Tuesday, June 9, 2009

LUANG PRABANG

1. We stayed 8 and 9 June in Luang Prabang; 3 nights 2 days, with half a day taken up to repair the punctured tyre. We will depart 10 June morning for Huay Xai, to cross over to Chiang Khong, Thailand the day after. We will make a night stop before Huay Xai if we cannot cover the entire distance of 520 km in one day.

2. For hundreds of years, Luang Prabang (at various times known as Muang Sua and Xieng Dong Xieng Thong) was the capital of Laos until 1560 when the capital was moved to present day Vientiane. It derived its name from the celebrated Buddha image, the Pha Bang, a gift from the Khmer monarchy. The city came to be known as Luang (Great or Royal) Phabang or Prabang. Over the centuries, with Buddhism becoming the official religion, many temples were built. Today, there are 32 temples in Luang Prabang. Together with the many faded but fairly well preserved french colonial buildings, Luang Prabang town exudes a tranquil and calming atmosphere, while maintaining its authentic charm. Many of the preserved buildings had been converted into charming boutique hotels. It is today the tourism jewel of Laos, a popular tourist destination. At height of 700 m, it is located at the confluence of the Mekong River and Nam Khong and has a population of about 100 000. It was declared a Unesco World Heritage site in 1995.

3. For Sunny and I this was the first visit to Luang Prabang. Our hotel was centrally located, next to the Royal Palace Museum and just off Sisavangvong, Luang Prabang's main street. It was an easy stroll to Sisavangvong. From afar, we could see that Sisavangvong was brightly lit up as 200 m of the road was closed for night market along the stretch that tourists would pass to get to the restaurant belt. The night market operates every night, up to about 9.30 pm. The stall below was where Sunny and I bought our Laos T-shirts.

3. We walked down Sisavangvong absorbing the atmosphere and looking for restaurants serving local food. Sisavangvong was busy. It was a street for tourists. There were many falangs, mostly backpackers, eating and drinking. They also filled the internet cafes. On one side were travel agencies, where falangs could book tours and air tickets. As we walked further North, we were distracted and ended up on the bank of Nam Khon. There were restaurants along the bank. We selected a BBQ restaurant, opposite Upsara Hotel, where a number of locals were having their dinner. Between Sunny and I we believe in going where the locals eat and we will find great food. Placed over a charcoal stove, the container was something we had never seen before. It has the BBQ grill at its crown and a steamboat channel around the container; quite cleverly designed, serving 2 purposes at one time. We agreed that if we see one we would buy one for home.

4. Early next morning, I discovered that one of the rear tyres was flat. It was slightly deflated when we left Dien Bian Phu but was not a problem throughout the trip to Luang Prabang. But now its flat. After breakfast, we quickly got to work and swapped the punctured tyre with the spare tyre in 40 mins. We thought we would take longer. The orientation at the Mitsubishi workshop in Singapore was clearly useful. We consulted staff of one of the petrol stations and he pointed us to a tyre shop further up the road. The workers at the tyre repair shop could not understand English but our gestures were enough to get our messages through. They found 3 nails in the tyre and 2 of them penetrated the tyre. They took off the tyre from the rim and carefully repaired the holes from inside of the tyre. We got them to switch the spare tyre with the repaired tyre, also checked the other rear tyre. The other rear tyre was all right. All in, we paid 50 000 kips for the 45 mins job. They were a nice bunch. As a thank you gesture, we gave each worker a Merlion key chain and happily took a picture together.

5. After the tyre was repaired we went back to the petrol station to get the car washed. It was real dirty and muddy after the 2 days of travel from Tay Trang to Luang Prabang. We didnt like to get into a dirty car each day. For 50 000 kips (US$6) we were happy to have the car looking new again. With the tyre repaired and the car cleaned, we are all set to go on the road again.

6. After lunch, we began our tour of Luang Prabang. Our first stop was the Royal Palace Museum. Completed in 1904 during the early french colonial rule, its the residence of King Sisavang Vong and his family. Designed with a blend of traditional Lao motif and french style, the building reminded me of the Palace built by Emperor Bao Dai in Da Lat. As a Palace, it was functional, not lavish. On the right are some pictures of the palace compound, including one taken from the adjacent hill and a statue of King Sisavang Vong. Overall, the building, the many rooms and private chambers of the royal family were well preserved since the 1975 when the royal family was forced into exile by Pathet Lao. Like the murals on the wall of the king's reception room. Done in 1930 by a french artist, depicting temples and daily scenes, they were intended to be best viewed at different time in the day. They are beautiful. I found the mosaic on the wall of the throne room most interesting and somewhat puzzling. The coloured glass pieces were beautifully put together to tell various stories. A number of scenes include gruesome details of soldiers beheaded in the battle field, with their heads rolling off. From their head gears, they looked to me as Thai and Vietnamese soldiers. Seemed odd for good diplomacy. The Buddha Pha Bang after which the city is named is displayed at one end of the building. One account said that this is a replica and the actual one is stored safely in Vientiane. Unfortunately, no camera is allowed inside the palace.

7. Exiting the palace ground and across the road we started our climb to the top of Phu Si. Like one brochure says, "as with all good things, it comes with a price, in this case a climb of some 328 steps". We can verify this. It was exhausting to get to the top. Half way up, signage gives you hope that there are not many steps to go. At more than 100 m high, it has an excellent view of Luang Prabang, including the palace ground. On its peak is the 20 m high Vat Chamsi Stupa. Built in 1804, the stupa is beautifully lighted up at night. I could see it 24 hrs a day from my hotel room. Around the peak and down the Northwestern slope are the ruins of Wat Pha Phutthabaht, which was built on the site of Buddha footprint. Along the slope are many Buddhas (including Sunday Buddha, Monday Buddha etc. Wondered if theres a Buddha for each day of the week), including a reclining Buddha, leading to Buddha footprint. At the foothills are 2 other unrestored temples.

8. We woke up at 5+ the next day, 9 June, to watch monks in long procession collecting alms. At 5.15 each day, the temple adjacent to our hotel will beat the slow drum; so we had no difficulty waking up early. Soon after, processions of monks in their yellow saffron robes will walk the street to collect alms. In front of Wat Mai Suwannaphumaham, next to our hotel along Sisavongrang, devotees dressed in their best knelt down to give their offerings; sticky rice and other food stuff, placing into the baskets of the monks as they walked past them. Included here is a short video which I took. video

After the event, the devotees gravitated to the temple compound and put in small bits sticky rice to the crevices of the stupas and along the compound walls. They then gathered for phototaking, much like a festive celebration.

9. A lady approached Sunny and I to buy some sticky rice as alms to be offered to the monks. Sunny gave some money and asked the lady to offer it on our behalf. A book which I read later strongly recommended that we should only offer food that we know as good. Apparently, monks were known to get sick after eating some of this food.

10. Next to our hotel is the morning market. At about 4.30 stalls started to move in and by 6 am the 2 lanes were already steaming with locals doing their marketing. They will be there up to about 11 each day. Very colourful, selling all that you need for the day- rice, vegetables, meat, fresh fish that were still alive, cooked food, snakes, legs of iguana, fruits etc. A must visit for visitors to Luang Prabang.

11. After breakfast, at about 8 am, we proceeded to bank of the Mekong to catch a boat tour. The tour included a visit to a minority village and Pak Ou caves, about 25 km North of Luang Prabang. We had a bad experience with a tout who conned us into buying a ticket for 85 000 kips (US$10) each which we later found out cost only 50 000 kips (US$6) just before we boarded the boat. He called himself Pisa and now we are convinced is not his real name. As we lacked the details, we decided to let the bad experience passed other than just feeling lousy about it. Lesson learnt: avoid middle man, buy at source. See the product before making payment.

12. The half day boat was interesting and worth doing. The joy was just simply relaxing in the long thin boat which can seat 12 people or so, read a book and enjoyed the scenery on both shores. We brought our honey water and some cucumbers to fill our tummies as we expected a late lunch. The 15 mins stop at the minority village of Ban Xang Hai was like those included in many group tours. It was really a merchandising stop. In a shelter at the top of the slope a local in T-shirt and short explained to us how rice whisky was made there. There was the usual tasting and you could buy some if you like it. Fortunately, there was no hard selling. Further in, an old women was weaving using a good old hand loom. I bought a scarf from her for 12 000 kips (US$1.5).

13. Another 15 mins ride or so we were at Pak Ou caves. This is a well known Buddhist site and a place for pilgrimage. There are some 4000 Buddhas in 2 caves, the lower cave housing some 2 500. Apparently this cave was already a place of worship in the 6th century but after Buddhism was adopted as the official religion it had become a major place of worship for Buddha devotees. A long flight of steps led us to the upper cave. When we reached there, we were exhausted and sweaty. Dark inside the cave but we could see Buddha statues placed in every conceivable place. Entrance to the cave were 2 huge majestic wooden doors, but in state of disrepair.

14. After our return and a quick lunch we were off to visit Vat Xieng Thong, reputed to be the most beautiful in Luang Prabang and possibly the whole of Laos. Central in this temple complex is the sim, with its long sloping roof to the ground, a traditional Lao temple architecture, and beautiful mosaic on its external walls. Inside are elaborately decorated wooden columns supporting the ceiling stenciled in gold. Inside it, there was a feeling of calmness and serenity. Beside the sim is the beautiful Red Chapel which contains a very beautiful reclining Buddha in a unique posture with the right hand gracefully supporting the Buddha head. At the far end of the complex is the Funeral Carriage House. It contains a huge gold carriage used for royal funeral.

15. We had a wonderful 2 day stay in this beautiful town of Luang Prabang. Luang Prabang is not just about temples, although they are attractions in their own right. Its the whole town that is charming. Most important, the people are friendly and polite. The touts leave a bad taste but there again touts are not unique to Luang Prabang. Its not a buzzy party town, but its a quiet and serene place to relax for a few days to enjoy Laos culture and people.

3 comments:

  1. You all are good marketers of Luang Prabang - interesting place that should not miss, will mark it down for next visit to ASEAN.

    Please be more generous of giving out the souvenirs especially the uniquely spore cap, bag and big merlions, so that we can get more Laos to get to know us:-)

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  2. Hi Neo Chian

    I enjoy and look forward to reading your very detailed account of the many places you have visited. It's a very interesting travelogue and indeed a lesson on history, geography and economy of the various Asean countries.

    I have seen the unique bbq/steamboat utensil in Singapore. I was invited to my neighbour's (Von's) place sometime last year and we were eating from such an utensil. But I don't know where he bought it from though.

    Happy travelling and writing.

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  3. Dear Yong Teck,
    A shop near the market in Huay Xai sold the utensil. After examining it, we felt that the depth was too shallow, not quite the same as the one we saw at Luang Prabang; so we didnt buy.
    Just saw a restaurant in Chiang Mai with many tables using the same utensil. Looks like its quite popular in the Indonchina countries.

    ReplyDelete