Can you say Buddha cave?
Bear in Hammock
Pachyderm in Prabang
Monks Receiving Alms
The Mekong from the Hotel
H'Mong Boy going to a wedding
Baby in Hammock
If I could have stayed longer…. I would have. This is a wonderful and very special place – not that you can’t get ripped off – which we did , but a whole place cannot be blamed for one bad tour agency ( Lao Sky Trip Company ).
It is a one hour flight from Hanoi to Luang Prabang, Laos and it is a world away!! It is what I had thought that Old Rangoon might have looked like – it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site (like San Miguel de Allende) only in the jungle on a peninsula between the Mekong and Namkhan Rivers. I think it is paradise – some Canadians have opened a bar, volleyball court, lounge place that shows movies and has pretty good food called “Utopia”. Part of it is built on a large bamboo balcony hanging over the Namkhan River and I think I could spend the rest of my life there.
We arrived Friday evening having eaten too much plane food (certainly better here in Asia than anywhere else I have been). It is a small plane an ATR turbo prop made by Airbus because this is a small airport – think Ottawa 40 years ago!! There are 2 doors at the airport – one for departures and one for arrivals. Check in and security took perhaps 60 seconds and they still found and investigated my new knee and hip so they must not be too bad. It made travel a pleasure again – no hassle – too bad we cannot go back to those days
– There is a new airport almost completed, which will bring in international flights from France, Korea, and wherever. So get here soon folks or it will be Siem Reap with 100 hotels. Right now there are 2 five star hotels and about 100 guest house/boutique hotels. We stayed in a boutique Hotel called Villa Lotus which was actually about 100 yards from La Belle Rive where Chuck and Lynn stayed a couple of months ago. They are both beautiful with highly polished dark wood everywhere and wonderful outdoor places to eat – theirs on the river and ours in a jungle courtyard. Breakfast is always included in Asia and they are always beautiful – many coloured fruits, and delicious – great French bread and croissants, and special – with different delicacies depending on country and availability- pho soup, rice cookie bruschetta???, herb omelettes (unknown but scrumptious herbs) and undescribeable bits – perhaps better not to know.
We walked the town the first night and saw the night market and then again the next morning – there are so many temples (wats) and orange clad Buddhist monks everywhere – many of them are doing just 2 – 3 years in service – many come from poor rural areas and come to the towns for the education and training – our waiter at Lotus Villa had been a monk for 3 years – he learned English and had a wonderful manner/demeanour – then they can leave and are free to get married etc. While they are monks they cannot touch or be touched by a woman! On Saturday morning we rose at 6:00 am to watch the monks receive alms in a procession along the street our hotel was on. It is very spiritual and quiet and quite inspirational. Just bits of rice from each donor but when you have 100 monks going by for alms it can add up.
We took a tour by minibus with about 6 other people to the Kuan Si waterfalls and bear preserve (yes I bought the T shirt – well really a nice shirt not a T shirt) – so did Steve! All in support of the bears of course. The waterfalls are actually quite beautiful with lots of crazy young folks jumping in from Tarzan type jungle ropes which provided all the entertainment. Steve made it to the top – I went about 1/3 of the way and watched and enjoyed watching the water – a beautiful green/blue like the Caribbean. The bear preserve was there – the last tiger had vanished so the Tiger preserve was extinct! The bear preserve is a rescue centre for bears caught and hurt by poachers or their offspring – there were so many things for them to do and play in while they grew up or recovered- like a giant nursery school. There were hammocks, tubes, caves, sculptures, ropes, tree houses, and so much more – we could watch from platforms. I am such a sucker for that stuff.
We stopped at a Hmong village on our return trip which was a leisurely 20 minute stroll along a path which also had little children selling things – buying the goods is just a chance to get to interact with the kids – Steve and I are now sporting Elephant bracelets – I wonder how that will go over at his office.
The group in our minivan were from Netherlands, Australia, France, Spain and Canada. There are lots of Europeans, Swedes, Asians, and Australians in Luang Prabang – we only met 2 Americans from Tennessee (Mother and Son) who were travelling as “Canadians” – the accents were there but not strong.
Travel companions turn into dinner companions and 2 of our group joined us for Pau Lau (???) a traditional dinner served at Tamarind Restaurant on Fridays only to groups of 10 or more – we were 8 but they did it anyway. It started with skewers of ??? … beautifully seasoned – everything is lemongrass, galangal, coconut, curry, ginger, smoked paprika and other spices we do not know. The cooking class that Tamarind offers and which we tried to take was cancelled while we were there because the chef was in Austria – it did not damage the quality of the dinner which was superb – we even splurged on Lemongrass and ginger granitas with Vodka and a bottle of wine – sitting out on an outdoor patio overlooking the Namkhan River – not too shabby really. Then came purple and black sticky rice – a delicacy which you roll up into a ball in one hand and then dip in the sauces/chutney provided ranging from sweet to ……. hot!! This was followed by a large river fish of unknown variety (to us) wrapped in banana leaves (called MOK in Laos and AMOK in Cambodia) steamed and absolutely tender and moist. The presentation is always amazing – on large beautiful platters and bowls and plates of different colours (Think Toller’s lunches and dinners) while most of the actual dinner plates were the ubiquitous white square plates we all have on which food looks so great.
Saturday, we went up the Mekong and across the river to the Tham Ting caves filled with thousands of Buddhas – again Steve did lower and upper caves while I did the lower cave and then rested in the sort of sun. In the afternoon we did a Mahout Elephant course – where you learn to be the elephant “mahout” (much like a groom to a horse) – you study how to clean, feed, ride of course and generally take care of your elephant. Then you do it!!
When we first arrived one of the elephants in our preserve was sick and ElephantASIA (a medical group working to keep the Asian elephant alive was there – so we saw them chip and give medication and vitamins to the 2 elephants there – and I can tell you they use BIG needles. Later we had an hour ride and did some feeding and walking but it was certainly not the trip that was sold to us for $120 US. So I will be doing a number on Lao Sky Travel Service and Manifa tours (bad companies) on Trip Advisor! They also left us stranded for 3 hours with no way back the 24 kilometres to Luang Prabang (and this is not a fast 24 kms I can vouch for that). We finally basically hitched a ride back with 4 kayakers in a minivan which was very sick!! The doors did not slide open, the axles were banging, the tires needed a lot of air (we did stop for that) – oh well I did bond with an elephant – but she was too big to keep! (they eat 300 kilos of pineapple branches and pineapples a day!!)
We did pass fun places like a whisky village ( but everyone was at the town wedding of the week ) so we just watched the festivities and took a few pictures of the kids – see my cute little boy in the tux!
Dinner was at the 3 Nagas and it was worth the splurge – we had walked by the restaurant several times and finally decided to eat there – we were not disappointed. We started with pastis and absinthe. The food and service were supreme – from the sour chicken and galangal soup (me) to the yum salad for Steve – much fancier and more exotic than the name it was so good. For main courses we had two different types of steamed fish in banana and lemon leaves – one stuffed with herbs and fruit and one in a coconut mousse – a beautiful “bouquet” of herbs placed upright in a section of cucumber and steamed vegetables – full of flavour. Dessert was coconut banana pie for Steve (served on green sticky rice as the crust) and coconut tapioca and fruit for me (are you getting a pattern here?). Then out to the night market and back to the hotel.
Luang Prabang is really one of those places you do not want to go to bed when time is limited – you just want to stay out all the time and explore and enjoy. It is not all old folks like us – there are lot of 30 something couples doing it as a rite of passage during a year of travel or just a month of vacation or between school terms or whatever excuse they could find to be there.
Sunday – our last day, we saw the Ethnology Museum – a real little gem of a place with a good background on the indigenous peoples – their homes and clothes and tools etc. We went by Mt Phousi – really just a large hill in the middle of town which requires a trip up several hundred steps to see the sunset and the wat at the top. Since it had turned cold and there was no sun at all – we felt justified in giving it a pass and going to the Dara market, the main regular people’s market , and taking a tuk tuk to Utopia for lunch , some computer time and a rest on the bamboo balcony – Steve read – I ate curry and then just stared at the river .
Then we headed to the airport and home!! (well back to Hanoi home). Luang Prabang was a very wonderful, peaceful, calm and relaxing time in a beautiful place with great food – and dark wood. You could walk on the streets without fear of motor scooter murder!
AND this morning I found a new dry cleaner, a nicer flower lady and we are going to see a Woody Allen movie tonight – and the sun is really trying to come out – oh by the way , although we were very close to the Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) earthquake on Thursday – it was felt much more strongly here in Hanoi which is 3 times further away than Luang Parbang. So there really is a god or Buddha or someone watching over Laos now.