So we left you in Pai, the chilled out capital of Northern Thailand. Unfortunately, the journey across the border and into Laos didn’t really follow on the same vein …
The red path indicates our journey (ignoring the final line to Vientiane.. that came later): minibus to Chiang Kong, a nondescript town on the Thai side of the border; couple of hours sleep – fine for us but flea-ridden and sleepless for some of our fellow bus-mates; up at dawn for a short boat ride over to Huay Xai, our first introduction to Laos; faffing for hours at immigration – forms and queues and waiting and confusion; and finally, a two-day slow boat down the Mekong river to Luang Prabang.
The slow boat is an experience in itself, and we highly recommend it. Actually, saying that, there aren’t many other options – it’s either that, a fast boat which has a terrifyingly high rate of annual casualties (you have to wear motorbike helmets – and so loud that you couldn’t possibly talk), or a non-air-conditioned bus which may or may not actually arrive at its destination.
The actual vessel is a wooden longboat, about 40-50m in length with the engine at the back and the driver (helmsman?) at the front. It was decked out with car seats (!), a miniature bar at the back and one rickety toilet. The roof is covered with a tarpaulin and the sides are open, creating a semi-cooling breeze as we drifted down the river. The Mekong is absolutely stunning; wide and fairly fast flowing, with towering ranges on either side covered in impenetrable jungle. Every so often you pass a narrow fishing boat with a single fisherman aboard, shying away from the merciless sun under a wide-brimmed straw hat. Groups of naked children splash in the shallows, and beautiful women dressed in Laos silk skirts and invariably with a baby strapped to their back, scrub clothes and lay them out to dry on the smooth rocks behind them. There seems to be an inordinate amount of butterflies, specks of white and yellow that flutter around the surface of the water and bloom in front of you as you walk.
The journey passes in a blur of heat and chatter and unfamiliar sights. As you pull into Luang Prabang, a whole three days and two nights after you originally set out, you are so ready to hit dry land and stop blimmin’ moving, that you honestly wouldn’t care, nor probably notice, if you had just docked in Timbuktu. What a treat, then, that Luang Prabang is the gem in Laos’ crown and encompasses the ethos of Laos completely. When people say that the Lao people are gentle and genuinely interested in you, they are 100% spot on. There is no aggressive hassling, most people actually want to help you and their politeness and kindness is unrivalled.
The actual town is a delight. The first thing that meets the eye is an enormous temple – Phu Si – positioned atop a hill right in the middle of the city. It’s 100m high (190 steps, sweaty or wha?!), but the impressive panoramic views from top (sunset and sunrise in particular) are well worth the exertion of the climb. Phu Si sets the tone for the rest of the town as Luang Prabang is home to 39 Wat and has acquired the nickname, the ‘city of temples’. The monk and novice population is so omnipresent and so real that we never know whether we are actually allowed to go into the temples of if they are just for the practicing monks. We spent an afternoon in the library with two novice monks helping out with some ‘informal English lessons’, and ended up chatting about their facebook profiles and Steve Jobs. Pretty surreal.
Yet, that is one of the delights of Luang Prabang – that the monks and temples are fully integrated into everyday life. A major draw is the renowned Tak Bat – a daily ceremony where novice monks form a line down the city’s main street to receive alms at dawn. It is a really beautiful experience, all carried out total silence. The alms givers are mainly women, who roll out a woven mat and kneel on it surrounded by their offerings, which mainly consist of sticky rice and small packets of biscuits. As the monks process past, they bow their heads and place a handful of rice into the alms bowl. Interestingly, alongside the almsgivers there were a few scruffy looking young boys, each holding an empty basket or bag and occasionally one of the monks would take a handful from his own bowl and put it into the boy’s basket. I asked later what this meant and the novices told me that they belonged to poor families or didn’t have enough to eat themselves, so the monks would in turn give them charity. These acts of charity, so very much in evidence in daily life, reflect the importance of religion in Laos as alms giving is one of the fundamental precepts of Buddhism.
I apologise for the lack of photos of the Tak Bat but I didn’t really consider it appropriate to take a camera. This is especially relevant as the monks have recently threatened to stop doing it as they feel that the tourists are slightly taking the proverbial biscuit in terms of getting too close in order to get the perfect photo op, and are giving the monks old food which is making them ill just so they can feel that they are part of the ceremony. Having been there and seen the busloads of tourists that pull up bleary eyed, hop out and almost push into the line of monks wielding their super-hypo-panoramic-long-lenses with an astonishing amount of insensitivity, I can kind of see their point.
Added to this melee of monastic and layperson life is the ghost of the colonial French past. Luang Prabang is a UNESCO heritage site, which means that French architecture and Gallic cuisine are still very much in evidence, giving the place a quaint and serene feel. You occasionally come across French bakeries, and bilingual schools, yet according to our novice friends, no one speaks French anymore – only the oldies. The city is also home to an extensive night market – it’s certainly a sight to behold as you descend the 190 steps from watching the sunset at Phu Si and see a sea of red roofed tents and twinkling fairy lights as the market gets going.
One final draw of Luang Prabang (as if there aren’t enough already) is the close proximity to the Kuang Si Waterfalls.
Honestly, with brilliant turquoise water, natural Jacuzzis and great lengths of cascading waterfalls, this place looks like it could be some sort of multi-million pound resort, yet it’s ALL NATURAL! There are about 4 pools in total, many of which you can cool off in, which lead to an enormous multi-tiered waterfall at the top. Sitting on slippery limestone and feeling the ice-cold water on your back is just bliss.
We had to leave Luang Prabang in the end – kicking and screaming and the like. It is an unforgettable place, whether due to the hilarious group of people we had magically acquired (legends), the city’s charm or just because Luang Prabang epitomises Laotian culture, ambiance and beauty. We don’t care why, we just know that we, for one, would love to go back.