Thursday, February 13, 6:45 a.m., Luang Prabang
I’ll start by catching up on the activities of yesterday. In the morning we left the hotel in Bangkok, headed to the airport, and flew in a relatively small Lao Air airplane to Luang Prabang. After the bustle and commotion and sheer size of Bangkok, Luang Prabang is quite a change. A city of around 40,000, it’s quite rustic-looking and wonderful – in fact, even after just a few hours, I think I’ve decided that I’m going to retire early and come to live here!
The mist-enshrouded mountains (really more like hills, but here referred to as “mountains”) are gorgeous, right out of a sixteenth century Chinese painting. With the Mekong River rolling along side, the city has a very laid-back atmosphere. Its architecture, rustic and vaguely dilapidated, freely mixes Asian and French colonial styles. There are many cafes and temples, an extensive outdoor market, and a comparatively small tourist crowd that is young and vaguely hippie-ish. Even our hotel is lovely. Only the wi-fi leaves something to be desired.
One of our first major stops was the Wat Xieng Thong temple. Elaborate and beautiful, with detailed paintings and glass inlay, the buildings of the complex have an intimacy – as opposed to the grandeur of a place like Ayutthaya or Angkor – that is very appealing.
All the presumably valuable sculptures and art within the temple are freely accessible; apparently theft isn’t an issue here.
It’s a working monastery, too, and we are going to offer alms to the monks tomorrow. Built in 1560, the main temple is possibly the oldest building in the complex. Its elaborate roof, paintings, and glass work both without and within are highlights.
Many of the other buildings were destroyed in a nineteenth century fire, and have been reconstructed. The Funerary Carriage Hall, for instance, was built in the 1960s.
Not far down the road is Phou Si, a “Sacred Hill.” I climbed the 328 steps with only a little difficulty, and while the sunset was a little disappointing (too much mist), the view of the city, with the Mekong River on one side and the Khan River on the other, was not. Perhaps it’s the mist in the air, but the light here is really amazing, almost romantic.
A wander through the night market, at which I didn’t have guts enough to engage and barter and buy anything, was followed by dinner. And I must give props to R, the tour leader – he has gone out of his way to accommodate my diet, and in this particular meal I had so much special food prepared for me that I almost felt guilty!
Now for today’s events. Our morning started with a visit to the village of Baan Xang Kong, maybe fifteen minutes by tuk-tuk from Luang Prabang. The portion of the village we were in was something of an artist collective. All along the street one could find homemade paper products, silks, wood carvings, and metalwork. Everything was of wonderful quality, and extremely inexpensive. I was able to buy most of my presents for the folks back home in a matter of minutes. At one place we were given a demonstration of their paper making techniques, and we got to know a bit more about the production of silk, even seeing some silkworms, their cocoons, and some of the early stages in the silk making. An amusing cute kid filled out the scene.
From there it was on to the Mekong for a two hour boat journey. From the stratification along the shore we were able to see just how high the waters rise during the rainy season; that much water is hard to contemplate. It was remarkably uninhabited for much of our trip, but we did see several homes, a prison, and a number of water buffalo and cows. To be on the fabled Mekong, which I’ve encountered in so many books, historical and fictional, and movies and stories is amazing – not something to be taken for granted.
Our two stops along the way included a distillery where they make wine and spirits from sticky rice. Once again we were allowed to see part of the process. We also tasted the products – the whiskey was sharp, with just a hint of its rice origins, and the red and white wines were both very tasty. I bought a small bottle of each, but whether they will make it home is doubtful. It was only $5 for the lot.
Then we went on to the Pak Ou Cave, the Cave of 4,000 Buddhas, a natural cave within a sheer rock face. Only via the river is the place accessible.
The Buddhas range in age from a few days to 500 or more years old, and are in a wide variety of materials and colors and styles. It would be a remarkable spot for meditation, if it weren’t for the tourists. Not that they were misbehaving, but there were just a few too many.
A nice lunch with enjoyable company, and the trip back up the river, capped that part of the day. My traveling companions, I have to say, are unfailingly nice. It has been said that every trip has a problem person, but if there is one here, I haven’t met him or her. In my typical fashion, I’m not making deep connections, at least not yet. Then again, many of the people are couples, and some had traveled together before the present trip. I’m not worrying about that anyway for now, but am simply focused on enjoying the experiences.