So we finally arrived in Luang Prabang in Laos in the evening on Friday 19 August. We found our Manichan Guest House in a maze of lanes. The bad news way that he’d assumed we were not coming and had given our room away a couple of days later. The good news was that nobody had turned up looking for a room for that night so we still had one to crash in. The lack of walk-ins may have been because the main road south had been blocked for 24 hours1 The surprising thing was that this didn’t seem to be news in Luang Prabang.
It was a lovely guest house in a quiet lane not far from the main street. After a bit of freshening up (as fresh as you can up after a 23 hour bus trip) we ventured out to the main street through the night market and found a nice restaurant and partook of their fare. It’s nice being able to dine out and not have any dishes for 7 weeks.
Next morning we enjoyed the lovely breakfast available at the guest house. Home-made yoghurt with fresh fruit salad and muesli and the best omlettes. The guest house has a lovely big table that seats about 8 people which encourages interaction with the other guests. This morning though everyone else was happily interacting in French so we felt like we were invisible or something. The owner had sorted out our booking so we could stay on, albeit with the room change we knew we’d have to make after one night. Aircon was optional with this place – pay another US$5 and you get the remote to make it work. We decided to try going without the aircon with our second room. Which was probably a mistake as the only windows opened to the internal courtyard area so we struggled to balance privacy and breathing.
It was a nice morning so we headed out in the sun and the heat. We’re still learning about avoiding midday sun and mad dogs and persons of the English type. We did a spin around the big block around the big hill in the middle of the old town part. We found a book shop to trade in Wyn’s novel that she’d finished. And got caught in a downpour that would have been at home in the Bay of Plenty. Except this one only lasted 10 minutes so was only a passing shower. We were at a covered market at the time so were nicely sheltered. We didn’t do much else for the day – still getting over getting there.
Sunday Wyn woke up keen to do an elephant ride. She doesn’t do this every day and luckily we were in an area with elephants to ride. We booked for a tour the next day and went off to explore some more on foot. We soon gave up on feet and hired some bikes. Good old one-speed dungers. Mine had no brakes either so I traded that for one with less excitement. Biking was a breeze – literally. We’d forgotten that if you can get your bike up to 10kmph then you have a 10kmph breeze – not worrying about head or tail winds. And with less energy being used we didn’t get so hot and bothered anyway. So off we zoomed – clackety clack. We visited a Wat (temple) up the street and sheltered there from another rain shower.
Later in the afternoon we climbed the 200 and something steps up Phu Chi hill to join the throng waiting and watching for the sunset. It was hard to find elbow room to see the views. And where do you buy shares in Canon? I wish I had some. Jeez, every man and his chicken has one – 99% DSLRs with huge lenses. The sunset wasn’t outstanding but what the heck. There’s not a lot else to do of an evening in Luang Prabang.
Monday morning we were up 4.45am. That’s right. A quarter to five o’clock in the morning. Early! We went out to see the monks alms gathering. This is where they file around the streets and the good folk of Luang Prabang have rice to give them. The givers get points for the giving and the monks get food. Good system for everyone – a genuine win-win. The older monks lead the lines and the younger ones bring up the rear. There is a real pecking order. It must be a good day when the kid at the back ends becomes the kid second-from-back. It is a lovely tradition which seems to have died out in a lot of other places. And I just love the orangeness of the monks robes.
We walked back to our guesthouse through the morning food market. There was all manner of food. Vegetables we could only wonder about. And live things – chickens, fish, frogs. I cannot bring myself to describe how the frogs were presented. The butchery section was at least dealing with dead animals although I think I became a vegetarian about then.
Luckily all this didn’t put us off breakfast back at the guesthouse, which was as good as ever. We were picked up at 8.30am for our elephant ride trip. Along with three other couples we bumped out to an elephant village. After a cup of tea we were taken in long boats across the river. Here we met our elephants. Each elephant had a driver (mahout) and a seat across its back for two people to sit on. There was a mounting platform so that we could climb on with some dignity. So we climbed on, with dignity, and ambled off. It was an extraordinary experience. The mud was deep and the stream was deeper (and muddier) and the elephant never put a foot wrong. There was a muddy stream crossing and then an exit up a muddy steep track. I was sure we’d crash and be crushed. But we weren’t. Steadily and surely the animal carried us up and then through the jungle. The jungle track reminded me of the worst bits of the old Burns Track on Swampy near Dunedin. Only wider. If only we’d thought of elephants the Burns Track would have been OK. Occasionally the elephant would snap off a small tree for a bit of fuel – what a perfect transport system. The driver hopped off at one stage to take some photos – he wasn’t a bad photographer either although the G12’s lack of an obvious screen had him fooled. He was calling the elephant through the jungle at this point. He offered me a ride in the driver’s seat and with encouragement from his mate next door I slipped onto his head with my legs behind his enormous ears – the elephant’s, not the drivers. The elephant was walking by remote control but I felt like I was in charge. I had to stand on his head to get back to the seat. He didn’t seem to mind.
After an hour or so we had done a big circle and descended the same track without somersaulting or anything amiss. Dismounted we were able to offer our elephant some bananas. It was the least we could do. Back in the long boat again we zoomed off upriver. It was a fun trip – I could imagine early explorers doing something similar. We were dropped off at a series of waterfalls – more cascades through the trees into the river. How the trees survive happily in the middle of the cascades beats me. We had a swim and it was pleasantly cool. Then it was back to the boat and back downstream. The river was high and brown and the trip down was much quicker. We had lunch at the village overlooking the river with a backdrop of the hills and the jungle. It was a perfect ending to a great experience.
We went out to tea that night to a flash restaurant which had some live folk music and dancing. I liked the folk music the best. Tuesday was our day for leaving – in the afternoon. We’d left the Museum/former palace until the last day only to get there and discover that it was closed on Tuesdays. That was a surprise. I was looking forward to seeing the king’s collection of vehicles including an old Citroen apparently. Oh well – some other time? It felt quite different leaving by air – to Hanoi and Vietnam. This was a first for this trip. All we had to do was get a taxi to the airport which was not far. And do the normal airport things. I got our pack shrink-wrapped – not so much for security as because I’ve always wanted to get it done. The Laos Airlines ATR looked very nice, just like all the Air NZ ones like Brian flies except probably newer. And they handed out freshening-up towels before takeoff and a small meal in-flight. Looking down on the mountainous countryside below we were very happy to be flying over it.