Wat wat Wat?
Trip Start Nov 06, 2009
354Trip End May 28, 2011
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Where I stayed
Khoun Savan Guesthouse
Sean Sa Ngoc Guesthouse
We weren't in the greatest mood when we got on the bus anyway, having been kept awake most of the night by the noise of the bars and rat-arsed revellers returning from them. My sleeplessness was also compounded by the fact that whilst getting ready for bed I'd met the biggest cockroach I've ever seen on top of the toilet cistern. Had nightmares about it, then when I woke up needing to pee in the middle of the night was worried about the coackroach being there. When I couldn't hold it in any longer I bit the bullet and went to the bathroom. No coackroach, phew. But this time a spider the size of my fist on the toilet bowl. Arrgh!
Anyway, we managed to catch up on some of the sleep we'd missed out on on the bus, as well as some reading. Finished Hubert Selby Jr's Last Exit to Brooklyn (probably the sickest book I've ever read) and now started A Good Scent from A Strange Mountain by Robert Olen Butler - a collection of short stories set in Vietnam and the US about the legacy of the Vietnam War.
Arriving in Luang Prabang put us in a much better mood...
Once the royal capital of Laos, the ancient city of Luang Prabang sits at the junction of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers, surrounded by mountains, and is truly lovely. It's one of the best-preserved old cities in South East Asia, and unsurprisingly a Unesco World Heritage site. It's calm, romantic and quiet (buses and trucks are banned, only tuc tucs allowed), with a traditional midnight curfew which is dutifully respected - a far cry from the all-night partying of Vang Vieng.
Beautifully preserved colonial era buildings sit next to some of the most exquisite Buddhist temples we've seen. Every where you go Buddhist monks and young novices (some look as young as 10 or 12 years old) in their bright orange robes wander about the streets and in and around the plentiful (32) wats
We thought we were templed-out but some of the temples here really are quite special. We've spent the past few days swatting up on our Wats, including:
Wat Xieng Thong: the 'Temple of the Golden City', Luang Prabang's most significant and ornate temple. Built in 1560 it sits overlooking the Mekong. the various temples in the complex are decorated with intricate and colorful mirrored mosaics inside and out, including a really impressive Tree of Life one. One of the buildings was a royal funeral chapel and inside still has a big 12 metre high golden funeral chariot and a bunch of funeral urns belonging to members of the royal family.
Wat Mai: the biggest temple in Luang Prabang, built in the 18th century in archetypal Luang Prabang style - wooden with a 5 tiered roof that swoops down to the ground, with dragon heads adorning the ends of each tier, and ornately carved and stencilled doors and pillars (which back in the day were used to attach the royal elephants)
Wat Xieng Muan: this one was given some money by Unesco and New Zealand in order to restore the old monks quarters into a classroom for novice monks to learn how to maintain and preserve the city's temples, e.g. painting, carving, Buddha-casting, stencelling, etc, as these skills pretty much died out after the revolution in 1975 and need reviving.
Wat Visoun: The oldest working temple in Luang Prabang (built in 1513), although it had to be rebuilt at the end of the 18th century as some Chinese bandits burnt it down. Next to it is a massive stupa called That Makmo, meaning 'watermelon', which is kind of what it looks like.
Mount Phousi: the 100m high holy mountain in the centre of the city which is home to yet more temples, lots of golden buddhas, a 20m high golden stupa (That Chomsi), and a little cave with a giant Buddha footprint in it. The Buddha must have been a pretty big guy as the imprint is about 3 feet long.
We also passed by Wat Souvannakhiri (which had a nice little monk photo exhibition going on), Wat Thammo-Thagnaram, Wat A Ham, Wat Manorom, Wat Aphay, Wat Siphout Thabath, Wat Sirimoungkhoun Sayaram and, and several other wats too, although we've now seen so many wats we've lost track of what wat is what.
As well as all the wats we've visited:
The nightmarket: famous for both its really beautiful handicrafts (really tempted to buy a load of stuff here to ship back and deck our flat out with but must resist!) and street food (more delicious fresh fruit shakes, spring rolls, Laos style baguettes, lots of different rice, noodle, veggie dishes, and all sorts of lemon-grassed infused meats and fish grilled on sticks, mmmm)
The National Museum: although the musuem itself was closed we were able to walk around the grounds which are very pretty - palm and magnolia tree-lined paths, lots of colourful bouganvillia, mimosas and hibiscus. The museum building itself used to the royal palace, Ho Kham, built under the French in 1904 for the king and his family. The French influence is obvious, although it has very distinctive Asian features too; golden spires, carvings and dragons, and looks pretty cool sitting right by the Mekong (because that way when the king had official visitors arriving by river they could disembarck directly below the palace). We were also able to watch some restoration work going on in the museum workshop as a Japanese university is working with the Laos government to restore Buddhist statues. Also, although we couldn't see it, the museum is home to the Pra Bang Buddha, the golden Buddha which symbolises the calming of all quarrels, and is particularly special to Luang Prabang because it's the Buddha the city is named after.
The local library: built with help from the Japanese, and which also has a handy little bookswap we'll take some of our books to when we pass back through in a couple of days.
The Traditional Arts & Ethnology Centre: a really interesting little museum about the different ethnic groups that exist in Laos today, including the Akha, Yao, Hmong, Tai Dam, Khmu, Ta Lue and Lanten people. A lot of the clothes and artefacts on display were very similar to those we saw in Sapa, particularly amongst the Black Hmong hilltribe people. The museum explained how and where the different groups arrived and settled, their ancient traditions, arts and crafts (e.g. weaving, batik, bamboo paper-making) and religious beliefs (e.g. Taoism, shamanism) and how they've adapted and changed and continue to exist in Laos today.
This morning we got up early to witness the daily 'Tak Bat' alms giving ceremony. Every morning from around 5.30 people line the streets to pay their respects and offer food to the barefoot monks who form a procession through the city. Although there were lots of street vendors peddling rice and bananas for tourists to feed the monks with, we'd read that Falang (foreigners) shouldn't really take part in the food offering ritual unless you've prepared the gifts yourself or are with a local. Also, rather obviously, that you should be considerate and discreet when taking photos as the flash can be disturbing for the monks. So we found a spot at a respectful distance from which to watch and turned the camera to no flash mode. We were then rather besumed to see a busload of tourists pull up and empty onto the pavement loaded with bananas and baskets of sticky rice (which they scooped out and handed to the monks with their fingers) and massive camera lenses which they flashed inches away from the monks faces as they passed...
Although we love Luang Prabang, we've spent a little longer here now than we'd intended to as I was struck down with a textbook case of travellers diarrhoea and had to spend a couple of days attached to the loo. So unfortunately we've had to sack off our planned trip further north to Muang Ngoi, but am on the mend now and looking forward to going elephant trekking tomorrow.