This should really be part 3 because I had written, and saved both Laos posts when the app crashed, and when it returned they had vanished! So I had to start again! Hence the delay! Luckily I don't need many hours sleep!
Before leaving Cambodia for the airport, I had a gentle aromatherapy massage. Or at least that was the one I picked! Basically it was a forceful Asian massage...pull all your joints, pound your muscles etc etc... but with aromatic oil! Quite invigorating, but not relaxing!! Then off to the brand new airport, opened 2023, kindly(!) built by China. It is 27 miles out of town which is not very convenient for the local businesses. It was almost eerily quiet.
(Can anyone spot anything annoying in this picture. It is very tiny, but I would have sacked the builder!)
Our flight took just one hour but it was into a different world. Gone were the flat plains of Cambodia. We were now in luxuriant jungle covered mountains and deep river valleys. Luang Prabang is in the North of Lao. It's heart is a beautiful old city set on a peninsula jutting out between the confluence of the Mekong and the Nam Kin river. In the middle sits Mt Phousi, topped by a temple and towering above the town which wraps around it's foot. The architecture is definitely influenced by the years of French occupation, as is the large number of bakeries, baguettes and Croissants on offer.
The whole town has Unesco World Heritage status so it is much better cared for, and attracts more money than the rest of Lao, where poverty is very prevalent.
Our hotel, the Museum Inn, was just outside the centre, but owned by local people, and it was easy enough to walk in to the centre. It was a simple hotel, apparently run by 2 boys... well they looked very young to us. They manned reception, carried our bags, did money exchange, booked tours, took in the laundry and cooked and served breakfast!! They always seemed to be there! Every day they asked if we were comfortable and happy staying there. Hotel prices here have been pushed up by the town's popularity, but eating out was really inexpensive. We had several 3 course meals including a drink for under £10pp, including our first night when we were recommended the Bamboo garden. We were the oldest there by about 40 years, as this is firmly on the backpacker trail. The food was great and about £5pp!
They also have several breweries here. After extensive research Chris declared Luang Prabang beer the winner over the Lao beer range!
Every museum and temple that charged admission was about £1 per person. Lao is run by a Communist government that overthrew the monarchy in 1975 . The Royal family were forced to go to a Labour camp where they are supposed to have died. No official statement was ever made. Lao is a very poor country, with problems exacerbated by widespread corruption, and it is becoming increasingly dependant on China. China have just built a high speed train from China through Lao, and an expressway, and Lao is massively in debt to China which is worrying for the region. We had planned to use the train to visit Vientiane but were glad we hadn't. Several people told us that the train security guards are Chinese. They search all your bags and remove anything sharp, liquids and other items. One woman had all her make up, Shampoo and toiletries taken!
However, in contrast, Luang Prabang seems a very relaxed and happy place, in no small part due to the chance to earn money from the tourist industry. There is little hint of being in a Communist regime. Although there is an 11pm curfew for bars, clubs and parties! Lao seems a little cleaner than Cambodia. It does have a rubbish collection scheme, and we even saw recycling bins! Once again everyone is very friendly and wanting to help.
The setting of Luang Prabang above the river is impressive. It is a lovely place to wander around, with an abundance of cafes, coffee shops, art galleries and handicraft shops. A lot of overseas visitors seem to have decided to stop here for a while... which seems to have extended to many years in some cases! Our first day was spent walking around and visiting the many temples that are here, all dedicated to Buddha. There are 33 temples here, each one housing a community of saffron clad Buddhist monks. More on them later! The temples are all beautiful, and most are open for you to visit. We did NOT visit them all! The oldest temple is Wat Visun, which was originally built in 1513 when the Sri Lankans and Cambodians brought Buddhism to Laos. At the same time they built a huge Stupa next to it, which was meant to look like a lotus flower, but is known as the watermelon stupa!
In 1887 Chinese bandits came down the Mekong and burned much of the city, including Wat Visun, and plundered many of the valuable, jewelled statues. The locals grabbed whatever statues they could and hid them! More on that later too!! We donated to buy a new tile for the roof!
The most revered temple, and by far the grandest is Wat Xieng Thong, a huge temple complex built by King Setthathirath in 1559, along with his Royal Palace. These were not destroyed by the Chinese! This temple is stunning, inside and out. In addition to the main temple building, there is a an exquisite hall which houses the Kings funeral carriage. Several smaller shrines dot the site, including one dedicated to a reclining Buddha that is as old as the temple, and which has travelled!! It was taken to France and exhibited in the Paris Exhibition in 1931. Our favourite part were the amazing mosaic pictures on both internal and external walls. Some are old and some are modern additions, but they were very effective.
Wat Sensoukharam isn’t on the main trail, but we popped in to take a look. To our surprise we found a mini temple housing a 1960s VW beetle which belonged to one of their much loved head monks! Finally, Wat Mai Suwannaphumaham, which stands next to the Royal Palace, was built in 1780 and, unusually, is coloured red with Gold. The most revered Buddha statue in Laos, called Phra Bang Buddha, is thought to date from before the 9th century, and came to Laos at the dawnings of Buddhism here. It used to be in this temple, until it was moved to it's new shrine, Haw Pha Bang, inside the former Royal Palace. Every year, at the Laos New Year in April, the statue is taken in a very ornate golden carriage to it's old home, to be venerated. Their New Year is held then because it is just before the start of the rainy season when everything is washed clean. All the statues will be washed too.
The day was getting hotter and hotter, and we found a small cafe on the shores of the Mekong river to have a drink and snack.
Much refreshed, we visited the former Royal Palace. This was the only place we felt we glimpsed a bit of Communist authoritarianism. There were a few notices to tell you what to do, but the rules were very strict. Covering knees and arms we were used to from temples, but taking shoes off to go round a museum was a new one.... verrucas galore!! However, it was the barked orders 'No bag, No Phone, No camera and no instruction as to what to do with them! We had seen a sign for WC and locker room quite a way away, so we trudged back along with quite a few other bemused people. At least we could alert people heading towards the temple of their potential misdemeanours! The Royal Palace was built for King Visavang Vong in 1904. Laos was a Royal Kingdon from 1353 until it was overthrown by the Communist party in 1953. The King, Queen and Crown Prince were then taken to 're-education' farm labour camps and never heard of again. It seemed odd to us that they should then proudly display his Palace, with Royal regalia and possessions on show. The irony is that most Lao people you talk to think the Communist elite are richer than the Royal family ever were!
The modern temple, Haw Pha Bang was built to house the Phra Bang Buddha. It is stunning both outside and within. Sadly no interior photos were allowed.
A big surprise was the King's car collection! It had definitely seen better days. A Citroen and several Lincoln Continentals were quietly rotting away. The best bit was the Royal number plate showing the 3 headed elephant! And some very impressive strangler figs!
Back to the hotel for a quick rest, then out to see the incredible Night Market and a great meal at the Yuni Yupoun restaurant. We tried the Lao delicacies... river seaweed crisps -delicious; Luang Prabang sausage - also delicious, ingredients...who knows?; Spicy pork- very tasty; aubergine dip -yummy and red dip... chilli +++! In fact it has been easy in both Cambodia and Laos to find delicious food that is not too spicy.
5am alarm and we head into town to watch the 900 year old alms ceremony. Up to 200 monks leave their monasteries and walk barefoot through the streets around dawn. Local people sit in lines on small stools so their heads are lower than the monks, and put rice and sweets into the monks bowls. This is their food for the day. If they are given too much they distribute it to the poor and orphans. Some monks are as young as 8. There is no education outside the main cities, and that is not free. So the country families often bring their boys to town and leave them at the monastery. There they receive an education and get fed. One 18 year old had been left when he was 12 and hadn't seen his family since. At certain points on their route, the monks stop and sing a thank you Chant. The centre of town gets very crowded with tourists for this, but we watched it outside Wat mai Sunwannaphur and there were just a handful of visitors there, so it was quite moving to watch.
Back to the hotel for a hasty breakfast, and then a trip we had chosen as our Christmas present from one of our children and their family. Firstly to the Kuang Si waterfalls, and a wonderful walk through the jungle up alongside a gorgeous string of falls with impossibly blue water pools. The final fall was huge and the photos do not do it justice.
Also here was the bear sanctuary, which rescues Sun and Moon bears from a caged existence where they are 'milked' for their bile, or have their claws removed and other horrific things. The bears here had huge enclosures full of trees and toys, and they looked very healthy and happy.
Next to a Buffalo farm. Water buffalo are kept here for their meat and in decreasing numbers, for agriculture. This charity have introduced the concept of buffalo milk and cheese making. They work with local farmers and 'rent' their buffalo for milk production so the farmer has a regular income. They run education courses for the farmers and classes for their children and it is a great success. We had a super tour which included attempting to milk a buffalo. The cat was given our meagre results! Of course we then had to sample the very delicious buffalo milk ice cream.
Finally a visit to Ock Pop Tok. Another excellent NGO that has set up a silk production and weaving enterprise which is helping women in rural communities all over northern Laos. They use natural production methods, dyes etc and produce wonderful garments and products in amazing colours, which now get sold internationally as well as to tourists. The women are paid and receive health and welfare benefits. Their looms and equipment are all supplied and maintained.
Alongside is a vegetable farm and a super cafe right on the shores of the Mekong where we had another excellent meal.
Our last day was spent at Tamarind cookery school. Firstly we went to the vast locals market and learned about vegetables we had never seen or heard of before, and the plants and herbs used in Laos cooking. There were over 40 types of rice, and lots of dried foods. We sampled dried bamboo chips .... delicious; dried mushrooms,,, tasty and dried buffalo ... nice but chewy! The meat market was incredible. They use every bit of every animal. Frog anyone, or maybe pigs ears or Buffalo feet! Fermented fish is very popular too!
Next we drove to the oasis that was the cookery school. We were taught to prepare 6 dishes using traditional methods and fires. It was very clean and professional, making all the marinades and sauces from scratch. Dishes included delicious fish in bamboo parcels, chicken stuffed into lemongrass parcels and buffalo Lap salad. Then we ate everything as a very late lunch and made dessert of purple sticky rice cooked in coconut milk, with mango. Scrumptious! We were given the recipes if anyone is interested!
A great way to end our time in Luang Prabang.