Jewel of the Mekong (and possibly Asia)
Trip Start Jun 29, 2005
235Trip End Nov 30, 2009
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Luang Prabang sits on the Mekong, at the confluence of the Khan River that flows in from the south west. With a population of somewhere between 60,000 and 300,000, it sits comfortably within its environs and complements some remarkable natural features that surround it, such as a string of small mountains to the south and west, a large hill that is the geographic centre of town and, of course, the rivers that fence it in to the north and east.
Everything grows abundantly in this pleasant tropical climate and if you poke about in the alleys and backstreets you can find masses of flowers in bloom or an unassuming but beautiful lily-padded lake just blending into the scenery.
I hadn't been to a former French colony before so I wasn't quite sure what to expect from the colonial architecture, however this I could certainly get used to. The city is Unesco World Heritage protected and the central area is heavily restricted as to what developers can do. There is a secondary ring around this that is less heavily protected, the result of both zones being a pretty well maintained collection of classy two storey structures. The lighting wasn't great due to overcast conditions but hopefully you get some idea of the architectural style.
Other evidence of French culture entrenched in everyday life is all around. From quaint little country-style laneways to games of Boules and French bread loaves on the street corner, you can see that it has only been a generation or two since the Lao People's Democratic Republic came into existence and old habits are not dying here despite the Communists taking power.
Still, the Lao culture and Buddhism also abounds and as it's a very small place all this French and Loatian character is crammed into a few intense blocks. Religious star motifs fluttering in the breeze, brightly clad monks and novices roaming the streets, parasols protecting their bearers from the sun and a fiercely capitalistic streak that drives the locals in everyday business, despite the flavour of the nation's political ideology. Lao is an extremely poor country, even compared to most regional neighbours, so they need to convert as many tourist dollars as possible. Fortunately they're still a very polite people and it has not reached the 'hard sell' phase yet.
Despite being 'templed out' in Myanmar and Thailand, the Lao temples have a unique style and sophistication that seemed to draw me in despite myself. I visited a couple of the main, highly venerated shrines and they were worth the effort - especially at Wat Xieng Thong which had a gold leaf mural design on the internal walls that seems quite primitive but is quite compelling all the same. I know it's an odd thing to say but the sexy curvature of the roofing is also very attractive, being more pronounced than Thai wats of similar styling.
That evening I took a trip up Mt Phousi to take in the view at sunset. It seemed as though every other tourist in the city had the same idea so it was pretty congested, but the panorama was quite spectacular looking southwards anyway. Gun emplacements right next to the hilltop temple harkened back to a darker age in Laotian history, when the country was somehow dragged into the Vietnam War and then bombarded by American warplanes for a considerable time (there are still major problems with UXO - unexploded ordinance - particularly in the western portions of Lao). Buddha's footprint remained untroubled by all of this however, and fortunately it is almost impossible to obliterate a view.
The night market is another major attraction in Luang Prabang. More basic than its counterpart in Chiang Mai, it still contains some exotic wares that would be quite attractive purchases if one didn't have to find room in the backpack and then lug them round for weeks. The bold patterns of the bedspreads, the vast array of silks and the bottled snakes were all highlights and if I see any of the bedware further south I might have to take a plunge and buy some for later.
Nightlife is pretty thin on the ground here as the focus is more on rest and relaxation. Almost every bar is closed by 11.30pm. However, younger people that take the slow boat from the Thai border seem to form a group bond over the two day voyage that continues through their travels in Laos and is hard to resist if you get caught up in it. Add to that a late night drinking den or two plus free flowing, tasty and cheap Beer Lao and you have a dangerous combination that can result in daily hangovers which cancel out the R&R you're actually here for.
Given that, I decided to move on sooner than later and get a few days rest before the crew makes it to Vang Viene. Still, cheers to Simon (Swiss), Maurice (Vietnam) and Debbie (Dutch) pictured with me above, as well as Barry and the slow boat crew for some fun nights in this jewel of Asia. If the rest of Laos lives up to this fantastic start, I think we'll have a new favourite destination in South East Asia.
Next entry - the Plain of Jars or Vang Viene - where will that southbound bus go?
Words from the Wise #34
"Real knowledge is to know the extent of one's ignorance."