Wednesday 10 October 2012

Ten days in Laos: Luang Prabang and Vientiane

27th September-6th October 2012

As per my previous blog entry, we spent our first two days in Laos on a boat. The next five days were spent in Luang Prabang. to be followed by three in Vientiane

Luang Prabang is a UNESCO World Heritage town, so it’s better preserved than a lot of places we've visited. In fact it reminded me a lot of the Japanese towns of Magome and Tsumago i.e. it's all been carefully managed to preserve the old-style character of the place. For example, all of the shop, restaurant and hotel signs were made out of wood - no-one's allowed to ruin things with some tacky neon - which gives the place a very authentic feel, even if it's not!

Classic cars and colonial-style houses in Luang Prabang
Karen had a bit of a cold while we were there so our activities were slightly curtailed. For example, we could have got up at 4.30am to see and take part in the daily ritual of giving alms to the sizeable monk population, but sensibly stayed in bed. We did visit a couple of the local Buddhist temples though.

Wat Xieng Thong
Also recommended is an evening trip up Mount Phousi to watch the sunset. It’s not that much of a climb - it's just a small hill really - but the views are spectacular.

View over Luang Prabang from Mount Phousi
Another view from Mount Phousi
Yet another view from Mount Phousi
Sunset from Mount Phousi
About 40 minutes outside town there's the Kuang Si waterfall – actually a series of picturesque waterfalls: one big one and lots of little ones. The owner of our guesthouse suggested that hiring a motorbike was the best way to get there. Once again we managed to resist the temptation: no insurance, dodgy roads and reckless local drivers are not a good combination. As it happens you can book a trip for way less than a day’s motorbike hire anyway. We spent a pleasant afternoon walking around the area, walking up to the top of the waterfall and back down again to have a dip in the cold waters. You can jump off one of the smaller falls if you’re daring enough (I’m not) and there's a rope swing, which I was brave enough to try.

Bear at bear sanctuary at Kuang Si
Kuang Si waterfall
Taking a dip. No idea who the other three are...
Forgot to take my shoes off
Luang Prabang is also a good place to go if you like your food. We had a fantastic Laos-style meal at a place called Tamarind one evening: sticky rice, baked fish in banana leaf, stuffed lemongrass kebabs and a selection of Laos dips and crudités.

The food was Laosy (heh)
Including drinks, this meal was relatively expensive (about £15) so we balanced it out with a couple of dinners at the street food market. There you can fill a plate from a selection of tasty rice dishes, noodle dishes and various vegetable stews, all for just 80p! Meat, fish and drinks are extra but not really necessary.

Street food market in Luang Prabang
We'd decided before we left Scotland that when leaving Luang Prabang for Vientiane, rather than take the bus, we'd fly. We just didn't fancy the idea of six hours crammed on a rickety bus, careering along windy, potholed roads, teetering on the edge of cliffs and being driven by a mad Laos bus driver. Not that we needed any extra persuading, our decision was reinforced by stories from fellow travellers who'd experienced the white-knuckle route.

And so it was on to Vientiane. Getting off the plane we took a tuk-tuk into the town centre. Again, the influence from the French colonial days is obvious from the architecture, plus there are numerous European-style coffee and cake shops to prove the point. It was nice to get a proper cup of coffee again.

Waiter, I've got hair in my coffee...oh
So, what’s there to do in Vientiane? Not a great deal, it turns out - unlucky for us as our hostel was the worst we'd stayed in since leaving the UK and we needed a diversion. Sure, there are temples, but we were all templed-out. There’s a stupa or two as well, but if you've seen one stupa… 

What else? There’s a shopping centre which reputedly contains the only escalators in Laos – a tourist attraction for Lao visitors to the capital if you believe the guide-books – and there’s a couple of monuments but that’s your lot.

In order to keep ourselves busy, we took the chance to try two fruits we'd seen but never managed to lay our hands on – salak and tamarind.

Salak and tamarind
Salak, or snake fruit, is something we'd first seen in Cambodia and although we swore to try it, we hadn't seen it since. As soon as we saw it in a market in Vientiane, we had to buy a few. The skin, although looking vaguely snake-like, is easy to peel. Inside, is two or three lobes of juicy pale fruit, sometimes with a stone, sometimes not. It tastes sweet-sour, not entirely unlike a mangosteen. Altogether very pleasant.

Inside a salak fruit
I'm used to using tamarind as a sour ingredient in Asian food. I didn't realise that you could also eat the fruit raw but only in its sweet form - unfortunately, visually indistinguishable from the sour type. We'd first seen these being eaten in Xi'an in China, but never since. The woody outer skin comes off easily leaving a brown chewy centre, surrounding several inedible seeds. It tastes a bit like a date, a bit like a fig. In fact it most reminds me of fig rolls!

We couldn’t sit inside eating fruit for three days so we had to get out and about again. To be fair, the monuments are worth seeing. One is a copy of the Arc de Triomphe, except bigger and better – take that France!

Un dans l'oeil pour les Francais - pah!
Looking up the Champs Elysees
The second is a big statue of Chao Anuvong.

Mairman Chao
It’s down by the Mekong river, which is a pleasant place to wander, especially around sunset. On our last evening, sitting in a rooftop bar, we were treated to a spectacular electrical storm over Thailand. I've never seen so much lightning; there was almost a flash every three seconds. I do love a good storm, especially when I'm safely under cover with a beer in my hand.

And so our short visit to Laos was almost over. It was finally time to say goodbye to the Mekong and goodbye to our trusty guide book: Lonely Planet’s ‘Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and the Greater Mekong’. Thanks Suzanne – best Secret Santa ever!

Sunset over Thailand from Vientiane
Next up, a short stopover in Kuala Lumpur and then, India!

Current location: Cochin, India until Saturday
Next stop: Elsewhere in Kerala!

1 comment:

  1. At last! A photo of me wearing something other than my stripey top!