Luang Prabang - Part 2     Last Updated: 04-Nov-01 

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Wat's Happening

Thursday's plan was to explore the old section of Luang Prabang, including as many Wats as we could stand. From the hotel (and its forgettable Western breakfast), we headed towards the peninsula where the two rivers meet.

Wat Saen, Monastery
We seemed to meet up with the same 2-3 couples of tourists, and were totally outnumbered by the monks, who seemed greatly amused about what we falangs deemed worthy to photograph.

Wat Saen  Small Shrine  Here is where the monks live 
Buddha  Amused monks  The Staghorn-Fern is taller than Roswitha 

At Wat Khili, we saw the first of many inlaid mosaics where reflective bits of tile of various hues are placed into colored stucco. Diverse stories and scenes were depicted, as were trees and animals. The window details included scenes which seemed to show education of children. The Wat seemed mostly unused, except for a game being played by a group of 6 to 9 year old boys. They set up some folded cards in a chalked square, and then from about 15 meters away, threw a flip-flop (shoe), spinning it to get good loft, stability, and distance. After several tries, one of the boys hit the pile, sending the cards flying. With that, another of the boys quickly collected the cards, clearly having won. We have no clue what happened. Someone's mother came up shortly after that, told her son to come and have lunch, and effectively broke up the game.

Children playing are depicted at the doors 

We continued on to the confluence, which has no significant designation whatsoever. (There was, however, a pig snorting in a bamboo lean-to.)

The Nam Khan (right) joins the Mekong, the tip of the peninsula is covered by farms  Free-range chicken and chicks. We heard the pig, and assumed it was in the lean-to  Making Charcoal on the side of the street 

Heading around the bend to the Mekong, we came to Luang Prabang's most significant temple, Wat Xiang Thong, which our guidebooks even venture to call the most significant and enchanting Wat in Laos. Like most Wats, the grounds comprise several buildings of various functions. The Sim (main temple) is very graceful, and is the primary example of the Lunag Prabang style, which has a dramatic multi-tiered roof and eaves which are more outward-swept and lower to the ground than those of other areas. It was built in 1560 by King Setthathilat, and is one of the few to have survived several onslaughts and restorations over the centuries. The walls of the Sim have gold stenciling indoors and out, depicting tales and myths. (I actually thought the stenciling to be crude and simplistic, but what do I know?)
The Sim also houses several Buddha statues. Much of the exterior of the building is covered in glassy tiles, and even includes a tiled elephant head which spouts water during the Lao New Year festival.
The shrine behind the Sim is covered with more glassy-tile mosaics. Another chapel houses a bronze reclining Buddha, which is said to be one of Laos's greatest bronze works, and is sculpted in a unique graceful style. The grounds contain an impressive Funerary Carriage Hall, which houses an enormous wheeled haw latsalot. Carved of teak and covered in gold, it is constructed as bodies of ferocious multi-headed naga. The carriage was built in 1962 to transport the mortal remains of King Sisavong Vong. The Wat grounds also include fine gardens and ancient bougainvillea. We watched a trio of black butterflies cavorting through a small stand of teak trees.

Elephant with water spout  Can you find Scott's two self-portraits, and Roswitha? 
The tree of life showing peacocks and other animals 
Mosaic Edge  Reclining Buddha  Funerary Carriage 

Heading back down the peninsula, we passed a series of racks on which rice cakes were drying. The Lao prefer a particular type of sticky rice which is balled up with the fingertips and used to scoop or soak up accompanying foods. The drying cakes were made from this rice. Also drying nearby were chapatti-like wafers. Seeing these made us think of lunch, so we stopped at a vegetarian restaurant noted for poor service.

Rice CUPs out to dry  Tightly packed, horizontally at the monestary  Or on a slope, looking like so many solar panels  Chapattis  ... and sausages 

Royal Palace Museum
No photography is allowed in the museum. The main impression was the stark division between the heavily ornamented "official" rooms, and the very spartan living quarters. We saw many small Buddha figurines that were relocated from the "Watermelon" Stupa, as well as the various gifts from different Governments to the Kingdom of Laos (including a moonrock from President Nixon). The temple that gives Luang Prabang its name is in the same compound and absolutely stunning, luckily we had a closer up sneak preview earlier in the day.

Royal Palace (Museum)  Top of Palace 
Haw Pha Bang, on the Palace grounds  The future home of the Pha Bang, started construction within last 50 years. Note the sweeping roofs.  Naga on Haw Pha Bang 

Lao dinner at one of the tourist restaurants on the main street. It seemed popular with the backpacker crowd.

The next day was Laundry Day! We dropped off our unmentionables at the local laundry (only $1 per kilo!), and headed off to the city's main market. On the way, we strolled through the strictly-for-tourists Hmong (Hill Tribe) market, where we saw woven and stitched stuff. Handbags (all the rage in the '60s), silk fabrics sewn onto dyed burlap bags, and cute little skullcaps made up the bulk of it, with some Haring-esque figures thrown in as well. To be fair, there were some fine silk weavings, fabrics and quilt-work among the goods.

Airing our ... laundry  Looking at hill tribe handy work 

The main Dala market had all that a city needs, ranging from barbed wire and tools to shirts, silk, and silver swords. There were booths selling the typical Lao sarong (required wear for all women), cosmetics, and tobacco in bulk.

Need some bags of tobacco? 

By lunchtime, we were in the mood for comfort food, so we stopped in at the Scandinavian Bakery on Xiang Thong Street, and then caught up on email.

Pak Ow!

Earlier in the day, we had made reservations to go to the oft-visited site 25 km up the Mekong, the caves of Pak Ou. These have been used for many years to house ceremonial Buddha figures, as well as serving as a dumping ground for disused and damaged statues. Every tuk-tuk and boat hack in town offers rides to the caves; it is one of the standard must-sees. The normal way to go is on a covered longboat which usually seats ten to twenty tourists and takes about two hours each way. We also found that there are speedboats which can get there in half an hour.

"Let's take the speedboat," said Roswitha. "We'll check with the front desk to arrange it."

"Why do you want to take a speedboat?" asked the travel agency suggested by the hotel.
"The longboat has a roof."

"Well, how much is the speedboat?" I asked.

"$40," said the agent.

"For both of us?"

"Yes. But it is too fast," said the agent.

"OK, no problem. Can we do it this afternoon?" I asked.

"Yes - we'll pick you up at 2:00 at the hotel. Are you sure you would rather not do the longboat and also visit the Hmong Village?"

"Thank you, but the speedboat sounds good."

So, there they were at the hotel at 2:00. Sohn was our guide, and the van driver was nameless. Although there are boat piers along the Mekong in Luang Prabang, we had to drive far outside town to get to the speedboat dock. We passed several small villages and drove on dirt roads which must be river tributaries during the rainy season. At a small village in what seemed to be jungle (even with a monkey sitting on a roof), the driver stopped and yelled at a guy who was putting on his shirt. He ran ahead of the van, and disappeared down a side path. We were prompted to alight and follow him down a steep, muddy trail which ended at the swiftly flowing Mekong. He brought the boat around, a 25' flat skiff dominated by a huge engine at the rear. This was a "longtail," trailing a long axle and propeller whose steering is controlled using the engine as a rudder.

Decending a rather steep path to get to the boat  ... and here is our speed boat 

We stretched from the muddy bank and stepped into the narrow boat. They placed us in the bow, seated against a small board and on a thin cushion.

"Here, put on these crash helmets."

Huh? "Are you going to wear one?" I asked.

"No, but it is good to keep down the noise."

Getting ready 

So, we strapped them on tightly, and Roswitha put on a life jacket, tightly clutching the camera.
I tightly clutched the side of the boat. The boat moved smoothly upstream, and then slowed next to another large boat moored at the shore.

"We need gas."

Getting gas 

Then, once gassed up, we were ready to go…o…o…oo…ooh, MY GOD!!!!!!!
We were cruising at about 50 kmh (35 mph), bouncing across the water, barely touching it, it seemed. We raced past the shore, fishing boats, and even the tourist-laden longboats, everything to the side a total blur. I cinched my helmet tighter, and tried to fuse my butt into the 8" high board holding me in. The pounding bounces reminded me of the dogsled ride in Fairbanks, although not nearly as cold.

After the initial shock, fear, and recitation of oaths were over, it became a wonderful way to travel, in spite of the periodic slams as the boat bounced over boat wakes, waves, and logs floating down the Mekong. We passed groves of feathery bamboo, stands of teak, small fishing villages, and hills rising to mountains and dramatic cliffs. Before we knew it, we were pulling up to a cluster of boats moored at the base of a high cliff. We had to walk through a large live-aboard longboat (first taking off our shoes before boarding) to get to the pier. Climbing up stone steps, we arrived at the first cave.

Village across the Mekong from the caves  The caves are in this wall. We had to enter through the large boat.  View of the village from the first cave 

The two Pak Ou caves have been used for several centuries to store thousands of Buddhas, and are still used by people from Luang Prabang and the river villages. The caves are cleaned up each Spring as part of an annual festival. The statues range from an inch to over twenty feet, and are scattered singly and in groups around the caves. Entrance for Farangs is 8000 kip (about $1).

3500 buddhas in this first cave  more buddhas  and yet more, see Sohn in back 

The first cave (Tham Ting) rises sharply above the water, and is not very deep (and easily lit by daylight). A long stairway leads to the second cave (Tham Phoum), which is guarded by a large gate. It is much deeper, and requires flashlights to explore. There is a large lion carved into one wall, and a dais and stupa into another. The high roof is home to numerous bats. The musty air, cobwebbed Buddhas, and eerie silence contribute to a mystical feeling.

Entrance to the second cave  A large red pedestal in the back of the cave (only the flash showed the color)  Different view  The place (grave yard?) for broken buddhas  Every somewhat horizontal ledge holds figures  Bats hanging from the ceiling 

Sohn asked us if we would like to stop on the way back for a refreshment, and how could we refuse? So, helmets firmly fastened, we sped downstream to a hillside restaurant which he said is quite popular with the locals on the weekend. The thatched bamboo platform overlooks the Mekong, with a good view towards the sunset. We enjoyed beer (where I learned "Cheers" in a new language - ngyuk!) and Mekong river carp. Fortunately, the boat captain (a known lush) only had half a glass of beer.

Sohn's recommendation for refreshments  After a short climb uphill ...  ... We are rewarded with a great view (just remember we also have to walk down after a few beers!)  Sun slowly setting toward Mount Phousi  We made it down-hill ...  , speeding toward Mount Phousi, ...  We don't think we had too much beer, ...  until Scott lets his hair down 

Once we got back into town, we went for dinner (for Scott, who had not eaten the crap…er…carp) to an upscale Laotian restaurant. There we finally got to enjoy Mekong river moss.

We then retired to the hotel, and Roswitha suggested that we see how geckos (which swarm on the hotel's walls) react to a laser pointer. From their reactions, they must think that it is the juiciest, most attractive bug they have ever seen. We had several geckos scampering around the ceiling for minutes at a time.

Huge (10 inch) gecko (without laser point) 

Luang Prabang Meals:

1 Nov.

2 Nov.

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