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Location: United Kingdom

Monday, November 07, 2005

Luang Prabang is an extremely beautiful city

From the moment we arrived in Luang Prabang, we knew it was something special. The road outside our guesthouse was, if anything, even more sleepy than Vientiane, and lined with old wooden shuttered houses and shops. Monks passed by, holding parasols, while in the distance was Mount Phousi, covered in trees.

Luang Prabang is one of the most beautiful, and genteel, places I've ever been to. We stayed on the penninsular part of the city - a half mile or so of land that's surrounded by the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers. There are three main streets: one along each river bank, and one down the middle, where the main shops and restaurants are.

For the first couple of days, Sara was still recovering her strength, so we took it easy - walking along the banks of the Mekong in the morning, and having a drink while reading books, or watching the boats go by. Our favourite drink was coconut, which is the simplest drink imaginable, but the most refreshing in the hot sun - take a young coconut, hack at it with a machette until you break the tip of one end off, and put a straw in. Delicious. In the afternoon we visited some of the Wats for which Luang Prabang is famous (and for which the entire city has been awarded a UNESCO world heritage site)

From what I've seen, Luang Prabang shows the best of the Lao people; relaxed, happy, easy-going, and gentle. The food has also once again been excellent. There is a huge contrast from Vientiane, though. The city is much smaller - maybe only 20,000 people in it altogether, and surrounded by jungle. After Hanoi, I was surprised by just how green Vientiane was. Now, after Vietiane, I was surprised by how green Luang Prabang was.

By day 3, Sara was feeling better, so we climbed Mount Phousi, which is actually more of a steep sided hill in the centre of the city. Stairs run up to a wat on the top, cut out of the rock, and after about 300 steps (and many rests, in the tropical heat), we were rewarded by one of the greatest views I've ever seen. We could see the spires of the wats and stupas, the curve of the Mekong, the tropical forest all around, and distant mountains.

It's now day four. I've eaten delicious food each day- both European and Lao - drank plenty of "beerlao", walked through the evening market and picked a couple of choice souveniers, and had long discussions with a local monk about life in the temples, and what it's like to be Lao. There are occasional reminders of war - the bomb cases that have been turned into plant pots, for example, but overall this has been one of the most gentle, and easy, cities to be a tourist in.

Some things that are typically Lao, and particulaly from Luang Prabang (or so it seems to me):

1. Good food
2. Fruit shakes (fruit mixed with ice)
3. Weaving
4. "same same", when used to describe two things that are similar.
5. Lizards climbing all over the walls.
6. Intense heat in the middle of the day, and so a citywide siesta
7. Fine restaurants, with rotating fans and veranda's.
8. Boats along the mekong.
9. People lying about, particularly the back of tuktuks, where they hang a hammock.
10. Beautiful Wats, and orange robed monks, carrying parasols.
11. Flowers.

Friday, November 04, 2005

Vientiane is a city of contrasts

Laos is a small, landlocked country between Vietnam, Burma, Thailand and China. There was some sort of Lao state in the 16th century, when a King named Fa Nguem managed to unify the various regions, but for most of its existence it's been the battlefield for larger powers. The Thai's sacked Vientiane, the capital, in the 19th century, and then the French took over. In the Vietnam war (which the Vietnamese call the "American war"), Laos suffered some of the heaviest bombing the world has ever seen, as America tried to close down the Ho Chi Minh trail, while keeping the bombing secret from their own people.

So, although there are many old things in Laos (and our next stop, Luang Prabang, has temples dating back to 1550), in Vientiane, a lot has had to be rebuilt in the past century. The city resembles a building site in places: rubble, paving slabs askew, open running sewers, and dirt roads. But it's also remarkably green, compared to Vietnam. Palm trees are everywhere, ripe with coconuts, and in between the parts that are broken down, are signs that the Lao have a sense of style quite different from the Vietnamese.

The most obvious sign of Lao style is the large number of monuments and temples dotted around Vientiane. That Luang, a large golden buddhist stupa was first built in 1566, but then destroyed by the Thais, and then the Chinese. It was finally rebuilt, in the original style, this century, and is the prototype for Lao stupas everywhere.

So far, we've had an interesting time in Laos. Sara has not been well. She picked up a stomach bug in Hue, and has been getting intermittent cramps ever since, which have not been pleasant. On the other hand, one taste of Lao food has been better than almost anything the Vietnamese produced for us. The food, and fish in particular, has been very much like Thai food, although less chillied, and with more herbs and greenery.

In fact, in almost every way, the Lao are the inverse of the Vietnamese. The food is fragrant and delicious, where the Vietnamese was plebian. The people are laid-back and gentle, where the Vietnamese were assertive and on the go. There is a lot of lying around in Laos, and taking it easy, whereas in Vietnam almost every space was taken up with some entrepreneur trying to carry out a business. Laos is, without a doubt, the most laid back and relaxed country either of us have been to.

There is also a difference in the way they handle money. In Vietnam, most people felt like business people. They were out to make a fair deal, and, once made, would honour it. Perhaps it was the prevalence of the army there, but we found that even the hotel in Da Nang who quoted for our plane ticket out, was not adding anything on top.

Laos on the other hand, , has constantly surprised us with how expensive it is. Foreigners here regularly pay 3, 4 or 5 times the prices locals pay. One silk shop was selling (very nice) wall hangings, admittedly hand-woven, but when we asked how much, the prices started at $1000! I guess it's the lonely planet effect. Laos represents the next frontier in adventurous tourism, so people come here, load onto a very limited tourist infrastructure, and heavily inflate the prices by tipping wildly, and looking for things just a bit cheaper than home.

This has also been the first country we've been to in a long while where someone has tried to swindle us. The lady in the shop who switched notes on me, and swore blind that she had taken 10,000kip rather than 20,000, was perhaps a symptom of tourism growing a bit faster than the country can take it.

But, as long as you keep your wits about you, and bargain hard, it is a nice country to relax in, have a few beers, and watch the sun go down over the mekong.