Luang Prabang & Vientiane

All along the Mekong.

The other day, in Vientiane I saw a travel poster for Laos and the slogan read “Simply Laos”, which captures the natural beauty of the place perfectly. Not as sophisticated as Thailand it still has the charm of a country not yet overrun by tourism. The natural beauty of Lao is enchanting and the Mekong River, the lifeline of the country is where you can best feel the pulse of this unassuming country. Along the Mekong are several cities worth visiting. My first stop after the Slow Boat was Luang Prabang and then a short flight later I was in the capital, Vientiane.

Laos was colonized by the French and their influence is still seen in the cuisine, architecture and many Lao speak some French. There are many French tourists here as well. Once a royal kingdom, Lao was a French colony from 1893 to to the mid 1950’s, gaining full independence after a Japanese occupation in WWII. After Independence the country was divided with the US supporting of the Royal Lao Army and the USSR backing the Pathet Lao independence supporters who were aligned with the Vietnamese and the Khmer against the French. Laos has been left with the terrible legacy of having been bombed with 2,093,100 tones during the so called “secret war” by the Americans. There are museums that display the unexplored ordinance that littered the country and there are people who make a living making crafts from the metal as a way of using the terrible events to remind everyone of the horrors that resulted. In the end the communist backed faction won and in 1975 Laos People’s Democratic Republic was proclaimed. A social regime, they sent up to 50000 royalist to labour camps.

Laos was closed to the world until 1990 when it became possible to visit Laos and see the traditional, rural lifestyles that have changed little over this tumultuous history.

Luang Prabang

Whoever coined “Simply Lao” must have had Luang Prabang in mind. It is a quiet, unassuming city with a slow pace. The old city is host to lots of foreigners from all parts of the globe. The easiest way to get about is in a long-benched Tuk-Tuk which can dart in and our of traffic and around potholes with greater ease than a car. You can also rent bikes and scooters in Luang Prabang and this would likely be the safest of cities in which to do that. You can see the French influence throughout Luang Prabang in the architecture and you can certainly enjoy a croissant and cafe au lait at a vast number of little coffee bars and restaurants.

A lovely place to wander you can climb Phousi a hill in the center of town to visit the golden Buddhist stupa and from there get a good view of the surrounding area.

The signage below indicates the main sites to be seen in Luang Prabang and although certainly possible to see them all in one day, there is no rush and spreading them out over the course of a few days mixed with a few cafe au laits is a wanderers delight. The Do’s and Dont’s are a reminder to foreigners that our Lao hosts do not share our same customs and I thought it was a gentle and friendly reminder about some of the unacceptable behaviours. Could have used this on the boat with the Tourist Thugs I encountered.

Lunag Prabang boasts some fine food experiences and one in particular, stands out…. A Lao style barbecue at your table, you first load your tray from a long buffet filled with meats/seafood, followed by vegetables, herbs and spices. The sticky rice comes at the end as does the cashier who you pay before returning to your table to “cook” your selections. The individual charcoal braziers on each table are red hot and chunks of port fat are provided to grease the piping hot metal inverted colander on which you spread your food. So delicious and very popular, the place was packed. Other Lao dishes I tried were “Larp”, a minced meat salad and Tam Mak Hung, a very spicy salad made from shredded green papaya, garlic, chillies, lime juice and fish paste. Noodle soups are also very popular and eaten for breakfast. It is served with lettuce, mint, coriander leaves and bean sprouts on the side. The best deserts, in spite of the French influence are the fresh fruits; guava, lychee, rambutan, mangosteen and pomelo. Mmmm good as is or whipped into a smoothy.

The Royal Palace Museum is another place to visit but was closed while I was there, all except the grounds which were interesting in themselves.

An evening stroll along the Mekong reveals the place to be for an evening of Lao food and people watching. Tons of restaurants line the banks and invite passerby’s to tarry over drinks and dinner and while being mesmerized by the Mekong.

Such a safe place, Luang Prabang is nice even at night and the Main Street is transformed into a very busy and long night market full of crafts and souvenirs. There are some beautiful fabrics and so many other things to buy and so little suitcase space to carry them home.

There are many day trips you can do from Luang Prabang and I chose to visit the multi-level Kuang Si waterfalls. Before you make the trek up to the falls you pass through a bear sanctuary, which was completely unexpected. There were dozens of bears enclosed in large spaces where they are free to wander, play and live out their days. Signage tells that there are no longer safe wilds for the bears in Laos, mainly thanks to poachers and deforestation. The poachers captured and killed the bears particularly for use in Chinese medicines. So sad, they can never be released.

The Kuang Si falls are beautiful shades of blue and the pools of water that form at their feet are great for swimming. A little on the cold side but being a west coast Canadian, I quickly adapted and enjoyed the refreshing waters. A little disconcerting are those self same little fish found in pedicure tanks that eat your dry dead skin. If you keep your feet moving though they are kept at bay.

The trail that leads up and along the falls is through a beautiful tropical forest and definitely is enjoyable on its own. The plant, flower and tree species are well marked and you can read about the wild life prevalent in the area as well. And in English, thank you to our Lao hosts.

The bride above is not intentionally included with the flora and fauna but is there simply because she was there, along the trail, posed, and anyone with camera in hand would be hard put to resist the intrusion.

Vientiane – The Capitol of Laos

My regret about Luang Prabang is that I spent only two nights there, saving my last four Laos nights for Vientiane. I wish that I had reversed that decision and enjoyed more of “Simply Laos”. Even though I read and did some research I fear that I thought there was more to do in Vientiane and that it too would reflect the “simply Laos” sentiment. There are some famous Pagodas in Vientiane but I visited the ruins of one that have an historical connection to the Khmer from Cambodia and resemble those that I saw in Ankhor Wat. Wandering the streets I marvelled at the electrical installations and wondered how a problem could ever be solved in the event of having to unravel the trail of tangled wires.

There are French architectural influences including a street compared to the Champs Élysées and an arch commemorating Independence. In front of the Arch is a remarkable sculpture made from blue and white porcelain cylinders. Until you are up close it’s hard to see how that is possible. At the opposite end of the street to the Arch is the Presidential Palace and in between the Morning Market is a great place to wander and see what’s for sale. The Lunar New Year was about to happen and signs of the upcoming celebration were everywhere.

I made good use of my four days in Vientiane, catching up on laundry, correspondence and the last night I had dinner with some “Slow Boat” friends. We strolled along the riverfront, visited the a night market with plenty of things for sale and many food stalls. There were also a number of rides and games for the whole family. We had decided on a South Indian Restaurant listed as the number one choice in Trip Advisor. We were not disappointed at the Flavours & Spices.

Next stop Vietnam!

Chiang Mai Thailand

Chiang Mai the peaceful…a great place to regroup.

Joined Dawn and Craig, my travelling buddies at a air BnB condo in Chaingmai. The condo was the size of a postage stamp by Canadian standards we nonetheless had our own bedrooms and bathrooms. Nice building, with all the mod cons like a washing machine and with a roof top pool and lovely views of the city.

Chaing Mai is very big, our taxi driver told us it could take 5 hours to travel from the north end to the south end of the city. But the heart of Chaing Mai is the old walled city. A very large area, one can see ruins of the old wall and the moat is still there and makes for great strolling and people watching. You can enter the old city through some of the ancient gates, there are other entrances but not as romantic sounding.

Inside the labyrinth that is the old city you will be accosted by the sights and sounds that are born out of the proximity of homes, hotels, inns, restaurants, bars, outdoor markets, tuktuks, motos, cars, temples, Wats etc., all zipped up together by narrow lanes and wider arteries that are not necessarily the fastest routes. A great walking space it doesn’t really matter if you are lost or which direction you head you can always google map your way out, but in the meantime you will be rewarded with something interesting at every turn.

Inside the walls we shopped, dined, wandered, people watched, visited temples and watts and rested our tired feet while sipping fresh fruit smoothies. Friends from Canada have Thai friends that own a restaurant called the Blue Diamond. A wonderful place and Nee gets up at 4:00 am to bake for the deli section of the bakery. It looks, smells and tastes wonderful. I had met Nee and Eed, her husband, in Nanaimo last summer and they were so gracious and warm when I visited the Blue Diamond. If I was staying in Chiang Mai this would definitely become a regular place for me.

One day we hired a driver, Bon Bon, to take us to a few spots we wanted to visit outside of Chiang Mai. The first was the Kanjana Elephant Sanctuary (www.kajanaelephantsancuary.com) if you need to look it up. We chose this sanctuary because it is not a “riding” camp, which is now frowned upon and with good reason. The elephants at Kanjana are very used to people. There weren’t many, I think six, all female and all former “work” elephants with the exception of a two year old who was born in the sanctuary. After “suiting” us up in protective shirts and pants we were taken to prepare squash to feed the elephants, a little bribe to make them like us. Feeding them was quite an experience, for one thing you had to watch your toes, then you had to give them commands that indicated that they could take the food with their trunks or that you were going to insert the food right into their mouths so they would have to raise their trunks. The inside of an elephants mouth is an experience in itself. It is soft and made up of many lumpy large folds of tongue like flesh. They are sticky and damp and your hand comes out the same way.

They were so hungry and as the guide at the sanctuary said they like to poop, eat and bathe and it sounds like several of them deserve to do exactly that after hard lives in logging and farming. They have been replaced by machinery of course and were too much trouble and expense to keep as pets; that is why there are elephant camps all over Thailand, many with the best of intentions. None of the elephants will leave the sanctuary, they will spend the rest of their days there and one in particular with a broken leg was very sad and it was good to know she had a safe haven.

After feeding we walked with the elephants down to the river and gave them a good scrubbing with wire brushes. They loved it and rolled around in the water, between the people and the elephants spraying each other with water we were pretty wet by the end of bath time and we all walked back to the main camp. For $60 CAD it was well worth the experience and I like to think the elephants benefit.

After the elephant sanctuary we motored on to the “Sticky Falls” in Chet Si Fountain National Park. A beautiful forested park, with camp sites, hiking trails, picnic areas and of course the sticky falls, so named because you can actually walk up and down the falls without slipping (too much). The water was refreshing and not too cold and the falls were so steep in sections we had to use ropes to climb up or down.

Feeling clean and refreshed we headed to Baan Tong Luang, an eco-agricultural hill tribes village. Many of the people who live here are refugees from Myanmar. To quote the brochure “ Baan Tong Luang hill tribes community has been founded since 2003. To preserve the traditional way of life of the tribes and help families and tribes who work for the Maesa Elephant Camp. To remain in its original life, which cannot be found in the present day.”

There are eight ethnic tribes living together in this community. They live in traditional style building, each according to their cultural practice and the arts and crafts that are mainly handmade are sold in their section of the village. Each tribe has very different characteristics in their work but all of it is colourful and beautiful from baskets to tapestries. One group is the long necked people called the Karens. Only the women wear the neck bracelets that weigh enough to force their rib cages down, giving their necks an elongated appearance.

For me the idea of an “indigenous” center made for tourists to come and see the culture and history of these different groups could be problematic but my sense here was that the people were safe and supported, living a peaceful existence quite different from the lives they had to flee in times of war and turmoil. Interestingly these tribes originated in many different places; Tibet, Myanmar, China with many migrating to Thailand in the 1980’s.

Bon Bon our driver spoke pretty good English and he answered our millions of questions about Thai society, daily life, military service, being a monk, the cost of living, etc etc. He was probably happy when the last stop of the day came and he let us lose at the Phra Borommathai Doi Suthep Temple on the top of a mountain above Chiang Mai. With a gondola to take us to the top, thank God, as we had walked and climbed a lot since morning, we were impressed enough with the Temple itself but there were also outstanding views of Chiang Mai in The Valley below.

The markets in Chiang Mai deserve a mention of their own. On Sunday evening there is a street market that goes on for blocks and blocks, selling handicrafts, art, clothing, food and household goods to mention a few things. There is also the Chiang Mai night market a permanent set-up with terrific street food and again blocks and blocks of stalls selling everything imaginable. The markets themselves are a work of colourful vibrant art. The atmosphere is upbeat and people go the markets to shop, dine and enjoy live music and people watching.

Our last night we took a dinner cruise on the Ping Mae River which was somewhat of a disappointment. We were picked up at the condo and drove around until the van was full of cruisers. At the river we were shepherded down to the boat and given dinner which was mediocre and then set off on the cruise. Since it was night time it was dark and the only time you could really see anything was when we passed a brightly lit restaurant or bar. There were some very nice homes along the river and some upscale restaurants. Not sorry I did it but wouldn’t do it again.

So arrangements have been made, Dawn and Craig leave for Krabi and Koh Lanta in the south of Thailand in the morning and I take a van north through Chiangrai to Chiangkhong where I will overnight before crossing over the Friendship bridge into Lao.