Unexpected Charm of Luang Prabang - days 52 to 61
Trip Start Apr 07, 2010
13Trip End Ongoing
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The seats on the boat were nearly full by the time we got to it. In fact, it was not the same boat as yesterday but a different one, smaller, with no tables and clearly far less seats than the other; how was the same number of passengers going to fit? We managed to get the last row of two available, but the legroom between these and the row in front was less than the day before, knees literally pressing into the seats in front. With our hangovers and the discomfort, this was not going to be a pleasant trip.
Once the permanent seats were gone, stacks of plastic seats were brought on board (presumably from an associated guesthouse/restaurant nearby). The relative rowdiness of the day before was somewhat subdued, surely from a combination of our fellow passengers having nothing better to do last night than avoid their basic digs (no electricity in some places) by drinking through the night and then being faced with the cramped conditions on board.
We pulled away on time. The next nine hours were hellish; we couldn't get comfortable, and the heat compounded our feelings of nausea. Ironically, the people who came late and had to suffer the plastic chairs in fact had the enviable situation; to escape their hangovers they could re-stack the chairs and sleep on the deck. Our regrettable sickness did detract from the experience of cruising down the Mekong, however, we did come to the conclusion that the scenery, though still wonderful, had become repetitive and we might as well have been sleeping through it.
We pulled upto the boat landing at Luang Prabang slightly early, but nevertheless the typical throng of accommodation touts and drivers had turned out in force. Fortunately, we got a headstart on our fellow passengers as our bags were the first off the boat, and we scurried up the concrete slope past those blinkered waiting for the bottle-necked delivery of fresh tourists to disembark.
At the top, on the main road, a jumbo (tuk-tuk) driver wanted to charge us the equivalent of four Pounds to take us to the guesthouse we had in mind from the Lonely Planet. We knew it was on the same road and not very far away, so persevered on foot. We were relieved (though annoyed at the cheek of the jumbo driver) to find it was located less than 200m from the boat landing.
Pakam Guesthouse was a loveable small place down a cobbled alleyway by the Mekong riverbank with only a handful of rooms. They kept a strong policy of no footwear whilst inside the building, protecting the authentic hardwood flooring. The room was small but attractive with its dark wood furnishing. We had a short rest before making our way to the famed Night Market along Thanon (Road) Sisavangvong, checking out the handicrafts and ornaments produced in volume for tourist consumption. It was refreshing compared to the markets we had experienced previously, with the stalls being mats or sheeting on the ground, and the stall holders not annoyingly calling out as you walked past. The fairy lights added a warm ambient glow.
The following morning we got up early, having decided that we should orientate ourselves as soon as possible; completing the Lonely Planet's suggested walking tour seemed a good method. (Light-fingered Lauren had lifted a pirated copy of the Laos guidebook from the dusty bookswap at our guesthouse in Huay Xai). We boxed around the central area, stopping at a couple of the number of Buddhist temples and other sights along the way.
The central touristed area is a peninsula about 1km long and 200m wide, with the Mekong running southwards along its western flank and another smaller river, the Nam Khan, trickling over a shallow riverbed northwards along the eastern flank (the waist-high water a great playground for local children). The French colonists setup strategic camp here for the prime waterways access, and this area has been left with European-style two-storey villas dating from the 1930s or earlier, most now converted into boutique hotels and guesthouses or restaurants with old-world charm. The straight main roads running the length of the peninsular are exposed, sedate boulevards. The whole place is incredibly quaint.
Lauren's eye was caught by a shopfront different from the norm; the display suggested an art exhibition. We found inside that it was a gallery promoting and selling true ethnically-produced clothing and artworks. It also promoted an 'Ethnik Fashion' show at a nearby bar/restaurant, with a show that evening. We went along to the Hive Bar, expecting a crowd and modern take on traditional dress. What we found was an audience of six (including us) and displays of clothing used by a couple of dozen different Laotian tribal groups. It was interesting, but we felt sorry for the amateur teenage models struggling to keep their smiles in front of such a small audience. Our applause was extra enthusiastic throughout to try to maintain their morale!
The next day we decided that time should be spent trying to complete our travel blog and release it to friends and family who had largely been kept in the dark about our movements thus far. Whilst Ross was in an Internet cafe, Lauren took a break to browse in a bookshop. Inside, she bumped into Rosa, a Norwegian girl we had got talking with during our night in Pakbeng. Loose arrangements were made for us to meet that night; the venue: the Hive Bar. We did go along, meeting Rosa, as well as her friend Erik (also Norwegian) who was visiting Rosa in SE Asia for a few weeks, and Ade from London, both of whom we had initially met in Pakbeng. The spectacle that evening was to be a breakdancing display; we stayed to watch, and were amused by a number of boys of varying ages and skill busting their moves on stage. The best one had to be a very nimble and practiced boy no older than twelve years.
The manager, a young French guy of Laotian origin who divides his time between Luang Prabang and France, joined us for a while and gave us a potted history of French influence on the small city. He kindly offered us free shots of the bar's Lao Lao whiskey (we had tried this harsh brew in Pakbeng, but this time we were far more sober); we tentatively accepted. Whilst the girls thoroughly enjoyed their shots, the boys' experience was far from sweet. With a party brewing but the bar closing, we decided to move onto a nightclub. A sawngthaew (a flat-bed truck carrying passengers on opposite-facing benches under hard cover) took us to the other side of town. The last thing we'd expected to see or go to in Laos was a nightclub, let alone in historic Luang Prabang.
Walking inside what we had anticipated being a small and cosy setup, we were surprised by the sight of a converted warehouse with groups of young locals huddled around oil drums used as drinks tables or on the sizeable dancefloor. We found our own oil drum and were served Beer Lao. We were among the first Westerners there, but soon dozens of rowdy others spilled inside and onto the dancefloor, unashamedly squeezing out the locals in their own place. We were content where we were. However, just an hour after we arrived were the lights abruptly switched on, and what seemed to be the national anthem replaced the hip-hop. Immediately there was an orderly exodus of the locals. We came to realise that it was 1am and this was their signal to go home, already stretching it past the (obviously not too rigid) midnight curfew for the city.
After four nights at Pakam Guesthouse, and given that we were likely to be in Luang Prabang for a while in order to plough through with the travel blog, we decided to find somewhere cheaper. We came across Sokdee Guesthouse where we were offered a bigger room, satellite TV and air con for 10,000 kip less than what we were paying at Pakam without these comforts!
The next few days were spent lazing in the room watching repeated reports on the BBC World News channel, in Internet cafes, reading, and sampling Laotian cuisine. There were several makeshift cafes above the bank of the Mekong, overlooking the river and across to the land opposite (between which boats ferried locals to and from work). It was particularly pleasant to eat at these whilst watching the waterway, and we tried traditional dishes including a surprisingly flavourful bamboo soup and 'laap' (which is a minced meat salad; the mince would traditionally be served raw, but is now commonly cooked to cater for Western palates).
Bored of Internet cafes and blogging, and feeling guilty for 'wasting' our time and budget, we decided our eighth day had to comprise something different. The streets of Luang Prabang host a rather public alms-giving ceremony, in which monks from the local Buddhist temples take offerings of food during an orderly procession shortly after sunrise. Lauren was very keen to capture this, so we set our alarm clock for 4.30am and somehow managed not to snooze. We were going on information that the ceremony took place in a backstreet a short walk from our guesthouse, but upon arrival there we could discern no alms-givers nor see monks. We started to see the odd tourist, however, and followed a couple who seemed to be heading on an informed purpose. A line of saffron-orange robes came into sight down the road, and a few locals darted from their homes with pots and sat on the roadside. Just as the young monks began to pass did it start to rain. Still, the solemn event carried on.
Once this column of monks had passed we followed after them, at a respectful distance. They turned onto the main road, and we realised the extent of the ceremony; many groups of a dozen or so monks each, seemingly groups from the many different temples, were following each other past many alms-givers. A few tourists joined in along the way using the sticky rice sold to them on the street by unscrupulous entrepreneurs; this seemed to detract from witnessing a truly religious and community-based event, especially when an ignorant British hippie chose to stand rather than sit whilst the monks took his offering. Sadly for the monks, we observed that their diet (for that day at least) consisted solely of sticky rice.
We had learned about a nearby waterfall, the sawngthaew drivers often stopping us in the street to ask if we wanted to be taken there. Rosa, Erik and Ade had been there and recommended it highly as a beautiful place where you could swim in the pools. So in the afternoon we found a driver, but as is understandably typical he wanted to wait until he had a full complement of passengers to make his journey worthwhile, since he would have to wait there however many hours to bring the same passengers back. Fortunately, a group of three British guys in a cafe happened to be intent on going there also, so with five passengers the driver accepted and off we all went.
After the bone-rattling 45 minutes journey into the countryside, through several villages built directly on the road (front entrances of wooden huts were less than a couple of metres from the roadside in some places), we arrived at the Kuang Si Falls. We paid the park's entrance fee and made our way along the track for five minutes until we came to the turquoise pool at the foot of the main fall. We soon learned that despite the nice decking and walkway over the pool, tourist revenue had not created steps up to the top of the waterfall; we had to hike and climb up a steep and muddy hillside.
About fifteen minutes after we began our ascent we reached what appeared to be the top (there were no signposts), by a pool of clear calf-deep water. We made our way across the pool and the submerged slippery tree roots, until we reached a stretch of water flowing over the ledge. We first looked across and out over the dramatic hillside beyond, and then down to a pool where people were sat on the rocks or swimming in the water. After our sweaty hike we wanted to bathe in the water, so we made our way down the other side. The worn path remained unsignposted; we ended-up at a pool under a fall, but realised it was not the first one we saw from the very top. Nevertheless, people were there, and we stripped down to our swimwear and took the plunge from the rocks into the refreshingly cold water of the pool. We swam over to just before the ledge, which was raised so there was little chance of accidentally being taken over the top by the flow. From there, we could see the bottom pool from where we had originated. We swam back to underneath the fall and enjoyed the unusual sensation of the falling water pummeling our backs, almost stinging us from the iciness.
We eventually dragged ourselves away and wanted to find a pool we had been told about away from the falls which had a fun-sounding rope swing. Wet and sliding down the hillside we unfortunately found ourselves at the bottom again, seemingly having missed the path to take us to the rope swing. Disappointed, and conscious that we were close to the 5pm rendez-vous with the driver, we headed out. Again, however, it was unsignposted, and we soon realised that we were not on the same track we had come in on. We were pleased to find that the flow of water continued from the large bottom pool to a series of calm smaller ones. We first came across a few people jumping into a pool, and regardless of the time we stripped down to our swimwear again and jumped off the bank into this plunge pool a few times; rather exhilarating. We then carried on our way, only to find yet another pool; the one with the rope swing. Unfortunately, it was already 5pm, so we could only watch as a couple of guys played Tarzan.
After about a week of being in Luang Prabang, we had come to think that we must be some of the last passengers on our boat to still be here. So on the ninth day we were surprised to bump into Bill, the Australian guy we had sat opposite and talked with on the first day of the cruise. He told us that he had suffered a problem with his back and had remained more or less bed-bound for a number of days, and this was his first day functional again. After sharing our experiences of Luang Prabang, we carried on to our planned activity for the day; going up 'Mount' Phou Si, a 100m-high hill on top of which is a temple, promising great 360-degree views of the city and surrounding area.
As we had come to find with most things so far, nothing was free, even ostensibly public areas; tourists must be exploited for revenue any which way possible. A third of the way up the 300+ steps on the hillside, we were forced to pay 20,000 kip each to continue passage. Wat Chom Si, with its gilded stupa adorning the peak of the hill and visible from town, was not particularly of interest. However, the panoramic views from the top, however, were well worth the 'entrance fee'.
On the way down we came across a set of Buddhist images, and these led onto another temple, Wat Tham Phou Si, on the side overlooking the Nam Khan. Within the grounds of this temple was most notably a 'Buddha footprint'; a metre-long impression in a rock which resembles a large footprint; Buddha footprints are claimed all over Asia and are said to have been left by Buddha during his quest for enlightenment. Nearby, a couple of teenage monks were resting in the shade. Lauren rather cheekily asked if she could take their photos, and they obliged, resulting in a couple of great shots!
As we walked along the main road overlooking the Nam Khan, an elderly man riding an old bicycle rode towards us and struck up a conversation in English. After pleasantries of where we were from and how long we had been in Luang Prabang, he established that he was selling ice lollies. Unsure of what we would be presented with from a wooden box on such a hot day, we agreed to take just one lolly, lychee flavour. The wooden box concealed a small coolbox, from which he plucked the paper-wrapped lolly, and off he went. Relieved to see him pull over again not far from us and seeing a local gladly take one from him, we enjoyed what was quite a tasty home-made lolly!
A short while later Ross spotted a familiar face from afar: it was Erica, who we had last seen after our trek together in the Cameron Highlands, some four weeks previously. Surprised (since her itinerary had not included Laos), we joined her in the cafe she was sat in, and learned that after meeting her mother for a trip within Myanmar she decided to travel alone through Laos and into Vietnam to meet her boyfriend. We had caught her at the end of her lunch and she was just about to leave on a sawngthaew for the waterfall. We arranged to regroup later at the same cafe before having dinner together.
Some hours later we met and decided to look for one of the several restaurants that offered 'Lao barbeque', which Lauren had been keen to demystify. We realised why the dedicated restaurants are few and far between once we'd sat at the table; diners sit around a special stone table in the middle of which is a depression into which coals are poured and lit. Above the coals a metal basin is placed, which has a dome rising from the middle. Stock is poured into the resultant moat, which then boils. Vegetables and egg are then poured into the boiling stock to cook, whilst strips of meat are laid on the dome hot plate above the water. Difficult to explain, so we were glad to have taken some photos.
Our novice attempts at keeping the stew stirred, the meat turned, and the stock level high meant that more time was spent attending to preparation rather than the enjoyment of eating. Opening and emptying the eggs was an art that only Lauren managed to master, despite the lesson from our waiter. We were to jab a chopstick into the top of the egg, stir the contents, then force the chopstick through the other side to make an outlet through which we could evenly pour the egg into the water. Needless to say a mess was made. Despite all this, however, it was a fun experience and the stew was particularly tasty.
We bid farewell to Erica, who was leaving the following morning on a Mekong river cruise northwards to another village. Walking back to the guesthouse, we decided that we too needed to move on; the next day we would arrange our departure.
Our last full day in Luang Prabang was a relatively busy one. We booked bus tickets to a town halfway between Luang Prabang and the capital, Vientiane; the backpacker haunt of Vang Vieng had been highly recommended by one of Ross' friends; an odd melting pot which we had to see to believe. We paid 130,000 kip each for the six-hour journey south, which was rather excitingly going to be a windy one across a mountainous region.
We then paid our final visit to the Internet cafe in order to finally complete and release the first section of our travel blog. It was quite a relief to allow our families in particular to see photos of us alive and well, and to understand what we had been up to in the preceding weeks, those things that we didn't have the chance to convey during short and infrequent phone calls.
Our last objective, for a celebration of sorts, was to search out somewhere offering a Lao-style
massage which seemed decent and trained. Many places offered massage, all relatively cheaply (at the equivalent of four Pounds for an hour) and at similar prices, however, some seemed more professional than others. We found a large wooden hut on stilts set back from the main road. The signs leading to it suggested a seedy place, so we had nearly overlooked it, but we were pleased with what we found. The steps led to an open-sided and open-plan floor, and we were greeted by a man wearing nothing but a towel wrapped around his waist. His English was good and he explained his family-run business, used by locals more than tourists, and the menu. The place looked traditional and basic, but well-run. We agreed on the recommendation of a sauna session followed by a full body Lao massage with herbal skin rub, and set an appointment for the evening.
When we arrived we were greeted again by the same man, who instructed us to undress and clothe ourselves with the sarongs provided. Then we were asked to shower, before being ushered into the thick fog of a tiny bamboo-clad sauna. The scent of lemongrass was very pleasant and very East Asian; this was not some commercial sauna at the gym. We were soon joined by the local couple who had been sat outside, enjoying green tea in the open-air. After a few minutes it was our turn to sit and relax with a tea outside. We repeated this several times over forty minutes. When we had had enough, we let him know, and two young girls who appeared to be his daughters prepared the cushioning on the floor. They called us over and we were asked to lay side by side. We were surprised to find that these two young girls, no older than 14 years of age, were our masseuses.
Their chatter detracted from the serenity that we had been granted since we had arrived, though they massaged well-enough. Once our toes to top had finished, they went away leaving us to exchange a few words about how pleasant but weird it was here. They returned with bowls of hot water and the half dozen linen bags containing herbs which we had seen them preparing on our arrival. They soaked the bags in the hot water before using them to rub our skin for the next 20 minutes. Whether we benefited or not we weren't sure, but it was certainly a unique experience we would never get back home, especially not as cheaply as 50,000 kip each.
In the morning we were picked-up by a jumbo which took us across to a part of town the tourists don't really visit, only pass through when a bus journey dictates. We got off the jumbo and up into the bus. The bus station's activity had been dampened by an early morning downpour. What did catch our attention before our delayed departure, however, was the sight of a scooter somehow on the roof of a departing bus. A young man stood next to it holding it upright; it was not tied down. Another unique experience we would never get back home!
We can hardly imagine the charm of Luang Prabang ever fading, despite its increasing popularity. It is such a nice tranquil place, one we are sure to visit again one day.