Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Laos Part 4 - Luang Prabang Day 1

The guesthouse was on the Nam Khan river side of the Luang Prabang peninsular, a little way from the main shops and market area. Despite being what I would say is close to the centre, we were in an almost semi rural area. Hence the 5am cock-a-doodle-do wake up. For me, it was good and bad; good because I wanted to do and see so much in the two short days I had, bad because of the not so good night sleep and maybe a few too many beer Lao the night before. For 10,000 kip for a 660ml bottle (about $1.20 Aussie), who wouldn’t have one, or two, or five...
Breakfast was served over the road from the guesthouse beside the river. It was a charming spot on a wooden deck, shaded by overhanging trees. Chickens were scratching for scraps along the steep river bank. A few little put-put long boats were ferrying goods and people across the little river (well it was maybe 25 metres across, but in comparison to the mighty Mekong, it was a little river). Young monks carrying satchels of books were walking up and down the long road, presumably going for lessons between temples. It was just a shame that the breakfast fare was so passé, with unimpressive white bread toast, and very little else but bacon and eggs (which probably isn’t an issue for most, but for vego me, it made for a meagre meal).
Despite the early rouse, the morning got off to a slow start. Time was spent sorting out washing to get done, and a blocked shower drain that flooded the entire bathroom requiring maintenance. So by the time we headed off, it was well after 9.
Armed with a few bottles of water, we headed north east toward the end of the Luang Prabang (LP) peninsula, where the little Nam Khan river meets the grand Nam Khong – the Mekong. The one way street ran parallel to the river. Houses, restaurants and little stores sat along one side, with the river side of the thoroughfare lined with trees, palms and climbing vines. From our guesthouse to the tip of the peninsula was only a few hundred metres. At the end was a little reserve with some concrete seats and statues under some large trees that offered a great view of the junction of the two rivers, thankfully under the shadows of the overhanging branches. We took our time enjoying the shade away from the mid morning sun.
Wat Xieng Thong, dating back to 1560, stood watch over the northern LP peninsula. We walked up the stairs from street level from the one way street that traced around the edge of the point. It was still relatively early and few other visitors were there. First, we explored the main temple, with its low, sweeping, gabled roof and gold gilt frontage. A dimly lit prayer hall was inside with a large gold Budhha at the far end of the gold gilded room, surrounded by other Buddha statues of various sizes and styles. The mid morning sun cut shards of sunlight, streaming in between the gaps in the roof. Much to J’s chagrin, there were large gongs inside. There was no doubt that I was going to bang them and make a racket. For the first time in Laos, I sat quietly before the statues, mindfully recalling the three refuges, and then struck the largest gong in the quiet temple. Needless to say, the loud hhhrrrrmmmmhhhh was spectacular. As the wonderful sound resonated out, I reflected inwardly.
With a quick prayer and incense offering, we left the main temple and explored the rest of the temple grounds. In what appeared to be a garage off to the side was a boat-type vessel, headed by seven gold nagas. We later found out that this float was used every year to carry the Pra Bang Buddha through the streets from its current resting place at the temple at the Royal Palace Museum (Haw Phra Bang) to Wat Mai, where it is ritually bathed by devout laypeople during Lao New Year festivities.
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.
Previously, when we were on the boat, we had discussed our forward plans of heading to Vang Vieng. Though there were public buses and mini-van transfers, I was determined to find a private driver to allow more flexibility to stop wherever we wanted. From the little research I’d done on TripAdvisor I knew it would be easy enough to ask around the various travel agents in town to make arrangements. Mrs L had asked Phet (our guide on the boat), who had quoted $300 to have a driver to take them through to Vientiane. It sounded a bit too much to me. I had asked our guesthouse if they could arrange a driver only to Vang Vieng, and their quote was $180US. Still too much. I called in a few of the shop fronts offering transport along the road, and the quote was generally between $120 to $150 US. But one place gave us a quote of $100. We didn’t take it straight off, but I thought the price sounded right. Then, discussing it with Mrs L, who had had quotes of over $200, I knew that $100 was about right, and maybe the best we would find. I passed on the information about the quotes I’d received, advising that they should try to get a similar price.
Mrs S and Mr R returned so we bade our ‘see you laters’ to the others and headed back to the agent to book our private van to Vang Vieng before continuing our exploration. J and I walked along the river road south-west, taking our time just enjoying watching the town’s day-to-day life. I took a liking to the tuk-tuks. They were beasts! Some are small, but most were these overgrown motorbike looking contraptions, with what looks like a trailer connected to where the rear wheel would be. The driver climbs up and rides it like a regular bike, but instead of foot gears and hand controls, it has a long gear stick and foot clutch. Brightly coloured in blue with the roof and cabin sections covered in various patterns of vivid yellows, reds and greens, they buzzed around town ferrying tourists from place to place. Gangs of them stood at various city corners, accosting passers-by to hire them to take them to the caves, or waterfalls or temples. “Bo, Khawp Jai” (no thank you) over and over, every corner. But I could see why they persisted. It was hot – real hot. Walking only a hundred metres was brutal under the hot sun. I’m sure many people gave in after even a short while walking, exposed in the midday heat.
At the corner of Kitsalat and Chao Fa Ngum roads, one of the major intersections of the city, we discovered a gorgeous roadside reserve, with a water feature and golden urn, encircled by water nagas. I could not find any information about this town feature, but assumed it to be a monument to the city’s prosperity and protection from bad omens. I have no idea really, but it was a lovely sight in the middle of the busy junction.
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.
The path up started on the main road. Only a few steeps steps led to the little booth to pay the 10,000 kip entry fee. Just next to where you pay was a wide, shady, terrace with a huge bodhi (or sacred fig, peepal or bo) tree. Around its base was a brick, circular, stupa like, monument, that looked very much like the base of an old chedi like what I’d seen in Chiang Mai. Locals left offerings at its base, and a paved path ringed the tree for circumambulating. Enjoying the late afternoon shade, I mindfully circled three times. Off further to the side is an old, practically abandoned temple Wat Pa Huak. It’s small with a weathered, run down exterior. Inside were beautifully ornate fresco paintings that were badly faded and water damaged. Large sections of wall still have much of the murals intact, which I found stunning. At its far end was a simple alter with three gold Buddhas in front of the intricately painted wall. An old monk manned a little table inside who gave us a broken English explanation of the temple, murals and the restoration program. I slid a 50,000 kip note into the donation box, said thank you and goodbye, and we made our way back on the main path leading to the summit of Mt Phousi.
Mt Phousi is really just a large hill right in the middle of Luang Prabang. The paved path was wonderfully shaded from the late afternoon sun, which made the 328 steps bearable. Thankfully the steps were not very steep, so the climb wasn’t too bad at all. At the top, a small stall sold drinks, snacks, and tiny little birds in loosely woven, minuscule cages for visitors to release. The women who sell them rely on us tourists feeling bad for the birds to buy them and make their profit. I found it cruel. From a Buddhist perspective, merit (or good karma) can be gained by saving animals and humans from suffering. So there was a part of me that felt compelled to help these tiny sentient beings. But I also felt the whole thing was tainted and something I just couldn’t support.
Now the view. Breathtaking! To the north-west, the sun sinking behind the distant hills, with the Mekong framing the scene along the front. To the south-east, a golden, sun-drenched vista of the other part of Luang Prabang away from the touristy peninsula area. From up here, we could see the true size of this gorgeous town. The little Nam Khan river snaked its way into the surrounding green hills. Not too far in the distance, a large gold temple sat on a small hill (anyone know its name?) making a brilliant focal point amongst the red rooftops and lush tree tops.
Another small and more contemporary looking temple sat at the top of the mount along with a small gold gilt stupa. Holding sweetly scented, smoking incense, a young woman was kneeled before the modest gold Buddha, solemnly saying her prayers. We walked off to the other side from the path we came up and were surprised to see an old anti aircraft gun, probably a remnant of the Indo China war I guess... I later found out there were a few other things to see up Mt Phousi, like the Buddha foot and other shrines, but we completely missed them.
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.
On the table beside me were two German men happily chatting away. Out of nowhere, a young girl appeared and started talking with them. The girl was quickly joined by another younger girl, possibly her sister. They were trying their hardest to sell some cheap little, handmade bracelets. It was clear to me that the girls had met the men before, and the older girl was commenting on how they men should buy their girlfriends presents. The men and girls bantered back and forth with smart remarks and retorts, bargaining and pleading. Finally, the men bought a bracelet each for 5,000 kip a piece. Even so, the older girl tried to make them buy a key ring in addition. But the men held firm. So the girls gave up on them and hit on us. Having observed the banter and pricing, J was quick to argue the same price. In less than a minute, J had an interesting, leather-look bracelet on, and the girls started a hard sell to buy another one for me. However, J held his ground and we said our thank yous before the girls moved on to their next victim.
The night was dark by the time we finished our beer. Across the road and a few shops up was Nazim Indian restaurant. Their menu had many vegetarian options, and I was in the mood for some fiery curry. We chose a table at the front and ordered some starters deciding to hold off on ordered main meals until we had a chance to confirm that the food was good, as well as the size of the portions.
So, we’re minding our own business and who should arrive? Mrs S, Mr R, Mrs L, and Mr J - who we now started calling ‘the boat people’. We again exchanged light-hearted greetings and accusations about following each other, joking about how we couldn’t get away from them. I remarked that it was Mrs L’s fault, as she recommended the restaurant in the first place. It was a good laugh. We exchanged tales of our day before sitting at separate tables to enjoy our meal. And enjoy we did. The food was delicious. They had a tandoori marinated, cashew dish that was spectacular! Their other fritters and pakoras were also very tasty. Before leaving, we had a quick chat with ‘the boat people’ about their plans, and exchanging some more tips of places to see. There was no doubt we would run into them again.
Though the night was dark, it was really only early evening when we finished our dinner. I wasn’t ready to go back to the guesthouse. We walked back through the night market, spending a little time having a good look at some of the paintings to see if we could find one that matched our taste and would fit in with all the other works we had back at home. I usually buy a painting or two from all the places we travel, usually with a Buddhist theme or featuring the colour blue. Our house has an eclectic mix of works from our travels through Thailand (on previous visits to this trip), Cambodia, Malaysia, Vietnam and Indonesia. I couldn’t find one that fit the bill; if it had lots of blue, it also had gold (which we don’t really like and doesn’t suit us); if it was a black or silver design, it had a red or yellow background. Every stand had the same combinations. But it was nice to take out time walking among the stalls.
We discovered a tiny ally, the night food market, at the other side of the market, close to the post office. It was an aromatic assault to the senses, with bowls of vegetables, meat dishes, rice, salads and condiments laid out on long tables, as meat skewers BBQ’ed over hot coals. And it was cheap – real cheap – all you could eat for 10,000 kip! Bargain! Although I had eaten, and was pleasantly full, the smells made my mouth water! But being a cautious vegetarian, I was dubious to the meat-freeness of the dishes I saw. One of my favourite moments was watching one of the stall holders make a simple papaya salad. I was astounded by the number of ingredients she used (and disappointed I didn’t write them down). That sweet/sour/salt/spice balance was truly a work of art. I must research recipes and experiment with concoctions of my own.
Walking back to our guesthouse, we had to pass the bar with no name, again. Seriously, it dragged us into it vortex, tractor beam like. What hope was there to resist? The German men had left, presumably after being accosted by those tricky girls and their hard sell techniques again. We once again sat at the same table, with more cold beer and plate of nuts. Lined along the entire length of the street were hundreds of motorbikes, parked at a 45° angle to the pavement. As we watched, an elderly, raggedly clad, monk, made his way up and down the street. He wore the distinctive saffron tunic that monks all wear, but without an outer robe. Bald headed, he had a grey beard growing in. As he passed each motorbike parked on the road, he carefully flipped the pillion passengers’ foot pedals down, both sides, on every bike, mumbling to himself as he did. I like to think he was quietly blessing each bike and its drivers and passengers as he thoughtfully adjusted the foot pedals. But it was clear that he was completely oblivious to anything, or anyone else, and appeared a little bit insane. Between each bike, he gazed skyward at the black sky, telling whoever or whatever was up there something... which looked quite important by his mannerisms.
After another beer and plate of yummy peanuts, we left, just as our old monk friend was working his way along the other side of the street. It was about 10 o’clock and the night was balmy with many people still eating dinner, having drinks, browsing the shops, or arranging tours from one of the many agencies that lined the main road. J and I made our way down a side street to the river-side road that lead us back to our guesthouse. A chorus of crickets and other bugs sang out from the black, riverbank. Tuk-tuks buzzed us hoping to pick up a fare, but we were happy and comfortable in the cooler night air, simply enjoying the sights, sounds and smells of this charming town – Luang Prabang – k.

1 comment:

  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.