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Laos - Luang Prabang

LAOS | Thursday, 31 December 2009 | Views [543]

Luang Prabang

As evening approached, we arrived in Luang Prabang.  We said goodbye to our travel companions of the last few days and settled into Philaylack Guest House (recommended by a couple of Aussie ladies in Nong Khiaw) then went for Christmas Dinner at the Coconut Sunset Restaurant.  The name is as it is, an outdoor restaurant under the coconut trees offering a superb sunset view over the Mekong.  We had sticky rice with vegetables and shrimp plus a glass of wine.

Luang Prabang is quite touristy and prices are reflected in their new found industry.  We are paying 150,000 kip a night!!  (7600 kip per dollar)  Albeit, we have a very nice big room with private bath an air conditioning, it is by no means the 60,000-80,000 kip we have grown accustomed to.  One can still find noodle soup for breakfast, lunch and dinner for 7000-12000 kip, but a full North American breakfast of scrambled or boiled egg, toast, fruit and coffee will run you 35,000 kip!

 We went to the Ballet the second night here.  It was the story of some princess who was abducted and the monkey king saved her life.  The men were dressed up with colorful masks looking like monkeys, dragons, and other assorted demon or hero looking characters, with savage teeth and tusks.  The women wore the long sarong-type dresses, donned with glistening sequins, and golden head dress.  They did many dances but the most impressive was when 18 of them formed 3 rows and swayed back and forth while their arms, hands and fingers did the dancing.  The three rows were perpendicular to the audience and one could really appreciate the timing and practice and elegance that went into them moving as one.  The Monkey King character climbed and blended with the fake tree while still making you aware that he was there by jumping about to different parts of the tree and frantically and frequently scratching himself like a monkey.  All in all it was a great performance.

We also went to the National Museum, which used to be the King’s residence until his arrest and incarceration in a northern cave in 1975 when Laos became communist.  It was basically he and his family’s personal effects on display.  The mansion was wonderfully decorated with wall murals made of coloured glass. There were even bits of colour glass to create facial expressions, so tiny, so intricate. We don’t know what remains of the King or his family.  That is a question we still need to find the answer to.

We drifted though yet another night market, surveying the local handicrafts.  Every region seems to have their own style of decoration as well as their preferred item to sell.  Here in Luang Prabang it is silk scarves, handbags with spiral appliqués, scarves, tea sold in homemade paper pouches with water color pictures of monks, scarves, teak bowls, and silver snuff boxes.  Oh, and scarves. What we find it more interesting is to wander off the tourist market trail and venture into the local market area.  The first thing one notices is the lighting almost disappears, which can be difficult because the streets also get worse.  They are not ANYTHING like North American streets and sidewalks.  The brick on the sidewalks mostly heaves and pitches and in many cases there are missing bricks - or found bricks just piled on top others.  The sidewalk can end abruptly, sometimes turning to stones or dirt but sometimes just ending.....  Then you step into the street, which is sort of paved in the centre but kind of disintegrates on the edges.  Most times there is a gutter running parallel between the road and sidewalk.  This gutter can be covered – or not.  It can be narrow and easy to step over, or wide enough to warrant a jump.  It can be shallow and dry - or not.  It can be deep and, well, we just aren’t sure what lurks down there.....  But the local markets are where you get to see what REALLY gets sold.  In Laos the hot commodities seem to be flip flops (nearly every vendor has a few hundred for sale), shovel and hoe heads (they make their own bamboo handles), bike tires, cooking pots and bowls, and motor boat propellers, here along the river.  We find that what sells in the local markets speaks of how the locals live their lives – working hard to produce the food, cooking plays a big role, transportation is foot, bike or boat.  There are very few petrol stations but the common price seems to be 8050 kip per litre. 



We were told by many travellers over the past week that when we get to Luang Prabang we must go to the Red Cross for a herbal sauna and massage.  We did and now we are telling everyone else; you MUST do this if you ever come here.  The sauna is so thick with steam you can hardly see 30 cm in front of your face.  When you come out there is a huge pot of hot tea, then off for a one hour massage, while the muscles are still soft from the heat.  The girl follows the long muscles in the body and seems to lengthen them with her technique.  Any and all aches melted under her expert hands.   This 90-120 minute delight costs 50,000 kip!.

We took another cooking class.  This one was not nearly what the previous ones in Thailand were.  We were given cookbooks straight away and basically that is what we followed.   The two male instructors would prepare 3 sets of 3 dishes at a time then get us to try them then choose 2 of the 3 to make for ourselves.  But once they did their demonstration they hurried off to chat on their cell phones and were not even available lest we had questions.  Everyone was hanging over the cookbooks and saying “what do we do next?”  The previous schools had the teacher cooking with us, demonstrating as we followed his lead, and always walking around correcting or answering questions. The kitchen was poorly ventilated and hot.  The cement floor was slick with cooking oil splatter from months of previous students.  We had requested vegetarian but they kept forgetting to supply the tofu, finally we gave up and used chicken (at least it looked like chicken...LOL) At the end of the day, we ate a bit of our food with the group, but as Ed was still not feeling great and the heat of the kitchen was really getting to him, we left.  The teachers did not even seem to notice.

All in all, Luang Prabang proved to be somewhat of a disappointment.  They have become a tourist haven and possibly due to the absolute throng of disrespectful tourists (I don’t imagine these modest people appreciate the short shorts and skin tight spaghetti strap t-shirts) or the opportunity to make a buck, they tended to be not as friendly as other parts of Laos.  They obviously catered to the tourists, as most restaurants served western food and there were row after row of souvenir shops and bars.  Luckily there were still a few street vendors serving noodle soup J But even that varied, noodle soup on the main road was 12,000 kip, off the beaten path it was 7000 kip.


Irene & Ed


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