Very typical Tuk-Tuk driver in laos, very difficult to wake them up!
Stressed out? Overworked? Tired? Well go to Laos. Trust me, the slow pace of this country, the warm smiles, the special feelings are infectious. I kept being surprised by this country. I discovered so much natural beauty in the countryside, a new incredible cuisine, and dignified, charming, laaaaaaaaiiiiiiid baaaaaaack people. Beneath this silver lining though is a country often referred to as being forgotten. How many people realise laos is the most heavily bombed country on the planet, having been dragged into the ‘Vietnam’ war? Laos, one of the worlds few remaining communist states is also one of the poorest countries in SE Asia. Gaining independence from the French in 1949, largely ignored by the world and being landlocked has meant that Laos still manages to retain a distinctive culture, a gentle way of life, and a damn tasty cuisine that i had not experienced before.
Luang Prabang, the second largest city in laos, is one that is just very difficult to leave. It is very touristy, maybe half of the people there being visitors, but somehow manages to retain its elegant colonial charm. Luang Prabang is a great example of where UNESCO protection has worked beautifully, limiting the access of traffic into the city and ensuring the unique heritage is retained. Beautifully maintained quiet streets full of bright flowers, French colonial architecture, vibrant markets and HUGE butterflies. A pure joy just to walk the streets to the greetings of ‘Sabaideeeeeeee’. There are so many things to see and do here to.
The city is flanked by two rivers, the Mekong to one side and the Mae Kok that joins to one side creating almost like a peninsula in which the city beautifully sits. In the centre of the peninsula is a tree-covered hill, Phousi, with a temple on the top, that provides views of the city. From the top of Phousi and the banks of either river you can see for miles and miles of beautiful limestone karsts. Can you tell that I adored this place? It is what I had hoped Chiang Mai to be more like but, without the traffic, mcdonalds and English bars, had a completely different atmosphere. I don’t think I can say a bad word about this place, other than WHY DID I HAVE TO LEAVE?
The second night of my stay here I discovered the noodle soup bar in the night market, pure gastronomic porn.
. Fresh noodle soup for less than a dollar that you can then pimp up with a choice of weird and wonderful spices and herbs, all washed down with a beer laos of course. It was here that i met many great people including, on the second night I think, Sharon and Jeff from Jersey, who were travelling the opposite way round the globe from me. Fantastic company and finally meet someone to share a bottle of red wine with in a place that actually sells it! So, our great evenings were to meet in the noodle soup bar, then go to our favourite little wine bar on the main street, get maybe a little bit tipsy, then maybe back to their room via a ‘handy’ tuktuk driver *winks*. Yeah well, Luang Prabang was one of these city that sleeps, throw you out of the bar at 11pm, but i remember we bucked the trend and Jeff walking me home at 3am! Yes home, that is exactly what it felt like.
The city was covered in ornate buddist temples all with resident monks. Every morning at sunrise, around 5.30am, hundreds of monks in their bright robes would parade right past the balcony of my room as part of their giving alms. This traditional ceremony is to allow the ‘laypeople’ of the city to earn spiritual merit by donating food, usually rice, to the monks by placing in their alms bowl as they walk past. When I was checking out one of the temples I got chatting to one of the young monks who told me that the next day was full moon and there would be a special ceremony that day with people coming from afar to contribute. I set my alarm for 5.30am to watch it but just before nodding off thought ‘nah sod it I am way too tired’ probably been out with Sharon and Jeff, so turned my alarm off.
Giving alms ceremony
I was woken by the ceremony anyway and caught the full parade from my balcony in my pyjamas! I could sit on that balcony and watch life go by all day! My breakfast was served to me there every day, always Laos coffee (HOW CAN I FORGET LAOS COFFEE, easily the best in Asia, perfectly full-bodied and strong, perfect antidote to the 3 in 1 sachets of Myanmar!), a baguette (hangover from the French but yum tasty), with a huge fried egg and fresh fruit. Local dishes were always served with a portion of sticky rice. No cutlery required here, actually quite difficult to eat sticky rice with a fork or spoon. No, you scoop up some rice with your fingers, flatten it a bit, and dip it into your food. The noodle soup was always eaten with spoon and chopsticks but hey I am more or less pro now with chopsticks and prefer them to knife and fork! The food was chilli spicy but not too much, fragrant spices, lemongrass, thai basil, lime.
Kouang Si waterfalls, getting a soaking
Meat and fish dishes were generally steamed and served in banana leaves. Very impressive food and a bit of a discovery for me.
One day i joined a minibus trip to the Kouang Si waterfalls about 30km outside of Luang Prabang. I went with three girls on holiday from England. Very nice girls but it was hilarious how naive they were, they were very easy to wind up! There had been quite a bit of rain recently so the falls were pretty fast flowing. Unfortunately this meant that the colour of the water was not bright blue like i had seen in pictures but a bit murky. The fast flowing falls did give us some bonus adventure though too. There is a platform high up on the main falls for observing and taking photos. There was so much water around that this gave us a complete soaking and we were stood knee deep in water trying not to get washed away! We then went for a nice swim in one of the levels.
I think this was supposed to be relaxing but the strong currents from the large volume of water meant I nearly got swept down the falls when i tried to swim! It was really funny! One of the girls, Franny saw my distressed look and offered me her leg to grab hold of while she clung onto a tree!! Just about managed not to go over the edge but i did lose my bikini top during the event, very embarrassing! Before we left to go home we dropped in to see some rescued Asiatic black bears that are in an enclosure near the falls. Massive animals, looked very huggable, maybe not! This was a fun day until the minibus driver dropped us off to a fake ‘eco village’ project on the way home. Lots of really cute children trying to sell us naff bracelets, following us around ‘you buy, you buy, you buy’.
I had a skirt made to measure from this silk, cost me less than 20 USD
This upset the three girls who parted with quite a bit of cash, even after I explained the setup to them....
Some of the Laos laid-backness must have rubbed off on me. My plan was to next go South to the capital of laos, Vientiene, where i could apply for my Vietnam visa before heading to Hanoi. I was also wanting to go to Cambodia, seeing the temples of Angkor wat is a dream, but with my flight booked to Australia for 27th August was really starting to feel the time pressure. Time? Pressure? Hey I am in laos, lets skip Vietnam, its wet season anyway, Halong bay will be grey and over-touristy. I will go to Vietnam one day but not this trip, instead I will go directly to Cambodia. Missing out Vietnam meant I didn’t need to go to Vientiene either if i didn’t want to.
Just when i was thinking about all of this, I met some new neighbours at the guesthouse from germany. They had just returned from a trek in Northern Laos and it sounded superb, seeing rural village life in Laos rather than another city was appealing. I made the decision there and then and booked myself on a flight to Cambodia from Luang Prabang for a weeks time and a bus further North for the next morning.