Following footsteps of monks

Trip Start Dec 25, 2011
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Trip End May 10, 2013


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Flag of Lao Peoples Dem Rep  , Louangphabang,
Saturday, February 16, 2013

The bus was due to leave Vientiane at 8pm. At 7.55pm we were off - that's unusual! I have never been at a bus station that has been as quiet. No shops, no street seller market stalls, I was quite surprised. But also rather disappointed as I was totally unprepared and without any bus snacks.

The roads were all small and winding - not conducive to any sleep. We stopped around 10pm at a dried fish market. Every single local came back on the bus with carrier bags loaded up! Then again, a stop at 1am for some 'dinner' (?). The rice noodle soup woman was doing a roaring trade.

We arrived at Luang Prabang at 7am. The bus station being 5km away from town, so the tuk tuk drivers were trying to have us on charging a ridiculous amount. I laughed them all away with their 70k price (£6) but then stood there wondering how I would actually get to town. However, they weren't going to leave me there and came to me with a much more reasonable offer of 20k. The locals also in the shared tuk tuk paid the same. I find all this trying-to-rip-the-white-person-off-thing so frustrating (especially after no sleep for 11 hours on a cramped bus with a Laotian woman half sat on me).

I have a hotel room booked for tonight, so went to drop my stuff off. Shame I couldn't have a quick sleep now, the room wasn't ready. After tonight they are full for the next few nights, so I will need to find somewhere else to stay.

I have high expectations of Luang Prabang, everyone has told me how beautiful it is. With 33 temples, many monks and set in a luscious green backdrop, it sounds perfect! The town is wedged between the confluence of two rivers, so is actually fairly small and easily navigable. The small streets are full of little (never more than 2 stories) French style houses and covered in pretty flowers.

Sort of forgetting it was still only 8am, I went off for a walk! Just outside of my hotel was a large morning market. The women selling every kind of food - filled baguettes, noodle soup, bbq meat, fruits and vegetables, smoothies, blocks of honey comb, seaweed.....you could get everything!

I've lost count of the number of temples I've visited recently! (Cambodia is full of them, the famous plains of Bagan in Burma and all over Thailand). Good thing I like them as there are even more to visit here!

Wat Xieng Thong is right at the northern tip of the town. It's supposed to be the most ornate temple in the area. And ornate it was! Around a large courtyard, there were several individual buildings. One contained a 12m high golden funeral chariot that was used for members of the royal family. The main temple structure was covered in gold paintings of flowers and Buddhas. At the back, there was a huge mosaic from floor to roof of the tree of life and all around the walls small mosaic pictures had been placed.

My favourite structure was one of the much smaller temples within the complex, totally covered in a mosaic story. Complete with people, elephants and farming equipment! It was really clever and totally different from all the other temples I've visited.

Phu Si is the 100m high hill that looks down upon the rest of the town. It's a fairly quick climb up the 300 odd steps to the top. The views from the top were nice, you could see the whole town, plus out to the surrounding mountains. The glistening golden tops of temples were dotted around. Right on the top of the hill is a small temple, then as I made my way back down the other side of the hill I bumped into several other small temples. One of them claiming to contain a Buddha footprint! (The Buddha must have been all over the world, leaving a hair in burma, a tooth in thailand and a footprint here!).

On the way back down, I got totally lost and ended up wandering through a maze of small village back streets. After a while, I found a road - and eventually found my way back to the main street!

After zero sleep last night on the bus, I am exhausted. So made full use of my huge comfy double bed for the afternoon!! Im treating myself, no dorm room tonight!

Bordering the northern edge of the city is the Mekong river, restaurants, cafes and resting spots line the river banks and offer a lovely view of the sunset. Today the sun glowed red as it set behind the mountains in the distance, while fishermen cast their nets in the shallows. It was very pretty.

The night market is held along the main road running through the town. From around 5pm the road is closed off for all vehicles and the street vendors come out in their hundreds! You can buy everything from local handicrafts, souvenir tshirts, jewellery and food. The all-day baguette and smoothie stalls are still out in force, but joining them are several vegetarian food buffets. For just 10k kip (80p) you receive a plate that you can fill with a variety of vegetarian goodies - noodles, vegetables, spring rolls, fried bananas, prawn crackers...! Amazing. Very cheap and so tasty!

And despite asking round many guesthouses, I still have nowhere to stay tomorrow. They all give the same response 'check back tomorrow'. How annoying.


Sunday 17 February 2013


Well today is tomorrow and I had no problem finding a room for the night. So after enjoying a lazy morning, I moved a few meters down the road to my new room.

Off to see another temple. Wat Wisunalat is a little bit away from the main touristy area. Built in 1513, is the oldest temple around Luang Prabang that is still in use today. Infront of the temple was That Patum - a large stone structure also called Lotus Stupa. I liked it, was a bit different!

For the afternoon I went out to Kouang Si Waterfall. It's about an hours drive out of Luang Prabang, through some small villages, pretty rice fields and banana plantations.

There are a couple of options for walking to the falls. I tried the jungle path first - through a narrow passage cut into the trees, climbing up using the roots and climbing over fallen trees. However, when I had nearly reached the top, it became really wet, slippy and impassable in my flip flops, that was a shame. So I turned round and started again - on the large path with concrete steps and wooden bridges!

The waterfall went on forever, I made my way up to the top passing many cobalt blue pools with water running over small limestone ledges. It was really pretty. Right at the top were the main falls - they were huge! Water dropping down several levels of rocky boulders - really cool.

I went for a swim, but it was freezing!!!!

By the entrance to the falls are some large enclosures containing sun bears. These black coloured bears have been rescued from poachers and are now looked after here. Quite cute looking.

In the evening, I headed back to the night market for my fill of 80p buffet vegetables!



Monday 18 February 2013

Traditionally monks rise early in the morning and set out to receive alms (their food for the day) donated to them by lay people. In Buddhism, the act of giving alms by a lay person is as a sign of respect towards the monk. It is also given to 'make merit' - doing something good to counteract any sins. In Laos this act is known as Tak Bat.

When I was in Burma, I was lucky enough to see a festival at Inle lake - thousands of monks were there and they went round in procession around a huge temple collecting alms (of dried rice) from the women. We were the only tourists there at that time (about 5 of us) and although tried to keep ourselves out of the way, they were as interested in us as we in them!

Luang Prabang is famous for its morning Tak Bat. More recently, there have been many problems due to the numbers of tourists wanting to watch. I have seen many signs posted up around the town outlining rules for how one should behave during this religious act.

These rules including the following:
- stand on the other side of the road to observe
- do not use flash photography
- observe in silence
- cover up (no bare legs or shoulders)
- only participate if it means something to you (ie. you are buddhist)

I was interested to go and have a look. So I rose at 6am with the gongs from the nearby monastery and went down towards the biggest temple where the majority of the monks make their morning rounds. Before I had even got there, already many locals had tried to sell me 'food for the monks'. These ladies will give you bananas and wrapped biscuits (not suitable monk food for a start - they normally accept cooked sticky rice from locals), give you a mat to sit on and a slot on the pavement.

I was shocked when I reached the main strip. The whole street was already set out in neat groups for tourist tour groups to sit in line (who then arrived in their hundreds by minibuses). I saw maybe 10 local people in line - and this actually means something to them. But they are surrounding by people who think its the 'thing to do' while they are in Laos.

When the monks started coming out (around 6.45am) I'm surprised they could move past the throng of flash-going paparazzi standing in their way, totally surrounding and running all around them. (So much for no flash and being on the other side of the street). I was in utter disbelief at these people. No wonder the monks don't want to do it anymore.

The (some half dressed) tourists gave their 'alms' of bananas and biscuits, obviously feeling very pleased with themselves that they were participating in such a lovely show. But the monks don't want this - there are bins laid out at regular intervals and they were throwing any rice away. The other food, they were giving to the begging boys running after them with bags (who then, I'm sure go and sell the biscuits back to the local selling women, who then sell them back to tourists tomorrow - one big circle!).

I kept myself respectfully away from the crowds and stood down a side street to begin with, watching a distance behind the alms givers. I then moved across to the other side of the road (where really you should be stood) and where only a handful of people were actually stood. From here, we were totally unable to even see the monks past all the crowd. All the people stood further away were younger backpackers. All the paparazzi crowds were middle aged to older (you think they would know better), or Chinese.

This 'show' is seemingly now just for tourists to feel like they are participating in something wonderful. It has lost all of its original meaning and the monks are just part of a circus. It was embarrassing. I left very quickly after only a couple of minutes.

After a short rest to relieve my annoyance, at 8am I headed off down to the boat jetty. Another day, another temple. But this one being a bit different - built into the side of a mountain in a small cave. I'm catching a long (slow!) boat 25km up river to get there.

The scenery was really pretty - totally undeveloped the whole way. Small villages dotted along the river banks and small vegetable plots marked out in long stretches. Other long boats moving up and down the river transporting people and cut down trees (!) along. As we went further upstream, the mountains came into view and some limestone karsts rising up out of the water.

After about an hour, we stopped off at a village. This village is famous for its production of LaoLao - a local cheap whiskey. They were making it with a small coal fire burning under a metal barrel, with a hose coming off the side! A very simple distillation set up! They offered us samples of a purple liquid, my lips went numb after trying it....wasn't such a fan! Around the village there were several women weaving and cockerels running around! There was a really pretty gold and red temple, full of animal models!

A bit further up river, we reached the caves - called Pak Ou. The lower cave is full of Buddhas! I'm quite a fan of Buddha statues and here, there were hundreds! Some were white, some black, most were golden coloured. And ranged in size from an inch to a meter tall. The view from the cave, across the river towards the limestone karsts was really pretty.

A bit further up the mountain, after climbing several hundred stairs, is another cave. This one is pretty dark and doesn't contain so many Buddhas but was nice.

The ride back down river was slow. First we stopped to tow a broken boat, then later on we broke down ourselves! But after 90 minutes we were back at nearly 2pm!

I booked my bus back to Vientiane for tomorrow (cant wait....another night bus...) and spent the rest of the afternoon doing nothing!



Tuesday 19 February 2013

Today I did absolutely nothing. But that was kind of the idea, I've been so busy the last couple of weeks - so I've used my time in Luang Prabang to slow down a bit and relax!

I did venture out and have a massage. I went to one of the cheaper places along the river. That was probably a mistake. It was pretty awful. Compared to what was actually really enjoyable in Thailand (for basically the same price) this was very rushed and hurt quite a lot. Apparently Lao massage focuses more on pressure points so maybe that was the point. Anyway, I preferred the Thai one I had in Chiang Mai.

And after not feeling very relaxed, I popped into a few more temples that I spotted on my walk. All much the same as the previous ones! Once you have seen one, you have seen them all!

So after enjoying my lazing around, internet planning day, I headed off to the bus station ready for another night bus back to Vientiane.

We left at 7.30pm, on time but seemed to make even more stops than last time. Literally every hour.

And now I know why the 1am noodle soup stop is so popular. It's free! There is a tear-off coupon attached to the bus ticket - no one told me that before! And when the bus ticket is entirely written in Lao script, I didn't have a chance of even working it out!! So this time, despite really not being hungry at 1am, I tried some. It was thin rice noodles with fresh tomato, spring onion, coriander and dried onions in a water broth. It was ok. Not my favourite food, but it seems to be awfully popular around here.
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