Thursday, 5 January 2017


17th - 18th Dec 2016

Parasols on display at the Night Market
Luang Prabang, the ancient capital and seat of the Loatian monarchy while it existed, is the foremost tourist centre in Laos. It is situated in the north-west of the country on the junction of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers. It is indeed a very pretty little town (pop 30,000) and caters for the slightly more 'mature' tourist. Like Vang Vieng it is full of restaurants and bars with more hotels and guest houses than you can shake a stick at....but of a somewhat more sophisticated nature.
On first arriving, later than expected after our rather exhilarating drive over the mountains, I made an elementary mistake. I chose a hotel recommended by my 'Lonely Planet' guide and went off by tuk-tuk to find it. Lonely Planet is normally fairly reliable when it comes to accommodation, but the one I had borrowed was 10 years old. The Hotel Ammata was recommended as good value for money, which it might have been 10 years ago, and indeed seemed very pleasant. Stupidly I booked in without checking around for other options and it charged $50 per night. I paid up front (unusual to be asked to do this) for 2 nights. I must have been tired. Having unpacked I went for a wander and found two equally pleasant hotels around the corner on the riverside with balconies giving river views which charged $30 per night. On further wandering I found, on the main street and most conveniently situated, a guest house, The Sakkharine, which had all that I needed. A large and surprisingly comfortable bed, wifi, desk, air-con and decent bathroom plus pleasant outside café and free laundry service for $15 per night. None of these places was fully booked. I felt committed to spending the first night at the Ammata, but moved out the next morning and got my second night's money returned with good grace (they really are charming the Laotians) and went over to the Sakkharine. Sorted.
There are a few very expensive and luxurious hotels in town, one, the Villa Santi, a few doors down from the Sakkarine, charged $245 per night. It amazes me that tourists are willing to pay this. After all, you go to places like Luang Prabang to do lots of 'touristing' and not to spend your day in a hotel. As far as I am concerned as long as the accommodation is comfortable, clean and with basic facilities it really doesn't matter a jot if it lacks elegant furnishings and gold taps in the bathroom (or smartly liveried waiters serving drinks at 4 x times the going rate). But then again some people with more money than sense presumably buy a Berluti Venezia Leather Trimmed Beach Bat and Ball for £330 (see  previous Chrexit blog).
The famed Night Market, one of the town's main attractions, is held every evening from about 6.00pm on the main Sisavangvong Street which is closed off to traffic for the duration. It consists of 4 lines of stalls laid out on the ground and runs for about half a mile. It is quite magnificent and sells all sorts of local handicrafts, clothing, paintings, jewellery, silks, ceramics and much Hmong made materials.
The nice thing about it, unlike so many Asian markets, is that there is no 'hard sell'. The stall holders just sit there and wait.

You can pick up some real bargains if you are interested in this sort of stuff. I was particularly impressed by the local paintings on offer, and even bought one. What also impressed me is the fact that these intricately laid-out stalls are impeccably put together, and dismantled, every evening. What a shag that must be.

Right: This stall holder was just laying out her jewellery; hundreds of pieces all yet to be individually laid out on display, and dismantled every evening. Such patience and attention to detail.

Left: There are some good restaurants and bars such as this one; definitely a bit more upmarket that in Vang Vieng. I had a good steak and chips with some decent wine. No 'pie 'n mash' stalls though, that I noticed (sorry Bernie, not the place for you).

The next morning I went to have a look around the Royal Palace Museum complex. This again is just off the main street and runs down towards the Mekong. It consists of a Royal Temple (right), which I didn't go into....a library building, a garage containing past Kings' cars and the main residential Palace, amongst other outbuildings.

Left: The main Palace. As well as having to remove shoes we were told to leave bags and cameras in lockers outside. Photography inside is strictly forbidden.
Now, please forgive me, but whenever I am told that photography is strictly forbidden I can't help  but regard this as a challenge. So I secreted my little camera about my person and went in.

There were security guards in every room and as  I first got out my camera, most discreetly, I was immediately confronted by a lady in normal clothes (not looking like a guard). She very politely reminded me that I could not take photos and she even checked my camera to make sure I hadn't taken any already. I grovellingly protested ignorance and promised to put it away. I realised now that there were covert 'watchers' about the place.

The penultimate Ruler was King Sisavang Vong who died in 1959. His son, Crown Prince Sisavang Vatthana, according to some sources, never had an official coronation but in any event he was deposed by the Pathet Lao during the 1975 revolution and he and his 'Queen' were exiled to a northern part of the country where they died in unconfirmed circumstances sometime between 1977 and 1981.  Their son is still living in Laos and runs a successful hotel business.
Right: The Queen's bedroom with a portrait of King Sisavang Vong on the left and his son 'King' Sisavang Vatthana on the right. The King's bedroom was some distance away. Perhaps he snored loudly.

There are lots of other rather sparsely furnished rooms with many Royal, ceremonial and religious artefacts in them. The kitchens were outside.
It was explained most courteously by a good English speaking official that photography was banned because flash photography can damage the colours in fabrics and also, if everyone took photos and published them on web-sites (and blogs), then  fewer tourists would bother to visit. Hey ho. This contains an element of truth because I had intended to go on a long trip to visit the Plain of Jars in the far north-east. I looked it up on the internet and found hundreds of photos and descriptions of the mystical Jars on the Plain. The thought of an eight hour  (two day) journey through mountainous terrain just to take similar photos was quite a disincentive.
Left: The garage which houses a collection of the Royal Cars. Large rather rusty and dilapidated American limousines and a couple of cronky looking Citroens, and a Jeep. There were portraits with career details of several of the Royal Chauffeurs. I noticed that one of them had only one eye. I always found closing one eye whilst driving when totally pissed helped to avoid seeing a double white line down the middle of the road. I can see the advantage he had.

Left: The main landmark in the centre of the town is Phu Si Hill, on top of which is the That Chomsi Stupa. Not sure of the spelling and, as I discovered, the street names in Luang Prabang keep changing on a regular basis. Most confusing. You have to describe landmarks not streets when giving directions to tuk-tuk drivers.

Left: A view east from the top of the Phu Si hill up the Nam Khan river, a tributary of the Mekong.

Right: That Chomsi Stupa on top of the hill.

Just outside the Stupa are the remains of what was a Russian, or Chinese, double barrelled 30mm anti-aircraft gun. It was not explained anywhere why it was still there. Strange thing to leave hanging about the place.

Right: Inside the Stupa. Mother and child doing the honours in front of a Buddha. You will notice the little girl is holding a small wicker basket.

I had noticed in the Night Market and other places on the streets these little wicker cages each holding two or three very small birds. These ones (left) were outside the Stupa. Initially I couldn't work out what their purpose was. I thought, perhaps, you took them home and ate them, or kept them as pets. 

Right: I discovered that people buy them as a religious offering. The Laotians are fairly devout Buddhists. They say a prayer over the birds and then release them to fly away, presumably carrying the prayer off to the heavens or wherever.  I wonder if they get money back for returning the cage.
I haven't a clue what kind of bird they are. I was brought up in the North-East of England where the only available ornithological work was 'The Geordie Beuk of Bords'. It lists only three types of 'bord'; 'Spuggies' (sparrows or small birds), 'Craas' (crows or other similar black birds) and 'Shitehawks' (anything else). I can only presume that these winged creatures are 'Spuggies'.

Left: I was encouraged to visit the 'Fresh Produce Market' advertised as 'a colourful and photogenic market filling the street  with leafy greens, eggs, dried shrimp and live frogs'. I think I might have left it a bit late. The frogs and everything else had hopped it by the time I got there.

A walk down the bank of the Mekong was pleasant enough. Lots of cafés and boats for hire for trips on the river (right). As with many of the facilities, there seemed to be lots more boats available than necessary to carry the existing number of tourists. Several 'boatsmen' were desperately trying to drum up little avail it appeared.

I passed this sign which left me a trifle confused. I hadn't seen any elephants to be conserved. And if I had I doubt if I would have been tempted to climb on board one to turn right, or even to go straight on.

As mentioned, the Laotians are a fairly devout Buddhist people. The town contains dozens of elaborate Wats (Buddhist temples) similar to this one (right). Some big, some small and they are often schools for traditional music and arts or even gardening. My out of date Lonely Planet guide listed loads of them but, once you've seen one............etc. I expect there is an application you can put in your smart-phone called 'WatsApp'.

Left: Monks with shaven heads in their saffron robes, often young boys, are a common sight. I'm not sure how the system works but I gather that it is a rite of passage for a young lad to spend some time as a monk in a Wat. I suppose it gets them away from their smart-phones and computer games for a bit and teaches them a bit of discipline. Not a bad idea now I come to think about it, but I doubt it will catch on in UK. Maybe that is why the typical Laotian is considerably better behaved and more polite than the average Brit.

Further intriguing insights to follow after a convivial night out on the town.

....and a quick 'toot toot' from our old friend here.
(where do they come from?)

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