A slow smile crept across my face during the descent into Luang Prabang in our tiny turbo prop aeroplane. Laos was beautiful from the air; dense green rain forest, muddy brown rivers snaking their way around looming rocky mountains and small villages with plumes of smoke rising from cooking fires. All could be seen clearly in the evening sun, I felt adventurous just looking at it. Back on terra firma the newly built airport broadened my grin; it was tiny and sparkled prettily in the evening sunset, with lush hilly landscapes all around to marvel at whilst we sauntered across the tarmac to the shiny new terminal. We passed through the three windowed visa system with ease and were welcomed in arrivals by our hotel runner, who gave us a brief and courteous bow and loaded our bags into the minivan. Off we sped down dirt tracks and gravel roads, passing small food stalls, huts, lean-to homes and businesses. Soon we arrived in the lovely little town of Luang Prabang and the hotel we had booked the day before. We were greeted with a friendly “Sabaidee” and had a bowl of fruit and 2 smoothies delivered to us within moments of putting our bags down (which were then whisked up to our room). The chap at the reception couldn’t do enough to be helpful and told us that the night market would be a good place to start our explorations of the town and get some food. After a quick inspection of the room, which had a vaulted ceiling, a 4 poster bed and was panelled in dark teak hardwood, we followed his advice and found our way to the main street, which at night is transformed into a colourful bustling market of scarves, bags, shoes, nik naks and souvenirs. I began mentally jettisoning clothes from my rucksack to make space for all the beautiful offerings this bountiful market had on display.
This industrious little street was sandwiched between the main food sources of the town. At one end, cheap and cheerful buffet style food stalls displayed their mainly vegetarian wares that you could supplement with your choosing of BBQ’d fish or meat. At this end of town you could also satisfy your munchies with fruit shakes and baguettes, or pancakes if you had a sweet tooth. At the other end of the town, beyond the market stalls, was a street of restaurants, with French and Laos food on offer, as well and the odd pizza place. We opted for a few skewers of BBQ’d chicken and pork, with a Beer Laos and bowl of stir fried noodles. Delicious !
Mooching through the market it struck me how all the stall owners were women, quite a few with young children running amok with their friends or with babies asleep in the back of their selling space, cocooned between a pile of table clothes or bed linen. Some of the women who didn’t have young ones to keep an eye on were playing cards, bartering with tourists or eating and drinking a beer with their neighbour. It had a quiet relaxed feel; no hard sell or heavy heckling.
We ended our evening in a French style restaurant drinking beer outside, watching the children playing and the tuk tuks picking up passengers. We ambled home, marvelled at the complete disappearance of the night market and fell into a comfortable sleep in our dark room, only to be momentarily woken a few hours later by what seems to be the obligatory local cockerel. The cockerel who sparked off the dog barking, who was chasing the late home/early to rise moped rider. It didn’t stop us falling back into a dreamy sleep, indeed it’s so routine now to hear the cockerel doing his thing that it only just registers. Perhaps we should get one at home to ensure a restful nights sleep in the UK. Maybe not.
The next 2 days saw us climbing Phou Si Mount, walking along the Mekong and hiring mopeds, and the subsequent return of my two wheeled dopey grin face. Whizzing through the countryside on the outskirts of the town I was in absolute heaven, the only thing that could’ve been better was if the Laos people had the same fondness for and frenetic use of the horn as the Vietnamese, but alas, it wasn’t to be. The 2 days exploring on the mopeds took us to Pak Ou caves and Tat Kuang Si waterfalls. Both trips required an hour or so in the saddle and getting to the caves required some dirt track riding; excellent fun but a little nerve wracking on such small bikes. The falls themselves were absolutely stunning, completely serene; a perfect place to cool off in the blue pools after a hot dusty ride. The variety of greens, blues and browns, so natural and restful, we couldn’t help but feel complexly relaxed.
Biking has definitely been the best way to explore the areas we have visited so far in Laos. The countryside is so beautiful, to stay in the town would be a massive loss, it has also allowed us to see the villages and the real life of Laos away from the tourist influenced areas. Glimpsing and peeking into people’s homes as we pottered past revealed that most people have a wooden home, made up of one room downstairs and a smaller room upstairs. In some cases they are brick built and rendered, all have little or no furniture, a strip light and a few have TVs. Their scenery reminds me a little of Wales, on steroids, but hot and with less rain. Off the main roads the villages are served by dirt tracks or gravel roads, often with obstacles demanding your attention despite your wandering eye to the breath taking mountains and forests. We have encountered St Albans sinkhole sized pot holes, cows, landslides, elephant poo, more cows, children, chickens and tractors. As a result of these tarmac blemishes the road trip in the minivan to Vang Vieng was somewhat nail biting, but we arrived safely and have spent a chilled couple of days in this ex-hedonistic party town.
Vang Vieng can still party, and we have joined in. Well it would be rude not to. But it doesn’t have the same dodgy party history it was famous for a decade ago, and whilst you can still tube down the Song River, stopping to drink and dance at bars along the banks, or chose from a ‘Happy Menu’ for your lunch, we opted for the more healthy and energetic activities on offer such as cave tubing and kayaking. Cave tubing turned into just actual caving after a few hundred meters, so the decision to leave my flip flops at the kayak and tube barefoot for fear of losing them in the water was bad a one. Slipping and sliding through the clay, with the earth squelching up between my toes was actually very good fun, despite the occasion thud and squeal of a South Korean or Chinese tour buddy behind me hitting the deck, and the dinner plate sized spider we saw watching us go past not half a meter away. Health and safety didn’t feature much, if at all, for that 30 minutes under ground, but I think that made me enjoy it all the more.
The town itself is full of bars and restaurants and is not that pretty, until you venture over one of the bridges to the other side of the Song where it becomes absolutely jaw droppingly beautiful. Flat paddy fields and other crops run right up to the edge of the towering cliffs and mountains, with small streams and rivers meandering through it all. The air is hot and dusty and you come home covered in an ochre dandruff from top to toe, that despite the most thorough scrubbing still seems to come off on the hotel towel after your shower.
Tomorrow sees us heading to Vientiane and another nerve jangling minibus ride. After a couple of days stay in the capital we will have spent 2 wonderful weeks in the north of Laos, truly one of the most spectacularly beautiful places I’ve ever seen. Onwards to Cambodia for more wanderings.