Day 5: The bus journey from Vang Vieng worked out pretty well - we arrived at the bus terminal around 3pm then took a tuk tuk to the centre of Luang Prabang. As we couldn't find a decent hostel online, we were out on the streets again looking for a place to stay, which wasn't too difficult and we ended up at a small but clean guesthouse just off the main high street with perfect access to the night markets and temples all for £7 a night. Brilliant :) After the 6 hour bus journey, we stopped off for some food, then went on a little explore. Luang Prabang is a small town, with the centre made up of French colonial houses (now converted to guest houses and shops) with many Wats scattered between. Just off the main street, you can walk along the banks of the mighty Mekong, which also where you can find the cheapest food in town even with the excellent view :D We decided to eat there that night with street cats roaming under the tables, and lanterns in the trees, it made the lush curries with sticky rice taste even better.
Day 6: One of the things we'd been excited about doing in Asia was an elephant ride. In Vang Vieng Edwina, a girl we met tubing, said she'd done one in Luang Prabang and as we had one day here, we booked a half day trip to Tad Sae Waterfall with an Elephant Trek as well. Got up early and were picked up in a tuk tuk and taken on a 30 minute ride through the mountains to a village where we took a long boat across the Mekong river to the elephant camp. There was a built up platform we needed to climb up onto, so we could mount the elephants! The elephant had a bench / seat on the back where me and Mike sat, and our Mahout (elephant trainer) sat on the front. Was so cool. The elephant walked along a track through the forest, navigating around other passing elephants and trees. The guide stopped us occasionally to take photos, and also led our elephant Amson into the waterfall! Was great fun. Afterwards we brought some sugar cane to feed him then waited for our elephant bathing session. We thought what would happen was that the elephant would enter the water, and we'd just watch it splashing around. So when the elephant was made to sit down and we were asked to mount him BARE BACK, with me on the front over his neck, and Mike behind, with nothing to hold onto but his forehead! Was terrified. We then were led down the steep entranceway into the waterfall area, with the mahout watching from the side. Our elephant, not Amson, was bigger and a bit of a rascal. He was more interested in the fruits that had dropped from the tree into the water, so kept jerking and rushing over to them. The mahout led him into the deeper water near the waterfall by throwing sugarcane for him to eat. Was so strange being on his back whilst he was swimming - we were at one point submerged to our waist. Mike's foot got squashed between the rocks on the waterfall and the elephant at one point because he was rushing around so much. Was glad when it was over but was such a brilliant experience. Afterwards two French ladies who'd been watching showed us their photos of our 'bath' and said they would email us a CD with them on. *Fingers crossed*
Completely soaked and with Mike's foot swollen up and bleeding, we walked up towards the human waterfall area where we had a wander around. There was a larger pool that the waterfalls fed into, the water was freezing but as we were soaked already, we went for a swim anyway. The setting was incredibly beautiful under the canopy of trees and we were the only ones brave enough to get in. Perfect. Once out and dry, we caught the long-boat over to meet our tuk tuk driver. We found him drinking Beer Lao with some other drivers and locals, and ended up being invited over for a few glasses. Was really nice hanging out with locals for the first time in ages being taught how to say 'cheers' and other Lao words.
Once back in Luang Prabang, we had lunch at our now regular riverside restaurant, then went up to one of the temples on top of a hill in the centre of town, to watch the sunset. It was obviously very popular as there were many other tourists all craning their necks and jostling for good positions with their fancy cameras, but the crowds were understandable after seeing the sun go down over the mountains with the Mekong below. Que bonita.
What should have been a relaxing evening afterwards turned initially into a mad rush around town. We lazily walked around to the other side of town before realising we hadn't booked our bus tickets to Chiang Mai yet for the following night. So we legged it back to town (passing by as a lady stopped on a scooter on the side of the road gets hit by a massive SUV. Thankfully she was ok) and booked ourselves onto the 24 hour bus to Thailand. Afterwards we headed back across town to find a bar in the Lonely Planet called Utopia which we heard was nice. After following signs for it and walking around for 15 minutes, we were lost and had to keep back tracking. Eventually we found the place and had some well deserved cocktails :) Utopia was a trendy little bar set under palm trees with a lovely garden area. There were also sun loungers next to the river's edge which would've been nice in the day time. Unsurprisingly it was really pricey, so we headed back to our riverside restaurant for some more lush Lao curry and sticky rice. I really wanted a proper evening to peruse the Night Market, but after running around all of Luang Prabang, we only caught it as it was closing up. I thought now would be the time to get bargains - not so in Laos. We found here was particularly difficult to bargain. It seemed that the traders all had a bottom price that they agreed to with other traders, so you would never get get down to the price you want. One lady even said the extra pound she was charging me was because she had a 'lucky baby!' Have no idea what the baby had done to the trousers or to be deemed so 'lucky' but the whole thing was so frustrating, we left empty handed and headed home.
I woke up that night with horrible chest pain and didn't sleep much at all which was annoying. We were both supposed to get up at 5.30am for the daily Alms Giving ceremony, but I decided to stay in and catch some winks while Mike went off alone. Mike: I was really looking forward to seeing something genuine, not touristy. So after I made the short walk from the hotel (it was on the road opposite) I was met by disappointment as when the people emerged from the darkness, they were all old westerns being lead by a tour guide and far from people lining the streets, there was only 14 people. As it got closer to 6am though some locals did come, and I sat myself on a bench behind them.
There were signs all over town explaining the rules of the ceremony. There were many, some included "Alms is a serious and solum ceremony, please only join in if it means something important to you", "men may stand and give food to the monks, women MUST kneel", "no flash photography", "don't buy food from street touts, only bring your own". I didn't get involved because it had no religious significance to me, but we (me and 1 or 2 others) were invited to watch from the benches on the path. All the other rules were broken though - as soon as the first set of monks came round people's camera flashes went off, one older lady was standing an when asked by a local to sit, she said "I have bad knees, I can't" (well, don't do it then!) and some gringos that rocked up late bought ridiculously expensive rice from a local also taking part in Alms giving. Oh well. On the plus, it was still cool to see, there were different sets of monks from different temples all wandering the streets picking up their food for the day in a metal container. The last monks that had made our group the last stop on their trip had bowls full of food, which I took as - far from local people not caring about the monks anymore, they just relocated where there wasn't any tourists. In between groups I got to see people pray at a local temple, offering small balls of sticky rices to statues, walls, floors (anything really!), I also walked round a temple before daybreak and saw monks prays and their orange clothes washed and hung out to dry.
I left about 7am to head back to bed for a little more sleep, by this time the sun was up and everything was turning back to normal. I was glad I went (I also asked a monk in Chiang Mai what he thought of tourists getting involved with Alms he said he was fine with it, more food for them)
Alicia: After sleeping more, we got up and got ready to checkout.
That afternoon we had set aside to see some of the temples, one of which the LP author said was one of her favourite temples in SE Asia - quite something as there are loads. We headed up the main road, had some lunch then continued past a few temples until we reached Wat Xieng Thong. Like most Wats, it was a complex with several temple buildings within it not just its namesake. The first temple we saw was my favourite - it had a huge gold dragon-shaped chariot inside - not the most inconspicuous mode of transport for monks I must say. The walls were really the prize feature - they were covered in glass mosaic tiles, showing the normal stories of Buddha but also with detailed pictures of animals and landscapes, all using tiles that would twinkle in the light. Next we went into Wat Xieng Thong - the walls here were black with the Buddha teaching stories painted in gold. It was a more simple looking palace, the ceilings not as high, with nagas (seven headed serpents) hanging from the ceiling and huge drums and gongs to call people to prayer. Outside though we're labourers and even monks, sat on the scaffolding outside carefully restoring the black and gold murals. The gold parts actually used sheets of gold leaf with the backing papers strewn across the floor underneath them. We spent most of the afternoon here, roaming through the various shrines and temples - a lot of them used mosaic to decorate them. Behind Wat Xieng Thong, on the back, outer wall, they had a huge mosaic picture of the 'Tree of Life' - Buddha, monks and animals all seated on various levels, probably showing the route to enlightenment and heaven. The Buddhists really put a lot of love and detail into their Wats which is nice to see. We headed back into town via some other Wats, and a few shops (I got a little elephant bag charm called Ansom to remember our brilliant elephant experience the day before), then settled in a cafe for tea and ice cream for me (solely medicinal as I was finding swallowing really difficult that day) and Mike prepared for our bus journey with a hefty burger and chips. We brought a few supplies, headed back to our hostel to collect our things, then walked down to our scheduled meeting point to be picked up for our bus. Once outside the travel agent we realised it was closed and that the road in front was closed off as usual for the Night Markets so no tuk tuk would be able to reach us to pick us up. I decided to leave Mike with all our stuff and head to another travel agent, which took ages as the Night Market stalls were being set up, and no one was in any hurry. Eventually I found a travel agent who tried to call our travel agent but kept getting the answer machine, then called us a tuk tuk to come and collect us from there. Another mad rush back through the market to collect Mike, then back again and onto the tuk tuk. We got to the bus station in time, checked in and got our bags on, and eventually set off. Phew! Really thought we were going to miss that bus. Once on it got dark pretty quickly so me and Mike were the only ones awake watching "Red" on his phone. We had one stop off for food around 8pm and then another during the night to use the toilet. Before that though, an hour into the journey, there was a grumbling noise with the bus as we were climbing the narrow mountain track. We stopped in the middle of nowhere while the bus driver was trying to fix the problem. All we could think was that this was a scam like some friends of ours had recently in Cambodia when their bus 'broke down' and they were each charged $100 by a truck that said they would take them the rest of the way. Luckily, the bus was fixed and we had no other problems really that night except it was impossible to sleep. The roads were in poor condition - lots of pot holes, and as Northern Laos is mountainous, we were on roads winding up and through the mountains. Dangerous driving but the drivers both seemed to know their way well.
Day break came around 6am and you could tell we were nearing Thailand as there were more frequent road signs and the road was actually sealed! Good times. We arrived at Huay Xai at 7am, just as the border office opened. Through customs swiftly and onto our long-boat taking us across the river to Thailand :)
After the break at Christmas, Laos finally felt like travelling again. Finding hostels, buses, moving on every two days and doing tours that we'd been planning since before we arrived. Was a brilliant but exhausting week. Onwards to the delights of Northern Thailand and Chiang Mai :D