Stray Laos: Dongmeuang Monkey Village
So remote, that when the rain comes we might not be able to drive the Stray bus here, so we’ll jump onboard an off-road truck for a real off the beaten track experience! Spend the night with friendly locals in Monkey Forest - a sacred forest, home to thousands of Rhesus Macaque Monkeys!
We left Kong Lor early in the morning for another long day - leaving at 8am, the itinerary said we will get to the Monkey Village by 5pm. We stopped a few times to pick up some snacks, grab some food at a local market to cook tonight, and finally got to our lunch spot for a very late lunch. There, we left our Stray bus behind and got into the local song taew truck for the right to the village. With it being really off the beaten truck, the roads were supposed to be so bad that the only time they tried to take the bus out there, it got stuck and they had to push it out.
Old Wat Taleow
Instead, the dirt road turned out to be in very good shape and the drive took only half as long as we expected. The only obstacles on the way were the multiple bridges that got washed away, but because all the rivers have already dried up, the traffic just turned off the road, down to the river bed, and then back on the road. Being a dirt road, it was also very dusty, especially when there was another truck passing by. We did make one stop to check out the old temple that got bombed and partially destroyed during the secret war, but somehow the Buddha monument inside was not damaged.
The Monkey Village
Once we got to the village, we dropped our bags off, grabbed the bananas and headed out into the forest in search of monkeys. A couple dogs decided to befriend us and ended up scarring off the monkeys so Charlie had to take one for the team and lead the dogs away so the rest of us could get some monkey time. Unlike the monkeys I encountered during our hike up the Penang hill in Malaysia, these monkeys were obviously not used to western tourists and shiny things that come with them. The only things they went for were bananas, leaving our cameras, and everything else alone so we could get really close to them. Some of us decided to get adventurous and hold bananas in our mouths to get some good pictures of monkeys taking it, but they were lighting fast, grabbing the banans and running away before any pictures could be taken.
After a while, we had no bananas left so we returned to the village where the locals were already at work setting us up for the night. We were staying at one of the newer houses made up of just one room where we would all sleep on mattress pads next to each other. Outside the room, there was a small common area where we hung out and ate the dinner. Oh, and the whole thing was up on the stilts so each time we had to go to the bathroom or go down for something, we had to climb a ladder. The real thing!
After dinner, the head of the village performed the Baci ceremony for us, summoning and runaway souls of the 32 we have watching after our organs back into our bodies. This is actually not a Buddhist, but rather an animistic ceremony. I was surprised to learn that only about 60% of Lao people are Buddhists while the remaining 40% still practice animism, so many centuries after the 'conversion'. Interestingly, I expected it to be some sort of a big event since we actually had to call ahead for them to make the preparations (and split the 300,000 kip/$38 between twelve of us). Instead, the whole thing took only about five minutes - a quick prayer followed by the part where the villagers that were there tied white strings around our wrists. The idea is that we must to keep them on for at least three days for good luck.
200 Year Old Library
Next morning, we had a quick breakfast, thanked our hosts, and made our way back across the river where a song taew was already waiting to take us back to our bus. But before that, we still had a couple of stops to make. First on the agenda was the 200 year old Buddhist library containing hundreds of scriptures written on palm tree leaves. Interestingly, they keep the scriptures in the worst possible place for preservation - inside a bamboo hut that sits on stills above a river. Never mind the humidity - the whole thing almost felt into the river once. Even though the scriptures are not stored in a temple, the girls in our group still had to 'rent' some proper garments to wear inside.
Sacred Turtle Lake
The second stop was at a turtle lake that contains soft shell turtles. The locals believe they are sacred and worship them to the point of building a small shrine in the middle of the lake which is accessible via a small bridge. Here, the girls were at the disadvantage again, as not only they could not enter the shrine, but they could not even walk closer than 20 meters to it. It really was not that big of a deal though since there were no turtles swimming around the shrine and the water was pretty murky anyways. We did see some heads bobbling above the water to grab some popcorn that we throwing them (but usually the fishies were faster). We did see one large turtle near the shore, but it was still under water so we could not really tell if its shell was really soft or not.