Tuesday, 29 April 2014

Luang Prabang

Up early with Remy to grab a tuk tuk to the bus station for the 8:30am north to Luang Prabang. Another minivan, this time only costing 100,000 (£7.50) for a journey about an hour longer than the six hours it took to get to Phonsavan. I think if I had been on my own, there's a fifty-fifty chance I would just have taken a flight home from the Plain of Jars rather than face another ride like that, but it's slightly more bearable when you're travelling with friends, and Martine & Ruairí said it was definitely a place to see if I could.

Remy and I were up and out in time to go to the market to stock up on biscuits and water for the journey. All along the street there were people selling greens, huge mushrooms, and what looked like dead squirrels, and possibly a cat or a fox? They were there when we went into the market, but the police were moving them along as we left. You do see some incredible things, but the one that I found a little disturbing was the sale of pigs in baskets. The baskets are made of wicker, and hugged the pig's contour, leaving no room to move. People can carry them home like handbags, but the pigs did not sound happy about it.

Pigs in Baskets
Jonas arrived as we were preparing to leave, and jumped on board just in time.

I found this journey fairly tough, spending most of it with my legs braced against the side of the van with my arms wrapped around the headrest to try to minimise the rocking sensation. I felt a little green around the gills at one point: seasick on dry land. 

Remy helped take my mind off it with an impromptu French lesson. I can now say 'I am very lazy' and 'shut your mouth you animal!' - I'm practically fluent. In return, I taught him the quintessentially British phrase 'shove it up your arse.'  

And so began an indulgent bout of casual racism, which proved entertaining for many hours to come. An arrogant Frenchman and the sunburned descendant of a lobster (I think he won that one).

Almost five hours in and we finally stopped for a toilet and food break at a café by the roadside. The view was beautiful, but I wasn't fully in the mood to appreciate it. Still, it gives some idea of the type of landscape we were travelling through.

(click to enlarge)

When we finally landed, we went looking for the backpackers' hostel. I had no intention of checking into a dorm after a journey like that, but I did want to make sure I found a place nearby so that we could all explore together. As it was, all of the hostels were booked, and the upper end hotels were very expensive by comparison. Then we stumbled across the Suan Keo Guest House, a stone's throw from the river. The proprietor spoke very little English, but she had three rooms upstairs, all opposite each other. Very clean, with incredibly soft mattresses! Quite a surprise after the rock solid tables we'd been sleeping on in Vang Vieng and PonSav. I opted for a little luxury, taking the one with air conditioning for an extra 10,000 (70p).

We crawled into our rooms for a shower and a nap, no one feeling much like talking after the crazy bus ordeal. But it wasn't long before we were back on form and ready to explore the town.

Luang Prabang is absolutely delightful. It's extremely pretty, with a long stretch of cafés and bars along the riverbank. We also stumbled upon a small temple that was ornately decorated. The town is a strange mixture of Lao, French and Chinese influences.

Rice Cakes Drying

We sat by the river with a beer and watched the sun set, then headed inland towards the night market, which is absolutely stunning. It's like a giant Asian bazaar full of beautiful handcrafts: scarfs, bowls, bags, shoes and street food. Every large town seems to have a night market and a morning market, sometimes they're in the same place, sometimes in different places. Luang Prabang was certainly a spectacle to behold.

We finally adjourned to the most amazing bar on the main strip, called the Lao Lao Garden, for food and more beer. It was utterly fantastic. The whole place is decked out in fairy lights like a magical wonderland, all the tables lit with candles. The perfect place to unwind.

Menu: Before you read on, all menu items are 'Falang safe'
meaning 'safe for tourists.'
Useful advice for travellers.

I returned the next morning with Remy for breakfast (pancake with honey and jam, and a large mug of coffee), before adjourning to the internet café over the road to catch up on some work.

Lao Keyboard

Jonas had come down with a bad cold, so stayed in bed to recover whilst Remy and I took another turn around the town. There's a sort of peninsula on the Mekong, with two bamboo bridges connecting it. Luang Prabang is famed for its monks. Every morning, at around 6am, hundreds of them walk through the town collecting alms from the people. If you google image it, you'll see some impressive pictures but in recent years the monks have been voicing concern at the number of tourists coming to photograph this ritual, and their behaviour.

I heard a story from R that the monks had threatened not to continue the practise because of this, to which the local council reputedly said words to the effect of 'this is what brings in the tourism, which is good for our economy. If you stop, we'll employ actors to dress up as monks instead,' at which point the monks apparently begrudgingly agreed to keep going. Whether it's true or not, it raises some interesting questions about the growth of tourism and how you manage that alongside local traditions and beliefs. It's certainly true that the antics of many western tourists along the main party strip were quite out of kilter with a country that values modesty and polite behaviour.

There are certainly a lot of monks in Laung Prabang. I remember how excited I was to see my first one at Bangkok airport, and how I had to resist the urge to photograph him. I couldn't resist a couple of sneaky snaps here though. They really are quite beautiful to see in their bright orange robes.

We continued along a little. We wanted to cross the bamboo bridge, but you had to pay before 6pm, so we decided against it, instead finding a little path down to the water's edge where we paddled and took photographs.

(click to enlarge)
A little further down we found locals playing the French game of pétanque. They were happy for us to watch and take photos. They were extremely accurate, and had obviously been playing a lot.

We walked for a long time, stopping for food and ice-cream at a riverside bar on the way back. 

By the evening, Jonas was feeling a bit better, and joined us in a walk back through town to the Wat Tham Phou Si. Wat is the name for a temple, and this one sits at the top of a very steep hill, with a large golden stupa at the top. People gather there in the evening to watch the sun set over the river. However, in order to get there, you need to climb a lot of steps. Nowhere near as many steps as it took to get to the Plain of Jars quarry, but still a lot of steps.

I had a bit of a 'moment' at the top. The first of two. I arrived sweaty and tired, and flumped down on the steps with Remy and Jonas to watch the mountains change colour, surrounded by tourists of every nationality.

It was quite a cloudy sunset, but I just felt completely overwhelmed - in a really good way. When I felt overwhelmed at the Vietnamese temple with Martine, it felt sad and uncomfortable, but this felt uncomfortable and exciting. Like I have been thinking too hard over the past few years about certain things, looking too hard for something, and in so doing I've missed all the other opportunities round me. Being there, at the top of that hill, with two beautiful blokes who have travelled so far, I suddenly felt this odd mixture of relief and intense realisation. It's hard to explain, so I won't try to, but it was interesting, and a little disturbing, and I felt a bit like crying, but didn't. It would have been nice to have sat there for a little while longer, but eventually the sun went down and it was time to go in search of sustenance. 

I'm very glad I climbed that flight of steps. It was a unique and unusual moment.

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