Monday, December 1, 2008

The Cultural Capital of Laos: Luang Prabang


Destination: Luang Prabang

Number of Days there: 4

One thing unexpected: The tourist alms ceremony was a bit over the top.

Times we took the: Boat: 0; Bus/Minivan: 2; Train/Subway: 0 Taxi/Car: 2; Motorbike: 1

Where we stayed: Cold River (80,000kip/$9) Quiet little riverside hotel complete with a private balcony overlooking the river. Even comes with free's right on their business card :-) We also stayed one night at Sok Dee Guesthouse (we had to switch to a place with a TV to watch the election results) at a price of $8 per night. Ok, but go for the main rooms and not the ones in the wooden building across the alley.

Favorite Restaurant: We didn't really have a favorite restaurant but there were five fantastic street markets spots:

  • The veggie man in the night market makes some great spring rolls for 1000kip (about .15 cents) and serves an ok buffet for 5000kip a plate (about .75 cents).
  • Mama's sandwiches at the end of the night market area both day and night - you will know which one she is, she's the little old lady with the huge smile on her face. Sandwiches were 5000-10,000 kip each (about a buck).
  • The "convenience store" on the main street served great crepes (10,000 kip) and had homemade fresh yogurt (4000 kip).
  • The street vendors just past the night market on the big street that runs opposite the night market had the best grilled pork chop (only available at lunch time and no place to sit however)
  • The street vendors in the night market alleyway had terrific grilled fish (15,000 kip) & chicken (10,000 kip). Served with some sticky rice & spicy sauce and you've got a terrific meal!

Best of: The cooking class we took at Tamnak Lao was fantastic! It's amazing how much we miss cooking for ourselves. It was great to be back in the kitchen chopping fresh vegetables!

Worst of: Poorly mannered tourists jumping out in front of the monks during the alms ceremony with flashing cameras.

Special Moments: Witnessing the local alms ceremony before dawn and far away from the touristy procession that takes place an hour later.

We decided to charter a van to Luang Prabang with our Vang Vieng friends and it turned out to be an excellent idea! The van was 35,000 kip per person (5000 kip - less than a buck) for private transport to Luang Prabang. So much more comfortable than a huge bus or a van crammed full with 10 people. Regardless of the mode of transportation, no one can fix the roads they drive on and this was the worst section of road that we had been on yet. After the bumpy four to five hour ride, we arrived, checked in, and hit the night market. Lining the end of the main road sandwiched in between the Phu Si Hill and the Royal Palace, vendors set up every night and hawk their wares. Unlike other markets in South East Asia, this market is solely dedicated to tourists. You won't find any huge bags of dried shrimp, cheap knock off clothing or shovels here. It's two rows of brightly lit souvenirs ranging from the basic key chains to full on traditional puppets. We ended up going to the market just about every night we were there either to browse some more or to get to our favorite eats in town.

The main draw of Luang Prabang are the Wats (Temples) and there are plenty to choose from - 47 to be exact. Some of the wats date back over 500 years. We picked out just a few to check out and wander through and spent a day casually wandering through. All the Wats have resident monks of all ages. Every Buddhist male is expected to join the monk hood at some time in their lives. Most only go in for three to six months, but some spend their entire lives serving Buddha. Every morning they sound the gongs at dawn (or a little before) and all the town comes out to pay alms. The monks line up in descending order of age and march through town collecting cooked rice and other food. The belief is that by feeding the monks, you are actually feeding your ancestors and in turn enriching your life and soul here on earth. It's a beautiful and peaceful sight if you get up early enough to catch the "real" procession and stand back and respect their customs and beliefs. The actual procession only lasted about 10 minutes so we decided to go up to the main street to catch the end of it. About an hour later, the crowds of people had gathered, complete with tourists giving alms for a small fee and inconsiderate tourists shoving flashing cameras into the faces of the monks as they passed by. Tracy and I both walked away from this thinking how sad it was and figured that the real procession happened an hour earlier and this one was solely for the tourists as most of the monks that collected the alms from the tourists turned around and gave it back to the poor street kids that had bags outstretched.

The city used to be home to the royal family, which fled after the Communist revolution and are still living in exile and mysteriously not heard from since. Their former home is open to the public and we strolled though it one evening. They also do a Ramayana ballet here as well. Not as good as Prambanan in Java, Indonesia, but I can't be too tough on them as it was a tough act to follow. The arts are a new thing in Laos after years of Communist oppression so all the performers were students still learning.

Another activity that was well worth the effort was the Kuang Si waterfalls an hour's tuk-tuk ride outside of town. Aside from the odd "Bear sanctuary" at the base, the falls are stunning. Turquoise water falling over limestone cliffs makes for some stunning scenery. We, along with our Dutch friends and one German lady that tagged along, trekked to the top of the falls and walked across in the water from one side to the other. It was pretty cool looking over the edge, standing in the water watching the water gush over the edge. We also took a freezing cold yet oddly refreshing dip at the bottom in one of the pools.

The rest of the time spent in Luang Prabang we just soaked in the sights and sounds. It's a lovely town filled with friendly folks and a cool vibe. We enjoyed just sitting and having a cup of coffee while watching the world go by. The last day we were there, Jason decided to give blood at the local Red Cross. It was rewarding in one way, but he paid for it a couple of days later (see Hanoi).

After much debate on how we were going to get to Vietnam as our visa was set to expire, we elected to take the short route of flying into Hanoi. The other options involved several days on boats and long bus rides, the latter we were not to keen to repeat after the bumpy ride to Luang Prabang.

We waved a sad goodbye to Laos and boarded the plane for Hanoi, Vietnam. As one Loatian put it "Laos is a place to be, not a place to see". I can't sum up our time in Laos any better than that. It was a great place to be!

To see more photos of Luang Prabang please click here!

1 comment:

Garrett Brown said...

Thanks so much for sharing your trip. I have enjoyed seeing the travels and learning about the different country s and cultures. Enjoy the travels because I am so jealous