Saturday, February 9, 2008

Luang Probang

We landed in Luang Probang amidst low lying clouds and dark forested mountains…quite a change from the dry planes of Siem Reap. It was overcast… reminding us both a little of home. After the usual visa on arrival procedures, we hopped into a shared taxi with a couple of British girls and headed for town. The town of Luang Probang is one of the “tourist destinations” in Laos, known for its waterfalls, river rafting, elephants and trekking, in addition to the many Wats or temples. After a cup of coffee and a piece of delicious quiche we found ourselves a guesthouse and set out to explore the town. We were so surprised to see so many foreigners! Even in Siem Reap, one of the most famous attractions in the area, we were visibly the minority, but here it was just the opposite. The city occupies a peninsula between the Mekong and Nam Ou rivers. There is one main street in the city, lined with tour companies, restaurants, internet places, and that’s about it. We returned to our room after dinner slightly disappointed with our first impressions.

The next day it rained; it poured buckets all day and we stayed inside for most of the morning enjoying our book, Shogun. (We had to rip it in half so that we could both read – books are rare.) When it became clear the rain was not letting up we decided to take a walk around the peninsula and check out the river. Our clothes were soaked through within a matter of minutes, but we were enjoying our walk so it didn’t really matter. The Mekong river is a huge muddy body of water winding its way down the country. The banks of the river are lined with lush gardens; the flat fertile soil is an ideal environment and it was hard for us to resist all the fresh produce we saw in town. These gardens are such a stark contrast to the muddy water, they almost seems unnaturally green.

The scenery around town was definitely a highlight, but our favorite part of being in Luang Probang was without a doubt the night market. We had read about the market, but because our first few days in town were raining we didn’t get to experience it until our third night. At about 4 pm the streets became visibly busier… mopeds and tuktuks piled high with goods going to market. The market itself occupied two or three side streets and numerous alleys and sidewalks. Merchants lay out their goods under lighted tents. I never tired of walking into the mass of brightly colored lanterns, scarves, blankets, t-shirts, slippers, jewelry and more, all lit by strings of tiny light bulbs. We walked through the market almost every night and couldn’t resist buying something each time. Tiny paper lanterns decorated with leaves and dried flowers. $2 T-shirts promoting Beer Lao, so soft. Embroidered slippers, blankets, pillow cases. Let’s just say we went on a little bit of a shopping spree.

When we finally decided it would be dangerous to our budget to be in town any more, we looked into moving—exploring a bit to the north and them heading south the capital, Vientiane. We’d heard from people that Vang Vieng, one of the towns on the route south was also a must stop – famous for its river floating and “happy pizza.” The 11 hour bus ride was not sounding so hot to me and Chris had his heart set on trying to rent a motorcycle. We found out that one of the companies in town rented motorcycles and allowed customers to return the bike in Vientiane – perfect. One slight problem…neither of us knew how to drive a motorcycle. Chris went to pick up the bike with one of the company guides and somehow made it back to the office. I had been expecting one of the motorbikes we had seen around town, little did I know we had rented a giant dirt bike. The seat was so high I had to lift my own leg up just to get on the thing. Haha.

We thought it would be best to test out Chris’s driving ability and my nervousness factor before making any long distance journeys, so we took an afternoon trip out to one of the famous caves in the area that we both wanted to see before we left. We made it to the tiny village about an hour north of Luang Probang with sore butts but no other problems. The bike was perfect for the dirt roads, Chris did great with driving, and I eventually got over some of the nerves, kinda.

The Pak Ou Caves are set into the limestone cliffs at the mouth of the Nam Ou river. The lower cave is filled with Buddha images of all styles and sizes. The second and higher of the caves is longer and we needed a flashlight to explore the statues within. The caves are a pilgrimage place for many locals who bring new Buddha images to place in the caves and even earlier had been a place of worship for Laos river spirits. After exploring the two caves we rode back to Luang Probang and judged it a successful motorcycle trip. We rented to the bike for the next 4 days and decided to take a bit of a road trip. More on that to come soon…



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