Sunday, 31 July 2016

Luang Prabang, Laos

Laos is one of the countries I wanted to tick off my list before going home. It's tricky; there are points of interest sprawled across the country but not enough infrastructure to help me get the most out of it in least amount of time. As much as I would love to trek the northern regions, it's rainy season afterall. So I honed in on Luang Prabang, Friday evening outbound via Vientiane and back on Sunday morning, giving me 1.5 days - solo.

The flight from Vientiane to Luang Prabang took around 45mins. The small airport was easy to navigate. There is a stand near the exit where a guy sells you a seat on a taxi for 50,000kip, then the driver group people with similar distance on their cars. It was effective enough and delivered me to my guesthouse door.

It was already getting dark by the time I settled down. So I went to the main street (Sakkaline Road) lined with hip and beautifully decorated restaurants and kept walking towards the night market. It was quite a large market, selling the usual souvenir ware, though they seem to be of a higher quality than the wooden junk we see in South East Asia. I thought the pillow cases and duvet covers looked quite good, and the lacquered plates, but no way I was adding those to the list of things to bring home.


The food market branches off near the end of the night market. It's a short alleyway with lined local snacks, barbecued meat and cheap vegetarian buffet. I ruled out the bbq, it's the same thing everywhere; burnt, dried meats that haven't been marinated well. If it has been marinated, then one should start wondering how long that piece of meat had been sitting at room temperature in a hot country. Only good quality meats can go without marinades, and I don't think Laos is famous for their meats. The vegetarian buffet looked depressing enough, trays of cold stir-fried vegetables in an array of thick gravys and once deep-fried anything wrapped in a batter blanket. It's 15,000kip for a bowl then you could pile it up once - it just didn't look right. That said it was quite popular with the young tourists. One thing that I was very pleasantly surprised by, was the relative lack of flies. It could be down to seasonality, but really, no flies infesting the foods on display. 

The local stuff, on the other hand, I was most intrigued by, partly because a lot of locals were going for it. Each dish was 5,000kip; the lady packs a few big spoonfuls into a a clear plastic and tie it up to takeaway. Locals tend to order about 5 different dishes, then some sticky rice from the bucket to take home. I went for the green papaya salad, pigs liver and 2 Laos pork sausage (sai oua). Everything was delicious! The salad was not dissimilar to the ones from Thailand, sweet and tangy from the tamarind, lime juice and fish sauce. But the Laotian version was slightly more pungent with their fermented fish sauce and had more ingredients in the mix. The liver dish isn't for everyone, but it's was springy with ginger fragrance as opposed to the usual grainy and coarse textures. The sausage... It's sinful. The crispy skin was glazed generously with honey (or whatever sweet syrup they use here); my first bite revealed a wedge of lard, and I kid you not, it was like a pig got stuck in that sausage. The translucent fat was oozing piggy grease and melted in mouth, mingled with the sweet glaze. It was so good but so bad.

After pigging out on snacks, I saw a couple of noodle stalls like the ones in Vietnam, servings khao soi (a spicy northern Thai rice noodle) and pho-lookalike. It was alright, MSG for sure and nowhere as good as pho. I left it when I was sure the main flavouring was MSG.

Then it was an early night to prep for the cycling to KuangSi waterfall next day.

I didn't start as early as anticipated. Rented a mountain bike from Tiger Trails and started the 33km ride to KuangSi Fall at 8:25am. People say it usual takes 2.5hrs outbound and then perhaps 2 hours for the return leg as it was coming downhill. Some people also ride out and then get a tuk tuk back.

The first 13km was relatively easy, cruising out of town with light traffic, minor undulations but nothing strenuous. Then suddenly at the 14th km, I realised I had been going up a gentle slope in the last stretch, the gradient got a fair bit steeper and I had no leverage to keep the upward push going.  It was a gruelling kilometre and a half, felt like 10km. But it gets better straight after this climb, so stick through it - walk, push, crawl, pray - whatever. Then it was an awesome downhill roll. As much as I was loving the thrill and the breeze, a small part of my brain reminded me that my sorry arse will have to climb this stretch on my way back.

The sun started to shine through the clouds. The rest of the journey quite manageable, passing small villages and small temples. Until the last 5km - almost the entire strip was an uphill climb. I hate to admit it, but I had to walk to the last km, and even that was testing. I made it in just under 2 hours, very chuffed.

KuangSi waterfall was worthwhile. The first part was a bear sanctuary. I still don't know how I feel about confining animals for display, even though they are doing good work saving them from heartless merchants that extract their bile juice for unproven medicinal purposes. Anyway, that's a different topic for another day. 





There weren't too many people, despite being a Saturday. The water was clear, cold and turquoise. It was refreshing after the bike ride. After a quick dip, I made my way up to the top of the falls by the set of wooden stairs next to the viewing bridge. The stairs soon disappeared and it became a muddy climb, like this:

There was a path at the top to walk around the top of the fall, with small bridges to cross the water. 

A sign pointed towards a cave and a spring 3km down the road. I guess that's where the secret pool with very few people is hidden. I asked a few people coming back from that path and they all said they gave up half way. In my head, 3km is a 30min walk; the two girls I spoke to said 'oh 3km isn't far at all! 1km only takes a couple of minutes'. Say what?!?! 

Good thing I didn't bother. The moment I got back down to the falls, it started raining, and it kept raining harder. I took shelter in one of the restaurants at the entrance, had a pork baguette that had mayonnaise as the main filling. It was bucketing - I couldn't see beyond 3m. It went on for about 20mins, the rain stopped to spitting but I could see grey clouds still gathering. The sensible thing to do would be getting the tuk tuk back, but I would have missed out on all the ascends I took on my way in, and only partially accomplished the little challenge. Despite the light drizzle, I thought I could race the clouds back to town. Ha. Nah. The clouds were much faster.

The first 5km was sensational. Perhaps bordering on dangerous, but sensational regardless. Then the rain caught up fast though it was nothing like the torrential storm before; I was soaked. Things were fine until the deadly climb at 15km from LP. I had to walk it, swear the bike was going backwards despite my best efforts. An accident happened as I was on the downhill slope that followed. Think I underestimated the speed I was going, applied the brakes too abruptly at a sharp bend and skidded off. Nothing major, just scratches and scrapes plus some mud... The rain would wash it off. With the chain hooked back on, I made the return trip in 1hr 25mins. That's damn good time.

It was only 2:30pm, I could have taken the bike around town but my legs said no. The rain continued in Luang Prabang, not that it mattered as I was soaked through anyway. On my way back to the guesthouse, at the end of the night market street, there were a few food stalls that operated during the day. One of them had some scooters waiting, so I decided it had to be popular. I chose one of each of the 3 leafy parcels and  a portion of white noodles. I wish I could tell you what were in the parcels, I have no idea, each one was different but they were all scrumptious - herby, aromatic, good balance of textures.

After a hot shower, futile attempts of drying my pants and picking the sand from my wounds, the rain subdued. I set out to Wat Xieng Thong, the oldest temple in Laos. The temple is beautifully adorned with colourful shiny mosaic, and plenty of gold-plated Buddha statues. Perhaps not as big as the ones in other SE Asian countries, but an elegant building nonetheless. 

Then I strolled along Mekong river with a mango & pineapple fruit shake in hand, the street was lined with eateries that ranged from bbq buffet to high end European restaurants. 



For dinner I circled back to Tamarind near Bamboo Bridge, a place that is consistently recommended by travellers. Lucky I arrived at 6:30pm as soon after I was seated they had to turn walk-ins away. 

I used to think Laotian cuisine was similar to Northern Thai. Turns out Laos used to occupy that part of Thailand and so had previously influenced their cuisine, but as Thailand developed and introduced more variety of ingredients, their dishes have evolved to be more watery, like their curries, and deviated from the sticky rice staple. Whereas in Laos, sticky rice is paired with dips because people eat with their hands.

With that I ordered the dip 'jeow' sampler. The dips included a tomato-based salsa, smoky aubergine, coriander purée and a sweet chilli paste, served with roasted seaweed and sticky rice.

The server explained thoroughly that people in Laos eat with both their hands. They usually grab a handful with their left, pick a bit of rice with their right hand from it, shape and squeeze into a ball before dipping it into the sauce. Well, with the fresh scratches on my right palm, I could only shape small balls of rice with my left hand straight from the woven basket. 

My favourite was the coriander and aubergine. The latter reminded me of baba ganoush, but smokier. 

I also ordered a 'orlarm', which is a typical family stew in Luang Prabang with chicken, aubergine, chill wood and a bunch of local greens. It was comfort food, and it hits the spot after a long day.

I really enjoyed Tamarind. Shame I couldn't try more of their menu. They also have comprehensive information about Laos cuisine and their culture at the back of the menu. If I had an extra half a day, I would definitely have joined their cooking class. 

As my host drove me to the airport in the early morning, I caught the alms ritual taking place just outside the guesthouse. Kham explained it only the younger monks line up to gather their offerings on that street, as they came from a monastery 7km away that have taken in many children from poorer families. We drove past the bus that took them here, it looked like it was taken from a scrap metal garage. The children perform the ritual daily, return to the monastery for breakfast before going to school.

The ritual is more for the benefit of the offerers, who believe they can connect with their family spirits via the monks. The preparation of food gain them merits for the future. The monks do not solely rely on the daily offerings, they get more elaborate donations at festivals and life events, as well as meals from local families. They don't eat after midday, and each meal is signalled by the drum.

It was fascinating to watch, especially on a quiet street with no other tourists. Ending this short, but eventful trip on a high note. 

Luang Prabang was more scenic and charming than expected. I was initially skeptical and worried about a rowdy backpacker crowd and consequently a trashy town. I couldn't be more wrong. This, again, could be attributed to low season, as the main crowd I saw was young couples and family, but it was quaint and neat; the locals were not pushy; good variety of quality restaurants and prices were reasonable. I have no doubt it has already undergone massive changes from where it was 10 years ago, stripping out the authentic and untouched charm, but overall the progression seemed orderly. It's possibly one of the best towns I have visited in South East Asia.

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