Thursday, 19 June 2014

Luang Prabang - Gateway to Laos: Part 1

For the longest time, we were never sure how essential it was that we visit Laos. Of the ten or so countries in Southeast Asia, it's probably the least famous, the least talked about, and the least understood. An impoverished, underdeveloped state with a tiny population, it receives only a trickle of tourism compared to its nearby neighbours, for numerous reasons. For one, its infrastructure is generally poor or nonexistent, with scrappy half-paved dirt-roads, and no trains passing through the country (in fact, the country is so remote it wasn't even accessible by road until the 21st century). There are no world renowned sights like Angkor Wat or Ha Long Bay, and the few attractions it has are largely unknown to those who've never visited. Though its people are poor, prices are relatively high since most goods have to be imported. Being landlocked, it offers no beach destinations like Thailand or Vietnam. To top it off, the communist government enforces a strict midnight curfew across the country, ensuring that visitors will never flock here in pursuit of nightlife.

In spite of all this, we decided to take a 30-hour long bus ride from Hanoi to Luang Prabang just so we could see this country for ourselves. Plenty of people had told us it was worth the trip, but no one made it clear exactly why. Nevertheless, it wasn't long before we decided we'd made the right choice. Laos is an outstandingly magical country, one that I for one will count among the best of our trip.

Firstly, it is remarkably quiet and relaxed compared to the other countries we've been to. The country's official name is Laos PDR, or People's Democratic Republic, but a famous backronym turns it into Laos: Please Don't Rush. There is a slow, quiet pace to life here, so unlike the frenetic energy of places like Hanoi, Bangkok or Phnom Penh. After the pushiness of hawkers, tuk-tuk drivers and vendors in those places, this is such a refreshing change of pace. You can actually walk around a night-market without people pestering you, and the traffic is extremely light, making for much more leisurely road journeys and city-walks. The laid back atmosphere here is so infectious, you can't help but want to stay longer.

Secondly, there is the stunning, unspoiled scenery. The country is dominated by fog-enshrouded mountains and forests, some of which remain largely unexplored. There is a huge amount of biodiversity, with scientists discovering new plant and animal species every year. Countries like Vietnam and Thailand obviously possess their own share of natural beauty, but the presence of mankind can be felt almost everywhere there except for the most remote islands. Here, you can ride a motorbike through lush, tree-filled valleys that are seemingly empty of human existence, save for the occasional sparsely-populated village.

Another observation: the country may be among the poorest in the world, but it seems to wear its apparent poverty with a certain dignity. The towns we've visited have been relatively clean and tidy, especially compared with Cambodia, and we've seen no beggars or homeless people. The villages we pass through do look poor in the sense that they have few material possessions, and probably lack decent facilities, but the people are dressed well, and the buildings themselves are tidy and well put together. This extends to the architectural style of the temples, which here seem more refined and orderly than in other countries.

Luang Prabang itself serves as an appropriately zen introduction to the country. As a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it is filled with beautiful Laotian architecture, orange-yellow wats and French restaurants, giving it the feel of a charming, Buddhist haven in the mountains. There are plenty of tourists here but it never feels crowded or over-commercialised, and the ban on buses and trucks helps retain a balmy, Nirvana-like calm across the city (which really feels more like a small town). During our stay we wandered the streets, saw temples along the Mekong River, and drove a motorbike through valleys and terraced rice fields to visit the most gorgeous, crystal-clear waterfalls we've ever seen. Honestly, Kuang Si Falls alone make a trip to Laos totally worth it. We've seen waterfalls already on this journey and were not expecting much, but these blew us away, and were a perfect taste of the idyllic, natural beauty that this country possesses.

As the crow flies, it's about 260 miles from Hanoi to Luang Prabang, which along a straight highway would take maybe four or five hours by car. But this is a very mountainous part of the world, there are no highways, and the few roads that exist are meandering and poorly paved. Add to that an old banger of a bus, regular pitstops to collect or drop off passengers, somewhat less regular pitstops for eating, smoking or using the toilet, and a less-than-expeditious border crossing, and you're looking at about 30 hours of travel in all. That's right, a whole 30 hours we spent on this bus, the longest bus ride we've ever taken!
This big spacious aisle running down the middle of the bus was empty at first, but soon became packed with local Laotian men who slept directly on the floor, making the bus feel very crowded.
Making a pitstop in the evening. This cafe was filthy, with stray puppies peeing on the floor and the smell of nearby, uncleaned toilets wafting over the tables. As travellers, we're generally pretty willing to sacrifice certain home comforts when necessary, but there was no way we were going to eat here. Luckily, we brought plenty of crackers and cheese to last us the entire trip.
By morning time we were at a small outpost in the mountains: the border!
A few hours later, customs and immigration were behind us, and we were traversing the fifth country of our journey.
June is one of the rainiest months in Laos, and we would experience our fair share of it during our time there.
This was one of the larger settlements we passed during the journey.
Most communities in Laos, however, are tiny villages like this, with neat wooden houses and inquisitive children running around.

At one point, we stopped by the side of the road for two hours, with no apparent reason other than an opportunity for the Laotian men to crouch down and smoke a thousand cigarettes.
Feeling miserable on our never-ending bus journey.
Back into nightfall, and another cigarette break on an empty road.
By 11pm, we finally reached Luang Prabang and got a tuk-tuk to our hostel, where we watched some TV courtesy of the communist government.
The bus journey may have been bleak, but the next morning the sun was out, and we saw this on our way out of the hostel.
Walking into town.

Our first Laotian meal was sai ua, or Laotian homemade sausage with lemongrass, onions, chillies and herbs.
At the Royal Palace Museum.
Luang Prabang is filled with old Buddhist temples like Haw Pha Bang, which stands on the grounds of the Royal Palace.

In the sticky heat we climbed Mount Phousi.
A fellow climber we saw on the way up.
We were drenched in sweat by the time we got to the top, but it was worth it for the splendid views over the city.

A plane taking off from the airport.

Inside a temple on top of the mountain.
Back down at street level, we continued exploring this quiet, pretty town.
A cafe worthy of this blog.

More and more wats.

Rice cakes roasting in the sun.
Luang Prabang sits on a peninsula surrounded by two converging rivers: the Mekong and the Nam Khan. We walked along the former for some time.

That evening, we searched for restaurants to try out some more Laotian cuisine.
We settled on the brightly-lit jungle environment of Lao Lao Garden...
...and ate some traditional Lao barbecue. It was pretty similar to the Korean barbecue we were so used to having during our teaching days.

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