February 17, 2013 - Vientiane and the beginning of the journey home


 February 16, 2013 - a day in Vientiane

     Our last full day was a leisurely one spent wandering around Vientiane - visiting a number of wats; a bit of shopping; and relaxing in our 'suite' at our hotel.  Breakfast was again excellent with a nice selection of croissants, french pastries, eggs of any sort and asian breakfasts of rice and/or meatball-noodle soup.  Even the little jars of jam were imported from France.

     As mentioned this was a very quiet day.  Vientiane is not the prettiest, most walkable city we've ever been in.  We went to the Royal Palace - nothing impressive from what we saw and retraced our route in the central core.  A couple more wats and some nice artisan shops, with nice local textiles etc. took up some time.  But where we had upgraded to a two-room suite for our final night we returned to the (Ansara) hotel and spent the afternoon enjoying a nice soak in the bathtub - the first tub we had on the entire trip - and some quiet time on our balcony.

     We went for dinner at a supposedly 'french' restaurant, highly rated on TripAdvisor but for me highly disappointing.  Gayle enjoyed her crepe but there was no French atmosphere and beyond a few crepes really no french items on the menu.  We then returned and called it an early night.

A french apple pastry with fresh orchids for breakfast. 

The french influence is strong enough in Vientiane to carry over to street names and signs. 

 Yet another temple.  They do seem to be everywhere.

Who knew anyone would smoke in a temple ... but we guess if you need the sign ... 

The monk's laundry - you can't miss the bright orange. 

 February 15, 2013 - from Luang Prabang to Vientiane

     Another transition day as we left Luang Prabang for the capital of Laos - Vientiane.  Luang Prabang is an impressive pedestrian friendly city with a French feel to it, similar to New Orleans.  While a magnet for tourists it retains a small town atmosphere as evidenced by the views from our hotel and restaurant that look across the Mekong and Khan rivers to an environment that could be a hundred kms upstream, virtually deserted.

     When planning the trip we had considered a 13 hour bus ride (apparently quite scenic) to Vientiane but, and in retrospect quite wisely, decided to fly.  The less than one hour flight had us in Vientiane early afternoon.  With a population of 750,000, Vientiane - on the Mekong river near the border with Thailand, became the capital of Laos in 1563 due to the fears of a Burmese invasion.  During the french rule of Laos* Vientiane was the administrative capital.  Due to economic growth in recent times it has now become the economic centre of Laos.

* the Lao state dates only from 1945.  Laos was part of French Indochina from 1893 until it was granted self-rule within the French Union in 1946.  Following France's withdrawal from Indochina after the First Indochina War, Laos was granted independence in 1954.

     First (and last) impressions of Vientiane were not very positive - it is no Luang Prabang.  This is a city in transition.  In the central core there are a number of very nice upscale shops, right next door to dilapidated run down buildings.  There are nice hotels and low-end hostels.  There is considerable construction that presumably will improve the city but at the moment many 'junky' buildings/areas.  One noticeable thing was the Russian presence, with flags flying along-side those of Laos, both in parks and on commercial buildings.

     After an afternoon walkabout we returned to our nicely located hotel before going around the corner for dinner at Makphet.  This award winning restaurant is run by an organization founded by Friends-International in 2004, in partnership with government to address the needs of street children and young people in Laos.  The restaurant provides training for students, most of them formerly street youth, and social programs to support them on their jouney to become skilled, productive and happy young persons with a more secure future.  And as reviews had indicated the food and service were extremely good.

     We then spent a short time wandering through the night-market, nicely located near the river, before calling it a night.

The view from the Mekong Riverview's restaurant, over it's garden and across another temporary bamboo bridge over the Khan river.

The Mekong Riverview hotel with terraces providing great views across the street to the Mekong river. 

Russian flags are common in Laos, in this case on a bank.

Guess which wire just shorted out?

The Funky Monkey, one of many Vientiane hostels, with dorm rooms from $5.87 per night, INCLUDING breakfast!  Note we did not stay here :-)

The Makphet restaurnat ... another great program to assist disadvantaged youth. 

Count em - 10 fresh spring rolls ... we did not go home hungry!  The peanut sauce was excellent.

 February 14, 2013 - Luang Prabang

     Early each morning (6:45 am) the monks in Luang Prabang make their way along a street to Wat Xieng Thong, receiving alms/offerings (usually of rice and other food) along the way.  Being nearby to our hotel we got up early to watch the procession.  Unlike Chiang Mai where there were a considerable number of tourists (including us) participating this was for the most part locals.

     After breakfast we returned to the early morning fresh market.  The interesting thing about this market, beyond the snake we saw for sale, was that unlike the night market those here were virtually entirely locals - women (primarily) purchasing meat, fish, vegetables and fruit for the day.

     We then visited a weaving centre outside the central area of the city.  A tuk tuk shuttled us to the centre where we were shown the silk worms and the process for using the fibres from the cocoon to weave the silk.  There were a number of women weaving and a high quality shop with beautiful textiles but nothing that caught our eye.  We returned to the city, strolled the streets and then visited Wat Xieng Thong, just around the corner from our hotel.  This 'Temple of the Golden City', originally built in 1559-1560 is one of the most important of Lao monasteries and remains a significant monument to the spirit of religion, royalty and traditional art.  There are over 20 structures on the grounds including a sim, shrines, pavillions and residences, in additon to its gardens of various flowers, ornamental shrubs and trees.

     After another quick walk-about at the night market we had dinner.  Being Valentine's day it was quite busy but we eventually got a table.  Gayle had the Menu Lao Vegetarian that was comprised of steamed mushrooms, eggplant and herbs in banana leaf; Laap salad made from tofu, oyster mushrooms, bean sprouts and fresh herbs; fried glass noodles with bamboo shoots, mushrooms, mixed vegetables and eggs; pumpkin soup cooked with coconut milk; concassee of tomato and grilled chili; sticky rice (of course); and crispy banana fritters with pineapple syrup.  Needless to say I helped her out a bit (a lot). 

     We then tuk tuked back to the hotel after a long day.

Monks receiving their alms early in the morning (6:45 am ish) on a street in Luang Prabang.

Monks receiving rice from locals. 

Women would often be seen carrying products in baskets such as this.

A vendor with her multitude of vegetables. 

Steamed banana leaves (commonly with rice, fish or chicken) and other stuff ???

 A basket of eels anyone?

... and if the eels were not enough ... 

Breakfast overlooking the Mekong river.  Note the croissant and baguette - common given the French influence of Laos. 

 One of the colourful tuk-tuks on the streets of Luang Prabang.

Silk worms. 

Weavers at Ock Pop Tok weaving centre. 

Many monks used umbrellas to shade themselves from the hot sun. 

A beautiful carving in one of the temples. 

 ... and a Buddha next to gold adorned walls - both the insides and the outsides of the temples where spectacular.

 The Coconut Garden was nicely decorated for Valentine's day.

 February 13, 2013 - Luang Prabang 

     Luang Prabang (literally meaning "Royal Buddha Image") is located in north central Laos, at the confluence of the Khan and Mekong rivers.  It is the capital of Luang Prabang province with a city population of only about 50,000.  Formerly the capital of a kingdom of the same name, it had also been known by the ancient name of Chiang Thong.  Until the communist takeover in 1975 it was the royal capital and seat of government.  It is now a UNESCO World Heritage site.  The city is well known for its numerous Buddhist temples and monasteries.  Every morning, hundreds of monks from the various monasteries walk through the streets collecting alms (more tomorrow).     After a nice breakfast overlooking the Mekong we took the hotel's golf cart shuttle service - which worked really well as we generally took the shuttle to our destination and then walked back - to the morning (primarily) vegetable and fruit market.  There was some meat and fish and a few other products (scarves, textiles etc.) but this is mainly a local market where local Laos buy their food for the day (more on the market tomorrow as well).

     We then visited a great little museum - the Traditional Arts and Ethnology Centre (TAEC) museum, that provided a nice exhibit of the culture and customs of the traditional hill-tribes of Laos, focusing of traditional dress and relationships, i.e. dating and marriage.  We very much enjoy these small regional museums, ones that you can skim most of the written material, in this case watch a video, and get through in under two hours.

     Being noonish we stopped at one of a number of vendors along the main street for a sandwich and fruit shake.  I think there were something like 30+ different fruit shakes - Gayle had  mango-pineapple-banana and me just the pineapple-banana for 10,000 kip or $1.25 Cdn each - yes the Lao exchange rate is 8,000 kip to $1, similar to the Italian lira for those who can remember those days. 

     As mentioned Luang Prabang is known for the many wats / temples located in the city.  We entered a couple as we slowly made our way back to the hotel.  Very impressive.

      As the sun set we went back out to the night market.  It is amazing how busy streets during the day are converted to crowded markets at night.  For a city this size the market was quite extensive, with quality much better than we experienced in Chiang Mai.  That said the market focused on textiles, clothes, handbags, jewelry etc. with very little food, unlike Chiang Mai that had endless vendors provided BBQ, fish, rice, noodles - you name it they had it.  The market was much busier than we expected with a considerable number of tourists.  In fact the pedestrian-friendly city was a buzz with restaurants being quite busy.

     We decided to try something a little bit different for dinner for which we had to cross the Khan river over a less than stable, and quite dark (good thing we had a flashlight) and narrow bamboo bridge with the river only feet below.  The restaurant is secluded and peaceful (being on the other side of the river), perfect with its gardens and bamboo huts for those wishing to escape the activity of the main street of Luang Prabang.  We started with 'Platter 1' that included sweet chili sauce, mekong seaweed (yum), dry pork with sesame, steamed vegetables, eggplant dip and sticky rice - all for only 60,000 kip ($7.50).  It was all very good, especially the dry pork with sesame.  We then had the Lao fondue, or Sindad.  A pot of hot coals is set into the table upon which a 'bowl' is placed.  Broth is poured into the outside with vegetables, noodles and eggs placed in to create a soup as it boiled.  On the top meat (beef for me) or tofu (for Gayle) is grilled, or BBQ'd.  It was a bit of work but well worth it.  The soup was particularly good.  At the table next to us were an interesting well-travelled couple from Rochester, NY who had just spent two weeks in Myanmar and had come from Vientiane, our next stop.  It is easy to get into interesting chats with other travellers while trying to figure out how exactly to make one's meal.  After dinner we carefully crossed the bridge to return to our hotel. 

A Hmong hat at the TAEC museum. 

A fruit and juice bar in Luang Prabang. 

One of the many wats / temples in this UNESCO world heritage city. 

 Some of the intricate carving inside the wat.

 A shopper at the Luang Prabang night market.

 A really small sample of the silk available at the night market.

 Umbrellas at the market.

The temporary (dry season only) walking bridge to cross the Khan river to reach Dyen Sabai restaurant.

A Lao fondue / BBQ. 

Feb. 12, 2013 - again on the Mekong River - from Pakbeng to Luang Prabang

     The morning started early with breakfast at 7:00 am in order that we board the boat and depart precisely at eight.  It was cool although not cold but the ponchos and blankets came in handy when the breeze picked up as we began to 'speed' down river.  The cloud cover was low, as it apparently often is over the Mekong until it burns off mid-morning. 

     Our morning stop was at another Khamu village.  Here the women weave textiles, primarily silk, and silk/cotten blended scarves, although they also sell product from China  - our guide pointed out the differences.  It was actually a quite interesting village where we saw a father bathing his child in a very public washing area; a couple of very young girls looking after babies, presumably while their mothers were selling to us; and a small temple with a monk.  We bought a number (five) scarves and another small item.

     As we continued along the weather did indeed get much better - sunny and hot.  We enjoyed another nice buffet lunch on board before stopping in the afternoon at Pak Ou caves.  The caves are at the mouth of the Ou river which flows from the north into the Mekong, about 25 km upstream from Luang Prabang.  Both the lower (Tham Ting) and upper (Tham Theung) caves overlook the river.  The caves are noted for their thousands (Kee Lee our guide said over 4,000) miniature Buddha sculptures.  Many of the very small and mostly damaged wooden figures are laid out over the wall shelves, taking many different positions including meditation, teaching, peace, rain and reclining.  The upper cave is reached by climbing over 200 steps, many quite steep, but worth the effort. 

     We then returned to the boat for the final 1 1/2 hours to Luang Prabang (LP), a UNESCO world heritage city.  We arrived around 4:30 pm, were met by the hotel's golf cart and driven to the nearby Mekong Riverview, a very nice hotel at the (quiet) end of the peninsula of Luang Prabang.  Our room had a nice terrace with a wonderful view of the river.  After a very short walk around the immediate area we had dinner at the hotel's restaurant, across the road, built on the river's hillside, leaving the serious touring of the city to tomorrow.

     Althoug somewhat pricey the cruise was very enjoyable.  The pace was good, the service excellent, the food very good, the lodge in Pakbeng outstanding, the dance performance entertaining, the stops informative and interesting, the boat very comfortable, the scenary interesting ... all in all an excellent and very worthwhile experience.

 The Luang Say Lodge, Pakbeng, Laos.

 Early morning mist looking up the Mekong from the Luang Say Lodge.

 One of the interesting crops grown along the banks of the Mekong is peanuts, grown in the sandy banks of the river.

We saw two elephants on the trip - one that appeared to be working and this guy who lifted his legs - left, right, left - and flapped his ears.  We kind of suspected his appearance may have been staged.

 Young boys trying to sell to us as we entered the village from the boat.

While thier mothers are presumably selling their scarves and other wares to tourist someone needs to look after the young babies, a task apparently left to very young girls, with this not the only one we saw during our walk-about.  

 A young monk in the Khamu village.

A couple of photos of some of the more than 4,000 Buddahs in the two Pak Ou caves. 

Longboats docked at the entrance to Pak Ou caves - a popular day trip from Luang Prabang

February 11, 2013 - on the Mekong River from Huay Xai to Pakbeng

     We were driven the 20 + minutes from the Lanjia Lodge to Chiang Khong where you cross the Mekong river, enter Laos (a VISA is required) in order to board our longboat for our two-day cruise down the Mekong to Luang Prabang.  The immigration process was interesting as you first have to submit your departure document to leave Thailand, cross the Mekong on a small dugout canoe type boat to Laos and then get a VISA (30 days for $42 US each).  Lots of people and very crowded but our cruise had representatives on-site to assist us through the process.

     After that it was a 10 minute truck ride to the dock where we boarded the Luang Say cruise boat, a 40 seat longboat.  The boat was very comfortable with cushioned seats and backs and lots of leg room, something not all the cruise boats apparently provide.  We left near 10:00 am for the 330 km downriver trip to Luang Prabang, with 140 km the first day to Pakbeng where we stop for the night.  The group was pretty evenly split between French and English speaking.  There were two guides providing explanations to each group in their respective language - easy to understand direct explanations rather than over a loudspeaker which was nice. 

     After the first 20 minutes or so that passed the towns of Chiang Khong (on the Thailand side) and Huay Xai (Laos) there was pretty much nothing other than a few very small villages up from the banks of the river.  This being the dry season the river was quite low, about four feet below the water-line on the rocks.  It must be somewhat tricky to navigate the Mekong at this time of year as the captain crossed back and over numerous times, apparently to sail down an appropriately deep channel. 

    Service on board was excellent with informative responses to all questions, wet towels after shore stops, fruit provided after stops and water served continuously.  We enjoyed a delicious buffet lunch - chiken curry, a wonderful fish steamed in banana leaves, dry pork etc. with Gayle and the other vegetarians on board being provided their own soup, rice and vegetable dishes. 

     In the afternoon we stopped at a Khamu village where we saw and had explained to us what village life is like, including the crops they grow such as the peanuts along the banks of the river.  Otherwise it was a leisurely sail passing other longboats, small fishing boats, locals working along the banks, bamboo fishing-poles wedged into the rocks, water buffalo and great scenary of the mountains on each side of the river.

     We pulled in to the Luang Say Lodge, located in a lush tropical jungle setting adorned with orchids and other flowers on the banks of the river just north of the village of  Pakbeng around 4:30 pm.  What a beautiful lodge, with individual cottages, some with wonderful direct views of the river (although we drew a short straw and were somewhat obstructed in the second row of cottages).  Beautifully done in very dark wood - a Polynesian feeling.  The bed again came with mosquito netting.  Being the dry season we have seen only a couple of mosquitos but best to be safe.  Before dineer we were treated to a half hour dance (with a little singing) show accompanied by a group of men playing local instruments.  The costumes were very colourful and the performance very enjoyable.  Then it was an excellent buffet dinner (the food has been very good on the cruise) and off to bed for our early morning departure.

As we were waiting to leave the dock at Huay Xai on our long (slow) boat this similar boat was docked beside ours.

 A Khamu village we stopped at en route.  Note the satellite dish.  It seemed there was one every 100 ft. - TVs, cell phones - this village is connected.

Two Khamu girls.  All the children, both in Thailand and here in Laos were very happy to have their photo taken. 

Lunch on board the boat.  The food, both on board and at Luang Say Lodge was very very good.  

A longboat, again similar to ours, cruising down the Mekong river. 

 The porters greeting our arrival at Luang Say Lodge, Pakbeng.

One of the dancers in an attractive local costume. 

 A number of the other dancers.