Leaving Sa Pa, we were on to embark on one hell of a hard ride to Luang Prabang, Laos. The first day was okay; we took a small nauseating van to Diem Phen Phu (last big Vietnamese city before the border). We drove for 6 hours, and stayed there for the night – experiencing our first mosquito nets!
The next day turned out to be quite an adventure; we were about 40 people stuffed in a 25 people bus, riding for 8-9 hours. There were people everywhere; in between the seats, standing up… it was crazy! Luckily we had seats so we were quite comfortable. After an hour or so, we arrived at the Laos border station and had to get our visa, which took a good three hours! They were checking our temperature to make sure we weren’t sick, and then they gave us our passports back.
There were about 10 Czechs in the bus, and one of them had a small ukulele guitar. They started singing traditional Czech drinking songs, and took out some alcohol bottles from their bags (first – Vietnamese vodka, and then Lao Lao – 50% Laotian moonshine!) There was a Russian professional singer also, who sang some really creepy traditional Russian songs after drinking some of that vodka. Anyway, it turned out to be quite the party bus!
At one point during the trip, we had to get off the bus so it could cross a small river. On our side, we had to cross on a suspended bridge:
Finally, we arrived in mid-afternoon in our first Laos village, Muang Ngoi. But first, to get there, we had to get off the bus (again!) and take some kind of tiny wooden embarkation to the other side:
The village of Muang Ngoi, located on the side of the river and in the middle of palm trees, was really beautiful and peaceful. We were stunned at how nice people were; everyone was saying “sabai deeee!” (hello!) or just giving us huge smiles. It felt good to be so well received! I took a tiny nap, and then we went out for our first real meal in Laos…
The lights went off at 9PM, and then we returned to our hotel walking in tiny dark streets, using candlelight. What a killer day!!!!
The following day, we had to take the bus AGAIN, to get to Luang Prabang. In fact, we took two different buses; the first one stopped in Udomxai, and went very fast, so we took a second one to Luang Prabang (which was supposed to take 4 hours) Unfortunately, this second bus broke down and we had to wait for a new one on the side of the street, for two or three hours – until night came, really. We were with another group of Czech people, and they had a bottle of Slivovice! (Very strong home-made prune alcohol from the Czech Republic). So I drank with them and we all enjoyed the “forced” break.
Luang Prabang, the old capital of the country, has a population of approximately 70 000. It is apparently one of the most beautiful in South-East Asia, and I certainly don’t have difficulty believing it! Just imagine a totally green city with almost no cars, exotic golden temples, colourful markets, lazy rivers and most importantly, charming people. I had no idea it was going to be this great!!! Oh yeah, the whole city has been classified UNESCO world heritage since 1995!!
The city has been built beside the Mekong river (an Asian equivalent to India’s Gange or Egypt’s Nile) and is crowned by a tiny mountain called Phu Si. From its 100 meters, you can get a nice view of the whole city – so we climbed it. We couldn’t believe how deserted the streets were! After traveling to so many big cities, it was refreshing to see something like this! We couldn’t even hear a single car honk…
We visited a monastery, which included a big stone “stupa” (kind of temple) called That Makmo, which was constructed in 1503, as well as a temple and a Buddhist school. I was taking photos of kittens (haha, so metal!) and a curious 18-year old monk started talking to me and François. He was very nice, and asking us tons of questions about our country in close to perfect English… but he got called back into monastery by an elder monk. Hope we didn’t get him into trouble! We didn’t even ask his name…
In the evening, we went to visit the famous Night Market – probably the most relaxed market I’ve ever seen. Merchants are either sleeping, or smiling at you! Usually, Asian markets are really stressful!! There was a side street that was dedicated to local cuisine at extremely cheap prices. We found many vegetarian buffets that offered a full plate of food for 1.20$. We ended up eating there four times haha! They also had grilled meats, fish, veggie pastes, sandwiches, fruit shakes and …green papaya salads! That kind of salad was a real discovery for me; it is made with unripe (green) papaya, garlic, cherry tomatoes, olives, raw eggplant, freshly squeezed lime-juice, fermented crab sauce, fish sauce, chillies, salt and peanuts. I had some twice. Apparently, you can find that in Thailand too…!!
One morning, we woke up very early to watch a very typical Laotian ritual; Tak Bat, or food-receiving ceremony. Around 6:30 AM every morning, monks line-up and collect balls of sticky rice or fruits from locals. It is a calm and meditative ceremony, where the monks reaffirm their wishes of poverty, and the Buddhists rise their spiritual merit by giving these respectful donations.
After that, we went to visit the morning market, which is a colourful open-air (mostly) fruit and veg market, where the locals shop:
And beside the morning market is a really cool monastery, with the coolest staircase I’ve seen so far. It features the “Naga”, a water snake which is supposed to protect the monastery from evil spirits!
Walking around, we saw many cute dogs, as usual. I never get tired of photographing them – I hope you don’t mind my growing obsession hahaha!!!
We eventually visited the two biggest attractions, the incredibly rich Royal Palace/Vat Mai monastery as well as the Vat Xien Thong, a monastery dating from the 1500’s.
Photos were forbidden in the Royal Palace, but I can say that the inside was absolutely splendid. The insides were mostly dark red and gold, and some rooms featured beautiful mural paintings. You could also visit more normal rooms, like the living room, dining rooms, kid’s bed room, etc… and see the really killer-looking royal golden snake chariots.
But the coolest thing to visit in that area is the sumptuous Vat Mai monastery. Built in 1821, it was actually not destroyed by the Chinese Ho people because they thought it was too beautiful! Its roof has the traditional Luang Prabang 5-level style.
As for Vat Xien Thong, it is a really famous monastery for its classical Laotian architecture. Located near the Mekong river, a good 15 minute walk from the center, it was surprisingly peaceful and of course, as beautiful as always.
687 – The south-facade of Van Xien Thong with the tree of life mosaic
656 – The entrance of the temple
645 – The main golden Buddha. It was so peaceful inside…
676 – Details of the roof! Isn’t it amazing?
There were also many “chapels” and a “garage” temple-thing. One of the chapels contains a rare statue of a reclining Buddha – which dates from the early construction of the site. The “garage” contained many Buddha statues as well as another golden chariot – which is used to carry the funeral urn of the royal family.
To finish our last day in Luang Prabang, we found a nice little terrace with an ancient big furry tree, and downed a few nice relaxing Beerlao’s… we’re going to miss this place and its people!!
I had read a few years ago about this place, but totally forgot about it. The “cool” thing to do here is rent a tube and float down the river, while getting loaded in river-side bars on plastic buckets filled with booze – or take some “magic/happy shakes”, drinks made with weed, magic mushrooms or even opium! On top of that, these bars often have sketchy slides or tires which you can use to jump in the water… all of those things together make a lethal mix, and turned Vang Vieng into SE Asia’s most dangerous backpacker destination! To be honest, I was only interested in the scenery, so we relaxed and drank beer beside the river and mountains. The rest of the village is a tourist ghetto nightmare… it’s filled with restaurants playing either “Friends” or “Family Guy”, karaoke bars and gift shops, and the city is populated by drunken frat boys and girls… so you understand why I stayed at my beautiful spot:
We still had to feed ourselves though, so I had some soup in a restaurants that didn’t play “Friends”:
And now, I am in the bus going to Vientiane, which is a few hours from Vang Vieng. There is apparently the biggest festival going on in Laos at the moment… can’t wait to see it!
Formed in the 1000’s, then almost completely destroyed by the Siamese in 1828, Vientiane is now Laos’ capital and biggest city, with a population of 210,000 in the city itself. It does feel much more modern than any other city we’ve visited in Laos, but it still has very low traffic compared to other cities in the world.
We arrived in mid-afternoon, and learned that our festival was going on at 8PM. Boun That Luang is a Lao Buddhist celebration, and is the largest national holiday in Laos. Government offices and school closes so that everyone can enjoy the fest. Located at the Pha That Luang monastery, it is always held around the three-layered golden stupa called That Luang. Apparently, it contains Buddah’s hair and bosom bone, and it is profoundly revered by all Lao people…
The festival usually lasts three days, starting with a wax castle procession and ending with a procession around the stupa. We only saw the last day celebration – which was quite enough… there were thousands of monks and perhaps 100 000 pilgrams (or more!!) that came from all over the country to celebrate. The people offered banana leaves covered with flowers, bouquets of flowers with candles, incense, etc… and at the end, the monks blew fireworks – symbolizing an offering of flowers of light to Buddha. There was also music, street food sellers, and all sorts of merchants everywhere…
793 – The That Luang golden stupa, Lao’s symbol, with “flowers of light”
826 – Offerings
We didn’t do that much in Vientiane, beside visiting a few museums, monasteries and of course, trying out some local food. We got to visit Wat Si Saket, the oldest standing temple in Vientiane, which was really cool… the temple itself was surrounded by thousands of Buddha statues… some with chopped heads from wars, others in tiny niches… it had quite an atmosphere:
Another one we did was Haw Pha Kaeo, which was first built in 1595 to hold the magical emerald Buddha (who got taken away by the Siamese in the 1700’s). The temple got destroyed, and got rebuilt by the French with a “Bangkok” style architecture. The inside was actually some sort of “holy art” museum, but it was quite ok… the best was the sculptures as well as the Buddha statues:
As for Vientiane food, we tried some fried meatballs – which were ok tasting, as well as a killer Laos-style fondue!!! The fondue was killer, and was done directly at our table… at the end, all the veggies and meat made an amazing broth, which you ate, mixed with rice noodles!
We also visited some kind of arch of triumph, which was built using cement given by the United States. Apparently, the US gave them the cement to build an airport, but they built that instead hahaha
Around the arch, I saw a monk on a bike, which I found a bit amusing. Notice how everyone wears a helmet but him… perhaps he is under Buddha’s protection!!!
So our trip to Laos is now done… we will miss this country and its people! We seriously loved our stay here. But now, we must depart for Cambodia and see many more amazing things….