Luang Prabang is an absolute gem of a town. Protected by UNESCO world heritage listing, the tourist boom here has been managed very well and there's no sign of the sordid development that I saw in Vang Vieng. Instead the hotels and other buildings have been integrated very well into the existing architecture, leaving a town that is both beautiful and peaceful. We arrived here 2 days ago after a 7 hour bus journey across some stunning mountains. We passed through numerous local villages and were able to observe the locals going about their daily lives. The children were all wood collecting, the women were all farming palm leaves and the men were all constructing drains for the narrow road. Many of them stared as our bus full of white people passed by. Laos is nowhere near as developed as neighbouring Vietnam and I wish we could have stopped in one of these villages for a closer look.
On our first day in Luang Prabang we were taken on another pointless 1.5 hour orientation walk around the immediate area. Our last Lao guide had left us the day before and we had another man come and do what is the easiest job in Laos. Sali, our first guide, did nothing other than conduct a 1.5 hour orientation walk in Vientiane and pointlessly tell us what the bank notes were (they have English numbers on!). The rest of the time we only saw him when he boarded our bus and went to sleep. The new guide was also equally unenthusiastic, talking only to tell me off for pointing my feet in the direction of a fruit. Despite the fact the stall was unmanned it is apparently still frowned upon in Asia! In Laos you also have to remove shoes entering hotels, which was something you only needed to do in Buddhist Temples in the other South East Asian countries. They are a lot stricter here because they have been less exposed to western cultures. The walk took us first through the morning market, which sold mainly food as opposed to the gifts offered at the large and touristy night market. One great thing about markets in Laos is that the stallholders don't even say anything to you. There is none of the manhandling and shouting you got in the Vietnamese markets, and you actually have to get the stallholders attention if you want to buy anything. It really is fantastic from my point of view and I really like the calm demeanor of the Lao people. From the market we went on to a silversmith, before ending the short tour at a Buddhist temple by the hotel. I didn't see the point of the whole exercise to be honest.
Despite my love for Luang Prabang town there wasn't a whole lot else in the town to see. The main attraction is a small Buddhist temple atop a mountain that is right in the centre of town. Climbing up there for the view was the first thing I did and it really was stunning. On the walk down I passed Buddhist monks meditating, before I deviated off the path to view the alleged footprint of Buddha himself in a nearby cave. I'm aware from the fat statues of Buddha that he was a pretty big man, but I still doubt he had a footprint with a 4 foot span, which was the case here! I then had a Thai massage, which was similar to the Lao massage but a bit more bone crunching! In one hour they do your whole body and all for the price of just 2 to 3 pounds! Its a great way to fill in spare time in Asia! I then paid a similar fee to enter the Luang Prabang Museum, which was a bland collection of Buddhist and Royal artefacts. Luang Prabang was once the capital of Laos, and the museum was in the former royal palace, though it was nowhere near as grand as similar palaces in Thailand and Cambodia. I still had a lot of spare time in the afternoon to fill, so I occupied myself by booking my pre and post tour accommodation in India, which needed to be done.
In the evening some of us went out to a local disco. To quote my bus driver in the Northern Territory, it was definitely a "cultural experience". The music was provided not by a stereo, but by a cruise ship style Lao band! They played lots of local music but also slipped a UB40 hit in there as well - though it was hard to make out the lyrics because of the white suited singer's accent. All the locals danced in lines and they all knew exactly what move to do next. It was a bit like dancing by numbers and any westerner there was lost! At the end of a song everybody would go and sit back down again, only to immediately come back up again when the next song started 30 seconds later! It was nothing like a western club and not to everybody's taste, but I enjoyed the experience. Perhaps my starkest memory of the place though will be my experience in the toilets. Whilst you used the urinal the toilet attendant would approach you from behind and start to massage your shoulders. It never happened to me because there always somebody else already being massaged, but apparently this is quite common in Asian clubs! You are then meant to tip the attendant for his service. Closing time arrived at 11.30pm (yes you read it right) and everybody swiftly went their own seperate ways. Some of the local Lao girls had picked up western men and were probably taking them back home to sleep with them, even though sex outside marriage is illegal in Laos. Westerners are very desirable to the locals here, who all long to have white skin.
Today we had a later than normal start as we set off at 11am on the 26km tuk-tuk journey south to Kuang-Si waterfalls. I have never seen water so clear and pure as at these falls. It was so enticingly blue and there were numerous swimming areas for you to take advantage of, though it was absolutely freezing when you got in. The highest single drop waterfall was about 100ft, but there were plenty of other tiered falls as you walked up through the jungle. Despite it being the dry season there was still a good amount of water flowing over them. We managed to locate an isolated swimming spot thanks to the tip of a local. We clamboured up a section of the stream to reach a pool surrounded by veils of falling water, and if it wasn't so cold I could probably have stayed there all day. Laos really is blessed with fantastic natural beauty. On the walk back we passed by an Asiatic Bear enclosure, though none of the bears were especially active. All the animals there were saved from poachers at the Laos/China border crossing. The Laotians try and smuggle them across to China, where the bears and kept in captivity and abused for their bile - a traditional ingrediant in Chinese medicine.
Tomorrow morning we are waking up very early to go and give alms to the monks at the local monastery. We need to be there around 6am and we need to bring with us some food to present to them - most likely sticky rice. It should be great to experience despite the early start. Shortly after the alms giving we then depart Luang Prabang on our 2 day Mekong River trip to the Thai border. The next time I will have internet access will be from Chiang Mai, where my 40 day Asia tour ends. I will update when I get chance, but it should be a busy few days.