The temple town of Luang Prabang, Laos is what I like. A fascinating landscape and a beautiful city full of temples, high on the World Heritage List in my opinion.
In 2009 I spent a week in Laos and the next week in Cambodia. In a series of six articles I am offering transcripts of my travel diary, a lot of photos and several videos. This article also includes a round-up of impressions from Laos and a letter home.
Friday 3.7.2009, Vang Vieng – Luang Prabang
As yesterday I was picked up after a good breakfast of bread and omelette, and brought to a passenger meeting point. Only backpackers. No a/c-bus today, only natural ventilation.
We went up the valley and river a bit before entering mountain roads. We climbed steep hillsides and passed small villages or hamlets clinging on the edge of the cliffs. A lot of poverty. Rice paddies on the flat grounds, some places with well-developed irrigation systems – other places home-made. In the mountains there seemed to be subsistence agriculture mostly. Pigs, poultry and cattle walked freely everywhere. In the road as well.
The bus honks constantly, also to scare away the little children. The locals seem to nibble all the time. Open facades into houses. Some on pillars.
I lunched rice, veggies and some meat on a roadside café. Fantastic views. Kind of Andes-like.
Highway 13 passes through the entire country up till China in the north. It has a concrete surface all the way, but the country screams out loud for better infrastructure on the side roads.
Images and then a video
After roughly seven hours we came down to the flat lowlands where the Mekong flows and where the provincial capital of Luang Prabang is situated.
The bus station is a couple of kilometres outside the centre, but almost before I had time to think of transportation I and everyone else were hailed by locals who wanted us to come to their guest house. I got on the back of a guy on a moped who showed my some fine photos.
- MUONGLAO GUEST HOUSE, across the street from the Visoun Temple. Not in the middle of the city centre, but fair enough. Three bed room and communal balcony for 16 USD. No breakfast. The interior was nice and clean. They did not make the beds on day 2. Free internet.
On the balcony I met an Aussie-couple who had travelled before. They were in their fifties. He had been here in 1975 when the war was over. I told them that when I was in the region in 1985 Laos was pretty much closed to foreigners. The couple had now come down from Vietnam alternating between boats and minibuses. It sounded rather arduous. North Laos was a real wilderness. I have chosen the easy route, but then it is also a matter of time available.
I had a little AC-cooling before I went sightseeing. First I climbed high and many steps up to Mount Phu Si in the middle of town. Great views, this afternoon even with a rainbow. The mountain has a stupa of the golden kind on top.
I then walked down on the other side into the middle of a large temple.
Inside the complex I found the theatre and on impulse I went over and bought a ticket to a show that was about to start. Folklore: Fantastic music instruments, colourful costumes and interesting dance. Several performances, first ladies with finger-dance and then a group of men performing a story. The symbolism was totally lost for me and consequently a bit too long. But it was interesting and nice to experience. It was almost embarrassing with only 20 tourists in a large hall.
Out on the street, the main street, parts of it was rigged with vendor tents. Real folklore with handicraft textiles and decorations of good quality. The vendors did not put up hassles for all the tourists. I bought a tablecloth.
The dinner I can’t remember now three days later, so it didn’t make any impressions.
Luang Prabang’s main street is lively with lots of restaurants. There is a more grown-up tourist crowd here than in Vang Vieng. The town is easy-going, nice and all right.
I’m staying a 10 minutes’ walk outside. Very dark along the streets, but it seems safe.
Saturday 4.7.2009, Luang Prabang
Streetwise in Luang Prabang
Today it was raining all day, not unlike at home. My old rain coat makes me as wet wearing it, as not wearing it. Nevertheless, this was the big walkabout in town. There are a lot of beautiful and magnificent Buddhist temples. I took loads of photos I will have to identify later and read what my guidebooks tell me about them. I did not go that detailed about, you must know. Here I will rather mention a few peculiarities.
In the last temple a young man came over to me. A monk or apprentice rather at the age of 16. He was midterm in his four years of monk-school and wanted to practice his English. He came from further up north and wished he later would get a scholarship to go to university in the capital. I wished him good luck at least, although he might have wanted me to see to his scholarship.
Down by the Mekong there are some long, narrow boats partially covered by a roof. These riverboats go upstream with locals and tourists alike. I will do that tomorrow.
The fresh-food market had been washed away by the rain when I got there. Only the waste was in the streets.
In the afternoon there were prayers in every temple I passed. I could hear the chanting a long distance away. The monks in their long robes, varieties of orange colour, were sitting on the floor and chanting along with their leader.
The town of Luang Prabang is a World Heritage Site on UNESCO’s list. According to the manager at my guest house the control of the cultural heritage is so strong that nobody gets permission to expand. Pensions and most other buildings are therefore quite small. Not many buildings are more than three levels. Most are Laotian style with egg carton roofs (they look like it, but are made of wood) or old French colonial style in brick.
Images from a walk around town and a video
Luang Prabang is a wonderful city and it is on UNESCO’s World Heritage List.
Sunday 5.7.2009, Luang Prabang
On a Mekong longboat
This is my last full day in Laos. I had booked a tour in two parts. The first part was up river in a cigar boat. Father and son drove us in the rain. We were going to see some grottos with lots of small Buddha-figures and rather uninteresting.
We stopped by a Whiskey Village on the way. Somewhat more interesting. Genuine, but peculiar with so many tourists around the shacks every day.
The best part was to have done it, sailing the Mekong, as I have done on the Amazon and the Nile, two other large rivers.
A series of cascading waterfalls
The next part in the afternoon was with a little group to a waterfall. It was great, not least because of the high flooding caused by the heavy rainfall the last few days. The swimming opportunities in the lagoons below the waterfall were not tempting to me, due to the brown colour of the river.
A small refuge for black bears was here as well. They have a substance in their gallbladder which is popular in Chinese medicine. The bears are mistreated elsewhere.
On the trip was a nice young Israeli couple. On the boat trip I talked a lady from Chicago who had been travelling here in the Far East 25 years ago. Like me. Now she was here with her daughter at 16. On the trip to the waterfall I met a lady and her travelling companions from Spain.
Yesterday I sent a travel letter on e-mail back home. Today I had my laundry returned (2.5 USD for a kilo).
I had two choices for dinner and chose the worst. The pizza here is nothing even though the restaurant is called Pizza…
I used around 400 USD in six whole days, or less than 70 a day. I went for a higher standard of accommodation than planned. In addition the cost of visa (35 USD) and the buses contributed to the cost. Apart from that comes the air transport in and out of the country. Laos is a cheap country for a foreign visitor.
That is no wonder as Laos is at the bottom of the UN’s poverty list. In today’s newspaper I read that statistics show that 27 % of the population is below the poverty line, 50 % up here in the north. That is even more bad given the country’s low status on the UN list.
Travelling is easy in Laos. There are plenty of comfortable buses, guest houses, and restaurants. The food is heavy with chili, but not too hot – and it is very good. Everyone should try sticky rice once, it really is sticky. Beerlao is good to drink with the food.
The temples are absolutely amazing in all their rich decorations. The people are ever so friendly, polite and calm. Surprisingly so perhaps given the intense bombardment of this poor nation by the Americans during the Indochina wars and their own civil war. It is the most bombed country, per capita, in history.
Tomorrow morning I’m off by plane to Cambodia and Angkor Wat. The world’s largest temple complex, only partially excavated from the jungle. The Angkor area is on the World Heritage List too. Friday next week it is on to Phnom Penh, the capital.
Extra – extra – extra
Yesterday I e-mailed a letter home to friends and family, summing up my first week. Here it goes:
04/07/2009 Hello there at home, or Saba-dee as they say here. With a warm smile.
The flight from home was on Monday this week, now it’s Saturday night and I begin to forget things. The impressions are so many and come tumbling in all the time. It was this afternoon difficult to finish my travel diary for Thursday. Must pull myself together I reckon.
I’m just fine!
The flight via Copenhagen and Bangkok was long and quite boring. I did not get much sleep and arrived Tuesday morning Norwegian time, a journey of 21 hours. In Vientiane, I had from my guidebook chosen a guest house and took a taxi straight there. It has a wonderful location in the centre, but a bit expensive, 30 USD. The guest house comes in colonial style with a beautiful courtyard with palm trees and seating.
Slept a few hours and then headed out on the town. There is an extreme humidity in the rainy season of 26/28 degrees heat. I did some exotic walking along the Mekong, one of the world’s largest and most important rivers. It flows from China, past Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and into the ocean in Vietnam. It gives life and is life itself, as a local bartender told me over a glass of mojito in the evening.
Wednesday I rented a bicycle and set off for sightseeing. Temples, markets (good food straight from street kitchens is everywhere), all sorts of this&that stores. I seem to see locals snacking all the time. And there is barbequing on the street so that smells carry far and wide. Bustling crowds, lots of mopeds and tuk-tuks. The latter is a rickshaw-motorcycle which in the back takes 6-8 passengers under cover.
Good food also from the many restaurants. I just had to stop at the Scandinavian Bakery. I selected a French variant, tart with greens inside. Otherwise, Lao food is with lots of chilli, but without being too strong.
Thursday I took the bus north to Vang Viang, four hours. The town has an excellent location on a winding river just below the sharp, narrow peaks. It is totally unique and a must-see for everyone here. Most backpackers, who swarm here in hordes, drink lots of beerlao (good by the way) and walk around dazed after happy-hours with stronger drugs.
There is something about it not being in a gang of 20-year-olds who just loves to lie on the sofa watching old Friends episodes throughout the day. Lots of Australians, but also many Americans.
My hotel was fabulous, right on the river, great views and the mountains behind. I had the relaxing feeling sweeping over me suddenly. Cool place with lots of rain forest timber of the dark sort. A huge downpour delayed the dinner hour. It was bucketing down violently. But such is the rainy season, some heavy showers and other sun, or just overcast.
The bus Friday on to Luang Prabang, where I am now and end my stay in Laos, went up into the mountains. Far up. Laos’ response to Norway’s E6, or Highway 13 as it is called here, goes all the way to China from the south of Laos. We passed village on village clinging to the slopes with cliffs below the road. Filmed and photographed. This will be good see you guys!
I was picked up at the bus station by a guy who wanted me to his guest house. OK place, really three beds room with balcony outside, opposite a temple. Thus, it is good and airy.
Luang Prabang is on the UNESCO World Heritage List, like Bryggen in Bergen and Røros is. It is chock full of beautiful pagodas, temples, old buildings from the French colonial past, as well as Lao wood building art. Since new construction is impeded, it is the small houses that characterise the city and the large guest-house market. Here is the Mekong River again, here are markets, and here is quality stuff to buy from the countryside. Tomorrow I’m on a boat trip to some caves and villages and a waterfall that will be grand. But maybe not for a Norwegian…
A young monk in orange robe came up to me. He was 16 years and has two years left on his four-year school. Then he hopes to get to university, but it’s oh so hard to get a grant. And here I may interject that Laos is located in the bottom of the poverty list from the UN. In today’s paper it said that the new statistics show that 27% of the population are below the poverty line, 50% in the north. And it’s bad when the starting point is like it is.
Monday morning I go by plane to Cambodia and Angkor Wat. The world’s largest temple complex, only partially excavated from the jungle. It is also on the World Heritage list. Friday next week it is on to Phnom Penh, the capital. By then comes perhaps also a new travelogue. There are in fact numerous Internet cafes here …
Greetings from me in the Far East
This trip to Laos and Cambodia is described in a series of articles.
- Laos (1) – Vientiane: This year’s vacation is in the form of an egotrip to the Far East, more precisely Laos and Cambodia. I was in this part of the world in 1985, but these two countries were at the time practically sealed off to foreigners. The backpackers are now pouring in, groups are following suit – and I want to see the countries before they turn into another Thailand.
- (2) – Vang Vieng: What’s wrong? Entering a backpacker’s haven on my own, twenty years older then the rest and what more?
- (3) – Luang Prabang: Ahhh! This is more like me. A fascinating landscape and a beautiful city full of temples, high on the World Heritage List in my opinion.
- NEXT CHAPTER: Cambodia (1) – Siem Reap & Angkor: This was going to a most extraordinary experience: The temple complex of Angkor.
- (2) – Phnom Penh: What a capital, what a past and (hopefully) what a future!
- (3) – Sihanoukville: Trying to get a tan in the rainy season. Here is the story of my last few days in Cambodia.
There is a YouTube playlist of Laos with my four videos.