Luang Prabang

My first impression of Luang Prabang is that it’s nothing like the rest of Laos, rather it’s like most westerners imagine or want it to be. It’s well and truly on the world tourist circuit (it even has an international airport, the only other one in the country apart from the capital), and a huge number of businesses exist solely to service that market. But despite the consequent hordes of tourists it’s definitely a great place to relax and rest up for a while…

The tourist heart of town is a small finger of land – almost a peninsula – surrounded on three sides by two languid rivers. The streets are very different from what I’ve seen elsewhere in Laos: for a start they’ve got kerbs and gutters running down both sides, and they’re very clean. It seems like almost every building is a guesthouse, restaurant or traditional massage place and they’re mostly housed in beautifully restored houses in French or Lao style. The main roads are narrow and the lanes narrower, and in between it all are more than a few temples large and small. It’s an extremely peaceful place, too, with no traffic at night and nearly everything closing by 11pm.

Outside the centre it’s much more like the rest of the country: busy, dusty, few gutters on the streets, shopfronts open to the street, roadside stalls. The countryside is particularly beautiful, with small crop fields nestled wherever possible on flat land beside the rivers. However because I will be seeing a lot more of rural areas shortly I’ve stayed almost entirely in the old town, where my well-appointed guesthouse is located in a quiet alley near the working temple of Wat Nong. Yesterday morning I was awoken gently at 4am by the first bells that rouse the monks for their day, and I contemplated the complete stillness of this place at that time… before going back to sleep to wake later at a more sensible hour.

My first full day was spent wandering around, trying to take some nice photos and finding a working internet connection to keep in touch with the world. I also made some inquiries about further travel north, as I really want to take a boat for my next journey to Nong Khiaw. Happily this option is more common than than it was a few years ago, and I’m now booked on Monday’s slow boat north. I also picked up a new book to read on the journey (Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo) and succeeded in finding a cooking course that appealed, which I attended last night and which I’ll post about separately soon. It was good fun and very useful: if you want to experience a bit of a Lao feast, get in touch with me when I return and I’ll see what I can do 😉

Today was meant to be relaxing, with the simple goals of getting a massage (for A$6 an hour) and practicing some Lao. It turned out to be even more sedate: after waking late and finally getting the guesthouse’s wifi to work, I had a late breakfast then wandered to an open-air restaurant around the corner that perches prettily on the banks of the Mekong. I took a book and picked a table with a fine view several kilometres north up the river and settled in for three hours of reading (Stieg Larsson is brilliant), munching on my favourite local dish of oh laam pa (a fragrant hot-bitter stew of eggplant, basil, galangal, chilli, beans, chicken and a local herb which gives it a slight medicinal quality) with sticky rice at some point. Then back to the room for a nap, then off to a high-speed internet cafe to do some skyping. Then back to the guesthouse for a short while, and now in the evening to a lovely French brasserie with wifi that’s also very close to my guesthouse. I’ll do this post then keep reading, then have a good French meal before heading back to pack for tomorrow. I’m so mellow that a massage would be redundant today 🙂

In Luang Prabang I’ve followed my usual pattern when I arrive in a new town with the aim of doing not much. The first day is spent wandering around, perhaps doing some necessary shopping and chores (eg. deodorant, laundry, decent internet connection) and seeing a sight or two. After I’ve got my bearings I tend to stay very close to my guesthouse if it’s a nice area, which this part of town certainly is. Over the past two days I’ve started to notice the local families who live amongst the guesthouses and restaurants, who go about their lives quite publicly in the front section of their house that is usually open to the street during the day. As today’s a Sunday virtually everyone’s been relaxing as well, lazing on the porch chatting, playing with pets, or dozing. By doing next to nothing I’ve picked up a little extra flavour of this place without any effort, and I’ll have fond memories from here in the future. That’s the real joy of extended travel like this: you can take the time to chill out whenever you want, and there’s no pressure to keep moving or tick off sights mechanically. And I’m only just into week three – there’s still another three and half months to go!

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