Oh My Buddha!

Trip Start Jul 27, 2003
Trip End Jul 26, 2004

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Flag of Lao Peoples Dem Rep  ,
Sunday, April 11, 2004

Wednesday 7th April
We got up at 7am and headed down for breakfast. Now the French once ruled Laos and one thing that makes this obvious is their bread! They have delicious baguettes and French sticks! We had warm baguettes with butter and jam for breakfast and had ham salad baguettes made up to take with us on our second day on the boat. We wandered down through Pakbeng to the boat and scaled the rocks to reach our boat. We sat there for an hour before we eventually set off and started heading South East toward Luang Prabang from there they have roads to the rest of Laos and travel will be back to conventional bus!

We had a fairly uneventful trip. We didn't make any stops except to pick people up from small villages. We did however pick up some people on their way to Luang Prabang market and they brought with them 15 sacks of rice and 15 sacks of other produce like garlic (you could smell it before they boarded!) oh yeah and two pigs! Fortunately the pigs were kept at the back of the boat but the sacks were put down the middle of the floor taking up any valuable foot space you may have had but made good foot rests!

We eventually made it to Luang Prabang at 5.30pm and headed to find a guest house. We got one for 150 baht a night and it overlooked the Mekong River. The room prices here are the same if not slightly more than Thailand but a better quality providing free drinking water, soap, towels and toilet rolls. We got showered and changed and headed out to see what Luang Prabang had to offer. Wow it is a really beautiful place and every shop front and restaurant is impeccable not like Thailand where everything looks a bit grubby. You can really see the colonial influence in Luang Prabang. The main street is lined with bakeries operating as restaurants. You could be in a French village high street. There are some very impressive houses here and although Laos is supposed to be one of the worlds poorest countries the Laos people seem to be richer in life than the Thai. They have a great pride in what they do hence why the houses are built better, the guest houses offer more and the restaurants are clean and impressive. The other major thing I noticed is the lack of hassle. You can walk down the street and read the menus of restaurants without being lynched to go in, you can wander round the shops without things being shoved in your general direction. It makes for a very relaxing place.

A group of us from the boat, Francis and Merdeth and Liz a BBC producer from Bristol who had taken 3 months off to see SE Asia and visit her daughter in Thailand, and Charlotte and Michael another Irish couple all headed to a restaurant to get something to eat with a few Beerlaos. We had a lovely steak and chips for 20,000 kip (about 1 pound) and then had an Almond Magnum for dessert! Lunag Prabang pretty much closes at 10.30 so after dinner we all headed back to our guest house for a good night sleep.

Thursday 8th April
We woke early and headed to get some breakfast. I wasn't feeling too well, some stomach bug although I wasn't actually sick just wanted to be so I headed back to the room to have a lie down. Merdeth and Francis were in the room next to ours and Merdeth was sick too so she was also staying in for the day so Simon and Francis hired bikes and headed out to check out the rest of Luang Prabang. I felt a bit better after a couple of hours and joined them taking a backie/croggie/lift (depending on whether you grew up in Scotland England or Ireland!) on Simons bike to see the highlights of what they had found on their trip. Luang Prabang isn't that big so it doesn't take long. We stopped for lunch and had the best French Bread Pizzas and then headed back to the guest house to have coffees. We bought our own Nescafe sachets and Coffee Mate as Laos coffee takes a bit of getting used to! It is really thick and black and as fresh milk is impossible in these parts they use condensed milk which makes it taste like it has 10 sugars in it.

Charlotte and Michael had seen a place showing free films every night so we decided to head up there with them on the bikes. The place was a lovely tea house with a huge big room with loads of cushions on the floor and little tables. We found a spot and ordered a pot of green tea and a tuna melt and watched Along Came Polly which was quite funny. After the film we cycled back to our guest house in a brief rainfall which was very refreshing!

Friday 9th April
We had an active day today! We had brunch in a bakery and made our way to Mount Phousi which translates to marvelous mountain and is on the main road of Luang Prabang. Its not actually a mountain but 329 steps take you to a Wat at the top. We started up the steps and paid the 10,000kip admission fee and reached the top to stunning views of Luang Prabang and the surrounding mountainous countryside. You could see the wide Mekong River snake into the distance and the fishermen casting their nets. There were a few Buddhist Monks meditating at the Wat and some just looking at the views contemplating. We made our way down the other side passed some Gold Buddha including a huge reclining Buddha and a fat Buddha. Incense sticks burn next to the Buddha's and monks come and kneel before them to pray. We checked out a few more Buddha and a Buddha footprint before making our way down the last of the steps.

We walked down the street to the Talat Dara which is an indoor market and sells almost everything imaginable, a nearby outdoor market sold a lot of silks and embroidery for tourists and we bought an embroidered picture for our picture wall for 50p which must have taken hours to make. We didn't even bother to haggle with the woman who was about 106 and bent over double! We then went to find a phone to change one of our flights because would you believe Virgin can't take email requests, which is hard in Laos as there are no phone boxes. We were quoted between 10,000Kip and 25,000Kip per minute. We eventually made a call being timed on a clock that went a lot faster than mine and called Virgin in London after 2 minutes of recorded messages and pressing numbers to go to different departments we eventually got to speak to a human but with a 10 second satellite delay! We ended up paying 70,000 kip (2 nights accommodation!) but we got it sorted. Internet here is also expensive, 5 times more than Thailand and 10 times slower. It took us 10 mins to try and log onto our emails and by the time we got on we had been logged off as we had been inactive for 5 mins!

After that we needed cheering up so we had a pineapple shake and a huge piece of banana and chocolate cake at a bakery café! We took a stroll down to the Royal Palace. It was home to the royal family before the monarchy was abolished in 1975. It has a copy of a Golden Buddha called Pha Bang, the original is made of 50kg pure gold and locked away in a bank vault in Vientiane the countries capital. After the palace we headed back to the guest house and made a coffee and sat on the wall overlooking the Mekong River reading and writing my diary. We sat there for a while watched the sunset and then went for a walk round town before dinner. We stopped at a restaurant on the riverside which had lots of beautiful lanterns above the tables and had some Laos style Beef Curry which was delicious. Merdeth and Francis joined us for a drink and we nattered till late.

Saturday 10th April
We woke up at 5.45 when our alarm went off and got up. The reason for the early hour was to go and feed the monks! When the men of Laos become monks they denounce money so every morning at 6.00am they walk the streets of Luang Prabang collecting food from the local woman who line the streets and the few tourists that come to see the amazing sight of hundreds of Buddhist monks dressed in saffron orange robes all walking the streets and being donated food. We walked up our road and bought some sticky rice wrapped in banana leaves and then watched as a procession of monks walked passed. It was an amazing sight, some as young as six some as old as ninety all with shaved heads, orange robes and wide smiles.

They walk along and lift the lid from their bowl which swings from a shoulder strap. It's a silent process and they all meet up on the road back up the hill to their temple where they walk together to spend the rest of their day praying and meditating. The food they collect they have to eat in the morning as they are not allowed to eat for the rest of the day. I guess some days they just get sticky rice and other days some fruit and occasionally a few treats.

We headed to get some breakfast at one of the bakeries and we met up with some of the others who had also been up to see the monks. There was eight of us altogether and it was a hot day so we thought we would negotiate with a tuk tuk driver to take us the 30 km to Kwang Xi Falls which is supposed to be stunning and great for swimming. The tuk tuks here in Laos are much bigger than in Thailand. These are a cross between a songthaew and a Tuk Tuk. They have 3 wheels but have the long benches of a songthaew so can carry 8 passengers comfortably.

We found a guy who would take us for 5000 kip each (about 30p) and that included him waiting at the waterfall for 5 hours and bringing us back! We set off down the road while children threw buckets at us! The reason for the water is that Tuesday sees the start of New Years for South East Asia.Known at Songkran in Thailand and Pee Mai in Laos. It lasts for 3 days and as it is also coming to the end of their long hot season they celebrate by throwing water for good luck and welcome the coming rains. Rain helps the rice crop and that is big business in these parts so they need the rain to survive. For the three days 13th, 14th and 15th Thailand and Laos pretty much closes and has one big water fight and copious amounts of drinking. Even though New Year is still three days away the Laos children are on school holidays and it seems have nothing better to do than get into the spirit of things early! Some of the children here are equipped with a simple bucket and they throw from that, others choose a hose pipe as their weapon of choice as no need to refill your bucket each time. But some have these amazing pump action Uzi water machine guns that come with a gallon capacity and you can buy an extra tank that you wear on your back!! If you can't beat em join em!

We got to the waterfall entrance and paid 15,000 kip entrance fee to get in as it is well looked after and was worth every penny. We walked up the hill towards the waterfall base and came across a tiger! She was beautiful and safely behind a tall fence. The Laos government fund to keep her alive as well as donations from tourists. She was found by police when they arrested poachers who had killed her mother and father for Chinese medicine. This tiger, called Phrae, and her two brothers were in a tiny cage too young and too weak to fend for themselves.

The government asked this community in the jungle to look after the baby tigers and gave them a small grant for an enclosure and food. Unfortunately her brothers were really sick and never recovered but Phrae slowly recovered and managed to survive and soon became strong after months of care and attention from the community. The downside to the playful attention that saved her life was that attempts to take her back to the wild failed as she was tolerant of humans and had no idea how to hunt . So five years later she is still here and the local community have built her a huge enclosure in the woods to play in. The guy who has been looking after her all this time didn't think twice about walking into her enclosure and playing with her and feeding her. I even got to stroke her.

We continued on up the hill and reached the waterfall which is probably the most beautiful of all the waterfalls we have seen (and lets face it there have been a few on this trip!!). It is a tiered waterfall with pools of deep blue water on different levels. We decided to first hike to the top so the swim would be even more rewarding when we got back down! It was a long climb up naturally eroded steps in limestone and the view of Laos and its luscious green hills were fantastic. We had a clamber through the rockpools in the top before making our way (carefully) back down the steep steps to the bottom.

By the time we got down we couldn't jump into the icy water fast enough. It was nice and cold and really blue after the murky water of the Mekong River. We all spent a couple of hours in the water bombing from the level above and generally fooling about! We soon had worked up an appetite and headed to a little stall to get some fried rice and a pepsi and then chilled for the rest of the afternoon. Heaven. It was soon time to head and we walked down the hill and said goodbye to Phrae on the way. We all piled in the tuk tuk and made our way back to Luang Prabang and getting more soaked along the way.

As tomorrow is our fifth day in Luang Prabang we decided it was time to make a move and head South to Vang Vieng so we went to organise our bus ticket out of here. We arranged to meet up with the rest of the gang for dinner tonight as a few of us were moving on to different places tomorrow. At 8pm we were all back at the riverside restaurant for another delicious Laos style beef curry and a few Beerlao!!
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