Tuesday, October 25, 2011
Laos Part 4 - Luang Prabang Day 1
After exploring the rest of the temple grounds, and admiring the mosaic tree of life mural on the outer rear wall of the temple, we continued down the main road back towards town on the Mekong side of the peninsula. As we neared the ferry landing area, the houses and hotels gave way to more and more shops and businesses. And who do we bump into? Mrs S, Mr R, Mrs L, and Mr J from the boat. We decided to have a cold drink in one of the riverside restaurants as Mrs S and Mr R returned to their guesthouse to collect their camera. Over a refreshing lemon juice, we exchanges news of our guesthouses and our previous evening’s activities. Mrs L was a wealth of knowledge about restaurants and guesthouses all through Laos, and gave us a few names of places to try.
Across the road was a pair of green and gold serpents, nagas, marking the entrance to a temple. Wat Hosain Voravihane stood on large open grounds, with a number of beautifully decorated and ornate prayer and ceremony halls. At one end, the bland building that served as the monk’s quarters had freshly laundered robes and other washing hanging from almost every open window, creating an orange/yellow patchwork against the start white-washed walls, all fluttering in the breeze. We wondered through, smiling respectfully at the few monks that walked by near us. They seemed less than impressed to have their home ‘invaded’ by us westerners. All the buildings were closed and locked with heavy padlocks, making it clear that tourists were not very welcome – well, that’s the feeling I got.
Not far up the road was the main shopping street that was closed at night for the night market. But through the day it was just a busy main street, lined with shops, restaurants and businesses. I was parched. Time for a lemon juice and some lunch. At the Luang Prabang bakery restaurant, a handful of tables sat on the shaded veranda, with a few more inside. Though I whine about the hot sun, I love the heat – just as long as I’m not being baked by the blistering sun. So I chose a table out front, and ordered a cold lemon juice, and freshly baked baguette filled with camembert and salad. Delicious! I was also pleasantly surprised by a well appointed and spotless bathroom. OK, if you have travelled SE Asia, particularly you females out there, you know what I’m talking about here. You never quite know what you’re going to get when you go to the bathroom; squat or western (or worse), paper or not, clean or mouldy, hand basin, or running water. I was prepared with my pocket tissue and hand sanitiser, but it was not needed. And, I have to say, I never needed them through my whole trip through Laos.
From here, the Luang Prabang traditional arts & ethnology centre was a short walk around the corner. I was very keen to learn more about the various customs and ethnic groups of Laos, and considering the heat of the day, spending a while inside seemed a great idea. At 20,000 kip entry fee (like $2.50), it was well worth it. J and I had the place to ourselves, and enjoyed walking through the exhibits of the various locals tribal groups and seeing their different handicrafts and art. I particularly enjoyed all the information presented about courtship and match-making between the various clans. I wonder how our liberal western society would cope with all the subtleties and etiquette of traditional Lao customs. A part of me longed for the simpleness of it all. The basic-ness without all the demands and assumptions placed on us by our ever-constant media. It was innocent, respectful, and charming. Not the booty shaking, swear-mouthed youth-culture (or lack thereof), hanging at malls and addicted to facebook. But I digress.
At the rear of the museum was a tiny gift shop and coffee shop. The range of items was not huge, but the shop assistants knew almost each artist that contributed their work. Having learned how the traditional batik fabrics were died in the museum exhibition, coupled my obsession with all things blue, I purchased a traditional door hanging, with an intricate pattern set in the deep-blue, indigo-dyed material. To make these exquisite cloths, the artist draws the elaborate design on the hand-woven cotton in pure bees-wax. The cloth is then treated a number of times with the dye made from the indigo plant to give it its dark denim blue appearance. Once permeated with dye, the cloth is boiled to dissolve the wax, leaving the originally drawn designs and patterns.
We wondered back down toward the main street, passing through the Hmong market. J bought one of the best iced coffees he’d ever had, and I had another lemon juice as we checked out the simple little stalls. Though we didn’t buy anything, there were lots of everyday type goods, and lots of food and drink at what I would say were the cheapest prices in town.
The next stop was the National Museum, but we discovered it was closed given it was a Tuesday. So (far from being templed out), I dragged J into Wat Mai (its traditional name is Si Souvanhnao Phouma Ram) that was right next door. It is a picturesque temple with a traditional, gold gilded facade, and detailed patterns adorning every wall, pillar and post. It was here I learned about the Prabang Buddha statue that came to this temple during the Laos New Year celebrations for ritual bathing. With the temple almost to completely to ourselves, I took the opportunity for a few minutes of quiet meditation. Oh, and another big gong that I had to strike!
Along the road, the night stall holders were beginning to drag their carts into the main street, ready to set up their stands. Though it was ‘early’ (4 pm ish), and the late afternoon, slanty light (my favourite for photos) had not yet begun, we decided to climb up Mt Phousi. I figured that though it wasn’t quite sunset, we’d at least beat the crowds.
By the time we were heading back down, the view points at the summit were very crowded, and may more travellers were making their way up to see the sun set. As we took a last look at the spectacular view, the sun was starting to sink behind the distant hills. I think walking the steps back down is worse than the climb up. I can take the aerobic stress going up, but hate the strain on my knees going down. Despite my best sooking, pouting and persuasion, J wouldn’t carry me back down, remarking that I wouldn’t carry him up, so he wouldn’t carry me down. Ha.
The night market was being set up when we reached the main street at the bottom. I was parched and hunger was starting to take hold. Walking back through town, I saw the bar with no name had just opened. A couple of tables had patrons, and the sight of their cold beer Lao bottles was irresistible. Without needing to say a word to each other, we simultaneously headed over to the bar, clearly with the same intention. We sat at the same table as the previous night overlooking the street, as the street lights were beginning to come on as the evening became dark. J fetched our drinks and small plate of warm peanuts. Putting my feet up, I relaxed after the busy day, just absorbing the street atmosphere.