Indochina 2016 - Luang Prabang

Laundry day

The drive in to Luang Prabang took us along busy roads and increasingly crowded streets but as we arrived at our hotel (and, after unloading, strolled into the middle of town) a picturesque central quarter was revealed. Bordered on three sides by rivers and with a tall hill forming a central focus the old town was small enough to explore on foot but large enough to hold all sorts of surprises & delights. Several large temples (with associated outbuildings) stood in grand splendour and appeared to be pilgrimage / holiday sites for lots of orange-clad monks who could also be seen visiting the market stalls and taking photos of the sights (& each other), often with large & sophisticated SLR cameras. The streets featured large, French colonial buildings, gracefully proportioned and beautifully maintained, many repurposed as fancy restaurants & hotels with classic cars ostentatiously parked outside.

Colonial splendour

On our first evening we walked into town and discovered the night market - a feature of many of the towns we visited over the next few weeks. In contrast to the day markets which were primarily for locals and sold grocery and household goods these featured arts & crafts and were definitely aimed at the many tourists thronging the town. The goods were displayed at floor level with a few bare light bulbs for illumination and a display 'wall' at the back, half had a canopy overhead, half were open (there wasn't even a hint of rain during our three days in the town). Strangely there wasn't much variation in the items on show despite the huge number of stalls, there were maybe a dozen different types (scarves, tops & trousers, leather goods, bamboo items, etc.) and once you'd seen one example of each you had a pretty good idea of what the others would stock, which was a bit disappointing after a while. No prices were on display and some level of bargaining was assumed, some took to this with great enthusiasm but a lot of the time things were so cheap that after an initial exchange I just coughed up the first 'for you' price, it seemed vaguely immoral to try and wring money out of these people so obviously poorer than me. As you walked along virtually all of the stallholders would call out and invite (almost to the point of demanding) that you look closer at their wares, this was very off-putting to my British sensibilities at first but slowly I got used to it, smiling & exchanging a few words but continuing to walk on unless I was seriously considering buying something.

The streets were lined with cafés & restaurants but these were squarely aimed at tourists, the real eating & drinking action was at the stalls that filled the pavements and roadsides. Convenience and finger-friendliness were key - lots of grilled something or other on bamboo sticks, cooked bananas, rice mixtures wrapped in some sort of leaf package or (especially later in the day) styrofoam containers of noodles with anything you could imagine that were wok-fried and returned to the box. Smoothies with any combination of fruits were blended up as they were ordered, some stalls displayed a wall of clear plastic cups filled with varied fruits that you could just point at to select. Strangely they often had enormous price lists showing the different combinations but almost inevitably most came at the same price.

Sunset photographers, Phu Si hill

A large monastery in town had a daily ritual at the crack of dawn where the monks would assemble outside and lay people could offer them food, this was often cited as one of the 'must see' aspects of Luang Prabang but somehow I never managed to drag myself out of bed in time (5:30am) to see it. 6 or 6:30 was, for some reason, more palatable to my body and during the tour I got into the habit of rising at this sort of time and wandering through wherever we were on that day, soaking up the early morning atmosphere and observing the start of the working day before the majority of tourists were up & about. This often led me to markets where a bewildering display of familiar, unusual & sometimes frankly incomprehensible foodstuffs & items were spread out for sale. It was nice to be able to meander through the stalls without the constant hawking of the night market, as an obvious tourist I could be ignored as I watched the activity and took my pictures of goods and stallholders.

Our one excursion from Luang Prabang was to the Kwang Si waterfalls, a series of cascades & pools running through dense forest. The drive out, along uneven and pitted roads, wasn't much fun but the falls themselves were delightful - an impressive drop at the head of the park and a long series of pearly blue pools separated by white water descents snaking through the trees. The final treat was being able to swim in the wide bottom pools (after negotiating the sharp, uneven rocks underfoot), basking in the warm, sun-dappled waters while the younger visitors took unending selfies with their waterproof cameras & phones.

At the bottom of the park was a series of enclosures for sun & moon bears rescued from bear bile farms - something I'd never heard of before, a traditional Chinese medicine ingredient that is surgically extracted from the bears but has no proven medical properties. Very sad.

Tuk-tuk journey on a swanky street

On our return to Luang Prabang we were encouraged to walk up Phu Si, the tall hill that overlooked the town, to watch the sun go down from the peak. The ascent, although quite steep at times, was well worth it as we passed dozens of Buddha statues & shrines and were rewarded with increasingly wide views over the surrounding town & distant hills. As we approached the summit, however, it became clear that we weren't the only people who'd come to enjoy the show and at the top it was a solid crush of tourists, cameras & smartphones held aloft to grab the perfect moment. Rather than try to wrestle to the front I set off to beat the rush descending back to the town.

During one morning wander around town I discovered a group of monks building (or repairing) a bamboo bridge over the Nam Khan, the smaller of the two rivers. This style of bridge seemed to be fairly common in the region, a quick & simple way to provide a pedestrian (& often motocycle) crossing of a wide but shallow river, a (relatively) temporary but easily replaced structure. The dozen or so monks made swift progress and seemed to be working with lots of smiles & laughter, a very cheering sight.

After one long day criss-crossing the town on foot I decided to take the plunge and take a tuk-tuk taxi ride back to the hotel on my own. These three-wheeled vehicles, essentially a motorbike with a covered four-person cage replacing the back wheel, could be found everywhere in the town and while walking it became almost second nature to turn down the offers of a ride every few seconds. After waving one down I showed the driver my hotel business card (something I learned to grab as soon as we checked in) and after a few seconds of furrowed brow he smiled, nodded and we were off. The hotel was just outside the central area and the journey soon became a collaborative effort, at junctions he'd slow down and glance back at me, once we got close I recognised the streets and could confidently gesture at the turning to take. There was a moment of embarrassment at the end where I proffered a note with one too few zeroes before realising that despite it's huge figure it was actually worth about 30p, a ten-times bigger one was substituted and we parted with laughter & smiles.

Lao barbecue with Nicole

My supply of local currency was finally starting to run out and I decided to try one of the innumerable ATMs before resorting to my emergency stash of US dollars. The process was smooth & easy - the display switched to English as my card was recognised - and I enjoyed the childishly amusing choice between one, one and a half or two million Kip to withdraw. A millionaire at last! But just as I was congratulating myself on mastering intercontinental currency exchange the machine announced that the transaction had been declined and spat my card out. Crisis! As I started to work out the consequences of this setback my phone chirped to announce a text message - it was an automatic response from my bank, asking me to confirm that I was indeed halfway round the world and that the money withdrawal request was genuine. Replying 'yes' reactivated the card and I was able to get money from ATMs all through the region, a nice combination of convenience & security.

On our final evening in the town two of us set out to try Lao Barbecue, one of the culinary specialities of Luang Prabang. The format is very participatory - two (or more) of you share a domed cooking vessel placed over hot coals, the outside of which is filled with a very light oil (or oil/water mixture, all our instruction came via gestures and minimal English so it was sometimes hard to tell exactly what was going on). Once it's set up (and your beer has arrived) you go to a long buffet of raw food and pile your plate with rice vermicelli & veggies (which cook on the oil) and various cuts of meat, fish & tofu (which cook on top of the dome). Our cooking had a large element of trial & error (not to mention tentative exploration of some of the more unrecognisable ingredients) but it was lots of fun and (mostly) delicious. A splendid evening out.

I really enjoyed my time in Luang Prabang and it helped me start to engage with the different cultures I was meeting on a personal rather than group level. By the time we were due to leave I was confidently walking round on my own, talking (or at least communicating) with the locals & other (non-British) tourists and taking advantage of the goodies available on the street. Maybe not yet a suave cosmopolitan but a bit less of a timid country mouse. Hooray for me!

More pictures