Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Laos Part 4 (b) - Luang Prabang Day 2

Unlike the previous morning, no rooster woke me at way-too-early o’clock. Regardless, we were still up early. Days packed full of being on your feet and reasonably early nights tend to lead to reasonably early mornings. But what seems like an early morning to me is quite a sleep in for the locals in Luang Prabang. At 7am, washing was being hung, children were on their way to school, paths were being swept, and I was enjoying the morning scene from the private balcony overlooking the road. Unlike yesterday when we ate at the guesthouse, this morning we had planned to walk into town to have breakfast.

Walking in the cool morning along the tree lined road was very pleasant. As I write this, I can see it all so clearly, but kicking myself for not taking any photos of the pretty area. Oh well, now I’ve got an excuse to return (not that I really need any). It only took about 5 or 10 mins to walk to the main street. We chose one of the many restaurants open for breakfast and sat outside overlooking the road. There were plenty of options with the smell of freshly baking bread making my mouth water. I had a simple, toasted baguette with butter and jam, while J had the full hot breakfast. The coffee was fantastic with fresh milk, which was a treat as many places through Asia - including Laos – only have the powdered coffee creamer that I find hard to stomach.

It was about 8:30 by the time we finished. Next on the agenda was to find ourselves a tuk-tuk to take us out to Kuang Si waterfall. There were plenty of drivers already hassling passers-by to try to get a fare. Even while we were eating, a guy approached us offering his services. But I have a bit of a policy; if a hawker (tuk-tuk, shop assistant or restaurateur) pesters me, I avoid them. But if the person just patiently waits for me to approach and ask for their assistance when I’m ready, I’m in. At the corner near the museum, three or four tuk-tuks were lined up with their drivers either dozing or chatting. On the basis that they didn’t approach us, we approached them and asked if one of them would take us to the falls. They had a laminated card with the popular tourist spots listed with the corresponding fare. Kuang Si was shown as 200,000 kip (about $25 AUD). Hmmm I thought... I offered 150,000. At first they wouldn’t budge, so I made like I was walking away. That quickly changed their minds and we settled on 170,000.

Jumping in the back of the beastly vehicle (and I’m talking from the point of view of being quite obsessed by how awesome they looked), we exchanged greetings and information about where we were from and how long we were staying in Laos. Our driver was a friendly young man and spoke excellent English. But once on the road, it was impossible to communicate with him due to the engine noise and wind rushing passed our ears.

The half hour drive was on a bumpy, but paved road, with lots of turns and bends. Lush green fields and rolling hills framed the road on each side, with many farmers out tending their farms. Once we turned off the main road, the road became pretty rough. But it wasn’t far to the car park area. Many stalls, most not open, ringed the car park. Our driver pointed the way to the path to the falls, and we set off. Judging by the lack of other cars or tuk-tuks, I figured we were the only tourists there. We paid our 10,000 kip entrance fee, and soon found ourselves at the bear rescue centre.

The centre provides a home to Asian Sun bears confiscated by Laos authorities. It’s funded by an Australian organisation, ‘Free the Bears Fund’, but relies on public support to operate the centres. Because we were there relatively early, the centre’s stall was not yet open, so we just made a donation. And the bears were just gorgeous! They were frolicking about, a few just finishing their breakfasts, others playing with the old tyres that were their toys, while a couple wrestled for position on top of one of the little platforms. They seemed disinterested with us humans, clearly busy with their own bear business. Regardless, I watched them and tried to talk to them (yes – I do talk to animals who then look at me as if I am mental – as does J). Honestly, they looked so sweet and cuddly, but to be sure, they would do me physical harm if I was to encroach on their territory.

We finally tore ourselves away and proceeded along the walkway under the tall trees to the waterfall. All the way along the path you could hear the water gushing down ravines and around rocks. There were many little ponds and swimming holes all the way up to the main falls, with little wooden ‘bathing boxes’ at various places for swimmers to get changed. Well before we reached falls we could hear the roar of the water cascading down the rocky cliffs. A few little falls at the base of the big waterfall gave a nice preface to the main act – Tat Kuang Si. Spectacular! Apart from a group of locals, J and I were the only other people there. Right in front of the falls was a rickety, wooden bridge, clearly under construction, that unfortunately interfered with the overall vista of the falls. But once it is finished, I’m sure it will provide an awesome vantage point.

J and I explored the various paths right up to and almost under the falls. Cloudy blue water pooled around the base, with white rivulets overflowing down the surrounding boulders. While J ventured up around the side of the falls, I carefully walked, or climbed, out on the incomplete bridge, taking a few photos. I wondered off to explore further downstream, enchanted with all the stunning blue water. At one of the picnic areas, I met two Thai men, who asked me to take their photos. I happily obliged, noting they were wearing cycling knicks. They told me of their epic ride, called “The Mekong Challenge”, through Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. Their ride was all in honour of the Thai king, who was not well, and their riding jerseys boldly stated, “Long live the King!”

Strolling back to the car park, we passed many more people heading to the waterfall. We took our time exploring some of the side tracks leading the many ponds that were all the way along the main path back to the car park. It seemed a stunning picture beckoned every few metres, so I had to stop and take many, many photos. The whole area was just heaven for a photographer.

After a stop at the bear rescue centre to talk with the bears again, and to purchase tee-shirts and the cutest little handmade teddy bear toy from the fund raising stall that was now open, we returned to the car park. All the shops were now open, and many more tuk-tuks and vans now occupied places under shady trees in the car park. We found our driver having an early lunch at one of the stalls, but we were in no rush and indicated to him to enjoy and take his time. I browsed a few stalls that sold the same-same goods as the night market back in Luang Prabang, and bought a cold drink. Then I took the plunge and went to the public toilet. With a pocketful of tissues, I ventured in to the dark and damp concrete block, pleasantly surprised by the fairly clean, western style toilets. What a relief!

A huge bus pulled in as we met our driver at his tuk-tuk. It was mid morning and the sun was really ramping up to boiling temperature. Originally, we thought we would head back to town after Kuang Si falls, but I felt we may as well keep going while we were already on the road and see the Tad Sae falls. Confidently, I asked our friendly driver whether he would be willing to take us out there. He smiled broadly, very happy to be able accommodate us. Ok, how much? The rate from the card we saw earlier that morning indicated it was 150,000, which was the same price asked by our driver. So we quickly agreed to his quote without any haggling. We knew that to get to Tad Sae meant going all the way back to LP, and heading out from there. There was no secret back route or short cut.

As our tuk-tuk headed back to the road main road, we passed another two large busses full of visitors. We also passed a few more tuk-tuks. I looked out, and who was there waving at us? Yeap – our ‘boat people’. We waved back wildly, laughing. J and I joked about how lucky we were to leave before the swarms of tourist descended, even though we were ourselves part of the horde. I wondered whether we would see them at our next stop, seeing that they seemed to be following us.

I tried to snap photos of the local people and scenery along the road with my second, small, ‘toy’ camera, which is a compact, point-and-shoot. Schools’ morning sessions were finished and many children were riding in small groups in their clean white shirts and blue or black pants or skirts. Many road side stalls had sprung up selling grilled meats and other cooked foods for the kids to buy on their way home. It was obvious when we passed a stall that had good food as it was swarmed by a mass of bicycles.

Our careful driver took us almost all the way back to the main centre of town where he then took a right turn up another main road that connected with the road that leads out to the other waterfall. Tad Sae wasn’t as far out as Tad Kuang Si, but the little road that leads down to the car park was a rough, dusty gravel road, that wound down a steep hillside. By now, the sun was like a cooker, stinging my arms when I alighted from the back of our trusty tuk-tuk. Luckily I had sun screen in my pack and smothered myself and donned a hat. If only sun screen protected you from the heat as well as the UV rays...

A small booth collected our entrance fee, and we walked the hundred or two metres down to the river in blazing sunlight. A little fleet of small long boats waited for visitors to take them downstream to the falls. We carefully stepped on to the unstable deck. Our boat driver pushed the boat back and started the engine in the same way as an old lawn mower, which some of you may remember, with a rip cord. The boat set off as I noticed my backside getting wet. Water was sloshing around under the planks that served as seats, so I was quick to make sure my pack with my cameras were high and dry.

The short boat trip was, again, in scorching sun, but was lovely. Farmers were planting peanut crops in the sandy river bank, now that the water levels were dropping after the high water of the wet season. Green fields surrounded the little, bracken river. Within a few minutes, we were getting out and walking up the path to the falls. All around, we could hear the water coursing, but there wasn’t a grand, towering, waterfall here, rather a series of smaller drops and pools. The sun-dappled pools were dotted with tall trees. A long foot-bridge provided a path off to the side to an excellent pool with little stilted bathing boxes for people to use to change. At the main bathing area, a restaurant and stall offered visitors food and drink. Indeed, the smell of grilling food was very appetising. But we contented ourselves with an iced coffee for J, and lemon juice for me, as we sat at a shaded table to enjoy the falls and watch the antics of the local bathers. A shelf of rock and land formed a 100 metre wide fall only a few metres high. Swimmers sat at the base below the pouring water, enjoying a free massage, courtesy of Mother Nature.

Heading back to the boat, we enjoyed the display of the water powered rice pestle. A water wheel turned a cog that lifted two large wooden logs fitted with mallets on the end. As the cog turned, the raised logs fell, dropping the heavy mallet into a wooden bowl containing rice. I’m not sure if this process was used to make the infamous lao-lao Laos whiskey, or what, but it was very ingenious. We also stopped to talk with the poor elephants tethered to large platforms that were used to load passengers onto their backs for rides up the river. They seemed well cared for, but I couldn’t help but feel sorry for them.

Back at the river bank, we again carefully stepped onboard a wobbly long boat. As soon as the sun hit me, I regretted our earlier decision of not taking our bathing. Without knowing how good the facilities were at the falls, I had dismissed the idea of swimming, not fancying walking around in wet bathers under our clothes. Now I was spewing.

Suddenly, the boat’s motor cut out. We were only about half way back to the car park area. The current soon had us floating back towards the waterfall and turning us sideways. Our driver didn’t seem perturbed. He carefully wound the rip cord around the starter and pulled. The engine gave a brief cough, and then fell silent. A few more rips from the driver followed by a few more mechanical splutters left us further downstream and more sideways. I nervously laughed to J, figuring the river flowed back towards the Mekong so would eventually take us back to Luang Prabang. Another boat came around the bend. Our driver had a quick exchange with the other boat’s driver, ending with a few laughs from both men. We had to laugh too. Then, with the driver’s next attempt, the motor finally kicked into life, and we quickly turned into the current and back on course.

I was happy to be back in the tuk-tuk heading back to town. The air movement and shade helped me to cool off, as I finished the last of our water. All the way back, we kept an eye out for the boat people, checking all the passing tuk-tuks, convinced we would surely see them. But we didn’t.

Back in town, we asked our driver to drop us in front of Wat Mai. Even though I had cheekily bargained a cheaper price, we happily gave him 350,000 kip for the two falls, plus a small tip. Across the road were a few eateries, and we chose a small restaurant, ‘Cafe des Art’ almost next door the Luang Prabang Bakery we had lunched at the previous day. Even though its name was French, the cafe boasted Italian panini and pastas. With cold lemon juices and a few glasses of water, we quickly scoffed the crisp, toasted breads, which were simple but delicious.

As we walked back along the main street, a tuk-tuk pulled up a few hundred metres away. Sure enough, who do you think piled out – yeap – you guessed it – the ‘boat people’. We met them for a chat along the hot roadside. They told us how they had secured a private car transfer for $100. We were leaving the next day to Vang Vieng, with them following the day after. We laughed about seeing each other earlier at the falls and agreed that we wouldn’t say good bye in Luang Prabang, as we were sure to meet again in Vang Vieng, and further down the track in Vientiane. In fact, I was sure we’d probably bump into them later that evening.
Having re-checked the opening hours, we headed to the Royal Palace Museum. The main building was the royal palace up until 1975. A self guided path takes you through the old reception hall and all the other rooms. There are impressive displays of paintings, silver and china that were presented to Laos as gifts from many countries from all over the world. Towards the rear were stunningly appointed bedrooms and living quarters all laid out with the finery of the time. All the displays were well laid out with lots of information. I thoroughly enjoyed reading all the interesting facts and took my time just absorbing it all. Beside the main entrance, outside along the front veranda was a room full of fine art, including the revered Pra Bang Buddha. Interestingly, many people missed this whole display, which I enjoyed the most. The display also had a number of gold and other elaborately decorated Buddhas, as well as beautiful silks and paintings. Stunning!

At the rear of the main building was the royal garage. White Cadillacs of various eras, all well maintained with similar tan leather upholstery, stood side by side. Each was wider and longer than the one before. Being a big fan of cars, especially American cars, and more specifically GMC cars, particularly pre-mid-70’s, I was very sad I couldn’t take photos. So I entertained J and myself by picking each vehicle’s year and model, and making up some ridiculous stories about how the King drove them up and down the main drag of Luang Prabang, doing burn outs with rear sub-woofers banging out doof doof beats. OK. I know, a little childish, but the picture I had in my mind’s eye amused me. I chuckled as I elaborated on my silly story to the frowns of J, who walked away from me, pretending he didn’t know me.
Back towards the front of the palace grounds is the Haw (or Wat) Pra Bang. Its golden facade shone in the afternoon sun. Inside, the pillars, window frames, roof and alter were all completely covered in intricate gold patterns that were quite dazzling. Unlike most temples, this one did not house a grand Buddha statue. Instead was a grand, vacant alter, which I assumed was the traditional home of the Pra Bang Buddha. J waited for me outside while I spent some time examining the gorgeous detail of all the adornments and taking a few photos. The one thing I found disconcerting was the number of people who entered the temple without taking their shoes off. Maybe because the hall didn’t have a Buddha, these people felt it was less worthy of respect, despite the ‘Take off your shoes’ sign at the entrance.

Long shadows stretched across the road with the sun heading west. Thankfully, the worst of its bite was gone, making walking around town much more comfortable. I set a course that took us back up Kitsalat road heading to the rear of Mount Phousi to explore the area before continuing along to our guesthouse. Along the way we passed through the Dara market (which I highly recommend to you shop-o-holics out there – lots of bags and clothes and electronics and shoes and jewellery and much more that was completely different to the night market). I purchased an extra SD card for the camera(s), seeing I’d nearly filled the two I had brought from home already, which was very cheap and worked perfectly.  But I’m not much of a shopper so we continued on, browsing the stalls as we made our way down Ratsavong road.

The area was much, much quieter than the main road, with large trees and overhanging branches. A good vantage spot just beside the market offered a good view of Mount Phousi from the street. There were a few guesthouses and little shops, with the ‘Aussie Sports Bar’ on a corner not far along. Clearly it was a sign that we needed beer. We met the owner, John, and enjoyed a chat over our Namkhong beers (which, BTW, were not as good as Beer Lao – sweeter maybe for those who like a more floral, girly beer).

As my beer seemed to have magically evaporated, and J indicated he didn’t want to move just yet, I took myself across the road to a few of the shops; ‘Made in Laos’ and ‘Utopia’ for a look. As it turned out I missed the drama. A woman who was at the bar had become dehydrated. After a beer and subsequent visit to the bathroom, she fainted. J, being first aid trained, rushed to help her and offer his assistance. By the time I arrived back, she had a couple of damp cool towels around the back of her neck and around her ankles, feet up, sipping on cool (but not iced) water. Her face was flushed red after the greenish/white she had been when she lost consciousness. We stayed and chatted with her and her partner for a bit longer to make sure she was feeling better.

I dragged J over the road to ‘Made in Laos’. I would say this was my favourite shop in all of Laos. Many of the goods I had not seen elsewhere. Upstairs, they had small gallery with some exquisite works. I had trouble selecting what items to buy. First were some hand painted tiles. There were individual tiles, as well as groups of 2, 3, 4, 6 or 9 tiles that combined to make up larger images. In their display, a 9 tile piece had been set with an earth coloured mat board with a plain timber frame that was so beautiful and effective. But again recalling that we had a journey ahead, we had to restrain ourselves to not buy too much... sort of. I ended up buying a set of 4 and a couple sets of 2, as well as a few gorgeous handmade magnets, some hand woven tea-towels. Each piece was carefully enveloped in bubble wrap and provided in a handmade fabric bag. As they were being wrapped, I discovered some cute embroidered key rings, and lovely handmade, cross-stitched cloth squares, ready to be made into cushion covers or eloquently framed like the display. It was just as well I hadn’t paid when I placed the additional purchases on the counter. As I waited for my transaction to be processed, Mr J found some traditional banana leaf cigarettes (proudly noted to be ‘hand rolled by a venerable monk’). He later tried them and found them pleasant, but took over an hour to smoke just one.
Before continuing on, we checked back at the Aussie Bar to see how J’s patient was doing. She was much better and had normal colour to her face. We bade our goodbyes, advising she keeps taking in fluids slowly and keep to simple food for the day, then headed back towards our guesthouse. However I just had to stop in and look through Kak Po gallery. The paintings were unique. Many contained Buddha images or Buddhist themes. I fell in love with a number of pieces, but managed to restrain myself to only buying two small, subdued pieces. The artist (sorry forgot his name) carefully wrapped the canvases in tissue and presented them in a ratan woven holder. He was very a friendly guy, telling us about the pieces and painting styles he used. He even let me take his picture. More customers were waiting to purchase goods as I said ‘Thank you” and “Goodbye’.

Now laden with goods, we made our way back along the darkening, river-side street to our guesthouse to make a drop off, and freshen up. Initially we were going to eat at Tamarid, which is highly recommend and not far from where we were staying. However, after looking at their menu, there wasn’t a whole lot for vegetarians. I have no doubt that they could have modified a dish for me, but seeing it was our last night in Luang Prabang, I was ready to head back to the main street. I had also heard good things about Tamnak Lao restaurant. So that’s where we headed. And what an excellent choice it was!

Our charming waiter Lee, chatted to us and told us how he was sponsored by Tamnak Lao through the Lao-Kids organisation that the restaurant, and cooking school, support. He worked, and studied, seven days a week to support his family who lived in the north of Laos. Lee was inspirational, and reminded me of how spoilt we were at home. The food was to die for! I sampled the Jeow Bong, although it’s not strictly vegetarian, I had to give it a taste (and I found the easy way to recall the name of this potent chilli sauce was ‘your jaw drops and eyes go bong as the hot, hot heat hits you).

After a leisurely meal, with friendly chats to Lee and other wait staff, there was only one destination: the bar with no name. It was only a few blocks down. We browsed all the shops along the way, and decided to stroll down the side streets around the night market for a last look on our last night. Up to now, we hadn’t bought anything from the night market. And although I’d bought a few little magnets from the shop earlier in the day, they did not specifically denote Luang Prabang. It’s usually the first thing I do in a new town – buy the ‘must have’ fridge magnet. So I was on a mission. By the time we left the market, we had purchased a few magnets, as well as some new ‘happy’ shorts for me (they were elastic waisted with brightly coloured patchwork fabrics that made you feel happy when you wear them), and a pair of fisherman’s pants for J.
So for the last time, we drank our cold beer Lao with a plate of warm nuts at the nameless bar. Our favourite table that we had sat at the previous two nights was occupied, and the bar was quite crowded for the first time during our stay. We exchanged stories with some young backpackers who had just arrived from Chiang Khong via the public slow boat. Turns out we lucked in during our stay in Pak Beng. These poor guys had stayed in a very basic guesthouse and had been mauled by bedbugs. After having had a sleepless night, the backpackers left early, and we re-claimed our table for a last beer. I had grown very fond of the town, and of this little bar. The old monk was again making his way up and down the street. But this time, he had an old rag. As he passed each parked motorbike, he flicked the seat and handlebars with the cloth, talking to the bike as he did. I’m sure he was pleading with the bike to keep its riders safe, offering the slap as a little blessing. When he came across a sandwich-board sign on the other side of the road, he got very animated, talking to it tersely. Then he picked it up, moved it a metre further along the street, and turned it to face the other way. Must have been in the wrong position, or had bad feng shui, or something... Then he returned to hitting each bike with his rag. With the last sip of beer, I thought to myself, I’m really going to miss Luang Prabang. - k

1 comment:

  1. Hey K! Fantastic blog! Just wondering where you stayed in Luang Prabang...we're heading there for Christmas and finding it super difficult to get info about budget Accomodation before we arrive. It seems like there are hotels using agora which charge a hell of a lot and then those "off the grid" who you basically need to walk in off the street and book. Would love your suggestions if you have time! X Nelle - Australia