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Published: October 28th 2014
The distance between Vientiane and Luang Prabang is just over 200 miles. Flight time - 30 minutes, by coach 10 - 11 hours, so we flew. With such a short flight the altitude that we peaked at was just 17000 feet, rather than the more normal 35000 feet. Having a window seat, at that height gave good views of the terrain below. It was mountainous jungle pretty much all of the way, which means that whilst most of the road between the two places, Highway 13, is paved, it's still hard going for the coaches.
Our base in Luang Prabang, which lies at the confluence of the Mekong and Khan rivers, has been Le Bel Air, a beautiful little place on the banks of the River Khan, just a short walk out of the centre. We walked some, used their free shuttle bus and the free bicycles to get around. It is a lovely place, with much to do and see in the city itself, let alone the surrounding area.
Three key elements combine to give the place its unique feel and sights. It is the religious centre of Laos. There are 34 Buddhist temples within what is a
relatively small area. These are wonderful buildings, with stunning architecture and beautiful decoration and still active as bases for hundreds of orange robed monks. We didn't visit them all, but Vat Xiengthong, which dates back to 1560 had it all, with its guilded Buddhas, mosaic work and other really intricate art work, usually telling stories central to the Buddhist religion. Just like the old quarter in Hanoi, what is now the one city was made up of many small villages, each with its own Wat and functions. Apparently this is still how the locals view it, but it wasn't obvious to us.
Another key feature of the history of the place is that it has been the home to the Lao Royal Family. The National Museum is housed in the former Royal Palace and it is full of artefacts that illustrate their former wealth and power. That all ended in 1975 Following the country's revolution.
Many of the non religious buildings show the influence of the French and most have undergone refurbishment, funded by the ever growing tourist industry, so the city centre looks really buoyant and has a really vibrant feel to it.
After spending most
of yesterday mooching around the buildings and doing the sightseeing thing, we went back into the city in the evening to visit the night market. Lots of stalls, most selling hand made items based on the traditional local crafts. The range of crafts include embroidery, bamboo weaving, cotton and silk weaving too. The different ethnic groups that make up the local population each had their own traditional craft. Worryingly the purchases are beginning to add up - in weight, we are in danger of exceeding our baggage allowance, so the plan is to send home a box of stuff from our next and last Asian stop off, Chiang Mai. Whilst we were in the market we got some food. We chose the stall that advertised a pile it on buffet for 10000 Kip. (£1=13000 Kip), bargain! It was only when we sat down to eat it that we realised that all the food was vegetable. What looked like crispy fried chicken and pork was different types of battered vegetable. Still, it was yummy. After that we just sat in an ever present Aussie Bar, with a beer and just people watched. It was amazing, there were clearly a lot more people in the city than it appeared during the day, most of then young westerners; either they sleep in the day and get up for night, or they were out of the city doing the things like elephant riding, rafting, visiting waterfalls and so on. Whilst there we got chatting to two Australians. Both late 60's, their reason for being in Luang Prabang Was to kill some time whilst their dentures were being prepared in Chiang Mai. It's not unusual for Australians to travel to the likes of Chiang Mai to get such work done because the cost in Australia is extremely high. In Thailand the work is very good quality but very cheap. That was good to hear since I have lost a filling as a result of munching a very chewy and sticky sweetie.
This morning we had a bit of Tak Bat, that is we got up pre dawn, (5.15) and cycled in to the centre to watch the daily ritual of the monks walking down the main street taking alms from the population, mostly local but with some visitors joining in. This is an age old event, the alms mostly consist of a small handful of sticky rice And it was quite a procession, with the monks passing for a good 20 minutes. Interestingly, as we left the centre to head back for breakfast, as we passed where some of the monks lived we could see some immediately getting their smart phones / tablets out, presumably to check their social media; that seemed a bit incongruous.
To round the visit off, since Luang Prabang has a reputation for really good quality food and restaurants we took another cookery course. This was organised by The Tamarind restaurant. A really well set up and delivered session. We were taken through the preparation of several traditional local dishes which we then got to eat.
Tomorrow we start the final leg of the SE Asian section of our trip, as we return to Thailand and visit Chiang Mai.
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