Monday, April 24, 2006

A Quick Trip to Laos: Day 4 of 5 - Pak Ou, Kuang Si

Day 4 takes us to the Buddha caves of Pak Ou. I don’t like traveling as part of a group but for the two most popular half-day trips out of Luang Prabang, it would be rather expensive to rent your own boat (for Pak Ou) and mini-van (for the afternoon at Kuang Si waterfalls). The 2 trips cost the assistant and I a grand total of 14 dollars; a slight discount off the price for individual travelers or people going only to either Pak Ou or Kuang Si.

Pak Ou is an hour’s boat ride along the Mekong from Luang Prabang. I’d done a trip of similar length at the Golden Triangle (for maybe five times the price) and my impression was confirmed—boat trips on the Mekong are not very exciting. The backpackers I met on the boat who had done 2-day cruises (coming from Chiang Mai, Thailand for example) said those were just as boring, only much longer. Still, you have to ride the Mekong at least once in a lifetime. Around Luang Prabang, the river reminded me of the Lijiang, when it runs through Guilin, in China, except without the dramatic mountainous backdrop that has made Guilin world-famous.

Being on a group trip, I’d spent an hour in the morning waiting for the organizers to pack their boat to its full capacity, racing back and forth to get people out of bed or from their guesthouse to the landing. When we did make it to Pak Ou, we were told we had only twenty minutes. This was more than enough for the American family, the backpackers, and the Israeli couple that were sharing our boat but you don’t have all my pictures here and you have to realize they’re all tripod shots that take a long time to set up; so it wasn’t enough time for me. My take on it was that they could all screw themselves and wait while I did my stuff since I’d waited for them so long in the morning. I still had to run like a madman the flight of steps that takes you from the lower cave (cramped with small Buddha images) to the upper cave (with the giant golden Buddha at its door). In the end, I got all I wanted and even two shots I wouldn’t have dared hope for as the boat pulled out because they were without tripod and the light was set on the fly (the man in his boat and the general view of cave).

Some people will outright discourage you to even make the trip to Pak Ou, because of the length of the boat ride and because you might have seen other Buddha Caves in South-East Asia that rival Pak Ou. Also, the boats will stop in two villages on the way back. You know the drill; these places are basically villages turned open-air shopping malls where the locals get a chance to sell you their handicraft. Still, the development of tourism in Laos means these villages are nowhere near what you might have seen elsewhere. No buses stop here for one. The first village sells rice alcohol “Lao Lao” and the second one paper and textiles.

If you don’t have the time or desire to go on several-day treks deep into the jungle, these are a chance to see a village, albeit richer and more developed than the ones further off the beaten track. I’ll always take “off the beaten track” over “group tour” but let’s not get fascistic about it. These are villages, with real homes containing real people that sell stuff they really made. It’s not “Disneyland” as people like to call anything that doesn’t take a three-day hike to get to. No, you’re not going to “truly meet and exchange” with the locals as the stops are about 10-minutes. But I’m very dubious of how much more you can exchange when sleeping in a hill-tribe village overnight when you don’t speak their language. Think of how many people you’ve truly met in your city or town where you’ve lived for years and share the same culture and language. Ok, this is starting to sound like a rant. NEXT.

Monk's quarters at the "Paper" village. See, they have electricity! We shouldn't have gone.

It’s a rough ride to Kuang Si waterfalls and the amount of people they horn-shoe into those minivans is simply ridiculous. The legroom is more than enough for any six-year-old. Everybody else will have to figure out whichever Yoga position is less painful to him or her. It’s only 20 or so kilometers but you already know the 380 kilometer stretch from Vientiane to Luang Prabang took 10 hours so don’t look at the kilometers, they mean nothing. Lunch there was a rip-off—about 300 baht for somtam, sticky rice, and grilled chicken, a price I’ve yet to see even in Bangkok—but it was soon all worth it. The restaurant’s cats, though, were so disgustingly cute, I decided to waste a picture on them.

The color of the water in Kuang Si’s multiple pools is milky turquoise. It’s very fresh which is exactly what you want on a sunny day in SE Asia. This stop was 2-hours so I had time to both play in the pools and take pictures. You have to walk around a bit at Kuang Si because I almost missed the big waterfall while some people at the big waterfall missed the smaller “swimming pools” beneath it. Kuang Si is really magical and a lot of fun. I even had one pool all to myself for most of the time.

I’m including these two shots because I personally love “with or without” or “before and after” shots to explain a photographic technique. Most people just tell you what to do and show you the result without showing you what their picture would be like if they hadn’t done whatever it is they’re suggesting. As I set up this shot, this Lao girl stepped into the pool. I decided to take the picture even though I hadn’t screwed on my polarizing filter yet. Look at the foreground on her picture; it is a slab of white light. Now if you look at the picture without her, you can see through the water to the rock and it’s much more interesting. The lower pool has also fewer reflections. Notice also that another effect of the polarizer is that you need to slow down your shutter speed a lot since it “eats up” a lot of light. This makes the water much creamier. It’s a matter of taste but for shots of water splashing over rocks (beachsides, waterfalls), this effect is usually highly desired. A neutral density filter could have allowed me to slow the shutter speed down even more but past a second or two, I don’t think it would have made much of a distance. On a wave-beaten shore, very long exposures (1 minute) can give the impression of mist on the water though. Look at the in my links for examples of this.

Jungles are beautiful. Just point and shoot.

Of course, I was the last one on the minibus, again. It stopped in another village on the way back where I took this shot.

The sun was setting on the Mekong by the time we returned to Luang Prabang. We walked down to the shore where a man was fishing with a net strewn between two long bamboo polls as children watched on.

The assistant, after a long day’s work.

Back on Th Khem Khong, a last glimpse of the Mekong.


Anonymous Mathieu said...

Oh, the light, the light!

The colour!

It's *gorgeous*!

Can I have the second waterfall shot (without the girl and with the filter) with more pixels? I wanna use it for the desktop on my laptop.

Geez, if that doesn't motivate me to take my time when I shoot and carry my tripod, I don't know what will...

You rule, d00d.

3:55 AM  
Blogger James said...

I agree with Mathieu...the light is amazing!! Well done.

Being a Buddhist I especially loved the shots of the statues. Especially the silhouette of the Buddha's in the first shot.

7:56 AM  
Anonymous jemedebat said...

superbe encore une fois...belle maitrise de la lumièren, quand on sait à quel point en asie la lumière est difficile.

Petite remarque : j'ai fait les 2 jours en bateau sur le mekong de Huai Xai à Luang Prabang et ça reste un de mes meilleurs souvenir de voyage, même si c'est long et parfois ennuyeux ça reste un must pour même titre que des 12 heures de bus en final ce sont des moments inoubliables.


5:09 PM  
Blogger Ana-chan said...

this is for sure one beautiful country...

6:39 AM  
Blogger schuey said...

it just feels how much you apreciated it !

3:09 PM  
Anonymous Marie said...

27 avril : I think it's your birthday today, so Happy BDay.
Your pictures are gorgeous.

3:22 PM  
Blogger schuey said...

c'est qui marie ?

2:56 PM  
Blogger AVA said...

Amazing... AMAAAAZING pictures.
You are a true artist.

11:23 PM  
Blogger FB said...

Ahhh, I can leave my mark here again (ability to comment). Can't write anything else though except nice pics, specially the cats one.

3:38 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

u used to write with more emotional attachment of ur personal live..

nevertheless, still loving it. :)

4:14 PM  
Anonymous Juju said...


Vu que nous allons passer du temps ensemble cet été en Thailande, je suis passé par ici au détour d'un lien chez Jemedébat et je vins de passer un long moment à regarder les photos qui sont simplement superbes.

Merci pour cet avant goût du voyage

7:20 AM  
Anonymous anthony wong said...

tx for the lovely pics and observations of ur trip. i like the first of the before and after shot. the first is more natural, it shows the water surface, unlike the other which looks like someone has blurred the surface and erased it away. the difference between someone face before and after cosmetic surgery, where the after shows everything smoothed over.

8:23 PM  

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