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October 26th 2015
Published: November 9th 2015
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Phonsavan to Luang Prabang

We'd heard that the roads to Luang Prabang were even more tortuous than previously (could that be possible?) so we opted for the minibus mode of transport again. We were in some of the same company as on the previous bus (the 2 young Brits, the 2 Korean girls, the 2 American guys) but we were joined on this occasion by several native Lao people. Even so, we were still the oldest on the bus ....

We were soon stuffed to the gills with people and luggage, and two sacks of corn plonked in the aisle completed the load. The conical straw hats that the Koreans had carefully carried since we first met them were unceremoniously shoved under a seat by the driver (who needs foot space?), one of the Americans braced himself against some of the luggage piled in the back seat with him to keep it in place, and off we set.

Laos doesn't seem to offer much in the way of public transport over bigger distances, especially in rural areas, and access to schooling and medical care is difficult as a result. Inter-village interaction and trade is limited. There is only one train station in the whole of Laos and the rivers and roads provide the best form of movement, though the rivers are often restricted by low water and the majority of the roads are unpaved. So no-one really minded sharing the bus though we were somewhat befuddled when the driver stopped for a portmanteau on a chair in one roadside village. It turned out that the portmanteau bore a sign that read something along the lines of 'please stop here if you have space for another one'. It seems the driver thought he could fit one more in. The owner of the sign and the bag (and possibly the chair?) was eventually located (she could have been touting for a lift for days for all I know and had just decided to get on with life) and squeezed in next to the driver and off we went again.

The road really was Long and Winding. I now had the unabridged version of The Cold (women don't get 'flu) and was coughing like a Grimsby fishwife despite copious amounts of the Medicine Woman's version of Strepsils. I had 'borrowed' a roll of the Nice toilet paper to wipe my runny nose but it disintegrated at first contact with moisture and I became covered with more and more bits of useless shredded white tissue as the journey progressed. One of the Koreans completely covered her face with a scarf, trying to avoid my germs, I'm sure. The two Americans were nursing severe hangovers (maybe it was them singing at the brothel party?) and they eventually passed out. I can't say I remember too much else about the journey itself other than at one point it really did seem that we were going round in circles. Oh, and the restaurant we stopped at for lunch was clearly providing the freshest of food as the feathers and carcass of the meal were in a pile in the corner under the table we sat at. I did meet a lovely young lady and small daughter trying to earn a living selling hand-made cards as souvenirs. They were of the 'pop-up' variety and she could only make four a day. I spent a lot in that shop (but paper doesn't weigh much, does it?!).

We eventually made it to Luang Prabang about 4 pm (7 hours+ after setting off). I exited the minibus a whiter shade of pale in a shower of confetti toilet roll, we got a tuk-tuk to the hotel (well, nearly - there was some issue about a one-way system which meant we had to walk the final bit) and I was feeling so poorly and exhausted I swear I could easily have strangled the next person who looked at me funny. All of those feelings of self-pity and murderous intent totally disappeared on entering the Namkhan Riverside Hotel. This lovely family-run hotel is, as the name suggests, right on the riverside. (I spent two days thinking it was the Mekong river again but I was wrong - I guess there's a big clue in the name of the hotel ....) We were given a refreshing welcome drink and a map of the city as well of loads of tips on the best places to eat etc, and I met the two hotel dogs, Toto and Nina, who came for a cuddle and a tummy-tickle before we were shown to our room. I was already feeling better and we'd only been there 20 minutes! Our room was just yards away from the river, steps from our front door (but then down a deep gulley!). I'm sure it had healing qualities because it immediately lifted my spirits and I couldn't wait to explore.

Luang Prabang was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995. It has an incredible natural geographic beauty, situated at the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers and encircled by mountains. The air always seemed fresh and clean. It was, many hundreds of years ago, the royal capital of the country and still has architectural remnants of its previous regal connections which, together with the more recent French influences, make it elegant and timeless. It is still a significant location for Buddhist learning and there are lots of wats scattered around the town; the monks are happy to inter-act with visitors and locals alike, being a real part of the community. We had initially planned to stay for 5 nights but Thai Airways cancelled the flight we had initially booked and we had to leave a day sooner than planned (thanks, Thai Airways).

Over our time in LP we explored everywhere on foot. The main streets are wide and open. The main thoroughfare is unashamedly called Tourist Street and has a huge variety of restaurants, bars and shops. Leave that behind you, though, moving one block over on either side and the streets become more authentic, the restaurants more local (and cheaper!) and the visiting experience more relaxed though, in fairness, the pace everywhere in Luang Prabang is slow and gentle. On the riverside there are small park areas, little oases of peace and tranquility where you can watch the boats and ferries and appreciate the flaura and fauna. There is a spectacular viewing point at the top of Mount Phousi and we climbed the 328 steps directly in front of our hotel one evening. Well, we only did about 300 of those because we decided to take a 'short cut' before we reached the top which meant we got lost and missed the sunset altogether and we had to repeat the exercise the following evening taking the access route on the other side of the hill involving 355 steps. We did it in stages .... We were spurred on at one point when overtaken by a man carrying a small child up on his back. Though we could easily give him 30 years it did confirm our decision to do this trip while we're still physically capable (just!) of dealing with the rigours involved! Was it worth it? Well, it was a very pretty sunset but I wouldn't say it was amazing and, of course, it meant we had to come down all those hundreds of steps in the near dark, which presented different challenges. However, there is a night market in LP so my reward was waiting at the bottom!

The Buddhist monks are spread over about 80 wats in the town. Each day at 5.30 am they walk the streets collecting alms to sustain them, mainly sticky rice, fruit and sweet biscuits, from the locals, hardly what I'd call a healthy diet. Tourists are welcome to join in this ceremony, or just observe it, providing they do so with due reverence and not be intrusive in any way during this silent, meditative ceremony. I understand that the ceremony is now in some danger of being discontinued due to the tourists' lack of respect and general disruption. I was personally quite moved by the atmospheric chanting and the significance of the occasion for the dedicated worshippers, though I couldn't quite come to terms with older people on their knees making obeisance to pre-adolescent youths.

Our evenings after our meal were generally spent on the patio outside our room, watching the river roll by over a bottle of beer and relishing the quiet serenity. It was heavenly. Our patio had a visiting gecko, who was quite shy and only came occasionally, usually when least expected. I decided he was quite the designer accessory, and called him Giovanni. One night I sat alone with Giovanni on the patio after Steve had gone to bed and we were serenaded by a random passing German with a trumpet. It was so out of place and so unexpected that it was quite normal somehow; Giovanni did a runner though so I was ready to open the door to the room and demand that Steve speak loudly in a deep voice, but it never came to that as the random German-guy-with-trumpet moved on, who knows where? Most bizarre.

Our last day in Luang Prabang was bittersweet. We were sorry to be leaving, especially as this would mean the end of our time in Laos, not just in Luang Prabang. We had previously checked that we could pay our hotel bill in US dollars, otherwise we would have needed something like 4 million kip and would probably have needed to borrow that lady's portmanteau to carry it all! However, moving on would mean that we would be travelling further on our adventure and we were looking forward to that. After a final goodbye to the wonderful hotel staff, Toto and Nina, we left the hotel for the airport in an SUV version of a tuk-tuk, complete with air-conditioning, arranged by the hotel. Who would have thought such a thing existed? After suffering the delights of the various other forms of transport we had used in Laos, it was somehow fitting to go out on a high.


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