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.

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