Vientiane to Luang Prabang

Trip Start Jun 15, 2007
Trip End Jun 27, 2008

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Flag of Lao Peoples Dem Rep  ,
Wednesday, October 17, 2007

I will give anyone ten pence if they can guess how we got from Vientiane to Luang Prabang?  That is right.  Another bus journey.  A pleasant ten hours this time and it was genuinely pleasant.  The scenery between Vientiane and LP (as it will now be known) is breath takingly beautiful. We had heard that 85% of Laos was mountainous but hadn't really seen it (obviously we were in the 15% part then). During the journey we climbed mountains, travelled over passes and dropped down into valleys.  Really helped to pass the time.

So at 6pm we arrived in LP and had a beer while we got our bearings and decided on a hotel.  We had heard lots of great things about LP and first impressions were certainly good.  LP is a UNESCO World Heritage site and is therefore totally restricted on how much commercial development can take place.  This means it has maintained it's original feel and you can certainly see it - no high rises or glass towers to be seen.  Nic was instantly happy as there was a huge night market selling bags, and crafts, and bags, and artwork, and bags.  And more bags.  Never has anyone fallen in love with a place so quickly.

We plumped for the Jilaya guest house, five minutes from the main streets, which was very nice and run by a lovely lady that could confuse any man in 5 and half seconds flat as she insisted on doing 89 things at once (yes.... I have since learnt that this is apparently called multi tasking).

We got up nice and early the next morning and opted for a day of sight seeing.  Most of the temples and sights in LP are within walking distance of each other.  There are many many temples spread around the town but there are sufficient in the centre to get a good dose.

First stop, Wat Xieng Thong (a Wat being a temple).  For a Wat to be a Wat there apparently has to be monks living in the grounds. So all over LP you see several monks (or novices to give them their correct term as they are learning to become monks.  It is not possible to become a monk until you are 20 and passed your monk exams). So in the grounds of the Xieng Thong we got talking to a 14 year old Novice about life as a novice, how long he had been one for (2 years), how much longer he had left (3 years) and what he studied. His favourite subject was English and he missed being away from home (aaah bless him).

We continued our temple gazing and climbed up 350 lung crushing steps to reach the last temple of the day and to view the sunset.
It was at this point that we met Novice Lae... we had entered into conversation with the young monks in the attempt to get them to dance with us on camera for a bit of fun, but were told in no uncertain terms must a monk smile or enter lightly into dancing with strangers or otherwise. So thats a no then? Anyway, it just so happened that there was a book salesman sat with the monks, who was apparently trying to sell his books to help the monks with their studies.....yet the monks have no pockets in those robes so couldn't possibly carry money.....guess what? We did and we bought. We did wonder if we had been scammed by a trainee monk but surely fleecing foreigners is not in their ethical code. For this kind gesture Novice Lae invited us to visit his temple that was a little way out of town and didn't receive many tourists.  How cool is that?  Not everyday you get an invitation to go and hang out with a monk for a morning is it?

After spending quite a bit of time with Novice Lae and his fellow novices we sat and watched the stunning sunset over the Mekong.  Beautiful.
Friday morning and we decided to visit the Kuang Si waterfalls out of town - which this time were proper waterfalls, unlike the rapids we saw at Don Det.  We took a mini bus to the falls and stopped to look at the tiger that had been rescued from poachers some years ago.  He was only a cub when found but is now a big fella. 
Then after a few minutes walk we reached the waterfalls.  We had read that it is possible to swim at the falls but no one else was in.  So, I decided that I would be the first one in.  No wonder no one else went in - it was freezing.  Anyway, sure enough, everyone else took the plunge.  It wasn't long before me and my new friend, Carl, were jumping in and having a right good laugh.
However, after about an hour, one of the wardens at the falls informed us that it was not safe to swim here and that there was a designated swimming area further down river.  Ooops.
Early night for us as we wanted to be up in good time to go and visit Novice Lae.

We decided to hire bikes to cycle the three kilometres out of LP to Wat Na Luang - home of Novice Lae.  Word had obviously got around that we were coming because as we approached the temple we were greeted by Novice Lae and approximately 15 other Novices. It was great to see these kids (and they are only kids) all dressed in the orange robes waiting to meet us.  For some reason Nic and I were nervous as there are a series of do's and don'ts when talking to a monk.  For example, women are not allowed to touch a monk, you should never point the soles of your feet at a monk, you should never show the bottom of your feet to any images of Buddha, you should not touch the head of a monk etc etc. We tried to read up before but we were still quite nervous as we did not want to offend anyone.

First of all we went to Lae's room, which was basically a wooden shed with two beds in.  Everything, and I mean everything, is orange.  Rugs, curtains, bed spread, everything,  He explained some more to us about life as a novice.  It is the norm for all boys to spend time as a novice for at least five years and a maximum of ten.  They go to school Monday to Friday and during the week they get up at 4.30, pray, eat at 7am.  Then they have lunch at 11am and no more food after that for the rest of the day.  They are forbidden to eat after11 until breakfast the next day.  They can only drink milk.  They pray twice a day and are in bed at 10pm.   They rely totally on donations from the 'lay man' (as he put it) so all food is donated by the people of the town.  How much they get to eat depends on how generous the people are feeling.  They are not allowed to grow their own food as this puts them on the same level as the lay man and monks / novices are superior.  They also totally rely on money donations so they can repair temples, accommodation etc.  All the time we were talking, different faces kept popping through the door, saying hello and sitting with us.  We also talked about his schooling, favourite subjects etc.  He really enjoyed I.T and showed me his book on Word, Excel etc.

He then took us to the temple and showed us how to pray.  We sat for a long time in here discussing religion and what he had learnt.  All over the temple wall there were images depicting religious stories.  This was part of his learning.  He was only able to tell us the story behind a few of the images as he was still learning about most of them.

We had a walk around outside and saw all the novices relaxing.  They are not allowed to do things like play football so they made their own entertainment in the form of a wheelbarrow and pushed each other around.  We saw a group huddled together in a circle all taking it in turns to listen to an mp3 player. There are 25 novices in that temple and five monks.  Lae openly admitted that he would only be there another two years and would not become a monk as this involved too much dedication and he didn't want to do it for the rest of his life.

All in all, it was a fascinating morning and we are lucky to have been given that opportunity to go and spend time with them.  Certainly something neither of us will ever forget.  We came away with a million and one questions about the life and the beliefs.  Guess we save those questions for the next visit.

Day after the rugby final (lets not mention it) was spent sleeping  as the game didn't finish until 4am local time.  Just as I was going to bed, Novice Lae was probably just getting up. We also booked our flight to Chiang Mai in Thailand which we would take the following day.  And that is where we are as I write this.  For the first time in a long time we are up to date with the blog.  We intend to do a little less travelling over the next month or so.  We will be in Chiang Mai for another week, then heading down to the islands for some sun and sea and monsoon dodging. 
After that - who knows?  Possibly Malaysia, Singapore then Australia.  Maybe just straight to Australia as we both now have our visas.  Whatever we opt for will definitely not include any long bus journeys.
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pierrelepont on

Nar then si thi
Ok Cheeseman and partner. When are you going to play me at long-distance scrabble you chicken. Go on Facebook and it's your turn against the mighty Pierre. Our young 'un is in Thailand at this very moment. He's in a place called Kanachaburin from where you can visit the Tiger sanctuary and the Death Railway. Be funny if you bumped into him somewhere along the line. If you hear any Barnsley accents at one of the hostels - that'll probably be him. I must admit I'm most envious of your exploits, I wished I'd done something like that when I was your age a couple of years ago.Some stunning photos there old boy, you should publish a book when you get back - I'd buy it. Anyway take care peeps and bon voyage. Pierre

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