About a month ago, after visiting our eighth country in two months, we came to the realization that we were going to need to slow down and schedule a rest stop into our trip. We had initially planned on stopping for a while in the Thai islands, but continued to hear about a city in Laos- Luang Prabang. People everywhere were telling us how they wished they would have had more time there and that it was an extremely peaceful setting, so after hearing this over and over again we decided to take some time for our R & R in this city.
We left Bangkok, Thailand on December 30th and stayed in Laos until January 17th, when we flew to Cambodia to see Ankgor Wat near Siem Reap. Arriving in Luang Prabang was like taking a breath of fresh air. After leaving the airport we were not immediately mobbed by taxi divers fighting for our fare. Although, there were taxi drivers, it was a much more relaxed atmosphere where they were waiting for you to come to them. Laos was colonized by the French until the early 1950’s, and you can see the Asian-French fusion from that part of their history in their architecture (French colonial, with an Asian influence), their food (there are baguettes, cheese, and wine), and their people (I was asked by an older gentleman here if I spoke French, he seemed eager to speak it). You see more French tourists than any other nationality, too. Luang Prabang also appears to be very prosperous, even though we wouldn’t expect the rest of the country to be so as Laos has one of the highest poverty rates in Asia. The houses are beautiful making use of the gorgeous tropical hard wood indigenous to the area, and the people seem happy and well dressed.
We asked some locals what they thought about the communist government and they said that they didn’t feel that it mattered because they could choose what they wanted to do with their lives. The owners of our guesthouse (The Phonemaly Guesthouse) are math teachers at the local high school, and are paid between $60-$75 USD a month for their efforts. They said that this salary would not be adequate for their family of five, so they also run their guesthouse. These parents also find it important to give their children private English lessons and the children have brand new bicycles (the six year old girl had a birthday the first week of our stay and received hers then). There is capitalism everywhere in Luang Prabang and the people here are seeing their lives improving. One man said that when he was a child one would have to be from a very rich family to have a bicycle, but now it is very common and many people have motorbikes as well. My favorite among the bicycles was the popular (among teenage girls) “Hello Kitty” bicycle. Anyways, the people here have money to cover more than just their very basic needs now.
Tourism, is a great contributing factor to the prosperity of this town, and in 1995 UNESCO proclaimed the entirety of Luang Prabang a World Heritage site. Tourism is growing rapidly here and many people believe that the industry is getting too big, but of all the places in the developing world we have been to on this trip, Luang Prabang has most likely dealt with it the best. Touts are at a minimum, restaurants don’t try to drag you in from the street, and the markets are relatively low-key. Shops and merchandise have also been set up with aesthetics and quality in mind. Tour buses are also not allowed into the town center. Overall, we have seen the tourism industry improving the lives of the locals here, so we can’t complain about that.
On New Year’s Eve, we had dinner and then went wandering to find where the action was in town. We had heard that one of the bars in town was going to have a bit of a party, so we thought we would go and check it out for a while. On our way there we saw lights in the sky that appeared at first to be stars, but we quickly realized that they were all moving in an upward direction. We then remembered Chinese New Year in Thailand a couple of years ago and realized that they were lanterns (like a small hot air balloon) that were being let go. Very cool! A few minutes after this there was a fireworks display that was quite impressive for a small town. Some locals caught our attention as we were looking at the wine selection in their store, and they asked us to sit down with them for a glass of beer. We agreed and ended up sitting with them for several hours (never making it to the bar). They had a table set up outside of their store and ordered food from a friend’s restaurant and kept it coming most of the night, nibbling on it as they drank their beer. They explained that eating a little and drinking was better than only drinking, makes sense. They brought out the Laotian fried riverweed (khai pan) from the Mekong River, which is a bit like a chip, delicious beef with plenty of chili, and chicken soup. They were great hosts and the women would not let a beer glass go dry, it was actually kind of like a game for them, as they would tease each other if one did in fact go dry. They would also challenge each other and us to drink an entire glass of beer in one drink, but instead of the western way of actually doing it, they would give up after about a third of the way. Very interesting, maybe a cultural difference about not wanting to stand out??? Most of the folks didn’t make it to midnight, but we did! At midnight there was another impressive round of fireworks, and then pretty much the town quieted down right away. Luang Prabang really is a “roll up the streets early” kind of place (it has an 11:30 curfew normally). By the end of the night we had thoroughly enjoyed ourselves and were very happy that we didn’t make it to the bar.
Eating fried Mekong riverweed with some locals.
Since this was our “rest stop” we did a lot of just that, but with a bit of a routine involved as well. The morning normally consisted of Adam’s watch alarm going off at about 8:40, at which time he reached down and turned on the T.V. and we would lay in bed until we were hungry and thirsty enough to go out on the porch to get our complimentary coffee, locally grown bananas (we will miss these bananas, as they are MUCH better than the ones at home), oranges, and baguettes with butter and jam. Sometimes, if Shawn is feeling particularly energetic she would walk to the shop that sells delicious fresh yogurt to-go and add that to the morning feast. After breakfast we typically would watch a movie on HBO or read until the chilly morning passed (we read “Atlas Shrugged” by Ayn Rand and “A Short History Of Nearly Everything” by Bill Bryson). By this time we were generally hungry and would go to find lunch. Luang Prabang has plenty of eating choices, and some of our favorites were pineapple curry with cashew nuts, beef lap (Lao dish with anise flavored fresh herbs), lemon chicken soup, and of course sticky rice that is served in cylinder baskets with lids, which is incredibly important here. They are very proud of sticky rice proudly telling us that it is only in Lao and the north of Thailand where it is a part of the regular diet. After lunch we will sometimes take a walk through town or just retreat back to our room to digest before our most energetic part of the day, our RUN. We have found it difficult to stay in shape while traveling. We brought along running shoes so we wouldn’t fall too far behind in our fitness, but when we’re moving every few days or are in the middle of a crowded, unfamiliar, big city, running was been difficult to do. We even had sidewalks, so it was quite enjoyable to go out for an evening or morning run every day. We did get looked at a little strangely, mostly by some of the older French tourists that appear to be on the “nose a bit too high in the air” side (we may have disturbed their air as we blew by them), but there was actually one other woman runner out each day at the same time. By the time we were finished with our run, it was time to shower and get ready to go to dinner. For dinner we would either go to a place on the river (like we did for lunch), go to a special “western” food place if we were on a kick for that (we had a hamburger once and pizza once), or we will go to the famous, open-air “veggie buffet”. The veggie buffet is located in one of the alleys off of the main street, and for 60 American cents (yes, that is correct) they gave you a plate to fill up with veggies, fruits, noodles, and rice. The plate is rather small, but they didn’t mind how full the plate got. Once the plate couldn’t get any fuller the woman at the end of the line took it and loaded its contents into a large wok and fried it up. With this, and a big Beer Lao at the twenty foot long, community table they had set up in the street, this turned out to be one of the better ways to strike up some good conversation with fellow travelers in Luang Prabang. Occasionally, dessert was in order and there are many cake stands set up on the main street. Any kind of fruit based cake you can think of including, banana (like banana bread at home, and this was most likely our favorite), mango, pineapple, lemon, orange, taro root, ginger, apple, pumpkin, and very importantly chocolate (even though it was a bit disappointing, as it wasn’t chocolatey enough for our tastes). Most of the restaurants also serve fruit shakes, and our favorite- fresh fruit with fresh frozen yogurt. This is like no frozen yogurt at home, but tastes like YOGURT. Really good! There was also an American cafe called Joma where we could go to satisfy some of our western cravings such as pumpkin pie.
As dedicated dog lovers, we are always on the look out for a friend with fur (who is not too dirty or flea infested). While strolling through the markets we met a beautiful golden retriever, Tuk-tuk (named after the taxis that buzz around town). We would generally run into him while near his owner’s clothing boutique, but other times he would be out strolling in very random places. Tuk-tuk’s owner is a French expatriot and she brought Tuk-tuk from a breeder in Thailand. One day he even followed us down to the Mekong river, and when Adam threw a stick for him we realized he didn’t know how to swim (or didn’t know that he knew how anyways, he is a retriever!) By the end of our time down in the river he became brave enough to get his chest wet, and was very proud of himself. He did the common golden retriever circles. Being down on a river with a retriever brought back lots of good memories of our old dogs.
This is a tuk-tuk……
….and this is Tuk-tuk.
We did spare a couple of days during our “lazy time” for some sightseeing.
Here we are at Tat Kaung Si Falls.
We also climbed up to Phusey Temple at sunset and chatted with a few young monks.
A rest in a laid back place is just what we needed. We are now back in Bangkok, Thailand for the third time on this trip. Our flight to Indonesia is this Saturday, Jan. 26th. We will then say good-bye to SE Asia and will be onto a new area of the world! While in Bangkok for the next few days we will be busy arranging our visa to China, researching Indonesia, and writing another post about our five days in Cambodia, so check back soon for that!