We have arrived!?
Arriving in a new city (tips for optimal arrivals from Wikitravel.org) has been a consistently bittersweet experience for us. Each has its own unique feel, from the exuberance we’ve felt reaching a destination we’ve read great things about to the delirious emotional void while simply trying find a halfway comfortable horizontal surface to flump upon. Luang Prabang was fertile ground to germinate our appreciation of Laos at the conclusion of our four day motorbike journey. Filled to the gills with gorgeous Buddhist wats, imported Chinese tourist goods, a healthy infusion of Lao ambience at a number of restaurants, incredibly sweet northern Laotian people, and of course exceptionally tasty fish, Luang Prabang indeed lives up to its UNESCO recognized status ... for now.
Luang Prabang, truly a welcoming town, effortlessly coaxing out a contented smile from our friend Trevor here.
At this point most of the crew could only focus on their sore asses and frayed nerves, so Marc and Hien again led the charge to find a lovely little guesthouse for the eight of us to inundate with our smelly selves. We found a lovely one towards the quiet end of town and luckily the owner was more than happy to put all of us up and had plenty of room to spare. Peak travel season in Laos is typically between November and February so our late-April arrival afforded us a plethora of options. Additionally, low season translates to reduced rates, something we’ve learned is important to emphasize with the owners when you arrive to encourage more honest pricing.
The main portion of the town is situated on a rather small peninsula bordered on the west by the Mekong River and on the east by a small tributary. This made in-town navigation a breeze and gave us a comforting tucked in sort of feeling. At this juncture, we decided to part ways with the rest of the intrepid crew from Hanoi. Most of them, being such intense working stiffs, had to get back to work after the breakneck paced loop out and back through the northern mountains of Vietnam, but not before enjoying some of the more leisurely aspects of travel ... like dining and soaking up a few massages!
Lao Lao Garden!, one of the many colorful indoor / outdoor restaurants in the city. Nature is heavily interwoven into many of these establishments and this particular one is a multilevel visual delight that is practically constructed out of living plants... with some huge silk light sculpture for good measure.
Owning our own destiny
This of course meant that we were splitting off from a pack of well-seasoned adventurers with only the gear we brought with us for the original ten day journey. Ha, ourselves unseasoned, minimal gear on hand, setting off now on our own for the next month, two, three? Why not!? That sounds about right!
Something we’ve both learned over the recent years traveling together is that we both have a healthy respect for rational rules, boundaries, or plans if they make sense and are mutually accepted by the creator and the follower. Something specifically we’ve learned about travel in this regard is that we infinitely prefer crafting our own next steps and owning our plan versus opening up the guidebook and preparing for step two after we’ve fully checked off step one. This all made so much sense to us out in Steamboat Springs, Colorado when we gave alpine touring a try together earlier in the year!
Taking a few days to settle and fully acquaint ourselves with just where in the world we actually were was a critical first step. Next came figuring how best to wrangle the abysmally fragmented set of planning tools at our disposal:
- Garmin GPS software, utterly horrible user experience but our biggest bet when buying their hardware before the journey
- Google Maps, which just forced its new UI update on us while in the land of dial-up speeds
- Bing Maps, um, yep, we gave this a try but promptly returned to Google, sorry everyone back out there in Seattle!
- paper maps for multiple transport modalities and multiple countries
- TripAdvisor.com, TravelFish.org, and LonelyPlanet.com and their own unique flavor of sameness
- GT-Rider.com forums (specific community of Southeast Asia motorbike enthusiasts)
- kindle editions of guidebooks for good device redundancy measure
- cold hard cash and the ATMs that provide
- and lastly of course, most importantly and often the most difficult to elicit, the advice from the locals
The long fuel up
Spending eight nights in any one place for some can feel like a waste of precious travel time. It was just what the doctor ordered for us however. Getting out and really “getting dirty in it all” has never meant quite the same as it does when in a place this far from familiar. For example, figuring out logistics to the next city ... adventure ensues, a broken kickstand that needs to be repaired ... adventure ensues, finding a new pair of boxers ... adventure ens..., well you get the point. Embracing each and every day and even each and every task of the day as its own mini-adventure has been core to how we’ve been approaching nearly all aspects of our journey. Give it a try!
But we have to see...
With such a profusion of tourists in this town, relative to the entirety of the trek out from Hanoi, the influx of similar “traveler characters” became apparent. “How long have you been in town?” they ask. “Did you get out to see the waterfalls yet?” they continue. “Oh, we quit are jobs, drove across the US, sold the car, and bought a pair of motorbikes in Hanoi” we inevitably utter back now in what is beginning to already feel like a well-rehearsed set of lines for the theatrical production of the moment. Jade colored glasses aside, Luang Prabang does have some fabulous sights to consider if you make it to this part of the world!
Have we mentioned there were a few Buddhist wats here in town?
We really loved all the temple dogs. Scratchie here was a wise old guy who exhibited oddly similar aspects of the very friendly monk with whom he likely cohabitated.
Laotians adorn their temples as well as their homes in similar brilliant colors and ornate designs. Bright paints, shining lacquered roof tiles, ornate chrome gates, and detailed concrete carvings take the place of the shining Chinese glass and gold leaf that guild the wats in shimmering light.
The Old Quarter
The semi-timeless old quarter is spectacular for a leisurely motorbike ride or walk around, day or night. Don’t worry, keep walking and you’ll find more crepes and smoothies ... we promise!
A brighter side of old town. Everything is there for you to buy! Heaps of handicrafts and Laotian ceremonial jewelry plus many other treasures ... from China.
Tak Bat (Buddhist monk morning alms collection)
An experience surely to be aware of and observe but with a few heavy caveats regarding observational behavior which sadly is not compassionately exercised by your average Luang Prabang traveler.
My darling feeling pained by the disrespect of the tourists for this beautiful ceremony and the general commercialization of culture... in his hated v-neck, which I think has hence been burned.
Bon appétit ... Lao style!
A few blocks down from our guesthouse was the Tamarind Restaurant which we learned, while enjoying lunch here one afternoon, had a cooking school component to their business. We had heard that a number of restaurants offered such experiences but the Tamarind picked us up and whisked us away to their idyllic garden property outside of town for the workshop. This ended up being a huge highlight of our stay and we shared a bunch of laughs and a TON of gustatory delights with some new friends from the Philippines. As our instructor shared with us, “Lao people enjoy very strong flavors in their food” when discussing the merits of MSG, blazing hot chilies, and sugar. A spicy larb (minced meat dish) that would make the toughest of western spice lovers tear up is considered a morning necessity to sweat the body in preparation for the tropical heat. We of course had the option to tame the fiery chili beast by using only two chilis and to sub out MSG for chicken bouillon.
Eric learning how to make his absolute regional favorite, sticky rice!
Learning the technique for chicken cooked inside a strand of lemongrass.
Feeling pretty accomplished, our new friends from the Philippines gathered for a group photo with the Chef. After which we gorged ourselves on a huge and flavorful feast. Best wishes to each of you Chichi, Patrick, Freddie, Glo, Tony, and Tina!
Splitting off and being where our feet are
Keeping our travel options open and also deciding ultimately which way to go required a good deal of up front logistical attentiveness when considering gating factors so our future selves would not be, you know, out in Thailand with Vietnamese bikes, a “USED” Laotian visa, and a Cambodian border guard telling us to piss off with our sole mode of transportation. In hindsight, this would likely have been just the case but we opted for a more conservative 1,400 kilometer route south to Cambodia sticking to our exploration of Laos to get the most out of our visa.
A little Theravada goes a long way
It’s hard to spend a week in Luang Prabang and not have the echoes of an unknowable past seep into the psyche. Whether it be the enjoyment of a sunset over the Mekong each night, the outpouring of kindness from the owner of our guesthouse, the delicious Lao food, the ever so sweet nectar of the Thai coconuts, or the colorful Laotian buildings throughout the city, the experience brought a wonderfully deep quietude to us both.