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I'm an Aussie who likes wandering all over the world but keeps coming back home to paradise and my family. If you are reading this on one of my travel blogs, I hope you enjoy reading them as much as I enjoyed creating them. If you are reading the Diabetes and weight loss blog - I hope it helps in your battle with the beast. Cheers, Alan

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Luang Prabang, Laos

Looking up the Mekong from Pak Ou Caves
Travel dates 20th-23rd February 2015
The short Lao Air flight from Vientiane to Luang Prabang was uneventful apart from a rather hard bounce on landing. I take the Air Force attitude to those: any landing I can walk away from is a good landing.

The Vientiane domestic airport, like many others in less developed countries, was relaxed and easy to negotiate for check in and security.

I was booked via Agoda at the Sayo Xieng Mouane guest house but as soon as I saw the room and checked facilities I realised I had made a mistake. Their description on Agoda did not mention several different standards of room and I had been allocated bottom of the range. To cut a long story short I stayed one night and found another guest house by walking around and checking availability. A link to my Agoda review will be included when they decide to publish it; maybe they don't like my poor report.

As a side note, the name of my new guest house, Sackharinh, seemed phonetically apt for a diabetic. I later noticed it was also the street name.

Luang Prabang was smaller, less hectic and more tourist-oriented than Vientiane. To be fair I did not get far out of the central tourist area bounded by the junction of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers to the west and east and the National Museum to the south.
View up the Nam Khan River

Within that region it is ‘tourist central’: guest houses, hotels, travel agencies, restaurants, bars, laundries, ATMs and currency exchanges within a few blocks, easy to walk around in a few hours. Later, when I climbed Mount Phousi (well, actually a large hill rather than a mountain) I could see there were further parts of the town where the locals lived and worked well beyond the tourist area. Possibly they are wise to segregate the districts that way.

I enjoyed my visit to the town. The people were friendly, even my disappointed guest house manager who offered an Agoda refund for the cancelled nights (which I accepted). The food in the town was invariably good regardless of the price on the menu and the whole atmosphere was relaxed. I stayed three nights. On the first day I mainly wandered as usual, without any specific goal, just looking, listening and learning about the town. I had a curry soup for lunch at a restaurant perched high on the east bank of the Mekong, watching the ferries and boats ply their trade surrounded by beautiful scenery.

Small pleasures like that are one of the reasons I travel. To me those moments are just as important as seeing the wonders of the world.

On my first evening I was sitting alone at a table in another restaurant trying to decide what to order when an English speaking couple entered. I’m not sure who started the conversation but Mike, Carol and I ended up sharing a table and an enjoyable conversation for the next couple of hours. Carol also blogs about her travels. This trip was a happy one in that respect; later I mention two men from Manchester I met on the boat to the caves. I had similar encounters with an Aussie on the flight from KL to Vientiane who visits Laos four times a year on aid work. Later Kate and Tom were a lovely couple I encountered for dinner in Vang Vieng when tables were full and mine wasn’t. They are volunteers in Vientiane who had come up-country on a brief holiday. Earlier in Vientiane I had an interesting chat with an English bloke over a beer and a meal in the restaurant up those 60 steps.
Encounters like that mitigate the occasional loneliness of the solo mature traveller who doesn’t go to bars or join in the party scene.

On the second day I did some housekeeping in the morning arranging laundry, always a task every four or five days, and catching up on some news on the web. After lunch I decided to see if my old legs could still climb the 400+ stairs to the top of Mount Phousi. I made it, but I took a lot of breathers along the way. The pictures were taken at some of those rest stops.

At first I paused at thirty steps, then that became twenty.

By the top it was closer to ten.

That day I celebrated my 68th birthday. I had a rolling feast for the birthday dinner. I started with a simple curry, accompanied by beer Lao at a riverside cafe; it is one of several teaching restaurants aimed at giving deprived kids a career. The food was OK, but the ambience was special.

After the curry I wandered up-river beside the Nam Khan to a restaurant based on a French Patisserie for coffee and cake. Whatever the faults of French colonialism, and they were many, the legacy of their bakers on Indo-chinese cuisine is unmistakeable. Cambodia and Laos (and presumably Vietnam which is on my to-go-to list) have bread and bakery products equal to any I tasted in France.

The tables were riverside but the main café was across the road. I decided I would follow Jennifer's wise advice that Birthday Cake has neither carbs nor calories. I chose a slice of cheesecake with mango slices. The intuitive salesgirl asked if it was a special occasion so I mentioned I was turning 68. To my surprise when the cake appeared it had a candle burning and was presented by two Lao teen staff singing Happy Birthday in a mixture of Lao and English. They received a good tip :)

Next I went to a bar which specialised in French wines for a pleasant Pays D'Oc Syrah, and finished the evening at yet another restaurant with a brandy. Surprisingly both my head and my numbers were good next morning. Jennifer was right!

On the third day, after booking the bus seat to Vang Vieng for the morrow, I enjoyed a boat cruise up the Mekong to the Pak Ou Caves. By pure chance I chose the biggest and most comfortable boat. The US$25 five hour return trip included a simple lunch on board. 

The first stop was at a ‘tourist’ Hmong village, where the main industries, apart from tourism, appeared to be whisky making and fabric weaving.

The primitive whisky still arrangement was likened to an ancient Irish Shebeen by an Irishman in the group. It certainly looked very basic. I tasted the whisky, but didn’t buy. It had a kick like a mule. I’m not sure if my small sample came from a bottle with a snake or a scorpion; probably neither because they were more expensive.


To each their own. Lao whisky in the bars back in Luang Prabang was cheaper than beer for those prepared to drink it. I reckon you wouldn't need many shots for these to turn pink.

To get from the boat to the landing at the caves we had to go over a bamboo pontoon arrangement. Our group was warned by the boatman not to overload it but no-one appeared to have warned a dozen German tourists crossing in the other direction who refused to wait while our people were carefully crossing. Luckily I had not started crossing; those who were on the pontoon suffered no worse than soaked shoes and socks as the water rose to their ankles. They were lucky not to go for a swim. The aggressive German party seemed to think it was everybody else’s fault.

I was informed by a lady descending that there were 249 steps to the top cave; she said she counted them all on the way down between curses aimed at her spouse for encouraging her to go up. My legs were still aching from my climb to the top of the hill the day before, so I decided to visit only the lower caves. The lower caves were interesting and I was pleased to be told later I didn’t miss much by those who went to the top.

One of the things which surprised me on the voyage was the speed of the water and narrowness of some the passages through the rocky sections. The Mekong is a mighty river, but at this point far from the delta to the sea the scattered sharp rocky ridges make it quite dangerous, needing good pilots and skilful captains. 

The occasional wreck on the rocks was a salutary reminder to navigators.

The tables on the boat were arranged in threes. I chatted with two blokes from Manchester as we cruised along, watching the villages and scenery gliding past, and didn’t notice the hours passing. I enjoyed the boat cruise; a pleasant and relaxed interlude.

My final meal in Luang Prabang was a wonderful fish fillet steamed in banana leaf. Unfortunately, after I arrived in Vang Vieng the next day I discovered I had left my smartphone in the restaurant but neglected to note its name and could not contact them. A rather expensive meal in hindsight. 

I left by bus for Vang Vieng after three interesting days.

Cheers, Alan

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