Friday, September 25, 2009

Laura continues her Southeastern Asian adventure... in Laos!

Luang Prabang, Laos

After a gruelling 24-hour bus ride from Hanoi, packed into the back of the coach along with other travellers and so much luggage and rice that it filled the aisle and every possible floor space, I finally arrived at destination number 5: Laos!

I headed straight to the Rivertime Ecolodge 30km out of Vientiane (as in Clean Breaks), where I was shown to my own lodge right on river (the name doesn't disappoint!). I arrived after dark so the next day I got up early to explore the place in daylight; amazing setting and full of 'colourful' wildlife that the manager of the resort kindly showed me how to photograph properly with macro settings (therapy for my arachnophobia?!), after reassuring me that this was definitely the wrong time of year on the river for crocodiles. Accompanied by Juicy, the resort’s gorgeous dog, I was given a picnic lunch and taken down the river by ‘Kim’ to explore the surrounding area, before unfortunately heading back to the bus station.

I woke up on the bus to a breathtaking sunrise over the mountains surrounding the beautiful UNESCO World Heritage town of Luang Prabang, and to the crowing of a cockerel somewhere stowed in the back of the bus which made me smile. Pulling into a new place at dawn has to be one of my favourite things about travelling: it's cool, quiet and you have the whole day ahead of you to explore a new part of the world.

I dumped my bags in a tiny family-run guesthouse on the main drag and set out wandering the streets. I think I say this about every place I go, but Luang Prabang has really been a highlight of my trip so far and I completely fell in love with this sleepy Buddhist river town. Laos is surprisingly French still; along with all the French translated signs, the elderly guesthouse owner prefers to chat to me en Fran├žais, there are baguettes galore, and I keep catching locals playing petanque!
Luang Prabang itself is also really geared towards sustainable tourism and community development. Together with the 'Green Luang Prabang' pages from Clean Breaks, I also stumbled upon the 'Stay Another Day: Laos' booklets dotted around the town, so decided to make the most of my time there and headed straight for a massage at the local Red Cross centre to realign my back after all the long bus rides!

After, I got chatting to Isabel, the owner of Kopnoi - a sustainable local clothing and accessories shop, which also houses the permanent 'Stay Another Day' exhibition upstairs, and along with her family, run the town's best cafe and club across the road.

She explained that she was also currently organising a permanent fashion show to exhibit the rare ethnic minority traditional dresses, so I got to watch one of the rehearsals from the L'Etranger Cafe which the colourfully-attired girls loved! The little cafe became my base for the week - a haven of books to loan, amazing coffee and walls lined with old copies of National Geographic.

Just went I thought I was one of the only travellers in the town (low season), the slow boat from Chang Mai arrived and the place was flooded with backpackers! Luang Prabang is still very much on the SE Asia circuit so I wasn't surprised to bump into other travellers I had met in Hanoi and Ha Long Bay. That evening we sampled some of the bars and, of course, ended up in the town's infamous bowling alley (the only place that stays open past 11pm)! Good fun but managed to loose my flipflops - I guess a sign of a good night! Unfortunately, I had booked myself on the Tamarind cooking course the day before, so we wearily took the 30min xe om ride to the cooking location. The stunning little paradise we arrived at certainly eased my headache! Bamboo huts set over a fish-filled pond, next to a babbling brook, surrounded by vegetable patches. The speciality Laos food was amazing (lots of lemongrass) and I was tempted to sign up to do it all again the next day!

The next morning, a few of us woke up at 5am for the traditional Tat Bak, when hundreds of the town's bright orange-robed monks line the entire length of the main street to receive food offerings from the locals. The spectacle seems so incomparable to anything at home and it was a refreshing display of faith. Afterwards, we spent the morning teaching English at Big Brother Mouse - an informal school / publishing house for Laos/English books. We had great fun chatting to the local teenage boys and learning about life in the town!

In the afternoon, about a dozen of us descended on the Kouang Si waterfalls, a series of beautiful turquoise pools of icy water, and also visited the adjacent Moon Bears Sanctuary. It was great to be in a place where there is so much to do that’s worthwhile and beneficial to the local community – all the travellers I met were just as eager to get involved in everything featured in the Stay Another Day booklet and Clean Breaks, so I really hope the fantastic work people like Isabel are doing in Luang Prabang continues.
I ended my stay in sleepy Luang Prabang with a trip to the top of Phousi Hill to watch an amazing red sunset, before catching the night bus to Vang Vieng.

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