Wats, Wine and Waterfalls - Luang Prabang

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July 16th 2015
Published: July 16th 2015
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Nick: A quick 45 minute flight, and we had exchanged the relaxed atmosphere of Vientiane for the even more sedate town of Luang Prabang, located further north in Laos. By midday, we had already checked into our guesthouse; our lovely wood-panelled room had both air-conditioning and a fan, a real bonus given that the sun was out and the temperature was once again in the mid-thirties. The staff at our hostel were once again very friendly, with excellent English, and we were soon equipped with the standard issue photocopied town map, complete with highlighted points of interest. Attending to our stomachs before exploring the town, we popped into a nearby restaurant, a quiet little family-run place, and ordered in some grub: chicken noodle soup for Sarah, and a pork 'lahb' for me, which is a Laos dish incorporating bean sprouts, chilli, ginger and plenty of herbs - mint, coriander and dill. Fed and watered, we went for an amble around town to get a feel for the place.

Nestled in between the surrounding mountains, with steamy green jungle encroaching on all sides and the broad, muddy waters of the Mekong river lazily winding its way past the town, Luang Prabang has a much more rural and isolated feel to it than Vientiane; there was much less traffic too, and a peaceful 'lazy Sunday afternoon' atmosphere to it, regardless of the actual day of the week. The small town is located at the confluence of the Mekong and (smaller) Nam Khan rivers, and our guesthouse was located at a lovely spot overlooking the latter. Walking along the road alongside the Nam Khan river, we could see fishing boats out on the river, casting their nets whilst local kids splashed about in the water. Not far from our digs we came across a bamboo bridge crossing the river - apparently it taken down and rebuilt every year, to avoid it being washed away during the wet season. Luckily for us, it was still the dry season and the bridge was still standing. Taking in the bucolic scene playing out in front of us, it felt like we'd arrived somewhere truly different to any of our previous destinations, and whilst it would be misleading to describe Laos as 'untouched', it was clear that a traditional way of life from well before western tourism found its way here was continuing unabated, which is surely a good thing. Keen to press on with our exploration of the town, we decided to cross the bamboo bridge another time, and moved on.

It didn't take us especially long to work our way around the main part of town, being a relatively small place. Luang Prabang is a UNESCO World Heritage site, owing to the traditional Laotian and colonial architecture in the town; its role as a centre of Laotian Buddhism is evident at every turn, and fabulously decorated wats (temples) abound. We saw small groups of young monks walking through the town, going about their day to day business in their traditional bright orange robes - more on them later! Near the end of our wanderings, a little rain began to fall which thankfully cleared the hot and humid air a bit. With evening upon us, we found a cozy cafe (one of very many) run by a French lady and populated by French patrons (we'd noticed that the majority of tourists here were French, something that is presumably not entirely unconnected with the country's colonial history) and sat down for a drink and a read. Our next stop was a restaurant not too far from our guesthouse, where dinner consisted of a Thai-style red curry, accompanied by a 'Luang Prabang' salad of lettuce leaves, tomatoes, eggs and pork in a creamy dressing, all dressed with plenty of herbs - certainly a far cry from the shredded papaya and mango salads we'd eaten by the tonne in Vietnam. We were also presented with complimentary shots of 'Lao-Lao', the country's traditional drink of rice whiskey which is (reportedly) never less than 50%!p(MISSING)roof...it certainly tasted every bit as strong, anyway. En-route back to our digs, we stopped in the night market to grab a cup of coffee and share a Nutella/peanut butter crepe. The thick, strong black coffee arrived in a huge paper cup that was probably not too far off a pint! Once we'd finished our delicious crepe, we walked on nursing our coffees, but around halfway down we agreed to surreptitiously ditch the rest - it was getting late and frankly we didn't want to be wide-eyes and awake all night, tasty though it was!

Tuesday morning came around, and we ate our breakfast on a terrace overlooking the river which was certainly a pleasant way to start the day. Back in our room, the morning seemed to evaporate, as it does, amidst all of the usual organising, researching and so on...by the time we'd finished it was approaching midday. No matter; here in Luang Prabang the pace of life is slow and we were in no rush. Our first port of call was the bamboo bridge that we'd passed the previous day, and paying a small fee at the entrance (which goes to support the family that construct/take down the bridge each year), we made our way across to the other side. It was a surprisingly solid structure considering, although the flat bamboo slats on the floor were a wee bit thin in some places! On the other side, we walked for an hour or so, soaking up the local scenery. The sun was beating down in earnest, though, and we were starting to wilt quite badly. After reaching a nice lookout point over the river, we turned back the way we came and made our way back to the bridge and to the town centre. A brief pitstop was in order simply, to cool down over an ice-tea, and since it was lunchtime we ordered some grub too, although being so hot had robbed us of our usual voracious appetites; we settled for sharing a chicken lahb salad (similar to the lunch I'd had the previous day).

Our plan after lunch had been to sort out a boat trip up the Mekong to the 'Pak Ou caves', located some distance upstream. As it turned out, it was a bit more expensive than we'd reckoned, as being the only two people going we would have to rent the boat as a whole...it was also a much further trip than we'd realised, a good couple of hours along the river to get there. After deliberating for a while, we decided we'd do better to go as part of a group on another day, both to save some money and to get going at a sooner hour. Instead me we braved the afternoon heat for a bit longer and went off to see 'Wat Xieng Thong', one of the main temples in the town. Despite the fact that we are probably a bit 'templed out', having visited multitudes of them during our recent travels around SE Asia, it is fair to say we were both suitably impressed with the Xieng Thong Wat. It included a number of elegant buildings, all of them covered with intricate decorations including large walls covered in murals and mosaics made from cut coloured, mirrored glass. We made our way around the individual buildings within the compound, admiring the craftsmanship, before getting on our way.

Having some free time, we popped into the office of a tour company we had hooked up with in Vientiane, in order to finalise the payment for a trek we'd booked onto in a few days time. Once we'd finished in Luang Prabang, we would be heading further north into Laos, to the more remote town of Luang Namtha; this would be the base for a three day/two night excursion out into the countryside...two days of hiking and one day of cycling, with a couple of overnight stays in rural villages with no electric, running water, etc... (At the time of writing, with the predicted temperature of 32 degrees, I am beginning to wonder if committing to this trek was our wisest move...time will tell!) Coincidentally, as we waited to speak the tour operator we ended up chatting with a bloke from New York who just so happened to be signing up to take part in the same trek in the same day as us, bringing our little trekking group to three! Whilst we were in the tour office, the heavens opened and for quarter of an hour or so the rain came thumping down in buckets, which once again cleared and cooled air superbly. Still both hot and sticky from our afternoon out in the sun, we repaired to the guesthouse to cool down, shower and recuperate for the evening.

As ever in this part of the world, dinner meant eating out somewhere, and in due course we found ourselves sat outside a nice restaurant in the town centre. It was by now a long time since our shared chicken and salad lunch, so we shared some garlic bread before getting stuck into the main course. Whilst I went (fairly) mainstream with a green curry - which was lovely - Sarah went for a slightly more traditional dish, a mushroom stew which was apparently a very typical dish of one of the ethnic tribes from the Laos highlands. As we arrived back at our guesthouse, having managed to avoid the crepe-and-pint-of-coffee lady, there was some music playing loudly from the house next door, on some sort of traditional instrument; no idea what it was, it sounded like a well-tuned metal vase being gently drummed, and it was rapidly christened the 'plunky plunky music'. We didn't give it much thought, only noticing that it went on all night (although not enough to disturb our sleep) and well into the next day...We were later told by one of the staff at our guesthouse that the music was part of a Laos funeral tradition: one hundred days after the passing of a relative, the family would throw a big party and invite along the friends and relatives for drinking, music and general shenanigans, sort of like a belated wake I suppose.

It was fortunate that our sleep wasn't disturbed by the funeral music, as we were up at the very early hour of 05:00 on Wednesday morning, in order to witness one of Luang Prabang's most iconic sights: the alms giving ceremony. At sunrise, the locals gather along one of the main streets in the town centre, kneeling in a long line on mats at the side of the road. As we arrived to watch, people were preparing large vessels filled with sticky rice, crackers, sweets, money and other offerings - all of which are intended to be given as alms to the Buddhist monks. We sat down amongst the line of people to watch. Sure enough, barefoot and dressed in their signature orange robes, the monks appeared from one end of the street, slowly making their way along the line of proffered alms, each taking a share and depositing in a container that they carried. There were a few hundred monks passing all told, in some cases the line seemingly being ordered by age, with the eldest at the front right down to the very young lads at the end. There was no shortage of goodies being offered up by the locals, including no end of sweets...Some of the younger monks were also carrying large plastic bags as well as their traditional alms bowls, and by the end these were absolutely bulging with goodies; it looked like a hugely successful trick-or-treat haul! I hope the monks have good dental hygiene practices anyway! We were glad to have dragged ourselves from our bed at such an early hour to witness some real tradition, and we had endeavoured to keep discreetly out of the way whilst we watched it all unfold. Countless posters and notices around the town had urged us to be respectful when attending the alms giving ceremony: dress appropriately, sit down (it is disrespectful to stand up and be above the monks, apparently), take photos from a discreet and respectful distance, that sort of thing. Unfortunately - and predictably - where there are tourists in any appreciable numbers, there will be morons, and plenty of people were walking right up to the line of monks as they filed past, brandishing their cameras up close and generally ignoring all of the etiquette advice, just so they could get their ideal holiday snap! (Sound the Sanctimonious Klaxon!)

Once we'd finished watching the ceremony (and associated circus), we still had some time to kill before breakfast began to be served, so we took the chance to climb 'Phousi Hill', near our guesthouse. This hill, like so much in Luang Prabang, has a assortment of religious features, including a small temple and a number of statues of Buddha; the key attraction for us though, was a good view from the top. A series of steep staircases took us (eventually) to the summit where, hot and sweaty with exertion in the sticky warmth of the early morning, the view our over the town was amazing. From our vantage point we could see an almost 360 degree panorama of the small town spread out below us, and well beyond its limits, out to the surrounding jungles, rivers and mountains. It was beautiful, well worth the climb and all the better for being enjoyed at that time of day. Descending the other side, we passed an old lady selling small sparrows in little wicker cages, the purpose of which being that the purchaser then sets them free. We felt a bit sorry for the little birds, but declined to buy one in order to let it out - regardless of the cost, which would no doubt be very little, we figured that to do so would be to support the practice and therefore not in the birds' long term interest! (Sound the Sanctimonious Klaxon once again...not to be confused with the Philistine Klaxon: that went off the previous day when we sauntered past temple after temple, with nary a glance sideways!)

Back at the hotel, we got our brekkie gratefully down our necks and had an hour or two to relax in our room before our next adventure of the day was due to commence; at 11:30, a minibus picked us up to take us to the Kuang Si falls. Just before leaving, we received our laundry back from the guesthouse, minus almost all of Sarah's knickers! Off she went to investigate, returning five minutes later armed only with an apology from the staff and a promise that they would turn up! For now, we had to depart...Half an hour or so later, we were entering the park. A sign at the front indicated that the falls were only ten minutes' walk or so from the entrance, and we set off toward them. The path took us via the 'Free the Bears' rescue centre, which looks after a number of Asiatic Black Bears that have been saved from illegal trading and having their bile 'farmed' in what sounds like a pretty torturous process (apparently the bile is considered a valuable resource in alternative medicine, or some such nonsense). We knew beforehand that we would be visiting the rescue centre and, perhaps somewhat cynically, had wondered what the quality of life would be like for them....well, to their credit, the rescue centre seemed to be a very well run place, from what we could tell anyway, and the Bears themselves seemed quite content, dozing in a big hammock, playing in a water pool and clambering up big timber climbing frames - I was amazed at how something so big could be such an agile climber!

Once we'd had our fill of bear-watching, we carried on to the falls themselves. Kuang Si falls are (is?) a three-tiered waterfall, each individual tier having its own large plunge pool and smaller little terraces of water that are not only beautiful to look at, but perfect for a refreshing cool dip! As such, they are one of the most popular tourist attractions near Luang Prabang, and as we approached the first waterfall we could see plenty of people - tourists and locals alike - splashing about in the pool, or having a picnic by the side. We had brought our swimming gear in anticipation, but decided to hold fire on the swimming until we'd been to the top of the falls. As we continued along the path, we passed all of the different waterfalls and marvelled at their beauty, and the bright turquoise-blue water that looked so cold and inviting...the furthest waterfall was aesthetically by far the most impressive; a photo will be attached to this blog somewhere, although they never really do these things justice; suffice to say it was absolutely beautiful, although we decided that it was just pipped to the post by the waterfalls we'd seen at 'Ojos del Caburga' as our favourite. Past the main waterfall, the path ascended sharply and keen to get to the top we started climbing. The going was very tricky indeed, with no real steps as such, and all the trickier for being negotiated in flip-flops. Still, pulling ourselves up the steeper bits using any available tree roots and branches, we eventually made it to the top - it was a loooong way up, and by the time we'd reached the summit we were both pouring with sweat. The view from the top, however, was amazing and well worth the effort! We paddled out into a stream in the location at which it spilled over the lip of the rock and cascaded down, and looked out over the green splendour in every direction. Once we'd drunk in enough of the stunning view, it was time to get back down and cool off in one of those pools! Thankfully, we were able to descend on the other side of the waterfall, via another route, which was significantly easier going and even equipped with steps in some places (we had been wondering how we were going to go about descending the way we'd come up; on our bums, probably, had we had to go back that way!).

Back at the bottom, we found ourselves at one of the quieter pools and stripped down to our swimming gear for a dip. The water was pretty cold at first and took our breath away when we tentatively got in, but it was a wonderful feeling after getting so hot climbing up the waterfall. Seconds after getting in the pool - which was surprisingly deep, I couldn't touch the bottom in many places - I felt the alarming sensation of my feet being nibbled! In truth, we'd half-expected this as on the way up we'd seen a lady sat with her feet in the water, with fish gathering round for a good ol' nibble...it turns out these are the same type of fish we'd encountered in Phnom Penh, which are intended as a kind of dead skin removal beauty treatment, but had succeeded only in driving us to fits of giggles. Either way, it was a disconcerting feeling as we swam about in the natural pool, little mouths chomping away at our feet! We found it was best to keep moving as much as possible and not give them a chance to get really stuck in! The pool we were swimming in was on a split level, with water cascading down into it from an upper pool. We'd seen people jumping down from the point of the overspill, a fall of about 1.5 metres or so into the lower pool. Looks like fun, we thought, and before long we were edging our way out carefully over the slippery rock and leaping out into the pool below. It was great fun, and thankfully our pool was quiet enough such that we could keep going round to our hearts content!

After a little while, we got out and walked down to the next waterfall. This one had a slightly bigger pool, and was busier too...but best of all, it had an even bigger jump! A tree by the side of the pool had a thick branch sticking out over the water, from which people were launching themselves into the water. The jumping point was perhaps a wee bit under three metres from the water, and didn't look too intimidating from where we were looking. Brazened from our earlier jumping, we clambered up and edged our way out along the branch. I went first, and rapidly came to the usual realisation that the drop looked an awful lot further from up there than from down below! Still, there was no turning back (especially with most of the other people watching) so on the count of three, and with 'jelly knees' I jumped off, gravity did its usual thing, and before I knew it I was bobbing back up from beneath the water. Sarah was up next, and looking back up at her from below I could see she felt the same about the height of the jump as I had! There was a little bit of hesitation, but with plenty of encouragement from myself and the observers, she took the plunge and came up grinning like a Cheshire Cat! Great fun, but we both agreed that once was enough! As we swam about in that pool, a tiny young Chinese or Korean lad of perhaps six years old got himself up on the branch, then spent a good ten minutes or so trying to work up the bottle to jump, whilst his parents and friends egged him on...he was still up there when we left, poor sod!

With only an hour or so left before we needed to catch the pre-arranged bus back to town, we spent a little more time in our favourite pool (the first one) and had a few final jumps into the water, before heading down to the park entrance for some lunch. The food was unexceptional, to be honest: a bit of barbecued chicken (nice enough) and a papaya salad which wasn't a patch on the ones we'd had in Vietnam. But it did the job and filled a hole after all that cavorting about. By the time the bus dropped us back at our guesthouse it was getting for late afternoon, so we had a quick shower, changed, and headed out. It had been a pretty long and active day so far, so when we found a nice quiet wine bar, we were quite happy to park ourselves there for an hour or so, to relax a bit before dinner. It seems there's plenty of wine places about Luang Prabang, or at least it is readily available in most restaurants, something else that I guess is a legacy of the French influence (and a welcome one at that in my book). Later on, we found ourselves at a nice riverside restaurant, 'Bamboo Tree', which prided itself on serving traditional Laos food. We shared a beef stir-fry dish, which included plenty of herbs - which seems to be a feature of Laos cooking in general - as well as some 'Laotian sausages', which were fine but let's just say they're never going to trouble the meat economy of Lincolnshire. For some reason that I will never understand, when we asked to refresh our small pitcher of house red wine, the waiter brought us not one but two...and told us they were compliments of the restaurant! Well, we weren't complaining!

Once again, we had a reasonably early start the following morning. At 08:15, we took a short tuk tuk ride to a nearby riverside location, from where were were taking a boat out to Pak Ou cave. The cave itself was located a good 25km along the Mekong river, and our outward journey was against the flow so we had a ride of about two hours ahead of us. It was a pleasant way to spend the morning, the wind keeping us nice and cool whilst we watched the green mountainous countryside slipping past, waving to kids on the bank playing in the river, and watching fishermen casting their nets. I only started to drift off into a peaceful slumber just as we arrived and had to disembark: typical! Despite the long journey time, we only had half an hour to explore the cave itself. As it turned out, that was plenty of time. There were two caves to be seen, located in upper and lower levels. Both caves were filled with countless statues of Buddha, placed their by religious worshippers. We walked the many steps to the upper cave (cue relentless sweating) and took a brief look about, before heading back down to the lower cave to do the same. In truth, there wasn't a huge amount to see if like us you are not overexcited about such things, and we were soon back on the boat for the return journey. Still, the excursion had been worthwhile for the lovely boat ride and views of the countryside and rural life going on around us. Well, you know what they say about life being a journey, not a destination! Going with the river flow, the journey back was much quicker and we made it back to Luang Prabang for lunchtime. As we got off the boat, the captain said to me, as he pointed to Sarah: "She...your wife?" Yes, say I. "She is very beyootiful!!!" Hear hear. In fact he was evidently quite taken with Sarah as it was the second time he'd said that on our trip...perhaps he was amazed at how I was 'getting away with it', haha!

Having been pretty good at sticking to the local grub recently, we decided to treat ourselves to a bit of comfort food for lunch; we'd spotted a bakery of the same chain that we'd eaten sandwiches at in Vientiane ('Joma') and made a beeline for it as soon as we were back on terra firma. Once again, we got hold of some lovely whole grain bread filled with ham (me) / tuna (Sarah), cheese, salad and mayonnaise...YUM. After lunch, Sarah had a bit of a chore on her hands: investigations into the Great Underwear Mystery had been inconclusive, the guesthouse staff having very apologetically confessed that despite their best efforts, the Knickers In Question had failed to turn up...the latest theory was that they'd ended up with the laundry of another guest, who had since departed. Well, I'm sure there are some more nefarious theories out there, but we'll leave it at that! Anyway, our morning activity now done, Sarah was off into town with the chap's sister, in order to purchase some new undercrackers.

That pretty much brings things up to date. Although Luang Prabang seems like a much quieter place than Vientiane, we feel like we've been busy in our time here and had plenty to do. With just one afternoon left here, we shall be having some well-earned downtime...tomorrow morning we will be up at a reasonable time yet again, to catch our bus up north to Luang Namtha, where trekking awaits!

Additional photos below
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20th July 2015
Another part of Kuang Si falls

Sorry about your knickers but awesome pools!
Hi Nick and Sarah! We are still so proud of you both for doing this adventure. I bet you wish you could spread the exotic food out for the rest of your lives. Stay safe and I hope that all that you lose are your knickers :-) Those pools look absolutely LOVELY!!! Love hearing about the monks lining up. My friend from Thailand took us to see a waaaay smaller version of that in Wash. DC as a part of their Thai New Year. Since all young men have to spend a year in the monastery they love to feed them! It could be your brother or son... Anyway, I still have LOADS to catch up on reading about your travels. I hope your blog will stay up for viewing for a while. LOTS of love and safe travels!!!! xoxoxoxox cindy and Susan

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