Thursday, September 22, 2011

There were worms in me! A weekend in Luang Prubang

On a journey from Nepal’s Jomsom to Pokhara (see here and here) we were reminded that our time and comfort has a value. So when we planned a trip to Luang Prabang from Vientiane and had the option of a 35 minute, $80 flight or a 10-12 hour, $22 bus ride we asked around before making our choice. Some people, one person actually, mentioned the impressive scenery and villages along the partially finished road between these major Lao cities. Most others, however, groaned and recalled how they had taken the bus once, and vowed to never do it again. The combination of the winding, mountainous roads, blind hair-pin turns (without guardrails obviously), and the constant up and downs made this a most unpleasant ride. Thus, we found ourselves booked on Lao Air for a quick jaunt up to the Luang Prabang for a four day adventure.
The quiet streets of Luang Prubang
Luang Prabang is a laid back city, its charming tree-lined streets frozen in time since the UN designated it a World Heritage site and placed restrictions on changes to the city’s layout and structure. These rules, however, did not prohibit the construction sites on both sides of our hotel. Our little guest house was sandwiched between two crews that must have been in a competition to see who could do more hammering, drilling, and buzz-sawing between the reasonable hours of 8 AM and 8 PM. But, as our landlady told us, it is very quiet after the construction stops. The construction turned out not to be a problem because each of our full days started early. Following the general tourist trail we spent many hours tuk-tuking to waterfalls, climbing to caves, relaxing in the coffee shops lining the Mekong, and waking up early to (respectfully) observe the monks procession and chow down in the morning market.
Sunset over the city
Tad Sae Waterfall
It was pouring when we left Luang Prabang to head for the best swimming hole in all of Lao. But if the rain couldn’t stop these Lao motorbikers it wouldn’t stop us.
How's that umbrella working out for you?

Given that it was cold, cloudy and raining
we decided some shots of "True Manhood"
would be just the trick to ensure everyone swam.
It worked splendidly.
Jesse also brought some sort of poncho/space suit to keep her dry
(despite our plans to swim about ten minutes after we took these photos)
After our short drive, and after my request for a quick snack, a short hike took us to falls where we played in the water, swam in the falls, and swung on the tire swing. It turned out to be a great afternoon.
Yes, thanks for noodle soup.
And then, to the swimming holes!
That is too fun.

Hubba, hubba (husband!)
After Jesse and I paved the way to play in the falls, the other girls were quick to follow:

Anna, Steph, and Kat join the fun

And Jesse wrapped up the day posing with a young Lao man in a scary mask, obviously.
Pretty much exactly who we expected to meet at Tad Sae Waterfall. 

Kouang Si Waterfall

Yup, the sign was pretty explicit:
The next day the sun was shining and we headed to Kouang Si Waterfall, the big waterfall.  The plan was to hike up and over the waterfall to a nearby cave, and then cool down in the falls. Scratch that. First we ate. Only after grilled chicken, grilled, pork, grilled fish and numerous coffees and fruit shakes did we begin the hike up and over the falls. We soon ran into our first challenge: a large gate blocked the path with a sign, in English and Lao, warning, “DANGER DO NOT ENTER.”

The young law students amongst us quickly turned to their principles of textual interpretation and noted that this was one of very few signs in English and suggested that someone had thought this information was important enough to get translated and, on top of that, written in all caps, a universal indication of importance.  We also discussed how the path was physically blocked, also suggesting that the path was not safe. Having considered the possible risks, we walked about 10 feet to the side of the gate, around the end of the fence, and then back onto the path.  And obviously, this was the wrong choice. We soon found ourselves on a very steep, very muddy path. Adding to the difficulty was that all the girls were wearing flip-flops, perhaps the worst possible footwear for the task at hand (my trek-shoes/work-out shoes/dress-rehearsal shoes/and beach shoes proved to be a perfect choice). After staggering, sliding, and slipping our way up the muddy path we reached the mid-point of the falls.

Yup, the waterfall was flowing directly
over, through, and in the staircase
The danger however, had hardly passed. The next challenge was a slick, wooden flight of steps going directly through the falls.  Literally, the water was flowing over, above, and through the wooden staircase. And the guardrail? There was no guardrail. But, like the slope before it, we conquered this staircase.

It was the next trial that proved too much, at least for the Meshkovs. As the path flattened, it became wet and muddy. Really wet, and really muddy. It was the type of mud that grabs a flip-flop and doesn’t let go. The kind of mud that forces you to waddle through it, with a wide, wild-west type of gait. It was also the kind of mud that was the perfect breeding grounds for spiders, mosquitoes, and thin squiggly worms. One by one (but Jesse last) each of the girls recognized their diminishing forward progress, took stock of the fact that their feet were covered in mud and removed their flip flops to continue barefoot through the mud.  I know, reflecting back I can still hardly believe it.  With each step the mud and stagnant water squished and squeeged through their toes and up and over their feet. And while their speed improved, this was a real morale killer. After an admirable 100 yards or so, Jesse threw in the towel [JLM: whatever, it seemed like an eternity, each step felt like an eternity].

The barefoot hike down.
We were heading back. We regrouped, and began backtracking to what some would call prescient, others  accurate, DANGER, DO NOT ENTER sign. Once we left the muddy section things started improving, we skillfully navigated the waterfall steps, and slowly descended down the slick slope. The only injury appeared to be a small wound between Jesse’s toes. Sure that it was a parasitic worm that had burrowed into her body and was already setting up shop in her GI tract, Jesse had already determined a quick medical tourism stopover in Bangkok was in our immediate future. My attempts to calm her were mostly unsuccessful.
Jesse: Dave, this is the jungle in northern Loa. That is where you get unknown parasitic worms. 
Dave: We don’t know what it was, it was probably a stick or sharp rock. 
Jesse: A stick or sharp rock? Wedged between my toes? I don’t think so. We’re going to Bangkok.
Dave: Maybe its one of those worms that makes people really thin. 
Jesse: Yeah. [thinking, then smiling a little] I still hate this place. 
A nearby American who heard our conversation, and saw our bloody towel, thoughtfully offered a band-aid, which stopped the blood flow and seemed to calm Jesse down. Resigned to waiting to see what type of symptoms developed I suggested that we at least have some a mango and watermelon shake. Later we met up with the others who told us the cave was more than an hour’s walk from where we left (good choice by us) and was pitch black (double good choice by us). They also told us that they also had small, and profusely bleeding cuts, but that they had come from leeches! Leeches they had picked off their skin! So, it was a bit of a mixed bag – no worms (but also no parasitic, make-me-thin worms), but leeches!  Thankfully, we didn’t have to physically remove any from Jesse’s feet, and happy that we were infection free we celebrated the rest of the afternoon swimming in the water, jumping off the falls, and doing as many rope swings as our tired hands could handle. [JLM Note: I remain skeptical that I was not infected by a parasitic worm. A Bangkok detour for a medical tourism check up has not yet been ruled out.] 

The walk down:
Drawing on my experience of photographing hundreds of porters,
I knew the best place for our bag was strapped to my head.
Jesse performed an agressive, and lengthy, foot cleaning once we had cleared the muddy portion of our return trek.

The steps down were just as, or perhaps more, treacherous than when we went up them.
Leech remnants.
Next up, swimming!
The falls area was quite scenic.
The area directly beneath the giant falls is a Don't Swimming Area.
At least we heeded this advice.
But then we made to the actual swimming area:

Flying off the 10 meter, I mean foot, high waterfall
And again, this time with Kat
(Anna, frozen in fear, is slightly visible on the left side of the photo)
A surprising aspect of the Kouang Si Waterfall was the bear reserve/park they had there.
Hey Boo Boo!
Just like JDMesh, bears love to relax in comfort!
I wish I could have fed him.
How can you deny a face like that?
Another accurate sign.
Bears, do in fact, love to lounge!
Jesse Bear.
Remarkably, after all this excitement, our day (and night) was hardly over. We showered, and aggressively washed our feet, legs, and entire bodies, headed down to the night market for some food, and then out to the bars!  The Hive was first, where we sampled Lao Lao Stingers, which turned out to be Lao Lao Midori sours (not recommended) and met up with Matt and Roxanne, then to Star Pub, where, as is our custom we were the only white people in the club – but still had a blast – and rounded out the night at the local (and only) bowling alley! We even broke 100 one game! Woo-hoo for old people!
Pretty fly for a white guy
And Jesse was obviously loved by everyone in the club.
From the club, we, along with about half the other patrons, headed to the bowling alley.
Obviously, I'm not a golfer.

Form - Perfect.
Aim - Not perfect.
These shoes were optional.
As you can see above, we opted against them.

We upgraded from True Manhood to
Lion King, which apparently has nothing
to do with the Disney motion picture
despite it causing us to sing (loudly and
embarrassingly) the entire movie soundtrack.
Caves and Monks
Nine AM came quickly after our extravaganza the night before. In fact, it came far too early. But, with our tuk-tuk waiting outside, and the sun blasting down on us, we piled in for the hour-plus ride, including an 11 KM struggle on unpaved, pock-marked, rut of a road. My butt didn’t fit on the 10 inch wide bench normally, and as we rocked and rolled towards these caves, I stood no chance. Anyway, we finally made it to the town, across from the river, wandered through its hot dusty streets and hired a boat man to take us across. But, this post is long enough.  More on the caves, the Luang Prubang monks (at sunrise), and the morning market (delicious!) in the next few days.

Nice work making it all the way to the bottom of the post.  Here are two bonus swings for you!

rD0pu5 on Make A Gif, Animated Gifs
My Tad Sae waterfall tire swing

Bo3lPO on Make A Gif, Animated Gifs
My Kouang Si Waterfall rope swing


  1. Very cool post with all the videos. I am glad you finally decided to stop that horrendous hike...leeches, yuck!

  2. Hey Jesse and Dave! Not sure why today was the day that I decided to comment, as I have religiously been reading daily since we got home back in April - but seeing the streets of Luang Probang just really got me! Thank you for producing such an enjoyable blog and keeping the 'traveler' alive in all of us. As we are back in our typical American life with school and soccer games, I know having the kids read your blog helps us remember it wasn't just a dream that we experienced.
    Not sure when your trip will end, but I am not looking forward to my coffee time without your blog!
    All our best to you, from
    Tammy, Brian,Ian,Reed, and Mae Browning
    (Sayta Ranch!)

  3. Anonymous [mom] - Yeah, turning back was a good move.

    Tammy and the Brownings - of course we remember you, did Ian end up going back to Enrique for summer of fun? That would have been a wild ride. Glad to hear that you are enjoying the blog.

  4. Definitely one of your coolest blogs, sounds like the best day ever! Hiking, waterfalling, swinging, clubbing, AND bowling!?? Holy fun-ness! And you look thin Davey doo, are you losing weight with all those fruit shakes and gym workouts? Will you make me a mango sticky pancake when you come home? Sounds like dream food...


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