It's only a few hundred kilometers between Vieng Vang and Luang Prabang, but you have to go up and then back down a huge mountain range and, being Laos, the roads are not exactly in tip top shape. So the trip ended up being 7 hours of windy, nausea inducing driving in an old rickety bus. To compound matters, the rambunctious day we'd spent on the river the day before came back to haunt us a bit...making the whole thing that much more enjoyable. Podcasts, lots of them, are all that got me through that one.
Finally we pulled into town after the sun had set and we promptly hopped into a tuk-tuk and were delivered at our modest accommodation. It was tiny, but it had a shower, bed, A/C and a TV so at this instant it was it's own form of heaven. We went out to grab some dinner but only made it about 10 meters when we saw a nice looking spot and went up to eat. The meal was good, and we ate it quickly...because, well, it was good...but also because we were in a hurry to put head to pillow.
We woke up at 4:30am to loud drumming coming from the monastery across the road and we thought maybe it was the beginning of Luang Prabang's famous monk procession; but it wasn't. Nope, they just felt like doing some drumming, I guess. We heard more comotion at about 6, but no...not the procession, yet. Although there was a non-monk parade going through town...they're active early in LP! We finally decided we'd give the procession a miss and sleep in a bit promising to catch the monk procession later in the week.
We got up and headed out for a jog to get the blood flowing and then had a great little breakfast at the legit French cafè next door. French colonialism has left it's mark on this country, and particularly, this town in it's quaint architecture and, just as importantly to this traveller, it's baguettes, croissants, and coffee. And as we learned in VV: Lao coffee is the jam!
Luang Prabang is an charming place. For starters, the whole city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The buildings have a European feel and everything is extremely neat, clean and tidy...especially for SE Asia standards. Also, it's situated on a peninsula where the mighty Mekong and Nam Khan Rivers converge which makes it of historical significance, but also aids in it's quaint riverside charm.
After a quick shower we met with Josh and John who had been on the same bus ride from VV up and over to Lunag Prabang and only had one day in town. We decided to make the most of it by taking to 2 wheels to explore the countryside and thus we found ourselves on the dumpiest of the motorbikes we've yet rented. This one was also a manual shift which added an element. Our bike got dumpier in a hurry when we stopped at an ATM and John ran into us from behind smashing the tail light, but thankfully missing Gina's fingers. We took up the rear from then on. After some fussing around town we hit the open highway and headed north towards the famous caves at Pak Ou, just to the North. You can get to it by boat, but motor scooters are so much more exciting. It took a good hour to get to the turn off then it was another few kilometers down a dirt road more suited for a dirtbike then our ragtag, sputtering scooters. In the end we made it to the tiny village and parked our bikes and walked through to the Mekong river. We had to wait a few minutes for a boat driver to finish his lunch, but soon he had and ferried us across the river to the caves.
The caves are home to thousands of Buddah statues, some large, many very small and deposited by worshippers over the years. In the upper cave there is a large golden Buddah illuminated by candle in an otherwise pitch black cave. After wandering for a little we made our way back to the boat and across to the village and through to our motorscooters. We noticed at the store in the village they had a huge owl and baby monkey tied up with a chain as pets, and also a small "jungle cat" in a wire cage. Sort of sad, but ce est la vie in the Laos countryside.
We rode our bikes back into town without incident and although very hungry decided to hold off on lunch and head to a palace/ hotel Josh and John had heard about where there was a restaurant where we could sit by the river and eat a nice meal. Back on the scooters we headed south. We made the turn towards the waterfall and kept going out into the countryside. After another few kilometers we stopped and decided we must have missed it. So we turned around and went back towards town and tried a different road. Eventually it became apparent that we were not going to find this place and so decided to cut our losses and head back to town and to eat along the river there, and so we did.
We had a great big early dinner as the sunset behind the Mekong complete with appetizers, main courses, beers, wine, piña coladas and a nip of Lao-Lao (Laotian rice whiskey) to finish it off
...we basically ate like Kings and then had a toast and a smile after getting the check and doing the math to figure out that the meal had cost under US$50 for the four of us. To quote Josh: "God I love South East Asia!!"
The sun had long set and we had to drop the scooters off still, good thing it was only 50 meters around the corner especially once we got on the bikes and discovered that not one of the three bikes had a functioning headlight. We dropped the bikes, said our piece to the guy regarding the dodgy condition of our bikes and then made for the LP night market.
There are night markets in most medium to large cities in the region, and each has it's own flavor. This one was unique in it's size; it literally takes over the whole of the main streets in the center of town. We worked our way through buying a few odds and ends here and there as x-mas gifts, bargaining as needed. Along the way we picked up a fifth partner in crime, a solo traveller from Detroit called Jacqueline. After we'd seen enough of the market we made our way out and found a spot to have one last glass of wine for the evening. During this 'last drink' it was discovered that there is a bowling alley in town and that, yes, it is open late. This is how G and I ended up in the back of yet another TukTuk bouncing towards the bowling alley even though we had resigned to heading home. But see, it WAS Josh and John's last night and we DO love bowling: both facts the guys wielded expertly as fuel in their needling to get us to come along.
The bowling alley was a trip. Pretty much exclusively traveller types were packed in throwing gutter balls and the odd strike. The bar's special was a bottle service of sorts: you get a bottle of whiskey, ice and mixers for a price so low it should be criminal. And we bowled...not well, mind you. John managed to win the round with Gina hot on his tail...both just barely cracking 100. After the round (and whiskey) was done, we headed out to jump into a TukTuk home. We were in high spirits as you can imagine as we got back to Josh and John's hotel and got out of the TukTuk; John even gave the guy a decent tip. At this moment the driver went into the light of his TukTuk and then turned around quickly and said that we'd given him too little money flashing a 5,000 Kip note instead of the 50,0000 Kip note John had given him. We sat there for a second arguing with him and he denied any shady mauevering emphatically even showing us his wallet as 'proof' that he had no 50,000 notes on him. Finally, he realized we weren't suckers or as drunk as he'd thought and took the passive aggressive route. He made Gina take the 5,000 Kip note and said "Fine, if you don't want to pay for TukTuk then here keep your 5,000" and he jumped into the TukTuk, mumbled a few curses in Laos and sped off. Now, there are two things that must be mentioned that confirm that we were in the right and that this dude was trying to scam us: 1) John only had 50,000 Kip notes on him as this is what the ATM dispenses and 2) there is absolutely no way in hell that any TukTuk driver would give up and leave so quickly if he had indeed been screwed by some tourists. He gave Gina the 5,000 Kip note so actually would have done the trip for a loss. No way! It's too bad when these things happen, but honestly they happen very rarely for all the interactions and transactions that we are part of everyday. But it must be said: the perpetrators of shady acts like this seem to be disproportionately TukTuk drivers!
Not wanting to dwell on that unsavory event we returned to the task at hand which was to say goodbye to our friends who'd we shared many adventures (and drinks) with over the last 72 hours. We said our goodbyes and wished each other safe travels and with that G and I walked the 2 blocks back to our hotel and promptly crashed, another long, but awesome day in the books!
So, let's just say that the next morning we were quite glad not to be Josh and John who had a 7:30am flight to Bangkok from where they would be returning to SF and we were very happy to take a day off of playing tourist and just have a good ol' lazy Sunday. We resigned ourselves to doing nothing more taxing then switching hotels, it was awesome. After making the switch to a larger, cheaper room across town we went out for some lunch and ended up parked upstairs for a few hours eating pizza and watching 'Black Swan' in their makeshift movie theatre. For the record, that movie is messed up. Afterwards we retreated to the hotel room for a stint to write blogs and read. Then once the sun had set we headed out to the night market yet again to get some dinner and make a few more purchases. It was then then we stumbled upon maybe my favorite eatery in all of SE Asia. Tucked down a little non descript alley way there are these 'buffet restaurants' which are absolutely amazing. So, there is this massive table covered with huge plates of Laos food piled high: over 25 different dishes and you buy a plate for 10,000 Kip (US$1.25) and basically you can pile as much onto the plate as you can fit. I supplemented mine with a huge grilled chicken skewer for another dollar. It was amazing! Serious, Gina can attest to the size of the smile on my face as I dug right in. We did some more shopping and walking around, but honestly the rest of the evening is a dull blur compared to that glorious event.
In the morning, we decided that it was going to be our last day in LP and so had 2, make that 3 things to do today: first; go to the Royal Palace Museum, second; figure out where we were going the next day and how we were getting there, and third; go back to the night market and hit up that buffet one more time!
The first task was easy enough; we rented crappy bikes from our hostel for $1 and rode into town to the Royal Palace. It was worth the visit. You walk through the actual palace and see where the old King's of Laos have lived, quite literally you can peek into his bedroom. There is a very beautifully decorated central room where they entertained guests and a hall where they have displays of gifts that have been given to the King by various foreign dignitaries...among them a piece of moon rock from Nixon and a nice plaque from J.F.K. Unfortunately, cameras are not allowed and so there is no photographic evidence of our visit. Outside you can see the King's old cars: a couple of classic Lincolns, a Ford Edsel and an old Toyota Land Cruiser. We walked through the temple on site and then over to poke our head into the theatre where a VERY friendly Laotian man whisked us upstairs to a theatre where we watched a couple musicians play traditional Laos music for a few minutes. It was a strange encounter. Also on site was an interesting photo exhibit called "The Floating Buddah" which was about the local monasteries and their young monks. All in all, it was a pretty interesting, although not mind blowing, few hours of site seeing.
Task 2 proved a little more difficult. We had been planning on going to Southern Laos to a place called 4,000 Islands, but it is another 20 hours by bus and while 20 hours is rough anytime and anywhere it is particularly hellish in Laos where the roads are the worst in the region. So then we looked at flights, but in the end it was not much more to fly all the way to Siem Reap in Cambodia. And so, after a but if deliberation we decided to save 4,000 Islands for another trip and to make haste for Cambodia. A friendly local travel agent was happy enough to swipe our credit card for $400 plus 3% credit card fee and after a few computer crashes and one errant ticket issuing with the wrong names, we were locked into the Vietnam Airways 11am direct flight from LP to Siem Reap for the following morning. Boom!
Now to turn our attention to the much more pleasant task #3 of the day. We dropped the bikes back at the hostel and then booked it back into town where the night market and our buffet awaited. I felt like it was Thanksgiving or something because I had been looking forward to dinner all day and had also eaten very little in order to be sure I was adequately hungry to do some real damage. Yup, I was...and while sometimes the second time you eat at a great place it doesn't live up to the memory, I can assure you that this one met, and maybe even exceeded the previous night's session. I credit us having a bit more experience this time and putting our inhibitions aside to really get after it.
We left very happy and very full and walked around to the front of a small stadium we had been eating by as we heard a bit of commotion and figured there was some event on. Indeed there was. We watched a match of Sepak Takraw which is a game like volleyball but is only played with feet. Sort of soccer meets volleyball. The guys 'spike' by doing crazy bicycle and flip kicks. Pretty wild.
We were up bright and early the next morning as we had a few more things to do in LP before we hopped our plane. We walked quickly into town and climbed to the top of Phu Si, the temple covered mountain in the middle of the city. We passed several monks who were up early doing chores and praying and as we reached the top temple we were treated with amazing sunrise views of the city and the surrounding rivers, mountains and countryside. Very cool.
We descended the other side of the hill and ended up on the main drag in time to watch the famous LP monk procession. So, traditionally this is a barefoot walk that the monks make daily to receive their day's food as offering from the town's locals, but it's turned into a bit more than that here due to the huge tourist influx in LP. There are hundreds of monks and there are even more people making offerings; many locals and many tourists. There are vendors selling rice and other food to the tourists to make the offerings and there are kids running alongside collecting excess food from the monks. See they receive so much food as offerings that they couldn't possibly eat it all so they in turn pass it on to others. All the while the tourist paparazzi are getting crazy on these guys. I can't say I didn't have my camera going too, but some of these people were just over the top; borderline interfering with the whole thing. In spite of the crazies, it's a pretty special thing to witness.
After the procession we made our way to the French cafè for a final nice coffee and breakie before heading back to pack and get to the airport. We got to the check in counter the prescribed two hours ahead- way too early considering how tiny the airport is, and so we sat and waited...better in the airport then on a bus for 24 hours. Cambodia, here we come!