Arrival at Luang Prabang was quite a relief. Not only was I suffering a tad from a bug and grateful for terra firma but we sailed effortlessly through immigration to a low key taxi booth where a taxi driver awkwardly suggested that we might want to take a songthaow into town and then withdrew for us to make our minds up. This is so markedly different from the up-front in your face style of the place we had come from that it took a few moments to relax the defensive barrier we had cultivated over the past month.
We bounced in the back of a songthaow (sort of a pick up truck with a couple of benches in the back to act as a sort of charter bus service) into town and struggled up the main street where there was a market in full swing, selling all sorts of beautiful items from clothing to embroidered covers to paintings, etc. Finding accom that first night was a pain. I suppose it hadn't occured to us that we were rapidly approaching New Years Eve and the place was suffering a severe shortage of any accomodation, even the expensive stuff. In the 9 days or so of living in Luang Prabang we stayed in 3 guesthouses of varying degrees of comfort and price (which was more expensive than we had banked on).
The first day or so was confined to the barracks due to the tummy bug and we read books and kept ourselves amused. The turning point was New Years Eve when we bowled into what appeared to be the BIG party (although Luang Prabang is so sleepy that we are talking relative depravity and debauchery: usually the town goes to sleep at 10pm, so the fireworks at 12 midnight was a biiiiig jump) and we spent a very happy evening with a couple of amusing gay guys from New York and two sour Austrian fraus. We started the trend for the westerners to wear homemade party hats (check out the photos!) and Cheryl cajoled me into going on the stage so we could dance a traditional Laos dance with the Communist heirarchy (fat bald men with hammer and sickle badges on - you can't miss them) which was VERY surreal. All in all an excellent way to start the new year!
The town is just beautiful and feels like the end of the line. I read that it took as long to travel from Saigon to Luang Prabang via the Mighty Mekong river in the heyday of French rule as it did to travel by steamship from Paris to Saigon.
There is a wonderful smattering of French colonial buildings and ancient temples and plenty to explore in the immediate areas. It is unfortunate that the authorities have clamped down on the hire of motorbikes to foreigners in Luang Prabang (to explore a little further) but it is probably for the best as otherwise it would ruin the sleepiness of the place. There are a whole clutch of restaurants within the town and especially along the Mekong riverfront. There was also the market where you could pick up a buffet style feast for just 5000 Kip per plate (1USD=10,000Kip=0.50GBP) and the local beer is excellent.
There are no international cash machines in Laos, apart from one in the capital in Vientiane. Our first visit to the bank was a bit strange but we ended up emerging victorious and laden with wads, literally WADS, of notes so felt very rich (until it ran out a few days ago!) even if it doesn't amount to a huge amount of money.
Our time in Luang Prabang was punctuated with meeting Monk Bounsoum and Amber and Georg. Monk Bounsoum is a lovely chap who is 21 and a Buddhist monk in a little temple 5km from the city up the worst potholed road you've ever seen. We met him up the top of the hill that dominates the town in a spectacularly placed temple called Wat Phu Si. He bought and released a bird that had been trapped and placed in a little whicker cage and sold to people as they enter the temple. When he sat down next to me we struck up a conversation and chatted away - he spoke very good English and he cleared up some nagging questions that had been posed ever since we had arrived (especially to do with the significance of the colour of their little bags). He invited us to come see him at his temple so he could show us around which we did the next day in the early afternoon. We spent a wonderful morning exploring a temple we spotted in the far distance and were invited to share food with some spirtied old ladies, one of whom spoke a little French from another era. They were chatty and cheeky and chewed beetel nut and a monk ran out of the temple and fell head first over a low wall and split the skin on his bald head in a moment of bizarre and frenzied action. All very weird.
The afternoon was spent with Monk Bounsoum and we explored two villages which were called/translated as Monday North and Monday South with him leading the way and always willing to answer our questions no matter how silly. We shall send him some books and a postcard of a famous temple soon and will email him with our progress as he is into computers. If you are reading now Bounsoum - thank you my friend, it was a priviledge.
The second couple we met one evening whilst strolling through a town called Can Tho in the Mekong Delta at the beginning of our time in Vietnam. They were also on a tour but a different group to ours but staying at the same hotel and we spent a lovely evening with them over dinner and swapping stories. They are Swiss German and into retirement age and posses a fantastic sense of humour and hilarious to observe. They have lived in a lot of exciting places like Japan and High Wycombe and they went on the hippy trail in the 60's to India. We spotted them late into our time in Luang Prabang one morning at breakfast time and arranged a lovely evening over drinks and the sunset over the Mekong discussing the past month and they passed on some good advice for Cambodia. Again, we wish them well in Thailand - enjoy the Tesco Lotus!
We decided to head further south to Vang Vieng. We had heard various reports, some god and some bad. It breaks the journey to the capital so we caught the local bus which had all manner of gear lashed on top (including a motorbike) and we braced ourselves for the treacherous roads into and over the mountains and to the next chapter.