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30 January-11 February 2013. We went for a boat ride down the Mekong to see a temple in a cave. The boat left very early. There weren’t many of us on board. Most of the other tourists had scrambled to another boat with comfortable seats. For some unknown reason five of us stayed where we were on our hard wooden seats in a decrepit boat that nevertheless got us to where we wanted to go and back again. Poor Lily. Don and I know enough by now. Even if it’s going to be thirty degrees during the day, on the water in a fast moving boat at 7am it will be cold. So we had jackets and wooly hats and scarves and gloves and an extra layer on underneath. Poor Lily. She was wearing a summer dress and not much else, and was so freezing she resorted to wrapping around herself a dirty old towel she found lying on the floor of the boat. I’d have done the same. This is how we met Jim and Lily, an itinerant couple from California. The four of us talked non-stop on the journey back when it had warmed up by about twenty degrees and Don had lent Lily his jacket.

Life on the river. During the dry season the river is many metres lower than during the wet, so families move down onto the banks of the river, build temporary shelters, and farm the land.

Along the banks of the river in a couple of different places we saw families “panning” for gems. I thought they were panning for gold, but it was confirmed that they pan for gems. I wanted the boat driver to stop there, or at least slow down, so we could get to see an authentic slice of life on the Mekong in the dry season in Laos, but he was intent on getting us to our next destination – a village where we could sample homemade “whiskey”, which was essentially rice distilled to just about pure alcohol, and miles of stalls selling beautiful fabrics.

The cave temple, Pak Ou, is huge, with a grand altar, and many Buddha statues of every size from tiny to gigantic. There’s also an outside altar where we found these two monks praying.

A smaller, lower cave has literally hundreds of Buddha statues, again of all sizes. In the end, after all this travel through Buddhist countries we’ve come to the conclusion that although we love many of the precepts and teachings of Buddhism, and although meditation is a nourishing, and potentially powerful practice, Buddhism, as practiced by the masses, is no different than any other religion. We knew this but were truly confronted with the reality of it in Asia. A lot of idol worship goes on. And a lot of giving money to the “church” in return for a better afterlife, the same as all religions everywhere. Give your money and we promise you salvation from suffering. I have little time for religion though I have a lot of time for a deep spirituality that encourages the discovery of one’s own inner truth. In the end it’s all a complete mystery. At the same time I do understand that when life is about simple survival religion and prayer can be a great balm for the soul, and certainly better than whiskey. I also believe in the power of prayer. And I’m a sucker for devotion, so I can go into any religious centre, be it temple, mosque, pagoda, or church, and if I feel the devotional energy of thousands over centuries I’ll be wiped across the floor and then sit in stunned, blissful and often teary inner silence. This happened in Hindu temples in India, and many times in Buddhist temples in Cambodia, Thailand, Myanmar and Laos.

The smaller cave – a sampling of its many statues

We went hiking, kayaking, elephant riding, and swimming with elephants all in one day. It was a short hike, only about an hour or so, and we’d have liked more. The kayaking was glorious. A wide, serene river, a warm sunny day, paddling gently by beautiful scenery. A day, a place, an activity to be filled with joy and gratitude. A feeling of perfect happiness.


We paddled to the elephant camp and had a sumptuous lunch; well I’m not sure sumptuous is the right word, but there was plenty of it. It was typical Lao style – soup, a pork dish, some stir-fried vegetables including probably cabbage and probably morning glory, the inevitable sticky rice, and fruit to follow. We had to wait a while before we could go for a ride on one of the elephants, so we had a nap in the back of the van.

We hadn’t really signed on for an elephant ride, both of us having ridden elephants in the local zoo as children, then again in Bali, and again in Rajasthan. However we were loaded up onto an elephant anyway and it turned out to be the most nerve-wracking elephant ride of our short careers. And no doubt the last. The elephant didn’t want to go on this ride and kept stalling and trying to turn back and the keeper had to work really hard, shouting a lot, to get it to actually get started and follow the narrow path. Even so, the elephants at this camp seemed to be well treated and healthy, if somewhat confined.

Then we got to the best part of the day. As I mentioned we’d spent a day with elephants in Rajasthan, and part of the advertised day was swimming with them. When we got there we were told there would be no swimming as it was too cold at that time of the year for the elephants to go into the water. Well now I had my chance. So I was helped to climb bareback onto one of the elephants and we headed to the river. We were just about to enter the water and I chickened out. Because the water was cold! Anyway it didn’t matter what the keeper did to make it lay down so I could get off, that old elephant had been trained well and knew exactly what it had to do. It just headed straight on into the water and dunked itself under, totally under, deliberately shaking me off in the process. Wooooohoooo!

Heading into the water. I don’t look very relaxed about it. I think it was a mixture of scared and excited. I had no idea what was coming. I think also at this point I’d been royally sprayed with water by the elephant. He was no dummy. And the keeper thought it was all just hilarious!

Then Don came and joined me and we both clambered on

And in this photo the elephant is heading back down under water again and we’re starting to go as it tips itself from side to side. The best fun in ages. I would not have missed that for anything. And those elephants sure were having a good time too.

Ten hours trekking. Ten hours. We just about died. We are not as fit as we used to be. The last two hours, all downhill, was not fun. It’s very hard on the hips and knees, but of course we made it. And spent the next day recovering.
The rest of the day was fantastic. We set out from Luang Prabang in a minivan.

Once again we were with a bunch of twentysomething backpackers, good folks one and all. But doesn’t anyone our age do this kind of thing? Exercise is the one thing most guaranteed to help maintain health and memory as you age, apart from the fact that it’s the best mood-enhancer around. After an hour or so in the van we started trekking in the most beautiful breathtaking countryside. Another great mood-enhancer. Laos is a truly beautiful country. 

We saw a snake. 

And along the way we met these people.

Tough lives. I camped in the mountains of north western Canada for months on end years back when I was cooking in hunting camps – collecting and splitting wood, hauling water, cooking over a fire or wood stove, gas lanterns. It’s hard work. And then I would return to the conveniences of ‘civilisation’ where in my cabin in town I at least had light at the flick of a switch, a gas cook stove, and water delivered to my door. Heat still came from splitting wood for a wood stove, but the wood, also, was delivered to my door. I came to appreciate enormously the things we all take for granted. These people camp out all their lives. It’s hard work.

We came to one village and stayed a while. Most of the villagers were gathered in one place because there was a delivery of medications for the village from an aid organization. Unfortunately the people delivering them had no idea what they were for. By amazing coincidence there was another small trekking party heading through just ahead of us, and one of them was a doctor and was able to look at all the different medications and explain how they were to be used. What incredible serendipity. I loved this village. I had plenty of time to take photos and connect with the people. I know that they’re poor, but I don’t focus on that. I don’t want to give energy to add to it. It’s their spirit that I focus on. It’s their spirit that moves me. There was one older woman and we connected and just kept smiling and smiling at each other, and holding hands, and the others around caught it and smiled too.

This kid on a homemade wooden “go-kart” was having the best time with it.

Later we came to another village, a Hmong village, where we were given lunch, and stayed for an hour or two. We watched village life going on around us. There was a communal well close by and we watched as people went to and fro for their ‘showers’ and to collect buckets of water. A farmer came in on his tractor with a big load of wood. Clothes were hung out to dry. Children took care of younger children. Pigs wandered around.

And at the very last village, right by the road, right before we climbed back into the van to drive back to Luang Prabang and our lovely comfortable room and a hot shower Don snapped this photo. 

On 12 February 2013 we flew to Chiang Mai, Thailand – next post.

All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted.
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2015.