Watch this space for our upcoming trip to Myanmar, Laos & Cambodia

We are about to embark on an adventure to Myanmar, Laos & Cambodia, travelling with a group of friends we met on the Trans Siberian Railway 10 years ago.

The key components of our itinerary include a 12 day tour with Good News Travels in Myanmar making our way from Mandalay to Yangon. We then travel with About Asia spending 7 days in Laos travelling from Vientiane to Luang Prabang, followed by 8 days in Cambodia travelling from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh. After that, it's back home.

Watch this space to follow our adventures although updates may be spasmodic depending on access to the internet.

Myanmar, Laos & Cambodia map

Myanmar, Laos & Cambodia map


Our travels commenced at the less than popular time of 01:05 with our Singapore Airlines Boeing 777-300 flight leaving Melbourne on time and arriving at Singapore’s Changi Airport some eight and a half hours later at around dawn.  This middle of the night flying resulted in us having a five hour wait before we joined our connecting flight through to Mandalay in Myanmar. In the meantime our group of ten travellers had made contact and assembled with everyone keen to get the final leg of a long day’s travel out of the way.

The flight to Mandalay from Singapore took just under four hours and involved travel up and along the eastern side of the Malaysian peninsula before crossing over Thailand heading north westwards towards Myanmar, formerly the country called Burma. On arrival at Mandalay we were able to pass through customs and general security checking with ease and were delighted to find our luggage had arrived safely. It was pleasing for us as our bags had been checked in at Hobart and we’d been assured that they’d get to Mandalay despite the double transfers in Melbourne and Singapore.

Our group was greeted by the tour manager, William and his female assistant Momo both of whom seemed very friendly and well organised. We plus bags were loaded into a mini-bus and we then commenced a one hour journey from the airport into Mandalay city central.

Group meeting WIllaim at airport, Mandalay, Myanmar, 15 Nov 2017.jpg

The road was an uneven concrete surface and in order to travel comfortably we had to drive quite slowly. The scene along the way was one typical of south-east Asia with dense population along roadsides living in shanty type accommodation with frequent signs of day to day commerce such as markets, car and motor bike repair shops, mobile phone sales and of course numerous eating areas under trees and canvas awnings with rough tables complemented by the ubiquitous plastic chairs.   

In 1970 the Burmese Government decided to introduce driving on the right-hand side of the road but even today, the majority of car are right-hand drive which provides a hazardous situation for overtaking. The problem for our bus driver was partly solved by having an assistant on the front left side monitoring for on-coming cars that might present danger if overtaking.

To add to the potential confusion the road signs showing distances from Yangon are in miles (subdivided in to furlongs) as well as in kilometres. We were informed that depending where you buy fuel, petrol is sold in both gallons and litre volumes. There seems to be a very slow progression from the old imperial units of British times to the more modern metric standards.

The Myanmar unit of currency (the  kyat) is in paper note form only with the largest denomination being 10,000 kyat which conveniently corresponds to about AUD$10. We used ATMs to obtain the currency and then ventured into a supermarket to buy some nuts, cheese, nibbles and mixers for our duty-free spirits acquired in Singapore. A quick perusal of the supermarket’s alcohol prices revealed that they were considerable cheaper than even Singapore’s duty-free.

The streets of Mandalay are a rat-race of motor bikes and scooters, older cars, trucks and carts competing for space with the pedestrians. This is a dangerous situation as we found when crossing a main street as the cars don’t always come from the direction you might expect as some weave down the road on the inside of the wrong lane, adding to the uncertainty of safe passage in Mandalay’s bustling city centre.

The roads although appearing very dusty and are in many places bordered by water filled drains and swamp areas where the usual litter of plastics, glass and discarded possessions have been abandoned.

The pool at our hotel

The pool at our hotel

After settling into our very nice Rupar Mandalar Hotel we showered and took a bus trip to the 230m elevated Mandalay Hill site to see the famous Buddhist shrines and to observe the sunset from the spectacular Kuthodaw Pagoda. The scene from the top was expansive with this sprawling city of over a million people surrounding our hill top spreading in all directions. The trip up and down the hill had to be in the back of a very old and dilapidated truck as our bus was not permitted to enter the sacred precinct. The truck driver we had drove at break-neck speed and weaved in amongst motorbikes and pedestrians as if he had priority and for him it was general routine. 

On returning to our hotel we had a pleasant meal with a local musician and a puppet show for entertainment.  We headed for bed early having had little sleep in the past 36 hours.

Tomorrow we start our Myanmar adventure in proper fashion with an early start and a day’s site seeing in and around Mandalay. 


After an early breakfast we were on our bus by 08:00 heading for a Buddhist Temple located in the southern part of Mandalay city.

The early morning traffic was diabolical and our bus driver made steady progress only by forcing his way at intersections and pushing into lines of otherwise bumper to bumper traffic. This traffic congestion is exacerbated by the fact that traffic lights are not common despite the size of this city.

The road and roadside scenes were dominated by countless individuals striving to reach a desired destiny where the density of traffic and the lack of traffic lights provided potentially dangerous situations. We observed one young female motorcyclist knocked off her bike in the peak hour traffic. Fortunately she was not seriously injured.

Our first stop was the Mahamuni Temple where, as is the custom we were required to remove footwear before entering. The temple’s entry entailed a 60m long walkway corridor filled with souvenir sales people selling typical Buddhist icons and associated paraphernalia.

The temple is the country’s second most revered shrine after the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon. The bronze Buddha at the centre of the Pagoda is said to be one of only five showing his true likeness at the time of his life. The bronze statue was brought to this location in 1784 and is now a principal focal point for worshipers from within this region of Myanmar. 

Women are not allowed to enter the inner sanctum. Men are allowed to press gold leaf onto the Buddha such that, over the years large lumps of solid gold have now accumulated. Buddha’s face remains polished and is shiny and smooth.

In a hall just off the main temple building we encountered six fine Hindu-Buddhist bronze statues which had been originally plundered from Angkor Wat in Cambodia hundreds of years ago.

Our next visitation was to a silk weaving facility in the region of Amarapura. The mainly female workers were operating in very primitive facilities with ancient looms and poor lighting in which to work on their complex patterns. The associated silk shop across the road had a vast array of silk items for sale, most of which we guessed had been weaved on mechanical looms in China.

We then went to a nearby monastery to observe the lunchtime feeding festival where donors ladle out rice to the monks as they pass with their bowls. The meals, especially the rice was cooked in a large but less than clean kitchen area nearby. The large vats of cooked rice were transported in large drums to the monks’ dining area. Over a thousand monks, some as young as 10, were in the queue to be fed.


We also visited the Umin Thounzeh monastery which had dozens of large Buddha statues arranged in a crescent shaped collonade.

We then crossed the mighty Ayeyarwady (Irrawaddy) River in an old wooden ferry boat powered by a very noisy diesel powered ‘whipper-snipper’ style outboard motor. On arrival at Ava on the opposite bank of the river 500m away we then commenced a thirty minute pony cart ride along a dusty track to the Sagaing region where we visited the Bagaya Monastery. This monastery was built in 1834 entirely from teak and it has 267 gigantic teak poles some of which are twenty metres tall and nearly one metre in diameter. The building is now largely deserted save for one monk who looks after the tourism side of things as well as doing some teaching to the local children. The magnificence of the structure is fading as a great deal of restoration work is needed to prevent the monastery from slipping further into decay.


Our final visitation to places of Buddhist significance was to the Maha Aung Mye Bom San brick monastery. This elaborate structure was built in 1822 as a private place of worship for the Queen of King Bagidor. Its external features look more along the lines of Hindu architecture than that typical of Buddhism. There are no gold stupas which dominate the landscape elsewhere.

At this stage, with the overload of sights and information, we were becoming confused about names, dates, kings other important historical information as well as a little overdosed on Buddhist monasteries so a late afternoon trip to see the U Bien bridge was a relief. This bridge was built by Bodawpaya’s mayor using teak from Inwa the old capital city. The bridge is 1.1 km long making it the world’s longest walkway. It has no side railings and being five or six metres above the Taungmyo Lake there is a bit of danger for those venturing along its walkway. In the late evening light we were on the bridge with large crowds there to observe the sunset so great care had to be taken to avoid falling over the side. In the lake’s waters below were numerous small row-boats somewhat like gondolas taking tourists out onto the lake.

After an interesting day observing Myanmar’s obsession with Buddhism we returned to our hotel for cleansing showers and cool drinks before a very pleasant evening meal at our hotel where there was a local band and traditional dancing for entertainment.  



We started our day nice and early and travelled through the high density traffic to the river dock half an hour away. As is always the case, the streets are full of monks wearing their maroon coloured capes and Buddhist nuns wearing a somewhat equivalent costume in pale pink. Both the men and women have shaved heads so its often only by their costume colour that one can identify the gender of the person seeking alms.

At the river dock we all scrambled down a steep and very dusty river bank and walked across a narrow plank to board our boat that was to take us up the Ayeyarwady River to Mingun.

The Ayeyarwady River, formerly called the Irrawaddy River has its headwaters in the Eastern Himalayas and travels around 2000 km to its delta on the Bay of Bengal. For thousands of years this vast river has served as a strategic link connecting China and the Indian Ocean. Numerous civilisations have developed along its banks and merchants for countless years have battled its currents to reach cities for which the river was a lifeline. Rudyard Kipling immortalised the river as the “Road to Mandalay”.

This is the dry season at present and the river at Mandalay is only one kilometre wide but during the monsoon season the river becomes a raging torrent many metres deeper and much wider.

The boat we were on took about half an hour to reach the up-river town of Mingun and from the boat the imposing structure of Mingun’s Incomplete Pagoda is awe inspiring.

We used a bullock drawn ancient wooden and bamboo taxi to get from the river to the pagoda site. The pagoda, commissioned by Bodawpaya in 1790 to house one of Buddha’s teeth, is incomplete but monumentally vast! Its base is a 70m square and the construction was curtailed when its height reached just on 50m.  Had it been completed its stupa would have been even higher than the Great Pyramid of Egypt. A massive earthquake in 1839 reduced its upper parts to rubble and left huge cracks in the brick constructed sides.


Adjacent to the pagoda are two giant ruined chinthes (leogryphs) with their heads detached presumably by the 1839 earthquake.

A little further up the main road we encountered the Great Bell of Bagun. This bell, weighing 90 tonnes had to be floated into position via a specially built canal. It is made of bronze and was cast in 1808 for dedication to the nearby pagoda now in ruins.


To the north of the bell is the extraordinary Hsinbyume Pagoda built in 1816 by the grandson of Bodawpaya. Its wavy concentric terraces depict the mythical Mount Meru and the white building is capped with an impressive stupa said to be representing the seven ranges that encircle Meru.

We returned to Mandalay on our boat but with the current’s assistance the return journey was considerably quicker than the up-river travel this morning.


We had a lunch break in a local Mandalay tea-house where we shared a chapatti and lamb curry which cost the unbelievably cheap sum of AUD$0.65 so we tipped the waiter an additional amount almost equivalent to cost of the meal.

In the early afternoon we visited the site of the World’s Biggest Book. This exists within the grounds of the Kuthodaw Pagoda and was built by King Mindon in 1859. There are 729 marble stone slabs on which are inscribed the Buddhist Canon written in Sanskrit and each one housed in a white stupa.


At this location we had our cheeks adorned with thanakha paint. This is extracted from the thanakha tree’s wood by grinding the wood on a stone surface and the fine creamy paint thus formed is used commonly in Myanmar as a sunscreen. 

We then moved to the remains of the Mandalay Palace which was practically destroyed by Japanese bombing during World War II. The splendour of the palace is now represented only by the remaining Shwenandaw Monastery which was transplanted to a new site nearby. The richly carved and formerly gilt structure built from teak is presently undergoing restoration, a task that seems near impossible considering the countless carvings that cover every façade of this impressive building.


To conclude the day’s activities we visited a small factory where the workers prepare gold leaf. This is done by perpetual hammering of gold until the foil is down to micrometres in thickness. This requires strength and persistence as the men doing the work used heavy hammers for long periods of time. The gold foil is ultimately used to ornament by gold covering Buddhist icons and other tourist items.

Preparing gold leaf 001, Mandalay, Myanmar, 17 NOv 2017_.jpg
Preparing gold leaf 002, Mandalay, Myanmar, 17 NOv 2017.jpg
Preparing gold leaf elephants 001, Mandalay, Myanmar, 17 NOv 2017.jpg

Tomorrow we leave Mandalay at an early hour and fly south to Bagan to continue this fascinating journey into the little known country of Myanmar. 


As our flight from Mandalay to Bagan was for 08:20 and we were an hour’s drive from the airport it meant that we started our day at around 05:00. We departed our hotel at 06:30 and had breakfast from supplied snack boxes during the bus trip. The Mandalay city traffic at this time of the morning was fairly light and so we made good time and were soon checked though security and on our way to Bagan.

The short, thirty minute flight to Bagan rather than driving was presumably due to the poor standard of the road, a problem that is common in Myanmar.

On arrival we were met by our new guide Aung Shie who promptly arranged our luggage to be loaded onto the bus and we headed on our way.

Our progress was abruptly halted by a traffic jam caused by a procession celebrating a religious festival to do with the Shwezigon (Golden) Pagoda in Bagan.

Shwezigon (Golden) Pagoda Festival parade, Bagan

Shwezigon (Golden) Pagoda Festival parade, Bagan

The procession was several kilometres long and had hundreds of children and adults all dressed in traditional costumes carrying flags, parasols and numerous ceremonial extras. In amongst the parade of people were horses and elephants adorned in colourful ribbons and ceremonial paraphernalia. In addition there were decorated wooden carts loaded up with generators and loud speakers issuing a cacophony of raucous singing and music to the crowds who aligned the roadside.

We stayed and observed this unbounded merriment for half an hour or so and enjoyed the colourful spectacle even though it was unbelievably noisy!

Bagan has over two thousand surviving ancient monuments entailing monasteries, temples, shrines and stupas. These are the remnants of an imperial capital that reached its peak between the 11th and 13th centuries. The Bagan Archeological Zone encompassing Old Bagan, covers an area of about 50 square kilometres scattered across an arid plain in a bend in the Ayeyarwady River. It was formerly the living place of the Bagan people but with restoration work being undertaken by UNESCO is was cleared of people and made into a heritage site of major significance to the world. Residents of Bagan now live a few kilometres further south from the archeological zone in the part now referred to as New Bagan.

Our first visit to this treasure-trove of Buddhist antiquity was to the Ananda Temple commissioned by Kyanzittha in 1105.

Ananda Temple

The temple is surmounted by a classically proportioned corncob gilded tower with the outer walls and arched gateways being aligned with the compass cardinal points.

Inside there are four huge wooden and gilded Buddhas standing in huge recesses interconnected by corridors that are adorned by stone sculptures, small golden Buddhas and paintings. The four Buddhas have a female body shape and possess somewhat comical faces with mouths that are disproportionately small. The north and south Buddhas are the original 11th century ones whereas the other two are replacements of earlier ones destroyed by fire.

The exterior walls of the temple are most impressive with stone chinthes sculptures of grinning lions incorporated into the building.  Numerous green-glazed terracotta plaques called Jataka tiles, showing scenes from the Buddha’s life adorn the lower levels of the temple.  

After a lunch break we checked into our hotel and then went on a pony cart ride through the Archeological Zone.

Our travels were on mostly dusty tracks in amongst the numerous temples and stupas that cover the landscape.

At sunset we climbed to a small embankment and watched the sun sinking behind an horizon of magnificent stupas and temples; it was spectacular.

Sunset, Bagan

Sunset, Bagan

We then returned to our hotel and after some drinks and snacks we all retired for the night after a long and highly interesting day.

Throughout our travels so far in Mandalay we’ve experienced warm to hot dry days with temperatures seldom above the low 30s but here in Bagan today the temperature reached the mid-thirties but this is still classified as the cool winter season. Summer temperatures in Bagan range into the mid-forties! 


Based on the tariff we’re paying, our accommodation at Bagan Lodge is far more plush than we had expected. The room is huge and elegantly appointed with twin hand basins at either end of a large bathroom. The gardens outside our unit have manicured lawns with orchids and many other flowering plants aplenty.


We had a sumptuous breakfast next to the swimming pool before heading off on a day’s further exploration within this small but historically significant city.

Our first stop was at the 13th century Gubyaukgyi Temple north-east of Old Bagan.

This temple retains much of its original stucco work of the exterior walls. A pair of huge nats (nature spirits) flank the main entrance to the inner shrine. These spirits reveal that at this period of history, Buddhism was not necessarily the dominant religion but was often complemented by traditional beliefs. The building has a distinctive pyramidal sanctuary tower surmounting its roof. The feature that draws tourists to this temple is the inner murals. The walls and ceilings inside this large and dark temple are covered with pictures depicting the life of the Buddha; (a sort of 13th century version of Facebook!). A number of sections have been damaged or stolen but what remains are magnificent in their depiction of life at that time. The colours used in painting these murals have survived the test of time and are still very colourful and beautiful.

Children outside the Gubyaukgyi Temple

Children outside the Gubyaukgyi Temple

We then visited the Khay Min Ga complex where in an area of just a few hectares there were numerous temples and stupas.

Cautiously venturing up a dark, narrow and steep staircase we climbed to the top of the Oak Kyaung Gyi Temple to see the panoramic view and we certainly weren’t disappointed. In all directions one could view dozens of stupas and temples most constructed from red brick but some partially white from their lime stucco walls and several with gold spires. Some are still undergoing repairs needed because of the most recent earthquake occurring in 2015. The restoration work being done on high stupas involved protection to workers with bamboo latticework scaffolding held together with ropes. 


Our final visit for the morning was to the Shwezigon Pagoda at the north-eastern corner of the Archaeological Zone.

Child cooling off, market near Shwezigon Pagoda

Child cooling off, market near Shwezigon Pagoda

This pagoda is gilded and was considered the most important religious site during the reign of King Anawrahta who was the founder of the Bagan Empire. The building of this spectacular pagoda took the span of two lifetimes, the king and his son, but the end result is breathtaking if not excessively gaudy due to the never ending view of gold.

It is estimated that the upper coverage of this pagoda entails 36 tonnes of gold and that each section of the external surface had gold plate, not just a micro thin layer of gold foil.


Within the pagoda we are led to believe that there is a tooth relic of Buddha as well as a gold image of King Anawrahta and a Chinese emerald Buddha.

We didn’t venture inside the Shwezigon Pagoda as it was an annual festival day dedicated especially to this golden shrine.

A large crowd had gathered to present alms to the hundreds of monks who paraded in file though the adjacent square to the sound of distorted singing emanating from loud speakers. Sacks of money, food and other contributions were collected for the monks later to be divided up and any excess to be distributed to the poor.

Then from the first elevated balcony of the pagoda officials started throwing money (paper notes) into the air and the crowd went berserk trying to grab this flying currency. The equivalent of over one thousand US$ were thrown out to the crowd over a period of just a few minutes.

Before leaving we went into a small adjacent room and observed the Shrine of the 37Mahagari Nats which is dominated by a gold statue of Thagyamin the king of the nats.

Lunch was in a local restaurant where we were served numerous (small) dishes of locally prepared foods with specialities being goat meat, chillied tomato, eggplant, some mystery vegetables and spicy beans, all for 5,000 kyat (about AUD5.00). Our group of ten all agreed that it was a delicious repast especially with the cold beers and fruit juices to supplement the meal. The temperature outside was now in the low to mid thirties.

After an afternoon break we ventured out again to visit a lacquer-ware factory. Bagan has been the centre for lacquer-ware production since the skills were brought here from Siam (Thailand) in 1563.

We watched the various stages of production from the weaving of bamboo and rattan frames through to the moulding and drying of the lacquer layers into which the engraving takes place. The prices of items on sale in the adjacent shop were very high but they are not unreasonable when one considers the hours entailed in making each item. The factory appeared to be very ancient and primitive and the labourers present were expected to work at manual skills that in the western world would now be performed by machines. The labourers work eight hours a day for seven days a week with the average worker earning around eight dollars (US) a day!


In the late afternoon we spent an hour out on the Irrawaddy River with great expectations of observing the sunset. A cloudy sky put paid to this objective and we then headed home.

Our boatman, Irrawaddy River sunset cruise

Our boatman, Irrawaddy River sunset cruise

Our group on sunset cruise 001, Irrawaddy River, Bagan, Myanmar, 19 Nov 2017.jpg
Sunset from the Irrawaddy River

Sunset from the Irrawaddy River

We’ve had an extraordinary day and been so lucky to visit Bagan precisely when their annual religious festival takes place.   

Despite ones feelings about the limitations religion places upon the freedom of thought of individuals it is clear that the Buddhist religion has an important role in the development of Myanmar as it has been the catalyst for the burgeoning tourism industry here.

Tomorrow we have a relatively free day without formal commitments and will spend some of the day relaxing and catching up on emails and other such communications.


Even at breakfast time we could sense the heat of the day to come so it was decided to visit the local market during the ‘cooler’ morning conditions. This proved to be a wise decision because even by midday the temperature was around 35°C.

Orchids at our hotel

Orchids at our hotel

Orchids 003, Bagan Lodge, Bagan, Myanmar, 20 Nov 2017.jpg
Orchids 004, Bagan Lodge, Bagan, Myanmar, 20 Nov 2017.jpg
Orchids 006, Bagan Lodge, Bagan, Myanmar, 20 Nov 2017.jpg

We walked the two kilometres from our hotel to the market in New Bagan. Along the way there were several offers of rides from pony cart and motor-bike hire operators; all of which we resisted and continued the walk. On one section right next to the side of the main road two men were spreading out peanuts on a large tarpaulin presumably to dry in the sun. As vehicles went past the dust created would surely settle on their peanuts.

Drying peanuts on the side of the road, Bagan, Myanmar, 20 Nov 2017.jpg

We eventually found the market area which was behind the shops that line the main road. The market is principally a produce market with fruit, vegetables, spices, nuts, eggs, grains, meat and fish for sale and we were pleased to find the local marketeers made no effort to hassle us or cajole us into buying their wares. In fact many of them said hello and there were pleasantries exchanged.

Fruit stall, Farmer's Market, New Bagan, Myanmar, 20 Nov 2017.jpg

The range of fruits and vegetables on sale was extensive and included quite a number of things we’d never seen before. There were the prickly cucumbers for sale and these were what we had as one of our lunch dishes yesterday. The avocadoes were quite different from ours with their size being two or three times the standard we have in Australia. The very colourful collections of fruits and vegetables provides a great opportunity for us to take interesting photographs.

As is the case we’ve found in other countries, the meat market is always fascinating and usually a little confronting. There being no refrigeration and the conditions being hot meant that the meat and fish odours were strong and the flies on the various meats were numerous. The blood from the butchers’ tables was allowed to drip onto the floor below and as a consequence many of the local stray dogs were enjoying this special treat. We caught one dog jumping up so he could lick scraps off one butcher’s chopping block.

Child eating banana, Farmer's Market, New Bagan, Myanmar, 20 Nov 2017.jpg

Chicken meat seemed to be the most popular but there were quite a few large fish on sale too. Dried fish seemed a common item on sale as well.

We then crossed the road and bought cold fruit drinks from the same restaurant where we’d had lunch yesterday.

We then walked home taking photos on the way of stupas just across from our hotel.

Pagoda near our hotel, New Bagan, Myanmar, 20 Nov 2017.jpg

A cool shower followed by a swim in the pool provided some much desired relief from the oppressive heat and then the remainder of the afternoon was taken up with us catching up on downloading and checking photographs, reading emails, sending messages and just resting. 

Tony in swimming pool, Bagan Lodge, New Bagan, Myanmar, 20 Nov 2017.jpg


The early morning sky above our hotel was colourful with thirty or so hot air balloons moving slowly above our breakfast area. Some balloons were very high but others were sufficiently low that we were able to call out to the passengers and hear their excited comments.


We then had a thirty minute flight from Bagan to Heho Airport in an Air KBZ plane type ATR 72-600. On arrival at Heho we gathered bags and boarded a bus and headed for Inle Lake with a thirty minute stop at the local Heho market.

This was a wonderful opportunity to see the locals and their incredible range of produce. The market covered an area of at least one hectare and the range of fruit, vegetables and meat was certainly greater than we’d seen in the Bagan market yesterday. There was clothing for sale together with farm equipment such as hand tools, sickles, hammers and machetes. One particular merchant had three boxes filled with dozens of fluffy ducklings. There was an interesting array of souvenirs and we bought a decorative silver smoking pipe. The market gave us the chance to get several impromptu portrait photos of some locals wearing their distinctive hats especially the orange wrap around turbans. Tobacco is popular amongst the local and many smoke cigars with cheroots being favoured by older women. 

We stopped for a relatively brief perusal of the teak monastery at Shwe Yan Pyay and its adjacent temple. There was a great deal of glass ceramic work decorating the monastery walls and in the temple there were numerous small Buddhas set into recesses in the walls with each Buddha having a donor’s name indicated beneath.

Shwe Yan Pyay Temple

Shwe Yan Pyay Temple

A short bus trip from the pagoda had us arriving at Nyaung Shwe where we together with our luggage were loaded into three long boats for transport out onto Inle Lake.


The boats are wooden and about ten metres long and less than a metre wide. They are powered by a diesel inboard motor with a whipper-snipper rear extension having the propeller and rudder combined. They travel at around 20 knots and are remarkably stable even when crossing the wake of another vessel.

Our first sight on the lake was of many traditional stilt houses built out into the shallow water. The glassy waters of the lake support a population of between seventy and eighty thousand most of whom are members of an ethnic minority group called the Intha. These stilt houses are designed to cope with the significant  fluctuations in the lake’s level and are adapted to cope with the climate and ecosystem of the lake.

We encountered several of the Inle Lake fishermen who stand on a long-tailed boat in the distinctive leg-rowing position used by the Intha people. These fishermen use tall conical nets to trap fish in the lake’s shallow waters.


At this point we had a torrential downpour, the first rain we’d had since being in Myanmar. This sudden change in the weather meant activities were curtailed so we stopped for lunch in a local stilt café and by the time we’d finished the sun was out again and the atmosphere warm and steamy.


The remainder of the day was spent travelling in our longboats to various tourist destinations. These included lotus thread and silk weaving, cheroot making and a short visit to a traditional blacksmith’s shop where knives and other cutting tools were manufactured. The ten female cheroot makers used large, dried leaves from  a local tree to wrap up a chopped mixture of tobacco and other aromatic substances such as herbs like anise. According to the experts the final product was of a poor standard but cheap!


The silk and lotus thread weaving occurred on ancient looms with their operation being simply to show tourists how it may have been performed in traditional times. The output of these few elderly workers would have been minimal and yet their adjacent shop was chop-a-block with scarves and similar items. We surmised that most of these retail silk and lotus products were probably manufactured on industrial looms in China. 

Lotus thread spinning

Lotus thread spinning

As the daylight was fading we headed for our hotel, the Inle Lake View Resort which is very comfortable and right on the lake’s edge. We had a nice meal of tapas and some drinks before heading for bed. This has been a day of much activity with some very interesting people and sights to take in.

Tomorrow, weather permitting we are to do a 05:00 start hot-air balloon ride.


Boats from ‘Oriental Ballooning’ picked up our group of ten from the hotel’s jetty at 05:15 and transferred us in darkness to the launch zone about six kilometres away.

On arrival we met Nick and Bill the two pilots of the hot air balloons and after an initial briefing in the early dawn light we had a light breakfast with coffees while the team of local Myanmar employees prepared the balloons. Nick and Bill are Englishmen both in their 50s we’d guess who spend half the year ballooning in Tuscany and half the year here in Myanmar. The team of assistants they employ are all young Inle Lake men who are well trained and have specific roles to play in the preparation, pursuit and recovery of the balloon. So highly are their combined skills valued that Oriental Ballooning pay them for the whole year even though they only operate for half the year.

Preparing hot-air balloons 006, Inle Lake, Myanmar, 22 Nov 2017.jpg

Large electric fans were used to fill the balloons and then the propane burners were operated to heat the air to reach neutral buoyancy and at that point, the four of us quickly climbed into our balloon and together with Nick our pilot we lifted off. The all up weight being lifted was around 1200 kg.


We ascended in the early morning light to around 200 m and the scene below was magnificent as we slowly and silently drifted out across the lake. As there are so many people living in stilt houses on the lake it means that water craft are the principal means of transport. The scene from above is a complex network of channels and interconnecting canals somewhat like an Asian and agricultural version of Venice!

The stillness of the morning was occasionally interrupted by a five to ten second roar of the propane burner as Nick adjusted our height in order to catch the breeze which would carry us in the desired northerly direction.

Lake from hot-air balloon 001, Inle Lake, Myanmar, 22 Nov 2017.jpg

Below us was the patchwork of floating farms and gardens that are just one of the reasons that Inle Lake is a famous landmark in Myanmar. As we manoeuvred northwards, one part of the support team was seen below with two boats holding a wooden platform for supporting our gondola in case of a forced landing out on the water. This didn’t occur thankfully and after we’d spent a good deal of time observing and photographing the spectacular view including the three other hot air balloons, we ascended to about 500 m at which height our speed across the ground was about 12 knots.

Oriental Ballooning support crew on lake 002, Inle Lake, Myanmar, 22 Nov 2017.jpg

As we neared the northern lake township of Nyaung Shwe we descended again and cruised across the tops of homes, hotels, temples and the main canal which was busy with boat traffic moving frantically in both directions.

Diana, Chris, Nic & Tony in hot-air balloon 001, Inle Lake, Myanmar, 22 Nov 2017.jpg
Inside hot-air balloon 001, Inle Lake, Myanmar, 22 Nov 2017.jpg

As an hour and a quarter had now passed, Nick was planning our landing which entailed communicating with his land crew in preparation. He was aware of a very suitable dry paddock close to an accessible road and right on cue we commenced final descent and dropped to make a perfect touchdown. The ground team were there to grasp the gondola until the balloon deflated enough to be stable.

Our hot air balloon safely landed 001, Inle Lake, Myanmar, 22 Nov 2017.jpg
Oriental Ballooning support crew retrieving balloon 001, Inle Lake, Myanmar, 22 Nov 2017.jpg

Once all was under control we had a glass of bubbly and chatted with Nick letting him know what a fabulous time we’d had. We then were taken back to the canal for a return boat ride to our hotel and a second attempt at breakfast.

The remainder of the morning was then spent back on the water visiting the landmark Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda. This relatively recent structure is famous for its five small Buddhas that take place of prominence at the centre of the shrine. These five Buddhas are unrecognizable because they are now under innumerable layers of gold leaf now looking more like golden Easter eggs! During Inle Lake’s most important religious festival in September four of these golden covered Buddhas are paddled around the lake’s villages by teams of leg rowers in a ceremonial gold painted hamsa bird barge.

Five gold Buddhas 001, Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda, Inle Lake, Myanmar, 22 Nov 2017.jpg

In the market outside the pagoda we saw souvenirs decorated with tigers’ teeth but were assured by our guide that the hunting of tigers is now illegal and these teeth were spoils from an earlier age!

We then visited a silversmith where craftspeople were working on making fine silverware jewellery in poorly lit and cramped conditions. After quite a deal of haggling we bought a couple of nice souvenir items.

Silversmith at work

Silversmith at work

Our next visitation was to an umbrella factory making traditional Burmese umbrellas and parasols. The first step in the manufacturing process is to make the paper covering and this was done using a crushed wood pulp with the fibres dried on mesh screens and then folded onto a bamboo frame. There was a wood-turner operating an ancient foot activated lathe making the umbrella handles and others doing the decorative work such as painting and waterproofing. In a souvenir shop nearby I found an exquisitely carved solid teak pig and after some keen bargaining, acquired it for what I considered a very reasonable price.

Of considerable interest to us was our next encounter with four women from the Padaung ethnic minority. These women are well known for wearing brass neck rings which cause a significant extension of the neck partly by way of depressing the women’s shoulders. The reason they do this is uncertain but it seems most likely that the long neck is seen as a sign of beauty. The brass rings are heavy weighing up to two kilograms and are seldom removed. The women were happy to be photographed and were grateful when we offered them a small tip for the photo-opportunity. As a visible clash of the new and the old, we were amused to see one of the women with the neck rings checking something on her iPhone!


We then ventured ten or more kilometres up a narrow stream to visit the township of Indein where we had a mid-afternoon lunch break.

Women selling scarves in Indein

Women selling scarves in Indein

A further highlight of the day occurred when, after lunch we walked into the bamboo forest away from the stream and encountered a multitude of 15th century ruins of pagodas and stupas. Some were overgrown by banyan trees and vines but the scene gave us the impression that it was straight out of an Indiana Jones movie set. Despite the general decay of many of the structures, most still had visible external sculptures and statues and with some, even Buddhas were seen inside partially collapsed brickwork.

Stupa ruins 001, Indein, Myanmar, 22 Nov 2017.jpg
Stupa ruins 006, Indein, Myanmar, 22 Nov 2017.jpg
Stupa ruins 009, Indein, Myanmar, 22 Nov 2017.jpg

As was the case yesterday, rain commenced at around 16:00 so it was decided to pack up for the day and head for our hotel. We did this by taking a route via a section of the floating gardens where we observed big areas of vegetable growing on floating rafts of reeds and water-weeds bound by silt and mud from the lake’s bed. The rafts are anchored with large bamboo poles and the gardens are in neat rows so the owners can move between them in their boats. The main crop by far is tomatoes but melons, cucumbers, taro and beans are also plentiful. It reminded us in many ways of Lake Titicaca.  

Houses in the vegetable gardens 001, Inle Lake, Myanmar, 22 Nov 201.jpg
Cruising through the vegetable gardens 001, Inle Lake, Myanmar, 22 Nov 2017.jpg
Fishing boat

Fishing boat

Tomorrow we intend to travel much further southwards down the lake to visit the narrower gorge section where a number of isolated communities are located and the density of tourists is likely to be much lower.


This was designated as “a free and easy day of leisure at Inle” but as it turned out most of our group elected to take a two and a half hour boat trip to the southern regions of Inle Lake.

We left the hotel at 08:00 in two longboats and our first stop was at the people’s market adjacent to the Phaung Daw Oo Monastery where we saw the gold Buddhas yesterday.

The market was similar to the one we’d visited at Heho on Tuesday with a diverse range of produce on display. There were numerous souvenir stalls around the perimeter of the main market and these stall owners were friendly and yet very keen that “you buy at special price or maybe later?”

Within the main market area the numbers and types of fish products was noticeable principally by the smell. Dried fish stock pellets were being sold by one woman and to weigh out the pellets she used an ancient beam balance with weights on one pan and the goods on the other. There must have been missing weights so she used two AA batteries taped together as a substitute.

Dried fish 001, Market, Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda 001, Inle Lake, Myanmar, 23 Nov 2017.jpg
Scales with battery weights 001, Market, Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda 001, Inle Lake, Myanmar, 23 Nov 2017.jpg
Market 002, Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda 001, Inle Lake, Myanmar, 23 Nov 2017.jpg
Market 005, Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda 001, Inle Lake, Myanmar, 23 Nov 2017.jpg

A number of (portrait) photographs were taken of people in the market with the preferred subjects being those with older and interesting faces or children with their parents.  

Lady 001, Market, Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda 001, Inle Lake, Myanmar, 23 Nov 2017.jpg
Man 001, Market, Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda 001, Inle Lake, Myanmar, 23 Nov 2017.jpg
Lady 002, Market, Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda 001, Inle Lake, Myanmar, 23 Nov 2017.jpg
Child blowing bubbles 001, Market, Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda 001, Inle Lake, Myanmar, 23 Nov 2017.jpg
Woman 004, Market, Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda 001, Inle Lake, Myanmar, 23 Nov 2017.jpg
Child 001, Market, Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda 001, Inle Lake, Myanmar, 23 Nov 2017.jpg
Woman 006, Market, Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda 001, Inle Lake, Myanmar, 23 Nov 2017-2.jpg
Child 004, Market, Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda 001, Inle Lake, Myanmar, 23 Nov 2017.jpg

Our boat journey then took us for another hour and a half southwards where the lake narrowed and then followed a stream that meandered in amongst a dense growth of water hyacinths, water lilies, reeds and pink flowering lotus plants. Along the way there were villages with the houses built on stilts, canal side cafes, workshops and a plethora of the inevitable pagodas and golden stupas.

Lotus flowers 001, Inle Lake, Myanmar, 23 Nov 2017.jpg
Lotus flowers 002, Inle Lake, Myanmar, 23 Nov 2017.jpg

The water pathway took us through a valley region where on either side of us were small farms with crops growing in what appeared to be rich red soil and in some cases irrigation systems were operating.

Our southerly travels terminated at the village of Samkar. This was a 15th century town and the remains of stupas and monasteries are still visible in part. The building of a dam at the southern end of Inle Lake in the 1950s resulted in the inundation of much of this ancient town. There are areas of numerous closely located stupas and temples unaffected by the flooding and yet some stupas are only just visible being partly submerged. The main part of the township moved to higher ground but undoubtedly much of historical significance was lost forever. We had lunch at Samkar which translates to mean “frangipani”.

Boatman 001, Samkar, Inle Lake, Myanmar, 23 Nov 2017.jpg
Stupas 006, Samkar, Inle Lake, Myanmar, 23 Nov 2017.jpg
Stupas 012, Samkar, Inle Lake, Myanmar, 23 Nov 2017.jpg
Stupas 011, Samkar, Inle Lake, Myanmar, 23 Nov 2017.jpg
Butterfly 001, Samkar, Inle Lake, Myanmar, 23 Nov 2017.jpg
Butterfly 002, Samkar, Inle Lake, Myanmar, 23 Nov 2017.jpg
Dragonfly 001, Samkar, Inle Lake, Myanmar, 23 Nov 2017.jpg

On our return trip home the boats stopped at the Tharkong Pagoda where dozens of ancient stupas were being progressively restored by way of donations, mainly from wealthy Chinese Buddhists living in Singapore.


We had a long trip back home in the late afternoon and our boat driver took a short cut through the floating gardens which was entertaining as the narrow canals had boats moving in both directions and there was minimal room.

House 001, Inle Lake, Myanmar, 23 Nov 2017.jpg
House 002, Inle Lake, Myanmar, 23 Nov 2017.jpg
Village 001, Inle Lake, Myanmar, 23 Nov 2017.jpg

To slow boating traffic down, the locals employ water “speed bumps” which are lengths of bamboo lying across the canal just at surface level. Boats must slow down and lift their propellers out of the water to negotiate each bamboo crossing.

Speed bump, Inle Lake

Speed bump, Inle Lake

We arrived back at the hotel jetty at 17:45 and after evening drinks and a meal we made preparations for tomorrow’s move to Yangon and the overnight excursion to Kyiakhtiyo or the Golden Rock.



This was to be a day of mostly travel with an unexpectedly exciting finish at Kyiakhtiyo.

After breakfast we left Inle Lake in a chartered bus that took us to the Heho airport, a trip that took close to an hour.

After going through all the formalities in a very crowded air terminal and waiting another hour, we eventually boarded our ATR 72 plane and had a one hour flight to Yangon (formerly Rangoon) International Airport arriving at around 11:30.

We were then met by our local guide and our group of ten boarded another bus and commenced a four hour bus trip to Kyaito which is two hundred kilometres north-east of Yangon at the top of the Gulf of Mottama. The road we followed was bumpy, quite narrow and very busy with lots of traffic making progress slow.

We passed through the town of Bago at the half-way mark and stopped near here for some lunch.

The next two hours of travel was through a much more rural setting with there being many small farms principally rice growing and harvesting was happening as we passed through.

Nearer to Kyaito we encountered large forest areas on both sides of the road and were informed that this is the rubber growing centre of Myanmar. The rubber trees take eight years to reach production and live to about forty years after which their timber is valued for furniture making. The latex from the mature rubber trees is collected in cool pre-dawn conditions and treated with ammonia before being sent off for processing.  Cashew nut orchards are common in this area too as the climate, water availability and soil type are ideal for their production.

When we arrived at Kyaito we turned off the main road and started climbing towards Kinpun where we left our bags in the bus and boarded an open truck to commence the spectacular ride up to the Golden Rock Pagoda.

Climbing on truck to go up to Golden Rock Pagoda, Kyiakhtiyo, Myanmar, 24 Nov 2017.jpg
Graeme, Tony & Jenny on truck to Golden Rock 001, Kyiakhtiyo, Myanmar, 24 Nov 2017.jpg
Group on truck to Golden Rock 001, Kyiakhtiyo, Myanmar, 24 Nov 2017.jpg

The road wound its way up a very steep mountainside through jungle cloaked valleys and ravines with waterfalls. We reached the top after about an hour of exhilarating travel. The tight ‘S’ bends on the steep climb meant that we were thrown around in the back of the truck and grateful for the seat belts we were provided with. The sign at the base (Kinpun) should have given us a clue to our roller-coaster ride as it said “included with the ticket purchase price you get life insurance!”    

Truck going up road to Golden Rock, Kyiakhtiyo

Truck going up road to Golden Rock, Kyiakhtiyo

At the top of the mountain at 1102m we alighted and walked 500m through a densely crowded tourist region to the Kyaiktiyo Golden Rock Pagoda. It was approaching sunset and the spectre was awesome. Not surprisingly this Golden Rock is said to be qualified as ‘one of the wonders of the world’.


The Kyaiktiyo Golden Rock has claim to be one of the more iconic sights in South East Asia and it involves a 15m diameter golden painted boulder perched precariously on a rocky ledge as if just balanced and defying gravity. The base rock is decorated with a lotus pattern. The main rock is progressively becoming enlarged by the many years of gold leaf deposition from pilgrims.  

On top of the golden boulder is 7m tall pagoda built in 574 BC which supposedly enshrines a hair of the Buddha. Apparently it is this pagoda that is the main object of veneration for Buddhists but for the numerous international tourists the balancing rock is a cause of wonderment.


The hair of Buddha is said to have been given to the 11th century King Tissa by a hermit who’d kept it for 100 years. The hermit asked the king to find a boulder in the shape of a head upon which the hair cold be enshrined. King Tissa who had magical powers dived to the bottom of the ocean and found this rock which he magically transported to its present location. The weight of the sacred hair is said to be the reason for the boulder not toppling off its base and falling into the deep ravine below.

Around the rock are pilgrims preparing to sleep overnight so that they can make offerings to the Buddha at dawn. They have blankets and sleep on the marble terraces.

We spent an hour or more photographing the rock from various angles and then returned to our truck past the numerous pilgrims’ bazaars. Two features of interest were the porters who carried people and luggage. The transport of people was in litters (sedan chairs) and their luggage in wicker baskets carried on the back. Some porters appeared to be carrying loads of 60 kg or more.  

Porter 001, Golden Rock Pagoda, Kyiakhtiyo, Myanmar, 24 Nov 2017.jpg
Porter 031, Golden Rock Pagoda, Kyiakhtiyo, Myanmar, 24 Nov 2017.jpg
Porters carrying lady 001, Golden Rock Pagoda, Kyiakhtiyo, Myanmar, 24 Nov 2017.jpg

We then descended to a location half way down the mountain in another truck that used exhaust brakes to control its downhill speed and we then spent the night at the Golden Rock Hotel.


Throughout the whole night we had the chanting of Buddhist verses emanating from a loud speaker at a monastery across the valley from our hotel room. This recorded sound was not unpleasantly loud but incessantly repetitive. We acknowledged that this is their custom so it’s up to us to accept the situation.

After a fairly meagre breakfast we clambered into a public truck with thin padded bench seats across the back and undertook the downhill return to our bus which according to the sign outside our hotel was 7 miles and 2 furlongs away. The mountain road in daylight is impressive due to the number of tight ‘S’ bends and the steepness of much of the descent. Our driver was cautious at blind corners by blasting his horn to warn pedestrians and other road users. Because of the dangerous nature of the road some sections are one way for a given period and then become one way in the other direction for a following period.

Truck station, Kyiakhtiyo

Truck station, Kyiakhtiyo

We changed over to our bus and then started the long return journey to Yangon.

After an hour of travel we stopped at a factory making bamboo furniture on the side of the road. The work facilities and equipment were primitive with the workers sawing and splitting bamboo with mostly ancient tools except for a power drill and a tiny, blunt electric saw. The chairs, stools and beds that were produced were remarkably strong and yet surprisingly cheap with a bamboo adult’s chair costing just AUD$5.

Carting bamboo furniture 001, en route to Yangon, Myanmar, 25 Nov 2017.jpg
Workman with electric drill & circular saw 001, Bamboo workshop, en route to Yangon, Myanmar, 25 Nov 2017.jpg
Chairs 001, Bamboo workshop, en route to Yangon, Myanmar, 25 Nov 2017.jpg

Nearby we encountered an orchard growing cashew nuts. The trees were flowering at present (it’s winter) and the nuts will be hand harvested in late summer using long poles to reach up into the trees.

A significant section of the road we were taking was being upgraded and widened. There were some machines like mechanical rollers being used but the new road surface was being prepared largely by manual labour. Many workers were down on their haunches placing rocks so as to make a flat surface and other workers were then pouring hot bitumen over the rocks. The spreading and levelling of the bitumen was being done by men with rakes wearing flip-flops (thongs) on their feet.

Roadworks 001, en route to Yangon, Myanmar, 25 Nov 2017.jpg

We next arrived at a road checkpoint where officials were apparently looking out for illegal immigrants as the border with Thailand was quite close to this location. Either side of the checkpoint were lots of roadside shops specialising in selling bamboo furniture, water melons and pomelos which are a large and very tasty grapefruit like fruit.

Our midday stop was at Bago the former capital of the Mon kingdom. Bago was a key trading point in Burma in the 15th century with close links to Thailand (Siam), Sri Lanka (Ceylon) and India. We spent an hour or so wandering around the vast Shwemawdaw pagoda whose golden pinnacle is 114 m high. We were informed that the pagoda had been built to enshrine relics including two of Buddha’s hairs!


We were surprised to encounter quite a number of beggars in the area around the pagoda with several being young girls holding baby siblings one presumes. We then moved to the site of the 15th century Kanbawzathadi Palace. Excavations in this area in 1990 led archeologists to uncover traces of huge teak posts and bricks belonging to the palace of one of the most powerful kings of Burma, King Bayinnaung (1516 – 1581). The building on the site now is both a gaudy and probably fanciful reconstruction of the original palace that was described in 1586 by a visiting Englishman Ralph Fitch as a sumptuously gilded wooden building of great workmanship.

Kanbawzathadi Palace 001, Bago, Myanmar, 25 Nov 2017.jpg
Kanbawzathadi Palace 002, Bago, Myanmar, 25 Nov 2017.jpg

After a lunch break we visited the Shwetalyaung reclining Buddha. This immense structure is 55 m long and 16 m high. It is thought to have been constructed in the year 994 and it lay in the jungle covered by vines and foliage until it was discovered in the 1880s. It has been refurbished and is now enclosed within a very large and unattractive corrugated iron shed. This particular reclining Buddha is not the largest in Myanmar but it is regarded as the best due to its particularly serene expression.


To end the day’s sight seeing we spent some time at Kyaik Pun (Four Figures) Pagoda. This pagoda was built by King Migadippa in the 7th century and then later restored in 1476. It consists of four colossal seated Buddhas placed back to back facing the cardinal points. Each Buddha is about 17 m high. There was a  packed bazaar area in an adjacent entrance hallway selling mainly wooden souvenirs but the peanut toffees on sale were much more popular.


The bus ride back in Yangon from Bago took over three hours mainly due to us arriving on the outskirts of Yangon at peak hour (18:00). Yangon’s population is around seven million and the traffic density was incredible with overcrowded roads and lane markings being utterly ignored by most. In the darkness were cars with no lights on and cyclists and motor bikes ducking and weaving in amongst the cars, buses and trucks. Needless to say, the flow of traffic is associated with a near continuous sound of car horns and numerous near misses.

Our hotel in Yangon is the Sule Shangri-La which looks to be a touch of class!

Tomorrow we spend the day in Yangon and the following day our group breaks up and the remaining six of us fly on to Laos.  


After a sumptuous breakfast we took a short bus trip to the Shwedagon Pagoda, regarded by many as Myanmar’s most sacred Buddhist shrine. Its stupa reaches upwards to 99 m and dominates Yangon’s city centre skyline. Being so revered it is visited by vast numbers of pilgrims and tourists as we were to find.

Legend has it that two merchants from Burma in 588 BC met Gautama Buddha in India and offered him alms. In response, he offered them eight strands of his hair as a blessing and they took it back to Yangon, then called Okkalapa land.

King Okkalapa enshrined Buddha’s hairs together with the relics of three previous Buddhas. These relics were enshrined within a 20 m high ceti which was thus called Shwedagon meaning the ‘Reliquary of the Four’.

Since 588 BC kings and queens over the centuries have progressively enlarged the shrine until finally in 1774 King Sinbyushin had it rebuilt to its present height of 99 m.

Walking around this vast pagoda, one is struck by the incredible number of additional shrines, halls and stupas that have been added and now embellish the complex. Despite earthquake damage and several acts of vandalism by colonial invaders, the pagoda and ancillary structures have been lovingly restored several times and further restoration work is occurring even now. The amount of gold decoration on the pagoda, adjacent stupas and halls makes for a resplendent scene but the glare in the bright sunshine is almost overpowering.

Shwedagon Pagoda 001, Yangon, Myanmar, 26 Nov 2017.jpg

There are numerous points of interest to see around the pagoda but the Maha Tissada Bell is a very prominent one. This huge bell was commissioned by King Tharrawaddy in 1841 and weighs 6 tonne. The ceiling of its pavilion is made of superb lacquerwork that is inlaid with glass mosaic.

We were particularly taken by the photographic museum which displayed photographs showing the pagoda in the 1800s and the same viewpoint now.

At one point on circumnavigating the giant pagoda we passed a star shaped open place where devotees kneel and pray facing the great stupa hoping their wishes will be granted.

We also stopped under a giant banyan tree called the Mahabodhi Tree which is thought to have been grown from a cutting of the original banyan tree under which the merchants first met the Buddha.

We then visited another giant sized reclining Buddha at Kyauk Htat Gyi Pagoda but by this stage we were all feeling a little over exposed when it came to Buddhist iconology. The soles of this Buddha’s feet were inscribed with the 108 symbols of Buddhist thoughts and history. The flashing LEDs that temples have around their plaster models of Buddha certainly does nothing to enhance the sense of religious connection with deity. 

Reclining Buddha 001, Kyauk Htat Gyi Pagoda, Yangon, Myanmar, 26 Nov 2017.jpg
Reclining Buddha 002, Kyauk Htat Gyi Pagoda, Yangon, Myanmar, 26 Nov 2017.jpg

We then drove down University Avenue and passed the house in which Aung San Suu Kyi had spent her time under house arrest. The house was originally her father’s home but he, as a political activist was striving for independence from the colonial oppressors and was assassinated in 1947 when she was just three.

House where Aung San Suu Kyi was under house arrest, Yangon, Myanmar, 26 Nov 2017.jpg

Some ‘free’ time was then given over to visiting the Bogyokeaungsan market which specialised in jewellery, gemstones, wooden carvings and woven materials. We were hesitant to buy any stones fearing that the present day market is being flooded with synthetic rubies, sapphires and emeralds.

The last part of the day gave us a chance to see the old colonial part of Yangon. It would be fair to say that this section of the city is in utter disrepair. It would seem that since the British were forced out in 1948 the fine colonial buildings in the most part have been left to fall into decay.

Some of the old bank and commercial buildings are now decrepit and disintegrating through utter neglect. We found this very hard to understand and yet it may be that it’s too expensive for the city to afford the rehabilitation of these fine old Georgian structures.

Colonial area 001, Yangon, Myanmar, 26 Nov 2017.jpg
Colonial building 005, Yangon, Myanmar, 26 Nov 2017.jpg
Colonial building 005, Yangon, Myanmar, 26 Nov 2017-2.jpg

We crossed over a high walkway and observed the boating traffic at the confluence of the Pazundaung and Hiang rivers and the associated harbour activities around the docks.

Ferry on river 002, Colonial area, Yangon, Myanmar, 26 Nov 2017.jpg
Building 011, Colonial area, Yangon, Myanmar, 26 Nov 2017.jpg

We then ventured back to our hotel and said farewell to our guide and bus driver (plus assistant). We finished the evening with our group having drinks and food in one of our rooms on the 17th floor of this classy hotel.

Final drinks at Sule Shangrila Hotel 001, Yangon, Myanmar, 26 Nov 2017.jpg

Tomorrow six of us head on to Laos for a continuing South East Asian adventure and four of our team return to Australia.


This had to be another early start as our travels today to Laos necessitated us flying via Thailand. The flight out of Yangon meant we were on the road at 06:00 in order to avoid the horrific traffic snarls that are famous in this city even in the early morning. To add to the potential traffic problems, Pope Francis was arriving today in Yangon at around 11:30 but even at 07:00 there were security personnel and military vehicles already gathering in the airport precinct.

The flight to Bangkok was on an Air Asia (no frills) Air Bus A320 service which took just on an hour. We had a three-hour transit time in Bangkok before flying on to Vientiane, the capital of Laos. This flight took 80 minutes.

The immigration section at Vientiane was efficient and our ‘visas on arrival’ were promptly issued for the cost of US$30 plus one passport photo.

We were then met by Song, our local guide for the next few days. With there now being only six of us in our group, we had our bags quickly packed into our mini-van and were off to our new hotel called the Salana Boutique Hotel. Song explained the pronunciation of the country’s name. The country is Laos (as in louse) but adjectivally the word is Lao e.g. the local cuisine is Lao (laow)

Salana Bourique Hotel, Vientiane, Laos, 27 Nov 2017.jpg

On moving through the city from the airport, we were immediately aware of a complete change of locale. Our previous city of Yangon had been overcrowded with people, traffic and numerous roadside stalls plus all the associated issues of smog, litter, stray dogs, beggars,…. Our initial impression of Vientiane entailed the opposite, being a slower moving city, no traffic issues, clean roadsides and relatively few people.

Tuktuk, Vientiane, Laos, 27 Nov 2017.jpg
Stall, Vientiane, Laos, 27 Nov 2017-3.jpg

This may be easily explained by the fact that Yangon has a population of around seven million in a country of seventy million whereas Vientiane has a population of 700 thousand in a country of just seven million. Laos is seemingly much more geared up for the western tourist trade whereas Myanmar is only just realising the financial benefits that tourism will bring to its flagging economy.

Our hotel is just one block from the Mekong River so after settling into our hotel rooms our group went for a late afternoon walk and saw the marketeers setting up their stalls along the river embankment ready for the night market.

Flags, Vientiane, Laos, 27 Nov 2017.jpg
Mekong River Vientiane, Laos, 27 Nov 2017.jpg

We then strolled into the nearby restaurant area recommended by Song and had an early evening meal trying some of the local food specialities as well as the excellent ‘Beer Lao’.

By 19:00 we were back in our room ready for some much needed catch-up sleep after a day that involved a lot of travel, waiting, queuing and being vigilant within airport crowds.

The feeling in the group is that this country has much to offer and its pace and style seem admirably suited to our needs.

Tomorrow we spend the morning in the capital and then drive 150 km north to our next location where we’ll stay for two nights.


At breakfast we met a fellow Hobartian named Laura who is holidaying in Vientiane. She is doing her internship at the RHH and is a colleague of David and Rod in the Emergency Department. It’s a small world indeed!

Our guide Song was ready to meet us at 08:30 so we loaded our mini-van with our bags and other possessions and headed along the Lan Xang (Million Elephants) Avenue to the Wat Si Saket museum which is the oldest wat (temple) in Vientiane. It was spared the destruction wrought by the Siamese when they razed the city in 1828.

Central temple (sim) 002, Wat Si Saket museum, Vientiane, Laos, 28 Nov 2017.jpg

This temple has very interesting architecture particularly the cloisters and covered gallery that surrounds the central temple or sim. The inner walls of the gallery have a thousand or more small niches each one holding two small bronze Buddha images. There are also dozens of unrestored life sized bronze and gilded wooden images of Buddha in various poses with each one indicating a particular state of mind.

Buddhas 001, Wat Si Saket museum, Vientiane, Laos, 28 Nov 2017.jpg
Wooden Buddha image 001, Wat Si Saket museum, Vientiane, Laos, 28 Nov 2017.jpg

The central sim has an impressive five-tiered roof. Inside there is a large golden Buddha surrounded by the usual regalia including a naga (nine headed serpent) trough. The internal walls have been partially restored by German and French conservators who have painstakingly reworked and painted the frescoes. The final restoration work where completed shows exquisite paintings in minute detail relating to Buddhist history.

Across the road from the Wat Si Saket was the Presidential Palace which we passed on our way to the Wat Phra Keo temple. This building, which now has on display many ancient Buddhist artefacts, originally housed the emerald Buddha which is now in Bangkok.

Wat Phra Keo temple 001, Vientiane, Laos, 28 Nov 2017.jpg

We then drove to the Patuxai which means Victory Gate and as one might expect, the structure looks to be a reasonable copy of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. The monument was constructed in 1964 to commemorate the lives lost during the Lao Civil War between 1953 and 1975.

Patuxai (Victory Gate) 003, Vientiane, Laos, 28 Nov 2017.jpg
View 001, Patuxai (Victory Gate), Vientiane, Laos, 28 Nov 2017.jpg
View 004, Patuxai (Victory Gate), Vientiane, Laos, 28 Nov 2017.jpg

We climbed the spiral staircase to the top level (179 steps) where a superb panoramic view was to behold. As we were fairly early in the morning there was not the usual crowd for which this monument is renowned and the air temperature was pleasantly warm but not too hot. The ceiling adorning the Patuxai is of intricate gold and pale green patterns.

We then walked across a very large open and unoccupied square to reach the national icon of the That Luong stupa. In the nearby market people were selling caged sparrows for people to release. This is seen to be “doing a kind deed” and will thus enhance one’s chance of attaining Nirvana.

At this point it was now approaching 11:00 and we needed to start our long drive northwards to Vang Vieng.

The road was bitumen but had many potholes and broken edges so the travel was often bumpy and rough particularly as we entered the more mountainous region. The winding road made passing difficult and there were several ‘near misses’ as impatient drivers attempted to overtake our mini-van.

An absolute highlight of the day occurred somewhat unexpectedly when our driver diverted from the main road and headed along a dirt track which after a kilometre or so led us to the site of Vang Xang.

This is an 11th century archaeological site where two large (4 m) Buddhas have been carved into a rock wall, somewhat like the U.S. presidents at Mt. Rushmore.

Group 002, Vang Xang, Laos, 28 Nov 2017.jpg
Split rock 001, Vang Xang, Laos, 28 Nov 2017.jpg

Another astonishing fact was that a giant roundish boulder nearby (8 m high) has split into two rough hemispheres and a smaller carving is now divided between the two portions. It was suggested that giant tree roots were the cause of the rock splitting and separating the relief into two sections now about two metres apart.

Along the way we passed villages and farm areas where rice growing and cattle seemed to be the main preoccupations. The mountainous area was thick with bamboo, vines and large trees and Song told us that 47% of Laos is still forest covered.

One further point of interest was a brief visit to a rubber tree plantation. The latex was being collected in small cans attached to the sides of the trees just below a point where the bark had been cut. By careful slicing at night time, a thin strip of bark is removed to initiate the flow of the white rubbery sap. The bark is only progressively removed from one side of the tree in order to avoid killing the tree by ‘ring-barking’.

Extracting rubber from rubber tree 002, Laos, 28 Nov 2017.jpg

Near the Ang Nain Nagm lake we stopped to see the local roadside fish market. The fish were mostly dried and smoked but ranged in size and colour from tiny silver (freshwater) sardines to reddish fleshed fish that were 30 cm long. The fishy smell was dominant and we couldn’t get over the huge number of stalls selling identical wares and yet there were no customers at that time of the day.

Fish market 002, Laos, 28 Nov 2017.jpg
Fish market 007, Laos, 28 Nov 2017.jpg

As well as fish, there were thick strips of dried buffalo hide that still had the fur attached. This did not look appetising.

Fish market 003, Laos, 28 Nov 2017.jpg
Dried buffalo hide, Fish market, Laos, 28 Nov 2017.jpg

We eventually arrived at Vang Vieng at 17:00 and moved into our excellent accommodation at the Riverside Boutique Resort. From our window we can view picturesque karst mountains and next to the resort is the Nam Song River.

Karst Mountains from Vang Vieng 001, Laos, 28 Nov 2017.jpg

We had evening drinks on the river bank and watched boating traffic moving up and down this fast flowing river with the stunning backdrop of the steep mountains and the rich colours of a sunset.

Tomorrow we will explore this location and amongst other activities we hope to visit the famous Tham Phoukham caves.


The township of Vang Vieng on the banks of the Nan Song River is surrounded by majestic limestone karst peaks and there are at least seven extensive cave systems in the area.

Karst Mountains from Riverside Boutique Resort, Vang Vieng, Laos, 29 Nov 2017-2.jpg

First thing after breakfast we took a short mini-van ride to where a swing bridge across the Nan Song led us to a pathway up to the Tham Jang cave. We had a steep 197 step climb to the cave entrance and from this point the early morning view of the town was crystal clear and the mountains looked magnificent.

Bridge across the Nan Song, Vang Vieng, Laos, 29 Nov 2017.jpg
Steps to Tham Jang cave, Vang Vieng, Laos, 29 Nov 2017.jpg

The cave was used as a bunker in the 19th century and again during the Lao Civil War. The pathway inside the cave was well lit and at this time of the year the cave was quite dry.

We followed the pathway for about 200 m and then reached a barrier preventing further passage. It was beyond this point where, sometime recently an Argentine tourist decided to explore with just a candle for lighting. Sadly, he got lost and died.

Tham Jang cave, Vang Vieng, Laos, 29 Nov 2017-2.jpg
Tham Jang cave, Vang Vieng, Laos, 29 Nov 2017-4.jpg

We emerged at a higher exit point giving a fantastic view over the valley below. On descent we walked around to see the spring that emerges from the mouth at the base of the cave. People can swim in this stream near the mouth and venture fifty metres upstream and inside the cave.

Pool near Tham Jang cave, Vang Vieng, Laos, 29 Nov 2017-2.jpg
Fisherman, Nan Song River, Vang Vieng, Laos, 29 Nov 2017.jpg

Outside the cave there were now a few stalls being set up to cater for tourists many of whom are South Koreans. One stall was selling cooked beeswax wrapped in banana leaf. The cooking was necessary as the cells were not filled with honey but larvae!

Food stall, Tham Jang cave, Vang Vieng, Laos, 29 Nov 2017.jpg
Honey comb with larvae in food stall, Tham Jang cave, Vang Vieng, Laos, 29 Nov 2017-2.jpg

We then crossed over the Nan Song River’s rickety traffic suspension bridge in our mini-van and headed westwards towards Than Phu Kham. On the way we stopped at a Hmong village where we met some local people and our guide translated our questions and answers. The people live in very primitive earthen floor, bamboo huts with the only luxury being electricity for lighting. An elderly Hmong man told us he was 98 years old and his weathered face and bandaged knees hinted that he was telling the truth. 

Hmong village house on route to Than Phu Kham, Vang Vieng, Laos, 29 Nov 2017.jpg
Hmong village man, on route to Than Phu Kham, Vang Vieng, Laos, 29 Nov 2017.jpg
Hmong village man, on route to Than Phu Kham, Vang Vieng, Laos, 29 Nov 2017-3.jpg

These Hmong who mainly live in the highland areas are not Buddhists but Spirit people having their own collection of deity who look after each facet of their lives. Their survival and well-being is based upon subsistence farming by growing rice, sweet potato and fruits and having chickens and one or two cattle as their main livestock. 

Hmong village tractor & trailer, on route to Than Phu Kham, Vang Vieng, Laos, 29 Nov 2017.jpg
Hmong village rooster, on route to Than Phu Kham, Vang Vieng, Laos, 29 Nov 2017.jpg

We visited the local Hmong Primary School where there were three concrete classrooms with incredibly basic facilities but very enthusiastic children. The classes had fewer than twenty students in each of years one, two and three. The teachers were keen to show us their staffroom which had two electric fans plus lighting.

School, on route to Than Phu Kham, Vang Vieng, Laos, 29 Nov 2017.jpg
School child, on route to Than Phu Kham, Vang Vieng, Laos, 29 Nov 2017-3.jpg

We continued along the road to Tham Phu Kham which is a place for adventure activities such as rock climbing, mountaineering, serious caving, go-karting, zip lining, giant tubing in the Nam Song and swimming in the Blue Lagoon.

Than Phu Kham, Vang Vieng, Laos, 29 Nov 2017.jpg

The area was densely populated with excited North Koreans (and other Asians) many of whom donned life-jackets prior to jumping into the two metre deep lagoon. The supposedly azure coloured water did not look particularly inviting.

We stayed around for a short time but quickly decided that this was not our scene. We returned to our hotel and had a leisurely swim in the hotel’s pool which was much cleaner, clearer and probably far less polluted than the Blue Lagoon.

In the mid-afternoon the six of us hired three long boats and took a one hour trip up the river from our hotel. The cost was 100 000 kip per boat which translates into approximately AUD$15.

The boats use an inboard/outboard of the typical Asian whipper-snipper design with the propeller never more than a few centimetres below the water’s surface. As the river was quite shallow in parts and there were rapids to ascend, the propeller also had a protective rudder blade beneath so that if the unexpected happened this metal blade hit rocks rather than the prop.

River cruise, Vang Vieng, Laos, 29 Nov 2017.jpg
River cruise, Vang Vieng, Laos, 29 Nov 2017-2.jpg

There were a surprising number of hotels and expensive houses on the high river-banks above us and there were several small bamboo footbridges across the river too. At one corner we encountered a network of zip-lines across the river with people moving at considerable speed on overhead wires above us.

Zip-liner, River cruise, Vang Vieng, Laos, 29 Nov 2017.jpg
Janet & Sinclair, River cruise, Vang Vieng, Laos, 29 Nov 2017-2.jpg

Coming down the river were kayakers and lots of people riding on large inner-tubes and as the river flow was in most parts very slow, it seemed that these so-called ‘tubers’ were getting nowhere unless they paddled.

Back at our hotel, we relaxed with cold drinks once again by the river-bank in the setting sun. At dinner we contemplated the day we’d experienced, especially the Hmong families and their way of life.

Sunset, Riverside Boutique Resort, Vang Vieng, Laos, 29 Nov 2017.jpg

These people appear contented with their lot and live a simple life that has many advantages over the hectic pace and stress that is common in our western lives.

Our stay at Vang Vieng is coming to a close and in the morning we start our final leg of travel in Laos as we head further north to Luang Prabang.


The glorious early morning sunshine on the karst mountains just across the river from our hotel signalled the commencement of another day of perfect weather for our travels north to Luang Prabang.  

Karst mountains behind swimming pool, Riverside Boutique Resort, Vang Vieng, Laos, 30 Nov 2017.jpg

We were on the road by just after 08:30 and our first stop was where we crossed the Nam Song River about 20 km upstream from Nang Vieng. The steep escarpments of the karst peaks reflecting in the river’s mirror smooth water was a vivid reminder of our fabulous travels on the Po River in China. Beneath the bridge were numerous quite large fish, probably carp that gather near a river- bank where the locals hand feed them.

River, Nam Song, Laos, 30 Nov 2017-3.jpg

Our travels then proceeded to enter an ever climbing road that became more and more narrow and increasingly potholed and frequented by numerous large trucks and freight carrier semis.

The number of tight ‘S’ bends in the road meant that our speed was severely limited particularly when we were caught behind a semi-trailer moving up the steep inclines as snail pace.

There were some highly dangerous over-taking procedures observed but fortunately all went without incident.

We took short stops at a couple of small villages where the residents are referred to as ‘highland’ people and in terms of their religious beliefs they are mostly Spirit believers. The small farms that exist within the mountain valleys are mainly growing sticky rice, peanuts, chillies, bananas, green vegetables and sweet potato. The sticky rice plant does not require the flooded paddy field for production and thrives in this mountainous climate.

Village, Ban Phajao, Laos, 30 Nov 2017.jpg
Village store, Ban Phajao, Laos, 30 Nov 2017.jpg
Lady, Ban Phajao, Laos, 30 Nov 2017.jpg
Child, Ban Phajao, Laos, 30 Nov 2017-2.jpg
Lady, Ban Phajao, Laos, 30 Nov 2017-2.jpg
Bathtime, Ban Phajao, Laos, 30 Nov 2017.jpg
Mother & child caryying produce, Ban Phajao, Laos, 30 Nov 2017.jpg

At one of the high points near Kasi there was a lookout offering a 360 degree panorama of this spectacular vista. While we were there a film crew with twelve vans and equipment from Romania were recording a segment of a ‘survival’ TV programme involving sixteen young couples traversing South East Asia on next to no funding. The show is due to be screened on the Discovery Channel next year.

View from Kasi, Laos, 30 Nov 2017-2.jpg

At Muang Phu Khun there was a major intersection with the road to the east leading to the infamous war zone called the Plain of Jars some 160 km away.

We wandered through the clothing, shoe and food market at Muang Phu Khun and then had lunch in a nearby dingy little roadside café. In amongst dogs, flies and smokers there was merriment from a group of locals who were enjoying the eating of long white caterpillars extracted from within boiled bamboo sticks.

Lunch, Hmong market, XiengKhouangi, Laos, 30 Nov 2017.jpg
Cooking our lunch, XiengKhouangi, Laos, 30 Nov 2017.jpg
Locals extracting grub from bamboo, Hmong market, XiengKhouangi, Laos, 30 Nov 2017.jpg

Our long and winding road continued until we reached an altitude of 1370 m above sea level and then we commenced a tortuous slow descent for the next three hours to eventually arrive at Luang Prabang just on sunset.

We said farewell to our wonderful guide Song and our gallant driver Kobe and wished them well as they proposed to drive the whole distance back to Vang Vieng which would have meant about twelve hours driving in the one day. We strongly advised against this but they had made up their minds and that was it!

We are staying in an old colonial style hotel that is comfortable and has ‘old-world’ charm such that one expects to walk around a corner and bump into Somerset Maugham, Noel Coward or Rudyard Kipling.

We have four days to explore this famous location and tomorrow we meet our new guide and spend most of the day viewing sites in this World Heritage City of Luang Prabang.


The city of Luang Prabang is located on a compact peninsula formed by the confluence of the Mekong River and one of its tributaries, the Nam Khan River.

Luang Prabang was the former royal capital of Laos established in 1353 by Prince Fa Ngum. At that time he named it Lan Xang Hom Khao meaning the Kingdom of a Million Elephants and a White Parasol.

Although the country’s administrative capital was moved to Vientiane in 1545, Lao royalty continued to reside here in Luang Prabang until the Communist takeover in 1975.

Over the next ten to twenty years the city was plunged into desolation as business people, academics and royalty fled the regime. It was only after the demise of the communist Bloc in the 1990s that Luang Prabang reopened to the world and has now become a city of such prominence that it now designated as having World Heritage status.

At 08:30 we met Pheng, our new guide for the Luang Prabang section of our visit to Laos. He directed us to our first stop, the National Museum Complex which was formerly the Royal Palace.

Within the complex we firstly visited the Wat Ho Pha Bang temple which houses the most sacred of Luang Prabang’s religious icons, namely a 1st century solid golden Buddha about 30 cm tall. The Wat Ho Pha Bang temple was built specifically by King Sisavang Vatthana to house this icon in 1969.

Wat Ho Pha Bang temple in National Museum complex, Luang Prabang, Laos, 1 Dec 2017.jpg

The main museum was constructed in the early 1900s as a palace for King Sisavang Vong who reigned from 1904 – 1959.

The exhibits inside are very well presented and commence with the King’s reception room which has splendid murals done by the French artist Alex De Fuatereau in the 1930s.

The throne room is very impressive with red walls covered with mosaics depicting Lao rural life. There are also private quarters such as bedrooms, a music room, library and a display room showing gifts to the king from various countries. Australia’s gifts from former Prime Minister Harold Holt were an opal inlaid silver box and a boomerang. The king’s bedroom was separate from the queen’s adjacent bedroom so that he could entertain his seven favourite concubines without disturbing his wife! A huge statue of King Sisavang Vong is in the garden near the front entrance to the palace complex and even in this day and age people are still leaving offerings to the king at the base of his statue.

Behind the main palace building was a rather decrepit building referred to as the royal garage. The former king’s cars on display were two Lincoln Continentals, an Edsel, a Citroen and a short wheel-based 1980s Toyota Landcruiser. In addition there was a very tattered looking 4.5 m “speed-boat” of 1960s design that was powered by an ancient 35 HP Johnson outboard motor that was now very rusty.  

Speed boat with 35 HP Johnson outboard motor  in National Museum complex, Luang Prabang, Laos, 1 Dec 2017.jpg

We then visited the nearby Wat Xieng Thong which had elaborate gilded pillars and a large seated golden Buddha plus many smaller Buddhist icons. Pheng explained the 4 elements of a temple or ‘Wat’. They are Sim – the monk house; Kuti – general place for meals, school etc; That – the stupa; and Hor Kong – the drum house.

Sim, Wat Xieng Thong Temple, Luang Prabang, Laos, 1 Dec 2017.jpg

Perhaps the most interesting pagoda for the morning was Wat Aham Outamathany. This temple was built of wood in Chinese style in 1504. The wood was covered in Lao plaster made of sticky rice, sugar cane, clay and water. It had amongst other things, incredibly gory murals depicting the fate of those who disobey the Buddhist’s five basic commandments; those being to not kill, steal, lie, drink alcohol or commit adultery. Some are deemed acceptable provided that you seek an apology from Buddha.

Wat Aham Outamathany, Luang Prabang, Laos, 1 Dec 2017-2.jpg

We had a light lunch in a small café on the banks of the Mekong and then drove for about fifty minutes south-west of Luang Prabang to visit the Tat Kouang Si Waterfalls.

Lunch by Mekong River, Luang Prabang, Laos, 1 Dec 2017.jpg

 At the start of the waterfall track there is a sanctuary where orphaned Asiatic black moon bears and one Malaysian sun bear are being raised. Their mothers have presumably been killed in order to supply the Chinese market with bears’ bile which is thought to have miraculous medical curative properties.

Asiatic Black (Moon) bear, Luang Prabang, Laos, 1 Dec 2017.jpg
Asiatic Black (Moon) bear, Luang Prabang, Laos, 1 Dec 2017-3.jpg

A further distance up this pathway we encountered the Tat Kouang Si Waterfalls that are unbelievably grandiose and spectacular. There are numerous small waterfalls with azure pools at their bases and further up the river is a 63 m main waterfall. All the way down this impressive sequence of cascades, the water gushes over limestone boulders and splits into smaller waterfalls that continue over three distinct sections covering 300 m. This is very reminiscent of the magnificent Plitvice Lakes waterfalls we’d encountered in Croatia last year. 

Tat Kouang Si Waterfalls, Luang Prabang, Laos, 1 Dec 2017.jpg
Tat Kouang Si Waterfalls, Luang Prabang, Laos, 1 Dec 2017-9.jpg

On our way home from the waterfalls we visited a Lowlands ethnic minority village where cotton spinning and weaving were major occupations. A little nearer Luang Prabang we stopped at a Hmong village where children as young as four were amongst the marketeers trying to convince us to buy purses, scarves, table cloths and the like.

Lowlands ethnic minority village lady spinning ctoton, Luang Prabang, Laos, 1 Dec 2017.jpg
Hmong village stalls, Luang Prabang, Laos, 1 Dec 2017.jpg

For our evening meal we had a very nice dinner plus French wines at the Elephant Restaurant which was only 100 m away from our Villa Santi Hotel.

Tony, Chris, Diana, Janet & Sinclair, dinner at L'Elephant Restaurant, Luang Prabang, Laos, 1 Dec 2017.jpg

Tomorrow we have the first half of the day visiting an elephant sanctuary at Manda Lao. 


The city of Luang Prabang was enshrouded in fog at breakfast time but by 09:00 the sun had broken through and we were in for another warm to hot day. Today being the 2nd of December is National Day in Laos and the people are celebrating 450 years of the country’s existence.

Much of the day was to be spent at the MandaLao Elephant Conservation Park which is about half an hour’s drive from our hotel in central Luang Prabang.

The park, on the banks of the Nam Khan River was set up in recognition of the severely depleted number of Lao elephants left in the wild and the need to take action in their conservation.

Elephants have long been employed as beasts of burden in Laos, especially in the forest industries where their strength is used for transporting logs. They have also been used for riding but this is now considered politically incorrect for a number of reasons including that the saddles used cause injuries to the elephants’ backs.

MandaLoa Elephant Conservation Park, Laos, 2 Dec 2017.jpg
Tony feeding bananas to elephant, MandaLoa Elephant Conservation Park, Laos, 2 Dec 2017.jpg
Corinne feeding bananas to elephants, MandaLoa Elephant Conservation Park, Laos, 2 Dec 2017.jpg
Corinne washing elephants, MandaLoa Elephant Conservation Park, Laos, 2 Dec 2017.jpg
Diana washing elephant, MandaLoa Elephant Conservation Park, Laos, 2 Dec 2017.jpg

A senior guide at the park told us about the declining numbers of elephants with there now being less than one thousand in the wild whereas there are stories from a hundred years ago of a herd being so large that it took three days to cross a river! Poaching for ivory is of major concern but this is being progressively overcome by vigilance, DNA profiling and education.

The park has a breeding programme whereby they are intent upon avoiding the in-breeding that has weakened the elephants’ gene pool. Gestation is normally around twenty two months for male calves and eighteen months for female calves. Typical birth weight is around 80 kg and within a year a calf may be as much as 300 kg.

Understandably, humans encroaching on forest and jungle land has played a key role in the population demise. There are moves afoot to designate areas where the elephants can exist with appropriate food and water free from human interference. Food availability is a key issue as adult elephants need to eat about 200 kg of foliage a day for survival as their digestive system is poor and only about 40% of their intake utilised for nutrition.

Our boat, MandaLoa Elephant Conservation Park, Laos, 2 Dec 2017.jpg

We spent several hours with two female elephants that had been rescued from forest work and riding. Under close supervision of another guide and two assistants we fed them bananas and helped wash and cool the elephants by throwing buckets of water over them while they stood in the river. This feeding and washing they enjoyed we feel sure, as bananas are a special favourite, equivalent to ‘elephant chocolate’ we’re told!

Wearing special gumboots we then trekked into the nearby forest and the two elephants followed. They walked slowly up a narrow creek (Huay Nok) for about a kilometre. Eventually we reached a cool jungle area where they fed on the foliage of low scrubby plants next to the stream.

The elephants were seemingly aware of our presence at all times and appeared to be calm and receptive to our company during the two hours we strolled together. The whole experience was delightful and we found this time with the elephants quite profound and it engendered a deep sense of respect for these amazing creatures.

Elephants with carers, MandaLoa Elephant Conservation Park, Laos, 2 Dec 2017.jpg
Group with elephants, MandaLoa Elephant Conservation Park, Laos, 2 Dec 2017.jpg

At the completion of our elephant encounter we had a luncheon at the park’s reception area and then returned to Luang Prabang.

Before adjourning for the day we stopped off at Wat Xieng Thong which is considered by locals to be amongst the most important symbols of their country’s religious heritage.

Wat Xieng Thong meaning Gold City Monastery is notable for the brilliant coloured glass mosaics that adorn the exterior of several of the main buildings that comprise the temple complex. The sim (main temple building) was built in 1560 by King Setthathirat and served as a coronation venue for several of the Lao kings. The sim has sweeping roof lines and green mosaic lotus buds on newel posts at the entrance. The back wall has a stunning Tree of Life mosaic.

Tree of life, Wat Xieng Thong Temple, Luang Prabang, 2 Dec 2017.jpg
Mosaic lotus buds on newel posts, Wat Xieng Thong  temple, Luang Prabang, Laos, 2 Dec 2017.jpg
Wat Xieng Thong Temple, Luang Prabang, 2 Dec 2017.jpg

The surrounding buildings include the Royal Funerary Carriage House, the Drum Pavilion, a library, monks’ quarters and the Red Chapel which houses an expertly sculpted bronze Reclining Buddha.

An interesting story relates to the Chedis (stupa) in the courtyard. Apparently during a storm a large tree crashed onto the stupa and broke it open to reveal magnificent gold and silver Buddhas that had been hidden inside for countless centuries. The stupa was rebuilt and the icons replaced and once again hidden from view.

Back at our hotel we had much of the afternoon to ourselves so relaxing and catching up on diaries and emails became the main concern.


The day was designated as a “full day cycling” but this ended up being a relatively short “half day” ride with lots of activities along the way.

At 08:30 we drove to a bike hire centre in Luang Prabang and we each selected a bike of suitable size and after a few minor adjustments and a brief safety chat we were on our way.

We rode down to the pier on the banks of the Mekong and boarded the river crossing ferry. The ferry was overloaded with small trucks, cars, motorbikes, bicycles, freight and dozens of people but the 300 m crossing went without incident.

Skipper on the ferry across the Mekong, Luang Prabang, 3 Dec 2017.jpg
Our bicycles on the ferry across the Mekong, Luang Prabang, 3 Dec 2017.jpg

The village we arrived at across the river was Ban Xieng Man and from here we commenced a ride to Ban Na Kham.

The road was exceedingly rough with a rocky and dusty surface together with many deep ruts which made for generally slow progress and the need for great caution. 

Our group of cyclists with guide Pheng, Ban Na Kham, 3 Dec 2017.jpg

Ban Na Kham is well known for growing amongst other things, sugar cane and sticky rice. A common meal enjoyed by the locals involves cooking the sticky rice with a little sugar over an open fire inside hollow bamboo stems. We sampled some of the end product and all agreed that it was delicious.

We rode our bikes down into the centre of the village and observed the local people’s lifestyle with their traditions and practices.

Local shop (with pig oil), Ban Na Kham, 3 Dec 2017.jpg
Inside local house, Ban Na Kham, 3 Dec 2017.jpg

The children were amusing themselves with a game involving spinning tops made of wood and three little boys were running around with a pet rooster which they were enticing to fight with other roosters. Some interesting items on sale in a little store included pig oil, fermented fish stock and several types of dried fungi.

Cock fighting, Ban Na Kham, 3 Dec 2017.jpg
Children, Ban Na Kham, 3 Dec 2017.jpg

Our ride then took us back towards Ban Xieng Man at which point we turned off the rough road to ride on a slightly better surface to the village of Ban Chan Neua renowned for its pottery.

The local potters specialise in making big clay jars which are fired in a large underground kiln heated by firewood. An aid programme from overseas has seen the introduction of a propane gas fired kiln to reduce the locals’ dependence on firewood as it was having a serious effect on nearby forests. 

Pottery village, Ban Chaneneua, 3 Dec 2017.jpg
Kiln, Pottery village, Ban Chaneneua, 3 Dec 2017-2.jpg

We watched a potter working with freshly turned wet clay as he cut elaborate patterns into the surface to produce what eventually would be a lampshade.

We left our bikes at the pottery where their owner collected them with his truck and we clambered down the bank to the nearby Mekong River.

We all boarded a long narrow covered boat with comfortable bus seats and spent the next hour travelling up the Mekong while we had a tasty lunch and observed the activities on the river bank.

On board our boat for lunch cruis, Ban Chan Neua , Laos, 3 Dec 2017-2.jpg
Boat cruise, Mekong River, 3 Dec 2017.jpg

The rich alluvial soil on the river bank makes for very successful vegetable production with beans, corn, yams and chillies being common produce.  Some water buffalos and goats were grazing near the water’s edge too.

Our boat trip ended when we returned to the ferry terminal at Luang Prabang where we’d commenced our bike ride this morning. We returned to our hotel and relaxed until the late afternoon.

With the cooler conditions after 16:00 we decided to climb Mount Phou Si (Sacred Mountain) which is a very prominent landmark in Luang Prabang.

There are three pathways leading to the summit and we took the stairs directly opposite the National Museum and climbed the 328 steps after paying the entrance fee of 20 000 Kip (AUD$3) per person.

At the top is a four sided 24 m high stupa referred to as That Chomsi. This is not the main reason people climb the hill but rather it’s for the panoramic view available from the summit.

A big crowd had gathered around the stupa to observe the sunset across the Mekong River.

View from Mt Phusi, Luang Pabang, 3 Dec 2017-2.jpg

We descended the 355 steps on the Nam Khan River side of the hill where there were several old temples and many Buddhas on display. At the bottom we crossed over one of the several peninsula roads that link the Nam Khan and Mekong Rivers.

We then ventured back to our hotel for a cool shower and prepared for some well deserved refreshments before heading to dinner at our hotel’s restaurant.

Tomorrow we have the morning in Luang Prabang and in the early afternoon we leave Laos and fly to Siem Reap in Cambodia to start a further phase of this incredible Asian journey.