Luang Prabang to Kiewkacham; up, up and … up some more. Day 16

I woke up with a strange feeling today — a kind of lethargy and sluggishness that I had never felt before. It hadn’t been a particularly restful night, and I worried that I might have contracted something awful. Dengue and Malaria were still the scourge of the country and, having been a victim of dengue more than a year ago back home, I knew first-hand just how devastating it could be for me if I was indeed infected with it.

Not one to dwell prematurely on negative thoughts, I hauled myself out of bed and got ready to leave Luang Prabang. Today would be an 80 km ride to a mountain-top town called Kiewkacam and, from my notes, there would be a long and nasty hill waiting for me.

After a breakfast of Pho and coffee at my favourite shop, I stocked up on riding fuel — 2 freshly baked baguettes, one filled with cheese and salad, and the other, generously spread with chocolatey Nutella. Add to that an orange cake I had bought the night before and I was ready to take on the mountains today.

As always, the road was very agreeable as I left town; it was flat and easy, and as I started warming up, so did the day. Before long, the sun was beating down with fiery enthusiasm. 27 km later, at the townlet of Xiengnguen, the road started climbing — gently at first, then slowly but surely the incline began to inch upward — for a good 15 km. Continue reading

Living it up in Luang Prabang. Days 14-15, Pt 2

Undoubtedly, being awarded World Heritage status by UNESCO does gives a destination a very big plus point. With recoqnition comes fame, followed by fortune in the form of tourist dollars. Unlike so many cities that suffer the inevitable decline into more glitz and kitzch than the tourist can handle, the likes of Luang Prabang will, hopefully, stay the same, thanks to the strict guidelines that UNESCO insists upon.
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And so, with thoughts of enjoying this lovely town, I took an extra day off and roamed the streets soaking in the rich culture and heritage that it had to offer. Of course, there was no better way to start the day than with an excellent local breakfast ….

Breakfast Pho -- clear tasty soup with strips of tender pork garnished with crunchy bean sprouts, spring onions and pungent coriander leaves, accompanied by...

...sweet, thick Lao coffee. Quite often, coffee came with a complimentary glass of light but flavoursome Lao tea, possibly to balance the strong taste of the coffee.

This nice lady ran the shop I had breakfast at on both days I was here. It's just a few doors away from the tourist information office, and opposite the day-market. One of the boys who was playing with the oil lamps at the temple the night before turned out to be her son; I recoqnised his mischievous face as he was getting on his bike to go to school.

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The tourist belt of Luang Prabang -- guest-houses, shops, Internet cafes, laundry and more

An obviously French remnant of Laos' colonial past in excellent running condition.

As far as Buddhist temples are concerned, it’s a been-there-done-that thing for me, having seen my fair share of them across Cambodia, Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia.  Still, I did a quick tour of a few that were located in town. Monks were, of course, a common sight and they are much revered. Every morning at dawn the faithful laity would wait reverently for the monks to come by, earning for themselves valuable karma in their present life.

But today was different. It was the Buddhist Lent, a kind of celebration after the rains, and the town was in a celebratory mood…

Brightly coloured flowers were sold everywhere on the streets; to be used as offerings no doubt.

Patiently waiting for the monks. Patience is a virtue that seems to be prevalent among Buddhists in these parts of the world, unlike the Vietnamese who worshipped mainly Chinese gods.

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The saffron parade making its way across town.

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One of them seems to have a disdain for the rice that was being served

This was a scene outside of town. Monks, as far as I know, weren't supposed to desire anything worldly, let alone money. I had no idea what this bed-like structure was all about. I suspect it was used for the faithful to show their faith.

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A little later, they took the whole thing apart, and of course, the money.

Even monks chill ... with a ciggie. no less.

One of the many Buddhas residing in serene splendour on Phu Si hill.

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A elaborate paper boat waits to be launched into the Mekong that night.

A beautful example of Lao temples. This one was an elaborate work of golden art.

This temple, the name of which I can't recall, is very old, and wasn't as fancy as the modern ones.

Besides Buddhist attractions, Luang Prabang has its fair share of oddities, like this one: located inside the grounds of a museum, these petrol pumps stood forlorn against the greenery that surrounded them.

And the popular potent brews of deadly reptiles that never ceased to amaze me. Unlike the ones in the night market which sold whole bottles of the stuff, this stall located on the banks of the river offered to cheer you up for only 5,000 Kip per shot.

That afternoon, I decided to contribute a little more to the tourism industry. I had read about the cave of a thousand buddhas and I was fascinated. It was called Pak Ou caves and it was located about 20km out of town, half of it on a rutted country road. Earlier, I had also bumped into 2 fellow Malaysians and we all decided that it might be fun to check this place out. After some typically Malaysian-style bargaining, we headed out to the caves on a tuk-tuk, or 3-wheeled taxi.

After a bumpy, bone-shaker of a ride, we arrived at the village facing the caves on the other side of the Mekong. To get across, one had to hire a boat.

It wasn't often that I was on the other end of the camera. This was shot by my Malaysian friends as we were crossing the river to Pak Ou.

The entrance to Pak Ou caves

Just as I had feared, it turned out to be an over-hyped attraction and, in my book, a tourist trap. The entry fee was 20,000 Kip, and together with the tuk-tuk's 180,000 Kip which was shared among the 3 of us, and the additional 10,000 KIp each to cross the river, I didn't feel it was worth it. It was nothing more than a cave filled with retired Budhha idols. The story behind it was fascinating, but then again it would still be as fascinating just reading about it.

... I guess I was just a little bored with one Buddha idol too many.

Next: A long ride up into the mountains of Kiewkacam

Pak Mong to Luang Prabang, living it up in a French provincial town. Days 14-15, Pt 1

The French province of Luang Prabang? Well, that could likely be your first impression when you venture into the heart of this alluring, and very French-influenced, town. The Frenchies may have left a long time ago, but their legacy is what keeps the till ringing with tourist dollars, especially in certain parts of Luang Prabang where pre-war French colonial buildings have been beautifully restored to their original glory. Add to that the ubiquitous baguette and coffee combo, and you have yourself a very charming destination. Even the weather is quite agreeable, when it’s not the monsoon season, that is.

I had just ridden 110 monotonous kilometres from Pak Mong where I had been the previous day. The only thing that broke the monotony of the gently undulating terrain which, thankfully, wasn’t as taxing, was the non-stop ‘sabaidees’ from Lao children along the entire route. I especially looked forward to the kids who would go out of their way (even crossing the road) to high-five with me.

Once I was within Luang Prabang, I couldn’t help being struck by the stark contrast between this town and the preceding ones (including the hovels that passed off as towns) I had passed through earlier. Luang Prabang was more affluent, more confident, and more lively — thanks to the huge number of tourists that have made this a ‘must-see’ destination.

The eastern view of Luang Prabang from atop Phu Si hill... entrance fee 20,000Kip

...and the western side of it from the same vantage point, with the Mekong in the background.

The stupa at the top of Phu Si hill

Overlooking the mighty Mekong, the formerly royal town of Luang Prabang is the pride of Laos; being a UNESCO World Heritage Site — and deservedly so, too. According to the World Heritage Committee, a recipient of this accolade must ‘represent a cultural and natural heritage of outstanding universal value’. In every aspect, it fulfilled the stringent selection requirements.

Take away the air-con compressors and unsightly wires and, voila, you're in France -- complete with sidewalk cafe.

A typical guest-house -- with signature French windows and doors

The affluence is especially evident in the vehicles you see on the road – from brand-new Mercs to the ultimate in immoderation: the petrol-guzzling Humvee. Although these were far and few in between, they were still obscene symbols of extravagance. Such disparity in living standards in a poor country like Laos is very disturbing; more so when you have seen the other more unfortunate end of the extreme, just as I had while pedalling through the country.

As usual, the first task on hand was to look for a decent guest-house. And there were many to choose from, I had a hard time picking one. As I wandered around looking for one, I’d thought maybe a guest-house with a view of the Mekong might be a good idea. But, a couple of cursory inquiries later, I thought better of it — USD25 to 50 a night didn’t exactly fit into my measly cycle-tourer’s budget.

In the end, I wandered into a more agreeable guest-house by chance, one that was decently priced and which offered a nicely appointed room. I decided to make it my base for the next 2 days.

Cosy, clean and big -- all for about USD12

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Luang Prabang boasts a very vibrant night-life -- on the streets, that is. Everyday at dusk, the famous night-market rolls itself out for tourists, offering everything from trinkets to t-shirts...

... to exquisitely woven Lao cloths...

... to fortified rice wines. Take your pick of flavours -- scorpion, cobra, centipede, and other venomous reptiles. Check out the one of the cobra with a smaller snake in its mouth.

And what would a night-market be without the complementary food-stalls offering a colourful menu of inexpensive, delicious and yes, even grotesquely exotic array of food? Here, the food-stalls are located on a narrow lane off the road that hosts the night market. It’s crowded, it’s noisy, it’s hot and it’s a wonderful place to try out some local delicacies.

Meat features very prominently in the Lao diet; usually roasted or deep-fried

Sweet desserts are another must-try

Barbecued sweet sticky rice on a stick

Before buying any eggs, make sure you ask what it is, otherwise it could turn out to be a very nasty surprise when you crack it open to see half-formed chicks instead.

Meat sausage, blood sausage...take your pick

Nothing goes to waste as long as it's edible, except maybe feathers.

Poultry innards are just as popular

The day I arrived in Luang Prabang, it was Buddhist Lent and the temples were ablaze with the warm glow of countless oil lamps. Chanting was also in full swing, and at full volume, too… but strangely enough, it wasn’t jarring to the ears; it was actually quite soothing.

The mythical dragon seems to have a place in all Asian religions

A boat-like structure, adorned with numerous oil lamps, stood in the courtyard of one of the temples and provided endless fiery fun for some cheeky Lao boys.

Made out of banana trunks, this 'boat' was destined to float away on the Mekong...

...but not before these boys had their fill blowing out the lamps, relighting them, then blowing them out again.....

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Next: Exploring Luang Prabang

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RIDE STATS:

Pak Mong-Luang Prabang – 110km

Total ride time – Just under 8hrs

Total ascent – 295m

Total descent – 355m

Max elevation – 410m

Total distance to date – 758km