09 February 2011


The first thing we noticed on arrival in Luang Prabang, Laos was (apart from the 3 superfluous zeros on all of the currency) how quiet it was compared to the bustle of Siem Reap. To be fair, Siem Reap sees millions of tourists per year, but the locals in Laos seemed to be much more relaxed. Even in the markets people offer their wares once, then seem to get bored and go back to chatting with their neighbor. 

Vat Sen Buddhist temple

 Brent and Karen had already been here for a couple of days, so we met up with them and spent a relaxed few days sightseeing around the town. Luang Prabang is a beautiful World Heritage listed town set on a peninsula between the Mekong and one of it's tributaries. At various points in time it has been the capital of the country, colonised by the French, the Japanese, and somehow missed being carpet bombed during the Vietnam war (unlike most of the rest of Laos). The town is famous for the bright orange-clad monks who lead a silent parade every morning through the streets, collecting alms from the locals in the form of sticky rice. There must be hundreds of monks in residence because you see them wandering around the town all the time, to the point where images of orange robed monks with black umbrellas are on most of the souvenirs for the town.

Morning markets in Luang Prabang
Karen had contacts with a group of people (mostly Australians) who help out at the local orphanage school on a regular basis. Although there are some kids who go home to their families during school holidays, there were a surprising number of kids left behind over the two week break. Unfortunately the staff are on holidays too, so the kids usually just get rice during this time. We were invited along for the day they had organised to go and supply them with some more nutritious food - in the form of pieces of cooked pork and cucumbers. Unusual - but portable! It was a pretty funny day, watching the adults trying to get the kids to go and get their bowls, then round them up into lines to collect some food, then get them back again when there was still some leftover, all with significant language barriers.

Lyn handing out food to some of the boys from the orphanage
The next exciting thing we did (apart from attempt to visit all the cafes in town) was an adventurous day a little way out of town where we got to ride elephants!! One of Laos' nicknames is "land of a million elephants", and we were told that most of the elephants seen in the nearby countries (eg Thailand) have been taken from Laos. There are obviously very few truly wild elephants left; they are such wide roaming creatures with destructive habits to feed their requirements for 150kg of food per day - so it is best for relations with all concerned if they are controlled in some way. We heard a story of one overnight elephant riding trip where the elephant got off it's chain in the night and demolished the entirety of a large market garden, much to the distress of the Mahout (elephant trainer) and the owner of the garden. Many have been used for logging and the ones that we met were ex-logging elephants in "retirement" playing with tourists.

"just a little bit more grass..."

Natalia making friends by bribery with papayas

We rode the elephants into the river bareback, sitting on their necks. The Mahouts told them to sit down in the water while we washed them. I should add that elephants don't seem to be the most obedient of creatures, but fair enough that if you are that big you can ignore a puny human who is shouting at you for quite some time. Especially if you have better things to do (like eat). The mahouts eventually convinced the elephants to dunk their heads in the water (with a trunk up like a periscope) which resulted in Brent and Karen being catapulted off the front. My elephant dunked 3 times - I was very wet but didn't fall off! 

Wet... but happy (Brent's photo)
Brent and Karen left the following day, after a very pleasant evening taking advantage of local cuisine and red wine. They headed on to Phonsavan, a town near to the Plain of Jars sites. They span an area of hundreds of kilometers, dotted with thousands of mysterious large stone jars which keep archaeologists scratching their heads. 

Natalia and I stayed in Luang Prabang for one more exploratory day before heading south to Vang Vieng. The bus trip involved winding through some tiny towns perched precariously on the side of the road, next to a massive dropoff. This meant that everyone used the road as the main place to exist - slightly concerning as we hurtle along with questionable brakes while very small children lay out tall grass heads on the road for making brooms. I bet the broom industry is the most hazardous in Laos.

Mountainous terrain between Luang Prabang and Vang Vieng

Next stop - Vang Vieng, tubing and adventure centre of Laos.

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