10.03.2012 34 °C
After our seven hour journey on a tourist bus from Vang Vieng we arrived in Luang Prabang…our fifth UNESCO-protected stop off. The scenery along the way was stunning, with huge limestone karsts looming out of the haze. I tried to take some pictures but unfortunately our driver liked to slam his brakes on at every opportunity before accelerating hard.
We spent most of the journey hanging onto our seats whilst we swerved from one corner to the next. We spotted a couple of cyclists on the route battling against the dusty roads and sharp corners…it looked painful and we gave one couple a round of applause and some honks for their pure determination in scaling what must have been a never ending dust cloud.
We find a little guesthouse on the peninsular in the centre of Luang Prabang and head out to have a look around. The peninsular is cradled in a beautiful sweeping bend of the Mekong River. The peninsular itself is full to the brim with historic building and golden wats. Dilapidated traditional houses sit alongside high-end boutiques in beautifully restored French villas. This is where Angelina Jolie brings the family for a holiday.
Justin has been joking for a few weeks that we are flashpacking instead of backpacking, but this place is a whole different level. We are suddenly surrounded by tourists wearing Prada, Chanel and Gucci – a bit of a shock after a week of farmland and backpacker pants.
We spend the next couple of days wandering around looking at the beautiful buildings and visiting temples, including Phu Si at the top of a 100m hill and the stunning Wat Xieng Thong. We head out on some bikes through a number of villages, each of which has its own temple and handicraft stalls as well as overexcited children, who chase us down the road.
We wake up at 5:30am to watch the Tak Bat from a window in our guesthouse. This is a series of processions where monks leave their monastery to take alms from devotees. Each monk carries a large bowl on a shoulder strap. The monks walk in single file and silently take gifts of sticky rice and bananas from devotees.
Unfortunately despite the signs many tourists have started to disturb this ceremony. We heard stories of tourists asking monks to pose for pictures during the ceremony and one story about a tourist walking up to a monk taking the top off his alms bowl and emptying a pack of cookies in before patting him (women shouldn’t touch male monks at all). We saw one group of Australian tourists cracking open a set of beers on top of Phu Si, one of the most religious sites in Luang Prabang…seriously!!
We spend the rest of our time visiting some of the local museums, community projects and the night market. We spend a morning visiting the Ock Pop Tok textile centre, where we finally work out how some of the things we have bought have been made. We watch the ladies working away on the looms making silk scarves and blankets. A detailed patterned scarf takes weeks to make and you suddenly realise why they are so expensive to buy! In the afternoon we visit the Traditional Arts and Ethnology Centre, which has a lovely exhibition on marriage ceremonies with lots of personal stories…including some fake kidnappings. In the evenings we wander around the market and spend a couple of hours at English language and reading projects (www.bigbrothermouse, www.lao-kids.org and the Children’s Cultural Centre).
Books are few and far between in Laos. One of the teenagers we spoke to explained that their school only has one English book to share among the pupils. There are a number of organisations that write and distribute bi-lingual / Laos books or set up libraries. Many of the session participants had travelled by bike or walked for at least 45 minutes to improve their English (most of which was self taught by talking to tourists) so that they could get a better job or go to university. Made me feel very lazy with my languages.
Last but not least...after much mocking on Facebook Justin finally went for a haircut, which involved the longest hair wash I have ever seen (including an eyebrow and ear wash!).
As my dad has noticed we spend quite a bit of time eating food. Luang Prabang is like a foodie heaven with beautiful restaurants serving champagne and streetfood vendors serving Oreo cookie shakes! We spend a happy few days sampling as many dishes as we can…obviously for blog research purposes. Everything from River Algae crackers to slightly dodgy looking street food noodles. We evidently had to try the local delicacy of Oreo cookie shakes (they were really good by the way!).
Next stop Myanmar...