I am spending the last two days of this adventure in the city of Lunag Prabang in northern Laos. It was the capital of the country until the king moved it to Vientiane in the 1600’s. A world heritage town, it teems with temples, charming streets and interesting markets. I am staying in a little hotel facing the Mekong River that at one stage had been the residence of the Prime Minister of Laos. It has been very nicely restored and my room is in the location of the original kitchen.
Yesterday was a long day of sightseeing. We began with a visit to yet another temple, but this one was very grand. It even had a special building in which a an ornate vehicle that carried the body of the king to his cremation was housed. It will never be used again as the king fled overseas when the communists took over the country in 1975. I saw a couple of monks visiting from Thailand and watched with some amusement as they took pictures on their iPads of the same things that I had photographed.
A long boat ride took us upstream to a cave 30 km upstream It was a very pleasant ride passing rural scenery with an occasional view of water buffalo and even elephants at a couple of villages from which they run jungle trekking tours. The cave was a holy site – it has been know for centuries and contains over 5000 Buddha statues. None of hem look much different to others that I have seen, but it was still quite a nice place to visit anyway.
On the way, we stopped at a village in which they fermented rice and distilled it into a local version of whisky. The low alcohol version had a taste very similar to Japanese sake (of which it really was another version). The highly distilled product had a taste that resembled a cross between paint stripper and jet fuel. Less and less of this product is drunk in Laos any more as beer has become much more popular. You can buy a 750 ml bottle of BeerLao in a restaurant for around $1.50. As we walked back to the boat from this village, we came across a market in which people were selling silk and other fabrics. I watched one elderly lady finish her embroidering of a beautiful table runner. It had taken her six months to complete and she would sell it for $US60.
On our return trip, we stopped at another village where, not only were they weaving silk, they were making hand made paper from the bark of a tree which was boiled, beaten to a pulp and then laid out on rectangular frames to dry. They had some beautiful products – books, lamp shades and wall hangings.
My final activity for the day was to have dinner at a restaurant which featured a show of Laos folk dancing. I had to take my shoes off to go upstairs to the main dining area and found that I was the only customer. I had an interesting Laos meal that in some ways was similar to Thai food. There was sticky rice, Lab, vegetables, prawn patties cooked on lemon grass skewers and an assortment of spices and condiments. One of them was a green powdered weed from the Mekong that we had seen people collecting on our boat trip. It tasted just like Japanes Nori.
In fact, the restaurant was owned by a couple of Jajapenese people. One came from Kyoto and the other from Osaka. The had excellent English and we had quite a chat after dinner. As I went downstairs again to find my shoes, the man produced a shoehorn, telling me that it was the only one in the city – he had to bring it from Tokyo as the Laos people have no concept of such a device.
Luang Prababng was declared a world heritage city in 1995. This was due, not only to its architecture, but also because of its cultural and religious heritage. One of the daily spectacles here is to see the monks (hundreds of them) walking through the village at dawn (6.000 am) to collect alms. It makes a great tourist sight and I was up at 5.30 am to witness it this morning. After watching the monks, we walked through the local fresh food market. Farmers who had come to the city were selling everything from frogs to wild honey. The market ws very busy with people buying their fresh vegetables for the day.
After a return to my hotel for a shower and breakfast, we spent an hour, or so, looking at the old royal palace which became the national museum after the king was exiled in 1975. It is fitted out with the same furniture, throne and all. In the garage, there is even a Ford Edsell car. Ford had terrible problems selling that model, so I guess that the best ting to do was to give them away as gifts, such as they did to the king of Laos at the time. In the palace there was a cabinet full of gifts that had been given to the king by various countries. The biggest contrast was that on one shelf was a boomerang given by the government of Australia and next to it was a piece of moon rock presented by Richard Nixon. This struck me as a great contrast in technology and cost.
We then headed off to see some quite spectacular waterfalls to the south of the city. On the way we stopped at a village inhabited by the H’mung People – a minority group. originally from China. While the men are very good farmers and hunters, the women create spectacular embroidery. Once again, I have contributed to the local economy. I have bought things that I probably don’t need at all but when you see some beautifully embroidered cotton for only a few dollars, what can you do (except buy another bag to bring everything home in)?
This woman, who had a little stall by the roadside, demonstrated how she spun cotton from the plants that she grew herself. She ended up selling me a nice cotton table runner.
The waterfalls were very picturesque. The water came from a spring in the mountains above and was a light blue coiour. There were a number of very popular swimming holes tat looked as tough they could easily have been the model from which every luxury pool designer in western hotels might have used.
Throughout my time in Luang Prabang, I have been accompanied by my guide, Choi. He is an exceptionally nice young man – married with a 2 1/2 year old somn. He grew up in a remote village as the son of a peasant farmer. Like virtually all other Laos boys, he spent some time as a monk – in his cased it was for six years. This changed his life. His time at the temple gave him an education, and a passion for learning. He later went to college and met his wife. Now he is working as a tour guide, a career of which his father is so proud. Late in the afternoon, yesterday, as we climbed up to the Stupa on the hill above town we met his nineteen year old nephew who is currently serving his time as a monk.
After my return from the waterfalls today, I am afraid to say that I wimped out and, apart from lunch in a restaurant above the river, I have spent most of the afternoon in my air conditioned hotel room. It has been over 35 C degrees every day that I have been in Laos. Today is my last day before flying out to Singapore via Bangkok tomorrow morning. I am using the excuse that I need to pack, but I really want to get out of the jeat.
Overall, this has been a very interesting time for me and a fascinating series of places that I have never been to before.