March in Laos: A Long Bus Trip

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Our next stop was Huay Xai, right on the border with North Thailand. By plane, it was only an hour away but the schedules and prices just weren’t suitable. Our next options were either to take the slow boat up the Mekong that would take two days or the bus that took a third of a time, just 15 hours. That’s Laos for you: when they do slow, they really show you what slow means.

To make things hopefully less painful, we took the overnight bus that was scheduled to leave Luang Prabang at 4.30pm. Lord knows why they even bothered with the precision of :30 because we sat around in the bus till 6pm before it finally pulled out of the terminus.

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The funny thing about Lao buses is that they are never full. Siamesecat and I were thankful that we arrived in time for the bus as we got a double seat to ourselves. Slowly the bus filled up, mainly with locals and some rowdy backpackers at the back. No chickens yet. Then there weren’t any seats left. Still, the bus wasn’t full. To our amazement, the conductor whipped out some plastic chairs to line the aisle, so more people squeezed on. They started tying to the roof big sacks of what was probably rice and after a while, we headed off.

As we trundled off, it dawned on us why the journey would take so long. The bus seemed to stop every hundred metres or so to pick up more passengers. The bus was never full. Soon, even the plastic chairs in the aisle were filled up and there were people standing in between, hanging on for dear life as if on a 15 minute commute rather than a 15 hour one. We gradually dropped off the sacks of rice. They landed heftily on the ground with muffled thuds as the night turned pitch black. At one point, a motorcycle putted up and there was a bit of commotion and grunting on the roof. Soon, the rider squeezed his way on board, helmet on head to free up his hands for holding on. At the only dinner stop, we all trooped off the bus and gawked at the amazing sight of the motorcycle lashed to the roof of the bus. We hurriedly grabbed some dinner, looed, and rushed back to reclaim our seats, thankful that we were kiasu-Singaporean enough to “chope seat” by leaving our packs on it.

The bus started to pick up speed as we drove through the mountainous, truly sparsely inhabited area of the far north. It felt like we were the only ones hurtling through the dark lonely night. A few hours after the dinner stop, the driver flipped on the tape deck and loud Thai remixes of 90s boyband songs came on. After a couple of turns on repeat, the rowdy backpackers at the back started heckling and demanding that the driver switch it off. Siamesecat and I kept quiet, we agreed that it was  better to be deaf and alive than just dead if the driver needed the music to stay awake. We were glad when the driver simply ignored the heckling and kept going.

The cheerful Thai boyband pop became a bizarre counterpoint as lightning started flashing around us. For split seconds, we saw the trees and slopes lit up in dark grey-green around us. Then came the thunder and the accompanying driving (!) rain. Siamesecat and I were now doubly thankful that we decided to keep our bags with us instead of putting them on the roof. It was worth the lesser discomfort of having to fold ourselves into a semi-crouching position with feet on bag on floor than to discover our possessions sodden beyond salvage the next morning. Music still blaring, we drifted off to sleep. The closed windows misted over as we continued on our way.

I woke intermittently and as dawn crept up on us, this lovely sight greeted me:

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There was more. The valleys were clouded over and in the morning sun was nothing but stunningly beautiful.

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We were firmly in the hilltribe area. Curious kiddos did the usual, stopping their play to stare and wave. We saw villages slowly come alive as the doors to stilt huts slowly opened and tribespeople emerged on their daily business. Some went to work on the mountain slopes, others took goods to the market and still more laid out their wares on mats along the road.

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Exactly 15 hours later, we pulled past the Red Cross building at Huay Xai. We made it in one piece! I(n any case, true to Lao-style, the place was shut.)

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Knees creaking, we went off in search of a guesthouse.

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March in Laos: Eating in Luang Prabang

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Laos in general and Luang Prabang in particular had lots of great food. Siamesecat and I started off one misty morning with a glass of thick, sweet and strong coffee chased down with a glass of steaming hot tea. Sitting on a wooden bench watching the morning bustle while sipping hot robust coffee was one of those subliminal moments of the trip.

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After having our caffeine and sugar fix, we table hopped to the next stall and tucked into the typical breakfast of foe (yup, almost exactly like Vietnamese pho). I don’t know how they make it so tasty, but thin flat rice noodles with hot broth, topped with herbs and raw vegetables to your preference hit the spot for me every day.   This morning the noodles came with pork strips and tomato. I could have noodles three times a day and not get sick of it. The trick was to experiment with the toppings provided at the table. They typically have salt, sugar, msg and chilli powder but there’s normally lime, basil, coriander, mint, sweet chilli sauce, various types of belachan (fermented shrimp paste) and fish sauce. I especially liked trying out the pongy variations of belachan at the different places.

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Foe is normally served in really small portions, which was fine with us because it gave us all the more reason to snack along the street. Here I’m stuffing my face yet again at a barbecue stand selling grilled animal parts like spicy minced pork patties, water buffalo jerky and belly pork. It was all mmm good.

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For lunch, we again had noodles, the one here a beef version with popped rice cracker-cakes on the side. If you look carefully you’ll spot the two small tubs of belachan on the table. One was the typical shrimp one and the other made of tiny river crabs. We noticed a lot of Lao people take a chilli padi, dip it in belachan, take a chomp and double dip it while waiting for their noodles. I guess the heat from the chilli kills the germs.

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Heavily fortified by all this food, Siamesecat and I proceeded to wander the streets. It was evening when we came across this vampire-phobic cat lying on a bed of garlic. It was obviously bed time.

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It looked incredibly satisfied at the end of that yawn!

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As the sun began to set, Siamesecat and I decided that we really should have something quite special. While we both loved noodles and never got tired of them, we had to try the slightly fancier food too.

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We found a restaurant along the Mekong and enjoyed the view while waiting for our food.

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This place served mainly set menus catering to tourists. We figured that it was as good as any other. Not having any locals to take us to truly authentic places, at least this would allow us to try a bit of everything.

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The set dinner started with watercress salad, a fresh minty salad with sharp watercress and other herbs dressed in a type of mayonnaise. Then it progressed to dried pork sausage with very spicy buffalo skin dip. The pork sausage was like a slightly less fatty salami with lovely smoked overtones while the dip had strips of rather tough buffalo hide bound by a fiery chilli paste. Crispy sheets of dried riverweed with sesame seeds helped to balance out the fire but the extremely spicy beef stew didn’t help things out.

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Siamesecat and I then hit the night market for incredibly cheap buys like a beautiful silk and cotton mix pair of fisherman pants for about USD2.50. There were pretty handicrafts and all sorts of ethnic and hill tribe knick knacks on sale. Apparently a lot of these items were brought over the border to Thailand for sale in their own tourist markets.

I stopped to buy something that couldn’t be exported easily to Thai tourist markets: more food. Supper that night was baguette filled with ping kai (barbecued chicken) and lettuce. It was up to me to choose my sauces again. This time it was at least three kinds of chilli sauce, two of which had some kind of fermented seafood incorporated within, and two types of soya sauce. Amazing.

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March in Laos: Luang Prabang Temples

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The main temples of Luang Prabang understandably line the main street. The crown jewel among the many wats here has to be Wat Xiang Thong. Its roofs reach slightly higher than the other wats and its decorations are slightly more elaborate. In the setting sun, this small temple complex was quite stunning.

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The sumptuous gold leaf decorations were an elegant motif repeated all over the buildings here…

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… even down to the tiniest side halls.

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Gold leaf on red was the theme of the day. I wonder how much gold was plastered on the walls.

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In the cast of the evening sun, it was a sight to behold.

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However, for the most important temple of a country, Wat Xiang Thong was nonetheless humble in comparison. Some parts looked badly in need of restoration.

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Other shrines had rather unique decorations, such as this quirky rendition of the tree of life which I rather enjoyed.

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The rest of the temple complex had mainly the de rigueur gold carvings as decorations.

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Some looked appropriately ancient…

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… and others were simply stunning in the evening sun.

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One of the most interesting of the shrines was this one with the simple paintings on a pink background. I like the naivety of the style, as if it had been painted by students from the local primary school.

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Last of all, we ducked into the main temple hall to watch worshippers at prayer, all serenely decked out in traditional costume.

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Here’s a little aside about Lao people: One thing I noticed about Luang Prabang was how friendly the locals were, in particular the monks. Outside one of the wats I was just minding my own business when a young monk struck up a conversation with me. He was very eager to practise his English and we had a little chat about our countries. I’m not sure about their taboos regarding  contacts between monks and women but they sure aren’t shy about conversations with foreign women!

March in Laos: A Stroll Through Luang Prabang

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Luang Prabang is a lovely little town quite deserving of its UNESCO World Heritage status. Despite the many tourists, it retains a peaceful atmosphere augmented by the frangipani trees lining the main street.

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The architecture was fairly simple with graceful curves reaching to the sky.

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We went into the Royal Palace Museum where the beautiful side halls were offset by coconut palms.

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There was a rather strange Soviet-inspired statue of (most likely) King Sisavang Vong, the longest ruling monarch of Laos. In fact, his rule was so long that he was only surpassed by King Bhumibol of Thailand in 2001.

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Pardon the poor photography, but I think you get the idea of the pretty vista leading up to the main hall.

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The main reason to visit the museum is to see the Pha Bang, which is what Luang Prabang is named after. This Buddha image cast in gold and finished with precious stones is believed to protect the city and give legitimacy to the ruler in possession of it. Too bad no pictures were allowed. It was pretty though rather smaller than I expected.

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The rest of the museum wasn’t particularly interesting bar a rather impressive sword and weapon display. I liked the ornate door panelling at some of the halls too.

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Next, Siamese Cat and I climbed up to That Chomsi, the golden spire at the top of Luang Prabang hill. It was a pretty strenuous hike up the many stairs. Good thing there were lots of signs proclaiming the number of steps to the top.

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The spires can be seen from most locations in the town. It’s especially pretty seeing it up close at the top.

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The main reward for reaching the top was the fabulous view. You could see the settlement stretching out along the neatly laid roads…

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… and the Mekong curving through the city on its way south.

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