Luang Prabang: After two days
on the Mekong River we reached Luang Prabang, the “big city” in Northern
Laos (population: 50,000). Luang Prabang, a beautiful town which
was once the Royal City of Laos, is now a UNESCO World Heritage site and
is known as the centre of Buddhism. They claim that it is the home of more
monks than anywhere else in Asia. In the distance we observed one of the
major landmarks in the city -- Mount Phou Si, a 100 m steep hill. At the
summit of the hill, overlooking the town and surrounding countryside, was
a tourist favourite - the Buddhist temple, Wat Chom Si.
Treasure Hotel: Upon docking, young porters carried
our bags up the shore's steep climb to our Songthaew (local bus) which
took us on a 30 minute drive to Treasure Hotel. After a cold shower and
a rest we strolled down the street to drop off laundry. Since we carried
all our clothes and necessities in our backpacks, Sue-On did much of our
laundry in our hotel rooms, but there are nearly always small laundry services
close to tourist hotels. We found one just a few blocks away (8,000 kips/kg
~ 5 kg = US$5).
Jo Ma Cafe: Later in the day Beam led us
to a Western-style restaurant on the main street: Jo Ma Bakery and Cafe.
It was a bit of a novelty seeing a "Western food" menu after the many Asian
meals we had enjoyed since our arrival in Bangkok. The dining area seemed
to be a favourite among young backpackers.
Night Market: The next stop was the Night
Market. The sprawling Luang Prabang Night Market was one of the best we
visited in Indochina. There were numerous long rows/alleys of sellers hawking
their wares: local crafts, textiles, carvings, clothing, scarves, jewelry,
artwork, bags, wall hangings, tea, coffee, liquor, and endless souvenirs.
The food market contained dozens of stalls selling popular Lao dishes:
noodles, vegetables, dumplings, crepes, fruit, grilled meats, pot stickers,
fruit shakes and quite a few exotic items like deep fried insects, roasted
pork heads, skewered rodents, etc. Most sellers carried hand-held calculators
on which they could do instant conversions to other currencies.We bought
a few small things, always keeping in mind that we had many days ahead
of us and that we had limited carrying capacity in our backpacks.
Basi New Year Ceremony: Group CEO Beam
arranged for us to visit a local home for a Lao New Year (Songkran or Pii
Mai, April 13-16) celebration ceremony and meal. We had seen related celebration
since we arrived in Bangkok - mainly involving young people dousing passerbys
with water. We didn't quite know what to expect on this home visit but
hoped that we weren't in for a major soaking. We took a fairly long walk
through the town to join the local family for an evening meal which involved
their New Year celebration ceremony. Actually the ceremony we participated
in is called Basi - a tradition ceremony that has been practiced for hundreds
This type of ceremony was also done to celebrate
other important events such as weddings, house warmings, homecomings and
births. Our group sat in a circle on the floor of the family's living room
which appeared to double a hair salon through the day. Three elders (each
over 80 years of age) sat in the middle at a low table topped with a handmade
marigold pyramid (Pha khuan), spools of white yarn and a selection of snacks.
We started by putting a hand on the elders' shoulders and they connected
all to the offering table. Then the elders slid around the whole group
to bless us and tie a string of yarn on both of our wrists while giving
a religious chant. Each of us ended up with three strings on each wrist.
When they completed their rounds they offered the snacks: fried stuffed
banana and deep fried rice cakes. We then all connected by placing hands
on shoulders -- a final blessing -- then the elders left.
The daughter of the oldest elder was our chef.
She spoke quite a bit of English. Our group formed three circles - we sat
with Jim, Yoko and Tom. The young ladies sat together and Bonnie, Roy,
Ronnie and Beam formed the third cirdcle. Matt and Steve had done this
before so they hadn't come along. The meal came out on three bamboo circular
tables called toks. We each received a small basket with sticky
rice. They are quite unique as they have a lid and a long string handle.
When collected they are gathered by the strings -- a lot easier to manage
than bowls. The food was very good: stir-fried shredded bamboo shoots,
deep-fried egg plant, local sausage, chicken in coconut milk, laab and
a fabulous salad (water cress, mint, lettuce, cukes, tomatoes, etc.), We
were able to buy Beerlao and bottled water. The dessert was mango slices,
green sticky rice and a purple-coloured custard (the purple colour is from
butterfly flowers) This was served on a basket tray made from bamboo leaves.
Near the end of the ceremony we were given a bamboo basket-making demonstration.
Utopia: Beam then took us on another night
walk to a favourite drinking spot and restaurant - The Utopia. To reach
it we followed her through a maze alleyways. There were many smells from
the grills of small cafes along the way, as well as from lines of food
stalls and numerous gardenia bushes. We finally arrived at Utopia and enjoyed
its dark tropical decor seating under the stars on a choice of lounges
or small low stools. The seating areas were on different levels, all of
them close to the 15 metre drop to the river. The most unusual bit of decor
was the old bombs dropped by the US warplanes during the Vietnam War. These
were bombs that hadn't been released on targets and had been dropped near
here before the planes returned to base. Some exploded, some did not. Lao
is one of the most bombed countries in history.