Luang Prabang, Laos

Photo: Luang Prabang Photo: Monks Photo: Luang Prabang Photo: Buddha with rice

I flew from Siem Reap to Vientiane, Laos, and spent just one night there before continuing north to Luang Prabang, one of Southeast Asia’s most beautiful and well-preserved cities, a UNESCO world heritage site.

At some point in mid-March I became a bit fed up with living in SE Asia: tired of staying in cheap places, struggling to work, and eating the same food every day. I considered pulling the plug on Cambodia and Laos and spending the rest of my time in New Zealand or Australia but sucked it up and stayed, and I’m glad I did because I really enjoyed both Cambodia and Laos.

Laos (pronounced correctly, it rhymes with ow, or cow — the French added the ’s’ at the end so they would have something there not to pronounce) has the dubious honor of being the most-bombed country in the world. Between 1964 and 1973 the US waged a secret war here as part of their conflict with North Vietnam. They dropped more bombs here than all the bombs that were dropped on Europe by all countries combined during the Second World War: two million tonnes of ordinance, one plane load every eight minutes, 24 hours a day for nine years, one tonne for every person in Laos at the time.

I saw a number of bomb craters here and there, and old bomb shells were visible all over the place, used for garden planters etc. Thirty percent of the bombs dropped here failed to explode, and today they continue to kill or maim hundreds of people every year, often children who think they have found something fun to play with.

I didn’t expect the telecom infrastructure to be any better here than it was in Cambodia where I had struggled to work over agonizingly slow internet connections, so I was pleasantly surprised to find some really fast connections in Vientiane and Luang Prabang. I ended up working from Luang Prabang for about two weeks.

Luang Prabang reminded me a lot of Hoi An, Vietnam, but seemed to be in much better shape; maybe it’s further along in the restoration/preservation process.

Photo: Luang Prabang Photo: Luang Prabang Photo: Luang Prabang Photo: Luang Prabang

It had a great selection of French and French-influenced restaurants and cafes, so I spent a couple weeks eating almost nothing but Western food — lots of lasagna, pizza, and salads. One of my favorite places, Le Cafe Ban Vat Sene had a set menu for $6 that included a big green salad, fresh baguette, choice of lasagna/pizza/spaghetti, fruit salad and espresso or tea, with perfect service in a nice setting. And it was just a couple doors down from the fastest net cafe I could find.

I would begin every day with excellent coffee and fruit/granola/yogurt at Joma, then walk across town to work at my favorite net cafe. All this comfort food quickly helped me get over being sick of Asia. Spending a bit more to stay in nicer places helped as well. Normally I try to avoid Western food but it was so good here I couldn’t resist.

One night after dinner a lady that had been hanging around nearby asked if she could join me at my table; I said OK, though I was wondering what she was after; she had a pretty short skirt on and it seemed strange how she was hanging around outside the restaurant. We chatted for an hour or two; I asked a few questions here and there to try to figure out what she was up to but whenever I asked what she did she was really evasive, making me even more suspicious.

Finally I told her I was going to go work a few more hours and said good night, and she said something to one of the waiters who brought over her business card, and it turned out she was the owner of the guesthouse and restaurant, one of the nicer ones in town at that. I apologized for being so suspicious and standoffish, and explained that most of the friendlier locals I had met on my travels usually ended up trying to sell me something (generally only the case in more touristy places, like here), and it was a shame that I had to treat the genuinely friendly ones with such suspicion.

I went there for dinner again the next night and we chatted some more, and she invited me to come along with her the next day into the countryside to see a new property she was developing, I think it was going to be a new resort or something. I declined since I was still a bit wary and wanted to work instead, but I’m still wondering what she was after, if anything.

In addition to its beautiful colonial French architecture, Luang Prabang has a really cute night market mostly consisting of textiles made by various hill tribes in the area. I was wishing I was better at shopping for this kind of thing. Most women I know would have loved this market.

Photo: Night market Photo: Night market Photo: Night market Photo: Night market

Just when I thought the market couldn’t get any cuter there was an extended power outage one night and the entire thing became lit by candlelight.

Photo: Candlelit night market Photo: Candlelit night market

(the market was beautiful but I had a hard time getting good pictures of it; this is one place where a tripod would have been handy)

Luang Prabang also has dozens of historic temples (wats) but I was pretty watted out by the time I got there, so I spent only minimal time visiting them.

A couple mornings I got up early to watch monks collect alms and to check out the fresh produce market:

Photo: Market Photo: Market Photo: Market Photo: Market

At first I was hesitant to take pictures of the alms collection but I saw some guidelines posted at one of the temples and it sounded OK if you followed a few basic rules: don’t use a flash, don’t get too close, and generally act respectfully.

Photo: Monks collecting alms Photo: Monks Photo: Monks collecting alms Photo: Monks

The day before I left I saw some kids getting a head start on Lao New Year celebrations by hurling water at people driving past (boys targetting girls and vice versa); the girl in the last couple pictures below was extra cute so she was basically knocked off her bike by the flood of water sent her way.

Photo: Bun Pi Mai Lao Photo: Bun Pi Mai Lao Photo: Bun Pi Mai Lao Photo: Bun Pi Mai Lao

More pictures in Luang Prabang…

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