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Monday 1 Jul 2013
Luang Prabang, Laos

Big Brother Mouse and Natalie's competitive alter ego

Our first stop on the river today was at the Pak Ou caves. There are two caves up in the side of the cliff. The first is under an overhang about 15m above the current water level. Amazingly there was a high water mark painted level with the cave from a flood some years ago. The mind boggles at the sheer volume of water needed to raise such a vast river by so much. (I remember a similar coversation with my parents in Prague in 2002 as we sat by one of the riverside cafes looking up at the high water marks on the bridge turrets of the Charles Bridge. Less than a year later the Voltava and Danube flooded way beyond previous records, submerging half of Prague and Dresden's old towns.)
This first cave is filled with small buddha statues where sailors on the river can stop off to make an offering for safe travels. Up a long flight of uneven steps, there is a second, much bigger cave with a sacred spring, where locals bring their buddha statues to be washed. While it was interesting to see and nice to break up the river journey a little, I have to admit to being fairly underwhelmed by the caves after seeing the ones outside Kalaw in Burma. A bit like going to Argos when you've been to Tiffany's.

The advantage of travelling with Stray is the ability to hop off the bus and stay longer in a place you like. I'd planned all along to have a few days in Luang Prabang and maybe Vang Vieng too. However, after travelling with Kye, Krysia and Natalie for three days, I found I didn't want to get off and stay on my own, even though I knew I'd meet more people on the next bus. They were all travelling straight through and going on to Cambodia afterwards, so I decided to join them. This meant we had only half a day in Luang Prabang, which was not enough time to do the various activities and outings on offer. I'd been interested in doing a silk dying and weaving course, following from my artistic rediscovery in Bali, but there was no half day option. Instead, we checked in and headed out to get some lunch. I popped into the Stray office and extended my pass to include Cambodia, albeit unguided. The pass just covers the transport, but it meant I could travel on with the others. We went to the museum in the former royal palace. The throne room was covered in an impressive array of mirrored mosaics depicting scenes from Laos' royal histories. The bedrooms, by contrast, were quite plain and furnished in a 1960s style.  The royal car collection looked like something James Bond would be pleased with.
There was a photographic exhibition above the stable block, beautiful black and white photos of monks during their meditation retreat. I bought a small book of interviews with the photographer, but frustratingly I put it down in another shop later in the day without realising it, so I didn't get to read it after all.

Natalie and I explored some of the side streets looking for an organisation called Big Brother Mouse (which I kept forgetting the name of and calling Mickey Mouse House). This is a local project with the goal of getting children's books into schools and homes. They run school visits for tourists, where they get to deliver books to a school and spend the with the kids, seeing how the school is run and giving each child a book - something they truly value as most have never had a book of their own before. I bought a pack of 15 books to take with me to our next home stay village in a week's time. I also bought a hand carved stamp saying 'Made by Zoe' with a small turtle in the middle for using on my future craft projects. Really pleased with this!

We met up with Mike for dinner with the promise of a fashion show of traditional costumes, followed by a street dance display by local teenagers. (An obvious combination!) However, when we arrived at the restaurant, we discovered there was no fashion show that night and the street dance display turned out to be just watching the kids practising their tricks rather than performing for us. Regardless of this, the food was excellent and the Canadian owner joined us for a beer and a chat. We then discovered he'd taken the drinks and some of the meals off our bill too, so we left happy and full. We went on to a small bar down to road and discovered that the hitherto quiet Natalie had a ferociously competitive streak hidden inside. She played table football like a demon and whipped all of us! Great fun.

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Zobeedoo's Big World Adventure, Part I

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