Luang Prabang, Laos – December 2014

Bamboo Bridge over the Nam Khan River

Bamboo Bridge over the Nam Khan River

Photo’s are here or you can just click on the photograph above.

Luang Prabang… a beautiful UNESCO World Heritage city…wow – what a difference to Siem Reap – spotless streets, flower filled gardens with fences, everything clean and tidy… this had to be too good to be true! And, of course, it was – we found the morning market – phew …. we didn’t want our Laotian adventure to be too sterile 😉 🙂 !

….even so, albeit that the market was thronging with locals, there was still a remarkable sense of calm and almost no chaos for a typical food market ….. how strange….

Despite being height of tourist season (and every hotel being fully booked) due to the spectacular weather at this time of year, we barely passed another tourist… those we did were equally enthralled by the bowls of live back beetles, chargrilled laotian rock rat on offer, live laotian rock rats in a lidless plastic box (obviously not top of the rat chain for brains as they made no attempt to climb out and scuttle away for their lives) and bowls of fat wriggling silkworms.

I wasn’t quite as enthralled with one small boy’s plaything – a huge live stag beetle on a string which he delighted at twirling in the direction of unsuspecting foreigners … little tike 😉

Around every corner something spectacular dazzled us during our 5 days in the city – buddhist monks in their saffron robes and sandals scurrying though the streets; young novice monks playing together in the gardens of their Wat; the sunlight catching the bright robes drying in the breeze on laundry day; trays of rice cakes, sticky rice and bright green Mekong River weed drying in the streets; the sun glinting on the gilded decorations of the temples; there are 32 Wats in all – each gilded, hand decorated, carved or mosaicked; brightly painted tuk-tuks; ATM machines with pagoda rooves 😉 ; hundreds of gold statues of Buddha surrounded by candles, marigold flowers and gifts of food and drink (anything and everything from packets of Pringles and bottles of Coke to the more health conscious offerings of fruit and rice 😉 ); catching a glimpse of a monk crossing the bamboo bridge to a Wat on the hill at the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Khan Rivers; the Night Market selling arts and crafts every evening; the colored paper lantern lights and twinkly lights decorating the bars, shops and restaurants at night; river boats puttering up and down the Mekong River; fishermen in their long boats on the Nam Khan; beautiful French colonial and Indo-Chinese architecture; tranquil residential backstreets where chickens picked at seeds on the ground; cockerels crowing; elderly locals playing cards on tables outside their houses; women and young girls washing food and cooking in the streets outside of their homes; the mist rising on the Nam Khan River early in the morning and the breathtaking sound of a lone monk chanting in the distance…..

I could wax lyrical about this tiny, peaceful, tranquil city forever…. we absolutely loved it 🙂 It was one of the most relaxing places we have ever visited.

We sipped coffee in French sidewalk cafes, lunched on Mekong River weed and chili sauce overlooking the Nam Khan River, drank lemongrass and ginger tea through a bamboo straw and sampled croissants almost as good as the real thing in France 🙂

The young novice monks (some as young as 8 years old) were a constant source of inadvertent entertainment … catch them unawares and they will be huddled in giggling groups texting on their smart phones – but when they spot you and know they might be photographed the phones are hidden under the folds of their robes and you are treated to their serene little faces with the beatific Mona Lisa smiles 😉

Due to the dim and distant connection with the French (and the fact that several restaurants are still run by French and/or other european expats) the food was excellent… just like Siem Reap 🙂 Except for the first night when we arrived too exhausted to explore (big mistake) and sampled the dreadful and overpriced offerings of our hotel. The experience wasn’t enhanced by the truly appalling asian cover versions of well-known western songs…. it was hard not to choke on the worst curry in the world whilst enjoying such well-known classics as Stevie Wonder’s “I jus’ crawl’d to say I ruv you …. ” 😉

Of course, too much tranquility and perfection isn’t good for a traveller so we decided to take our lives in our hands and rent a motorbike for the day to explore the surrounding countryside and visit spectacular Kuang Si Waterfall . Easier said than done ….. it took most of an afternoon, endless enquiries and a circuitous tuk-tuk ride (with a driver who didn’t speak a word of english) to actually find a bike rental shop outside of the old city which had a real motorbike for hire rather than the more ubiquitous mopeds. They simply didn’t look sufficiently comfortable (or stable) for two fat european/american bodies to bounce their way through the mountains. Eventually, we lucked in, left Geoff’s passport in the (hopefully) safe hands of the store owner and headed out of town. How the mighty have fallen – from the luxury of a 1450cc Harley Davidson Electra Glide Ultra Classic in Teton National Park, Wyoming in August to a 150cc Zongshen bike upon which which to navigate around the potholes of Laos 😉

I was a little anxious to start – whilst the temples and back streets of Luang Prabang are serenely peaceful the roads out of town most definitely are not. Nothing travels at great speed but we had already spotted that the general rule seems to be to pull out onto the main road without looking in either direction… which is a little unnerving. This applies to cars, vans, bikes, mopeds….absolutely nobody looks for oncoming death mobiles when they enter a main road…. how bizarre. Geoff assured me that as a driver there was actually a flow to the traffic and this seemingly crazy system did work without anyone coming a cropper. Miraculous in my view!

We saw early morning mist rising on cultivated fields, passed villages of bamboo shacks, market stalls and farms growing rice, sugar and immaculate rows of vegetables. We bounced and jolted our way through a maze of pot holes big enough to swallow a small car and consumed enough street dust that it would surely knock 20 years off our lives.

Kuang Si waterfall was busy but lovely – a very popular swimming hole but way too cold for our floridian blood (we had 3 layers and our raincoats on as it was, to avoid hypothermia 😉 ). The water is milky turquoise and the area is full of shallow pools, water rushing through half submerged trees… all very exotic looking …. apparently a place of contemplation for buddhist monks … Unfortunately, we didn’t get to share it with any buddhist monks… we got a bus load of noisy, stupid Korean tourists who tried to feed the bears at the rescue centre en route to the falls with biscuits. We nearly ended up starting the Third World War with them as we kept yelling “No” to them and pointing to the signs (even if you didn’t read lao or english one would have to be very hard of thinking not to understand the picture) which clearly explained that feeding them was a really bad idea…. I feared Geoff was actually going to grab the packets of biscuits out of their hands and end up in fisticuffs with one of the most obstreperous of the party but in the end the offending idiot gave up as we shooed them all out of the bear enclosure…. 😉

On to Tad Sae waterfall via a “detour” – initially to look for gas (the 2 gas stations we actually found directly en route had run out of gas…ummm…OK…maybe the rest of Laos isn’t quite as perfect as Luang Prabang 😉 ) – but ultimately because I had missed the turning and failed to consult the map at the strategic point … so we bounced onwards through the dusty countryside gazing at the scenery and blissfully unaware that we had passed our intended (and even dustier) track miles back. By the time we had worked out where on earth we were on the map we were running short on daylight. We quickly retraced our steps, paid an exorbitant “parking fee” – basically protection money for the bike as bike theft is prevalent in Laos – ran down the dustiest track in Laos coughing and spluttering all the way to the boat dock, convinced a driver to shuttle us across the water before closing time at the waterfall and hang about for us whilst we ran round the waterfall…which was horrible – full of smelly backpackers having their annual bath and not worth the effort at all!

Dusty and broken, back in town, we staggered into the nearest spa (I use the term loosely) in the hope that we could be straightened out again. Most of the street “spas” are, on the surface, quite attractive at street level but they hide a sea of horrors for those of us with a cleanliness obsessive compulsive disorder. I tried to ignore the almost certain knowledge that the towels and sheets used on the massage beds weren’t changed between clients and probably didn’t see the inside of a washing machine more than once a month ….. still you get what you pay for and when you are only paying $3 US for an hour of ministrations you should probably expect fleas 😉 The massage therapists were tiny torturers – particularly good for ones so young – but neither of us were too enamored of the last place we tried. We bought the deluxe massage which included a shower – which I was certain I didn’t want. Needless to say the bathing facilities weren’t quite up to Gardner scratch – Geoff’s apparently had all the charm and malodorous delights of a urinal … I am still trying to blot mine out. In the “luxury” private massage room the sheets were definitely not clean, the forehead head rest was so repulsive it makes me shudder even now … but it wasn’t all bad as my masseur was quite cute and muscle bound – the strong but silent type – largely due to the fact that neither of us could speak each others language….. Geoff’s masseur was a touch more dubious – I was convinced “she” was a “he” with really terrible make-up and it seems he/she spent rather too much effort concentrating on groinal muscles rather than shoulder muscles which (he says!) he found disconcerting 😉

In addition to the out of city biking adventure we left the old city twice – once to cross the Nam Khan by rickety bamboo bridge (only usable in dry season as in rainy season it drifts off down the river and has to be re-built every year in winter) for lunch at Dyen Sabai – a restaurant built into the trees and surrounded by jungle.

The second time we took a ferry boat across the Mekong to Xiang Mene (circa 1750) which was notable in its stark and unbelievably dusty difference from relatively glitzy, “modern” Luang Prabang.

We passed many hours exploring the quieter of the Wats in the old city – you can basically come and go as you please into the temple grounds, poke about, stick your nose (politely) into doorways, sit down and contemplate the universe, watch the monks’ unusual world go by and photograph whatever you like – although most monks are a little shy and are not supposed to actually pose for photos – which is why they seem to have all mastered the same serene passive expression when they know they are being paparazzi’d.

Geoff was sporting his cat magnet as usual wherever we went and discovered that even the rattiest of street cats were very used to human love and attention. If I am ever reincarnated as a cat (but I am not lucky enough to find myself in the lap of luxury living in Florida with two doting humans to respond to my every whim) I would be quite happy making myself comfortable in a Wat in Luang Prabang cared for by buddhist monks 🙂

Our strangest interaction of the trip was a conversation we struck up at one of the landmarks (Buddha’s footprint) on Mount Phousi (a famous overlook for the city and the rivers). Normally very reserved and prone to look away rather than engage eye contact with foreigners, we came across a couple of monks practicing their english with some tourists. Unlikely to ever pass the time of day with a Laotian monk again we stopped to join in and ended up chatting with one young man for a good half hour or so after the other tourists had disappeared. It was amazing that for a 17 year old raised in the countryside he spoke english almost fluently and was able to distinguish accents between the gamut of english speaking countries and non-english speakers speaking english, to boot. That’s more impressive than the average american citizen – many of whom automatically assume we are Ozzies! So we learnt a bit about life as a monk and schooling etc and Geoff cautiously, so as not to cause offense, asked if he could have his photo taken with Bee – which is a little unconventional. He agreed on the basis he could have a copy too which confused me for a second – I just laughed at him and said “Sure if you give me your email address!” whereupon he promptly wrote it down for me and said he’d check his account for the photo next time he was in the library…. that was just so very much NOT what I expected of a Laotian monk ! 🙂 😉

Whilst that interaction didn’t quite fit the picture of abstention, austerity and piousness I was expecting of the average buddhist monk, our 5am start the following day to watch the dawn alms collection was infinitely more in line with my vision. Freezing cold (wrapped up in the same 3 layers required for the early morning motorbike ride and looking the height of fashion with one of my silk beach sarongs wrapped round each of our necks 😉 ) we wandered bleary eyed in the pitch black up to the main street with a couple of other bleary eyed tourists toting cameras to observe the Tak Bat ceremony.

The streets were starting to fill with locals who perched on child-size plastic chairs with buckets of rice in front of them… and, of course, the ubiquitous tour bus tourists who were also going to take part in the actual giving ceremony were beginning to throng excitedly. I hope at least that they were buddhist and weren’t just joining in for a photo shoot but it was difficult to tell. They were mainly Japanese and Korean (so they probably were buddhist) and their tour organizers had pre-set rows of identical kneeling mats with rows of identical rice buckets in front of them ready for the disgorged bus passengers to grab a mat and wait for the monks to emerge from their respective wats.

We couldn’t bear the cacophony by the tour buses so meandered away from the 2 primo Wats and headed toward one of the smaller ones where there were more locals and young children sitting on the sidewalk with empty baskets in front of them. Slowly, the monks (around 200 over the old city) began to emerge simultaneously to the sound of a beating drum. The procession of bare-footed monks made it’s way down the length of the devotees in solemn silence, the only sound being the manic clicking of camera shutters from the audience to this daily ritual. The offerings varied – from bags of chips (who would give a monk a bag of chips?!!), to fruit, bank notes and balls of sticky rice which the alms givers waded up in their sticky paws and placed in each passing monk’s silver bart bucket. By the time they made their way to us the buckets were full to overflowing (how much rice can one small monk eat in a day? 😉 )

There was no eye contact between the monks and the alms givers but when the monks reached the small children with the empty baskets they dug into their baskets and gave food to the children. There seemed to be some kind of black market trading going on at the same time with food exchanges whereby some locals gave them rice and the monks, in turn, offloaded the biscuits and bags of chips they didn’t want in exchange for more rice….. good choice 😉

It was quite an emotional and humbling experience to observe this ancient cultural tradition dating back to the 14th century. The donors are giving alms effectively to earn more spiritual credits which may help them to come back in a higher life form in their next life. The idea is that the donors “make merit” and the monks collect food for their one meal of the day. Moving, even for spiritually challenged people like us 🙂

And so, hopelessly enamored with this thoroughly charming tiny city, it’s peace and quiet and serenity; a window to a world a million miles away from our lives in Florida, we left heavy of heart en route to Chiang Mai, Thailand.

At least that was the idea…. it was touch and go for a few minutes that we would actually arrive in Thailand due to the failure of the idiot receptionist at our hotel to book a cab to the airport, the very late arrival of an alternative cab, the queue out the door to check in to the flight (having been advised by said idiot that it was a very quiet airport and no need to panic about getting there 2 hours beforehand… fat chance of that in any event by the time the driver had actually arrived to collect us!), a hugely inefficient check-in girl and an antiquated computer system. In the end, having stood in a barely moving line for over an hour as we watched the clock tick towards take-off and there was still absolutely no sense of urgency visible from the check-in girl (who must have known half the passengers wouldn’t make the flight at her present speed), I queue jumped the business class check-in and told them I wasn’t moving until we had our boarding passes…. being a very passive, charming and subservient people they obliged and we ran hell for leather to the immigration control where the immigration officers dawdled about in true banana republic style, checking our exit papers with great scrutiny and re-photographed us (why?!!). Grinning sweetly for the camera we tried to explain our plane was imminently about to depart without us …. to no avail… still… we managed to make it to the gate with 1 minute to boarding time to spare and were first to walk onto the plane 😉 The irony of the fact that it took twice as long to get through the check-in process and immigration than it did to actually fly to Chiang Mai didn’t escape us!

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