Monday, February 6, 2012

Worse ways to spend a day!

View from the boat on the Mekong
I think one main reason people choose to volunteer rather than visit a place as a tourist, is to scratch beneath the surface of a place; get to know the locals, do the things locals do, get access to a richer cultural experience, and so on. 

So it was a real treat to be able to take a group of 6 volunteers out with 3 of our Lao teaching partners for a day to Kuang Si Waterfall – a stunning National Park and one of Luang Prabang district’s top must-do’s. 

Sai on the river cruise
The group met up in the morning with our 3 Lao guests and walked from the guest house down to the river, stopping enroute at the market to pick up picnic supplies for our day trip.  GVI staffer Sam sent everyone of into the market to buy some provisions, but secretly knew that the best selections would come from the Lao group members!  Volunteers picked up some delicious tropical fruits, some jeowbong (a tasty and spicy chilli dip), dried legumes (which proved to be a hit), baguettes and a couple of things which required cooking prior to eating!  Oops! 

Our Lao friends bought grilled whole fish stuffed with lemon grass, some chunks of grilled pork and chicken, jeow mak kheua (eggplant dip) and of course sticky rice. 

So off we headed to the banks of the Mekong where the boatmen hang out waiting for the tourist trade to walk by.  Sam had done some pre-negotiations and had a price in mind.  Negotiations were akin to a circus show; a big crowd of locals gathered to witness proceedings and there were dramatics and jeering to accompany with the repartee.  Explanations and bargaining was done almost exclusively in Lao (thanks to teacher Xay and Sai for intermittent translations) and Sam countering with prices previously quoted and reasonable for everyone.  In the end we got a fantastic price for the cost of the boat down the river and back, as well as the tuk tuk from the river to the falls...everyone was happy!  

Riding on the back of a truck
We all piled in and enjoyed the stunning scenery along Laos’ mighty Mekong River for our 1.5hr cruise to the village offering access.  Then we jumped into the back of a pick up truck and headed 10km to the waterfalls.  It was also scenic and the rural landscape offered the perfect getaway from the city – wind in our hair and sun on our faces!  By the time we arrived we were all hot and ready for a swim, but upon entering the Park you notice the drop in temperature amongst the lush rainforest foliage, alongside the beautiful cascading falls that make up Tad Kuang Si. 

The group settled on a spot, bagged a table and chairs and tucked in to our delicious and eclectic lunch (the grilled fish and sticky rice being a popular fave!), and jumped in for a swim.  Well, some of us jumped in or bomb-dived and others took a little more coaxing and, finally, gently eased themselves into the cool, refreshing, clear blue waters of the limestone pools. 
Some volunteers and teachers opted to take the walk to the top of the falls, others headed to sunnier spots for some sun-worshipping and others took to the large tourist-filled swimming area complete with rope swing! 

Peng teaches us about Buddhist murals
After a few hours we packed up and headed back past the bear rescue sanctuary, back onto our pick up and back to the village.  This time we opted to visit the lovely temple grounds whereby teacher Peng explained the Buddhist story of the murals adorning the temple fa├žade.  Back into our boat and a longer journey back upstream – the water levels so low at this time of year, navigation is made more difficult by the varying depths and the skill and experience of the boatman is imperative. 

Arriving back in to town, weary and happy, we headed back home for an ice cold Beer Lao (or tea and cake for the Brits!) and sharing our stories with the other volunteers who had enjoyed an adventure of their own - kayaking on the Nam Ou.

Now that’s what weekends are all about!