Lost gloss in Luang Prabang...

Trip Start Nov 06, 2012
Trip End Feb 01, 2013

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Flag of Lao Peoples Dem Rep  , Louangphabang,
Monday, December 24, 2012

Firstly, a belated Merry Christmas everyone! Hope each and every one of you had a wonderful time over the festive period, ate your weight in meat and roast potatoes and had some time off.

Now for Luang Prabang - we had high expectations for Luang Prabang, which is why we planned to stay here for six days over the Christmas period.
Let’s start with a few facts...
Here’s what we booked:  

1. one guesthouse for the first two nights;

2. a two day trek with village homestay and kayaking starting on Boxing Day; and

3. another guesthouse for three nights.

Here’s how our week panned out:

Day 1 (Christmas Eve) - turn up at Guesthouse 1. The staff seemed confused at us having turned up, but eventually showed us to a twin room at the front of the property. We were somewhat surprised that had we had reserved a twin room but put it down to our own ineptitude and thought nothing of it.

Day 2 (Christmas Day) - while enjoying breakfast, the manager of Guesthouse 1 came over and introduced herself. She then explained there had been a mix up, that we had been put in the wrong room and asked if we would like to move to a double room at the back of the property. We said no as we’d already decided that we’d get up early the next morning and sit on our balcony to watch the monks collect alms. She then explained that it wasn’t an option as someone else had already booked the twin room. And so, on Christmas Day, we had to pack up all our things and move. After we’d done this, we went out for a lovely Christmas Dinner (Laos cuisine, no roasties for us!). Then V got sick.

Day 3 (Boxing Day) - Christmas wasn’t going so well. V was very sick overnight and in the morning was in no state to start a two day trek. A now sprang into action (well, more like panicked into action) and spent the morning attempting to rearrange the trek and find a bed for the night (Guesthouses 1 and 2 both told us there was no room at the inn) - this in a town which was virtually fully booked. By about 10.30am, this was all sorted and, feeling very proud of himself, A went off to enjoy a mammoth breakfast and left V to sleep.

Day 4 (27 December) - having surprisingly had a great night’s sleep in a hotel which was half the price of Guesthouse 1, we had a good start to the day. That is, until we got to official Guesthouse 2 (now bumped back to Guesthouse 3 position). On arrival, we were told that there “was a problem” with our reservation and that we could only spend two of our three nights there and that they had booked us into another Guesthouse (let’s call that Guesthouse 4 and not “mosquito hell” as it turned out to be).

Day 5 (28 December) - we spent the first few hours of this day somewhat confused as it was the first day we didn’t have to move guesthouse/ rooms. A very unsettling experience after the last few days...

Day 6 (29 December) - back to moving again. We’ve become pretty good at this on this trip and can now get up, showered and packed in record time. Luang Prabang however has helped us finesse this skill further. We’re very, very good at this now. The manager of official Guesthouse 2 (actually now Guesthouse 3) drove us to the final destination in our tour of the town’s hotels. He animatedly told us that this hotel was brand new and was clearly keen to assess the competition - he insisted on accompanying us to our room, checking out the bathroom and inside all of the cupboards and was muttering to himself that the place “was much nicer” than his. We’re not fans of big hotels and would have preferred to have stayed at the lovely little place we had originally booked (i.e. his place!) but kept quiet as there really was no point and we wanted to make the most of this unexpected “Luang Prabang Accommodation Tour”. 

We discovered later that evening that breakfast was very early indeed and, given our lunchtime flight, we’d been hoping to sleep in and head to breakfast around 9ish. So another let down on our final evening. We felt quite depressed about the whole thing (in itself nothing major, but yet another curveball), but we had a packet of crackers that we decided could double up as breakfast and so opted to choose sleep over food. Had we known this and that there would be a seemingly endless supply of mosquitos in the room and a pneumatic drill starting at silly’o’clock the next morning, we’d have just gone and booked somewhere else. We had to chuckle to ourselves that it was a rather apt end to our experience of the punches Luang Prabang had thrown our way. If we hadn’t laughed, we would have cried (which V had already done a little bit on the 27th and only stopped when official Guesthouse 2 manager apologised to “miss velvet” as she thought he was sweet and didn’t want him to feel bad).

To sum up, we ended up with:

1. five different rooms;

2. four different guesthouses; 

3. a one day trek (thanks to A for rearranging and to White Elephant Adventures for being so understanding at short notice - they were amazing and could have quite happily kept the money we’d paid for the two day trek and offered us no other alternative);

4. one bout of suspected food poisoning; and

5. our worst ever Christmas. We are staying at home next year!

When we weren’t spending time dealing with all of the above, we explored Luang Prabang and the surrounding area. Luang Prabang itself is a lovely, peaceful little town with a very French feel to it.....think a mini-Paris meets the more serene parts of Asia. There are some lovely cafes and bars from which to watch the world go by. The town's roads are also quiet enough to make cycling a pleasant experience and so we made the most of this, which meant we got some exercise and saw some lovely villages off the beaten track.
An interesting but unwelcome feature of the town is the occasional whiff of sewage from the many discharge pipes which flow into the river, many a good beer / Rummikub game was curtailed by the pong from the river - we also avoided the Mekong fish as a result!  The variety of food available in the town ranged from traditional Lao dishes to western favourites such as pizza and there was also a curry house (this we reserved for our last night as a treat - well worth it).  All the restaurants appeared to be serving the same dishes, however, and we found the choice and quality of food a bit “same same”.  The beer though was fantastic - Beer Lao has a lovely smooth taste and is sold in large (640ml) bottles for 10,000 Kip (under 1) - in fact we liked the stuff so much we purchased a t-shirt each “at the boxing day sales” from the night market close to the National Museum.

We spent Christmas Day wandering around the peninsula, jumping in and out of Wats. Luang Prabang has about 40 of these and so it’s difficult to turn a street corner without seeing one, the flash of orange robes or a monk. This was a nice way to explore the main part of the town. We walked to the highest point in Luang Prabang, which afforded beautiful views of both rivers, the Mekong and the Nam Khan and surrounding valleys and mountains. On the ascent, there were various Buddha images. The “day of the week” Buddha images have made A realise he should get some day of the week socks when he gets back to London. To break up our day’s walking, we enjoyed some of the baguettes, crepes and fresh fruit juices on offer - all incredibly delicious! A particularly enjoyed the chicken breast and Laughing Cow cheese. V suspects that’ll be a new lunch option for him when we get back.

While here, we rose early to watch the monks collect alms. This started with an early morning drum beat, followed by a procession of orange robe-clad monks through the streets, with the locals offering spoonfuls of rice or other food for the day’s sustenance. This was interesting to watch but we were very conscious that we were observers to an important daily ritual and so we maintained our distance, unlike some others (the MCAs were out again) who didn’t seem to think it inappropriate to get up close to the monks and photograph them.
Pleased to be surrounded by tuk-tuk drivers once more, we found one to take us to the Pak Ou Cave, a graveyard for Buddha images about an hour’s drive from the town. The cave can only be reached by boat and so, when we got to the village of Pak Ou, we asked a couple of lads with a boat to take us across to the cave. As with most of the places we’ve been to on this trip, we didn’t have any expectations of what we would find. We explored the upper and lower caves and loved them. The lower cave was especially interesting and the sight of the numerous Buddha images, lined up haphazardly along ridges of the rock, resembled a city skyline. The moss covered rocks and low light worked together to create a scene similar to the mountain valleys of the Mekong. We’re not sure if this was intended but the effects are stunning and it felt like a very special place indeed.

Having been able to rearrange our trek to a one day expedition, we set out in a small group to climb the hills surrounding Luang Prabang. This route took us through a handful of Hmong and Khmu villages and over a number of (rather precarious looking!) bamboo bridges. Our guide was from a Hmong village and so was able to give us a lot of insight into the customs, culture and daily life. 

The hike was a great way to see the local countryside, which was spectacular. Until about lunchtime, the tops of the mountains were shrouded in mist and, as in Halong Bay, this gave the valley a mystical feel. The landscape was green, with thick forest covering all but the lower slopes, which are now farmed by the villagers. What made the hiking easier was that the weather here is warm and sunny but not uncomfortably hot. Early mornings are really quite cool, the day reaches a nice heat by about 2pm and then cools off again into the evening. 
The trail ended at the Tad Se waterfalls, where you can swim in the rather chilly water or bathe elephants. We were on the verge of going to bathe the elephants, when we also realised that the elephants used the same pool they bathed in as a toilet. So instead we decided to grab a couple of drinks and watch some other unwitting tourists being thrown by the elephants into the path of rogue poos, much to the laughter of everyone watching. 

While here, we’ve spent some time sorting out our plans for our trip to Burma. Despite having apparently read up on it, A went into meltdown when he finally grasped that his good friends “Visa” and “Mastercard” would not be welcome in the country and spent some time with his head in his hands asking “how do these people live?”. So, all the conversations A and V had had about needing to get a huge amount of cash in pristine dollar bills had clearly been falling on deaf ears... By coincidence, later that night, V got talking to a man who had spent two years living in Yangon and so plied him for useful information. Not that any of this made A feel any better about carrying stacks of cash around a country that “needs to join at least the 20th century”. In any case, we’ve now booked flights there and so we’ll just have to deal with whatever that throws our way!

On our last night, V persuaded A that the remaining Kip should be spent on a traditional massage. A wasn’t prepared to go through another mugging but did agree to a foot and shoulder massage. Thankfully, he loved it and has now found an alternative to being twisted into different shapes by Thai/Khmer/Vietnamese women. V had a traditional Lao/Thai massage and felt very relaxed indeed. Well, until we got back to Guesthouse 4 for our last night.
So, now it’s off to Chiang Mai we go, ready to embark on Thailand Part Deux! While we’ve had some highlights here, we’re hoping that Chiang Mai will be kinder to us...we’ve only booked one place to stay for our four nights there - what could possibly go wrong? Oh hang on, there are no taxis at the airport and there’s a problem with our room...
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