Indochina – Laos – Luang Prabang

Clean toilets at Vientiane airportOur early morning flight from Vientiane to Luang Prabang was courtesy of Lao Airlines. To be fair, they don’t have a great reputation, and just a few months after we flew with them, one of their aircraft was involved in a crash with no survivors. There didn’t seem anything particularly wrong with our flight, although it was delayed, which gave me time to take this amusing photograph of a sign that encourages you to keep the toilets clean at Vientiane airport. Let’s just say, it’s not an airport where you’d choose to linger.

Hotel Xiengthong PalaceDriving to the hotel, the auguries were good. The town has a lovely relaxed atmosphere, like a Buddhist version of a clean mountain spa, with good walks, lots of temples and plenty of places for après ski. We couldn’t wait to investigate. Our hotel was the Xiengthong Palace, and entering it felt like heaven. It was such a beautiful sunny day anyway, and the place looked fabulous. The rooms are beautiful, the staff are friendly and the restaurant, the “Kitchen by the Mekong”, is just superb. A perfect place to dine on the terrace overlooking the river, with exquisite food and immaculate service – that highly sought after blend of politeness and friendliness that many attempt but few achieve.

Novices on the streetWe did a little independent recce before our guide, KL, came to take us on our afternoon tour. Luang Prabang feels like a wealthy, well-to-do village. It’s like a Lao Cotswolds, except that everywhere you walk you see groups of novice monks. We were instantly entranced with this beautiful place as we wandered about, and decided that this was definitely a place to come back to. We had to find somewhere for lunch, and we discovered the Tamnak Lao, which had some free places upstairs, not on the balcony (which looked really nice) but inside. Although we lost out on the view, it was still very comfortable and the food was great. I particularly relished my thirst quenching bottle of Beerlao.

Wat Ho Pha Bang Our afternoon jaunt started with a visit to the National Museum. It’s a stunning complex, with its opulent highlight being the Wat Ho Pha Bang, built to house the most sacred of the town’s religious icons, the Pha Bang. Its reconstruction had only been recently completed a short time before we were there which is probably why it looked so beautiful. The generous daubings of gold on a rich red background are enough to make Laurence Llewellyn-Bowen jealous. The complex also houses inter alia the Royal Ballet theatre and a statue of King Sisavang Vong. From the Wat Ho Pha Bang you take a stately walk down the broad path that leads to the National Museum itself, which features French and Lao architectural styles and royal apartments. Sadly they don’t let you take photographs, so you’ll just have to imagine it. To be honest, a lot of the exhibits were a bit on the – dare I say it – boring side.

SilkwormsTo take a break from the lavish religious buildings, we then visited the Ock Pop Tock weaving centre. Here you can see the traditional textile work of the Lao people created by modern artisans as well as watching them at work. You can also meet the silkworms, which is always an enjoyable, if slightly itchy, experience, as they wriggle and munch their way through their mulberry leaves getting fatter and producing more silk. Ock Pop Tock’s products are lovely, and it’s a great setting, but we thought it was all a bit on the expensive side.

Wat Xieng Thong mosaicsBack to Luang Prabang, our final visit of the day was to Wat Xieng Thong, a magnificent monastery with several highly decorative outbuildings, which feature mosaics on the external walls, depicting Buddhist scriptures. Boats decorated with nagasDespite some scaffolding inside, it’s still a fascinating place to walk around, and I found the boats, in the form of nagas, particularly interesting. Many of the Lao kings were crowned here in the ordination hall. That's a gong!It’s also got the most elaborate gong you’ve ever seen in your life – J Arthur Rank, eat your heart out.

After a much needed rest, we had dinner at the Kitchen by the Mekong. Mrs Chrisparkle’s concerns for a gluten-free meal were easily put to rest by the chef coming out to meet us and to discuss her precise requirements. Vintage cars outside restaurantThat’s what I call service. Dinner took the form of a multi-coursed banquet, and it was sumptuous. Afterwards we decided to stroll back into town again to see if we could find a suitable watering hole for late night wining – the dining had already been catered for. By night the town is brightly lit with fairy lights and warm glows emanating from bars and restaurants. A nearby restaurant parked vintage cars outside its doors, just because it could, to make it look cool. I think they moved them again in the morning. We then discovered the Opera House Wine Bar, Opera House Wine Bar drinkiesamusingly named as I don’t think there’s an opera house anywhere near. But the wine was classy and the atmosphere welcoming. We loved it. A fantastic place to people-watch and while away the final hours of the evening.

Next morning, after a spiffing breakfast, we joined our party for a Mekong river trip. Boat on the MekongThere’s a place you pick up boats just across the road from the Kitchen by the Mekong, and our little group headed off north east up the river out of town. The boats are very comfortable, with nicely varnished wood and rather plush airline-style seats. It’s a very relaxing experience, Water buffalojust watching the world go by, and a very rural world it is. Water buffalo and other cattle, fishermen alone in boats and fisherwomen wading into the river with baskets, Fisherman on the Mekongkids running around, it may feel like the middle of nowhere but there’s a lot going on. In some places the forest comes right to the water’s edge and you see these massive exposed root formations, looking like some unruly wooden stalactites.

Fishing with a basketOur first port of call on the river trip was the Pak Ou Caves. About 25km from LP, the boat moors up and you climb some steepish steps to discover two discreet little caves that contain a big surprise – they are thronging with tiny Buddhas. Roots into the MekongEvery available spare inch of surface will have a Buddha on it. Some wooden, some bronze; standing, reclining, some with orange sashes; but none of them are in good condition, as this is where the locals take broken and tatty effigies for it to be their final resting place, as it were. Pak Ou CavesIt doesn’t matter though – in fact their condition makes the place seem even more unworldly. On the opposite side of the river is a restaurant, whose name I’m afraid I can’t remember, set up to provide buffet lunches to hordes of tourists. It was very nice, but we were both amused and alarmed at how the toilet is basically an overhang into the river.Pak Ou silhouettes Imagine “walking the plank” on a boat except that the plank is enclosed, until you get to a hole at the end… I’ve probably said too much already.

The leisurely route back to LP was via Ban Xang Khong. It’s a very attractive little village, known for its crafts stalls and shops, where you can see the skilled local artisans creating their textiles and their art. Ban Xang KhongNaturally, you can itch at the sight of silkworms doing their thing too. The village’s speciality is the creation of a highly textured paper from mulberry bark. They make excellent pictures and greetings cards, and I confess Mrs C and I spent a few thousand Kips (that’s the rather cute name of the Lao currency) on some very arty cards. We were the only people wandering around the village – we did wonder how on earth those people actually make a living. But, to be fair, it looked very neat and well maintained so I’m sure there’s money in them there mulberry bushes.

Climbing up Mt Phou SiA minibus returned us to LP late in the afternoon in time for a freshen-up and then a walk up Phou Si hill to watch the sunset. Phou Si (pronounced “pussy”, to general childish amusement) means “Sacred Mountain” and there are 328 steps up to a viewingTuesday Buddha station where you get a fantastic view of the town and surroundings. There’s a Buddhist temple (naturally) halfway up, complete with resplendent nagas, and also a splendid Tuesday Buddha in his reclining state. Yes there is a Buddha Sunset from Mt Phou Sifor every day of the week. It’s worth the climb up Mt Pussy to see the sunset, even though there was quite a lot of cloud that night. Get there early if you want a good view – every single tourist in LP will be there as well.

Night MarketFrom there we walked down the other side and into the Night Market. As the name suggests, every night Sisavang Vong Road becomes an open-air market. It’s a fun walk, and I bought a Beerlao T-shirt, which made me look like a Lao Lager Lout. Not bad quality, actually. A lot of the stuff is tourist trash, of course, but they also stock all those arty artifacts that you can find in the craft villages, and it’s a pleasant way to spend a pre-dinner hour or so.

Luang Prabang by nightFor dinner we went to the Three Nagas. It looks quite posh, and the food was excellent, as always in Laos. They had an extensive wine list, with some fairly pricey options, so I started at the cheap end until I found something suitable. Smilingly they went off in search of my first choice (didn’t have any) and then my second choice (didn’t have any). Before I made my third choice I asked them which wines they did actually have in stock. All the expensive ones, quelle surprise. Still, we were on holiday, and the occasion cried out for a decent vino. Afterwards we wandered back to the Opera House bar again, for something equally palatable and this time a darn sight cheaper.

Monks at Wat Xieng MouanThe next morning we were up with the lark to participate in the traditional offering of alms to the monks. KL, our guide, used to be a novice monk himself, and had great insight into the daily lives of these people. Drying sticky rice in the sunYou can give whatever alms you want to the monks as they wander past you, but the usual practice is to give them a piece of sticky rice. All round the town you see people preparing sticky rice cakes for the next day’s alms. KL bought us a clump of it (that’s the most suitable word I can think of for sticky rice in its “dried in the sun” format) and we sat by the kerb, Monks gathering almspulling bits of it off and offering it to the endless queues of monk-men and novice-boys shuffling past us. The offering was placed in a metal bowl, encased in a cloth cover, that each monk had attached to a strap that they wore over their shoulders. For all the world it looked like they were showing off their new man-bags. It was a curious procedure; there was hardly any eye contact from the monks as though there was a sense of embarrassment to it, although I expect that’s not the reason. Maybe they were bored with the same ritual every single day. Mind you, I wouldn’t be happy with a main meal of clumps of sticky rice accumulated from dozens of hands; you found yourself hoping they’d had all their inoculations because I can’t think of a more sure-fire way of spreading disease.

Emerald BuddhaOnce they’d gathered alms from all the tourists (and to be fair, plenty of locals too) the monks trooped back to their temple – in this case the Wat Xieng Mouan – and we followed them. Wat Xieng Mouan means “Monastery of the Amusing City” so some translator, somewhere, at some time, was having a bit of a joke. It’s a smart temple, with a very lavish emerald Buddha that looks like it’s been dunked in Listermint. Novice at the windowI wondered what life was like for these monks and novices. The monks are presumably used to their lifestyle, but some of the novices are very young and must have been removed from their home life – who knows if willingly or not – to live a life of religious devotion. Wistful noviceI caught this one boy looking out of a window in the temple with a look part wistful, part sad. I think back on him and hope he’s ok. Back outside, we walked round the temple and from the side we watched the senior monks preparing all the food they had been given and handing it out for their communal meal. Monks in the kitchenThey are very quiet, dignified, peaceful people, as you might expect, so we left them to enjoy their sticky rice in privacy.

Rickety bridgeWe got back to the hotel at about 7.30am to pack, check out and enjoy a final leisurely breakfast in the Kitchen by the Mekong. We even had enough time to return to the centre of LP for one last look at the rickety footbridge that spans the river. If you dare you can get halfway across and then start swinging it a bit, much to the disapproval of the locals, unsurprisingly. We were too scared, to be honest. Then it was on the bus to the airport via another major sight – the Kuangsi Waterfall Park.

Playful bearsThis is a beautiful park, notable not only for its eponymous waterfall, but also for its magnificent bear sanctuary. These big brutes, who would tear you apart as soon as look at you, frolic innocently in this huge compound where they are rescued and looked after. You can spend ages (we did!) watching their antics.Kuangsi Waterfall I’ve never seen so many bears in such perfect surroundings. The waterfall itself is stunning, and falls down onto terrace upon terrace upon terrace of beautiful blue pools. It’s a very popular site, with lots of hiking and swimming opportunities, and some very enterprising locals have set up a kind of picnic restaurant overlooking the waterfall, where Mrs C and I enjoyed the lunch that they’d brought in big chiller bags out of the boots of their cars.

Hmong VillageRelaxed and fed, it was on to the airport for our final leg but we had time to stop off at a Hmong village, and I have to say, this one wasn’t so clean and wealthy as Ban Xang Khong. Instead of feeling welcomed we felt quite threatened by the place and there was a lot of “heavy sell” tactics going on. Unfortunately, the items for sale were rather poor and shoddy, but we did end up buying something from a Ratcatcherslittle girl who was obviously going to burst into tears if we didn’t. My most memorable mental image of the place though is two boys sat by the roadside, doing nothing in particular, but with dying rats suspended by their feet from the boys’ bike handlebars. The village rat-catchers, I guess. Food for thought.

And that was it; goodbye Laos, and a one hour flight later we would be in Hanoi. Being Lao Airlines, it departed about forty minutes before it was due. Flight schedules in Laos are a bit like serving suggestions.

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