We’ve spent the majority of the last week and a bit in Luang Prabang, a UNESCO World Heritage site and (arguably) the most beautiful and popular place in all of Laos. It’s been a super relaxed time with most days consisting of doing not much of anything. Our wee apartment just 15 minutes out of the main town was a haven, but we made the effort to leave for some excursions and to add the following to our tally of Laos travelling highlights.
Lai Hua Fai: Through good luck, rather than good management, we were in Laos for Lai Hua Fai, or the Festival of Lights. The Festival coincides with the end of Buddhist Lent and is celebrated throughout Laos, although it is a particularly big deal in Luang Prabang. The festival went something like this:
- In the lead-up to the ‘big day’ every village and temple in the city was hard at work making a wire/paper mache boat to take part in the festival. The boats were large and incredibly elaborate. At the same time, people decorate their homes and local temples with hundreds of candles, lanterns and crepe paper decorations. It was an especially lovely time to be staying in the ‘burbs’, where we could see our neighbours preparing for the celebrations and sense how exciting and meaningful the occasion was for them.
- On the day of the festival, all of the boats were wheeled into the centre of town where they were judged and a winner decided. By mid-afternoon there was a really festive vibe in the air (it reminded me of the day of the Santa Parade). PA systems played music all through the town, dozens of stalls selling floral offerings had popped up and preparations were being made to close the roads and kick off the events.
- When night fell, each boat was lit up with hundreds of candles and paraded down the main street accompanied by musicians and the village people who made it. It was a little bit like an Olympic opening ceremony – a girl walked down the street first holding a sign with the name of the village/temple that the float belonged to, then came a whole lot of people singing and dancing or holding candles, and then the float followed. There were a lot of floats and a lot of people, so the whole parade took well over an hour.
- As the parade drew to an end, everybody converged on Wat Xieng Tong. The boats were lined up once again, and then taken down a very steep set of stairs, across the road and down to the Mekong. This was the part of the night where things got really crazy – everybody wanted to see the boats set adrift and set off their own small offerings alongside them. The Police had a hell of a job keeping things under control, especially since the road was still open to traffic.
- Finally, everybody wandered along the banks of the Mekong and watched as the current caught the boats and sent them down the river. We took the opportunity to release some offerings of our own and make a wish. We then sat on the shore secretly hoping that one of the boats would catch on fire (of which a few did), burn spectacularly and sink in front of us. Not very festive, but it was entertaining.
Food: Luang Prabang summed up all the best things about Laos food:
- Fruit Shakes and Baguettes. Every place we have been to in Laos has had a strip of identical carts offering fruit shakes and baguettes. They all have the same menu (there’s about 40 different baguette fillings on offer), and jostle good-naturedly for your business. We have lived on fruit shakes and baguettes as cheap lunch options, and because they are so damn good. Paying $10 for a juice from TANK is really going to sting after this.
- Laos noodle soup is the best noodle soup I have ever eaten. People rave about Pho in Vietnam, but get yourself over here and into a bowl of piping hot noodle soup and you’ll know you’ve hit the jackpot.
- Laos BBQ. On almost every street corner there is a makeshift BBQ selling the most delicious bbq meat and fish. Everything is on a bamboo skewer and you just select your pork belly, river fish, chicken feet or whatever and they fire it up for you and off you go. There were a couple of late nights on the Beer Lao where we walked home muching a BBQ chicken breast on a stick. I know we like to think that we have mastered the BBQ in New Zealand, but we could learn a lot from the roadside BBQ masters in Laos.
- Coconut Cakes. These little cakes are the best thing out – they don’t look like much, but when you bite into them they are full of gooey coconutty goodness. Five Kip for a little banana leaf boat full of them is money well spent.
Friends: We were lucky enough to spend a couple of awesome evenings hanging out with Rico, a German guy that we met on our boat cruise in Halong Bay (Mum and Dad – he’s the blonde one). We had bumped into Rico earlier when we were in Vang Vieng, but couldn’t get our acts together to catch up. We made sure that we didn’t make the same mistake twice and had a lovely dinner, and drinks at the riverside bar, Utopia, in Luang Prabang. We also spent the night of the Festival hanging out with Rico. Rico is also doing extended travel around SE Asia and it was great to share stories and tips. We are hoping to see him again in Cambodia, where we might hire bikes and have a bit of an adventure together.
Sai Bat: Sai Bat is the morning ritual where hundreds of monks from around Luang Prabang leave their temples to collect food (alms) from devotees. The food comprises the monks one meal of the day, and is prepared with love and care by the local people. At sunrise, there is a silent procession of monks through the main streets of Luang Prabang collecting food from the devotees who have been waiting quietly for them since the early hours. We were originally reluctant to go along to Sai Bat, because there have been a lot of reports that the whole event has turned into a tourist spectacle, where people disrespect the monks by not observing protocol, shoving their cameras in the monks faces and generally acting like dickheads. Thankfully, on the morning we went along there was very little of this going on, and so we were both really pleased to have made the effort and seen it.
Kuang Si Waterfall: We left it until our very last day in Luang Prabang to visit the Kuang Si Waterfall. We picked up a scooter in the morning and made the hour or so journey out of town to see the Falls. I had heard they were spectacular, but they were even better than expected. The Falls themselves are beautiful, but the real star of the show is the dozens of terraced limestone pools that water continually runs in and out of, at the bottom of the Falls. They reminded me of pictures of the Pink and White Terraces at Lake Tarawera. We were woefully underdressed for the hike to the top of the Falls, but did it anyway and it was well worth the effort. You can swim in the Falls, which would be awesome, but wet togs and a couple more hours on a scooter didn’t seem like such a hot combination for us. On the way to the Falls you also pass a bear sanctuary, where dozens of bears rescued from bear bile farms or circuses live a lovely peaceful life.
Hillside Lifestyle Resort: We spent our last two days in Luang Prabang at the Hillside Lifestyle Resort, about half an hour out of town. It was super peaceful, with really just the manager Pierre, and the resident five cats a dog, Buddy, to keep us company. The major drawcard for the Resort was the fact that it had a pool. After sweating it out in town for a week, we were ready to move somewhere we could take a dip. The fact the pool water was murky green was a bit off-putting at first, but we’ve dealt with that before and there was really nothing stopping us from getting in. The only downside to the Resort was the unwelcome visitors – spiders the size of saucers, who set up digs in our bathroom on the first night. It’s amazing how long you can hold a wee, when the alternative is having to go to the bathroom with eight hairy eyes looking at you.
And now for the lowlights:
“Luxury” cruise of the Mekong: We decided to leave Laos with a bang and booked ourselves on a luxury two day cruise of the Mekong from Luang Prabang to Huay Xai (the Thai border). We were promised a luxurious boat, gourmet food and a lovely couple of days lazing in sun loungers and feeling pleased with ourselves. None of that actually happened. The shit hit the fan early when we couldn’t reach the boat pier in Luang Prabang due to road closures. Our driver dumped us unceremoniously on the side of the road and told us that we would be picked up by someone from the cruise (i.e. someone who cared a damn sight more than he did). We bounced back from that and were just settling into our loungers when we realised that we had boarded the boat minus our camera. Cue mad panic, backpacks being searched, undies and other personal items being flung about, and the horrible realisation that our camera was 100% definitely not with us. We knew we’d packed it in our backpack, so the only place it could be was the van we caught from the hotel. Two hours later and more US dollars than I’d like to mention, we had arranged for our camera to be transported via slowboat to meet us at the Thai border. It was either that or rely on the Laos postal service and neither of us was having a bar of that.
Having sorted all of that out by lunchtime, we were just starting to relax into the cruise when there was an almighty thump. You didn’t need to know much about boats to know that it wasn’t good. To his credit, the captain kept his cool (I’ve heard many a foul mouth tirade across the shores of Lake Taupo over more minor boating catastrophes – yes Dad, I’m looking at you), pulled the boat onto the banks, stripped down to a fetching pair of maroon Y fronts and was off to investigate. An hour later and we hadn’t moved. It was at this point that we were told we were going to have join the public boat for the remaining five hours of the trip. The public boat sucked the big one, and was all the things we had hoped to avoid. It was hot and cramped, there were 50 people, one loo and seats that had been taken from old cars and just dumped on the deck (not even screwed in place). I had to sit next to a very abrasive German woman, who looked particularly put out at having to share one of her four seats with me. She made her displeasure known by sighing a lot, and putting her bare feet as close as humanly possible to me, without actually touching. Lisa and I used to play a similar game on family road trips (“you can’t do anything, I’m not actually touching you, ha ha ha!”). It was annoying then, and it’s still annoying now.
Day two of the cruise was a roaring success by comparison, and we finally got to relax and take in the scenery of the Mekong.
Nakaraj Princess Hotel: We had to spend a night in Huay Xai while we waited for our camera to cruise up the river to meet us. Given we had sweet FA to actually do while we waited, we decided to book into the Nakaraj Princess Hotel, which boasted three restaurants, a casino, shuttle buses into town, duty free shopping, a mini-mart etc. It seemed like the perfect place to kill time. We could not have been more wrong. The entire place was a ghost town. There was one restaurant, the mini-mart was abandoned and the casino was across the street, boarded up and surrounded by tumbleweeds. We wandered down to the restaurant for dinner and were given a laminated A4 piece of paper with six pictures on – one of sandwich, one of instant noodles, one of unidentifiable meat things . . . you get the gist. There was no internet, no television and no one who spoke English. The whole experience was totally bizarre.
Today we (finally) crossed the border from Laos into Thailand. Our three weeks in Laos were incredible, and we’ll be leaving with lasting memories of a beautiful country, amazing people and a calmness that we haven’t experienced many other places. But my ultimate Laos memory will be of bikes and brollies. It is such an amazing sight every morning to see hundreds of school children, monks and office workers, take to the roads driving one-handed on their bikes, so that they can steer and also shield themselves from the sun.
The next week in Thailand will be a whirlwind as we make our way from Chiang Khong to Chiang Rai, (hopefully) tackle our first overnight motorbike trip, and arrive in Chiang Mai ready for a week volunteering in the dog shelter at the Elephant Nature Park.