Laos - Luang Prabang

Trip Start Dec 05, 2005
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Lao Peoples Dem Rep  ,
Thursday, March 29, 2007

We boarded the prehistoric Laos Airlines plane with a dozen other passengers and wondered if we had been transported to a place 20 years earlier. The cabin was tiny with seats that folded forward like those in a Ford Fiesta and the two giant propellers were the only things keeping us in the air! (PICS)
Luckily we made it to Luang Prabang without a hitch, the problems came when we tried to get our visa-on-arrival. They charged in $US but all we had was Thai Baht so we were ripped off by a very unfavourable exchange rate. We had nowhere to stay that night so arranged something through the airport booking office and then caught a taxi into the centre of town.
We had booked the Ancient Luang Prabang Hotel, which doesn't sound great from the name, but we were very pleasantly surprised when we checked in - there's nothing 'ancient' about it. The 12 rooms were named with the signs of zodiac; we were in the Horse (Andrew's sign). The hotel rooms were modern and stylish (PICS) and our room had a balcony that looked over the main street with its local life and markets.
As darkness crept in a night market assembled outside (PICS). We plodded up and down the street, perusing the stalls with their wares arranged on the ground. The items for sale were far more traditional, interesting and high quality than in many other cities we have been to. The local stall-owners were very friendly, saying 'Sabbadi' (hello) with a beaming smile before trying to entice you with their goods. They would then smile and accept 'no' for an answer when we weren't interested. One of the funniest little quirks that locals displayed was when they made a sale - on taking payment they would proceed to hit their goods with the money and say 'lucky lucky'. We laughed every time we saw it - and so did they!
We dragged ourselves out of bed the following morning, just in time to catch the daily procession of monks outside our hotel (PIC). They do this every morning to collect 'alms' from the local people - more on this later.
After a few more hours sleep we found the towns only ATM, and then found that it doesn't accept Visa cards - Great! We had to go into the bank and do a cash advance on our credit card, which cost us an extra 3.5%. Another bizarre twist in Laos is that everything is quoted in $US but you can't get dollars anywhere; ATM's don't give them, shops don't give dollars in change, and banks and money exchanges avoid giving you any unless you really force the issue.
We ended up with our pockets bulging with millions of Kip.
A quick visit to a nearby Internet café (13p for half an hour!) and we then extended our stay at the Ancient Luang Prabang for our entire 6-night visit. With Verdi still recovering from her mammoth food poisoning episode we retired to the room for a few hours and stayed out of the midday heat.
The vast Mekong River runs alongside the city and is an integral part to most locals' lives (PICS). We took a wander along the banks, calling in at a local drinks shack before reaching the Vat Xieng Tong Temple. The temple is a modest but immaculate Buddhist sanctuary (PICS). As we investigated the nooks and cranny's of the temple grounds the sky took on an amazing colour, caused by a combination of the dipping sun, heat and heavy smoke that had covered the city in the last few hours (caused by locals burning off their field waste.
Continuing our walk around the compact city we spotted a young monk, quietly contemplating on the steps of his temple housing (PIC). We then stopped at a local restaurant on the main street for a superb dinner, free wireless Internet, and more importantly, Andrews first sample of the best beer in Asia - Beer Lao (PIC). It's a local beer, made in Laos and is 'cheap as chips' at 50p for a huge 640ml bottle - SUPERB!
As a thunderstorm crept in we rushed our way through the night market and jumped into our hotel just in time to avoid the downpour. The wind was so strong that night that it blew the shutters on our balcony closed - even though there was a heavy stone stool holding them open!
Leaving our hotel the following morning, our first port of call was the Royal Palace...well it would have been if it hadn't been closed from 11:30am till 1:30pm every day - nice lunch break! We turned on our heels and headed in the opposite direction.
Just across the road was the start of the endurance test that is the climb to That Phousi Temple. In the searing heat of the Laos midday sun we sweated up all 328 steps to the very top. The temple at the summit, as temples go, was fairly unimpressive. The real reason for putting yourself through the excruciating ascent is the view - a 360-degree vista around the whole of Luang Prabang, the Mekong River and its tributaries. (PICS)
We began our descent via the other side of the mountain. Walking via a cave, 'Buddha's footprint' and a nasty looking spider (PIC) we conquered about 350 more steps and finally reached the base. We found the nearest beer garden with cold drinks and fans and let the sweat dry before heading back around the hill to our hotel.
We whiled our afternoon away watching local life from our hotel balcony; market sellers, local children and tuk-tuk's lined the street and as the dusk approached we could see the night market sellers arrive on their fully laden motorbikes (PICS). They seem to carry more on one bike, with two people on board, than we would fit into a car!
We walked through the market on our way to 3 Nagas restaurant; the market provided some vibrant images and colourful characters (PICS). The restaurant is one of the more upmarket eateries in the city, serving up a wide range of local food with a sense of flair and imagination. The food was very good, even the spicy paste made from chillies and buffalo hide!
Back at the hotel room we settled in and watched the greatest team in the world (Liverpool) gain an impressive 4-1 win over lowly Arsenal (sorry Tony!).
The following morning we couldn't quite make it up in time to see the main procession of monks, we rose about 4 hours too late! After breakfast and a spell on the World Wide Web we headed down the road to the Royal Palace.
The palace rules demand that visitors don't wear shoes, shorts, t-shirts or use their cameras anywhere within the main palace building. The latter didn't actually prove to be much of a problem as there wasn't a great deal of interest within its walls. Many of the rooms were closed off to the public and most of the others were roped off with very little furniture. A couple of rooms at the end of the designated route housed a load of glass cabinets with gifts from governments, explorers and diplomats from around the world. It was interesting to see some of the random crap that other countries gave as 'gifts' to the Laos royals - before they were exiled in 1975 to later die of starvation in northern Laos - very hospitable!
Outside the palace building we noticed a group of locals practicing a type of martial arts performance on the palace lawns, amongst the varied landscaped gardens around the site. The external features of the palace are far more interesting and impressive than the interior and demanded more of our attention (PICS).
Back out on the main street a succession of thumps and clashes drew us towards a nearby temple. Like flies around a cow pat a number of tourists swarmed to the source of the sounds, a couple of monks playing a prayer call on a giant drum and cymbals (PIC).
Of the many temples in Luang Prabang, a couple of the more interesting ones are on the other side of the Mekong River. Reluctant to swim across the giant muddy waterway we negotiated a return boat ride for just over £1. The boat drivers line up like tuk-tuk drivers along the rivers edge, touting for business and giving the opportunity for driving a bargain.
We had the boat all to ourselves for the 5-minute float, passing local fishing boats until we came to the steep banks at the other side of the river. After a climb up some abrupt partly carved-out steps we made our way through a tiny village (PICS) where the locals looked at us in amazement - these temples were clearly not frequented by foreigners very often!
It was great to see a completely untouched part of South East Asia, with almost no tourist or western influence. Locals smiled and said 'Sabbadi' as we walked on by and began to climb the 128 steps up to Vat Chomphet. The temple was a tiny, derelict construction with a lot of charm and character (PICS). Two minarets stood at one side and a humble Buddha sat as the only furnishing inside the shack. A fantastic view over the river and the city was worth the walk alone (PIC). We sat for a while and enjoyed the views before walking back to the boat.
Taking a different route back through village and down to the river we saw even more locals going about their daily lives (PICS), some working in the river and some lugging huge baskets up and down the steep mudded banks with apparent ease.
In a local restaurant that night we took a gamble and ordered a 'Morning Glory', despite having no ideas what might arrive in front of us. Luckily it was a vegetable dish, which looked like string beans with garlic. Andrew suspected that it was actually riverweed as he had seen it on another menu - regardless it was actually pretty tasty!
We finally managed to drag ourselves out of bed (for one morning only) at 5am to get down to the other end of the long main street for the procession of monks. The daily giving of 'Alms for Merit' is a tradition in Luang Prabang whereby local people (and some gate-crashing tourists) line up along the street and give small amounts of food (mainly boiled rice) to each of the city's monks as they file past. The endless row of bright orange robes is an unforgettable sight and with the backdrop of the several temples along the main street, provides some stunning images for the photo album (PICS).
One sight that was slightly less endearing but perhaps just as memorable was the sight of groups of poor street kids lining up to beg for food from the monks (PICS). Most monks ignored the pleas of the kids - monks have to eat too you know! Some gave a portion of their alms away, suggesting it was a bit of food they didn't like the look of!
A few hours back in bed after our early wake-up led to a late breakfast. We then set about arranging our trip out to the Kuang Si Waterfalls just outside of the city. After bargaining with a tuk-tuk driver, and joining a group of Israeli travellers, we got a great deal on a one-way trip to the waterfalls. The Israelis would be spending many hours at the falls so we would have to worry about our return trip when the time arose!
The dusty, bumpy journey proved to be an eventful one for Andrew. As we skipped over one particularly violent lump in the road Andrews nose came down on one of the metal bars of the tuk-tuk's frame. Its still anyone's guess how he didn't break his nose but a decent size lump and a painful red mark was enough of a reminder to keep his head well clear of the metalwork for the rest of the journey!
Amidst the woodlands before reaching the Kuang Si falls is an unexpectedly located Asean Black Bear Rescue Centre. We chatted to a British volunteer at the centre, who was working there for a few months. The bears, and in particular the juveniles, were extremely cute and enjoyed play fighting and messing around with one another (PICS).
The waterfalls were spectacular, a multi-layered arrangement with several swimming spots and beautiful surroundings (PIC). An old, abandoned settlement lay alongside the water and a number of waterwheels harked back to the days when villagers would have used the power of the river to drive their machines and support their lives (PIC). We had heard that the falls were attractive but we were blown away by just how stunning they were - we couldn't help but snap away like Japanese tourists!
Another tuk-tuk took us back to the city, this time we were joined by Chilean, Belgian and German travellers and we all exchanged travel tips as we rode the bumpy road home. Luckily Andrew managed to keep his nose out of trouble this time!

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