Asian Travels - Laos (2010)
On 16 April we made our way to Siem Reap's airport and caught a Vietnam Airways flight direct to Luang Prabang which took 1hr 15mins and on arrival we joined a small queue of recalcitrant foreigners to obtain visas @ A$31/each. Some very obliging immigration girls elected to overlook the fact that neither of us had the requisite number of passport photos. .... It was interesting to note that the cost of Visas varies according to one's nationality eg United States & Europeans pay A$41. I was also amused to note a discreet sign at the immigration counter advising visitors that we would be required to pay an additional A$1 because we had arrived on a public holiday (?penalty rates)....fair enough.
While travelling into town by taxi we observed a number of funeral pyres still burning on the banks of the Khan River. I had previously only associated this practise with Hindu communities, but obviously Buddhists share the custom.
Luang Prabang (pop 28 000) straddles the Khan and Mekong Rivers and as an ancient royal capital is now heritage listed by UNESCO which in part means that trucks and buses are banned. This place exudes tranquillity - a sort of 'Shangri La' maybe - in many respects the town is similar to Hoi An in Vietnam. The old town is dominated by numerous (20+) golden temples and their attendant saffron-robed monks. French colonial villas can be found all along the broad tree-lined roads.
There are also plenty of discreet restaurants and shops to cater for the most jaded of tourists; including a French Cheese shop. With an exchange rate of approximately 8500 Lao Kip to the A$1 everything appeared very cheap including: food, clothing and souvenirs.
The nightly curfew at 2330 hours is also strictly enforced. Activities which could be pursued during lengthier stays in the town would include: cycling and trekking, cooking schools, elephant treks and mahout training as well as cruises up and down the Mekong, occasionally as far as Vientiane.
On discussing the possibility of extended cruises with some local travel agents, I was frequently met with statements to the effect of why would you bother now that we have a sealed road connecting us to the capital.
Our arrival in town coincided with the final day of the Songkran festival marking the end of the Lunar New Year whereby the locals cheerfully spray and hurl water over each other and unsuspecting passers by - its virtually impossible to avoid being attacked by children wielding monstrous water pistols or worse youths travelling in the back of utes which have plastic liners full of water into which buckets/basins are dipped and hurled at one. All of this aquatic chaos is accompanied by very loud pop muzak and or honking of horns. Hilarious! ....I and my wallet got thoroughly soaked.
The hotel I had identified on the internet - the Villa Senesouk Guesthouse (www.luangphabang.com/senesouk) was a good mid-range place, centrally located with all our pre-requisites and which cost A$30/night.
Oh yes, and the management insisted that you remove your shoes when entering the premises. This custom also applied in quite a few of the shops and galleries in town. As soon as we dumped our gear into our room (including that backpack) we discovered that our mobile phone must have slipped out of Maria's pocket during our taxi ride from the airport. Despite our best efforts management could not understand our concern and so we accepted the loss. To be frank, despite fitting two different sim cards into the devil, one in Manila and another in HCM city, I could never seem to get the thing to work anyway. I obviously need further training with my personal enemy.
Vat Sene Temple (opposite our hotel)
We quickly forgot about the loss as we strolled down the streets watching the Songkran antics going on. The Mekong alongside the town was very low and one had a good 20m walk down the bank to the many tour boats and ferries now tied up for the off season. The river was so low in fact as to expose several quite large sand bars in the middle. I had heard in Phnom Penh that many locals believe that China up-stream has been hiving off much more than its fair entitlement for irrigation purposes causing the unusually low levels for this time of year. Shades of our own Murray-Darling River crisis.
Mekong River in Luang Prabang
Khan River which flows through the town
However, by 1600hours the skies started to look threatening and we took shelter in a cafe just in time to witness a monsoonal downpour, the likes of which we had not experienced since leaving Darwin. By 1630 hrs the town was blacked out and I stupidly went in search of an ATM from which to get some local currency. Being a public holiday the banks were closed. Of course ATMs needed power to operate. However, I did find a compliant one with a very forlorn British tourist standing guard over it because it had swallowed his credit card just prior to the blackout.....poor bastard eventually got some assistance from the local police.
Defeated I walked back to the cafe where I had left Maria and there by sheer good luck discovered that we had accidently propped at the only cafe/restaurant in town with its own generator and so we could not only continue to eat and drink there, but also pay by credit card as their EFTPOS machine could work....Halleluiah! Most cafe menus in town listed both local and European dishes.
A most happy patron of Le Cafe Ban Vat Sene
After dinner we returned to our hotel and retired to our room with the aid of a candle kindly supplied by management. The room was stifling hot without access to fan or A/c. Power eventually returned at about 0100 hrs.
Next morning the air was crisp and all clouds had disappeared and so we set off in earnest to explore what we could in the short time we had allocated for this 'recky'. While trucks and buses might be banned that does not extend to the hundreds of brand new Toyota Hilux utes (obviously the car of choice) being driven about town. However, there was one exception - a beautifully restored burgundy coloured (?1950s) Citroen Light 15 - owned by the proprietor of a neighbouring hotel.
Most street signage in town is in Lau, French and English. We learnt that, while French is taught as the second language in primary schools, this changes to English in secondary schools.....amazing that a country so poor as this can promote such a bilingual policy in their schools cf Australia's woeful record.
While I climbed 350 steps up to a hilltop monastery for a magnificent view of the rivers and countryside, Maria witnessed a spectacular procession of Buddhist monks celebrating the commencement of the new year....unfortunately I had the camera in my pocket.
Some of the 350 steps to monastery Buddhist New Year Celebrations
The town not only has Buddhist school but also trade school for monks to teach them the skills necessary to maintain their temples ie wood carving, painting and metal casting. Every morning at about 0530 hours the monks pour out of their monasteries with their bowls at the ready to receive alms of rice and fruit from the devout who stand or squat along the streets seeking to enhance their chances of reaching nirvana in the next world.
We did a tour of the Royal Palace/Museum which was quite informative except that the guide made no reference to the fate of the Royal Family who I think live in exile in France. There is an interesting Royal library in which is stored the many gifts given to the family from visiting government officials eg the US gave the King a replica of the moon landing craft, while Australia managed a boomerang and a couple of opals!
A Wat in the grounds of the Royal Palace
On our final night, as was our custom, we dined well on local venison pate' and buffalo steaks. However, the bottle of wine (Chilean) cost as much as the meal. While a bottle of Beerlao costs A$1.20 and spirits just a tad more, wine here and for that matter all over SE Asia costs proportionately a lot more than it does back home.
Laos really does need to be explored more, perhaps in the context of a trip to northern Thailand and I do think an extended cruise down the Mekong would be an excellent way to do at least some of it.
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