Laos Trip Report

Amcan Travel visits Laos, January 2014.

We got to Mandalay Airport about 3 hours prior to our scheduled departure. The airport is quite far from the city and the ride took almost an hour. The check in was very easy and we were given restaurant coupons to enjoy a sandwich and a drink, before boarding the plane, where they fed us again with another lunch. We arrived Bangkok Airport in late afternoon and checked into our airport hotel via their shuttle service. The next morning's flight was equally uneventful, and we arrived Luang Prabang around noon.

Saturday afternoon started our official visit in Luang Prabang. It's a lovely former imperial city, with many UNESCO designated sites in the town of 70,000 residents. Our guesthouse is across the street from the old Palace grounds (photo, Haw Kham temple) at the foot of the Phu Si Hill, right in the center of the town. The guesthouse was nicely decorated and we really enjoyed the teak and bamboo decor. There was a lovely wraparound patio with wicker chairs, 24 hour coffee and tea. In the afternoon we went to the Royal Palace to buy two Royal Ballet tickets from Phrolak Phralam Theater on the palace grounds. Then we split up, so Richard climbed up the Phu Si Hill to take photos of the panorama view of the city with river in the middle (photo, Nam Khan river), while Barbara combed the main drag inspecting the colorful market, where we had some dinner of fat rice noodles, Lao's famous sausage, BBQ'ed pork, sticky rice, fresh vegetable and preserved leafy greens that is Barbara's favorite. The flavor is quite similar to Thai, and that in Yunnan, China. We came back to the theatre just in time to catch the show, which inevitably was mostly attended by foreigners. We found out later that the admission ticket per person, though very reasonable for western standard, costs a local local laborer's three weeks salary. The ten-musician orchestra was superb. We found the dance performance a bit mundane. We could well imagine, as they crank out the same show four times a week, it could get repetitive for the performers. There were many French tourists present, and all announcements were repeated in both English and French.

Sunday morning before 7am, Barbara peeled herself out of bed, hoping to catch the famous Tak Bat, the monks' alms procession that has happened every morning for the last hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years. The saffron clad army of barefoot monks walk along the street. Local residents, kneeling down along side walk, place tiny sticky rice balls in the monks' begging bowls humbly. We were told the authentic meditative, quiet ceremony has been mostly destroyed by tourists who eagerly stick their cameras towards the face of monks and alms givers, flashing away. Some tourists also like to join the givers, which has prompted street vendors aggressively selling offerings on the street, losing much of the essence of the alms giving. Barbara was dying to see the procession, hoping to watch from a distance without her camera, nor purchased offering. But she got up too late and all she saw was a busload of tourists happily brandishing their cameras around, walking back to their buses or guesthouses. We had a breakfast of rice porridge and set out walking towards the largest monastery in town, Wat Xieng Thong, a 500 year old temple that survived the sack of the Black Flag Army in late 19th century. The main temple has an unusual wall with mother pearl inlays depicting local life (photo, Wat Xieng Thong, and photo, inlaid wall). The temple grounds also house a golden carriage with Bridgestone tires, last used in 1960s to carry the last king's ashes in the giant urn, in a fabulous ornate permanent garage (photo, garage). We stopped at half dozen smaller working temples and monasteries along the way, every one occupied by monks of various ages. The monk lifestyle involves rising at 4:30am to clean the temple ground, collecting alms, breakfast, more cleaning, then lunch. Their afternoon is normally free, while young monks go to school. We stopped at a local noodle shop for lunch with only two items on their menu: Pork Rice Noodle soup, and Pork Rice Noodle soup with an egg, 25 cents difference between the dishes. The food was fresh, clean, tasty and very cheap, and they are very busy, as it seems to be the locals' lunch spot. Unlike most restaurants on the main drag of the town, where you only see tourists, it is a nice mix of diners. We came back to take a nap, and arranged the bus ticket to Vientiane. Then we went out for dinner, crossing the Nam Khan River on a temporary bamboo bridge, which is available only during the dry season. During the wet season, the bridge will be washed away and replaced by a two minute boat ride. The dimly lit bridge and climb up the hill to the restaurant was very atmospheric. The food and service was well worth the trouble. Reclining like royalty on cushions, we had typical Luang Prabang cuisine: a platter of riverweed, fried with sesame, a sweet chili with buffalo skin, the famous sausage and eggplant dip, accompanied by purple sticky rice, and a lemongrass flavored fresh fish steamed in banana leaves, yummy. The dessert was a double chocolate with creamy black and white chocolate. Walking back in the dark through the bamboo bridge hand in hand, it was romantic.

Monday morning we got up late, thus missing the alms procession again. We walked though the morning market, where all fresh produce, fish, meat, spice and all kinds of rice are on sale. We stopped at a donut stall to watch the vendor frying them In hot oil, and we scooped up a few fresh ones out of the wok. Back to our guesthouse, we washed them down with coffee and tea. We did more walking around town, towards areas a little less touristy, looked around the daily market, where daily items are on the offer other than souvenirs. There is a museum/education center about the UXO (unexploded ordnance) as the result of US bombing in the late 1960s, mostly in the Plain of Jars. We stopped by, but it was closed on Monday. We went around the Phu Si Hill, stopped at Lao Lao Garden for a very Lao lunch, in a secluded garden setting at the foot of the hill. To work off the big lunch, we climbed up the hill to see Buddha's giant foot print on a piece of rock. We stopped at local shops to buy spring rolls, French pastries and fresh fruits from the market to take back to our hotel as a light dinner that we enjoyed on the patio.

Tuesday is our last day in Luang Prabang, and our bus leaves for Vientiane at 8am. We got up before 6am determined that we would go see the alms procession. We walked with a lot of tourists towards the major temples. Sure enough we saw waves of foreigners and vendors of offerings crowding the street, among some local devotees. We saw a few dozen of young monks walking along the sidewalk, accepting food, with a lot of cameras clicking and flashing, a practice we had seen advice against on brochures posted all over the town. We were sad to see it is still happening and against the essence of the alms. Richard decided that he could not take it, so we fled the scene long before it was over. Back to our hotel, since we had paid a handsome commission for the hotel staff to take care of our bus tickets and ride to the station, the front desk boy was very nervous when the ride was nowhere to be seen 15 minutes after the scheduled time. He had to flag down a random tuk-tuk from the major road to get us to the bus station on time. Our Chinese-manufactured VIP bus was pretty nice and, hooray! there is no loud Lao soap opera showing on the screens. We got bottled water, a snack bar, and a coupon for lunch in a local restaurant on the way. Descending from 2100 feet high down through some rugged mountains was no small task for the driver, but a great scenic experience for us. The bus took 12 hours instead of the scheduled 9 to pull into Vientiane's Northern Bus Station. We took the jumbo (a pickup truck converted to an open air minibus) with half a dozen passengers into city center, where our hotel is located. The room was lovely but the bed is so hard, it seems that they only use the box portion of a bed, but not the mattress. Lying on the giant bed, we feel like two fish on display as what we saw in the fresh food market in Luang Prabang.

Wednesday was pretty relaxed, as we learned the city is compact, flat and easy to visit on bikes. We had breakfast at the hostel's open air patio, then got two bikes from a sweet street vendor close to the hostel. We rode bikes on the city street, of which a majority are one way. We stopped in to look at a couple of wats, on the way to the famous fountain in the center of the city. The wats, both occupied by monks (photo, Haw Phra Kaew), function as community center and also serve as cemeteries, containing a number of patrons' ash urn stupas, in different shapes, sizes and conditions. There is always a living quarter for monks decorated by their drying robes (a piece of cloth to be precise) on the dragon- or naga-guarded stairways. In one wat, we saw a temporary sala where a group of older women were sitting and eating in a commune style. When Barbara approached with curiosity, they offered to feed her, but she shied away. We stopped in front of the presidential palace, though nobody seems to be interested in inviting us in. A giant presidential guesthouse is being built on the same grounds and the construction is carried out by a Chinese company. We continued to Wat Si Saket, Vientiane's oldest surviving temple with Thai style architecture (photo, Haw Phra Kaew). It has more culture and history shown here than the National Museum. We proceeded to the nearby market, hoping to find Lao musical instruments to take home. The market is enormous and we almost got lost inside. We had lunch in their food court, with the best drink of the trip, soursop shake (yum!). Our attempt to get instruments was mildly successful, as we picked up a cheap flute, a nice gong beater and a bamboo clapper. Then we rode to Haw Phra Kaew, where the emerald Buddha once stayed, before he was looted to Bangkok by Siamese soldiers. Our final stop was Patuxai, Vientiane's version of the Arc du Triomphe. Richard climbed up to get a panorama view of the city (photo, Vientiane overview), while Barbara relaxed in the shade watching street vendors selling sticky rice in the pampagras tubes. On the way back to our hostel, we stopped near the National Culture Center (photo, Culture Center), a gigantic building also built by Chinese, to see if there is any possible performance for the night. It looked completely deserted and empty. We gave up and called it the day.

Thursdays is our last day of our tour. We started early to take advantage of the cool weather in the morning. We walked through a couple of truly lovely community wats. The gardening around them is meticulous, all seem to do really well: New constructions are going on, fancy new cars are parked in well-maintained grounds porch, everything is spotless. We walked toward the Mekong River (photo, posing with the river). The season being dry, it seemed like it would be very easy to walk across the low river bed to the other side, Thailand, the richer and more powerful neighbor. 70% of Mekong in this region serves as the border between the two countries. Our next stop was the fountain, an intended public friendly space, taken up entirely by a half dozen restaurants. We were disappointed and immediately left for the National Museum, which has a limited selection of items on display. A lot of the near contemporary history is illustrated by fuzzy pictures and memorabilia. The museum itself is in a prime location with a giant backyard. Other than an outdoor exhibit of two jars from the Plain of Jars, there are also clothes lines and a vegetable patch growing lettuce. We were able to finish the entire museum visit within an hour and continued to lunch at an international restaurant, apparently run by Korean. Since we paid for a late check out, we got ourselves leisurely back to the hotel in the early afternoon, passing the market to get a couple of bottles of Lao Lao, the local 80 proof rice wine, before heading out to airport and going home.