May 22, 2006
|The turbulent history of Lao has seen it to be the most heavily bombed country on earth, having been ruled by the French, British, Chinese and Siamese. In 1953 France granted full sovereignty, but after 22 years of chaos the Communist party led by Vietnamese protégé Kaysone Phomvihan took over and the Royal family "went to live up north, never to be seen again".
There were some very apparent differences between Lao and Thailand - taxi drivers had pistols on display, locals in the hills walk around with rifles and our minibus had a security guard.
Now that I have safely traveled down the country along Highway 13 I can share with you that the section between Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang has been subject to a number of armed attacks over recent years, for which a number of people were quite anxious - me, I think playing ignorant is sometimes the way ahead.
Luang Prabang, the destination of the slow-boat, is stunning. An incredible collection of Buddhist and French colonial architecture cluster together on a small riverine peninsula and is surrounded by mountains. It has a UNESCO stamp!
I joined forces with Orla, an Irish girl who recently moved out with her family to live in Canada, and we shared a room in a little guest house. Tourism has obviously hit this town in quite a big way, with a wonderful night market along the main street and dinner for 30pence!
So, despite still being ill (that went on for 2 weeks so had to just get on with it with rapid rushes to the ladies at regular intervals!) I thought it a great idea to be cultural and headed for the Royal Palace Museum where I actually met loads of friends from the slow-boat so did lots of talking! Also ascended Mont Phousi, the hill in the middle of town, on top of which sits That Vat Chomsi - a Buddha shrine and watched the sun go down over the Mekong River.
Found a little gem with Orla and Aimee "Le Cinema". You choose from over 700 DVDs and go and watch it in a little room with cushions all over the floor. We went to watch a light-hearted, funny girlie flick (so Katie could sleep well at night) so we saw Fargo - anyone who has seen this knows we were a little off-the-mark! Fun all the same, haven't seen a moving screen for months.
So thought a little more culture could be called for as the museum was informative as far as it went, which wasn't too far. So daring another boat ride tootled up to Ban Paq Ou Wot and Tam Ting Caves on the eastern bank of the Mekong. In the past the village wat received royal patronage in exchange for caretaking the caves. The wat is a picturesque example of a village style religious complex which has a temple, dormitory and bell tower. Otherwise Ban Paq Ou is a fishing and rice growing village, supplying to Luang Prabang.
A little further down the river we visited a whisky-making and paper-making village, which was all a bit strange us tourists imposing into their village for 15 mins at a time to have a good gorp.
The day was warm, so headed on a white-knuckle minivan ride to the near-by Kwang XI waterfall. At the base was a reserve for wild bears which had been hunted and where they were sadly going mad in the small confines. The water of the waterfall was a beautiful blue and we walked to the top, along smooth riverbed exposed during the dry season, then swam in one of the few natural pools at the bottom - lovely but for the flies.