Finding the heart of Laos in Luang Prabang

Since Luang Prabang was our first stop, referring to it as Lao’s “heart” may not be accurate – who knows what lies ahead as we travel through the country. But honestly, if we didn’t see another thing, we would leave Laos with rich and heartwarming images. Luang Prabang has a command post on the banks of the Mekong and the Nam Khan rivers, with postcard views at every corner. This is a city made for sunrises and sunsets.

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It is also a city made for walking. Leafy streets, river vistas and French colonial buildings make it really easy to lose a few hours wandering around.

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Our hotel is across the street from the Mekong – this is one of our views.

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Luang Prabang delivers on its promise of fabulous food (French croissants and Laotian barbecue), Indochinese mansions, positively lush tropical gardens, and curving streets and alleys for biking or walking. Here, a high-end hotel with automobile to match.

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An older building receiving a facelift. You see the odd crumbling home, but mainly, these French colonial treasures are being restored and beautifully maintained.

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Luang Prabang is a UNESCO city, so named in part because of the 33 temples here. It may feel like a sacrilege, but we did not visit one temple our entire time. We passed by them, walked through the grounds, and took a few photos, but for the time being, we have become temple-saturated. I think when one begins to think, “Oh, another golden Buddha. Meh!”, it is time to concentrate on other attractions. So, for now and possibly until Cambodia’s Angkor Wat, we are taking a temple rest. The monks are a very large part of life here, and their 6:00 a.m. procession to receive alms has become a huge tourist attraction and in some cases, a disrespectful photo-op. We did not take part in the ritual, but we did snap own version of the “monk walk.”

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Speaking of respect, we are finding that Laotians are conservative and quietly insistent about their cultural norms being adhered to. We removed our shoes at the front door of our hotel, and many stores and restaurants appreciate the same thing – there will be signs or proprietors will point to your feet if they want you to remove footwear. Equally important is the wearing of appropriate attire – we have seen this sign at a number of locations – the waterfall we visited, the bus station and outside a park. Seeing a woman in a bikini or cropped top (away from the beach) is akin to seeing her in her underwear – it is offensive to Laotians.  I have never understood why  men  walk shirtless on any city street. Keep Luang Prabang beautiful, I say.

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We had the opportunity to watch the 1925 documentary movie, Chang, by the directors of King Kong. They lived with a Laotian family in their jungle home for 18 months to film their challenges as they battled encroaching vegetation, monsoons, crop loss and livestock loss from tigers and leopards. The final straw was a rampaging mother elephant, come to rescue her captured baby…and she brought back-up. The film was jerky and a bit hokey, as you might expect, but lots of fun to sit at an outdoor theatre, and be entertained by the soundtrack of Laotian drums.

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There is a price tag attached to all this grace and beauty. Luang Prabang is solidly on the map for older ($$$) travellers, and the restaurants, cafes and boutique hotels that are catering to that market have driven up the $15 guesthouses and the $4 noodle dishes. We have overshot our daily budget by at least 20%, but it will all even out in the end. For those with a bit more to spend, Luang Prabang is still an incredible deal for the quality of food and accommodation. This luxury hotel would cost well under $100 a night.

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Since our Internet connectivity at our hotel was only dependable for five-minute intervals, we discovered Saffron, a fantastic coffeehouse and fair trade enterprise. Laotian coffee is really delicious (no Nescafe), and we got our fix (caffeine and daily news) courtesy of an Australian manager and his thoughtful crew. One of the coffees available is civet coffee – beans that have been ingested (and yes, harvested and cleaned) after they have passed through the civet (a cat/weasel-like creature). Since only a couple of kilograms are collected, this unique coffee is offered at $15 a brewed cup, or $50 for under a 3 oz. bag.

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One of the must-do walks here is to trek out to the end of the peninsula, cross over on a bamboo bridge (that washes out every rainy season and is rebuilt each year), then walk a couple of kilometres on the other side and cross back again – this time on a motorcycle and pedestrian-only bridge. The view looking down to the bamboo bridge:

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After a hot, dusty walk on the other side, we came to the motorcycle and pedestrian only bridge. The two are mercifully separated, but the pedestrian lane feels none too safe – thin, wobbly dry boards, with great gaping views of the river below.

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Meanwhile, streams of bikes flew by beside us – schoolgirls riding sidesaddle, workers carrying materials, little families – a parade of daily life blasting by.

We decided to make the Wat Phou Si pilgrimage, which  is set on a mid-city mountain. It is accessible by  climbing hundreds of steps up to the top where the faithful gather to watch the sunset every night. At the base, it is possible to purchase bamboo cages with two tiny birds inside – the idea being to carry them to the top and set them free as the sun sets. We declined, but there were a few takers.  We walked up with a healthy crowd, with more people pouring up every minute until we reached critical mass. Girlfriends were climbing on boyfriends’ shoulders for better views, and people were climbing up on the stupa ledges. As the sun began to descend behind the mountains, a flurry of cameras and cellphones took over.

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It was so hilarious – the sunset took a back seat to the crowd, which had become its own show. We’ve never seen anything like it. Good sunset though.

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One of the big attractions outside of Luang Prabang is the many-tiered waterfall with its menthol-green/blue pools. We were skeptical – waterfalls this time of year can be underwhelming, and the convoy of minibuses and tuk-tuks meant it would be a crowd scene with nothing to do but take photos and buy food. (We did both in abundance.) However, the waterfall far exceeded our expectations. It cascades down over four  distinct pool areas – two are safe for swimming – and while the crowds were substantial, we were alone on the paths climbing up and had plenty of space in the pools.
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That water is every bit as cold as it looks, although we both agreed that if it was Clark Bay, it would be “a 3.” (Insider knowledge for those of us who swam in the ocean off Gabriola Island.)

On the way up to the waterfall, we passed by a bear enclosure. These smallish moon bears have been rescued from the fate of poachers who capture them, keep them in tiny cages, and intubate them for their bile, for use in medicines. They have freedom to roam through a number of large enclosures, and they were all very playful and active while we were there.

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We could have spent a lot longer in Luang Prubang – it would be an ideal holiday if time was limited, and you wanted everything to be perfect.

Sorry for the late posting on this one – internet was an issue.  We will check in again soon.

Slow Boat to Laos

As with many things in life, you tell yourself what you want to hear. The idea of a two-day, 15-hour boat trip down the Mekong could be mind-numbingly boring or darkly romantic, so we chose to go with the latter. Two long days, one night and many, many emotions later we arrived in Luang Prabang, the French colonial crown jewel of Laos, and our first few glimpses of this UNESCO city melted the boat trip away.

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We began our trip armed with a few survival tips. One can stay the night either in Thailand or Laos – the twin border towns face off across the river, and the boats do not depart until 11 a.m. each morning, ostensibly giving all travellers plenty of time. We decided to take the bus from Thailand straight over the river to Laos and spend the night there; thereby getting all border stuff out of the way the day before, and leaving plenty of time to get to the boat line-up early.

We had heard horror stories of chaotic Laos border crossings – officials tossing about mitt-fuls of passports and documents, with mobs of backpackers queuing up and fervently hoping to be reunited with their correct papers again. Ours was a sedate experience – our bus pulled in on the Thai side – we relinquished our departure cards, had our passports stamped, jumped back on the bus, drove over the bridge to the Lao border crossing, handed in our papers, and voila – in less than 15 minutes all 25 of us were processed and through. We spent the night in Huay Xai, and watched the sun set behind the Thai mountains.

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The next morning, armed with our baguette lunches, we hit the pier by 9:30 (for an 11:30 departure). The configuration of the boat is thus: the front of the boat is lined with seats facing sideways, and then the next several rows face frontwards. We bought our tickets the night before, and were assured our seats were front-facing (I told the English-speaking ticket seller about Stephen’s motion sickness issues – he was suitably concerned).

We arrived to discover our assigned seats were in fact side-facing, and since the numbering was done with pieces of paper laid out on each seat, and we were among the very first to arrive, we merely changed a few of the numbers, and chose the second row back. Some confusion ensued as the boat started to fill up, but we kept our eyes averted and an uncomprehending smile on our faces.

This, the unruly front section. A few hours later, OD’d on potato chips, the kids were quietly reading.

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The Mekong is the arterial highway that connects hundreds of small communities and slow boats were designed to move Laotians and cargo with a minimum of fuss. Comfort and safety are not priorities (we counted two lifejackets), and seats are reclaimed automobile bench seats. The influx of tourists who have set upon these boats with such enthusiasm pay for their authentic experience with sore backsides and carb overloads. Anyone taller than six feet cannot stand up straight. A two-day passage costs just $30 US, to cram 150 people into such small quarters. The luxury cruise, with plush seating, food and drink provided, and a select guest list of just 30, costs $130 US pp. Since we are on a fairly tight budget, the cattle car it was.

This slow boat ride has wildly varying reviews – some love it, others less so.  One woman described it as being, “an unchanging scene of green with brown in the middle.” While I was hoping for more dramatic views over those many hours, we did enjoy a serene and subtly-changing landscape.

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Cattle, pigs, goats, dogs and kids cooling off in the river – river life takes on many forms.

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The Mekong, like so many big important rivers, has a strong personality and can be quite tumultuous – with whirlpools, waves, rapids and a treacherous current  in the middle. The water closest to shore, by contrast, is often as calm as a millpond.

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As we made our way along, people would often wave and call to us from shore, or from other boats. This boatload of people stared back at us; we didn’t even get a wave from one of the kids.

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We stopped a number of times, to let people off, or to pick up cargo. At one of the stops, there was a pile of very heavy bags filled with food, waiting to be boarded. We watched two men grimace and struggle to bring them to the door, and then watched in awe as one of our crew members singlehandedly lifted each bag, hoisted it up to his shoulders and humped it all the way to the back; returning for each bag and repeating the same feats of strength.
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We approached our overnight stop – the small town of Pak Beng, to grab a bite to eat, sleep for the night, and do it all over again the next day. The crew began to unload backpacks, and the crowd thinned, until not one bag was left. Where was my bag – my anxiety levels were going through the roof. I insisted my bag was still in the hold and they insisted just as strongly that they were done and wanted to put the planks back down. Finally, the young man went down again – this time with a flashlight – and emerged with my bag.  We walked up the gangplank as a sunset on the water ushered us in.

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Next morning, we were at the ferry dock by 8:00 for a 9:00 launch, and this time, it was a different boat.

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Our new friends Sylvie and Michel from France, had saved us good seats. They were fortunate enough to see two wild elephants drinking from the river at 7:00 am, from their hotel balcony, and they were still so excited about the rare chance to have such a sighting. Plus, we were surrounded by a group of very funny Germans who kept us all well entertained for the first couple of hours. Once we were settled in, Stephen went back up the hill for snack reinforcements – coffee and chips!

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Many Laotians gather around the boats, seemingly just to watch the activities.

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We noticed a young man, his wife and small child on their motorbike, which had incredibly been brought down the steep hill, over the rocks and onto the pier. Amazingly, this bike went onto the front of the boat; no big deal to the crew who are accustomed to loading all sorts of cargo.

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As our boat loaded up, a long lineup of backpackers was making its way down the hill. For some strange reason, they waited for at least a half hour before loading them onto the adjacent boat ; possibly they were hoping they could all fit on with us.

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We discovered that your boat mates can be crucial to your enjoyment of the trip. There were a couple of groups that could have derailed the trip. Four men who were old enough to know better began drinking before the boat ride even started,  but they stayed to the back of the boat, with the bar and the smoking section. Another couple made their presence felt – he of the wiry body, ropy arms, thin grey braids, and non-stop cigarettes; she of the hard face and swastika sticker on her phone. They were not people to be messed with, but it was very shocking to see the Nazi symbol so aggressively displayed.We’re all a little sensitive these days, and it had quite a chilling effect on us and others.  Luckily, they also stayed in the back of the boat the entire time.

On the first boat, our luggage had been put in a hold; this time, all our bags were tossed onto a platform at the back, beside the engine. People then sat, walked on or slept on the pile – our bags emerged unscathed at the end.

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I must tell you about the toilet. One toilet for 140 people.  Bucket of water to one side to flush contents (I’m assuming right into the river). Wet floor. Big bag to hold used toilet paper. A woman I met in Mexico last year said to me, “When I can no longer squat, I can no longer travel.”  This room to be used for emergencies only.

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If you haven’t already equipped yourself with hand sanitizer and wet wipes, this experience would do it for you. (I’m imagining my mother gagging as she reads this.)

But not to leave you with a filthy toilet as your last impression. We landed in Luang Prabang – about 10 km. from town. Since we were all a bit confused, the boat captain snapped us back to reality and yelled, “Get Off!” Dutifully, we trooped off, up the hill and into the arms of the waiting tuk-tuk drivers. Apparently a few years ago, an arrangement was made to switch piers, to create jobs for the taxis and tuk-tuks. No matter – it added one last and funny element to our travels.
The folks just ahead of us – a mirror of us and our luggage.

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We arrived at our lovely hotel, had quick showers and headed down the street for dinner and a cold Beerlao. Finally, the two-day ride was over.

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So…would we recommend this trip? With reservations – yes. It is quite the experience, and if you want to get a feel for what it is like to travel in Lao – this would be a good bet. Not clean, not comfortable, and probably not safe, but we’re glad we did it.

Would we do this again? NEVER!!!