Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Luang Prabang: The Kingdom of Laos

Someone commented that we must be having a good time, based on the number of places we have seen and want to revisit. Well we have another one: Luang Prabang, the former capital of the Laos kingdom, designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995.

Before this trip, we had neither heard of Luang Prabang, nor Vientiane, the capital city of Laos. But we had been told that Laos was a good place to visit since it was somewhat like rural Thailand, with gentle people and interesting sites, but in years gone by.

We knew we would like the place as our small plane from bustling Hanoi came in for the landing. The town seemed quite charming, even from the air, with well kept buildings and gardens scattered along a narrow strip of land, contained by two rivers. There were a few larger homes, and some obvious resorts, but no apartments or industrial buildings.

When we arrived at the airport, we had to purchase a visitor’s visa. We filled out the forms, including our passport numbers, issuance date, expiry date and so on, and lined up to make payment. As we approached the counter, I noticed a faded photocopy setting out the prices. I was quite surprised. The price varied depending on where you were from. If you were from Australia or Germany, you paid $30USD. However, if you were from the Netherlands or England, you paid $35USD. If you were from USA the price was $35USD. If you were from Canada….$42USD, the highest price for anyone in the world! I couldn’t believe it. The Americans had bombed the place, and they were being charged less than us! So we altered our applications, crossing out the Canadian passport information, and substituting our British passport data. We saved $14. But I plan to find out why the price variation. The only thing I can think of is that it is tied to international aid.

Notwithstanding the pricing of visas, we think we have discovered the sort of place most travelers are seeking. It’s authentic, charming, and modest, while at the same time quite elegant. It is of another culture and another era. The river banks and many streets are lined with simple cafes, where food is cooked over burning wood. The people seem genuinely happy and content with their lives. And while there is a lot of poverty and some very run down buildings, one feels that there is a strong sense of community pride.

The town is a mixture of faded French Colonial buildings, temples, shops, night markets, guest houses and restaurants. The majority of people travel around on foot, bicycle, tuk tuk or scooter. There are no Starbucks, McDonalds or KFC outlets. There are numerous internet outlets and tourist offices, but large buses are not allowed on the streets. There are few illuminated signs around town. Instead, the signage is quite coordinated with gold lettering on wooden boards the norm.

The town is starting to attract new residents from around the world. They are setting up craft galleries, restaurants, and other businesses. Amongst the 32 temples is a Jewish Chabad House, which must mean something, although I’m not sure what! As you walk around, you can see the results of international aid programs flowing from the UNESCO designation, including a network of brick alleys and sidewalks, and new curbs and stormwater channels along the streets.

Luang Prabang is unbelievably inexpensive. You can stay in very comfortable accommodation with a private bathroom and air conditioning for $25 USD a night. For $60 USD you get the best room in many of the guesthouses around town. We stayed at the Sayo Xieng Mouane, a converted French Colonial Mansion, which was recommended to our friends Bob Duncan and Janice Brown who coincidentally will be here in a couple of weeks. We hope they find the note we hid for them in their room!

Bob should like the price of drinks. A large bottle of Lao beer costs $1.40 in a restaurant, and less than a dollar on the street. Lao-lao, the local rice whiskey can be purchased almost everywhere for less than 50 cents per 750mL bottle. The first night, we ate at L’Elephant, a French/Lao restaurant recommended by the town’s wine merchant. It was very good. After dinner, we started chatting to an Englishman who had just moved here. He told us his first choice had been to move to Vancouver, where he had spent 6 months last year. But he couldn’t afford it. He could easily afford Luang. He said we were eating in what many considered to be the best and most expensive restaurant in town. The meal for the two of us with a large carafe of wine and a beer cost $39 USD! And this was 5 times what we would have paid for a good dinner at a cafĂ© by the river!

We booked an outing down the Mekong River. I didn’t expect much, since the five hour cruise, cave and village tours cost only 60,000 kip ($6). On the way, we stopped off at Ban Xang Hai one of many handicraft villages along the river, known for its textiles, whiskey and wine. I have never seen anything quite like it. The simple structures were scattered around the temple. There were no streets as such; just small spaces between the haphazard buildings where women were making textiles on outside looms, and whiskey was being distilled in steel drums. It was delightful, although the whiskey was a bit difficult to take at 10 am. The wine, made from sticky rice, went down more smoothly.

We returned to the boat and set off for our main destination, the Pak Ou Caves. The first cave, only accessible by steps leading from the water, was crammed with hundreds of Buddha images. We reached the other cave by climbing a series of steps. It contained carvings and a variety of statues. But what was far more interesting for me were the young girls lining the steps, trying to earn some pocket change by selling little woven baskets containing….live birds! Apparently it is good luck to let them go. One young girl was desperately trying to sell me a turtle. I didn’t know if it was supposed to be a pet, or something to eat. In Vietnam and Laos, there are many different ways to cook turtle.

In the afternoon, we wandered around town and Sally went off for a one hour massage ($5) and pedicure ($4), while I headed over to a nice spot for Happy Hour (4 Lao-lao sours and tip, $7). Over dinner, Sally said this was probably the most outstanding place we have visited so far. We couldn’t think of anyone who wouldn’t enjoy it, except perhaps for our friend Rubenstein!

We had only planned to spend two days here, but managed to change our flights and stay another day. We would have liked to stay much longer, but are almost half way through the trip, and there is a lot to see before meeting the girls in Greece at the end of May. As it is, we now realize we will have to significantly reduce the amount of time spent in China. But it’s worth it, when we discover places like this. We will definitely be back, and urge you to check it out. Even if you don’t like rice whiskey.

3 comments:

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