Saturday, 16 May 2009

Luang Prabang - Please Don't Make Me Leave Here!

Luang Prabang is the former capital of Laos and upon arrival it is easy to see why this beautiful location would have been selected as the country’s premier city. The town is shaped somewhat like an outstretched finger, the peninsula bounded on one side by the Mekong river and the on other the Nam Khan River. At the centre of the old town rests Phu Si, a one hundred metre high hillock that rises up and is capped by the temple That Chomsi. The journey up to the temple consists of about 300 steps which I foolishly undertook at midday when the temperature was a balmy 36 degrees. Halfway up I thought I was I was going to collapse from hyperthermia. Nevertheless the views from the top are fantastic and no doubt far better at dawn and sunset.
We arrived in Luang Prabang at about 5.30pm and managed to find a guesthouse with our erstwhile friend K (“Call me K” says his business card) from Seoul, South Korea. K was a fantastic fellow, gregarious and loquacious with a natural enthusiasm about pretty much everything, especially South Korea. Before I met K South Korea was not a destination I had really given any great thought to, but from our conversations about the people, the country and the food I am now more than curious. We talked about Korea’s history, the current situation, food of course and the hospitality with which South Koreans treat guests to their country. K, if you read this and fancy a career change, there is a bright future for you in marketing the myriad delights of your county!

Our guest house was the Kuang Si, located just behind the night market and a short walk from the leafy banks of the Mekong River. Clean and conveniently located the guest house was ticked most of the boxes for us and also supplied free drinking water and as many bananas as you could wish to scoff. A half hour walk from there along the Mekong brings you to the Nam Khan / Mekong confluence and the wonderful bamboo bridge that crosses the river, weighted down with boulders and creaking with every step that you take across. Our accommodation here cost us 60 000 Kipp per day, which works out to about £5.00. Coming from Zimbabwe I find the Laotian currency pretty easy to deal with, our denominations put those of Lao to shame. We talk in millions and trillions, thousands are nothing!

In spite of France’s colonisation of Laos there seemed to be relatively few hangovers from this era in Luang Prabang. One immediate pointer to the French era is that they drive on the right hand side of the road so we were constantly looking the wrong way when crossing over, narrowly avoiding an undignified end from the business end of a scooter. Some of the government buildings still bear French names beneath the Laotian script, as do some of the cafes and guest houses, though more commonly the names are displayed in English. No one seems to speak French bar a few of the old timers, indeed the closest I came to discovering any living remnants of French culture consisted of various games of petang taking place among the shaded sidewalks and the Laotian coffee that drunk black was as strong as Biblical Samson. The architecture too displayed some the colonial influence and the old buildings, many of them now guesthouses, give the town a rustic grandeur that is especially beautiful at dawn and sunset. The rivers are lined by trees and cafes, the atmosphere is very relaxed and whilst the 11.30 curfew on the bars can be an irritant the bowling alley stays open until much later, somehow having avoided the draconian ruling on closing time. The UNESCO World Heritage status of the town also means that there is very little traffic in the town, and what traffic there is predominantly confined to scooters on the wrong side of the road.

We spent six days in Luang Prabang and in many ways I felt that maybe we left a bit too quickly, we were however aware of the thirty day visa that we have and the fact that there are many other places we want to get to in this magnificently beautiful country. Luang Prabang is definitely a town I would like to go back to though, life is unhurried and being a boulevardier in this town holds a definite appeal. It is quaint and hospitable, has a wealth of culture and is, as the Lonely Planet points out, a tonic for the soul.

There are numerous other impressions of the city that I will take away, the ineluctable tuk-tuk drivers who patrol the streets (“Tuk-tuk, Waterfall? Where you go?”) and the scorching, humid heat. Between about mid-day and three o’clock it is pointless trying to do anything other than wilting away in a cafĂ© or attempting a siesta. One of the six worldly possessions of the Lao Thevada monks is an umbrella, which seemed bizarre to me until I took a midday stroll. Then it made a whole lot of sense. The umbrella had nothing to do with rain, it was all about keeping the beating sun off of your head. On the flip side of the heat though is the fact the a large bottle of chilled Beer Lao costs you about 10 000 kipp, which is less than 1 GBP and litre for litre cheaper than a can of coke. Indeed one of the bars has the slogan “Drink like a fish for the price of water!” which is not far from the truth. More importantly than the beer and infinitely more rewarding than the beer prices are the number of initiatives that have been set up in order to help the less privileged and economically challenged communities in LP. An example of this is the Big Brother Mouse which encourages students to read and talk in English with a view to furthering their education and improving their opportunities in life. The fact that the emphasis in on English I guess is an indication of far behind the French influence
is being left. Travellers can come into Big Brother Mouse and buy books in Laotian and English translation to distribute to school children who do not own any books. Rather than handing out money and candy to kids, books and education are encouraged. Six days a week travellers passing through can volunteer two hours of their time to go and help out with conversational English and help the Laotian students with their reading, writing and English conversation skills. It is a humbling experience, when Nipun and I went I spoke to a student whose day started at 6.00am every day and ended at midnight (he also worked as a security guard to gain some form of income), however he still managed to come and study every day in the hope of bettering his opportunities. Several other organisations exist along similar lines in Luang Prabang with the aim of helping the society, there was so much on offer to get involved with.

Our days were generally very busy here, along with every other tourist to LP we spent a day at the Sang Phet Waterfall (“Tuk-tuk, waterfall, where you go?”) where we swam the whole day and swung from ropes and jumped from waterfalls into the pools below. We visited the stunning Royal Palace Museum which was formerly the residence of King Sisavanvong and then later his son Savang Vattana. In 1975 after the revolution in Lao Savang was exiled to the North and never heard of again. Such is the beauty of the town that I manager to get up twice at 5.30am to photograph dawn and the daily procession of the monks with their alms bowls that takes place at 6.00am. Sunsets were mostly spent down by the confluence of the rivers, watching the Laotians swimming and making long exposure photos of the water reflecting the sky. The tripod has been a real pain to carry around at times but I have no regrets about my decision to bring it. We rented bicycles by day and enjoyed the food of the night market in the evenings.

Earlier today (12th May) we left Luang Prabang for Vang Vieng, another breath taking location amongst dramatic limestome Karsts and situated on the banks of the Nam Song River. The rich and fertile alluvial soil means ensures a rich and colourful setting with a wealth of greenery and trees. The town itself remains to be explored in any detail. Many people dislike this as it has become an epicentre for backpackers and has therefore been transformed into a very commercial town of bars, guest houses and eateries. The bars show re-runs of American TV shows such as Friends (I thought this bit of the travel guide might be outdated, but no) and there is an Aussie Bar, an Irish Bar and who knows what else. I imagine that it will take very little effort to get out of town and into the country side.

The Bouncer

“[His eyes were] green in colour, and of a peculiarly metallic glint, which caused them, as we shook hands, to be exploring my person for good spots to hit. What was probably intended to be the smile that wins, appeared to me a grim and sardonic twist of the lip. Take him for all in all, I had never met a man so calculated to convert the most truculent swashbuckler to pacifism as a glance; and when I recalled Ukridge’s story of the little unpleasantness at Marseilles and realized that a mere handful of half a dozen able bodied seamen had had the temerity to engage this fellow in personal conflict, it gave me a thrill of patriotic pride.”

PG Wodehouse: Ukridge

The cross over into from Chiang Khong on the Thai border and into Huay Xai, Laos was remarkably straight forward and easy. At half past eight in the morning we were picked up and then whisked across to the river crossing point. From here we were then taken across the Mekong River on long boats. Bored officials stamped put passports for US$35.00 each and then all the travellers congregated together in a small shop to wait for enough people to fill our slow boat.

What became immediately obvious is that Laos is certainly not the road that is seldom trod anymore. Each boat can take about fifty people and we and our fellow backpackers filled two boats on a random Monday morning. We were gullible enough to book a room in advance for the nightly stop over in Pak Beng when we crossed over and during our wait a charismatic Laotian took the opportunity to warn all the travellers that Pak Beng was a den of inequity and bustling with thieves straight out of the Arabian Nights. “There are many thieves” he quoth, “that will separate you from your baggage and make away with it in no time at all.” And then “Make sure your room is locked, and that the windows are sealed closed. Carry your valuables with you at all times.” I hugged my camera bag that little bit closer to my side. The rest can go, I am tired of carrying it. This little man then went on to tell us about his guest house in Pak Beng, apparently clean, safe and hospitable. It was, I was relieved to note, the same place that we had already booked. In retrospect I would argue all of those points. Our room smelt of urine, the staff had offered me weed (“Hey my freeend something nice to schmoke?”) twice before I even made it up the hill from the boat (dudes, I DON’T smoke! Not even cigarettes, they make me feel ill!) and when we refused to stay there a sturdy, strong in the arm (very) thick in the head gentleman challenged me to a bout of fisticuffs. I declined but I am getting ahead of myself.

We were still in Huay Xai, the Laos side of the border. “Usually our rooms are 500 Baht a night” our host intoned, “but for now it is off season and they are only 300. Additionally Pak Beng is very small, not many guest houses and the electricity goes off at 10 o’clock. It is better for you if you reserve a room here and then you know you are safe.” I patted myself on the shoulder and for the six hours we were on the boat I felt comforted that the thieves and villains of Pak Beng would have been foiled by boy scout-ish preparedness. The slow boat journey is beautiful with forests on either side of the river and the occasional village, but Koko had been right. After all the Mekong is the twelfth largest river in the world and though our section was comparatively small it still took us from Thailand deep into Laos.

The river itself is a hive of activity with everything from food to trucks being transported along on a variety of boats. On the shores villages spring up as you round in bends of the river and occasionally our boat would stop to allow vendors on who sold food and drinks to the travellers. The amount of life on and around the river was fascinating but three and a half hours in and my bony behind ached as though I had been caned (this from the cramped benches) and I found myself coveting the cards of our neighbours. I read, shifted from side to side, had a couple of large bottles of beers (ok, four) and then finally we were toiling up the banks of Pak Beng towards the promised comforts of Bounmee.

“Bounmee Rooms, 150 Baht” a chorus of touts cried out. In my finest PG Wodehousian tone I heard myself saying “What ho? 150 Baht?” We had been charged three hundred. Upon arrival we kicked up a fuss. We demanded to pay 150, but no, they would (reluctantly) go down to two hundred. They showed us a room redolent of stale urine with a broken fan and still demanded 200 baht. Nipun went to have a word (several in fact, and created a stink not entirely unlike the one in our room) and was told by a Laotian brute of a man that “You are one woman and he is one man in Laos. You do not live here. I will make your stay in Lao very difficult.” We managed to get our deposit back and went in search of alternative lodging, pausing only to tell the man that had tried to intimidate Nipun that I was a journalist and he should look out for the latest copies of the Rough Guide and Lonely Planet when they came out. He went doo-lally and the next thing I knew he was trying to get me to put down my backpack so we could escalate our discussion to the next level. Given that he was an ogre of a man and had “a face like boiled meat” I passed up the opportunity to trade blows with him. I legged it, and quickly at that, though in secret I was delighted with how riled I had got him after he had threatened Nipun. Later, dinner at the local Indian restaurant proved to be true to form with three separate tables having to argue their bills and us included after that. We did not need an alarm clock to wake us to quit that ghastly town. On the boat we heard further horror stories about Bounmee, with rooms with no hot water, lights that did not work and a general inhospitable demeanour from my erstwhile friend the boxer. No doubt he was stewing away and thinking long and deep on how he would like to boil my guts up in a cauldron and brand me with red hot pokers.

After another nine bum crushing hours on the slow boat the next day we arrived in Luang Prabang, the former capital of Lao and a World Heritage site. It is the antithesis of Pak Beng and having been here for three days now we love it. More on that later.

Chiang Mai to Chiang Khong

Our last days in Chiang Mai seemed to have passed in a blur.  Some of our time was spent investigating the best route into Laos and we decided, with the help of Mr Koko of the Chiang Mai TIC travel agency, that the most practical way to travel would be North to Chiang Khong by minibus and then down the Mekong River by slow boat as far as Luang Prabang.  In all the journey would take three days, one on the minibus and then two on the slow boat heading west to the former capital of Laos, Luang Prabang.  

Mr Koko had done the journey personally, was enthusiastic and came across as a reliable and trustworthy source of information which can be as refreshing as a swim to the traveller. He was full of useful tips such as don’t get the cheapest room in Pakbeng “like I did - it had rats, all night I could hear them crawling around the room” and to take some cards and a MP3 player.  “The first few hours on the boat” he explained “are great. Mountains! The River! The jungle!! But after the first four hours you start going crazy. Take cards!” In retrospect Mr Koko was a very good source of information and he was right in pretty much everything he told us.  He was especially right about Pakbeng, a one horse town of thieves and braggarts if first impressions are anything to go by. To coin a Tom Waits album name, the term Beggars, Bastards and Brawlers
comes to mind.

Koko also advised us on taking a zip line adventure day. Nipun had been reading up on the “Flight of the Gibbon,” a New Zealand Company that had put zip lines into an area of the jungle that allowed you to whiz your way across the valleys and forests. Again Mr Koko had an enthusiastic opinion and pointed us in the direction of a new company called Jungle Flight.  Unbeknown to us this venture had been recently set up by Songpram, the same man behind the Chiang Mai Thai Cookery School. Songpram is a really amiable and affable man who had been on the Flight of the Gibbon adventure course and found it wanting for one reason or another. Being an entrepreneurial soul (and egged on by his young son who thought this would be better than any jungle gym) within six months he had found himself a place in the jungle, investors and builders prepared to work through the Chiang Mai rainy season. Within eight months (and after much alleged intimidation and nastiness from some of his competitors) he and the investors were open for business.  

The course  is set deep in the jungle with a verdant forest on all sides. The hills and valleys are dramatic and one of the cable lines spans close on 300 metres. You are harnessed onto the cable and then launch yourself across the jungle and above deep valleys with trees arching up beneath you.  As much as anything the setting makes the day worthwhile, whilst the white knuckled, adrenaline charged rides across the jungle merely add to the adventure of the day.  We were lucky enough to be there on the day when there was a PR Agency doing a brochure and as such we tried out a whole new section of the course and then were treated to as much lunch as we could possibly eat. 

The rest of our time in Chiang Mai was spent fairly lazily, meandering through the markets, eating and enjoying a stress free travel schedule for a few days. We met a young monk, Nan, who maintained that he’d like some help with his English so we spent a few hours with him on various days. Despite bringing his text books to each informal lesson Nan studiously avoided his text books, his delectation was to talk and try out new catch phrases that he had learnt. So it was “By all means I can do that” and “It would be to my advantage to do this” for three days. What did strike me about Nan was his enthusiasm to chat in English, he had only been learning for two years and a lot of his English was self taught. He was half way through a text book that fell outside of his work requirement and that in itself is admirable. Whilst he could not have been more than eighteen he had been a monk for six years and a novice for two. The monasteries afforded him a living in Chiang Mai and a chance to gain an education. How different was his attitude to the peitit bourgeois that we were as kids.

And then we were on the road again. Driving out of Chiang Mai I was struck by how much I liked this town and I felt a little sad to be leaving it behind. Generally the people were polite and friendly, the roads were well maintained and lined with flowers and trees and as we drove through the suburbs there were ubiquitous markets and Wats that glowed with colour. In a chaotic contradiction of all this order the phone lines above consisted of massed, indistinguishable cables and occasional street kids patrolled the traffic lights selling strings of white flower necklaces to anyone who would take one. Five uneventful hours later we were further up North on the border with Laos at Chiang Khong. The Mekong River was a ten minute walk from our guest house and we spent the evening watching the sunset over the river as longboats lazily docked around us. The next morning we were up well in advance of dawn to photograph sunrise. The sun rose and it was beautiful. I would love to include some of these pictures of that sparkling dawn here, but in a moment of utter genius I formatted the memory card without having put them onto the laptop.  I was tired and multi tasking. Poor excuse I know but there we go. Given we were up at five thirty you have very little idea of just how annoyed I am.