CURRENT LOCATION: Phonsavan, Laos
Luang Prabang was a great introduction to this stunning country. A sleepy, laid back town, with little to do, we enjoyed a seriously relaxing few days here. Our first day was spent lounging by the pool and catching up with family via FaceTime. In the evening, we ventured out via the free shuttle from our hotel to the city centre, and enjoyed a delicious meal looking out over the river for sunset. As we wandered back through town, we had a nosy through the night market - which we would come to know well over the coming nights! Each night, two long rows of stalls take over the main street, and you have no choice but to walk through them to get anywhere. That would be fine if the pathway wasn't half a metre across. Meandering shoppers turned a 5 minute walk from one end of the night market to the other into a 15 minute walk - a total nightmare for a power walker like me! The stalls were selling all the usual stuff: paintings, handbags, wallets, scarves, clothing, handmade paper products; all made and sold by locals. The atmosphere was great, and very laid back. Despite the inconvenience of being slowed down, we did actually enjoy our meander through the night markets twice each night over the following 6 nights.
The following day we had big plans: head to the information centre to get a map of town. And spend the day checking out the museum, and the wats on offer in the centre of town. Our plan was thwarted first when the information centre didn't have a map of town. Not a great information centre then. We decided to wander down to the museum, since it was on the main street and we knew where it was, so we didn't need a map. Our plan was thwarted a second time when we were denied entry into the museum because of my clothing. I was wearing shorts that covered my knees, and a tee shirt, but I was told that my tee shirt didn't cover enough of my shoulders, so I couldn't come in unless I had something to cover myself up. I was fuming. I had to leave so that I didn't rip the woman's head off. I had deliberately dressed 'modestly', knowing we were planning to spend the day visiting temples. Short of wearing a ski suit, I didn't feel I could have done much else. We spent the next hour or so wandering around aimlessly, looking at the outside of some temples (I didn't think I was likely to be welcome, since I couldn't even get into the museum), with steam coming out of my ears, and Zev generally trying to avoid eye contact. Eventually, we figured out that the fact I was hungry might be contributing to my rage levels, and scoffed a delicious lunch of nachos for me, and pita bread and hummus for Zev. Strangely I felt much better after.
Feeling more human after lunch, we decided to head to the Ethnology Museum, in the hopes that their dress code would be a little more lax. When we turned up to find it was closed on Mondays, we decided the day was a write off, and headed back to enjoy a little more pool time. That evening we had another nice dinner - Zev had steak, and I ate a baked round of Camembert. Wonderful.
On Tuesday, we moved from our fancy hotel to a guest house. It turned out the guest house was equally fancy, and they were even in the process of building a pool! We were shown into our huge room, and 2 minutes later, a knock at the door brought us iced lemon squash. Pretty outstanding service if you ask me! We ventured out for lunch, discovering what was to fuel us for the next few days - sandwiches. We both ordered chicken, bacon and avocado sandwiches, which were delicious, and a nice change from hot lunches. This time, prepared with pants and a shawl/wrap, we retried the museum. Of course, this time, they didn't care about my tee shirt, so I sweated away for no good reason. The temple and palace that housed the museum were beautiful buildings, but much like many South East Asian royal museums, the collections were largely, "Look at all our stuff!", and I found it a little underwhelming.
From there we ventured to Wat Xieng Thong, which was stunning. The roof was tiled blue and gold, and the whole place was decorated to resemble a peacock. We spent about half an hour wandering around, soaking in the atmosphere. After a quick stop back to the hotel to top up our air conditioning levels, we headed to the night market to find food for dinner. We ended up having BBQ pork and dumplings, plus fruit shakes, before picking up some delicious baked goods for dessert on the way home.
The one thing that everyone says you must do in Luang Prabang is visit Kuang Si waterfalls, so sure enough, the next day, that was where we headed. At 11.30am, a minivan picked us up from our guesthouse, and we hit the road. After a very confusing half hour to driving round the town, u turning, frantic phone calls, stops to pick up more passengers and more u turns, we REALLY hit the road. After about half an hour of revolting driving later, we fell out of the van at our destination. We were told to be back at the van in just over two and a half hours, and sent on our way. We paid our entry fee and followed the signs to the waterfalls.
About a two minute walk past the ticket booth, we found ourselves in a bear sanctuary! We hadn't realised that this had been included in our entry fee. As well as our old friends, the sun bears, whom we met in Sepilok, this sanctuary was also home to their larger cousin, the moon bears. These bears had all been rescued from being pets, tourist attractions, or bear bile farms by Free the Bears. It was a really pleasant surprise.
We carried on walking, and soon enough we reached the bottom tier of the falls. The water was amazingly blue and clear due to the limestone in the rocks, and the trees surrounding it made the whole place look like a postcard. We wandered up past a few more tiers, each with its own pools and rock formations. The last tier was about 30m high, and just stunning. We headed back down to a middle tier for a swim, as you couldn't swim nearer the top. I chickened out mid-thigh. The water was freezing, and the fish were a little over friendly (think fish pedicure, but not just on your feet...). Zev was brave and swam over to the falls, which he said you could climb because the limestone made the rocks super sticky. We had our lunch (more sandwiches - this time I had peanut butter and bacon, YUM!), and went further down. We found some people jumping out of a tree into one of the pools, and I knew the only way I would be getting in was all at once. We climbed the tree, and both jumped. I was right, it was icy, so I think I got out even faster than I got in. We dried off and got changed, and walked down the road to check out the Butterfly Park.
The Butterfly Park was started by a European couple (I can't remember now exactly where they were from, I think France or Germany) for local school children. The park is free for school kids, and they have a bus which they send out to pick up school groups. They use the park to educate kids not just about butterflies, but conservation in general. The aviary itself (or whatever the butterfly equivalent of an aviary is) was super cool, and full of loads of different types of butterflies. Sadly we weren't able to spend much time there, as we had to get back to our minivan, so we hoofed it up the hill and made it just in the nick of time.
Back at the hostel, we had time for some quick showers before heading to Wat Phousi, on the top of Mt Phousi, for sunset. 300-odd steps above Luang Prabang, we soaked in the 360° views out across the countryside. We found a spot with a good view of the sunset and settled in. After about 20 minutes, it became pretty clear that the cloud cover was going to make for a pretty disappointing sunset, so we abandoned our posts and went in search of food.
We made a beeline for the much recommended Tamarind Restaurant, famous for its authentic Laos cuisine. Keen to try a range of local delicacies, we shared a tasting platter for our mains (containing chicken curry, vegetarian curry, pork sausage, river weed crisps and sticky rice), and a dessert degustation platter (purple sticky rice, sticky rice cake, rice pancakes, rice biscuits - you may notice a theme). The food was all incredible, the staff were incredible, and two hours later we rolled out, fat and happy.
Our last day in Luang Prabang had rolled around. We headed straight to the Ethnology Museum, knowing for sure that it was open. We spent about an hour checking out exhibits on the customs and cultures of the local tribes, and a particularly great exhibit about the role of women in both traditional and modern Laos society.
From there, we wandered the waterfront in search of the Bamboo Bridge, re-built each year by a local family to allow access between Luang Prabang and a village on the other side of the river. Each wet season, the current becomes too strong, so the bridge comes down, and each dry season, they put it back up. It's pretty impressive - I couldn't build a bridge!!
We spent the rest of the day meandering through town, soaking in the atmosphere. We stopped in various little shops, checking out the local handicrafts, and went to the library, where we donated some children's books to the Library Boat. The Library Boat cruises between villages, giving books to the kids, which seemed like a great idea to us!
That evening, we set out to see a traditional storytelling show, with live music, which we'd both been looking forward to. Imagine our disappointment when we got there to find a note stuck to the door saying, 'Sorry, closed til August', despite still having all their signs out on the main road, the information centre and other stores giving out their brochure, and a review on TripAdvisor from the week before!! Yet again disappointed, we found solace in pizza on the way home.
We had an early night in preparation for our road trip from hell the next day. Everything we read suggested that the 7 hour minivan ride between Luang Prabang and our next destination, Phonsavan, would be the worst experience of our lives. The road is incredibly windy, and goes up and over a mountain range. Naturally we were delighted when the drunk girls down the hall woke us up at 2.30am, mostly just saying, "Shhhhhhhh!!!!" really loudly and giggling, interspersed with the odd, "WOOOOOOOOOO", and some door slamming. Luckily Grandpa Zev was there to tell the kids to keep it down. It only took them an hour or so to pass out.
At 7am when our alarm went off, I fought the urge to go down to their room and spend a bit of time shhhhing, wooooing and door slamming right outside their window. Luckily I was too busy packing and eating breakfast. A big group of us picked in a songthaew to the minivan station and off we went.
We threw our bags on the roof of the already well-laden minivan, and snagged ourselves a couple of seats that weren't in the back row. It was 8.45, and we were due to leave at 9. So we waited. And waited. And waited. At 9.45, with every piece of luggage in the greater Luang Prabang region strapped to the roof, and what felt like every person in the great Luang Prabang region crammed into the van. We were finally off! To the front gate, where we stopped so the driver could talk to his mate. But then we were off for real! To the gas station down the road, because apparently the driver didn't think to do that before loading everyone in. But then we were really REALLY off! It had started to rain, but luckily the road was so windy that we couldn't pick up any speed. Despite the warnings, the drive wasn't too bad. The countryside passing outside the window was absolutely beautiful - I think some of the best we've seen. Lush green hills, rice paddies, clouded mountain tops... It was all there.
Soon enough, we found ourselves at the top of the mountain pass, and we stopped for lunch. I'd been snacking on my leftover pizza during the drive, but fatty ate all of his the night before, so got himself some chicken noodle soup. It was freezing because we were so high up, and the view out the window was a total white out. It was amazing. After about half an hour (and an unfortunate encounter with a jar of pickled paws from an unknown source :( ) we piled back into the van and hit the road again.
Several hours, and several cigarette stops for our driver, later we finally made it to Phonsavan. We had driven past our guesthouse on the way in, so we knew it was about 100m to walk back there, and we couldn't wait to check in and have showers. As we climbed out of the van, a smiling man was holding a sign with our names on it. The owner of the guesthouse had come to pick us up! No 100m walk for us! Welcome to Phonsavan!!
Lots of love,
S & Z
(Original post date: 27th June 2015)