Friday, July 30, 2010

Luang Prabang - A Bit Of Rain Ain't Going To Stop Us

Jenni and I arrived in Luang Prabang airport in the late afternoon. From there we took a taxi into the centre of town to our guesthouse. It was really nice, with a log cabin feel to it. It was next to one of the most expensive restaurants in town, L'Elephant, which was a bit out of our price range for dinner, but we did enjoy a couple of breakfasts at the more reasonably priced cafe branch of L'Elephant, located a mere two doors down. The only draw back to our guesthouse was the fact that it was a good 5 to 10 minutes walk to the main area. We spent our first evening chatting with family over the internet and uploading a few articles to the blog. It had been more than a week since we last had the opportunity to use the internet to communicate to our parents that we were still alive and kicking, so it relieved both our mums to hear our voices.

Our first full day was mostly spent organising a few tours and just walking around town. Luang Prabang is a town with a lot of character. It is probably one of our favourite places we have visited on this trip. The houses in the centre of town were mostly built before 1950, under the influence of the French colonists. This, coupled with many cafes and restaurants all throughout town, gives Luang Prabang a very European feel. The contrasting green jungle foliage and flowing Mekong and Nam Khan rivers surrounding the town make it a very pretty place. Making the place even more unique are the many Buddhist monks walking around town. There are so many of them because there are quite a few local temples.

Throughout our stay, we frequently enjoyed sitting down to drink a fruit shake while chatting with some of the local kids. On one occasion I was able to enjoy a game of hacky, using a wicker football with a couple of the local boys. The ball was really small, only slightly bigger than a tennis ball. For the first few minutes, the two of them laughed as I was not as good as them keeping the ball up as I am used to playing hacky with a full sized football. They soon changed their tone as within a few minutes I had got used to the smaller ball and was just as able to keep it up and do tricks with it as they were. On another occasion, we sat down with the kids to play a couple of games of checkers on a homemade chess board, using bottle caps for pieces. The kids were VERY good at checkers as they play it all day long because there is not much else for them to do. While Jenni and another girl that we met played checkers, I had a group of the kids crowding around me while I solved the various Rubik's cubes for them. While I was solving one, they would go and get their friends to come and watch, so by the time I was finished, they would have the next one scrambled so I could solve it again for the friends they brought. Some of them were eager to wait around 15 minutes just to see the more complicated cubes be solved, only to mess them up as soon I was finished, hand it back to me and request that I solve it again!

At the end of our first day, we climbed up to the top of Phu Si hill, a large hill in the centre of town that has a Buddhist tower for worship built on top. From the top, we sat and watched the spectacular sunset over the mountains in the west. We had heard that watching the sunset from the top of the hill is quite popular, so we were glad when we decided to head up about 45 minutes early as we were among the last few people to actually get a seat. Over the next 45 minutes we were joined by a large group of people to watch the sunset. Most people up there spent the whole time looking through a camera lens. The Lonely Planet has mentioned the existence of "epiphany inducing sunsets" in Laos. Up until this point, that sounded like a load of cods-wallop. But upon Phu Si hill, among all the avid photographers, while watching the sunset, I had an epiphany of my own and managed to conquer the mighty Megaminx :) As you can see from the big grin on my face, I was rather chuffed with myself. 

That evening after dinner and on a couple of other occasions during our stay in Luang Prabang, we stopped to browse through the night markets. This market was one of the best markets for locally made wares that we have come across in South East Asia. Most markets we have visited, especially in Vietnam, are chock full of knock off items such as clothes, shoes and watches. These markets always carry some of the local wares too, but they are always overshadowed by the knock off items. The market in Luang Prabang had an excellent selection of tapestries, paintings, lamp shades, table cloths, bed linen, jewellery, wood carvings and all sorts of other local wares. Like the night markets we visited in Cambodia, getting a reasonable price for an item was fairly easy, so we managed to pickup a couple of nice things for good prices.

On our second day we got up early to visit the Palace Museum which was only open for a few hours in the morning, before closing for a break and re-opening for a couple of hours in the afternoon. Jenni and I were among a small group of people who were fortunate enough to be guinea pigs for the brand new audio guide which had only become available to the public the day prior to our visit. We were happy to report back to a Laos tourism official that the guide was one of the best we have listened to. The Palace Museum is actually the palace of the last king of Laos. The palace was built by the French colonists about 100 years ago, so it is still in very good condition and has a very European look inside. After removing our shoes, we were allowed to walk through most of the rooms inside. The most notable rooms were the throne room and the king and queen's separate bedrooms. A lot of work had gone into decorating the throne room's walls with mosaics depicting stories of the royal family as well as setting up various things around the room in preparation of the coronation of the crown prince. Unfortunately for the prince, his hard work in getting his throne room ready for his coronation was all for naught as the country abolished the monarchy a short time before his coronation.

The king had a bedroom all to himself that he slept in alone. The king's wife had a separate bedroom where she slept and this was used for 'business time'. Except for the last king, most of the kings took many wives who lived elsewhere in the city. When the king called for them they would stay in this room overnight. When one of the king's wives came to visit, they would have a secret code. She would always hold a bunch of Frangipani flowers while walking to the palace. If the flowers were white in colour it meant that she was ready for 'business time', but if they were coloured pink, it meant 'I have a headache'. I reckon that each time the king invited a wife to come to stay the night, the only thing on his mind would be what colour the flowers were. I can just imagine him, trying to sit on his throne all proper, but at the same time, craning his neck to try and catch a glimpse of what colour flowers she was holding. If he saw they were pink, I'm willing to bet the first thing that went through his head was "Damn, I should have asked for Tracy instead!". 

During our stay in Don Det, we got talking to an Irish bloke who highly recommended that we visit a bar / restaurant in Luang Prabang called Utopia. We had also seen this place mentioned on a couple of flyers around town that listed a whole series of 'Dos and Don'ts in Luang Prabang', claiming "Do spend an entire day lazing at Utopia". We finally found the place, tucked away behind a series of winding alleyways. If it wasn't for all of the arrowed signs around the neighbourhood pointing in its direction we would have never found it. We were very glad we did so as this is possibly the best bar / restaurant that Jenni and I have ever visited. The place is set up right on the edge of a steep hill, only about 20 metres from the edge of the Nam Khan river which, about 1km downstream, joins up with the Mekong river. At the very top is a hut with huge cushions, small tables and sheshas, overlooking a zen style garden with tables and chairs made of rock throughout. Next to the hut is a full-sized beach volleyball court with tall netting set up all around the outside walls to stop the ball from bouncing away from the court. In front of the garden, overlooking the river is the best part. Built on tall stilts, on the side of the hill overlooking the river, is a large bamboo decking with a huge thatched roof overhead. On the decking are many knee high tables with little beds that have large pyramid shaped cushions for you to lean back on while lying down. Here, overlooking the river, Jenni and I spent pretty much all of our spare time in Luang Prabang reading our books, playing with the Rubik's cubes and surfing the internet, all the while enjoying beers, fruit shakes, homemade lemonade and eating some of the delicious local specialities like Luang Prabang sausages and jerky with special made chili sauce and sticky rice. 

That evening Jenni and I went to see a traditional Lao music and dance show. The story was kind of difficult to follow, but Jenni and I are pretty sure we were able to figure it out. In a nutshell, it was a play about a bunch of monkeys who had a bit of a break dancing session in front of their king and queen. After receiving a note from the king, they danced off somewhere else. Along the way, the head monkey had a big fight with a bird guy. After the fight, they all made up and sat on a throne with each other having a laugh about it. Then a demon, a beautiful lady and another bird guy came out in front of the monkey and bird buy sitting on the throne. The beautiful lady was more interested in the bird guy than the demon. The demon had a stick with sparkles on it and waved it all around, singing to the lady, "Well I've got a fancy pants stick, what do you reckon about that!?!" When the lady didn't respond to this, the demon decided, "Well how about I just beat your bird buddy with my stick, what do you reckon about that!?!". The demon proceeded to beat the snot out of the lady's bird guy, while the monkey and other bird guy sitting on the thrones just sat and watched. After that, the demon, bird guy and lady just walked away and the remaining bird guy and monkey guy got off their thrones and had a bit of a yodel. After a good yodel, the bird guy flew around a bit with the monkey on his back. After setting down, the monkey, bird guy and the rest of the monkey's buddies had another break dance. After that, they just took off and a heap of demon guys all came out, all of them branding sticks. They then had a good dance around, waving their sticks singing to us, "Now we all have fancy sparkling sticks, what do you reckon about that!?!" That was the end of the play. It had excellent atmosphere and narrative in our opinion! Five stars!

On the third day Jenni and I awoke to the sound of heavy rain. We both groaned as we had planned to go on a trek to one of the nearby waterfalls that day. Nonetheless, we dragged ourselves down to the cafe where we were to meet our tour group. Jenni and I were the only ones mad enough to turn up for the trek, so it ended up being just us two and our guide Solkit. Solkit was a very interesting person to talk to as he had been a monk in Luang Prabang for 7 years. During our trek he was able to give us a very interesting insight into the everyday life of the monks and even more interesting, their frame of mind when it came to leaving the monks to join lay people in society again. Not only was he very interesting to speak to in regards to being a monk, but he had also grown up in a rural village and had an excellent knowledge of the jungle. While we walked through the rain on the very muddy trails, he would stop along the way to pick and eat wild mushrooms and point out herbs like coriander growing in the jungle. On one occasion, he ripped out a whole series of the herbs by their roots, wrapped them in a large leaf, tied the package with a thin vine and placed them in his backpack to bring them home so he could grow them himself. 

The three of us started our trek in a village which was home to 3 ethnic groups of Laos, Lao people, Hmong people and Khmu people. Walking through this village was not as awkward as visiting some of the other villages that we had been to while on a tour as the rain had forced most of the people to take shelter in their huts. This allowed us to walk through the village without us gawking at them and them gawking at us. From the village we walked through a couple of valleys where the villagers had various fields of crops like rice, corn, sesame seeds and reeds used for making the thatched roofs of their huts. The whole time we were walking it continued to rain, making the trail very muddy. Although our raincoats kept our upper body mostly dry, our shoes and lower legs got very wet and muddy. The constant rain made taking many photos difficult, but we managed to keep the camera dry enough for a few seconds here and there to snap a few.

We continued over a few hills, passing a few small groups of villagers carrying large bags of harvested produce while walking bare footed through the mud and over the slippery rocks on the hills.  At one point we passed two young men carrying rifles who had been out hunting for the night. When Solkit asked them how they went, they shook their heads and told him that they were coming back to the village empty handed because they couldn't find any game to shoot due to the rain all night long. From the valleys we trekked through the jungle to a mountain spring where we had lunch. The water in the spring was flowing out of a small cave and looked very clear. We would have loved to go for a swim there in the clean looking water, but it is forbidden because it is a holy place for local people.

In the jungle we saw our fair share of local wildlife. A small green snake jumped out in front of Solkit, who narrowly avoided being bitten. He claimed that his heart was racing when it jumped out in front of him as he knows that the breed of snake is poisonous. We also had a scorpion about the size of the palm of my hand walk across the trail in front of us. I even found a small mud crab, sitting in one of the big mud puddles in the middle of the trail. Solkit brought it with us to the waterfall where he said a little prayer for it and let it go in one of the calm rock pools. Along the way to the top of the waterfall, Jenni got the giggles as we trudged through a 500m stretch of mud that stuck to our feet like clay. The stuff just wouldn't come off and picked up more and more as you took steps. Eventually the three of us were a good inch or two taller due to the amount of mud stuck to the soles of our shoes. 

By the time we reached the top of the waterfall, the rain had eased to a drizzle. Solkit took us through the ankle deep rock pools at the top of the waterfall to the very lip. There, with a mere rickety bamboo railing as the only thing stopping us from falling over the edge, we stood at the very lip of the waterfall overlooking a good 50 to 75 metre drop. It was well worth being soggy and wet as the view down was spectacular. The waterfall had a series of large drops before hitting the very bottom. We finished off our trek by making our way down to the very bottom of the waterfall. There we had a swim in one of the large pools. The water was rather cold, but very refreshing. It was a very enjoyable day trekking and swimming, but we were still very glad to get back to our guesthouse for a nice warm shower and to get some dry clothes on. 

We spent another couple of days around Luang Prabang, mostly lazing around at Utopia, but also visiting the nearby Elephant Village for an overnight stay. Jenni was really in her element during those couple of days, so we have decided to leave them to her to write about. Stay tuned!


  1. Great to catch up with you both again, sounds like you've had a good time even though it rained. Rather you than me on top of those elephants!!!
    Love mum xxx

  2. Thanks for giving Utopia the amazing review it deserves!!! I am glad you both enjoyed it, and it is the real reason I am still stuck in Luang Prabang!!