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
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.....
Next: Exploring Luang Prabang
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