Sunday, Day 32 - Taking the New Road to Luang Prabang, Route 14!

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February 19th 2018
Published: February 19th 2018
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We leave our hotel a bit later than scheduled this morning, as our Canadian traveling companions, Frank and Joanne, are staying on the other side of the river, which entails a two way trip across the wooden suspension bridge, which having a one-way flow takes almost an hour. It's the only route out of town.

Nevertheless, we are on the road before 10am and after thanking our hotel's very helpful Manager for his help in liaising with our transport and driver, we are on our way to Luang Prabang, the cultural capital of Laos! The official distance is about 185kms and by booking a private minivan between the four of us, and taking the 'new road', route 14, we hope to shave off 2-3 hours from the average journey time, arriving after around 4 hours.

We are relaxed, have a careful driver and time passes quickly as conversation flows and everything is going to plan. After a couple of hours, the road steepens noticably and winds, and steepens, and winds....... poor Joanne is suffering with travel sickness and in spite of wearing her c-bands, pops an anti-nausea pill, and eventually needs to change seats to help her vision and help settle her equilibrium. Rounding yet another s-bend, we suddenly find ourselves at a standstill, joining a line of stationary vehicles, cars, trucks, minibuses, and lorries. We have hit the narrow section of road where the southbound and northbound traffic have to take turns in sharing. All commuters, excluding Buffalo, leave their vehicles and admire the views, the gradient bring so steep, our Driver puts rocks behind the van's rear wheels to prevent us rolling backwards. The high altitude makes us all feel slightly nauseous. Roughly 45minutes later it's all systems 'go' for us northbound traffic, so clamber back on board and off we go.

The long delay is due to the increased Chinese tourists, enjoying New Year celebrations, our driver explains that it is not always this busy. It is a great lookout point, so we don't mind too much. The next few minutes are a bit hairy. Due to the rough road surface and steep gradient, some vehicles break down, overheating clutches and burning brake pads. After one large truck stops, leaving only a narrow channel for the rest of the smaller vehicles to squeeze through, it becomes a wacky 'free for all', with wheels spinning, accelerator pedals to the floor, we join a determined, dusty line of vans, nobody daring to slow down for fear of breaking down, rolling backwards, or worse! We make it!

It is almost 1pm. Within ten minutes the road levels and we stop at a rest stop/view point, giving our poor van a chance to recover and cool down. Peering across the misty mountain range below us, we can still see the backlog of vehicles and witness the havoc that the broken down vehicle is causing and feel thankful we got through. We thank our Driver for his experience and skilful navigation.

He cheerfully informs us we have only two and a half hours left to go.

The terrain up here is absolutely beautiful and as we start our descent from what was the highest point of our journey, we pass lush forests, newly planted paddy fields and evidence of village life begins to appear all around us. Joanne is still suffering and goes quiet, concentrating on keeping hold of her breakfast, but we three are enjoying the scenery and the time passes quickly.

Dropping off Joanne and Frank at their accommodation on the peninsular side of town, facing the Nam Khan river, then Leo and I on our Mekong side, we thank our Driver profusely for safe deliverance and wish him a safe journey back to Vang Vieng. (Rather him than us! We are relieved that we won't have to make a return trip as we fly out of Luang Prabang later).

Our guesthouse warmly welcomes us, we have a comfortable riverview room and unpack. It's now almost 4pm and we can't wait to take a look around town. Our simple map shows a very straight forward network of parallel roads and narrow interconnecting alleyways, so we hope not to get lost.

First impressions, we know we are going to love Luang Prabang. We are staying in Old Town and as we stroll, we admire the style of the buildings, most are beautifully restored French Colonial houses, either private residences, guest houses, art, jewelry, silk galleries, restaurants, coffee shops, just an explosion of colours, sounds, quite breath-taking. And so clean! We have visited a few towns and cities across much of Asia, and we both agree, this has to be THE cleanest town/city we have come across so far.

Not wishing to rush things too much on our first afternoon/evening and feeling quite hungry, we find a pavement bar/restaurant and, realising there is a heavy French influence to the menu, share a French Charcuterie platter with a basket of thinly sliced fresh baguette, washed down with a beer and glass of (Chilean) red wine.

Feeling nicely sated, the lights of the night market beckon and another surprise for our senses, it's absolutely huge. The goods on offer are so diverse. We are not buying tonight, I'm not sure we could make any sensible decisions as there is a mind-blowing selection, everything Asian, everything ethnic, it's here! We don't get to the end of this pedestrianised market, and judging by the distant glow of stall lights, it could go on for ever. To be explored another evening, for sure! We congratulate ourselves in adding Luang Prabang to our Laotian itinerary, and make our way back to the guest house for a much needed night's rest.

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