Up In Alms

Trip Start Jul 16, 2012
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Flag of Lao Peoples Dem Rep  ,
Saturday, April 20, 2013

Having experienced just how quiet Vientiane was as the capital of Laos I was fairly sure that Luang Prabang was going to be equally small and sleepy and I was not disappointed. Lying at the side of the Mekong River, Luang Prabang is just filled with temples, the streets are lined with small colonial style buildings and we just relaxed into the calm and peaceful vibe without hesitation.

We spent our first evening exploring and discovered the night market, this was a real treat after all the night markets in Thailand selling not much other than Havaiana flip flops and dayglow vests, this market sold everything from puppets and duvets to bracelets and paintings all laid out meticulously on the floor.  The market was covered with a selection of little marquees, however these are not there for the average western tourist as if you are taller than 5'6 you are going to spend you walk through the market banging your head every time you lose concentration and forget to walk like the hunchback of Notre Dame.  Within the night market we found the night food market, possibly the cheapest food in South East Asia and also the narrowest food street ever.  With plates of buffet food piled high, you simply paid 10,000Kip (about 85p) and you could fit as much food as you could balance on your plate, it was absolute chaos and whilst the food did look amazing with the Lonely Planet nagging at the back of my mind that medical care in Laos is terrible I just didn’t fancy taking my chances in the game of gastro-Russian roulette!

One thing that I was beginning to notice in Laos was that I seemed to be getting up earlier and earlier by the day, setting our alarm for 5:30a.m was the norm, thankfully life was going at such a slow pace it didn’t really matter and with the town closing at 11 an early night was pretty much unavoidable.

Our first tour in Luang Prabang was a boat tour to the Pac Ou caves, these can be reached by Tuk-Tuk but what better way to spend the morning than cruising down the river watching people fish, wash, pan for gold, play and just go about their days.  Our boat was quite luxurious compared to some of the boats we had been on in Thailand and rather than the usual wooden benches we had car seats to sit on.  The journey to the cave is about 2 hours so we broke up the journey with a visit to a local village where they brew Lao Lao, the local home brew rice whiskey which is rather potent to say the least.  As if this super strong scum is not bad enough they sell it with snakes and scorpians in the bottle.  It is definitely one of those things you buy on holiday, leave at the back of a cupboard for 5 years and pull out when you run out of everything else at a party.  I hope never to be at a party where a bottle of Lao Lao is pulled out.  After a quick stroll through the village fending off the offers of Lao Lao and woven scarfs we were back in the boat and en-route to the caves.

There are 2 caves at Pac Ou, Tham Ting the lower cave and the Tham Theung the upper cave.  We started at the lower cave and as you climbed the stairs you were greeted with a cave, a small alter and everywhere you looked there were statues of Buddha and many other Buddhist deities placed in every nook and cranny as high into the cave as you could see.  It was something of a wonder just how they were placed there, especially as the cave was full of bats shooting around overhead.  After a few photos and some time to take in the view we started the climb to the upper cave.  Nobody warned us that this was going to be a bit like ascending Everest in 40 degree sun.  Whilst there was a nice set of stairs the whole way up in the heat it was touch and go as to whether we were going to make it, there was talk of turning back, but we decided to push on and made it to the top, yay!  At the top this cave was fully sealed with a set of doors at the entrance, as soon as you walked in it was pitch black.  Thankfully we had remembered to bring our torches so we stumbled through taking some flash pictures to see what was hidden in the depths of the cave.  Some of the Buddha statues were huge, well done to the person that carried them up the stairs.  I would have been suggesting miniature Buddha statues if I had been designing the shrine up that hill!!

During our cave tour we got talking to a pair of Ozzies on holiday in Thailand, Cambodia and Laos,  the lovely Pip and Sam from Sidney were absolutely amazing company and we had a fair few laughs on the boat trip hope comparing travel stories so after a quick lunch we were due to go our separate ways on a waterfall tour so we hatched a plan to meet later that evening for some dinner and drinks.  We were more than a little envious when we saw Pip and Sam head off in their shiny new air-con mini bus and we were bundled into a clapped out excuse for a bus where the advertised air-con actually just meant it had no windows.  Despite the fact that our bus set off 30 minutes after Sam and Pips thanks to our Formula 1 driver we got there before them, my white knuckles shining brightly through my tan.

The first attraction at the waterfall was Tat Kuang Si Rescue Centre, I don’t really like these sort of attractions in Asia as usually the animals are drugged and badly treated, but this one was different.  The rescue centre is the home to 23 Asiatic Black Bears which have been confiscated from poachers by the Laos Government.  The bears had been held by poachers in 'Bile Farms’, where they are kept in coffin sized cages with catheters fed into their Gall Bladders so their bile can be milked off to be used in Asian medicine.  Thankfully this sanctuary provides them with a new and safe life where chilling in the hammock or playing in the pool is their biggest decision of the day.  These bears looked to be in amazing condition, but the pictures around the sanctuary showed the terrible conditions that they had endured before their rescue.  Save the Bears!!!

Onwards to the waterfall and it was teeming with tourists and locals alike, the locals definitely had the right idea they seemed to have their entire families with them with blankets, booze and picnics and they were set up for the day, the children playing in the waterfall, the adults eating, drinking and sleeping, now that’s what I call a day out.  We on the other hand had an hour and a half to see as much as we could, so we headed to the top of the waterfall, which thankfully was a nice easy walk meandering through the forest.  Eventually we decided to make our way down and feeling hot and sweaty I could not resist a dip in the waterfall.  As I was slipping and sliding over the rocks with small Laotian children splashing me as much as they could I made it into the crisp cool water, however just when I thought I was deep enough to fully submerge I discovered that there was a huge boulder right under my bum, that is going to be a nice purple bruise in the morning.  After being nicely chilled it was time to get out, dressed and back on the road, but not without one more stop to see the bears!

On our way back to Luang Prabang we had one more stop in a Hmong Village, a local tribe who make bracelets, blankets and other handicrafts.  The village was very quaint we were told that the Hmong people live in bamboo and wooden houses with only one door and no windows.  The route through the village was just lined with adorable children shouting at us and chasing us to buy their friendship bracelets, they seem to have perfected their chant of "5 for 5,000" and sang at us as we passed.  It was a bit like an Ethnic minority village version of the London Markets.  We couldn’t buy from one and not the others so despite their best efforts we left without a handful of friendship bracelets, but Tim got some good photos of the sales boys and girls giving their all.

We arrived back in Luang Prabang with plenty of time to get showered and relaxed before we headed out to meet Pip and Sam, so we slowely made our way through town and waited for them.

About ten minutes later we saw Sam and Pip striding down the middle of the road looking harassed and with Sam doing some odd walk with one foot being lifted considerably higher off the ground than the other.  It turned out that their delux minibus tour had been something of a disaster with some of the group deciding that they wanted more time at the waterfall so just didn’t come back meaning that they arrived back in Luang Prabang with no time for showers or relaxing and changed and set off at a pace to meet us.  In the process of running across the bamboo bridge to the town Sam had half ripped the bottom off of her flip flop, hence the interesting walk!  After many laughs in the street we found a bar and cocktails and hatched a new plan…. Luang Prabang may close at 11pm, but there is one place open later, the bowling alley.  So after dinner we got a Tuk-Tuk and set off, it was a bit further out than any of us anticipated and when we arrived to a dark empty carpark with “bowling” painted on the wall we were a little concerned we might have made the wrong decision, but our Tuk-Tuk driver assured us that we would be able to ring him and he would come and collect us.  Bowling was awesome, we had the whole alley to ourselves save for one small family a few lanes along.  We had a bottle of Lion King whiskey and mixers which cost us about 6 and were ready to get the party started.  We were all fairly bad at bowling with the rare strike resulting in some pretty special celebratory dances, with Whiskey still flowing we decided to stay for one more game.  Now this was something of a mistake.  Over the course of that game the bowling alley filled up to bursting point with every loud, annoying, vest wearing, drunk, 18 year old backpacker of every nationality that happened to be in Luang Prabang.  Oh their parents must be so proud of them as we heard shrieks of excitement at how drunk they had been the night before at the bowling alley.  We finished our game and our drinks and made a quick exit.  Our concerns of getting a Tuk-Tuk quickly vanished when every Tuk-Tuk in the town was parked outside trying to get our business.  There was almost a fight in the car park when a Tuk-Tuk driver was trying to undercut the one we were talking to with sign language and other driver just whisked us away from the commotion.  We had to laugh when we all got back to realise that we had all been locked out of our hotel and had to bang on the doors to wake up the security guards to let us in.  it was like being a naughty 17 year old coming home late.

Our last full day in Luang Prabang and we decided to take it easy and wonder around the town.  The biggest temple in the town is Wat Xieng Thong so covered up in 40 degree heat we made our way there and amazingly met Pip and Sam on their bike, what a small town.  So we all set off to explore the temple together. It was not the biggest temple but it was pretty and what was fascinating is that we were there a few days before the ceremony where new novice monks join the temple so there was a huge marquee lined with beds and on each bed was everything that a new monk receives when they enter the temple.  It was cool to see the bare basics they get like, flip flops, robes, a Thai day bed and a few pots for cooking and washing.  We felt a bit awkward wondering around inside the temples as everywhere you looked there were monks passed out asleep on the floor, but it did make for some good photo’s.  After we said our final farewell to Pip and Sam, see you in Sydney girls!!

On our way home we happened to see one of the bamboo bridges over the river and feeling a bit like Indiana Jones we decided to pay our 50p each and take our lives into our hands to cross the bridge, I took significantly longer than Tim to get over the bridge holding on for dear life and not daring to look down.  We actually had no idea what was on the other side of the bridge so we sat down for a while and just watched the world go by and got some lovely shots of some novice monks crossing the bridge, we followed some other tourists around the corner and found a lovely viewpoint over the river where we all just sat and had a great chat with some likeminded backpackers about life the world and everything. Luang Prabang was just the most relaxed and calming place to be.

Our last morning and we finally managed to set our alarm early enough and got out of bed to the famous Alms Ceremony.  Every morning all the monks in Luang Prabang walk through the town at 5:30am in a meditative trance and the local villagers offer them sticky rice in exchange for a blessing. This is a beautiful sight with the monks passing by with the oldest at the front and youngest at the back in their bright orange robes.  Unfortunately the problem with this ceremony is the tourists; busloads of tourists get delivered to the main street and they are cris-crossing in front of the monks with their cameras flashing in their faces, the tourists also buy food from vendors and take part in the ceremony despite the fact it is utterly meaningless to them.  You see the monks taking the food that the tourists have given them and throwing it in the bin as soon as they have walked past.  We kept our distance and just observed the ceremony from afar; it was totally worth the 5am wake up.

After a quick breakfast we were ready for our next journey, a minibus 6 and a half hours to Phonsavan to see the Plain of Jars.  We waited outside our hotel for our minibus and with our luggage loaded we were on the road before we knew it.  After about 20 minutes I suddenly realised that perhaps I had relaxed into life in Luang Prabang a little too much when I looked down and realised that I had got into the minibus barefoot and had left my flip flops on the doorstep of the hotel.  Another pair of flip flops bites the dust!
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