Sabaidee Laos, magical days in Luang Prabang
It felt wonderful to be on our travel journey again. An air of excitement amongst the team, once again drawn closer by a sense of discovery together. Arriving early evening into Luang Prabang is spellbinding in itself, the streets and houses adorned with soft lighting giving it such a sensuous feel. We were delivered straight to Villa Say Kham, our home for a couple of nights. Villa Say Kham is a traditional hotel very reminiscent of a French village guesthouse decoratively adorned with bamboo and wood interiors. We wended our way through the lanes to The House restaurant for a superb Lao dinner, and to the boys delight Spaghetti Bolognese.
The magic of Luang Prabang
It was immediately clear why this is a protected UNESCO town. The historic centre is a beautiful blend of French colonial buildings and Lao architecture, and there is a wonderful mix of high-end tourism and more accessible cafes and guesthouses for independent travellers.
The historic streets of Luang Prabang are quite the most beautiful I’d seen in a while and we fell in love instantly with its beauty, peace and serenity. This was my first experience of a Laos city, its people and culture, but I already sensed a high spiritual essence. A very calm and united place where people care for each other, their family, their community.
Luang Prabang is a city full of temples. A city tour took us across the old city visiting the beautiful Wat Mai, a temple renowned for its golden bas-relief, and Wat Sensoukarahm with its golden facade. One more visit to Wat Xieng Thong, the most revered in Luang Prabang. Located at the end of the peninsula, close to the Mekong, this temple was built in 1560 by King Setthathirat and is decorated with ornate carvings and mosaics. Our leisurely city tour also included a visit to the former Royal Palace which was more of a highlight of our tour than we expected. The Palace displays such a strong colonial influence from days past, the relationship of Laos with its ASEAN neighbours, and a rich history of Laos and its former monarchy.
We lunched at the incredible Tamarind Restaurant – a restaurant dedicated to promoting a greater understanding of the local cuisine. A delectable menu of fresh and traditional Lao dishes included the famous Lunag Prabang sausage, Mekong river weed, buffalo meat and fragrant lemongrass stuffed with chicken. Of course the boys were far less impressed than us with their food selection. My watermelon chilli granita quite the best soft drink I can remember.
Later in the afternoon and out in the now to be expected afternoon rains, we zig-zagged our way to the top of Mount Phousi to enjoy a panaromaic view of the city and surrounding countryside.
It is a superb walk with many Buddah statues and caves to explore along the way. We descended via the absolutely enchanting Luang Prabang night market which stretches along Sisavangvong Road. Although not much for me to buy on this journey of ours, I couldn’t keep away. The market is so vibrant and full of brightly coloured clothing and traditional arts and crafts it is a pleasure just to wander through.
Luang Prabang’s historic centre itself is even more beautiful by night than by day, with restaurants and bars lined with bamboo chairs in which to sample your BeerLao and watch the world go by. I couldn’t help but marvel at comparable to a hill top village in Southern France.
Camping up the Mekong
After breakfast we embarked on a cruise along the Mekong river 3 hours upstream to reach Kamu Eco Lodge. It truly is the Mighty Mekong and you can’t get a sense of that until you are aboard a slow boat and wending your way. I hadn’t felt quite such tranquility for such a very long time. We arrived at Kamu in time for lunch. I thought I was back on safari in Africa, and the boys imagination awakened. The lodge features 20 or so private canvas tents each with a thatch roof. Each tent had a private attached bathroom and toilet, although we were somewhat crammed into one for 4 of us!
Kamu Lodge is quite unique and sits in amongst a local Kamu tribal village. You can witness their lives both by visiting the village, but also by the very fact the camp is set in amongst the village rice fields. We spent the afternoon learning the ways of rice planting, gold panning, traditional fishing and archery. The boys were so engaged with each of the activities, fascinating for us to watch their different interest and preference in each activity – Zachary became infatuated with the archery, as did Oscar with the more peaceful traditional fishing.
Caves and Rituals
Back aboard our boat this time a faster journey downstream to Luang Prabang. We stopped at Pak Ou Caves, with thousands of gold lacquered Buddha statues crammed into two caves carved out of a towering limestone cliff. They ranged in size from a few centimetres to the size of a human and these caves are a destination for local pilgrimages.
A different hotel for the next 2 nights, the Luang Prabang Paradise Resort a little further out of the main centre, but a 2 bedroom villa felt like paradise! A fairly simple hotel, but the addition of a pool and bikes meant it truly was paradise to the boys.
Our culture for the evening was a chance to participate in a unique, traditional Lao Baci ceremony, performed at important events such as weddings, births, welcoming guests. The Lao believe that each person has 32 spirits which constitute their spiritual essence, and the Baci is the ritual used to cll back any escaped sprites in to the body.
A Buddhist mantra was chanted by the shaman and we were each given a blessing as cotton threads were tied around our wrists.
The day of the Elephant Dance. What an incredible day and one not one of us will ever forget. We were transported out to the Shangri Lao Elephant Camp around 15km outside Luang Prabang. The concept of the camp is to give visitors an experience of an old colonial-style camp and expedition.
These elephants are former logging elephants which have now been given an alternative way to earn a living under close guidance and watch from professionals. We arrived at the camp and within minutes acquainting ourselves with the majestic elephants who are very obviously well cared for.
Having met Maxi the baby 1-year old elephant and fed her some bananas, it was time to climb aboard our elephants for a 1.5 hour trek up through the jungle. Surprisingly graceful, it was enchanting to be riding these beautiful mammals.
A superb lunch lay waiting for us tucked away in the jungle, plates of food, sticky rice and a glass of wine. After lunch we continued on foot for an hour or so, up and down pathways and across bamboo bridges to the waterfalls at Tad Sae waterfall.
The torrential rains arrived as we arrived to the waterfall. We were already soaked, so it was a fairly easy decision for us all to dive on into the waterfalls anyway, one of our more mad family moments. We transferred back to the elephant village by bamboo raft and to finish this incredible day touring the Elephant Hospital.
A final exploration of the night markets and a taste of buffet food at the market. Crepes and shakes are plentiful, and it was time for J and I to taste some of the local delicacies which sadly often look far tastier than the actual experience of eating them!
Vientiane, capital city of Laos
Very much a leisurely day, and perhaps one of the shortest flights I have done in a large plane – 45 minutes and we arrived into one of the quietest capital cities I have experienced – particularly in Asia. Perhaps a little too upmarket from what we have been used to we were nevertheless delighted with the Chanthapanya Hotel, a single bed each for the boys, buffet breakfast and a swimming pool.
We strolled out to find the best shakes so far just around the corner, and plenty more options for dinner. To our delight we discovered we were only a short stroll from the riverfront where streets are closed in the evening as locals take time to walk, wander, cycle and exercise. Les Mills eat your heart out with the Lao version aerobics class.
A long winding night market stretches along the riverfront and it seems all are out to enjoy the evening sunset. The boys went crazy to see a play park for the first time in months and we were able to observe and watch the locals meander through the market.
City days in Vientiane
Having been told there was little to do in Vientianne, I was concerned we had arranged to stay too long but actually we have really enjoyed our time here. By staying very central nothing has been too far away, delightful fresh fruit shake cafes, noodles shops, coffee shops and access to the life along the Mekong. There is most definitely a less frenetic pace of life here than what I have seen so far in Cambodia and therefore a very relaxing place to be. The Lao drive slowly, there is no rush, and there is always a hello and plenty of smiles to go round. The boys always draw much attention, and we are constantly confirming they are indeed not twins.
I think back to our early studies of Buddhism, and of land mines post our travels to Siem Reap. Our full day tour in the city did so much to extend this, with lots of temple visits where I realised how much the boys have learnt – the different positions of Buddha, the symbols and rituals, the temple architecture. Zachary in particular found the visit to Wat Sisaket fascinating – teak covered hallways filled with thousands of miniature Buddha statues.
The boys also enjoyed the towering golden spire of That Luang, the holiest site in Laos. It is good luck to make a wish and set a bird free from its bamboo cage.
We finished up with Vientiane’s equivalent of the Arc de Triumphe, Patuxay Monument where we climbed the stairs to the roof for sweeping panoramic views of the city.
A visit to Buddha park, or as known locally Xieng Khuan, is an unusual park filled with over 200 Buddhist and Hindu statues. The quiet and tranquil setting along the Mekong river is a contrast to the slightly eccentric sculptures built in 1958 by a Laos shaman. The park is still intriguing, if not rather bizarre and in dire need of some restoration.
I have loved how our tours with EXO have also included insight into NGO’s and social enterprises operating in the cities. We had lunch at Makphet, a charity-run restaurant aiming to train the area’s street children in the hospitality industry. Professional chefs from around the world have volunteered their time in developing the menus and training to the staff. The food was superb, and we feasted like kings. According to Oscar, chicken fried rice tastes way better in Laos than Cambodia. Sticky rice is a winner too.
Lao Disabled Women Development Centre
We have also visited the Lao Disabled Women Development Centre established in 2002 and run by women with disabilities, for women with disabilities and their families in Laos. Their mission is to empower women to engage their abilities so they can generate income, support themselves and contribute to society. They provide vocational and life skills training to around 40 women with disabilities in the areas of sewing, weaving, recycled paper products, IT, English, social development and small business.
Women enter the programme for around 9 months, and then go on to find jobs or start their own businesses. Around 80% of students go on to be successful in supporting themselves. It was another of those lifetime experiences for the boys, to see all the women with their varying disabilities, and to see them smile and laugh and be happy in their creative work.
It has poignant for us as supposedly educated to adults, to realise how naive our understanding of the history of South East Asia. How little we learn really in school about how other countries have lived, struggled, fought. I didn’t expect to be quite so moved as I was during our visit to COPE, an association working to help landmine victims.
I had assumed Cambodia was one of the worst affected countries for active land mines, until I learnt that Laos suffers 10 x more unexploded ordinances (UXO). We learnt of the dangers of the UXO, and the work being done to provide prosthesis for victims. Oscar particularly was absorbed in all aspects of our visit and certainly has more awareness of the impact of disabilities on a family.
Having expressed concern in my last blog post about how we have failed in our homeschooling, now I realise we haven’t at all. I met a lovely French teacher along our travels who believes children at school probably only get around 1 hour actual learning time. We have at least achieve this, and our learning doesn’t stop. There is no summer break in Sunflower School.
I can’t help but think how rich the boys memory boxes will be. Travel has to be healthy for young minds. As they sit future exam papers in Geography, History, RE, Social Studies.. surely they will have a rich portfolio of memories; how to plough and harvest rice, the lives of elephants, village people fishing in the Mekong, how revered Buddha can be, how devastating war can be, caring for the poor, caring for the disabled. This has been a very special time for us all, and rekindled the positive energy we all so needed.
Tonight we board a sleeping bus to Pakse, I have a feeling this will be 10 hours we wish to forget..