Sunday, December 31, 2006

Day 15 - Laos at Last

For more pics, click the links below.

Well, we had 12 days in Vietnam and I think that was enough. It was interesting but the full-on hassle was starting to wear us down by the end. Originally we had planned to do this trip clockwise going from Laos to Vietnam. I think that would have killed us actually. Going the other way was just perfect. Laos is a refuge after Vietnam.

We didn't do much on our last morning in Vietnam. We'd forgotten it was a Sunday and some of the stuff we would have done was closed anyway. We sat by the lake and Sheena enjoyed a coffee and then headed to the airport in a taxi.

The flight was uneventful. It was Lao Airlines and so we exchanged Vietnam Airways' horrific pate for some strange green goo. Ah well, at least it was edible. The flight into the town was quite spectacular. You fly right down the main street quite low.

We landed on what looked like a cloudy day. It was early evening. By the time we made it out of the airport it was dark. It took immigration quite a while to process everyone's visas. A sign at the counter informed us that we had to pay an extra couple of dollars because they were working at the weekend. Poor dears.

A guy was waiting to take us to our hotel. This was pretty close to the airport and was off the main road set alongside the river in some great tropical gardens. These were lit when we arrived and we were welcomed by a couple of friendly dogs and the Australian wife of the ex-pat who own the Nam Khan Villas.

She showed us our room. It looked very rustic and we changed and headed to the restaurant for something to eat. She'd encouraged us to have a bite to eat there before we headed into town. It was New Year's Eve and we were anxious to see if we could find somewhere to catch the vibe.

Our first impression of the menu was that it was a bit limited. This became acute when we discovered that of the buffalo steak, chicken and fish available they were out of both buffalo and chicken. Suddenly, fish seemed a capital idea. We had fish... er two fish.

It was obvious that the staff were learning the ropes. While the manageress taught the cook to cook, we chatted to Joy, our waiter. He wasn't local. He was from Udomxai north of Luang Prabang. He was here for university and he was amazed at how developed it was. This only left us to imagine how undeveloped Udomxai must be. Luang Prabang is little more than a large village. We described Seoul and, thankfully, he wasn't able to imagine it at all. Seoul has nearly twice as many people in it as the whole of Laos put together. Hmmm...

We'd already exhausted conversation topics a number of times when the food arrived. It was okay but neither worth the wait nor the price. This was to become the trademark of our stay at the hotel but little did we know.

After dinner, we headed into town on a tuk-tuk. At $3 each way, we knew we had to solve the transport situation. That was simply too much to be spending on this kind of holiday. Town was, well... quiet. Lovely and quiet.

We were dropped off on Sisavangvong Street which is the main one. All along it were cafes and restaurants overflowing with tourists. The atmosphere was great. Nice and relaxing. Best of all was what we found at the end of the street.

I wanted to explore and we set off down some inviting side streets. We found a beautifully lit temple and then, as we were passing, I caught sight of something interesting in the grounds of a house. Being a tourist grants you immunity to take risks sometimes. Wandering into someone's private property wouldn't normally be okay but we were welcomed curiously.

What had caught my eye was the sight of a long row of fires on which something was cooking. It turned out to be rice cooked Lao style which I'd never seen before. Rice is put into baskets and these are suspended in the mouth of metal pots of boiling water. The rice is steamed. Even more curiously for us was the quantity these people were making. It seemed to be, and turned out to be, one family. But they were emptying the cooked rice into a coooler box that was almost full. It would have fed a hundred people.

We were invited to sit down. They brought us some beer and we began the lengthy process of figuring out what they were doing. Only one guy spoke any English at all and this was minimal. He also had terminal pronunciation and it took us a long time to figure out that he was saying "monk" We eventually realised that they were cooking rice to give the temple monks in the morning and would be cooking all night.

Luang Prabang has something like 16 billion temples and between them they have more monks than any country could possibly need. In the morning, every morning, a sea of saffron greets the dawn and the local people hand out alms consisting of rice mostly but also other types of food. We wondered but never discovered how often this family did this. I guess it must also be a sign of wealth to be able to give this much rice to the monks.

Sisavangvong Street hosts a night market. It is very tastefully done on a small scale that perfectly fits the town. Immediately we noticed that we got no hassle. Everyone left us alone. If we wanted to look, they helped us but they were never pushy. Sheena was in her element!

Time was moving on. It was getting near 11pm and we had no idea where to go to see in the New Year. We walked and walked but just couldn't settle on a place. In the distance, we could see lanterns rising on the horizon. In the end, we followed the crowds to their source and discovered a huge open-air party going on. It was really quite wild with a band and dancing and everything.

For a price, you could purchase a huge rice paper lantern and a paraffin burner. These were what we had seen rising thousands of feet into the sky. Groups bought these and lit the paraffin. They then held them over their heads until the air inside had heated up enough before releasing them. They looked beautiful as they rose up and drifted away. Not so beautiful was the one that caught a downdraft and landed on the wooden roof of the adjoining French colonial building. A fire engine turned up and doused the building but there was no damge.

We hung around until about 2 and it was getting quite chilly. We headed home eager to cosy up in our nice bed...

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