Our longboat arrives at Luang Prabang at dusk and we head straight for our hotel. The room is modest but the bed is again enormous, measuring at least seven feet wide. If I snore tonight it’ll be quicker for Carol to phone me than to journey crab-like across the cotton wastelands to give me a prod. First, though, we head for the bustling night market. They’re always bustling, aren’t they?
Avid readers of this blog may recall that I’m not the world’s biggest fan of markets, bustling or otherwise, and this one doesn’t prompt a change of opinion. It’s an endless parade of stalls selling scarves, trinkets, bowls, tie-dye dresses and garish t-shirts, then back to scarves again. I get the feeling that the type of goods sold at these markets is strictly controlled by government decree, because it’s the same everywhere you go.
But it needn’t be. For example, those distinctive long boats and water taxis ploughing up and down the Mekong are, I think, unique to this area and will form part of many people’s memories. Why is no one selling little models or paintings of them? Why can’t you buy the cute incense stick holders found in hotels and in restaurant loos? Why is there nothing tuk-tuk related? Or t-shirts that don’t have GOOD MORNING LAOS on them? It works for Vietnam because of the film, but here it makes little sense. It reminds me of the time when those ‘MY MOM WENT TO NEW YORK AND ALL SHE GOT ME WAS THIS LOUSY T-SHIRT’ t-shirts started to appear. Soon, NEW YORK became any popular tourist destination and ‘MOM’ became pretty much any family member. I swear the game was up after greedy apparel makers tried to cover all the bases with ‘SOMEONE I KNOW WENT TO…’
I end up buying some coffee but that was mostly out of a sense of guilt.
We eat at Coconut Garden, a venue popular with American tourists although that might be an impression gained by the fact that they’re generally the loudest.
In the morning we’re up at crazy o’clock to meet our guide for the day who, in a bored and listless voice, asks that we call him ‘Funn’. We’re taken to witness the early-morning ritual in which villagers give alms to the local monks. The alms normally comprise a handful of sticky rice, which probably explains why the monks don’t look overjoyed or say thanks. Funn points to a nondescript house and in his languid drawl tells us that ‘a keen driver lived here’. We never work out if we heard him right.
After breakfast, Funn takes us round some old temples (sandals untouched by footwear thieves), then to what used to be the Royal Palace. Laos had a royal family until 1975, when the communists swept to power and the royals were swept off to be ‘re-educated’. Their former home is now a museum.
We walk in and immediately come to a halt in front of the first painting in a room filled with many paintings and artefacts, in a palace in which every room is stuffed with many paintings and artefacts. Funn starts to tell us the story behind this first picture and my brain is not equipped to calculate when we might possibly emerge into daylight, if ever. But luckily Funn doesn’t have a story for everything on display. Instead, he tells us about his dislike of the Chinese (‘they’re rude, arrogant and disrespectful’) and even finds time to demonstrate his technique for playing boules. It’s a bizarre moment as we stand in the former queen’s reception room watching a man silently and intently mime the throwing of a boule, while perplexed tourists pass either side.
We warm to Funn today, a bit, or at least get used to his weary, can’t-give-a-toss delivery. He’s good company on our afternoon drive to see a dramatic waterfall and a bear rescue centre.
In the evening we eat at L’Elephant, a spacious, high-ceilinged Gallic restaurant in which we could choose from either the Lao or French menu. I’d gone full-on local at lunchtime so tonight I go for the duck breast roasted in Grand Marnier, and I’m sorry to report that it was the best meal of the holiday. I know, I know.
Here’s what we had for lunch:
AFC Bournemouth 4 – Chelsea 0
That’s the staggering news I wake up to. Tottenham won too, so there’s a spring in our step as we scale That Phousi, the 28-storey* hill in the centre of town, to see the sacred Buddhist temple and the inevitable Buddha seated at the top. Actually, this one’s standing. They all either stand, sit or recline. It means different things. So does the way they hold their hands – palms outwards, downwards, supplicant… Everything means something with your buddhas. How long have you got?
*That’s what my phone’s step counter reckons anyway
There’s a rocky outcrop on which people have their photos taken, although I note that most of the photographers choose to take the shot with their subject seated in front of sky, with no context to show that they’re at the top of a hill. So although a Chinese lady pushed in front of me to get her picture taken, I take solace in the fact that it’ll be terrible.
That brush with death mentioned in the headline
We’re on the 328-step descent when a kitten from the temple takes a playful swipe at Carol’s exposed ankle. She’s had a rabies inoculation and the skin isn’t broken but you can’t be too careful. I mean there’s no mark, no trace of blood, in fact nothing to suggest she’s been anywhere near a cat, rabid or otherwise, but it pays to be on the safe side. The kitten might be looked after by the most devout and creature-loving people on earth but you just don’t know, do you?
So Carol gets on the phone to Trailfinders who arrange for a local rep to take her to a nearby clinic. Who should turn up 20 minutes later but Funn, seemingly not put out in the slightest by having to take a neurotic Western tourist to the clinic on his day off. All goes well, with the doctor happy to provide a booster jab while assuring us that contracting rabies from infected cats was extremely rare in Laos. Although he would say that, wouldn’t he. Probably has a stack of boxes in a storeroom with ‘ANTI RABIES VACCINE – CAT VERSION’ stencilled on them.
All that’s left is to have another injection in three days’ time, when we’ll be in Bangkok.
Luang Prabang: worth a visit?
Definitely. Twenty years ago only 300 tourists came to the whole of Laos, now it’s possibly that number of backpackers PER HOSTEL! Not really. But it’s easy to see why Luang Prabang in particular has become so popular. It’s in a superb location between two rivers, has grand old French-Lao architecture, loads of bars and restaurants, a thriving nightlife scene (probably), some marvellous Buddhist temples and that unique almsgiving ceremony. No wonder it enjoys UNESCO World Heritage Site status. It was our favourite place in Laos. But look out for the kittens of death.