S: Silk and temples in Luang Prabang
Sep 4, 2004
Luang Prabang, Laos, was a real treat for us and a highlight of our time in Laos. Our guidebook said "many travelers find they end up spending more time here than they intended." The same was true for us due to the pleasant, interesting surroundings and good food. Luang Prabang is a Unesco World Heritage site due to the fact that it has 32 original wats (buddhist temples) in reasonably good condition and many buildings from the French colonial era as well. It's surrounded my mountainous hillsides and the Mekong River floats peacefully by. All in all, an excellent spot for boatloads of backpackers to be mellow tourists. This, of course, has resulted in many open air cafes along the main street catering to Western tastes, antique and Lao craft shops, Internet cafes, and a colorful night market full of first rate Lao silk weavings. It's quite touristy but still has an authentic feel to it with dirt roads, rundown buildings and very little for sale that isn't native to Laos. For example, you won't find crafts or antiques imported from throughout Asia.
Crazy Louie's Madcap Used Car Barn
Laung Prabang, like all of Laos, is also cheap. "Crazy Louie's Madcap Used Car Barn" cheap and they're willing to wheel and deal. Our hotel room was $3.50/night, we had our laundry done for $2, the internet was $1.20/hour, and a foot massage was $3. Dinner for 2 of local cuisine with beer was about $4. Of course the whole time you pay with what soon seems like Monopoly money in enormous denominations. 10,000 kip = $1 U.S. and the biggest bill we saw was 20,000 kip or $2 U.S. There are lots of 1000 kip bills floating around too which are worth $.10 U.S. Thus, we'd see people in markets with huge wads of cash with rubberbands around them which were probably worth $20 U.S. or so. Because of severe inflation with the kip, the Thai baht is accepted throughout Laos. We traveled with Thai baht we withdrew from an ATM in Thailand and converted it to Laos kip along the way as needed since baht is an easily converted currency and kip is not.
Dana and I both give Luang Prabang a resounding "must see" rating so the next time you are passing through Laos, don't miss it. In fact, it would be near impossible to miss it if you're in Laos since it's connected to Vientiane, the big city, by one of the few paved roads in Laos.
The Buddha and Whestling
Laos, like Thailand, is largely Buddhist and filled with wats which are Buddhist temples. Like churches, some wats are spectacular and well-maintained and others are modest and in various states of decay. We saw at least one wat in nearly every little town we passed. Luang Prabang, however, had dozens of sparkling, well-maintained wats.
The residents of the dormitory housing around the wats are monks and "novices". Novices are young men in their teens that are not yet monks and may eventually choose to leave the wat rather than become a monk. The novices dress in coloful orange robes and are easily spotted throughout the villages and towns and are often at work maintaining the grounds of the wats. They can be fun to talk to as they often study English and are eager to meet tourists, practice English, and proudly show off their temple.
While strolling through Luang Prabang, we walked by a novice sweeping the walk out of front of his wat and he eagerly struck up a conversation with us. He showed us his temple, told us about his English class, talked about his upcoming decision about whether or not to become a monk, and exchanged email addresses with us. He mentioned he liked to watch "whestling" on the "terror vision" and asked if we watched this. It took me a second to run this through my internal babblefish and realize he liked World Wrestling, a fine American export, which if there were indeed such a thing as "terrorvision" would most certainly be on 24/7 to melt the minds of the free world. We also noticed orange-robed novices in town with Walkman earbuds in their ears and at the Internet. They live in very sparse dormitory accomodations, pray each morning at 6 am, but are also in touch with the modern world and probably know more about The Rock than I do.
The shops and night market of Luang Prabang were filled with interesting handicrafts and weaving. I had begun to get jaded about tourist shopping since we've seen so many shops and vendors on our trip that had nothing to sell of interest to me. I like state-of-the-art gizmos and handicrafts that reflect accomplished artisanship. We've seen loads of poor quality, mass produced tourist trinkets or local crafts that seem as though they are churned out for tourists only without much concern for quality or inspiration.
Laos was a pleasant surprise in that the silk weaving and paper lanterns in particular are beautiful, inspired and high quality. Throughout villages in Laos, women have looms beneath their homes on stilts where they weave these fabulous silk patterns which are turned into wall hangings, scarves, bedspreads, pillowcases, etc. for the stores and markets of touristed areas like Luang Prabang. We rented cruiser one-speed bikes one day to ride from Luang Prabang to a nearby village famous for its weaving. There we saw several women hard at work at their looms. The teenage girls we photographed weaving at their looms also had a large display of bootleg video CDs for sale behind them including hits like "Spiderman 2". Apparently, the village's weavings are now more often sold in Luang Prabang's night market but I suppose tourists still venture out to the village to see the weaving in process and while there pickup a copy of Spiderman.
The night market had the best selection of goods at reasonable prices. Each night, this market was setup on a paved main road through town that was closed to thru traffic at night. Each vendor had a raw, exposed light bulb to light their goods and usually 2-3 women and children would be seated on the ground behind their goods. The items on sale included Beer Lao t-shirts, silver jewelry and bowls, star-shaped paper lanterns, and clothes made from silk.
Dining by Candlelight
While in town, we treated ourselves to some Western dining such as a bagel and cream cheese breakfast (oh how I enjoyed that one!), pizza (pizza now tastes really, really good again), and French crepes. We also ate local cuisine a few times including a dinner along the Mekong river at a streetside cafe with our new friends from L.A., Justin and Rebecca. As always, our noodles were accompanied with plenty of sticky rice, a rice similar to that used in sushi which you can eat with your hands in clumps. And it all tastes better when washed down with one of the large bottles of Beer Lao, the local brew, which backpackers drink like water.
While we were eating dinner at the riverside cafe, the power for the city went out repeatedly. Several girls from the family restaurant ran about putting tiny candles on each table because when all the power in town suddenly goes out, and there aren't many cars, it gets really dark. Countryside dark. The power continued to occasionally go back on for a bit, then out again, as we walked back to our hotel through the night market. The vendors were in various stages of deciding whether or not to pack up and call it a night or try to sell fine silk woven goods by candlelight. I remember thinking it would take a really persuasive saleswoman to get me to buy something silk by candlelight. "Trust me, it's a beautiful vibrant violet by day. It looks murky black now but it's far, far prettier than it appears..."
When we got back to our hotel, and realized the electric paddle fan wasn't going to cool our heat locker, we felt smart that we hadn't paid extra for an a/c room. Probably an hour later, the power eventually stabilized and stayed on. I remember thinking it was a bit comical to think of all the tourists around town trying to send emails at Internet cafes as the power went on and off like a child playing with a lightswitch.
Lions, Tigers and Bears - Oh my!
We didn't see any lions in Laos but we did see a tiger and several little bears.
We chartered a boat to take us downriver to the Tat Kuang Si waterfall park. The 3-tiered falls were impressive with a steel staircase built along the side above the falls to climb to the top. The current was too strong to swim, however, and our French acquaintance from the slowboat, Eric, attracted a leech while swimming so we passed on the swimming.
Near the falls, there were two outdoor fenced in areas for animals rescued from poachers. There was a lone tiger caught locally as a cub by poachers which had had 5 owners before finally being turned over to authorities. There was also an area full of Asiatic black bears taken from poachers. These odd looking little bears had their eyes set off to the side of their heads. While this was essentially a zoo, it was nice to see these animals being comfortably cared for near the region where they were caught.
Joining Chandler and Monica near limestone cliffs - Vang Vieng
After leaving Laung Prabang kicking and screaming, we bought tickets for the "V.I.P." express air-con bus south to Vang Vieng, a halfway point en route to the capital city of Vientiane. Turns out, there were only 4 of us "VIPs", so we ended up on the local bus. The road connecting Luang Prabang to Vientiane is one of the few paved roads in Laos and has only been paved for less than a decade. Before that, most folks traveled by river.
The paved road was a twisty, 2-lane that wound through the mountains of Laos. There were huge dropoffs, no guard rails, and plenty of rickety ol' buses going the other way much too fast. That didn't stop the bus attendant from moving all the sacks of rice and backpacks around in the back to create a cozy bed for himself for much of the ride. Along the way, we passed a fairly serious accident between a bus and a truck. The road was blocked and people were milling about but our bus just went into the mud off the side of the road and miraculously managed to squeeze between the accident and the hillside incline.
While the bus stopped at plenty teensy tiny villages to let people on or off, it didn't stop for lunch or a toilet break. Each person we picked up inevitably had a 50 lb. bag of rice or other agricultural sack that they stacked in the aisle of the bus. At about 2 pm, a man boarded the bus with a whole bag of freshly boiled tiny ears of corn which he then graciously handed out to all the 6 starving backpackers at the rear of the bus. We were grateful as all the locals had known to bring along some sticky rice and a bag of BBQ something for the ride.
Along the way, we chatted with the two backpackers, William and Stan. William, from Indianapolis, had just finished a 2 year stint in the Peace Corps in Tonga, a south pacific island near Fiji, and was using an around the world ticket to head home in a slow fashion. Stan was from Britain and traveling Asia on his own.
Vang Vieng is notable for two reasons: it's surrounded by breathtaking limestone cliffs enshrouded in cloudy fog; and it's a backpacker convergence point. It's a jump off point for various caving adventure activities but Dana and I passed on the caving since we saw amazing caves in Malaysia and quite honestly, bat poo in the dark doesn't fall into my "Moments I Cherish" category.
The main street of Vang Vieng is lined with guest houses and open air restaurants. Because there's little to do in Vang Vieng, yet everyone's there, the restaurants all have good TV setups with plenty of lounging cushions and show nonstop DVDs of movies and "Friends" reruns. Several times as we walked "The Strip", the main street, I nearly lost Dana to Chandler and Monica's witty banter.
Dana picks things up in Vientiane.
This entry written on a nice Dell desktop at the Business Center of our fancy schmancy downtown-style hotel in Singapore.