Luang Prabang

Encircled by misty hills Luang Prabang lies stretched lazily along a thin peninsula, jutting out into the murky confluence of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers, under the steady haze of the Asian sun the town itself is almost as sleepy as the hills it calls home.

A certain charm envelops the town, the skyline broken only by temples and golden spires, the streets awash with French architecture it feels deserving of it’s World Heritage status, not yet plagued by skyscrapers and highways. It’s quintessential allure was captured in 1909 by a French colonial doctors wife ; “Will Luang Prabang be, in our century of exact sciences, of quick profits, of victory by money, the refuge of the last dreamers, the last lovers, the last troubadours?”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It is certainly tempting to label Luang Prabang as such a place, such a romantic description of the town can, in certain places, be found; saffron robed monks wander between temples, sheltered from the glaring sun beneath patterned  sun shades, younger monks career round on rickety bicycles full of life, shouting to one another in excited tones, cafes and market stalls jostle for space alongside temples on the main streets, tuk tuks and motorbikes, the lifeblood of asia, fill the roads, alongside old wooden hand carts manned by haggard women, piled high with fruits and woven wares. Along the river long tails and barges ferry passengers and cargo to and fro through the brown waters, as the sun sets market stalls unravel into the street, ready for the evening rush of tourists searching for gifts and mementos. Yet despite the goings on of the town a sleepy nonchalance reigns supreme, there is no rushing in Luang Prabang.

This last refuge of lovers and dreamers is however besieged. It is a great irony of travel that the more authentic and untouched a place is declared to be, the faster the tourists and package tours will descend, Luang Prabang is such a place. The monks are now outnumbered by tourists, the crass commercialism that dominates so much of South east Asia is encroaching.

It is of course a catch 22; we all want to visit the best sights but nobody wants to share them with others, thus we ironically lambaste the hordes, before realising that we too are no more than visitors here. My annoyance was perhaps a result of seeing such a profoundly beautiful place swamped by so many people, it is of course utter hypocrisy on my part, I too wander round with my camera snapping locals and trundle of to the sights in town.

One can’t of course blame the local people for constructing the tourist infrastructure, Laos is one of the poorest countries in the world, suffering from a legacy of communism and brutal bombardment by America during the “secret war” , adding to it’s crown the title of most bombed country in the world per capita. The burden of poverty here is tangible, tourism for local people offers an escape a way out of a dire situation. This makes it difficult to complain at the tuk tuk driver who bombard you with offers, or the salesmen touting tours on the street, it also makes it hard to criticise the tourists who come here, with their bumbags, cameras and socks and sandals, annoying as they are they provide a lifeline to the country, without which the poverty would reign unchecked.

The Kuang Si Waterfalls 30km out of town offer a beautiful day trip, after haggling for a Taxi Hendrik, who I had spent the last couple of days with, and I headed up to the falls to see what all the fuss was about, we were in fact pleasantly surprised. The tiered waterfall cascades down, forming a number of turquoise pools, reaching the top two large falls tumble down 20 meters or so forming a plunge fool beneath the overhanging cliff. It is possible to swim in some of these pools and we had great fun trying to swim through the powerful top falls to gain entry into the eerie cave behind the falling water, once inside the crashing water echoes around a small chamber, the solid sheet of water blocking your view outside, another frantic swim brings you back outside back into the sun. The waterfalls also have a rescued bear centre where Sun bears gnaw bamboo and sleep in giant bear hammocks, it houses bears rescued from cruel owners who would not survive in the wild.

The next day Hendrik headed down south and so I decided to hire a motorbike to explore the surrounding areas, with previously heard tales of mishap and madness running through my head, and having seen the questionable driving style of most Laotians I set off to find a shop with the more than a little trepidation. The first shop had only Harley Davidsons and huge dirt-bikes and I thought neither of these would be very conducive to my survival so I settled instead for an Automatic Suzuki Moped from a travel agents down the road. After paying up the bike arrived; it looked sturdy and seemed a sensible choice for a beginner, oh and it was pink, they had somehow managed to find me perhaps the only pink bike in Laos. Nonetheless I filled in the forms, “yes of course” I replied sheepishly when he asked if I had a license, trying to muster all the nonchalance I could, “oh yes” of course I had driven one before, I seemed to pass the test and after a brief demonstration it was my time to shine, now to say my experience of bikes is minimal would be a drastic understatement, peddling to school aged 12 was probably my last time on a bike, however a small crowd had now gathered to watch the Falang set off on his pink moped and I couldn’t back down now. Feigning familiarity I started the engine and tentatively crawled forwards, checking behind I lifted my feet, said a little prayer and twisted the throttle. I quickly joined the flow of traffic, sticking to the slow lane, my route dictated by which turning seemed easiest and generally away from any threatening tuk tuk driver. However surprisingly quickly I adapted to the rather quirky way of driving and was soon zipping along with some aplomb.

I decided to head for the waterfalls as I knew the route and knew the road was fairly good, I instantly decided that this was the best way to travel in Asia, free to go wherever I wished, with the wind in my hair and dust in my eyes I soon found myself out of town and whizzing up and down rolling hills with green fields as far as the eye could see. What ensued was a great afternoon of exploring, quickly gaining confidence I was soon handling my little pink beauty like a local, zooming past cyclists and tourist laden tuk tuks ,my passage did not go unoticed, some strange looks came my way but I was free and doing exactly what I came here to do, explore this beautiful country.

I returned my bike at the end of the day fully worn-out but happy, I had taken on the roads of Laos and had survived, and along the way I had seen some incredible scenery and places. I’m determined that a bike is the best way to explore a new place, complete freedom without my route being dictated by tuk tuk driver or tour guide, free to stop and marvel whenever I wish at whatever I wish and this fine country has a lot to marvel at.

I realise this post has become rather long but alas there has been a lot to report! As I prepare to move along tomorrow I can only hope than the beautiful Luang Prabang I have discovered is able to hold its own, and retain its charm as the juggernaught of rampant commercialism creeps slowly up the Mekong towards this sleepy outpost, where the last dreamers, the lovers, the troubadours may find some peace, for now at least.

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