Finally the old capital of Louang Prabang
Posted by yachtcamomile
Arrival at the Luang Prabang bus station was reminiscent of the atmosphere at Vientiane and we fought our way past the gaggle of tuktuk drivers until we found one who we thought understood where we wanted to go. We were tuktuk virgins and really enjoyed the ride into the hotel. The wrong hotel. So commenced our second ride where the clerk could not find our Agoda booking. This was because we were in the old Ancient and not the new Ancient hotel. By this time I had twigged that tuktuk drivers can read Lao with its indianesque alphabet but don’t do so well with the English one. So on our third attempt we arrived at the quirky but comfortable Ancient hotel with a very designery bath placed in the bedroom. The location was perfect though and we felt immersed in the local community as we sat on the room’s small roadside balcony. Nice.
The following day was spent lazily strolling the town researching the many offers available for treks and tours, previewing one of the many temples and was rounded off with an evening meal overlooking the river.
This set us up for our four hour jungle trek starting out at a Mong village where a small ethnic group, of what I understood to be descendants of Genghis Khan’s hoards, showed us some of the techniques used to build their homes out of materials harvested from the jungle. I found the similarities with the Solomon’s striking and wondered at how far the brutal empire had spread its influence.
The jungle trek was a demanding but not arduous one through ancient but well defined tracks which eventually lead us to a clearing where a simple but tasty lunch was served.
Hunger sated our guide lead us up past a golden Buddha statue to a cave mouth and explained that, during the war, this served as home for 200 people and a guerrilla base from which the American forces were harried at night. The cave was large and went back a long way with small Buddhist shrines in various niches but it must have been a dark and unpleasant place when it was occupied by so many people.
A short walk took us to a “blue hole” spring, source of the Kouang Si waterfall which the track eventually took us to the top of.
From this group of calm pools we could peer over the precipice and watch the water cascade down the hundred or so feet below into a group of small lakes dammed by calcification.
The steep track and steps followed the falls to a spot where you could swim if the urge took you to join the crowds who had arrived by bus to avoid the jungle walk.
At the lower end of this park stands a small black bear sanctuary where the slightly bored animals are kept in a cluster of well laid out compounds. Not an ideal situation but these rescue cases are better off here than being abused as pets or worse as donors for body parts or even the inhuman practice of keeping them half alive to drain their bile for quack medicines.
As we got up the next morning Sue was fair squeaking with excitement and rightly so as today would realise her little girls dream of meeting and riding an elephant. What she had not been banking on though was the ” medium to challenging” trek that proceeded it. I suppose we should have rumbled it when we arrived at a muddy track by the side of the road, gamely leaped out of the tour minibus to discover that none of the other passengers followed. Just the young guide, all sinew and wirey with a big smile on his face. Did we like walking?
A gentle hillside transformed itself into better than a 2:1 gradient with a loose covering of leaves and dry gritty earth which was just like skating on a near vertical lake of ball bearings. We both struggled through the thicket of huge bamboo until we had ascended around 400 meters vertically. Without Sigh the guide and Sue’s stubborn sense of purpose I’m sure we would still be on that mountainside.
It was the toughest 2 hour ascent we have ever done together bar none but like so many of these things the pain of the memory dissolved on contact with the first of the majestic beasts we had come to find. There were three elephants in the small camp we arrived at and after a short break for lunch we were lead to one which was saddled and mounted her via a raised platform.
The mahout first lead her and then rode her neck just in front of us as she gently and politely took us on a half hour tour of her domain. Sue, a little disturbed by the rickety double saddle as it pitched and rolled with our steed’s gentle gait was the picture of the happy little girl who had finally got her Jumbo ride.
It was a pure magic moment as we descended from the huge animals back and gently stroked her course and leathery skin.
Even the slowboat ride across the Mekong to the Pak Ou cave of 1000 Buddhas that followed could not eclipse this special moment. That evening we returned to the sanctuary of our hotel room utterly exhausted but fulfilled.
It may have been a combination of excessive emotion and effort or just a nasty bug but Sue was poorly during the night so a gentle day inspecting Luang Prabang’s temples or wats was a good follow on for the next morning.
The old towns UNESCO status is well deserved as its treasure trove of guilded and ornate buildings reveal themselves as you wander through the narrow streets and lanes which, although carrying traffic, are pervaded by a certain sense of tranquility almost leeching out of the fabric of this town with it’s many attendant orange robed monks.
It is situated on the confluence of two rivers that almost surround the town, and beneath a temple-topped hill, Luang Prabang is a wonderful patchwork of traditional Lao wooden houses and hints of European architecture; reminders of when Laos was part of the French colony of Indochine. Golden-roofed wats, decorated with mosaics and murals of the life of Buddha, sit under the gaze of wrap-around teak balconies and 19th century shuttered windows. All of this is set against a backdrop of verdant greenery and rugged mountains.
The monks of Wat Saen had already made themselves known to us at 4am each morning when they sounded their call to prayer on a drum situated just behind our otherwise very peaceful hotel. Their Wat was built in 1718 by King Kitsarath with 100 000 stones from the Mekong river and was restored in 1957 commemorating the Buddha’s birth 2500 years earlier. History just coursed through these streets like blood through veins.
Grand Wat Xieng Thong is one of the most important of Lao monasteries and remains a significant monument to the spirit of religion, royalty and traditional art. There are over twenty structures on the grounds including a sim, shrines, pavilions and residences, in addition to its gardens of various flowers, ornamental shrubs and trees.
Lunch was spent in the shade of a tree lined roadside cafe overlooking the Nam Khan river as it approaches from the south east wondering whether it’s spindley bamboo foot bridge was strong enough to survive the wet season’s rain or if it was rebuilt each year when the water receeds.
The Royal Palace museum was built in 1904 during the French colonial era for King Sisavang Vong and his family. The site for the palace was chosen so that official visitors to Luang Prabang could disembark from their river voyages directly below the palace and be received there. Crown Prince Savang Vatthana and his family were the last to occupy the grounds. In 1975, the monarchy was overthrown by the communists and the Royal Family were taken to re-education camps. The palace was then converted into a national museum where the interesting and ornate exhibits of weapons, ceremonial garb and gifts from abroad are displayed against an often impressive, imposing “front of house” but, at times, stark private apartments.
That Chomsi is the monument atop the highest land for many miles around, can be reached by its 328 steps but rewards with a magnificent view of the city below with its many guilded children glinting in the late afternoon sun. I was Watted out.
With “that” coach trip still in mind we had booked a Laos Air return flight to Vientiane. This was £15 vs £65 and 9 hours vs 35 minutes though, more importantly, it was less likely that the pilot would be as manic as the coach driver.