Things move slowly in Laos, and we are following suit! Tomorrow will mark our fifth day in Luang Prabang, and while we’ll soon need to tear ourselves away, we really have no desire to.
The bus ride to Laos was slow, but uneventful, thanks in no small part to the time of year! November marks the beginning of the cool/dry season; the 8 hours of winding, unpaved mountain road that led us here would’ve have been virtually impassable a month ago (evidenced by an uncountable number of recent landslides!). The lack of A/C on a rickety, incredibly crowded bus wouldn’t have been very nice either…I welcomed the morning chill!
We saw nothing but small thatch villages the entire way; aside from the border crossing (strangely modern, having only opened to foreigners a year ago), there was nearly no sign of modern development until we reached Muang Khua.
Modern development is stretching it, actually. We piled out of the bus on the side of the river and were loaded with faarrrr too many other people into tiny wooden longboats and ferried across the small stretch of water. Muang Khua has one road, one market, a handful of guesthouses, three identical restaurants and electricity for three hours per day (the whole town is run on a generator). We found a nice, clean room with hot water (during those three hours, of course) and ended up staying a day. The transition from Vietnam to Laos couldn’t have been better – we didn’t hear a single honk, barely saw a single motorbike and definitely weren’t sold anything. The restaurants were a bit pricey, as the locals have no use for them, but the return to soup-less foods was welcome and we also soon discovered a tom mahk hung (papaya salad, or somtum in Thailand) vendor in the market whom we frequented!
After a day of walking around the surrounding villages and enjoying the first run I’ve had in Asia where I not only had an entire road, all to myself, but had a gorgeous mountain and tree-lined background to boot, we boarded another bus made for midgets (or at least not those with “Europe legs”) and endured the 10 hours to Luang Prabang. Aside from a transfer point in Udomxai, one of the only towns with an ATM in the entire country, we saw nothing but rural countryside and small thatch villages full of smiley people the entire way. The roads were virtually traffic-free and the vehicles that we did see didn’t engage in horn-blowing competitions or defy death by driving on the wrong side - orderliness that I didn’t know could exist in this part of the world!
We arrived around 7 in Luang Prabang and were assured by a friendly monk and fellow bus companion that we were not being gouged for the tuktuk ride – everyone paid the same. We were dropped in the center (though it turns out that this entire place is the center, it’s tiny!) and warned that guesthouses tend to be full at night - many falang! We brushed it off, as we’ve never arrived anywhere and not had someone pulling us to their place within 30 seconds – all you have to do is look white and carry a backpack!
Alas, no one came. We started walking down the spotless main street, full of beautiful old French shophouses full of candlelit restaurants, bars, handicraft stores and foreigners. Guesthouses were abundant and we turned into the first one – “sorry, full!” became the tune of the evening. Everyone was full! The few that we found with space (and many of those without) wanted anywhere from $30-60 for a room – where were we??
It turns out that we were in one of the nicest cities out there. Eventually we came across a kid at an alley guesthouse who said that it was full, but that his father would give a ride to their other guesthouse, which had a room for $12. That’s on the high side of what we’ve ever paid, but it seemed to be typical here and we were more than ready for a home! We were tuktuk-ed to a pristine place with hardwood floors, a huge comfy bed and no flourescent lights. Seriously, where were we?? We soon headed the direction of the huge night market and found a row of vendors serving up everything from vegetarian buffets to spring rolls to grilled sticky rice to barbequed everything. We bought the world’s most incredible grilled chicken (on a bamboo skewer of course) then snacked around before retiring, saving further exploration for the next day.
Unfortunately, our pristine guesthouse had an extremely tempermental hot-water (non)heater, unacceptable with such cold nights. The next morning we set out to find a new place, and quickly found a beautiful riverfront house and were shown to a corner room with nothing outside the wooden shutters but palm trees and breezes. Perfect! The day commenced, and we found yet more papaya salad for breakfast before spending the day wandering around, browsing handicraft shops, discovering all of the responsible development initiatives (lots of efforts to revive traditional handicrafts and practices, which are dying out with younger generations) and lazing by the river. We capped off the day with a painting-like sunset and a few Beer Laos on the Mekong – see photos!
Day two was similar, though we capped off the night with some traditional snake wine (seriously, a jar of rice whiskey with a giant cobra curled up in the bottom) - this is a place where you just sit back, relax and smile. The weather is beyond perfect, chilly at night and warm during the day without a cloud in sight. Everything is so well-maintained, the architecture/land/flowers/river are out of a dream, the people are beyond friendly, want nothing from you and it’s the first place we’ve visited where hoardes of foreigners seem like a positive thing. Not one annoyance befallen us yet.
Yesterday we set out on some mountain bikes (very expensive, in an effort to keep traffic levels low) for Kuangsi Waterfall, a mere 35 km away. It was a bit hilly, but very doable, and the two hours of countryside and ecstatic schoolkids swarming us for high-fives (scary when they come from both sides!) made us both happy that we weren’t in a tuktuk. We finally reached the falls, more than ready for the picnic we’d packed! It was a beautiful area, the water a brilliant turquoise, and we spent a couple of hours relaxing and writing.
We were supposed to have the bikes back at five, so we re-boarded all too soon (where did I leave those padded shorts? And why did I think it was a good idea to run beforehand?) and Gabe soon found out that expensive does not mean maintained! His bikes kept slipping in and out of gears, and kept getting worse. Finally, with 10km to go, it was done. We figured we’d have to flag down a tuktuk or a truck, but pushed on in the meantime, walking up hills and coasting down them. Eventually we got it to work (maybe that’s too strong a term) and somehow made it back to the city before dark. By that point our exhaustion levels allowed for nothing but dinner and sleep!
Today called for rest and replenishment, so we signed up for a cooking class with a place called Tamarind Cafe, which turned out to be excellent. There were about ten people in our group, with an abnormally high percentage of Americans (seriously people, start travelling!), including a great older couple from Austin. There was a great group dynamic and everyone hit it off as they took us to Phousy market for an hour of extremely informative explanations of Lao spices, cooking methods, traditional practices and opportunities to sample.
We were later taken to a scenic riverside spot where the outdoor cooking class was set up. We were greeted with a tray of lemongrass-ginger tea and then began by learning how to prepare khao nieow (sticky rice), the quintessential Laos food and eating utensil (traditionally, they don’t touch regular rice and foods are never made oily or soupy for this reason). The entire day was done with a mortar/pestle, “barbeques” made out of clay pots, bamboo steamers, a knife and a cutting block. There is no garbage or waste in Laos food – ingredients are whole, banana leaves serve as packaging, bamboo as fasteners.
By 4:00 we had made khao nieow, mok ba (fish and herbs steamed in banana leaves – unspeakably good), chicken/lemongrass “meatballs”, laab (a meat/mint salad that is my all-time favorite Asian food), a stew called orlam, several jeow (spicy eggplant and tomato dipping sauces) and were treated to drinks of lemon lao-lao (whiskey distilled from sticky rice) and pineapple to cap it all off. I couldn’t move by the end, and it felt great!
Actually, I still can’t move, which is why this blog is being written! I was definitely mistaken in claiming that Lao food is the same as Thai – both are delicious, but certainly very different. Lao food has never really been “discovered,” as it’s a landlocked country with no ports and, historically, no foreign trade. Luckily, it will soon be found in Austin and all of you, our dear friends and family, will be treated to more than a few dinner parties (we’ve got some great outdoor “kitchen” ideas…)!
I’ll update whenever we manage to tear ourselves away from the place and slooowly move on – until then, enjoy the photos!