Annie, (now my wife) and I decided to head out for Luang Prabang in Laos over the Songkran festivities, believing that they would not be as crazy as they were in Thailand with the water festivities.
The first thing that I noticed as we began to descend was the mighty Mekong River or was it the Nam Khan River. The surrounding mountain ranges were fantastic to look at as if they had all been pushed into one another.
Our first port of stay was at the Villa Mayau Boutique. Our room was lovely, having terracotta tiles, four French windows with shutters and wooden interior with ample of lights set into the ceiling.
Our first outing was a walk along the Nam Khan River and across the Kao Bridge, which was a steel framed one, with wooden tracks only suitable for foot passengers, bicycles and motorbikes.
There were some beautiful temples including the Phra That Khong Santi Chedi Pagoda, and the Vatpa Phonphao Temple. The river was low, probably the effect of the hot season. However, this did not detour people fishing in it.
In the evening we wandered to the craft night market. This was positioned on the Sisavang Vong Road. There were lots of craft items on display from jewellery, and wooden turned bowls, pottery, mirrored glass and dress wear all made by talented ethnic minorities. The market stretched for at least a kilometre and was very busy considering its size.
The following day, we ventured up to Mount Phousi. At the top of the mount, you could see the two rivers of the Mekong and the Nam Khan. Also, below peppered between the forest that dominated the area, where the terracotta coloured roofs of houses. It was almost surreal, the only noise came from the birds, and the terrible racket from the cicada interrupted only by the occasionally bellows from the temple bells.
Later, we went cycling over the ‘somewhere bridge. We were all too aware that there wasn’t really much to see across there, except the extension of our neighbourhood and 3km further down was the small international airport. We cycled into the town centre the streets here seemed to proudly fly the communist flag next to the Laos one. The roads were amassed with motorcycles but virtually devoid of any cars.
Eventually, we came across some steps that led down to the river. The river was quiet and seemed to be only in half flow, you could clearly see where the sandbanks were and the fact that it was suffering from the dry season.
Our excursion took us passed the Wat Mai Suwannaphumaham which is one of the largest and most picturesque temples in Luang Prabang. The Wat was founded by King Anourout around 1796.
That evening, we decided to venture along the Phousi Road, and we ate at the Villa Ban Lakkham that overlooked the river. It seemed a nice relaxing place to eat. We ate locally caught fish which was nice, we just hoped that they weren’t contaminated with any traces of heavy metals or pesticides.
Poor Annie was nearly frightened out of her skin when a small gecko popped up its head over the fence. I think she thought it was a snake. I just saw the funny side to it all. The creature had come for its meal too, which was only minutes away from being served. As within minutes of seeing the lizard, a charge of a thousand and one ants went on the rampage as they headed back to their nest with their booty.
The following morning we were greeted by heavy rain, which only delayed our day’s adventure. Eventually, after it had petered out, we decided to go out walking. We walked for some distance before coming across a sign that made me chuckle. It quoted: Smoke-Free District, knowing how sings could be interpreted here, I asked Annie, ‘does that mean that cigarettes are free here?’ Then I went on to suggest that the sign should have said, District Administration, not District Administrative. Annie laughed, agreeing with me.
‘You always pick out the bad things don’t you.’
‘Yes, when all said and done I did pick you out, didn’t I,’ I said laughing.
‘That’s not fair.’ she said laughing.
Later we decided to cut across the peninsula to the Wat Bouphavipassnaram, which coincidentally had three open-air crematoriums. These three large sala like structures were coated at the top with soot. Further along, we passed some carved naga balastered staircases, which were part of the Lao Temple architecture. The designs of the roofs of the sims are known for their differences which almost reach the ground in most cases. The Vientiane style features were all tall narrow roofs that had an apex in the middle.
In the evening, we returned back to the night market where I was determined to buy my mum’s and sister’s birthday present. While I was at it, I also purchased a set of dominoes and some plaques for the wall as a souvenir.
Our second part of our holiday was at the Namou Riverside Hotel Resort some distance away from the centre. Our accommodation possessed a fantastic view of the flowing Namour River. If that wasn’t enough to entice you to stay here, then there was that fascinating mountainous backdrop all forested escarpments all blanketed in every shade of green.
The mountainous scenery was apparently the main attraction here. Talk about it being jagged. I took plenty of pictures of it with its thousands of peeks and troves and no doubt there’d be some protruding rocks somewhere.
The wildlife was also quite interesting too. There was an array of butterflies, especially down by the river. Butterflies like the Peacock Pansy Male, Blue Glassy Tiger to name but a few.
The setting of the hotel was indeed quiet, some would say utterly desolate.
I spent about 30 minutes exploring the compound and down by the Nam Ou River. This was a famous river in Laos and stretched for over 400km. It is said that it starts at the Chinese border and drains all the Phongsali Province and flows down through the western Luang Prabang Province before eventually meeting up with the Mekong River.
In the early morning light, the Nam Ou River, took on the colour of being a watery taupe colour as its opalescent flow shimmered as dawn became day.
We walked down to the riverbank. Elephants from the local elephant park had obviously been along this route as there were traces of their presence. Further on we came across a group of young adults and children with a rod-tai, (a two-wheeled tractor) in the river. From a distance, it looked like they’d used it to bring down their laundry to wash it in the river from the nearby village. In all my time in Asia, I’d never seen a whole community on this scale doing their washing like this. Maybe I’d gone around with my eyes closed.
In most places, the river must have been 200 metres wide. It was indeed quite deceiving.
Today’s first trip was to head upriver to Banpotkhady to where they made the local Lao rice whisky, this in all essence sounded like a pleasant excursion, although whisky is probably not a good idea so early in the morning, but what the hell.
This was situated just up the river from where we were. The village bell was nothing more than a discarded wheel off a lorry, but they seemed to think that the idea sounded good.
There, stacked up was a collection of what were termed as sims. There was a sim from every family in the village, and it was supposed to represent the bond between the village people.
The main attraction in this village, of course, was the whisky distillery. It was quite fascinating to see, to say that I’d never visited a whisky distillery before. A large steel drum heated up the fermented rice creating the substance to evaporate. I presumed that this was part of the distillation process. From there the evaporated liquid ran into a collection vessel where we were told after it had cooled it would be bottled. They offered us a sample suggesting that it was 40% volume.
Our second part of our trip was to Pak Ou Caves that had been venerated since pre-Buddhist times, as being the home of the river spirits. Religion being religion had decided to capitalise on it and develop it into a popular tourist attraction.
Once our boat was secured to the bamboo jetty. We got off and paid the 20,000 kits each (80p) to visit the Tham Ting Cave. The geology was somewhat interesting but not exactly deep. It was ornamented with Buddhist statues many it seemed were carved out of wood. It probably acted like a kind of a shrine for worshipers of the faith, indeed interesting.
The second cave, I considered as being more interesting. This was the upper cave also known as the Tham Theung Cave. There were many steps that the crowds had to sweat over before reaching the summit.
I think I got my expectations up too high as we climbed the suggested 200 steps. I expected the cave to have some stalagmites and stalactites and possibly some ancient wall paintings. I conjured up images reminiscent of The Caves of Drach on the island of Majorca or the Blue John Mines near Castleton, Derbyshire, but it wasn’t to be. Nor was it like the Wieliczka Salt Mine near Krakow in Poland, now that is worth seeing.
When we got back to the resort, we rested before settling for our evening meal. Dusk raced in as it always does in the tropics. The nearby forest seemed to come alive too, at this moment. We could distinctly hear the animals from the forest going through their rituals. We couldn’t see anything, we presumed that it was coming from gibbons or macaques.
The next day we had breakfast at 08:15hrs first came the black coffee. It was nice and strong, which was complimentary for me to say that I usually didn’t drink the stuff. The second course was a plate consisting of sausage, bacon, scrambled egg and a baguette.
Over breakfast, they played ‘Georgia on my mind,’ by Hoagy Carmichael. This got me going into the Hoagy Carmichael songbook, especially the number, ‘Up the Lazy River.’ I gave Annie a rendition of it, ‘keep trying.’ She said.
Oh, why had the Thais missed out on all these classics from the American songbook of the 20th century? Annie reckoned that popular music only got into full swing during the late 60s early 70’s, during American’s involvement in the Vietnam war, when they used Thai air bases for their actions.
At 09:10hrs we were down by the river again. We were amused by two young children that were their, waving branches around and clapping. We couldn’t tell what they were doing and when Annie asked them it became apparent that they were catching cicadas. They’d got the best part of half a bag full of the charming creatures, ugly little things that they were. We also discovered that they intended to eat them that evening.
Their technique was excellent. They held the insects to attract other insects from their cries and clapping, and when the other cicada flew near, they swotted them to the ground with their branches and then picked them up. I was sure it was a good source of protein, regardless of how off-putting they looked.
Dragonflies and butterflies fluttered passed us with lots of agility as their painted wings graced the air. We tried to take photographs of these insects especially the butterflies as they came down to settle. We got quite a few pictures of them not that we intended to become lepidopterist’s all of a sudden.
Later we came across a shrub-like plant which I was sure was related to the Mimosa pudica or ‘touch me not plant.’ A sensitive plant, which I couldn’t recollect in ever seeing before. When you touched the leave instantaneously, the compound leaves fold inward on themselves. It had undoubtedly gained my curiosity. At 10:20hrs we arrived back at our bungalow and prepared to head back to Bangkok. Laos had been a fascinating place to visit, so much so that I decided to visit here again in July on my own and go off cycling. But for now, Laos had become another country visited in Asia, with many more countries to visit.