Published on May 23rd, 20134
Last of Laos: Moseying in Luang Prabang
Well 1,500 images will do that, I guess.
Still, today I’m here to wrap things up already, with so many images left to share that I’ve necessarily whittled them into composite duos and trios.
I honestly marvel at the many diverse memories I have of such a short (just two weeks) trip to but one single region of Laos. Just two locales – Sayaboury for the 3 day Elephant Festival and the remaining 9 days simply wandering around the town of Luang Prabang.
Indeed, more and more I’m favoring slow, and ever slower travel. Maybe it’s ‘cuz I’ve been here in Asia for nearly two years now and feel I don’t have to rush around to see it all. Likewise also because I simply don’t have much interest in the usual “gotta-sees” of a given locale, and instead favor simply poking around at a leisurely pace, wandering among the narrow back-lanes of a new place, discovering little nuances of the local neighborhoods, and stumbling upon serendipity moments with the locals.
Thus for starters, to illustrate what I DIDN’T do in Luang Prabang, I present you with:
Sorry but, this sort of thing (the smorgasbord of tourist thrills) just isn’t my cup of tea any more. Alas, the hill tribe treks are sure to be contrived, the tourist elephant camps dubiously eco-friendly, and ziplining from tree to tree? Meh. Just not this dodderin’ lass’ sippy-cup of jungle juice.
That is not to say those waterfalls aren’t truly glorious, and a sunset river cruise with a 5 course Laos dinner and a glass of vino no doubt most delightful. It’s just that it seems they’re all so regimented and prescribed (like lemmings scurrying to a cliff: you WILL gawk at THIS waterfall, and squeal with delight on THAT zipline). Nothing wrong with such activities, it’s just that anymore I much prefer simply ambling about and discovering what I happen to discover along my merry way.
So I had a total of about 9 full days in Luang Prabang – 4 of them prior to the Elephant Festival in Sayaboury, and another 5 upon my return from the festival. At first I thought perhaps even I’d miscalculated this “slow travel” thing – that I’d run out of things to do and wish I’d scheduled a night or two in Vientiane, Laos’ capital city. I even looked into heading to the famed “Plain of Jars” – an 8 hour journey from LP and I wasn’t at all sure stepping off the bus and gawking at a field of toppled jars would be worth it.
Now Vientiane and those jars might well be worthy of a look-see (and I expect I’ll explore both one day on another visit to Laos), but run out of things to do in Luang Prabang? Nope. Not gonna happen. Not by a long shot.
So upon arriving in LP and nailing down a hotel for the Elephant Festival in Sayaboury (no easy task!), I simply started walking. And walking. And walking. Indeed, Luang Prabang is nothing if not a very walkable kind of place. You can walk to most every corner of the central town – it’s only about 4km long and 1km wide. And walking in 3 of 4 directions will put you eventually on the edge of a mocha-colored river.
Indeed, on my first day out I headed to see what the Ock Pop Tok Craft Center was all about. I wasn’t sure how far it was and I could have hopped on a tuk-tuk of course, but I instead opted to just let my feet follow my nose.
And I’m so glad I did. For along the way to the craft center, I stumbled across the REAL local LP market (as opposed to the “Night Market” crammed with tourists each night) w/ nary a single other foreigner in sight. There I found all manner of exotic local produce as well as a few vinyl-tented stands grilling what appeared to be uh, some flavor of rodent! And for a couple of kip I even tried my luck at the market “lottery”. Nope. When I scratched my wee lottery ticket alas, I didn’t win a fortune in kip. But it was great fun, and the locals seemed happy to show me how to play.
Happily, with 9 days tucked into the same hotel (albeit broken up by the 3 day Elephant Festival), I established a (rare on the travel trail) routine. Daily I would rise at a reasonably civil hour and head to my favorite coffee shop for my one Western extravagance: latte with a big ol’ bowl brimming with yogurt, fresh fruit and museli. Then off I’d go not knowing where I’d end up, just ambling around town to marvel at the (no less than 30!) gilded Buddhist temples scattered about, poke around dusty old basket shops, sip a fruit smoothie and lunch by the river. One day I even unearthed a shop selling bonafide Tevas, and bought myself a new pair (my old blue ones had seen plenty of miles and three continents!)
Then there was the morning of my Ock Pop Tok natural dye workshop, and another day I traipsed after a geocache hidden at an obscure monastery on the outskirts of Luang Prabang. There the monks were eager to practice their English and I learned a bit about the life of young monks in Laos.
At noon each day, it was time for a siesta of course so I headed back to my sweetly air-conditioned room at my guesthouse. Later each day I’d again explore, reliably ending up gazing at a Mekong sunset along the river with a frosty Beerlao. Twice I had dinner at the Tarmarind restaurant (rated highly and justly so, on TripAdvisor as well as Lonely Planet) set along the Nam Khan River. They serve a remarkable variety of traditional and “Mod Lao” cuisine at very reasonable prices. There I savored a “Mekhong Sunset” cocktail (made with “anh sum” an edible purple flower, the ubiquitous “lao lao” rice whiskey, lime and honey) along with deep fried frog legs – yum! Then there was my incredible dinner at the outstanding Blue Lagoon – an evening of gourmet deeyummilishessness that I drool over still.
One afternoon, I again eluded the packaged tours and simply negotiated a tuk-tuk to take me to the paper-making and weaving village outside of town – for a fraction of the price of a tour. I watched as a Laotian lass daintily dropped rose and marigold petals on a screen of soppy handmade paper, and bought a flower-festooned folding paper lantern for my landlady to hang in the garden at L’Auberge Ami.
But the perpetual draw after dark was ever the Night Market, when a mile-long stretch of the main street was closed to traffic and hundreds of red canopied kiosks rose up and transformed the night into a dazzling wonderland of colorful Laotian crafts and “SAME-SAME” T-shirts. Yes, a tourist haven to be sure, but the Laotian vedors were all so amiable and laid-back – ever willing to barter or just laugh – it was truly a pleasure to wander the stalls, shoulder-to shoulder with other tourists.
And speaking of “tourists”, I must say – curiously, I was astounded to find that the vast majority of folks that plied Luang Prabang’s tourist lanes day and nightly were – not your common variety of “backpackerustica baggyicus drawstringi pantsatum” but rather, a rare sub-species known as “backpacker ambercrombius khakiactyla dodderinestum“. Seriously. The youngsters were clearly in the minority in LP, and we intrepids “of a certain age” sprouted in abundance.
Food of course was the big draw at all times of the day or night. By day it was fruit (and vegetable) smoothies in all manner of concoctions. My favorite was a mix of mango and dragon fruit (the latter pictured in the lower right corner of the pic directly to your right).
I also had to have my daily dose of “Kaipen” – a traditional Laotian snack made of freshwater seaweed, peppered with sesame seeds and sundried into paper-thin sheets. The perfect accompaniment to a glass of dark lager Beerlao (made from jasmine rice, hops and yeast imported from Germany).
Ah but… it was the peanut butter and mango crepes that surely had me from “hello”. Let me repeat that: We’re talkin’ PEANUT.BUTTER.AND.MANGO.CREPES here people! A combo of flavors that would please most anyone with a mouth. But to one (like say… me) who’s been without even a spoonful of the “P-B”word for nearly two years now – you can only imagine just how ORGASMIC these honeys tasted to my pb-deprived lips.
And finally, on my last full day in Luang Prabang, I opted to drag myself out of bed before dawn to participate in the daily tradition of giving alms to the monks…
Though a bit bleary-eyed from the early rise to greet the monks, I nonetheless managed to top off my final day in Laos by trudging up no less than 328 steps to Wat Chom Si atop Mount Phousie. Well worth the trudge, and I even let loose a pair of birdies (the Laotians believe setting a bird free brings good luck – at 20,000 kip for a pair of birds I’d say a win-win for all, as the birds are gently caught and only briefly caged in bamboo before being swiftly released back into the wild again at the summit by gullible tourists like me.
And th-th-that’s it folks! The final chapter in the saga of my visit to neighboring Laos. With any luck, I shall return next year for another go at the Elephant Festival, and perhaps explore further astray in other corners of Laos.