Sunday, June 1, 2008

Backpacking in Laos: Vientiane, Luang Prabang, Kuang Si Falls


When the stewardess opened the door I knew I was in Asia. It was warm, damp and smelly. Yes! I was prepared for some hectic situations once we passed the customs, but the only thing we noticed was the incredible mellow-ness of the country. It started with the customs guy who said that normally he would turn our backpacks upside down and inside out, but since he wasn't in the mood he would let us go. Big smile. After that the taxi drivers left us alone when we said we wanted to relax for a couple of minutes after being in an aircraft for 18 hours. And when we were ready we got in the 20 year old Toyota. From Wattay Airport to the city is just a little ride, but since there are more potholes than tarmac and the exhaustpipe would not stop hitting the ground it took just a little longer than expected. Vientiane is the capital of Laos and supposedly 300.000 people live here, but you wouldn't tell. It looks more like a sleepy village that just got hit by a tornado. An excellent place to relax from the long flight we figured.

Vientiane hasn't really got much to offer. The day we spend there we visited Pha That Luang (see picture above). This is the most important symbol of Laos and you it pictured everywhere, even on the money. The road to That Luang gives the city a little international character with it's large Arc the Triomphe (Patuxai) halfway. And with four large "falangs" (that's how they call white people) in a tuk tuk that's about to collapse under the weight you get a lot of laughs from the Lao people on their scooters and motorcycles. Like I said, Laos struck us a being very relaxed. You notice it everywhere. Sure, people try to sell you stuff but when you decline with a smile they won't hassle you any longer. On the big morning market you can stroll around and look around at will and the only things you notice are the friendly faces looking at you.

Money is something of a joke. It starts with the name of the currency: "Kip". As this means "chicken" in Dutch we had a private joke everytime we had to pay. Another thing is that it has no value and that the largest bill (5000 kip) is worth $0.62. So when you exchange a $50 bill on the marked, the sweet lady gives back 215 bills of 2000 Kip. Where do you keep all this Kip? And what can you buy with it? The national currency is really the US dollar; only everyday things like food and drink can be bought with Kip. But then, when you can buy an excellent meal for 25.000 kip who needs dollars?

Most of the streets in Vientiane are not paved so you have jump over puddles and watch out for the scooters that are avoiding the potholes. A few streets are well kept, but that's probably because there is a Wat. Buddhism is very important in everyday life. And young men are expected to "serve" as a monk at one point during their adolescent life.

To our surprise (and delight) the city comes to life when the sun sets. On the banks of the Mekong people eat and play all sorts of games. You are cordially invited to join in a game of "throw a stack of cans from the board" or bingo, Lao style.

Luang Prabang

At six in the morning we took the bus (seemingly bought with Japanese foreign aid judging by the enormous sign that was put up on the side of the bus) to Luang Prabang. After a couple of stops we thought that nobody else could get in any more. We were wrong. There is always room, you just have to sit in the aisle. Who cares if you crash down on bags of rice. Little babies don't take up much room and children can sit on other people. Be flexible! After a couple of hours everybody was still in a good mood. The loudspeakers blasted out a radioplay that was very funny. Well, we couldn't understand it, but everybody else was laughing. The last hours we drove through some very nasty mountains that made a lot of people sick, especially those sitting in the aisles. People kept on rubbing Tigerbalm on their temples and under their noses, but it didn't help very much. To keep spirits up we cracked a lot of lame jokes, but now we were the only ones laughing. After 11 hours we made it with very sore asses to Luang Prabang.

Luang Prabang is like a breath of fresh air when you arrive from Vientiane. This is the old Royal Capital of the Lan Xang kingdom. The city is located at the confluence of the Khan and Mekong rivers and from the hill Phu Si you get a splendid view. The streets are dotted with magnificent Wats. Around 32 temples are still standing. UNESCO made it a World Heritage site a couple of years ago and rightly so. Here you see Wat Mai Suwannaphumaham, build in 1797.

Wat Mai SuwannaphumahamThe most breathtaking temple is Wat Xieng Thong (the first buildings date back to 1560). The Wat consists of several buildings, may of them wrapped up in gold. This is the funerary carriage house, just one example of the architectural wonders of Luang Prabang.

This little creature crawled on the walls of one of the temples on Phu Si. These fellas can be seen everywhere, even in your room. This is Cafes Arts when we had breakfast a couple of times. They serve a mean banana pancake. Specialty of the house is the Big Sandwich, which will tie you over to dinner.

Kids are everywhere. Teenage boys are usually clothed in saffran coloured robes because they are monks. Teenage girls wear white shirts and blue skirts. When you sit by the side of the street you can see them on their bikes going to school or to the temples. The very young are always playing. Whether it's climbing up trees... ...or playing with an old tyre.

The most fun can be had on the banks of the Mekong.

Kuang Si Falls

A colourful figure in Luang Prabang is Mr. Leng. You can't miss him, being 5 feet tall, very old and wearing some sort of boyscout uniform. He walks up to you and starts talking like a broken record. "Ex-cu-se-me. How are you to-day? Wel-come gen-tle-men. Live well and pros-per"

He gives you his business card (a piece of paper with his name written on it) and tells you about the things you can do around Luang Prabang. There are waterfalls and caves to be seen and he can provide the transportation.

We ask if we can do both today. That's not possible because - as he says it - "One day you go see waterfall, next day you go see cape". Alrighty then! We go see cape tomorrow. We hop on the jumbo and drive through some stunning countryside. After an hour we arrive at the waterfalls and are immediately impressed by it. We decide to climb it...

The way up through the jungle is pretty steep and slippery. But once you get to the top you get the feeling you are the king of the world. The view of the valley and the waterfall is magnificent. The water is cool and very tempting. We dip in, very careful at first. But later on we climb the trees that are hanging over the rim of the fall.

And, as you can see... we sat on the edge where the water cascades down. The whole experience provides for a natural high. This feeling is only enhanced by the little children who rush out to us when we drive through the villages. They wave and scream "sabaidee" ("hello"). At night we evaluate the day with a couple of Beerlao bottles at the "Indochina Spirit" restaurant.

This is a very relaxed place. A Marlon Brando wannabe sits at one table and constantly rubs his bald head like he is in "Apocalypse now". A German girl radiates when she tells us that today she decided that she's not going back home anymore. It was all getting a bit to much. We celebrated the good life until the wee small hours. Completely smashed...

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