Luang Prabang, Laos
19° 53' N 102° 8' E
Sep 19, 2005 13:02
Distance 105km

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Text written in: English

Luang Prabang

The rain continued the following day and was so heavy at one point that we had to bring down the tarpaulin on the sides of the boat. It meant we lost our view and also meant we missed a second village visit.  We did make one stop, however, so that our captain could buy something to take home for his dinner. As we approached we saw a woman holding a catfish and a flatter fish from a piece of string. Following shortly behind was another woman, this time with a pair of moles strung together. The final offering was a woman carrying a red bucket with a large piece of smoked python inside!  Vong explained that mole is quite popular and that our captain and his first mate had already had some for breakfast.
After lunch we stopped at the Pak Ou caves. They are a group of caves that have been used for centuries to house old and unwanted Buddha images. It was especially used in times of conflict when temples were being ransacked.
The lower cave is a kind of grotto full of more than 2,500 Buddha images. There is a small altar where we offered small posies of marigolds and incense sticks. We then walked to the upper cave. A walkway winds its way around the cliff and then up some 200 steps, some of which are fairly steep. At the entrance to the cave is a very large happy Buddha covered in gold leaf. Inside, the cave is very dark so we had to carry torches. We spotted a whole group of small bats on the ceiling. At the back is a fair sized altar with a large raised platform in front of it. Vong explained that the caves were once patronised by royalty and this platform is reserved for the King.
The sun came out for the final leg of our journey. We arrived in Luang Prabang, the former capital of Laos, at around 4:30pm. We jumped into more songthaews and headed to the Thongbay Guesthouse. Brian, our tour leader, had told us that this was his favourite place on the trip, but even so we were all pretty amazed when we pulled up.
The guesthouse is actually a series of beautiful, timber bungalows on stilts, each with their own balcony area. In the centre of them is a pond surrounded by immaculate gardens and lawn. I was lucky enough to get a room to myself that overlooked the river below. It was idyllic.
Brian had organised with the guesthouse to provide a BBQ for dinner. The food definitely lived up to the surroundings. We had deliciously tasty potato soup to start, with garlic bread and coriander. Next we had BBQ chicken, mash potato, tuna salad, laos salad and chips. Finally they brought out plates of fresh fruit. We were all in great spirits and carried on drinking into the early hours.
My first full day in Laos and I had breakfast delivered to my balcony so that I could eat it whilst overlooking the Mekong. What a great way to start the day! I was the first up so decided to head into the town to explore.
Luang Prabang is a UNESCO World Heritage site and is said to be the closest example of a genuine Laos working village. There's one main road through the centre and each side is dotted with temples. I didn't think it was as beautiful as all the guidebooks claimed but it certainly has that something about it that makes a place feel special. I headed to Xiang Thong Temple first, as it claims to be Laos finest. Tucked back a little off the main road it took a little finding but was worth the effort.
From a distance the main temple is a little tired looking but closer inspection reaps rich rewards. Before I got a closer look, however, I entered a building to the right of the entrance that houses the royal funeral barge. It's covered in gold leaf and at the front there are 4 large, menacing looking naga or water serpents. It's pretty impressive.
It is said that with its many roofs, the main temple resembles a hen sheltering her brood. As I approached I could see that the building itself is on a platform covered with bright blue, diamond shaped mirror tiles. The main body is painted black with gold leaf stencils overlaid. The inside is similar with a maroon coloured background. The stencils are said to depict lessons for illiterate peasants to learn about Buddhism. My favourite area, however, is the outside wall at the rear of the building. A mural of local village life has been created using brightly coloured, mirror tiles. Quite a number of the other smaller buildings in the complex are decorated in the same way.
I left the temple and headed back along the road, passing a small paper factory along the way. I stopped at Wat Saen, another beautiful temple and took some more photographs. There were 2 monks sat outside and they were very friendly. When they heard where I was from they asked me which was better - Oxford or Cambridge!
After stopping for a drink, I continued on. I had intended to climb Phou Si Hill to get some views over the town but it was so hot I decided against it! Instead I took some photographs of the former Palace opposite. I then carried on to the market but it was pretty empty. I decided to return early one evening for the famous night market.
My final walk of the day took me down by the river and passed the local produce market. It was quite an eye opener! There were several meat stalls that included pig's trotters. There were also lots of flies though and the smell wasn't great. The women had tied plastic bags onto the end of sticks and were waving them in a vain attempt to keep the flies away. One woman had fallen asleep and virtually had her head in the meat! It will never cease to amaze me too, how these people manage to survive by just selling a small pile of oranges or maybe potatoes, for just a few pence a bag, each day.
I was up early the following day as I had elected to do the 3 hour trek to the Kwang Xi Falls. Lesley and I were the only 2 in the end - the others were too tired and/or hung over to try. We had about an hours drive to the start point but I really enjoyed it. We drove through the outskirts of Luang Prabang, stopping for our driver to pick something up at a roadside stall. We soon left the road to follow a gravel track and began to climb up into the hills. We passed a number of villages, each one more remote than the last. The people were all so friendly, smiling and waving and shouting hello.
We also passed several water buffalo, grazing by the side of the track. Many people seemed to be heading out to tend the fields or go hunting. Some were carrying children on their backs, they were strapped on with large pieces of cloth, similar to the way the South Americans do it. We came to a stop in the last village right next to a school. We could hear the children repeating in unison, everything that the teacher said. It sounded so cute.
We began the walk through the edge of the village and then across a flat area dotted with banana and other plantations. It had rained over the last few days so the ground was fairly wet under foot. It grew more difficult as we climbed up and over a boulder strewn hill, through an area of forest. The mud and boulders were pretty slippery and I had to be very careful where I placed my feet.
We were rewarded on the other side though as we came out into a huge field of sticky rice. It stretched away up an incline and was dotted with bamboo and straw shelters. Around the edges was more rainforest.
We continued through the field and saw lots of colourful butterflies. It was definitely the most enjoyable part of the walk. Next we entered the forest again and the going got steadily worse. Not only was there the slippery mud and boulders to contend with but there was also the constant buzz of mosquitoes in my ear. Lesley seemed to be getting slower and slower. I was walking on ahead but had to stop and wait whenever the path split so that I could ask the guide which way to go.
In one spot the path became like a small valley, just wide enough to fit one foot at a time. There were also a number of fallen trees that we had to navigate.  At one point I spotted a dead snake with a group of 3 or 4 large, bright orange butterflies on top of it. I took a photo and called it ‘Beauty and the Beast!'
We came out of the forest and I could hear rushing water. Our guide explained that it was the stream that leads into the waterfalls we were walking to. As we stopped he asked if I had picked up any leeches on the way. I didn't think so and checked my ankles. It was a good job he asked as I spotted quite a tiny one making its way up my sock!. He said we shouldn't stop too long as that's when they get you!
The final part of the walk was better. We were out of the forest and walking along wide tracks. We descended some distance and came to open pasture with a few horses. I could really hear the water now and it spurred me on to walk faster. There was a short amount of forest to go through and then I came out onto some steps at the top of the waterfall.
With all the rain in recent days, the water was really rushing down and at one point my feet were soaked as it overflowed onto the steps. It was lovely and refreshing though as it cooled my calves at the same time. By the time I arrived at the bottom of the falls it was 1pm and it had taken an hour longer than anticipated. Despite the terrain and having to wait for Lesley to catch up all the time I had really enjoyed the trek.
The falls themselves were very full and make an impressive sight. I took several photographs before heading off to a tributary for a cooling swim. We had to keep our clothes on out of respect for the locals but it was fantastic - really refreshing and invigorating.
After a quick lunch we visited a tiger and some Asiatic black bears that had been rescued from hunters. I wasn't convinced about the way they were being kept - they looked so sad in their small enclosures. I was also annoyed at the number of people taking pictures using a flash. There were some baby bears kept inside at the back of the enclosure and people were pointing cameras right in their faces.
After a much needed shower and early dinner I headed off to the night market. It was really pleasant to wander and not to be constantly hassled by different vendors. As a consequence I bought quite a lot of the brightly coloured textiles on sale. Once I had handed over the money the vendor would tap the money over the rest of his goods for luck. I also bought a traditional headdress worn by the Tai Lam hill tribe. I asked the lady to show me how to put it on and when she had finished I didn't have the heart to take it off. I continued to wander around the market with it on and it was actually really nice - many of the older women would point at my head, say the name of the tribe and smile.
Our last morning in Luang Prabang was an early one - we decided to go and watch the alms giving. Traditionally monks are forbidden to raise livestock or grow crops to feed themselves, so they have to rely on the generosity of the community to provide them with food. At 6am each morning, they go out into the street and collect food in large tin pots slung over their shoulders. It makes for a really colourful sight, as literally hundreds of monks, in their bright orange robes, stream out barefoot into the street. We even spotted a few white clad nuns in the side streets. I bought some sticky rice and some bamboo leaf parcels from the local women. Our morning was slightly spoilt by their aggressive sales techniques but I was still really glad that I had made the effort to get up.
After returning to the guesthouse for breakfast we were back in town to visit the Royal Palace Museum. As its name suggests, the museum was once home to the Cambodian Royal Family. However, when the communists came to power in 1975, the family was banished to a cave, where it is believed they perished. Its quite an interesting place and houses the Prabang Buddha, after which the town was named.
After visiting the museum we made our way to the airport and took the short flight to Vientiane, Laos' capital.

Photos / videos of "Luang Prabang":

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