Royal Palace Museum in Luang Prabang
Well we had to get up at the crack of dawn this morning in order to get to the bus station on time. I road the scooter into town to return it with Cindy not far behind in a tuk-tuk. The woman that we rented the scooter from was really nice and really pregnant, due that day or so, and I figured it would bump our karmic gas tank if we helped her out so I gave her $10 for the baby and she was ecstatic. It’s kind of nice to be somewhere where such a little goes a long way.
The bus to Luang Prabang was, amazingly enough, actually a small bus this time! With real seats and everything! It was relatively full but there was no livestock or spitting old guys on board. We ended up sitting next to a really nice Belgian couple Maarten and Annik and talked a lot about travel routes in Laos, etc.
They are here for a month and are planning to head to Cambodia as well so I am sure we will be seeing them on and off.
String of Fish in Luang Prabang Market
All in all, the ride went pretty quickly (for here) taking about 8 hours. The only events were hitting the occasional pothole that sent the entire back row flying a good foot into the air. Maybe that’s why they say sit in seats between the wheels!
There were several other foreigners on the bus including a young Canadian guy, a young Norwegian guy and a young Swiss girl. The seven of us all piled into a tuk-tuk for the short ride into Luang Prabang from the bus station after haggling with the driver. Actually the haggling made it more complicated as he wanted 10,000 kip a person ($1) for which there is a convenient 10,000 kip note. We negotiated it down to 5,000 for the car or 7,000 and change per person (Cindy and I generously donated the extra 1,000 kip….
). Hmm, on the other hand, the 30 cents could buy me a small Beer Lao!
Stupa in Luang Prabang
All of the other foreigners on the bus had heard of a good guesthouse (although none of them save perhaps Maarten and Annik looked like they might have the same idea of “good” as Cindy…) and so we drove to the Sok Dee guesthouse. A man told us he was the owner and it was full that night but would have rooms in the morning (being old and cynical, I didn’t believe him as this ploy is commonly used (see the blog entries on Bangkok for more diversion stories…). Cindy walked up the alley to the not so special looking guesthouse and the same man was inside so we figured he was telling the truth. The young crowd went off in search of budget accommodation and we walked two minutes down the street to the upscale Sala Luang Prabang guesthouse that had been recommended in Luang Nam Tha by Sean and Elise. The smile on Cindy’s face was very evident, so we booked the “special” rate of $40/night for a three night minimum.
There goes our toughing it on the road in Laos again! It actually was a very nice place with great staff and clean, nice rooms with AC which ain’t too bad….
Wat Columns in Luang Prabang
We went out for some really good local food at a restaurant recommended by the hotel and chilled after the long day’s journey.
The next morning we had breakfast on the partially built patio overlooking the Mekong River and met our very humorous waiter Edwin. In addition to managing the patio for breakfast, Edwin is supervising the construction of the patio and in his words "I've never done construction before!" This did not exactly inspire confidence in our seating and was vaguely reminiscent of a certain neighbor.
Golden Wat doors in Luang Prabang
We tried to visit the Palace Museum, but, like many things here, it seemed to have flexible and unknown hours and was closed. We did stumble upon a really cool local Market down a smart alleyway, filled with interesting stuff like dried squid, field crabs and some unknown skewered, dried rodent, perhaps squirrel - tasty!
We spent the rest of the morning wandering from temple to temple including Wat May Souvanhnaphoumaram and Wat Xieng Thong. We met an English girl living in Bombay who was towards the end of her holiday. She raved about Burma - maybe if we decide to stay that's where we will head.
All the way towards the end of the peninsula where the Mekong and Nam Khan Rivers meet, we found The Tamarind restaurant, a place we had read about.
It is run by an Aussie expat, Carolyn who used to work for Travelfish. She and her partner are trying to prepare and serve real local Luang Prabang food instead of the typical tourist food served elsewhere. Lunch was really good and was a small platter of local delicacies such as Luang Prabang sausages, a spicy jaeow Chili paste, dried buffalo and preserved bamboo shoots and pickled vegetables. Cindy had grilled lemongrass stuffed with pork. Tamarind also does some custom dinners with advance notice including an "Adventurous meal" that includes some of the less known Laotian delicacies that can be tailored to suit your palate. I asked her if she ate some of the weirder ones like larvae to which she grimaced and said "No way." I might have trouble convincing Cindy on this one.
Drying Rice Cakes in Luang Prabang
Carolyn was a wealth of Information and has helped us figure out our itinerary. We are now thinking about a river cruise in southern Laos on a really kind of high end boat. We had read about this particular cruise in the "1000 Places to See Before You Die" book and it looks incredible.
It is a bit pricey but a much better deal if you buy it locally In Laos so we may splurge (again).
Nagas on King's Funeral Chariot
At dusk we climbed the steps up to Wat Phu Si to watch the sunset over the Mekong and ended up practicing English with a young local kid. It’s pretty amazing that many of them learn English watching TV and trying to talk with foreigners. We ended up giving him A Newport Beach postcard which he really liked.
After a good dinner, we ran into Rob and Kate, the English couple we met in Luang Nam Tha, and ended up having beers with them until fairly late. Rob insisted on paying so now I guess either they have to visit us or we have to go to Hong Kong and repay the favor.
Having not done anything organized in a while, we decided to do a day trip with Green Discovery, a local eco-tourism outfit.
We planned to trek and kayak through some ethnic villages, to Tad Sae waterfall. Our companions were two women from Austria, Angelica and Stephanie.
The trek was pretty short through rice fields and sesame fields and a Village of Hmong, lowland Lao and highland Lao tribes. Our guide Pong told us how the tribesmen could have multiple wives (sounds like a lot of work).
After the hike it was time to hop in the kayaks for a short paddle to Tad Sae waterfall. As Angelica was trying to maneuver to the back of the kayak (which of course was not tied to the rocks we were standing on) she fell in and managed to cut her palm pretty badly. Luckily Cindy had our first aid Kit since the guide didn't have anything and we bandaged her up. She was none to pleased but persevered.
Monks on the Mekong River
New! this should launch in a separate window but if it doesn't hit back after viewing the video
Tad Sae Waterfall
I had to take some shots of the Water Buffaloes lazing around in the River staring at me like I was ruining there serenity which I suppose in a way I was.
We climbed in the kayaks and paddled downstream for ten minutes to the Tad Sae water fall. It’s a very pretty place with low waterfalls cascading over limestone rocks with trees growing in them.
Apparently it is only rapidly flowing in the wet season. We swam in the pools at the base of the falls which was really nice and had lunch before climbing back into the Kayaks.
Lunch and Beer Lao at Tamarind Restaurant in Luang Prabang
We figured that an hour and a half downstream would be easy. What we realized later was that three hours kayaking in a sinking kayak was hard work. When I mentioned to Pong that the kayak seemed to be taking on lots of water, he replied "it has a hole in it" well no shit! Let's just say that we won’t be winning any Olympic medals any time soon. We had some major steering issues - Cindy refused to believe me about steering from the back of the boat, but we managed to snake our way through the Class Five rapids (ok class one) pretty well.
We finally made it to the landing point down stream and watched two young boys playing naked in the mud, diving into it gleefully and then running to rinse off in the river. We walked up the hill to a large village and looked at the Wat.
Our guide Pong was previously a novice at a Wat (prior to becoming a Monk) and told us about how the education Is good but they have strict rules - no food after noon, no beer, no whiskey, no touching women (I'm out!).
Sunset over the Mekong from Phu Si Mountain in Luang Prabang
We made it back to Luang Prabang and decided to celebrate with a couple Beer Lao's and then ran into the Belgian couple Maarten and Annik again. We decided to go upscale for dinner at the Three Nagas, supposed to be the best restaurant in Luang Prabang. It was really good and we had rice and sour pork salad, water buffalo steaks, steamed shrimp and pork grilled in banana leaves, and actually a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc which was a nice treat.
We woke up early today to watch the daily alms giving procession where the saffron robed novices and monks from all over Luang Prabang slowly walk down the street and the local devout place balls of sticky rice in their alms bowls.
We were told that the tradition is that only Buddhists who actually make their offering rather than buy it should donate, so we turned down the many women trying to sell pre-made offerings. The monks get up at 4:00am to chant and then this procession starts at 6:00am. They cannot eat anything after noon. It was really nice and kind of surreal in the early morning fog, but there were a fair amount of disrespectful tourists madly snapping away with cameras flashing in the monks faces. You wonder now long it will last.
Little Boy rinsing off in the Mekong after jumping in the mud
New! Monks at Alms in Luang Prabang
Well, last night we decided to head south and treat ourselves to the river cruise so we spent pretty much the entire rest of the day dealing with logistics.
The first task was to arrange airfare from Vientiane to Pakse which sounded simple enough. It wasn't!
Village Boy outside Luang Prabang
We looked on the Internet for Lao airlines and ended up finding out that, although they will walk you all the way through reserving a ticket, you can't actually book it online, rather it sends an email somewhere in Laotian Cyberspace. This seemed like a bad idea.
Next we tried speaking with a nice but not particularity fluent Lao girl at the Internet café (which like many places in Laos is also a travel agency, laundry service, etc.) and she told us of $80 fare from Vientiane to Pakse. Well it ends up that the land crossing from Southern Laos into Cambodia is currently closed so we will have to fly from Pakse to Siem Reap.
Lao Airlines has a special fare from Luang Prabang to Vientiane to Pakse to Siem Reap saving us the torture of two 10-12 how buses, one of them overnight. Our new plan was to book that ticket - then we found out we had been given bad information about the days that flight operates. This meant either flying to Pakse two days early and finding something to do or taking the bus. We walked down to the boat agent Karyn's office and she suggested some ideas for spindling time in Pakse. This sounded workable and we returned to the travel agent to book the airfare. The girl who previously helped us was on lunch break but a man named Noy said he could help us. His English was excellent and he was the consummate salesman desperately trying to sell us a multi-carrier fare that would have a great fare (and no doubt great commission). Thoroughly confused, we realized there was only one way to figure this out...lunch over Beer Lao's!
Bulls watching us kayak to Tad Sae Waterfall in Luang Prabang
Over lunch, we come up with a brilliant plan that involved first calling American Airlines to see if we could extend our stay (since we used frequent flyer mileage on American/JAL we Knew there was no way we could get the change worked out in Asia.
) Second was to book the Luang Prabang - Vientiane - Pakse - Siem Reap fare. Once that was done, we could book the River Cruise. Seemed simple enough.
Tad Sae Waterfall
Cindy called the US number of American and eventually got a helpful agent who confirmed a return flight on October 26th, almost three more weeks :-) We are not sure where we will go but both Myanmar (formerly Burma) or Bhutan is high on the list.
Two hours later, having finally convinced Noy that we just wanted to book our original itinerary to Siem Reap, Cindy went to Karyn's office to tell her we had been delayed. In the meantime, Noy told me that now there was only one seat left on the flight to Siem Reap.
I was ready to kill him but, since we are in a Buddhist country and I didn't think Laotian Jail sounded good, I refrained and confirmed us out of Pakse two days later and wait-listed us for our desired flight on September 22. Finally, we rushed to Karyn's office and booked the cruise. What a grueling day...made us appreciate technology (which Lao Air is severely lacking) like when we booked our Thai Mae Hong Son to Chiang Mai flight in ten minutes from an Internet cafe.
Monk Alms procession in Luang Prabang
That night we had Indian food which was a nice change other than the swishy, pre-teen gay boys pestering us to buy jewelry..."Madame! You say come back!" which of course we never did.
Tomorrow we are off to Vientiane.