Jewel of Indochina
Trip Start Jun 09, 2005
105Trip End Jun 08, 2006
It takes two full days of travelling on hot and sweaty public minibuses to arrive in the ancient mountain kingdom of Louang Phabang. This small city of around 30,000 people was designated a world hertiage site in 1995 and, sitting beside the Mekong River, it is bursting with buddhist monasteries, French-Indochinese architecture, and swaying coconut trees.
Our minibus is packed full of 30 locals, we only have one major delay which is caused by a mud landslide blocking the road and we arrive in Louang Phabang an acceptable one hour later than expected
First we see a chatty Frenchman, who works for the United Nations in Laos, losing his cool and physically kicking the living daylights out of our taxi driver who, part way through our tuk tuk ride, stops and demands some extra money to take us to our guesthouse. The beating works very effectively, and although I do not condone physical violence, John finds the event inspiring and wishes that he had the physical build which would allow him to kick the ass of taxi drivers ripping off tourists. The man introduces himself as Max, and adds in hushed tones that perhaps we should call him Mad Max.
The second event occurs about 5 minutes later. Our driver drops us off by the Mekong River and we are now searching for a suitably clean but cheap room. Mad Max tells us that he knows some very good places, but we decide that perhaps we should try to avoid him after his unforgettable introduction. Along a flowery alleyway we find a nice room, but then we hear a Liverpudlian shouting at the hotel owner: "How could you not have seen anything? I was just gone for 2 minutes!" It transpires that the guy had left his bag outside the hotel as he had run up to his room to fetch his Lonely Planet book. The bag and its contents have disappeared. Despite several locals sitting around the area, eveyone mutters that they were sleeping and saw nothing.
Louang Phabang, as the Ancient Capital, is said to be the jewel of the country. Although we had heard from others well travelled of Laos, that Louang Phabang has changed a lot over the past years, we did not expect the tourists to be receiving such a raw deal
Fortunately our first impressions do not last too long, and we end up staying for 5 days in this charming town. The old city is concentrated on a thin tongue of land approximately 1km in length and 0.25km wide with the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers joining at its tip. We wander along the streets which contain a mixture of old derelict colonial houses and new modern houses which remind us of France. Opposite the Royal Palace museum, Phou Si - the Sacred Hill - is the geographical and spiritual centre of the city and at sunset we climb up the short steep hill to the golden stupa. There is a fantastic view of the city and surrounds. Below us we see the shiny sunlight glistening on the Mekong river where an ethereal mist rises from nowhere. Monks dressed in their orange robes glide through the tree lined streets towards their temples for evening meditation. Bicycles and the odd car lazily meander their way through the small dusty streets. Light reflects from golden stupas in the distance.
Over the next days, we decide that we like Louang Phabang. We move to a friendly bungalow called Malay (40,000 Kip or GBP 2.00 per night) and enjoy the peaceful ambience of this city
The Royal Palace, used by the monachy until 1974 when the Lao People's Democratic Rebuplic was formed, is now a museum. The high ceilings, dark wooden floors, and chiffon covered windows provide a cool interior but the best room by far is the King's throne room. Here every part of the deep red walls are decorated with small colourful mosaic tiles which portray stories of the mighty Laos kingdom. We read in our guide book that the king and family died under house arrest, and an exorcism was recently conducted in the former palace to placate their spirits and improve the flagging Lao economy.
There are many Wats (Monasteries) dotted about which contain ornate red and golden temples and long boats for the river. The most spectacular monastery is Wat Xiang Thong (Golden City Monastery) and although this is one of the only monasteries in town which has an entrance fee (10,000 Kip or GBP 0.50), it is well worth visiting. The main temple was built in 1560 and, unlike many of the other temples in Louang Phabang, was not damaged during any of the country's many invasions
Unlike the other places that we visit in Laos, Louang Phabang seems to be undergoing a spate of development which we hope will be better for both the country and economy. The main tourist street, Xiang Thong, is already packed with restuarants, tourist boards advertising organised trips to the nearby waterfalls or caves, textile crafts (which although nice seem to be the same in every shop), massage parlours, and of course, western tourists. It even seems a little difficult to meet new people (although we do keep on bumping into old friends who we met in the Northern areas) and this reminds us a little of our experience in Bangkok. Fortunately, the Laos people take a more dignified approach to tourism. Tourists may be charged a little more than locals but we are rarely flagged down by touts and largely walk around ignored.
We see billboards outside derelict houses which state that French aid agencies are sponsoring period renovation.
We bump into Rich and Rena, fellow trekkers from Muang Sing, and have a pleasant evening together. We attend the Royal Palace for some Laos music and dancing, wander through the night market seeing hundreds of colourful woven textiles, and eat dinner at the Indochine Spirit (recommended by Jan, our tour guide from Muang Sing, who first worked here when he left his monastic life in Loung Phabang). John discovers that he shares the same passion for ice cream as Rich (although Rich, a skinny 62 year old has been known to demolish 2 litres of ice cream in a session) and we end the evening with their favourite ice cream venue. The banana splits and home made coconut ice cream are triumphs of culinary brilliance, in a country largely devoid of noteworthy puddings.