A skip and a hop through Luang Prabang, Vang Vieng and Vientiane
29.07.2009 - 10.08.2009
Calm and serene as Muong Noi was, Laos is not always that way. Despite having a scattered agricultural population, once my feet landed on the well trodden path, the trappings of tourism in their different guises shaped my experience of Laos.
Luang Prabang is a lovely city in a beautiful location, although, to be fair, the whole of Laos is a beautiful location. As the ancient capital it holds UNESCO World Heritage Site status, and as such there is an 11pm curfew. The first night I spent there I stuck to the curfew at least, going out for a cook-your-own barbecue with a pair of couples I met in Muong Noi. The food was delicious; cooked on a sort of inverted colander with moat at the base and hot coals underneath to do the heating. You place meat on the metal, and in the moat water, egg and vegetables bubble away, mixing with the meat juices that trickle into it to make an accompanying soup. We ate our way through two large plates of meaty goodness before stumbling home to sleep well.
There are plenty of temples to explore in Luang Prabang, a surprisingly plain palace with an ornately mosaicked throne room and a photography exhibition of a Buddhist monastery. It also has an enormous amount of souvenir shops, cafes, restaurants and guest houses. The very center of town is given over entirely to a tourist ghetto. Anyway, what I was looking forward to were elephants. Even being prepared for their size, elephants are massive animals. Their skin looks as tough as armour and is rough and wrinkly. I started the ride off perched in a little basket seat on her back; very colonial. I get a whole elephant to myself because of odd numbers so have plenty of room as we set off, swaying gently, the driver scrambling nimbly around its neck without a second thought. We plodded slowly into the forest with more grace than such a loping stride should allow. After a while the driver let me take his place on the neck; I moved tentatively forward, sliding and wobbling and trying not to think about the long drop that ended dangerously close to the elephant's feet. From this position the ride was even better, I could feel the powerful shoulders between my thighs, feel the coarse skin beneath my palms. There was no way to hold on and from time to time she would hit me with her ears, balance was tricky but I loved every second of the hour and I half I was up there.
That evening I went to the Laos ballet with a couple I'd met in the internet cafe (an excellent place for meeting folk). Them ballet was extracts from the Ramayana, the style oriental with stylised gestures. The costumes were bold, bright and beautiful; the male characters in masks and primary colours, the women in pastels and gold with ornate jewellery.
The next day I moved on to the madness in Vang Vieng, a town completely given over to western hedonism. The bar/restaurants that line the streets play Family Guy and Friends on a constant loop and all offer 'happy' toppings on their food. But it's tubing that everyone comes here for, me included, though I didn't quite know what it entailed...
You rent a large tractor inner tube from the tubing mafia and get a tuk-tuk to the start point upriver, about 6km out of town. The start point is a bar with decking out over the water and a massive rope swing. And buckets, lots of buckets of whiskey. Taking your tube & floating down the river there are more bars, more rope swings, slides, mud pits and volleyball courts. And lots more buckets. By the time the final bar is reached it's late in the afternoon, and everyone is tired, muddy and sporting at least a few cuts and bruises, not that that stops many people going for another go the next day. It's fantastic fun, I loved the rope swings and the messing about in the mud, but the accident rates here are pretty high. I guess being from a country where every activity is risk assessed to death, it was just nice to do something with a bit of edge.
So, after a few days it was time to leave town and I buzzed on to Vientiane. It's a pretty city, with crumbling colonial buildings, temples glittering with gold and even a half-finished concrete monstrosity of a triumphal arch. However, the rain kept up pretty much constantly and after two days of damp drizzle, there was a group consensus to head to the warmer climes of eastern Malaysia...
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