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Published: October 8th 2015
Luang Prabang: A town that almost all travellers in Laos pass through, sometimes the only place in Laos some travellers on a 3/4 week South East Asia tour visit. Attracted by the Mekong riverside location, the abundance of golden glittering temples, the saffron cladded monks that causally roam the streets and the many activities on offer here; Luang Prabang is generally a place in South East Asia that is described as one not to be missed.
Arriving in town, we were dropped off at the north bus station around 1.5 kilometres from the centre. As usual a couple of tricycle drivers waited for us patiently and instantly seized upon the opportunity to make money from some unassuming westerners. Unlike the rest of the group who willingly jumped in a shared large tricycle for 20k kip each, we refused to pay their inflated price, instead agreeing to find our own way. We were about to set off when the taxi drivers informed us (very discreetly) that we could pay 10k each.
On our first full day we attempted a little DIY tour of the town. After travelling China and northern Laos however it was a strange feeling seeing so many
westerners and tourists. We were back on the banana pancake trail for sure. What also surprised us was the number of young monks who just casually walked by us, not trying to hide under umbrellas or avoid us. They were clearly used to tourists in this town.
For our DIY tour we started at the Traditional Arts and Ethnology Centre (TAEC Museum). We casually strolled around the 4 roomed museum, browsing the pictures on display and reading the scripts about Laos and the tribes within. An interesting fact we came across was that Laos only has a population 5.6 million. Pretty small hey? London alone has a population at 8.6 million. The displays held colourful and intricately designed clothing worn by the tribal villages. This was interesting to see as most villages we had seen had become more westernised in clothing or mixing old styles, such as the traditional skirts with t-shirts.
There was a whole section named ‘Stitching our stories’ dedicated to the lives of women throughout Laos. This illustrated the many simultaneous roles they have; from cooking, weaving construction, farming, child care, selling goods at the market, making incense and producing handicrafts. The list was endless.
For any human being this was a lot to take on, but generally more is expected from women and girls with more responsibility on the women if the children do not grow up respectfully. A strange fact for us then was reading that when a women is pregnant many practices are carried out to ensure that the woman has a healthy young boy. You would think they would want a girl if women do all the work.
Moving on, we walked the maze of winding walkways and dirt paths with houses packed so tightly together to get to the hill leading to Wat Tham Phou Si Temple. The views of the town from the hill were stunning. Arriving at the temple we realised we could not enter as we needed more cash from the ATM. Instead we were allowed to look at an area described as Buddha’s footprint. A giant moulding of a footprint inside a rock. Where this was located a young monk took the opportunity to talk to us (clearly wanting to practice his English) which was pleasant at first, but very quickly P started to feel ill, with beads of sweat forming on her face, she
started to feel dizzy and found it difficult to stand up. Trying to end the conversation, the monk however wanted to continue so in the end P walked off saying she had to go. We felt slightly rude but turned around to see the monk had started talking with someone else and so felt much better.
We sat down for a while. In the end however we had to go back to our guesthouse in which P slept for the rest of the day. Very unlike her, we were both unsure what came over her. The following day she felt better however and so we carried on our tour and visited the Royal Palace museum which was interesting as the rooms had been maintained and so you could imagine how royalty once lived here. The temple room in the palace was breathtakingly beautiful; decorated with red, gold and blue mosaics depicting many stories of animals, monks, and Buddha across the wall. Afterwards we walked beside the Mekong stopping at Wat Xieng Thong temple and spotted a group of young monk waiting for a boat and seized upon the opportunity to take some pictures. The Wat Xieng Thong temple is
one of the oldest temples in Luang Prabang and had been maintained to a good standard.
Deciding to walk to a local market and to some Mekong viewpoints, we walked a mile out of town to the market which was distinctively different to the tourist market in town. We walked through the food section; the usual fish, meat and veg but also frogs and crabs. Fish were alive in huge buckets and we watched as one woman who sold a fish took one from a swirling bucket and aggressively beat it to death. Not something you usually see in a tourist market or a market back home for that matter.
Luang Prabang town centre is however set up for tourists. By day there are many stores selling fruit shakes, banana pancakes and French style baguettes with many toppings such as our favourite chicken or tuna with avocado on a heated roll. There are arguably too many stalls perched right next to each other here all vying for our attention when we walked past shouting out “sabaidee Sabaidee”.
By night the main road is shut off and turns into a mass night tourist market selling paintings, bags, t-shirts
and the elephant style pants. P needing a new pair of pants and thinking ahead for India bought a couple and even Chris bought a pair to lounge in. In the night market many food stalls are set up down a tiny little lane and for the cost of 15k/£1.20 you can chose a selection of food from the selection of buffets here (all non-meat). We grabbed a bowl each and filled it with a yummy but messy selection of fried crispy noodles, stir fried noodles, Chinese yellow noodles, fried egg, vegetable fried rice, potato curry, deep fried egg plant, vegetable spring rolls and prawn style crackers. Guess you would have had to try it to believe us when we say it tasted delicious.
There are many activities on offer in Luang Prabang from trekking, boat rides, kayaking, trips to caves, waterfalls, rice planting and elephant riding/mahout training. We contemplated the latter 2 but in the end gave both a miss due to the over inflated price. Some tour agencies wanted $90.
We instead hired some bikes in favour of pedalling to the local waterfall. This was P’s ambitious idea and unsure whether it was possible we both
looked online to see if anyone had ever done it before. We found 2 reviews and that was all we needed. They both made it sound exhausting opting for the hour tuk tuk ride back, but given we have been on the road for 6 months we guessed our fitness must have improved by now. We initially attempted to find mountain bikes but unable to find any we opted for the rickety basket fronted bikes. Bad idea.
The first couple of miles on our 20 mile journey to the waterfall was flat and pretty much easy. The next 18 miles was well paved steep mountainous hills. With our useless bikes, we peddled, pushed and endured, but it was not enough in places. On one uphill stretch in our first hour alone, we had to climb a hill pushing our bikes on foot. This was slightly embarrassing with many people making the journey in the shared tuk tuks watching us from the rear of the vehicle as we fought our way uphill drenched in sweat. Some tourists cheered us on, whilst others looked on slightly sympathetically. It was difficult and strenuous, but the scenery that we could take in at
It takes a week to make one scarf
She offered for P to have a go but she declined
our own pace was good. There were many downhill stretches, we sped down hands over breaks, hoping to build some momentum for the next hill. It didn’t work out that way though. After 20 miles and 3 hours we had made it to Kuang Si waterfalls. Both overwhelmed, tired but having that sense of achievement that we had made it.
Before jumping in the waterfalls we were parched and so ate some of the popular baguette sandwiches on offer here. Plus a shake. We needed this badly.
As you enter the waterfall park you first pass through a bear sanctuary. It was nice seeing bears but saddening that they were kept in captivity. These bears were in a catch 22 situation. They were no longer safe in the wild, often captured and poached but their alternative was living a life in captivity. Very unfair.
The Kuang Si waterfalls was truly stunning. Ever so beautiful. Our first glimpse of it was of a pooled area with one level of water falling into another with the water a bold turquoise colour. As we walked the trail further, there were more pools of water, with small pools of water cascading
from one level to another. Further on the heights of the drops and the power of the flowing water was more impressive until we got to the area with a pool of water that lay in front of a huge cascading waterfall. We have seen manly waterfalls but these have to be some of our favourite next to Dunns River falls in Jamaica. Very beautiful. We stopped at many areas to take obligatory waterfall pictures.
The waterfall trail is big enough for many secluded quiet spots, but there are also areas with many people, jumping from trees, splashing and generally having fun. The first time we stepped in (one at a time unfortunately as there were no lockers for our phone) was a little unsettling and the ‘kissing’ fish quickly found us and started nibbling on our feet. Never one to opt for this spa treatment it was a strange sensation, one we never got used to. They are not that bad when you swam, mainly when you stood still, so we avoided standing in the water for longer than possible. After cooling down and enjoying some time at the waterfalls we then had to decide whether we catch
a tuk tuk back (fixing our bikes to the top) or push on with our bikes and ambitious selves. Not quite finished or done over, we choose our bikes.
The journey did not seem half as bad as we anticipated as there were more downhill stretches. P only got off her bike to push up a hill once but Chris having more difficulty with his knee (after his injury on the great wall) had to stop a little more. Fortunately the weather was not too bad on the way back with only a little rain to start off with. The clouds even cleared a little and we saw glimpses of blue sky (a rarity for us so far travelling Laos during monsoon season). Our thighs did burn however and we really had to push our pedals uphill. With the downhill stretches, we shaved half an hour off our journey as it only took us 2.5 hours to make the 20 mile journey back. We were exhausted and so quickly showered, ate at the night market, hydrated ourselves and slept. What a journey. It was worth it for the falls though.
One thing we initially wanted to
see whilst in LP was the Alms ceremony which takes place around sunrise and is a practice whereby community members provide the monks with food offerings. Reading into this however put us off as it has become a huge tourist attraction with many people intimidatingly taking pictures right in the monks faces instead of staying at a distance across the road. Many tourists also take part through tour agencies, providing the monks with sub par food i.e poor quality rice, often leading to many monks being ill. Because of this the monks got to a point whereby they refused to take part but they are now forcibly encouraged to do this by the government because of the tourism it brings in. Shame. We did not want to encourage this further and so decided we would take advantage of the many opportunities to take pictures of monks throughout town. One thing you do notice is that it is mainly young novice monks and not adult male monks around. Interesting.
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