Saturday, 22 September 2012

Luang Prabang

Arriving at the pier in Luang Prabang you are surrounded by touts trying to tell you all about their hotels and guesthouses. We must have ended up with about seven pamphlets by the time we finally got out onto the road. We pretty much ignored the pamphlets we were given and headed out to find a guesthouse. We walked past a fair few asking how much before we finally settled on a quaint little guesthouse tucked nicely away down a side street. The guesthouse catered to Korean travellers, some coincidence, they had a soju stocked fridge, a menu with kimchi soup on it and Korean writing scattered around on signs.

One pamphlet did come in handy and it was advertising a restaurant called the Lao Lao garden. We had wanted to try Lao barbeque since hearing about it in the border town of Huay Xai so we got pretty excited. My belly was finally feeling back to some level of normality so we set out into town to find the restaurant. Luang Prabang is a beautiful little town with lots of hangovers from the French occupation. It’s a green city lined with golden steeples, beautiful French architecture sits next to small Asian inspired buildings, and monks in orange robes walk through the streets day and night, (that is until midnight when curfew kicks in). Laos has a government curfew that states that every person must be in their legally registered residence by midnight, or else. This law seems pretty loose as far as foreigners are concerned and most police won’t bother you, however, if you are Lao then rest assured you had better be home by midnight, so all the bars and restaurants start shutting up at around 11 / 11:30pm.

Anyway, onto the Lao Lao garden. It’s a great restaurant with a great menu, and we ordered our Lao barbeque. It’s very much like Korean barbeque but with a slight twist. You start by pouring some seasoned water around the edge of the pan and into that you throw a bunch of cabbage, glass noodles, lettuce, tomato, some egg and a few other salad type items, then in the raised middle you cook your meat, we had chicken, pork and buffalo. It was delicious. What was even more interesting about the Lao Lao garden was that the menu informed you about Lao culture, it had a kind of FAQ page at the back, and I learnt a lot by reading this, let me share what I learnt…

Laos is one of the most remote and one of the poorest countries in the world, when you barter or argue over a few thousand kip with a Lao person then you are arguing over a few pence or a few pounds with somebody whom if their family gets sick, they die, because they can’t afford medical care. The average Lao person stays in a bamboo hut with about ten other people with no water and no electricity (you actually see a lot of Lao washing themselves under waterfalls or in the Mekong river, and washing their clothes the same way). They grow their own food and will rarely, if ever, eat meat. In fact the ONLY things made in Laos are basic farm crops, textiles, handicrafts, wood products, cement, electricity, cigarettes, beer and soft drinks. That’s it. Everything else must be imported. Laos is so remote that it wasn’t accessible by road until nearly the 21st century (probably the 80’s / early 90s). Most area businesses operate at laughably small profits in order to stay competitive; they have to pay the same cost from imported products as they do in Thailand, plus the increased cost due to reselling fees and taxation. So anything modern costs more than 2 to 10 times more than in a developed country.

Interesting, huh? So, anyway, we ate our food and spent a while in the Lao Lao bar playing pool with the bartender, who was surprisingly amazing at pool and thrashed us.

On our first full day in Luang Prabang we booked a mini-van for 50,000kip (that’s a pretty good deal) to take us to the Kuang Si waterfalls. These waterfalls are unimaginably beautiful, it was like stepping into a fairytale, it reminded me of Rivendell in J.R.R Tolkiens ‘Lord of the Rings’. There were several pools that branched out from beneath the tallest waterfall I had ever seen. It was surrounded by gorgeous greenery and wildlife and the mood was so serene that I felt like I could have swam in those pools forever.

On our bus trip to the waterfall we met Sebina (a travel journalist from Germany), Tiana (a student wildlife conservationist from Nevada) and her boyfriend Jeff (also from Nevada) who was visiting friends and family in Thailand. We would spend the next few days with these guys and we were really lucky to have bumped into them. On the way back from the waterfall we stopped off at the Hmong village which I talked about in my previous blog post but that I’m going to touch on again here. See, we’ve been to a few more of these places now and we’ve seen some real Laos hill tribe villages along the road on our journey to Vang Vieng (where we currently reside).

Most of the community development projects like the Hmong village we were stopped at are a front to sell items to tourists. They usually get the kids to do it, they’ll run up to screaming ‘you buy, you buy’, Tiana said that it’s so bad in Cambodia that the kids will say things like ‘if you don’t buy, I will cry’, but most of the time the money won’t go to the kids and won’t even go to the village but will end up to the supplier of the many bracelets and trinkets that they have for sale. There was no doubt that it was a real Hmong village but it was depressing that their lives had been reduced to selling this stuff to the tourists who pass through, you question how much it really helps these people. There are also hundreds and hundreds of kids in the village and this must be down to the tradionalist way of thinking (I need as many kids as I can to look after me when I’m old) mixed with the complete lack of access to any contraceptives. We’ve seen a lot of this and it’s very sad. It’s not going to get any better any time soon if things stay the same here in regards to funding and sustaining these projects.

That night we went to dinner with Sebina, Tiana and Jeff and were joined by a Malaysian called Lee. Lee had been cycling from Malaysia, through Thailand and Laos for 48 days and his final destination was China. He had already cycled over 2500km and he was still rip-roaring on. He was 56 years old. He seemed pretty fed up with his bike but was very happy that he was free and doing what he had always dreamed of doing. He said every time that he is close to giving up he looks at his bike thinks of how much t cost, and decides to keep going. He was quite the character and he told us lots of stories about his travels and gave us a fair insight into Laos.

The next morning we got up and went for breakfast with Tiana and Jeff. Jeff proposed that this specific restaurant did the best breakfast in Laos, well that maybe but the conversation with the waitress went something like this:

Sean: I’ll have the banana shake?
Waitress: No.
Sean: No banana?
Waitress: No.
Sean: Ok, I’ll just have a ginger tea?
Waitress: No.
Sean: Just a lipton tea?
Waitress: Ok.
Sean: And to eat, I’ll have the fruit salad?
Waitress: No.
Sean: No fruit?
Waitress: No.
Sean: Wow! Er, Natalie what do you want, they have no fruit.
Natalie: I’ll have the banana and honey pancake?
Waitress: No.
Sean: There is no banana.
Natalie: Oh.
Sean: I’ll just have egg and bread.
Waitress: Ok.
Natalie: I’ll have the omelette.
Waitress: Ok.

Hmmm, best breakfast in Luang Prabang, huh? They had nothing and what they did have was hardly anything to write about in this blog.

After breakfast we met Sebina at the market, picked up some baguettes for lunch (another French colonialist hangover) and headed out to the Pak Ou caves. To get here you had to hire a boat at the pier so we spent some time haggling with the boat captains to get a decent price, we finally scored one and headed out. The boat was a rickety old thing that had an ant infestation but it was good enough for us, the views along the Mekong were just as stunning as they were during the slowboat trip and we had good conversation with Tiana, Jeff and Sebina to make the ride go quickly.

The first stop before the caves was a traditional village that specialises in making Lao whiskey. Not another one of these again, we thought, but we stepped out and strolled around for a while. They had lots of jars of whiskey filled with the craziest things, whiskey with scorpion, whiskey with snake, whiskey with centipede, whiskey with king cobra, whiskey with bears paws! BEARS PAWS! It was revolting so we got back into the boat and set on our way wondering if anyone actually buys any of that stuff.

We pulled up at the caves about half an hour later, the caves are full of old discarded Buddha images. You can’t touch them, and it’s considered a very holy place rather than the dumping ground for old Buddhist statues, that it actually is. The caves were very pretty though but didn’t go back very far, you could hear the bats from up above your head which at least made Natalie happy, along with the giant spiders we saw on the outskirts of the upper caves. The upper caves were a little more impressive than the lower but were still pretty small, but the views across the Mekong more than made up for that. We are planning to do some caving here in Vang Vieng so we should have our cave fix by the end of our time in Laos.

The journey back went much quicker as we were travelling with the current, we exchanged some money and sorted out our bus trip to Vang Vieng and did a little shopping in the night market. We actually spent more than we probably should have but some of the things on sale were just too beautiful to pass up, I actually managed to get all of my Laos gifts at this market.

That evening we met with Tiana and Jeff and had dinner and drinks and talked about many a thing. I had buffalo which was the toughest meat I’ve ever had and it left me with a massive toothache the following morning. Tiana and Jeff had never tried soju so we went back to our hostel and all shared a bottle of the stuff before curfew kicked in at midnight. It was great hanging out with them for a few days and it broke our trip up a little bit as prior to this we had been mostly doing things by ourselves. We wished them well as they were venturing back into Thailand the following day and we settled in for the night.

I woke up with a rip-roaring hangover and toothache, but we had to be early to catch our VIP bus to Vang Vieng. The VIP bit is a bit of a joke. I have never feared for my life more than I feared for it on that bus journey. I had read tales of Hmong rebels with guns on the highway who would hold up buses for money, we did see some but luckily they didn’t hold us hostage, phewey, that wasn’t the most treacherous thing about the journey however, it was the mental driving, unstable roads, winding blind bends and high mountain drop offs that made it so frightening. I clenched my eyes shut on a few occasions when I though we were done for, alas, we made it and we’re now here in Vang Vieng.

Vang Vieng is obviously a tale for another blog post and as usual I’ve ranted on for way to long, so I’ll bid you all farewell, the rain has just stopped so we’re going to head out to the caves and do some exploring. Thanks for reading!     

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