Tuesday, June 9, 2009

SE Asia Trip, Part 4 - Luang Prabang, the First Attempt

25/02/09 - 27/02/09

After checking in and making myself look and feel a bit more human, I decided to take a wander up the main street of Luang Prabang. The main 'old town' part of Luang Prabang is a thumb shaped piece of land, with the Mekong river on one side and the Nam Khan flowing around to meet it. It was very hot, though not as bad as Vientiane, so I headed to the Royal Palace Museum where I could do some sightseeing away from the heat (seems to be a pattern of mine now...)

The Royal Palace was built between 1904 and 1909 after the previous one was destroyed during the Black Flag invasion. It is a mix of Lao and French styles of architecture. The monarchy lived here until 1975 when it was dissolved and Communism took over. The Palace was turned into a museum - which is a much better fate than being knocked down.

I wasn't allowed to take my camera inside, which was a shame as there were some really nice things. I really like the mosaic on the walls - it portrayed scenes of typical Lao life - and seeing the King and Queen's rooms, which looked apparently just as they did when they were occupied. There were also displays of gifts the monarchy had received and clothes they had worn.

Outside I chatted to a Lao man who worked at the Museum for a while. He was trying to convince me to move to Luang Prabang - think they might need to pay their nurses a wee bit more before I consider that! Then I had a look around the gardens, on the edge of which was a temple. Presumably this is where the Royal Family would go to worship.

I couldn't get inside but I did look around the outside - again it had some cool naga statues.

It was still too hot to attempt walking up Mt Phousi, so I headed to the riverside instead. There are a couple of restaurants along the river banks but it has nothing of the atmosphere of Vientiane.

The next day I was up early to get a head start on the day. I had problems changing my travellers cheques because my current signature doesn't exactly match the one on my EIGHT YEAR OLD passport, but eventually found somebody who would change it with my much more up-to-date driver's licence. I decided to spend the day seeing the city sights, which basically meant another day of temple-seeing.

To be honest I got bored of looking at temples fairly quickly, but the next few photos are from Wat Xieng Thong, one of the most historically important temples in Luang Prabang. It was founded in the 16th century by King Setthathilat and was spared during the Black Flag invasion because the leader of the invasion, Deo Van Tri, had been a novice monk there. He used the temple as his headquarters instead!

The temple is classic Luang Prabang architecture - apparently that's when the roofs sweep low to the ground.

On the back of the building above is a gorgeous mosaic depicting the Tree of Life, Buddhist style.

During the late afternoon I took a walk around the peninsula. I could see orange clad monks bathing in the Nam Khan river. There were a few very rickety looking bridges spanning the Nam Khan - but I wasn't too keen on crossing them!

Found some more nagas on the way home!

I spent the evening looking at all the pretty handicrafts at the night market and watching a movie at a cafe-slash-bookshop called l'Etranger. They have a funky room upstairs decked out with comfy floor cushions and a big screen TV. Yummy food (Western and Lao) and Beer Lao too!

The next day I decided to grab a slow boat ticket up the Mekong to the Pak Ou Caves. There must have been about 60-70 people waiting at the boat landing for the skippers to shepherd us down in groups of 6 to their waiting boats.

Here's our skipper - boy they hire them young here!

A common sight on the Mekong (looks pretty much like the photos from my last post!)

The Pak Ou caves are literally in the side of the cliffs on the bank of the river. They bring the boats up to some wooden pallets floating on the river and you clamber out and up some steep steps to the caves. On the way up the first thing I saw was this sign - if you can work out what it was trying to say you're smarter than me!

There are 2 main caves at Pak Ou, the lower one chockablock full of Buddha images, large and small. Apparently there are about 2500 sculptures inside. These caves have been spiritually significant even before the rise of Buddhism, when local people worshipped river spirits there. The Lao Royal Family used to come on pilgrimages here on Buddhist holidays. Now, however, they are mostly a tourist attraction and unfortunately I think the local river spirits are long gone.

The upper cave is a fair walk up some concrete pathways, populated with small children trying to sell the freedom of small caged birds. A big seated Buddha dominates the entrance, silently watching the tourists flock in and out.

The upper cave is much longer, bigger and darker and stupidly I forgot to bring my torch so I have no decent photos to show for my trip up there. After a quick look around I headed back to the boat.

On the way back the boat stopped off at a 'traditional' Lao village. There was basically a pathway to follow leading us around several market stalls selling the usual handicrafts, which I ignored for the touristy gimmick it was. There was also an interesting display of Lao alcohol and insects in jars - tried a bit of Lao rice wine, which was absolutely disgusting.

While the rest of the group wandered around the village I sat on the beach and took in the scenery, a much more pleasant way to spend my time I thought.

I got back to Luang Prabang at about lunchtime and had been planning on visiting the local waterfalls, but really I just wanted to be lazy and soak up the surroundings, as the next day I would be leaving Luang Prabang for a while to head to Phonsavan and the Plain of Jars!

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