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!