year old. Instead of placing them in the monastery, Vinny decided to adopt them. The challenge was he was a young single man with a full time job and no idea how to raise children. His mother stepped up and provided some coaching and assistance. A number of years later, Vinny comes across a young women who has a severe case of dengue fever. She was losing great deal of blood. She had a rare blood type, AB positive so finding a donor was not an easy task. Her father had the same blood type but was diabetic so unable to assist. Vinny was a match and decided to provide blood. He found her quite attractive but 12 years his junior. Divorce is taboo in Laos, so while everyone thought Vinny was a really nice guy, they assumed he was divorce since he had two young children. Once he explained his story they fell in love and got married. They now have added three more children to the family. The five range in age from 2 - 16 years old. Talk about survival and feel good story!

Today we participated in a cooking class held by the Tamarind restaurant. The day started with a trip to a local market where the teacher/chef explained all the fruits, vegetables, rice and meats that are sold. After that we were driven to a hidden oasis which was the outdoor cooking school. We made Jeow sauce which is used for dipping your sticky rice. We also made a buffalo salad, lemon grass chicken, Mok Pa steamed fish in banana leaves and a red bean desert cooked in coconut milk. It was a wonderful experience as the instructor, Sit, was very passionate, knowledgeable and had a great sense of humor. We met couples from Philadelphia, Norfolk, San Diego, San Francisco and Hunstville.

Our excellent adventure continues. Stay tuned!!!

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