We took the slow boat from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang – two days cruising down the Mekong with an overnight stop in the small town of Pak Beng. We opted for the mid-range boat option, which was actually quite nice. We were fed, had a few tourist stops and got plenty of time to catch up on reading, journaling, and planning. We were told the boat could fit up to 100 people (although we weren’t sure how that would be possible looking at it), and there were only 15 of us making the trip. It was mostly Aussies and everyone was very friendly. I even got some good travel tips for Cambodia and Vietnam – I spent some time putting together a rough itinerary for Vietnam, so I don’t have to concern myself with it for a while.
On the first day we stopped at a small village on the tourist circuit. The kids were expert sales girl and we both ended up with a bracelet from them. But since I had lost the bracelet I bought in Chiang Mai for $0.30 in the jungle (it was colorful, woven bamboo, made by a very old woman), I was happy to get one of the brightly-colored embroidered cloth bracelet these little girls made (and they were only about $0.50). I probably should have bought more of them, since these kids are hard workers. But as you have to learn in Asia, you simply can’t buy from everyone.
We passed lots of farm land along the Mekong. This is the dry season, and it’s field-burning time, so our last few hours the first day were spent in a thick cloud of smoke. The smoke was so bad I covered my mouth with a bandana (like an old fashioned bandit!) and wore my sunglasses to try to protect my eyes from the ash blowing about. I have not seen blue sky too much in the last few weeks, and these farming practices are a lot of the reason why.
The second day we stopped at Pak Ou Caves – two caves where many Buddha statutes have seemingly been discarded for lack of anywhere else to put them. It has the feel of a hoarder’s hiding place, although some of the statutes are hidden in nooks and crannies that gives the place a bit of whimsy.
We opted to hike up the stairs to the upper cave as well. Although it was a hot hike, it made us feel slightly better about having lazed about for two days. And after that stop, it was just a short ride to our final destination.
It struck me that Luang Prabang is a city best shared in pictures, and I took my fair share. But I had a hard time capturing the quaintness of it all – French colonial architecture with a decidedly Asian influence. The town is on a peninsula, flanked by the Mekong and the Nam Khan rivers, and both waterfronts are lined with lush tropical trees (including every kind of fruit tree imaginable and tons of epiphytes like orchids) and laid back restaurants that make you want to linger. The old town has so many small side streets (that only pedestrians and two-wheeled vehicles can use) it makes you want to spend all day wandering and exploring.
In addition to wandering about, we saw many of the main attractions – the Royal Palace museum, the TEAC (Traditional Art & Ethnology Center), the handicraft night market, many wats (of course), the UXO (Unexploaded Ordnance) Information Center (which will make you feel bad to be an American since we dropped all those bombs during the Vietnam war – Laos is the most bombed country per capita thanks to our attempts to cut off the Ho Chi Mihn Trail), Kuang Si falls (where we swam with monks!) – and made sure to take plenty of breaks for cold drinks and good food.
I have to say that Laos food is awesome! I’m trying to note the distinctions between the cuisines here, so I’ve been making an effort to take a cooking class (at least one) in each country I visit. We went to a cooking class at Tamarind. Like in our Thai cooking class, we again used a mortar and pestle to make almost everything. But we cooked everything in or on a small ceramic hibachi-type charcoal grill – unlike the gas flame used elsewhere. It was all so deceptively simple. While some of the spices used are the same as in Thai cooking, in Laos the chilies are a bit different and we used spices like coriander, dill, and mint in amounts and combinations I hadn’t seen before. While in Laos there is Laap, which is similar to the Thai dish (spiced ground meat, basically), the Laos version has more mint, no basil, and is spicier. The Laos also love their sticky rice (they eat it with every meal and use their hands) and make some great sausage (buffalo is common). Laos food feels a bit lighter, since they don’t really use a lot of coconut milk (I can’t believe I didn’t feed my curry addiction but still loved the food) and even their “stews” are more like soups (with clear broth). I wasn’t sure what to expect in Laos, honestly, and the food we got in the jungle was so bland I was a bit worried. But after eating my way through Luang Prabang, I must say that Laos food is right up there with Thai as my favorite. I just hope I can do it justice when I make it at home!