Woolshed and jetty at Wilson Bay Farm

The Queen Charlotte Track and the Pelorus Mail boat

Farm on the track

After a hearty breakfast, I packed up and left about 9am. Today was a risk as the distance to my Airbnb was a guess I hoped was correct. In theory, it was halfway between Punga Cove and Portage.

The sun shone as I followed Endeavour Inlet the 11kms round to Punga Cove Resort. Across farmland and through bush, it was a varied walk. I stopped for coffee and watched the activity on their jetty. The mail boat arrived and delivered not only goods, but passengers too. I attempted, without success, to dry my socks and boots in the brief time I rested.

From Punga, the track climbed steeply uphill until I reached the ridge dividing Kenepuru Sound from Queen Charlotte. I had glimpses of the water on either side through the trees. There were a few other trampers and the occasional mountain biker, but otherwise I was alone.

Someone had recommended taking the side trip to Eatwell’s Lookout. By the time I reached the turnoff, I was weary. The sign said it was 1.5km. I regarded the track which looked vertical. Could I do it? Yes. As I climbed up, a hiker descending encouraged me. The agony on my face was obvious. But yes, the view was worth it! Whilst recovering, I chatted to a French Swiss couple I had met the previous day.

Is it true?
Is it true?

By 4pm I was exhausted and ready to stop. Where was this Airbnb? The weather changed, and still I hadn’t arrived. I almost missed the sign for Ngahere Hou when it appeared. Could this be right? I descended the hill, following the line of the telephone poles. I turned right into the bush and followed the yellow ribbons as instructed. And still I did not arrive. Did I mention it was steep?! To say I was grumpy when I reached the house is an understatement. I could barely bring myself to speak to the owner and only brightened at the sight of a complimentary bottle of wine in my Summerhouse. My host had lit the fire to heat the spa pool. The family staying in the yurt beat me to it. Could I get more grumpy? Yes, I could. I showered in the outdoor bathroom with furnishings reminiscent of Bali. The toilet was a composting one (which I had known when I booked) and I now joke that the most expensive accommodation I have ever stayed in didn’t even possess a flushing toilet! My host later delivered a homemade wood-fired pizza, and I spent the evening recuperating on my bed. By my phone’s calculation, I had walked 28km.

Eatwell's Lookout
Eatwell’s Lookout
Changing weather over Kenepuru Sound
Changing weather over Kenepuru Sound

It is amazing how a good night’s sleep can restore your equilibrium. It was another stunning day after the evening’s rain. The water was still warm in the spa pool, and I soaked in the morning air with the birds chirping overhead in the Australian frangipane tree. Life was rosy!

After packing my bags, I chatted to the ex-Pat English family staying in the yurt and to the owners. The entire property is off-grid, and I was interested to hear about their building experience which featured on Grand Designs N.Z. Consequently, it was well after 11am by the time I set forth to tackle the 30 minute ascent to re-join the track.

It was another long day, predominantly along the ridge. Today was reminiscent of my Camino when I walked alone but had various ‘family’ members I kept meeting and talking to along the way. I didn’t stop for lunch until after I had made the long climb out of Portage. My seat at the top provided a panoramic view of the Queen Charlotte Sound, and observation of the ferries.

Te Mahia Resort was my destination; a welcome sight at the end of another long day (24km). My enormous studio room had a view of the water, and an on-site cafe provided a delicious dinner with no effort required on my part.

View from my room at Te Mahia
View from my room at Te Mahia

On the last day an easy 12km took me to Anakiwa and the end of the track. My feet were aching. Being wet for two days had not helped. As I had plenty of time, I stopped at Torea Bay, where I removed my boots and relaxed, watching the people coming and going. The Nelson ladies arrived at the same time as me at Anakiwa. We had all booked the same water taxi back to Picton. The Swiss couple and an Australian couple also appeared, and it became a sociable end to the tramp. I’m pleased to say my car was still intact after leaving it in the car park in Picton for five days!

Mussels grow below on ropes
Mussels grow below on ropes

Driving along the windy scenic Queen Charlotte Drive to Havelock, I was trapped behind a slow campervan so had time to admire the views from the comfort of a seat rather than my feet. I had reserved a seat on the Pelorus mail boat the next day, a trip I had enjoyed 25 years ago. After doing my laundry, getting a coin stuck in the dryer and liberally distributing the remnants of a washed tissue round the floor in the process, I walked across the road to The Mussel Pot for dinner. Mussels dominated the menu. They were delicious!

The morning dawned dreary, and I dithered about suitable clothing. At this time of year, the weather is changeable. The boat left at 9am with a crew of two, Bindi and Mattie, who provided the passengers with entertaining stories of life in the Sounds.

Approaching a jetty
Approaching a jetty

We cruised out of the harbour. A mysterious screeching sound emanated from the boat’s engine. Nothing serious, they assured us as we proceeded to the first delivery. After fiddling with the knobs on the panels (not a nautical term!), the noise reduced but soon began again more vociferously. Whilst Bindi gave us an informative talk about mussel farming, Mattie, the driver, descended into the depths to check the engine. All fixed, we thought, as we carried on cruising. The noise resumed.

Retrieving the coriander
Retrieving the coriander

Our next stop was to drop off of a family at a bay. But which bay? The only clue was a picture of the bay with an arrow pointing to the spot. Whilst we waited at one jetty, a passenger ran to the nearest house to check. Not the right one. We proceeded further round the bay. Whilst looking for the correct place, we made an unscheduled stop to pick up a box of coriander and bananas (an interesting combination!) they had delivered by mistake on the previous run. When the correct owners queried the whereabouts of their supplies a few hours later, the unexpected recipients had already planted the coriander seedlings. “Dig them up”, our crew instructed, “and repack them in the box. We are coming to get them!” There being no jetty, our driver took aim at the rocky shoreline, reaching as far as he could, and they handed the box over the bow.

Offloading for a family Christmas
Offloading for a family Christmas
Wilson Bay Farm
Wilson Bay Farm

A group of people waiting at the next jetty was now visible. Christmas in the Sounds looked more promising for our passengers. A collection of dogs and family members greeted them and all assisted with the many bags and accoutrements that were the prerequisites for a family Christmas. It was a happy reunion.

The crew were regulars on the mail run, and there was an abundance of festive spirit at each stop. Residents had adorned their jetties with tinsel, and seasonal greetings were exchanged. As an observer, I loved being part of this microcosm of New Zealand life, if only for a short time.

On this route, we could bring a packed lunch and eat it at a sheep station in the outer sound. Whilst we were shown the woolshed, given a talk about the realities of farming in steep, isolated country and shown an example of Kiwi ingenuity in the form of a generator engineered from an old washing machine motor, the crew took the boat away to investigate The Noise. On their return, the news was not good. An engine had failed, and we had to return to Havelock so they could repair it in time for the mail run the next day. I had been enjoying the day immensely, so was disappointed. A refund appeared in my bank account two days later, but I would rather have continued the experience.

I motored on to Nelson where a stop at the supermarket to buy the necessities of life (wine and cheese), resulted in a scrape to my car when a pesky post leapt out at me as I was driving out of the space but that did not ruin my enjoyment of the day!

Weather is clearing over Endeavour Inlet!

Road trip to the Top of the South

Drizzling rain accompanied me on the first part of my drive to Wellington. However, I was on a road trip and nothing could dampen my spirit (excuse the pun!) to my much loved Top of the South. By the time I reached Hunterville and a coffee stop, there were bright periods with intermittent squally showers as the weatherman might say. I had one more break in Otaki for a brief foray into the Outlet shops and arrived in Wellington in plenty of time to check in for the 3pm Interislander. Nelson for Christmas was my ultimate destination, but on the way I was staying in Picton for two nights and walking the Queen Charlotte Track in the Marlborough Sounds.

The crossing was calm and I have now traversed the Strait enough times to be blasé about the scenery. Instead of joining the tourists on the deck, I found a quiet corner of the ship and buried my head in my Kindle, only rousing myself to admire a pod of frolicking dolphins as we approached Picton Harbour. I love dolphins. They are such joyful creatures and always conjure a smile on my face.

Boat sheds at Waikawa Bay
Boat sheds at Waikawa Bay

My Airbnb was in Waikawa Bay. Having been sitting all day, I made the most of the balmy evening and went for a stroll along the foreshore. Unfortunately, the path only went a short way. The windy, narrow road was not as appealing to walk on, so I returned to my accommodation and admired the view of the bay from there.

The following morning was wet. I drove into town where a large cruise ship had disgorged its passengers, most of whom were invading the shops. The rest embarked on the steam train day trip to Blenheim. The weather worsened, and I returned ‘home’ and spent a blissful afternoon lying on the settee reading my book.

Steam train at Picton
Steam train at Picton
Boat sheds at Waikawa Bay
Boat sheds at Waikawa Bay

I was up early to catch the 8am water taxi to Ship Cove and the start of the Queen Charlotte Track. The weather did not bode well as we set off, but the forecast was for the rain to clear. At Ship Cove, I read all the information boards about Captain Cook’s stay. Here, he had spent several months repairing his boats and trading with local Maori. I wanted to let all the other trampers set off so I could walk alone. Once on the track, I met a Czech girl returning. Her GPS informed her she was not walking in the right direction. I assured her there was only one way, and this was it!

We walked together as far as a lookout. She was very chatty. It wasn’t the beginning I envisaged as I had hoped to walk quietly at my own pace and admire the pristine bush. It is one of the few areas in N.Z. where the trees have never been cleared for ship, house or furniture building, so is old primary forest. In most other places the bush has regenerated.

Schoolhouse Bay
Schoolhouse Bay

I had arranged to meet a tramping friend from Taupo at Tawa Saddle. Having meandered my way along, stopping at Schoolhouse Bay for morning tea, I belatedly realised I’d misjudged the time and distance to the Saddle. I overtook everyone, and all but ran up the hill. She had been waiting half an hour by the time I arrived but didn’t seem to mind. We chatted as we walked down to Endeavour Inlet and her daughter’s house where we had lunch together before I continued on to my accommodation for the night. This was at Miners Camp Farmstay, and I had booked 2 nights with dinner and breakfast.

The Queen Charlotte track is run by the Queen Charlotte Trust and the Department of Conservation and crosses some private land. Unlike other tracks, there are no D.O.C. huts and accommodation is limited if you do not want to camp. Most people stay in the Lodges (Furneaux, Punga Cove and Portage). I wanted to be different and spent many Google hours searching for alternatives. Apart from Miners, there is nothing available in the budget price range. My hosts there were very welcoming and five lively and amusing ladies from Nelson joined me at dinner for a convivial evening.

At one time there was an antimony mine and well-populated village close to the farm. The next day I walked up the hill, past the old mine site, marked by an abundance of colourful hydrangeas, to a viewpoint and beyond. After seeing the river crossing at the start of the track, the Nelson ladies declined to join me, so I walked alone. Up and up! I passed the viewpoint, but the track continued on, so I did too. I reached a road and realised I should have done my research. Nothing but trees were visible. There was no reward for my vertical climb! On my return, I stopped for a drink and snack and admired the distant view of Port Gore and Cape Jackson. Having kept my feet dry on the way over, I wasn’t so nimble on the return river crossing and water filled my boots. They stayed wet for the next 3 days.

Should have read the sign first!
Should have read the sign first!

In the afternoon, wearing dry sandals and socks like a true English person, I picked my way through the mud around the cove to the stately Furneaux Lodge where my inelegant self partook of a pot of Earl Grey and read my book. The lawn in front stretched expansively down to the water. At one time the lodge was the venue for enormous New Year’s Eve parties until a young couple mysteriously disappeared at one event. A man was jailed for their murder, but their bodies have never been found. The parties have since been more subdued.

Furneaux Lodge
Furneaux Lodge

Six families reside in the bay with the remaining houses being holiday homes. Chatting to my hosts, I gleaned an insight into living in an isolated place with only water access. Supplies are delivered by the Cougar Line, Beachcomber or the mailboat although Graham and Gillian, who were both yachtsmen, had their own substantial boat moored in the bay and visited town once a month to stock up. Communication between residents and boats is by radio which was permanently on, and theirs periodically crackled into life.

My companions for dinner that evening were more reticent than the ladies from Nelson, and dinner was not such a rowdy affair. However, the food, which was all home produced and cooked by Gillian, was excellent, just as it had been the previous night. The weather had changed again. From the kitchen window, my hosts kept an eye on the inlet in which water spouts erupted from time to time. There was concern for a family staying in the cabins. They intended to cross to Furneax in their boat for dinner, but the weather was such that once most of the party had disembarked there, two others took the boat to a less windswept cove some distance away and missed out on their meal. The dinner party had to walk back!

By the morning, the storm had cleared, and it was a beautiful day to continue my tramp.

Artist's palette at Orakei Korako

Silica terraces, High Tea and lakeside walks

Hot pools in the Waikato River
Hot pools in the Waikato River

Over recent weeks, I have hosted Canadian, German and French ladies from 5W (Women Welcoming Women Worldwide). This is an international friendship organisation which provides members with a network of like-minded people to contact when travelling around the world. Members may offer hospitality in the form of a bed for the night or suggest meeting for lunch or coffee and visiting places of interest. They provide an insight into local life and company for someone who is lonely when travelling solo. Sometimes members also organise Gatherings, regional Meetups and small group tours, such as the one I was fortunate enough to experience in Laos last year.

As a relative newcomer to my area, hosting people from overseas gives me the opportunity to explore as a tourist. One of my favourite outings in town is a walk from Spa Thermal Park, past the natural hot springs in the river to Huka Falls. The springs are one of the few places in the district you can soak in hot water for free and are always crowded. New decks and changing facilities have recently enhanced the site.

The track follows the turquoise Waikato River, on which several dams and power stations have been built further upstream to generate electricity. It is a leafy track, a blessing on a hot day, and not too arduous, although it helps to be a good walker. On the opposite bank, the exclusive Huka Lodge is visible in its park-like gardens. At Huka, the river, which has flowed swiftly from the Control Gates, channels through a narrow gorge. The volume of water, approximately 200,000 litres per second, is phenomenal and its colour is a glacial.

Central lake at Wai-o-tapu
Central lake at Wai-o-tapu

The region is renowned for its thermal areas. Close to town are the Craters of the Moon, but in the past I have taken visitors to Wai-o-tapu, between Rotorua and Taupo. These days, like many places, it has become more commercialised (dare I say touristy?). It features a large lake with bold rusty orange banks, a small bright lime green pond of an improbable hue, many steaming rocks and hot water. The feathered inhabitants seem not to burn their feet on the hot ground, a fact which always surprises me. Outside the complex is the Lady Knox Geyser, (entry ticket required) which erupts at 10.15am each day, and an active mud pool in the same vicinity on the Loop Road. Bubbling mud fascinates me and I can gaze transfixed for many minutes, listening to the slurping and glugging sounds and trying to predict where it will spurt up next.

In the past couple of months, I have re-discovered Orakai Korako, a smaller, less visited thermal site on one arm of Lake Ohakuri. It is closer to home, which is an advantage, and I appreciate their more personal approach. (And the frequent visitor card they offered me, providing free entrance if I bring a paying guest does not sway my preference at all!) A short boat ride across the lake provides an additional novelty. Whilst the bubbling mud is not as exciting or as extensive, and is weather dependent (according to the quantity of rain), you can still see coloured silica terraces and geysers erupting if you are lucky as here they adhere to their own timetable. The deep Ruatapu Cave is one of only two caves in the world in a thermal area. (The other being in Italy.) When I was last there, I tarried on the viewing platform and noticed everyone, including children, lowered their voices. The cave projected the peaceful aura of a church or other sacred place.

My last visitor stayed for several days and was nervous about driving, although she had hired a car. I proposed a trip round the lake and a walk at Lake Rotopounamu. Setting off after breakfast, we first stopped at the Sunday market so I could purchase some vegetables, my veggie garden not having produced the vast quantities I had eagerly anticipated. Last week, Power Boats provided a cacophony of background noise, but today the sound of the musicians on the temporary stage was clearly audible. After perusing the stalls and having a coffee, we began our adventure.

SH1 winds its way south, following the lake edge past the ‘Jumping Off’ rocks and going through the settlements of Waitahanui, Hatepe and Motuoapu to Turangi. At present, the countryside is dry and brown as there has been no rain for several weeks. The water, by contrast, was blue, calm and glistened in the bright sunlight.

Mt Tongariro across Lake Rotoraira
Mt Tongariro across Lake Rotoraira

Beyond Turangi we turned left onto SH47 and passed over the saddle towards my intended destination. At the last minute, I drove beyond the parking area and headed for the former Opataka Pa where we inspected the old food storage pits and house sites. There was little else visible, although this had been an important Maori settlement during the Waikato wars of the 1800s. Mt Tongariro was visible across Lake Rotoaira and flax provided a perfect frame for my photo.

Chateau Tongariro
Chateau Tongariro
High Tea
High Tea

On impulse, I continued along the highway as it was a perfect day for my guest to view the three volcanoes. My whim extended further, and we arrived at Whakapapa, a ski field in the winter and a central point for starting hikes in either direction round the mountain. I wanted to show her the Chateau, a grand hotel perched incongruously in the barren landscape. As soon as it came into view, she recognised the building. Another host had recommended it to her, advising her it served High Tea, an activity she treated herself to when travelling. She was enthused! I wasn’t hungry and took some persuading, but relented. We shared a three tier selection of delicate sandwiches, scones and fancy cakes courteously served to us by an immaculately dressed waiter with a distinct Scottish accent. Sitting at a table by the window which framed the perfect cone of Mt Ngauruhoe wearing a cloud cap, we indulged ourselves. Of epic proportions, the room was grand, adorned with chandeliers and burgundy drapery. It was a decadent treat, and one I would not have experienced without encouragement. (I noted my lesson in flexibility!)

We eventually reached our destination at 3pm. Strolling through the bush around the lake was a cool and welcome break after sitting in the car in the hot sun. There were few other people, and it was an easy 2 hour loop walk. At the beach half way round we sat and absorbed the serene atmosphere before wading through the warm water to the other end of the bay and onto the track back to the car.

Lake Rotopounamu
Lake Rotopounamu

Returning along the Western side of the lake, I stopped at a viewpoint and detoured to the holiday villages of Pukawa, Omori and Kuratau, the latter two being more populated than I envisaged. It was after 7pm by the time we arrived home after an unexpected and most enjoyable day.

Looking north to Lake Taupo
Looking north to Lake Taupo
Morning tea view of Mt. Ruapehu

A trip down memory lane

When I am not travelling, I hike most Wednesdays with the Taupo Tramping Club (tramping being the New Zealand term for hiking). Located in the Central North Island, Taupo is a town on the edge of a lake of the same name. At the other end stand three volcanoes; Mts. Ruapehu, Ngauruhoe and Tongariro. Our programme covers a vast and diverse area, and it is not uncommon for us to drive two hours in the club’s van to reach our destination.

On a stunning morning this week, we met at 7.30am in the car park. With bags stowed and everyone aboard, we drove out of town and headed south along the lake towards the Desert Road. Our intended tramp took us in a loop, first, off track to the Bund (a man-made construction to divert the lava away from the river if an eruption occurs), then a climb to Rangipo Hut where we would eat lunch, and finally back to the van via the Round the Mountain track.

Mt Ruapehu and Ngauruhoe in the distance
Mt Ruapehu and Ngauruhoe in the distance

We turned off the Desert Road and on to the Tukino ski-field road. On our left, the unpromising sight of Army trucks lined up in the moonscape greeted us. Their ranges bordered our planned route. According to large signs, they were firing live ammunition that day. After a brief consultation, we agreed on Plan B. None of us wanted to be targets! We continued along the ‘4 Wheel drive only’ road in our 2 wheel drive van and arrived at the top and the junction with the ‘Round the Mountain’ track.

Round the Mountain junction
Round the Mountain junction

On my last visit several years ago, a friend and I were walking this track. We carried heavy backpacks laden with our supplies for a 5 day tramp (plus some extras!). A gale force wind blasted us, and it was raining. The contrast with today couldn’t have been more stark. Now I could stand and admire the expansive view of the mountains without the risk of being blown over. For the entire day, I recollected that tramp. It was memorable in more ways than one. The wind impeded our progress, and concerns about reaching the hut before dark dominated my thoughts. The swing bridge over the river swayed ominously as we quelled our fears and summoned the will to cross. With no shelter on the rugged and exposed mountainside, it was a long battle with the elements. Our relief was immense when we rounded a hill and spotted the hut. Once inside, we lit the fire, and I put my polypropylene gloves to dry on top of it. Sometime later, I wondered about the smell!

Spot the track!
Spot the track!
How do they survive in the rocky terrain?
How do they survive in the rocky terrain?

Today was the antithesis of that day all those years ago. A welcome breeze refreshed us occasionally, but still air prevailed. The sun beamed down. However, the terrain was just as difficult. Loose stones and rocks liberally strewed the landscape, making walking precarious. Following the marker poles, we picked our way, careful not to stray from the track. Mt Ruapehu towered on our right when we stopped for morning tea. Having never taken a thermos of coffee before when I tramped, club members initiated me into this tradition as soon as I joined. It is such a civilised custom! At about 10am, the leader of the day looks for a suitable place to stop and sit. Today’s view was magnificent.

After the break, we continued on. Those of us undaunted by heights crossed the river and path of the lahar using the swing bridge. The rest got wet feet wading in the water. (Something I avoid whenever possible!) Since I was last here, a new, more stable bridge had been built although it is still only suitable for one person at a time.

Admiring the view of the danger zone
Admiring the view of the danger zone

As always, much chatter accompanied the walk. It is a social occasion and as the order in the line of trampers changed, so did the conversations. Today we had plenty of time given the abbreviated route and didn’t rush. Whilst most of the group were in their fifties and sixties, two octogenarians had also joined us. They walked as far as they could and then turned back.

One at a time across the bridge!
One at a time across the bridge!
View of Mt Ruapehu from the middle of the bridge
View of Mt Ruapehu from the middle of the bridge

Sitting on the deck of the hut in the hot sun, we spent our lunch break admiring the extensive view over the Desert Road to the Kaimanawas and the Ruahines in the far distance.

A bird’s-eye view of the Army activity below provided additional entertainment. The sound of the booms followed several seconds after the flashes of explosions. In the dry terrain, the dust billowed up. I pondered the risk of fire (there being a total fire ban over most of the North Island!)

Before I left, I checked out the small hut, anchored by strong wires to the hillside, housing the long drop toilet. Clear recollections came to mind of a middle of the night visit and a freezing wind swirling beneath the walls as I perched. The breeze was still evident, but at least it was warm on a hot summer’s day!

We returned to the van via the same route. Usually the way back appears quicker, but our progress today was slow. Falling and breaking a bone was a risk none of us wanted to take. Our 80-year-olds were pleased with themselves for having hiked further than usual. Whilst it wasn’t a long tramp by the group’s standards, we were all tired after concentrating on our footwork all day.

Until today, I hadn’t realised how much of an impression my previous visit had made. The conducive conditions made my return far more enjoyable!

Tiered roof of Wat Mai

From Buddist Lent to an animist Baci ceremony

Luang Prabang is a UNESCO World Heritage Site for good reason. The town boasts a copious number of old colonial buildings many of which have balconies and brightly painted shutters adorning them.

Buddha inside Wat Aham
Buddha inside Wat Aham

There is an abundance of intricately decorated and gilded temples with one on almost every street corner. Some portray paintings of Buddha and his teachings on their entrance and inside walls whilst others are plain. Their affluence varies, and I have enjoyed exploring the different ones when I can find them open! This has proved challenging. In this season, apart from those such as Wat Xieng Thong, Wat Mai and Wat Visoun for which you have to pay an entry fee, the others only seem to be open when the monks are meditating.

The central city is on a peninsula between the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers. It is bisected at a crossroads, on one side of which are the tourist shops and restaurants and on the other the quieter area where the ex-pats frequent the cafes. At the end of the peninsula is Wat Xieng Thong with its roof enhanced with bright emerald. My guest house is located on the Mekong at the quiet end. There is one other road, Middle Road, that runs between the Main Street and the Mekong. During early morning alms giving, or Sai Bat, the monks and novices walk in silence from Wat Xieng Thong, along Main Street and returning on Middle Road. There are notices at all the temples advising tourists how to behave at alms giving. Unfortunately, the advice is not always heeded.

With so many temples, it is common to see groups of monks and novices meandering through the streets and their bright orange robes hanging out to dry next to their dormitories. The Monk school is near The Little House and the novices often walk past in two’s and three’s, many holding umbrellas aloft to shade them from the sun. This is essential after they have shaved their heads at Full Moon and Half Moon. I have also noticed them at the stalls purchasing drinks and sweets. I don’t suppose Coke is on the menu in the monasteries! One day when I was walking back from The Little House, I passed a single file of novices, carrying swag bags over their shoulders, trailing behind a monk. Someone told me they may have been going for Vipassana “in the woods” which they do for the whole of Lent, taking minimal possessions.

Ladies on the way to the temple
Ladies on the way to the temple

Earlier this week, I had observed, from my balcony, more people than usual dressed in their temple clothes, clutching silver or gold containers full of offerings (as I discovered.) What was happening? It was the start of Buddhist Lent which lasts for three months. The dress code for the temples is no bare shoulders and knees covered. I wear sleeveless dresses in the heat so am always conscious of my clothes when visiting them. Ladies wear traditional sinhs which come in a multitude of patterns and various degrees of quality. They always wear blouses, often white or cream. Both men and women wear a sash over their shoulders which must be tied precisely. This is standard dress, not just for temples, but for anybody working for the Government or attending official functions. ‘Falangs’ or foreigners working here who wear the sinhs find them hot and uncomfortable. I have yet to try one although as the girls at The Little House have been learning to make one this week, I may attempt to sew one myself.

I attended prayers for a short time at my nearest temple, Wat Nong Sikhounmuang. Everyone sits on the floor, which can be uncomfortable after a while! On this occasion, one man was chanting whilst the monks, novices and congregation listened and responded at intervals. I am not a Buddhist, nor do I speak Lao so I was unsure of what was happening. A few minutes after sitting down, an old lady next to me gave me a nudge and with a sharp “madame” demonstrated I should have my hands together in prayer. I obeyed!

Many offerings were placed in front of the monks and statues of Buddha. These included monks’ robes, towels, food and marigold stupas. Large candles appeared. Some of them were still partially wrapped in plastic. I watched in fascination as a man began to light them. How long would it be before the temple caught fire? I was glad I was near the door. I was waiting for a conflagration. He realised just in time the flame was reaching the plastic and removed some whilst waving another piece dangerously close to the flame. All was well though. At the end of each chanting section someone banged a drum and a cymbal which resonated around the temple. It produced a beautiful echo which I loved but it startled everyone each time it sounded.

Inside the temple
Inside the temple

I had plenty of time to observe the costumes of the ladies. Some sinhs are made of silk whilst others are cotton. The temple sashes are traditionally cream but I noted some with beautiful embroidery. The comings and goings during the ceremony amused me. Many phones were in operation, including that of the head monk who spend most of his time adjusting one phone on a selfie stick and taking pictures of the congregation on another. I cannot imagine that happening in an Anglican church!

Making a flower stupa
Making a flower stupa

We took the girls to T.A.E.C. (Traditional Arts and Ethnological Centre) to learn how to make a flower stupa. It gave them a break from arithmetic and sewing! T.A.E.C. conduct workshops in traditional arts and the stupa was for Lent. Many street stalls sell them and ladies squat on small stools on their stalls making them. They twist banana leaves into a cone, secure a band around the base with toothpicks and poke marigold flowers into the gap between the cone and the band. What could be simpler? Sally rated mine sixth out of six, with those made by the girls being judged much neater.

Baci offering table
Baci offering table

Next we made a Khmu taleo. The Khmu, who are animists, hang large ones outside their houses to ward off the ‘pi’ or spirits. They make them by weaving sticks of bamboo together to form a circular shape. It sounded easy. It wasn’t! Once again I found it more difficult than the girls and it reminded me how hard it can be to learn a new skill. I need to remember that when I am teaching them sewing!

We finished the week on a different note. We had a Baci ceremony to bless The Little House and say goodbye to Sally. The girls are all animist and this was an animist ceremony conducted by a shaman. He chanted and made offerings to the spirits after which we tied baci strings around each other’s wrists whilst wishing the other person wealth and happiness. My wrists are now adorned with strings which they consider bad luck to remove before three days have passed. They become very bedraggled in the shower!

Flowers of the flame tree

Shopping, rain and sewing

Frangipane outside a temple
Frangipane outside a temple
Flame tree in bloom
Flame tree in bloom

I had an early start as my flight to Luang Prabang left at 9am and Google advised it would take an hour to reach the airport. Google is not always correct, and I arrived in plenty of time. (It also neglected to tell me the metro didn’t open until 6am so I had to catch a bus instead!) The three-hour flight was uncomfortable as I had a middle seat in the back row next to the toilets and the seat didn’t recline. It was a relief when we landed.

My visa on arrival was speedily granted and in no time I was in the arrivals hall where my transport awaited. It was wonderful to be back, and so soon after my last visit in February. The city is as beautiful as ever although looking different. It is now the rainy season and not the height of summer. The flame trees and frangipane are in bloom and enhancing the views of the temples. Purple bougainvillea is a mass of bright colour against the backdrop of rusty roofs, the wooden walls of the houses and the milk chocolate colour of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers. There are few tourists around as it is the low season and the streets feel empty. There are only two of us in the guest house. It is excellent for me but not so good for the businesses.

I am staying in the same room at Sayo River. The balcony affords a view of the long boats on the river, (I have already espied some racing each other), the traffic in the street, the occasional tourist wandering aimlessly and the locals as they criss-cross the road from their houses to gaze at the river. One old lady appears each day, usually with a toddler on her hip, and a small dog attached by a different coloured piece of string. There is a plastic bag attached to its collar but I doubt she uses it for the purpose I assume it is intended! One man spent many days hand sawing a pile of wood. Everything here is ‘sa sa’ or slowly, slowly. (But is very hot!)

Laboriously sawing wood
Laboriously sawing wood
The broom is usually in action!
The broom is usually in action!

It is a different experience staying in a place for a length of time rather than rushing through as a tourist. I was lucky enough on my last visit to have visited most of the tourist attractions so do not feel the compulsion to do so again. This was just as well as the week was spent on The Little House project, helping to shop for further sewing supplies and stationery items and then getting to know the girls and building a relationship with them. I have been enjoying closer involvement with the local people and their way of life whilst living in the comfort of the guest house. Having trekked last time and stayed in the villages, I appreciate the benefits of flushing toilets!

Shopping is not as I know it. There are no malls or large supermarkets. In their place are a myriad of small shops and mini marts whose goods spill onto the pavement in front, making walking hazardous on occasion. They make no attempt at display and pile dog food next to gift baskets of jam. There are specialist shops for each range of goods such as clothing, kitchenware, ironmongery and computer repairs. (Given the dust in the streets, I am not sure how the innards of a laptop remained clean as they attempted to repair it in the latter.) The tiny stalls have the ubiquitous Beer Lao alongside bottles of water, packets of snacks and other items that defy logic. There is not the variety or quality of goods Western countries take for granted, and much is imported from China.

A precarious way to ride a motorbike
A precarious way to ride a motorbike

It has been hot, humid and dry. The rains should have arrived but haven’t and the rice crops are dying. Everyone was thankful in my first week when the skies opened. Water flooded the roads as the drains couldn’t cope with the volume. Umbrellas appeared, and I marvelled at the ability with which people could drive a motorbike with one hand whilst holding an umbrella over their heads with the other (speaking as one who has never driven a motorbike at all!). As soon as the rain stopped, the ladies appeared in the streets with their brooms, unblocking the drains and sweeping the leaves. Leaf sweeping seems to be a national daily pastime here! It is remarkable how quickly the weather changes. The wind arrives as if from nowhere, the skies darken, shutters bang and there are a few rumbles of thunder and the odd flash of lightening, which slowly increase in volume and frequency. The heavy air freshens but how much rain will fall this time? Will it be enough?

Avoiding the puddles
Avoiding the puddles
And there was no rain!
And there was no rain!

I soon established a routine. I either walked or got a taxi/tuk tuk in the mornings to the ‘ban’ or village where the project is located. The contrast between the central tourist and local areas always inspires me. The morning is spent teaching sewing, maths and some English. I have a translator without whom it would be difficult. We are surprised at the lack of basic maths knowledge and have been doing sums at the level of a six-year-old at home.


As Laos still keeps French hours, lunch begins at 11.30am and finishes at 1.30pm. I return to town for lunch and go back in the afternoon for more teaching. At about 4pm, I saunter back, reflecting on what has happened during the day and all that I am learning, hoping that the girls are benefiting as much as I am.

By the time I arrive, I feel sticky and dirty and just want a shower. The temperature has been in the thirties and the air has been very heavy. A beer Lao on my balcony watching the river life, dinner in one of the many cafes or restaurants and I’m ready for bed!