Indochina with Selective Asia – Chapter 8: Luang Prebang

The Cockerels and the Monks

We sensed an immediate slowing of pace once we’d left the airport and been collected by our guide (Nouvarh). Everything seemed just a little more tranquil and relaxed. There’s less traffic on the roads and even the near misses seem to be played out in slow motion. We were based at the Villa Chitdara, which gave us homely beautiful (wood everywhere) accommodation close to Th Sisavangvong (the centre of it all in Luang Prebang).

Royal Palace complexThe Royal Palace is now a museum, as the monarchy is no more in Laos, but it’s a beautiful reminder of the grandeur of past times. The throne room was the most eye- catching for us, where there were dazzling displays of mosaics on the walls made of Japanese mirrored glass. There was even a collection of royal cars including a couple of Lincoln Continentals and an Edsel Citation but the display was spoiled by a wreck of a Citroen DS that looked like it has just been dragged out of a field. Opposite I undertook to lessen my growing Buddha belly by climbing the 329 steps to the top of Phu Si (100m hill) for panoramic views of the city (somewhat marred by the farmers burning the fields ready to plant their rice, causing a permanent mist which enveloped the surrounding mountains).

In a city with 33 buddhist temples we visited a few to extend our knowledge of the religion.  We thought we were getting a handle on this but it seems that every tale or legend has at least one more for the same situation, so we stood no chance. It’s all very colourful and interesting, even if it’s not likely to be my mastermind subject.

Tak BatIt was great to chat to the locals too. One evening we sat opposite the Royal Palace to watch the sun go down and see the night market set up. A few teenage boys approached us very politely to ask if they could chat to us as they we studying English and would welcome the practice. We had a lovely chat about their studies, ambitions, England, Laos and all manner of other things, a real treat. We also visited the monastery and chatted to one of the monks about his life there.  It’s quite a tough life for them but for many it’s the only option if they want to be fed, clothed and educated.

Breakfast at Kuang Si WaterfallsThey say that New York is the city that never sleeps, but with the roosters crowing on the patch of land next door from 4am onwards and monks sounding the wake-up call by banging a big drum about the same time, this place has a shout at the title too. It didn’t matter too much as a very early start saw us watching Tak Bat, the giving of alms to the monks, which was very informative but has become a bit of a tourist attraction. After a stop at the morning market we were off to have breakfast at the Kuang Si Waterfalls. Our guide and driver got us there early enough to beat the crowds and set up a lavish picnic for us close to the waterfall. It’s up there as one of the most beautiful places we’d been to and the experience was so very special. After a refreshing dip we also looked in on the bear rescue centre there, that has saved many Asiatic black bears from bile farming.

Another early start the following morning had us taking the slow boat up the Mekong some 160km to Lauang Say Lodge at Pakbeng. It’s hugely relaxing to watch life unfolding along the banks of the river, from fishing, to workers collecting sand and much more. We made stops at the Pak Ou caves to see the hundreds of Buddha statues hidden here to keep them safe from the looting Chinese Haw. We also stopped at Ban Baw village for an insight into local whiskey production. Arriving at the lodge we were treated to one of the best sunsets we’d seen on this trip. Sunset at Ban Baw villageAs things turned orange on the Mekong we laughed as the young boys were showing off their riding skills on the back of water buffalo. It appears that a dam is being built up river for hydroelectric power, work starting soon and the locals say that it is rumoured that it will affect the water flow so severely that this trip may not be possible when it is completed. Just in case, book your trip now, it’s too good an experience to miss.

As we headed back to Luang Prebang the next day our drive took us on a pass above cloud level. Clouds filled the valleys beside the Mekong and made it look like the whole region was on fire, what a view. All day drive gave us a look at village life along the route, including a stop at the village of one of the minority groups that inhabit this area. It was an informative stop looking around the traditional wooden houses and rural lifestyle.Local boy riding a water buffalo A life without electricity and where schoolboys shed their uniforms at lunchtime to dive in the river and catch their lunch.

Our epic adventure was over and what an amazing experience it was, we’ll dine out for the rest of the year telling tales of this epic. Huge thanks to the team at Selective Asia for their knowledge and organisational skills, they made it easy and added so many special touches. Enormous thanks to the people of Indochina, who were so welcoming and put up with our limited attempts at their languages with a smile.

Silver Travel Advisor recommends Selective Asia

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Steve Aldridge

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