Laos: Scorpion with your wine?

By Jim Eagles

It's not the most salubrious pub I've ever drunk at but it did have an excellent view of the mighty brown Mekong River and a great selection of rice wine.

To get there involved taking a 25km boat trip from the beautiful ancient Lao capital of Luang Prabang, clambering across a bendy gangplank - in this case literally a plank and scrambling up the steep clay bank to the village of Ban Xang Hai.

At the top of the slope is the pub, a rickety structure with an iron roof supported on a few skinny tree branches, presided over by the brown, wrinkled winemaker.

To make wine, he explains through an interpreter, he first washes cooked rice in the filthy waters of the Mekong, then ferments it in a huge clay pot, dozens of which line his establishment.

After fermentation the mixture is poured into an oil drum, heated over a wood fire, and distilled through a rusty metal pipe into another clay pot.

Pour the resultant spirit into whatever bottles he has managed to collect - add a poisonous snake, spider or scorpion - and it's ready for drinking.

The actual role performed by the poisonous creatures is difficult to determine but it seems they give the wine Viagra-like powers (or maybe just make the bottles more interesting for tourists).

But our host was extremely nonchalant about catching the deadly little critters. "He say just walk into the forest, see snake, put stick on head and pick up," reported our guide.

I was unable to taste any difference between scorpion rice wine and snake rice wine, though I can advise that the brew made with black rice is darker and sweeter than the more common white rice version.

They all pack a considerable punch, presumably powerful enough to kill off any bugs from river water or dead snakes, because I survived an extensive tasting session unscathed.

The wine is evidently quite famous and the village has become quite a tourist stopping point.

Other villagers piggyback on the winemaker's reputation by setting up stalls in front of their huts selling handwoven shawls and embroidered bracelets, silver jewellery and bronze statues. I suspect most of it is produced elsewhere but the prices were cheaper than at the city markets so it is not a bad place to buy.

Of course it helps that the village is on the river route from Luang Prabang to the famous Pak Ou Caves.

Travelling there by river boat is a fascinating journey past riverside villages, fishermen casting their drift nets, timber workers securing freshly cut teak logs into rafts, boat builders working on vessels sitting on the banks and policemen in crash helmets zooming their boats up and down the watery highway, lights flashing, in pursuit of aquatic evildoers.

The caves are extraordinary, too, not so much for their size as for the Buddha images they contain.

A lower cave, reached by steps from a floating pontoon, is said to contain more than 4000 images in its two big open-air caverns.

They gaze serenely from all sides, some decayed by age, others shiny and new, a few bigger than lifesize, most tiny, equally oblivious to the stares of curious tourists or the devotions of local people who still bring flowers to lay or incense to burn.

Our guide, a practising Buddhist, bought three sticks of incense, lit them in honour of the presiding Buddha figure and bowed reverently.

Then he explained that the display had once been even more impressive but some of the figures had been taken away for safekeeping during the civil war and not returned.

An upper cave, reached by stairs up the cliff face, is much deeper - you really need a torch - and has fewer Buddha images but a large population of bats hanging from the ceiling.

But if it's caves you're after then by far the most spectacular are back down the Mekong River and just across from Luang Prabang.

The lesser-known Tham Sakkarin Savannakuha Caves not only contain some attractive limestone formations but are also home to the remains of an abandoned underground monastery, a stupa containing the ashes of King Sakkarin and - the story that brought me here - a giant bird which perches above a spring of sacred water.

In pre-revolutionary days, our guide explained, the Lao kings used to come here once a year to visit the spring and collect the sacred water to use in a ritual washing of the Budda in the great Wat Xieng Thong temple across the river.

But be warned, following in the royal footsteps is a difficult if not dangerous business.

First you have to collect the key to the caves from the nearby monastery of Wat Long Khoun. Then there's the muddy track through snake-infested undergrowth - yes, there are snakes; at one point a cobra lying on the track brought our expedition to a rapid halt - which leads to a carved stone entrance with a locked iron gate.

Once the gates are open there's an even more exciting trek in the darkness over steep rocky slopes, down a slippery slope, across a muddy hollow and down another even more treacherous slope, deep into the bowels of the earth.

Finally, there is the giant bird, a vulture-shaped chunk of rock about 8m tall, hovering ominously over the spring where the sacred water rises.

Water that hard to get to certainly ought to be considered special.

As for me, after a couple of hours of clambering in the humid darkness over slippery rocks I need a slug of rice wine, preferably with that damn cobra in it.

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GETTING THERE
Singapore Airlines flies 19 times weekly out of New Zealand direct to Singapore. From Singapore, passengers can choose from 41 weekly flights to Bangkok or from 11 weekly flights to Phnom Penh, then travel on Lao Aviation to Luang Prabang. For more information on Singapore Airlines services visit www.singaporeair.co.nz

GETTING AROUND
World Expeditions' regular, 11-day Best of Laos and Cambodia trips, which start from Luang Prabang, cost $2650 (not including airfares to and from New Zealand, visas and some meals). As well as three days in Luang Prabang and a trip down the Mekong River to the Pak Ou Caves, the itinerary includes the Lao capital of Vientiane, the town of Vang Vieng, the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh, and three days at Siem Reap to see Angkor Wat and other temples of the Khmer Empire. Contact World Expeditions at 0800 350 354 or www.worldexpeditions.com

FURTHER INFORMATION
See www.visitlaos.com or www.ecotourismlaos.com


*Jim Eagles travelled to Laos courtesy of World Expeditions and Singapore Airlines.

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