Wednesday, 30 July 2014

LUANG PRABANG - a quiet and peaceful former capital in Northern Laos

I have posted this report on a trip to Luang Prabang with kind permission of Tran Hoang Yen, who visited LP in July 2014. It has a lot of good info and insights for anyone considering a visit to this world heritage listed town. Over to Yen for her report:


Mekong River

This note is to express my feelings after my trip to Luang Prabang (LP) and to share with my thoughts and some information with friends who would like to visit this place in the future.

Travel to LP


From Hanoi, the best and most convenient way to reach LP is by airplane. There are direct flights operated jointly by Vietnam airlines (VNA) and Lao airlines using ART72 planes. I traveled at the peak time of airlines risk but I am not afraid of that. Flying with ATR is not always as smooth as a Boeing or Airbus but it is ok when you fly short distances, only about an hour.

The price of ticket from Hanoi to LP is around 300USD return; however, if you are lucky and book in advance, you can have quite a cheap fare. If you fly with a Lao plane, they will serve you a light snack and drink (include beer Lao), however, if you fly with VNA, they only serve you water J. I think I was lucky as on the way back I boarded on a quite new Lao plane and it was good trip back.

When you reach LP international airport, you can catch an airport taxi that costs you around 100,000 Kip to town. However, I prefer to take a private car, kind of taxi without taxi meter sign on top. Just step outside of the airport and ask for that, it will cost you 60,000 Kip for 2 persons. Or you can catch a Tuk Tuk for the same price, so I think a car would be better.

The exchange rate is 1 USD = 8000 Kip.

Stay in LP


LP has plenty of guesthouses and a number of hotels. Just get on Google you find all the information you need on the accommodation there. However, if you have never been there, it is hard to imagine the location of the place you would like to stay. After being there, I can share with you that, basically, LP has 4 main roads along the town. 2 roads go along 2 rivers banks, Mekong and Nam Khan. In fact, these two roads are a loop around the main town. The other two roads are in the town. All the nice guesthouses, hotels and restaurants face to the two rivers banks. From my observation, those that are facing Nam Khan River are normally more expensive than the other side. And of course those inside the town are cheaper. I myself prefer to choose a guesthouse facing the Mekong River bank as the price is better. If you go in the low season like me, the room will be cheaper, only 20-30 USD you can have a nice room on this side.

Food in LP


It is fair to say that, this is a tourist destination but the price of food there is reasonable and many
buffet at market
options for you to choose.

You can have a 10,000 Kip buffet dinner in the night market. You will be given a plate and you can choose your dinner from more than 20 dishes per time with the price of 10,000 Kip. And if you want, you can treat yourself better with a grilled fresh fish with the price of 25,000 Kip and a big bottle of beer Lao with 10,000 Kip. In short, a dinner here with beer will cost you around 30,000 Kip if you go with a group more than 2 persons.

You can also try Lao style BBQ-hotpot buffet along the Mekong River bank at the cost of 60,000 Kip per head. This place is always full of people, not only tourists but also local people. The food here is very nice and fresh and the service is also very good. BBQ uses 100% charcoal for cooking.

Along the 2 rivers banks, there are many restaurants and cafes for you to choose and the price is quite reasonable. They normally have a picture menu with price in front of the shops for your convenience. I spent 4 days there and I love one place called the Bakery Café, a small café shop with about 5 tables located along Mekong River, which has a great view, nice food & drinks, free wifi and reasonable prices. I visited this place once or twice a day breakfast, lunch or for a drink. If you visit LP, I recommend you to try this place.

steel bridge

Do in LP

LP is a tourist destination, so tour agents do quite a good job. If you would like to travel around, just come to a tour agent and choose the tours you want and pay. They have plenty of tours for you to select from. If you have 2 days, you can cover some popular destinations here such as Kuangsi waterfall, Pak Ou cave, Mount Phousi, the Royal Palace museum, etc.

Once you are in LP, you should visit Kuangsi water fall, around 30km from the town, it is a beautiful
Kuangsi Waterfall
area called Kuangsi Water Park. Inside the park, besides the waterfalls there are many limestone-water-ponds where you can swim, there is also a bear rescue centre. Before this place was free but recently they charge 20,000 Kip/person and I think this is the right thing to do as you should pay for environmental service you use. This money can be used to keep this place always clean and natural as it is. I have to say that Lao friends have done a good job here to keep this place always clean.

One more thing you should do is rent a bike to ride around LP with the price 20,000 Kip/day. Before I went to LP, I saw on a friend’s FB a photo of a nice steel bridge in LP and I decided I have to cross this bridge. My friend and I rented 2 bikes and crossed this bridge. After crossing the bridge we decided to turn into a small road along the river and make a journey without a defined destination. We kept cycling to a narrow earthen road until we reached a handicraft village. We found very nice things here. The village produces traditional silk and paper. I love the way people here make paper, which is 100% natural. Paper was made from tree skin, colored by leaves and seeds, and decorated by natural leaves. The paper then produced note books, picture frames, lanterns, etc. This is really impressive and I love those environmental friendly products in this village. I also love the way people here conserve their traditional handicraft. If you want to buy some of these products, just do it as the price here is 5 times cheaper compared with those selling the same things in the airport.

In the afternoon of the day we went riding, we decided to explore the other side of Mekong River, so
paper products
we got on the ferry with bikes to cross the river. The ferry costs 10,000 Kip/trip/person. On the other side of Mekong River is Chomphet district and rarely tourists come here, it seemed that we were the only two tourists at this district.

Chomphet district has a number of villages and each village located from 3 to 5 km to the next one. The roads here are totally earthen made, and are really, really bumpy and quite hilly. In addition, there was almost no one on the roads; I was a bit worried when riding along this road as we rarely met people as well as houses along the road. However, similar to the morning, we decided to have another journey without specific destination, we thought that we will reach 2 or 3 villages then will turn back. There was nothing much along the road except for quietness and the beautiful landscape.

We reached the 3rd village and saw that it was going to rain, so we decided to turn back. Lucky us, if we met the rain on the way back, it would be hard to ride as the road can be very slippery. Honestly, it is nothing special on this side, however, we love to see the different things around and have a good afternoon exercise so the day after that both of us had pains in our legs and arms. I told my friend that cycling along this district felt like we had done a “Tour de Luang Prabang”.

Wow, I wrote quite a lot already. I can say that LP is a very peaceful and interesting destination. I
waiting for the monks
love the way people here live, gently with each other and gently with the environment. Be warned that if you like active and noisy places, please do not come here as you may feel it is too quiet sometimes both at day time and night time. There is one cultural activity I almost forget to tell you about - at around 5:30 -6:00 am, many monks start the day by seeking alms along the main street. This is a daily activity in this town.

HN 27/7/2014

Thursday, 24 July 2014

A CHANCE MEETING - ON THE NIGHT TRAIN TO HUE

We took a trip in 2007 from Hanoi to Hue via the “Reunification Express”. Our tour notes read “we use 4-berth, air conditioned, soft sleeper compartments”. Once on the train we found that “soft” meant a 50mm foam mattress thrown on top of a hard, flat bunk. “air conditioned” meant a draft coming from a vent in the roof that varied between hot and hotter. It was obvious that the only way you would get any sleep would be with the assistance of the yellow label 1996 Bordeaux wine we had purchased in Hanoi.

the infamous "Bordeaux"
 Back in Sydney it was the night of the Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gra and as we were travelling with a gay friend in our little group we had decided to get into the spirit and have a fancy dress party. We picked up our costume clothing at various market stalls in Hanoi and changed on the train. My pink feather boa was stunning!

We took a wander through the train and the locals all got a good laugh and poked a lot of fun at us - they took it all in the fun it was meant to be. On the walk through the train we came across the “6-berth non-air conditioned, hard sleepers”. Aside from the six people in the bunks, many of the compartments also had a few extra passengers on the floor as well. This made me realise what relative luxury I was travelling in. Things like this make you remember how good you really have things in life.

Our Mardi Gra continued in the carriage next to ours, there was another tour group there who decided to join the festivities. We got chatting to lots of different folks, Germans, Swiss, Kiwis, Americans, etc. One interesting couple we spent sometime in conversation with were from Paris, on their way to Saigon to meet with their daughter. The daughter had just spent a few months in Australia as part of a round the world trip. We naturally exchanged contact details and discussed the art of wine making for sometime, as the chap from Paris was a fellow wine making hobbyist.

Our new found French friends did not seem phased by our ridiculous outfits, even if they seemed a little conservative (she was a director of a french bank and he was a business consultant of some sort), both in their late 50's or early 60's. We shared some "Bordeaux" in plastic cups and did our best to converse in Franglais and hand signals. We bid them bon nuit around 2am and got some rest in our sleeper compartment. The mattress felt much softer thanks to the "Bordeaux".

Since then we have caught up with Alexandre and Catherine in Paris for dinner when we have been there in 2007 and 2009. Seems like a long time, we must catch up again soon.

fancy dress
dinner in Paris









Monday, 21 July 2014

LIFE'S SIMPLE PLEASURES

"Black Beauty" on the right
Not long after my Dad passed away, I was helping my Mum clean up her house ready to sell it. In the bathroom I found Dad's old Gillette safety razor. It was this style of razor that he first taught me how to shave with. So, I decided to hang onto the razor and bought some double edge blades, some shave soap and decided to give it a try again. I must admit the first attempt was not pretty - cuts on my neck and chin, which took forever to stop bleeding.

After some research on the internet to remind myself of the correct technique I persevered. I also bought a different brand of blades because the ones I initially purchased were the sharpest on the market and not recommended for a beginner.

My next few attempts improved a lot, no nicks, a close shave and no nasty, red, razor burn afterward. I liked the "smooth as a baby's bum" feel after the shave and my face felt really fresh.

So, I did some more research and found a brand of wet shaving products, made in Italy, that are highly recommended by wet shaving enthusiasts. For the past few months I have been using Dad's Gillette "Black Beauty" (no I did not make that up, that really is the model name from the 1970's), plus a range of Proraso products, their shaving soap, pre and post shave cream and alum block. 

Each morning I now look and smell like I had a trip to an old time barber shop. Admittedly my morning shave routine has increased from about 10 minutes to 30 minutes. Previously, I would slap on some shave oil and then whip across my face with a cartridge razor. The result was ok. Now, I apply a warm face washer, followed by pre-shave cream, then lather up with the shave soap in a tub and a natural bristle shave brush. After about three passes across my face, I rinse with cold water, rub the alum block across my face, apply post-shave cream and "voilà" my old face feels as soft as a baby's bum. Not only that I have a nice reminder of my Dad every morning as I get ready for a new day.


Tuesday, 15 July 2014

A CHANCE MEETING – THE WORLDS STRONGEST FEMALE CHESS PLAYER

2007 we were travelling in Europe with friends and spent a few glorious days in Positano in Italy. The girls, Lorenza and Melissa went and did some shopping, while Al and I had a few beers on the balcony of our hotel overlooking the Mediterranean.

Lorenza and Melissa returned from the shopping with the news that we had been invited to a cocktail party. They had shared the lift from the hotel foyer with a gentleman named Julio, who was the president of the local Chess Club. In the short lift ride he had explained that the chess club was holding a cocktail party in honor of their special guest “the worlds strongest female chess player”. Julio told them “they simply must come along with your partners”.

The story that Al and I got from Melissa and Lorenza about this invitation was hilarious. Both Melissa and Lorenza had two completely different interpretations of what the “strongest” female chess player meant. Melissa had pictured a woman akin to a weight lifter, who played chess using real people as the pieces, picking them up using her amazing strength to move them around a giant chessboard. Lorenza’s version was that she was the “strongest” player because she had taken on so many great male and female chess players and defeated them all.

So, in order to find out the truth we decided to attend the cocktail party. We did our best to find clothes suitable for such an event in our luggage. I had no black tie outfit, so the best I could do was a clean pair of jeans and a linen shirt. Luckily, once we arrived on the terrace above the beach we found out that cocktail parties are fairly relaxed affairs in Positano.

In attendance were the local mayor, the police chief, the commander of the customs police, and a few other local dignitaries. Also, we met a chess journalist and his wife from Switzerland, a well-known Italian TV presenter, and some members of the local chess club. The guest of honor turned out to be our neighbor back at our hotel. Her name was Judit, and was visiting Positano with her husband and two children, having been invited to holiday there by Julio and his fellow chess club members.

During Julio’s welcoming speech to Judit he made mention of the four Australians who had joined the party and asked everyone to make us welcome. They certainly did, we found that the local chess fanatics are a very friendly and welcoming bunch.

So, we found out all about the international world of chess. I asked Judit what makes a great chess player, her response - “patience and decisiveness”. Two local musicians playing guitar and piccolo entertained us. Julio told us all about his adventures in the sixties when he acted as the local guide and contact for the Rolling Stones. Some of the other locals told us about which famous person owned this or that villa in Positano and some stories of the celebrities who had visited the town over the years.

We had a fun night with this crowd and bumped into many of them during the course of our stay in Positano. It was good to have been welcomed by such friendly people and be able to chat with them over the next few days.

You can find out all about this famous chess player here ... Judit Polgar


Friday, 11 July 2014

A CHANCE MEETING - IN LUNE RIVER

In March 1993 we were touring Tasmania by motorcycle and spent a very interesting night at a hostel in Lune River. Let me set the scene … Lune River is in a reasonably remote location on the edge of a world heritage wilderness area, it was the night of a full moon. We had just finished dinner and … I took a very interesting trip to, of all places, the Southport garbage dump!

We were sitting on the hostel veranda when a local guy arrived out of the dark, looking like he had spent a week sleeping in a mud puddle. He asked if anybody could give him a hand to collect a freezer from the local dump. For some silly reason myself and another guy, Lloyd raised our hands and agreed to give him a hand. We made some introductions and headed off with Mick in his old Datsun Bluebird, bound for the rubbish dump.

At the dump, we three managed to load a huge freezer, the kind you find in a grocery store, onto the roof of the Bluebird. Mick had made some roof racks to load it onto. Once it was up there, we strapped it down as best we could and Mick got behind the wheel and belted along the road from the dump to his "home".

Lloyd and I were sitting in the back with our heads as low as possible with visions of this freezer collapsing the roof of the car. The roof racks were groaning and creaking, I had visions of the obituary in the next edition of the local newspaper "two tourists crushed by freezer".

Once we got to Mick's "home" we unloaded the freezer and he offered us a beer, He lit a kerosene lamp inside his "home", which we could now see was an unfinished cottage, with 3 walls, no roof and a lot of plastic tarps keeping out the wind and rain. There was junk everywhere. Mick gave us both a warmish beer and also some hand made greeting cards he had made.

He then told us his life story, while Lloyd and I exchanged glances with each other. I could read Lloyd's mind - I was thinking much the same - Mick seemed a little odd but obviously had a big heart. He told us how he had been living in India for some years and did a lot of volunteer work at an orphanage where the kids spent their time making greeting cards. When Mick returned to Hobart from India, he spent weeks walking around trying to sell the greeting cards door to door and sent what money he raised back to the orphanage. It was obvious he did not keep any money for himself.

It did strike me as strange that Mick wanted the freezer, considering he had no electricity at his place and the freezer was obviously dumped for a good reason. Back at the hostel, we introduced Mick to Lorenza, and together with Lloyd we shared some beers we had.

Good old Mick could have done with a good bath and a trip to the dentist. Lorenza asked why he wanted the freezer and Mick explained that he intended to use it to make recycled paper in. His plan was to manufacture more greeting cards to sell and raise funds to send back to the orphanage in India. I was kicking Lorenza under the table as she began to explain to Mick that she had done a paper making course and the freezer would probably be no good for what he wanted because you could not drain the water from it very easily.

Eventually Lorenza clicked and realised if she progressed further with info about the freezer not being suitable it would probably mean another trip to the dump.

I have no idea what happened to Mick or his plans to continue supporting the orphanage, but our chance meeting left me with a great deal of admiration for his selflessness. He wittingly or unwittingly had mastered the Buddhist concept of anattā or “not self”.

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

A CHANCE MEETING - ON A HILLSIDE IN BERGHEIM

Something got me thinking today about some of the chance meetings you have with people from time to time that stick in your mind. I thought I would share some of them ...

A hillside in Bergheim

A Chance Meeting – on a Hillside in Bergheim


In 2004, on a visit to Alsace in France, we took a walk up a hillside above the village of Bergheim and came upon a German War Cemetery. The bodies of the soldiers had been relocated to this place from various smaller village cemeteries by a German organisation that tended to the condition of the site.
While we noted the young ages listed on so many of the headstones we bumped into an older German couple. They first greeted us in German and when they realized we spoke English he proceeded to chat with us in a very British accent (he had worked as a teacher in Leeds).
During our introductions he told us his first name and surname, so I did the same – mine being a German-Jewish name.

They were a very interesting couple and gave me a very different perspective on WWII. I explained that being an Australian I felt much removed from the effects of WWII and did not really understand much about its true impact on Europe. He explained that he felt a very heavy burden in his heart due to the horror his country has brought to the rest of Europe, which is why he and his wife did volunteer work for the Volksbund Deutsche organisation.

I commented to him that it was not he and his wife's fault that these things happened. I was surprised when he responded, “no - we started the war and caused all this, it is our fault in many ways”. He then explained to me that there is a word in the German language specifically to describe the corpse of a soldier, which translates to something like “the body of an animal that must obey”. He asked me did I know of any other language that would have a word like that. Naturally I had to answer no.

He went on to say that a lot of Dutch and Norwegian people are still very negative toward Germans and that they felt this very strongly when they visited those countries. I explained that I definitely belonged to a very lucky generation, I had missed WWII, Vietnam and the Gulf War, and I was very lucky. His wife told us that her father was buried in France and that she was about 2 years old when he had died. He was killed in the very early stages of the war.

We parted company and I can still remember that conversation very clearly today. Then and now it caused me to wonder if I would be alive today if my ancestors had not seen what was coming and got out of Europe when they did. I am definitely part of a very lucky generation.

Sunday, 6 July 2014

WASO ROBE OFFERING CEREMONY- PSMC

Along with over 200 other people we attended the Robe Offering ceremony at Villawood today. The Panditarama Sydney Meditation Centre people are always so welcoming. Plus, catching up with our dear friends makes for a wonderful day.

Aside from all the other yummy dishes Lorenza and I agreed the pork in mango was really good.

Waso is a period when Theravada Buddhist Monks and Nuns observe a three month “Rains Retreat”. During this time they stay in the same monastery each night and avoid travelling. The Monks and Nuns will also increase the intensity of their meditation practices.

During the Rains Retreat many lay Buddhists spend an increased amount of time contemplating the Dhamma and adhering to more ascetic practices, like longer meditation sessions.

The Rains Retreat is called Waso in Burmese and Vassa in Thai. Both words come from the Pali word “vasso” meaning rain. Some people refer to Waso as “Buddhist Lent”. The timing of Waso is based on the lunar calendar, and also coincides with the wet season in South East Asia. While Sydney may not have a wet season and it is the middle of winter, Waso is still observed.

New robes and other essentials (like rice) are offered to the Monks, in a ceremony that is similar to alms giving in SE Asia.

The PSMC will also hold some group meditations and a retreat for lay people over the coming months. Visit their website for more information here.