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Travelogue-Luang Prabang

 

Luang Prabang and the Nam Khan River

from Mount Phousi

 

Background

After a few days in Vientiane, we decided to head northwest about 350 KM, to the ancient capitol, Luang Prabang. It is an amazing town of about 30,000 people and has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site because of its cultural significance. The city is surrounded by mountains at the junction of the Mekong and its tributary, the Nam Khan river. At the center of the town lies Mount Phousi, a fantastic look-out point. The highlights are the town's remoteness, architecture, temples, river views, mountains and probably most importantly, the pace of life. There are literally scores of temples tucked in amongst the palms in the city. We found it to be a magical place and dedicated four days to exploring the surroundings.

When the French first arrived the journey from Vientiane to Luang Prabang would take about a week. Today, one can fly in under an hour. Buses also run daily and the journey takes about 8-10 hours. Conscious of our time constraints and not wanting to miss a waking hour, we decided to fly. The airport is new and efficient. We caught a car to our hotel and settled in for a few days of touring.

There are only about a dozen streets that make up the town and they are mostly lined with small shops, temples, and houses. The buildings are a blend of local and colonial era architecture. This is a walking town - with everything in about a 20 minute walk. While other places such as Angkor Wat in Cambodia may have a larger temple complex and Giza in Egypt may have larger monuments, Luang Prabang is special because of its remoteness and scenic views. It is a bit cliche, but one does get the sense that this is a place where time stood still. The pace of life is slow by most standards. Rarely did a car travel the length of the main road. It was bizarre for us to cross a street and really not have to worry about looking both ways.

 

Things to See and Do

Planning an itinerary is was not too difficult, as one can forget about nightlife or significant shopping. One should not visit Luang Prabang for these things, but rather to see the cultural, religious and natural sights......and spend time relaxing. We spent our time rising early, watching monks with their alms bowls at sunrise, visiting temples, chatting with merchants and devoted much time to being on or near the Mekong. Luang Prabang is a place to totally down-shift. Leave your PDA, diary etc. at home for this portion of your journey - and take in the atmosphere. It is the most laid-back, mellow place I have experienced.

Adventure on the Mekong

I am a huge fan of the great rivers and when we travel we make an effort to spend some time near or on them. I am enamoured by their beauty, power and the life they sustain in, on and along the water. The Mekong was no exception. We probably covered 60-100 KM on the Mekong this trip and it was wonderful! More of our shots on the Mekong can be found by clicking here.

Novice Monks

Wat Nong Sikhonmeuang, Luang Prabang

We spent hours on the Mekong and loved every minute of it. 25C and sun the whole time allowed for some great days and beautiful sunsets. The river was active with long-boats and speed boats and extensive farming was taking place along the banks of the river. Long-boat drivers such as Captain Egg below (Boat #112) can be hired from along the river banks in Luang Prabang. The cost is modest (you will have to use your bargaining skills) and they will be happy to take you up and down the river. The captains know most of the spots that tourists want to see - and they are more than happy to make other stops as well. Give the boats a look for general seaworthiness and see if you feel comfortable with the captain's attitude, agree on stops or distance you want to cover or time and strike a price. We found Captain Egg by chance on the river's edge one evening. Where there is one captain, you'll likely find 6-10 others from which to choose. On our first journey in Luang Prabang on the Mekong, we booked him in the evening and agreed to set out the following morning. I recommend you set out early (say 8:00 a.m.) in the morning to beat the heat. Remember to bring some food and water for your boat trips. A free plug here for the Scandanvian Bakery on the main street (you can just see it in the street photo above, the shop front with the pretzel shaped sign) they have nice breads, cold water and some cookies if you need a fix of western food. For day-to-day meals, we tended to eat on the street at the noodle soup vendors and open-air restaurants most of the time.

 

Long Boats on the Mekong

 

Ms. Tina and our captain, Mr. Egg

Pak Ou Caves: On the River we visited Pak Ou Caves. There are literally hundreds of Buddag statues and amulets in the Caves. This is a repository for Buddha images that once graced household shrines. During Lao New Year boatloads of local residents make the 25 KM trip up the River to the caves to wash the Buddha images.

 

Ban Xang Hai "Lao Lao Village": Across the River from the Caves sits the village of Ban Xang Hai. Though for centuries the village made its living by crafting stoneware jars, more recently it has become famous for brewing Lao Lao, a liquor made from sticky rice. While you will get the feel that this is part of a tourist circuit the captains all ply, being northern Lao, you will not be swamped with fellow tourists and you will see exactly how the local liquor is made - out in the fresh air in old oil drums.

 

 Shopping:

As noted, there is limited shopping, but one can spend some time in the morning or afternoons at the markets or local shops. Handicrafts and particularly textiles are the best buy. There was an outdoor hill tribe market where one could buy needlework from women - and the quality was quite good. It was near the Palace - but your guesthouse/hotel will know the exact location.

 

 

 

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