We had left Vang Vieng after breakfast and were loaded into a small van. Lindsay, with her mal-au-voiture found this journey particularly rough as the van was extremely cramped and the driving erratic. The road to Luang Prabang meanders through the mountains so u-bends are constant, and the driver didn’t attempt to take any of them gently. The seats weren’t…well …properly attached to the floor which also made for an interesting ride. I was on the end of the row on a broken, fold-out stool so every time we took a corner I took off! At first, it was pretty amusing, and it kept Sarah chuckling the entire way. But after a few hours I was starting to lose my patience as I found myself constantly gripping my seat at every turn to avoid flying off. It was a very long seven hours. The immense view at the lunch stop was our one consolation.
Spot of lunch
By early evening we had arrived at our hostel in Luang Prabang. Our welcome was somewhat lukewarm as the guy behind the desk seemed pretty uninterested in us, or any other customers for that matter. At least our room was cosy enough with a decent bathroom. It gave us a chance to freshen up before taking a walk to the main town. Luang Prabang is another super-touristy destination, but it is lovely, especially when all lit up at night. We spent our evening wondering through the night market and drinking lemongrass tea out on the pavement of a cute place called ‘Indigo’ after the indigo-dyed garments that are sold all around the town.
That evening, on our return to the hostel, we found that we were locked out; our roommate had taken the one and only key with him. The disinterested guy was still on reception and just stared at us blankly when he explained the problem to him. Things didn’t pick up from there. The next morning, we were presented with our ‘free breakfast’ which was an uninspiring bread roll with jam. Before setting out for the day we left some washing at reception. On our return we found the young chap almost horizontal in his office who simply gestured at a pile of bags in the corner when we asked for our laundry. After wading through the bags to find our clothes we later found that certain items were missing and so had to return and rummage through other people’s clothes to recover our missing items. The same evening, just as we were settling down to go to sleep, the chap marched into our room unannounced to check something. Sarah politely asked ‘could you please knock?’ so he walked out, knocked, smiled mockingly and left. Poor service it was, but it certainly gave us something to laugh about.
Breakfast a la carte. Hmm…
But it wasn’t all bad news. Luang Prabang is essentially a town of temples and cafes, and so the majority of our stay consisted of temples and cafes and eating. I’ve said before that Lao food is delicious, but here it really was top notch. The laap, a salad, was incredible, and the lemon grass and ginger teas were the best I had. Who knew that eating cucumber and lettuce could be so enjoyable when you’ve got a paste to dip them in. ‘Indigo’ also had a few bookshelves which was pretty exciting having had little to read in the past couple of weeks.
Books, books, books! All donations were for a book charity as books are so scarce in Laos.
But, I didn’t waste the entire time lounging around with books and tea. We spent a good couple of hours visiting Wat Xieng Thong (yes, another temple, but it is something special) which was incredibly beautiful and intricate. Next to the Wat was the Royal Palace Museum, which was worth a visit as it was in close proximity. We didn’t expect there to be a dress code for a museum but were rather irritated to find that we needed to ‘hire’ (pay) for clothes for this visit. I suppose they insisted on it because it was a former palace to King Sisavan Vong at the beginning of the twentieth century, but it still didn’t stop us from grumbling about the double standards. Whilst we’ve been abroad, I’ve always tried to remember that I am in a foreign country and must abide by different standards, but I won’t pretend that the inequality wasn’t really grating on me. Man after man walked straight into the museum scantily clad in shorts and t-shirts, but my loose-fitting tank top and long shorts somehow just weren’t acceptable. Grumbles aside, I did enjoy the no-shoe restriction. There’s something really nice about the feeling of cold marble on your feet.
Squinting in the sun at Wat Xieng Thong
Later on our walkabout, we came across an advertisement for Wednesday film nights. So far, we had spent quite a lot of our evenings in hostels so thought this would make a nice change. It sounds incredibly lazy to be spending time abroad in a dorm, but doing a lot of walking in the hot weather and the uncomfortable travel does zap your energy – not to mention far too much eating and zero exercise. So we decided to be a bit more exciting and indulge ourselves.
That evening we were collected by tuk tuk and driven out of the city centre. We arrived at a stunning little café/bar, complete with cushioned chairs and a large projector screen. It was all rather romantic; sat under a dimly lit canopy around cute tables with pretty decorations. Best of all was popcorn served in sticky rice baskets. It certainly beats Cineworld.
The film for the evening was the documentary ‘The True Cost’ which I would most definitely recommend. It explores the human and environmental impact of the fashion industry which were far greater than I would have expected. I think many people would know something of the low-paid factory workers and their appalling working conditions, but on top of this is the sheer amount of waste generated. Waste resources are one of the polluting factors but the volume of clothing thrown away or donated is shocking. Anyway, I won’t proceed to ramble on about every detail, I’ll just reiterate: watch it!
Lindsay and I had an early rise the following morning as we had decided to go and watch the Tak Bat at sunrise. It is a daily ceremony for monks who walk the streets of the town collecting alms (in the form of sticky rice) from locals. We had been warned in advance that the ceremony had been hijacked by tourists who get in the way with their cameras, not to mention partaking in the alms-giving, even thought it would normally have little relevance to them. We decided we would go and watch from a distance so as not to be a nuisance.
Morning procession of the Tak Bat
Later on, we saw rice cakes drying out in the sun outside of one of the temples.
We made our way along the dark streets, which was both eerie and magical. Once we reached the town, street sellers were insistent on getting us to buy rice, an immediate indicator of how the ceremony has been commercialised. Once the line of monks emerged in their saffron robes, foreigners flocked from all over the place snapping pictures left, right and centre. Let’s be honest, we all make cultural hiccups abroad, and you could forgive someone for buying rice with the intention of being respectful. But you’d think that shoving a camera up the nose of a stranger is a definite no-no. Clearly not. Sigh.
We returned to bed for a couple of hours before visiting TAEC, the Traditional Arts and Ethnology Centre. It’s a museum in a 1920s house that formerly belonged to a French judge. Museums can often be overwhelming or uninspiring at times but I really rated this place. It had various clothing, photos, and video diaries from different hill-tribes and it was interesting to note the similarities between the Lao and Vietnamese hill tribes.
One of the other main features of Luang Prabang is the 100m tall Phu Si monument. We planned to climb this, but after attempting the first few flights of steps, getting pestered by bird-sellers, and finding that it was another hefty entry fee, I wimped out and decided I could go without seeing another monument. I’ve never been an athlete, but my lack of fitness was really quite alarming, so I resolved to get straight back into dance on my return to the UK (whilst noshing on coffee and bread, of course!)
Laap – best dish ever!
And so we came the end of our Lao adventure. This country hadn’t been at the top of my bucket list but I am so pleased that we decided to visit, as in hindsight it was probably the country that enjoyed most during the trip. Even though there are plenty of tourists, there’s a (false) sense that the country is ‘untouched’ by the rest of the world as the natural beauty and the traditional culture are prevalent. Big thumbs up from me.