I am staying in a backpacker’s hostel here in Luang Prabang, and it is turning out to be a most interesting place. The entire town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and many of the old buildings have been refurbished and made into tourist accommodations. That is the case for the Spicylaos Backpackers. The building’s walls are about eight inches thick. Sitting on my bed leaning back against the wall, I can feel the afternoon heat from the shuttered window. A few inches away, the wall is comfortable and cool.
I had heard that Luang Prabang justified a multiday stay, but didn’t actually know what I was coming here to see. I had only glanced at the guide book as other things always seemed to take precedence. I had thought I’d have a chance to read about LP on the 8 hour bus ride from Vientiane, but this ride was spectacular, so I spent much of the time perched on a shelf in the very front of the bus (the seats were on the top of the double decker bus) watching the scenery, the villages we passed through and in amazement as we wound through hairpin cliffside turns, and often squeezing past another huge truck or bus. The comparable VIP bus headed back the other way was by far the largest vehicle we had to navigate by, so I could imagine what all the others thought when they saw us approaching.
Several of the passengers made very good conversational partners. Some had already been to places I would soon visit. And one young man was from the Hmong hilltribe and is currently working as a trekking guide out of Luang Prabang. As a guide, he had enough grasp of English that I was able to learn much about the country we were passing through. The ride was so beautiful that I was wishing I could rent a bicycle and take it on the locals bus 20 k back up the hill and ride through it all again, stopping for photos.
Well, not knowing what Luang Prabang was about, I found the answer once I began walking around the town. The whole town is indeed justifiably and understandably a World Heritage Site, easy to understand once you get feet on the ground and in motion. The venerable old architecture is everywhere, the streets are lined with Buddhist temples, and the pace here in the Old Town area is relaxed and pleasant.
I was not really interested in hanging out reading in the usual beautiful tourist hang outs such as Si Phan Don (4000 Islands) in southern Laos, or Vang Vieng, three hours out of Vientiane, and five very mountainous, twisty hours from LP. Instead I find that LP is my hang out spot. In the early mornings I try to catch the morning alms as the young monks make their way through the roads. If I sleep in too long, I go straight for the morning street food. Finally I am feeling good and able to eat whatever appeals, and much of it does. Lovely barbecued chicken and fresh fish from the Mekong River, fantastic local sandwiches with I have not the faintest idea what on them, but I get them with everything and love the blend of flavors. Freshly fried donuts. Fresh fruit shakes. The options seem endless and it is delightful to finally be able to try things.
Yesterday I joined a group going by Songthaew (pickup truck with two rows of seats in the bed under canopy) to the Kouang Si Waterfall. After a wander through the village, I went on into the site, spent much time watching the Asian Black Bears there in their rescue enclosures, then walked on up along the river, past turquoise pools where swimming was allowed, and on up to the main falls, then up one side to the top, and along watery terraces to the other side and down. I had finally left my runners behind and worn only flip flops. I had to drop them and go barefoot much of the way – very steep and slippery. Wouldn’t you know just when I relinquished my runners, I needed them. But it was just as well as the way across at the top was all through the water so I’d have had to shed them anyway. Next time, I bring Tevas.
Walking the town is delightful, everything is beautiful here, well between the inevitable third world debris and dirt. The morning market is fresh fish and produce, I have yet to check out the daytime market which is indoors, and the nighttimes bring the Hmong tourist stalls – a bit too much but colorful fun nevertheless. It seems they are competing with one another a bit too strenuously – many many stalls with similar items for sale. It is too tourist oriented to be as interesting as it might be, and I hope I am able to manage a visit to the Bac Ha market in the northern mountains of Vietnam where representatives of all the hilltribes come with their different offerings.
But Luang Prabang is brilliant good fun. And I am still following along the broad and powerful Mekong River, as I have from the middle of Cambodia. From here, I may diverge to one of the feeder rivers and cross by land to the mountains of Vietnam. In a few weeks time I will drop down the Vietnamese coast to find the place where the Mekong finally reaches the sea in a broad swath of riverlets and deltas.
Meanwhile, it is time to go out and investigate the afternoon markets, and to experience another Mekong sunset. See you all here again soon.