Today is our last morning in Luang Prabang…we packed our bags and enjoyed our breakfast on the river. We haven’t seen the most well-known temple in town, Phu Si Hill which sits on the top of a hill and gives views of the entire city.
We caught a tuk tuk to the center of town and saw the entrance to Phu Si Hill, it was directly across from the royal palace museum we visited yesterday. We climbed the stairs, paid a minimal entrance fee and climbed more stairs until we reached the top. There was a temple with various gold Buddha statues inside and people were praying and lighting candles/incense. Lighting incense is very popular amongst the Buddhist people at the dozens of temples/wats in Luang Prabang. Lighting incense is a gesture of respect to the Buddha…this ritual releases you from material desires and indicates thanks to the Buddha for all his blessings.
After taking our time looking at the views from the top of the hill, we found a path leading to a different area…we followed it and saw numerous Buddha statues with different hand gestures symbolizing different things. The most impressive statue was a gold Buddha laying down and was taller than Giff and I stacked on top of each other, it was huge. We continued following the paths around, stopping to take pictures of other temples, naga statues and of course saw multiple monks dressed in orange robes walking around as well.
It was getting late and we had to catch a late afternoon flight to Vietnam…before getting to the airport, we wanted to eat one more lunch made of local cuisine. We found, Tamarind ( www.tamarindlaos.com) a restaurant and cooking school. It was super hot outside so opted to eat indoors. I ordered a refreshing cucumber juice drink and Giff cracked open a Laos Beer which we paired with a starter made of local dried finger foods. It had those thin crispy mushrooms, dried rice cakes, fried seaweed and thinly sliced dry bananas. We also munched on a few dips…things like smoked eggplant and red pepper and savored an exotic healthy soup. Then…the fried bullfrog salad came out…yes bullfrog. This one was Giff’s pick, the plate had a bunch of mixed greens and sitting in the middle of it was chopped up fried frog. The pieces were so small and there were so many bones, it was actually a bit frustrating to eat…the way crab legs can be except bones were throughout the meat. I took a small bite and then watched Giff suck on the remaining pieces.
After lunch, our guide and driver picked us up and brought us the short distance to Luang Prabang airport. The airport was teeny tiny and we realized we were way too early for an on-time flight let alone the very delayed flight we were about to take. We sat around in the airport reading and writing until they finally boarded and we were off to Vietnam!
It was evening when we arrived in Vietnam and were greeted by our new local guide. He was the owner of the Vietnam tour company and was making sure our driver showed up to bring us from the airport to downtown Hanoi…which he did after waiting about 45 minutes.
We checked into our hotel which had a very spacious room and then walked a couple blocks to a restaurant the guide had recommended for dinner. As we walked in the restaurant…we noticed a bunch of shoes sitting by the stairs. We followed the tradition, took off our shoes and walked upstairs. The room was full of people…each were sitting on the floor with food set on a table which was just a flat surface on the floor. We looked at a menu which did include the English translation. We ordered two local beers, Bia Ha Noi and Saigon and asked the waiter his thoughts on what to order. He spoke minimal English and we spoke zero Vietnamese but ended up ordering spring rolls, beef rolls and pigeon as well as a side of veggies. Everything was pretty good and we got a kick out of sitting on the floor while we ate. The table next to us was full of teens who were using what they call a hot-pot to cook their food…similar to fondue style. They were nice and answered some of our questions since it was our first day in Vietnam.
After dinner, we walked back to our place and relaxed a bit before bed. Tomorrow our tour guide will pick us up early morning.
We spent the morning with our guide learning about the Royal Palace Museum (also known as Haw Kham). It was built-in 1904 and the architecture was a mix of both Laos and French design. It was built for the royal family of King Sisavang and then housed another royal family before the government took control of the building and eventually turned it into a museum in 1995. On the same estate as the museum there were also a few other buildings…a garage which holds the royal family cars, and a small ornate temple (Haw Pha Bang) which holds the royal Buddha…the town was named after this particular statue which is covered in gold leaf and is supposedly ancient.
We took our shoes off and walked through the royal palace which held various artifacts from the royal family as well as had rooms set up the way it may have been when the royal family lived there, Giff and I listened to our guide discuss the artifacts we were looking at as we meandered through the halls. We both liked the hallway full of glass cases with diplomatic presents from countries around the world. The presents ranged from silver, paintings and china and were all grouped together by either socialist or capitalist countries. We had gone through most of the room and were looking at the last glass case when we finally found the United States of America gift…it was by far the coolest present…you will have to visit to see what it is…just kidding. There was a small Laos flag, a miniature Apollo Lunar Landing Module, three little pieces of black rocks and a plaque that read; “Our Apollo 11 Lunar Space Mission carried your nation’s flag aboard the first human landing on the moon on July 20, 1969. These lunar rocks are a gift from the United States of America to the nation of Laos.” Forget tea-cups or bamboo paintings…the US gave a piece of the moon!
After the Royal Palace, we walked briefly through the royal car garage and then into the temple. The fist thing we noticed on the temple amongst all the ornate gold details were the big seven headed nagas (serpent-like creatures…similar to snakes) guarding the stairways. Inside was fairly small, just one room with a large center piece but every inch was covered in ornate details…even the ceiling.
We had spent hours looking through the museum and temple and were ready for a new activity. We took plenty of pictures before leaving and then jumped in the car with our driver and guide.
We saw how poor the roads were in Laos as we drove on the dirt paths until we arrived at an elephant training camp. The car parked and we walked outside to the main entrance. After some chatting back and forth, we walked up the few stairs and over to the edge of a small platform…our female elephant was waiting for us. Since the elephants are so big, we had to climb to the top of the stairs just to get on it. There was a little wooden bench-like seat on top of the elephant with blankets between the elephant and wooden seat to make it more comfortable for the elephant. I got on first, hoping I wouldn’t fall off this massive animal. Giff climbed on behind me and as she started walking towards the jungle, Giff and I looked at each other wondering if we made a not so smart decision. The trainer was tiny, the way a horse jockey is and he sat on the elephant’s head, resting his feet behind her ears.
The elephant was walking through the jungle…through tiny muddy trails up and down hills, tall grasses, through water and around trees which she would stop and eat as she was hungry. She was so massive and we could feel her growl…her whole body lightly vibrated, we didn’t even know elephants growled! Although it was so fun to ride this elephant through the jungle…it was also pretty scary. If we fell off this little wooden seat and off the huge elephant, we could seriously hurt ourselves. We heard the cringing of the wooden seat as she took her big steps in the mud…what if she falls? Here’s a fun fact…elephants lift their leg to pee just like a dog does! We found that out first hand…
About an hour passed by and we saw the elephant was on its way back to the training site. The rest of the elephants were eating since it was lunch time. We got back off our elephant and onto the wooden platform. We walked over to the person selling bananas and bought a couple of bunches to feed our elephant as a thank you for not dropping us…she loved them. It was really cool to hand her a banana one at a time as she would stick her trunk straight out at us, grab the banana and curl the trunk back to her mouth to eat it. We both got a kick out of feeding her, and of course got lots of pictures and a video (see below). She was so darn cute.
We got back in the car and were hungry for lunch…our guide knew of a small local restaurant where each day they kill one goat and when the meat is sold out, they are done with service. Supposedly the male goat is the more tender and the female more chewy. We hadn’t tried goat before so agreed to check out the restaurant. We pulled up and parked in a dirt lot. The “restaurant” was an outside area full of plastic table/chairs and in the back was a big BBQ with various meats slow cooking on it. We sat down and our guide ordered the food for us, we were the only table there. A few minutes later, a women came out with a couple of plates full of grilled goat and some sauce to dip it in, there was also a plate of fresh basil but we decided not to test our luck since it was raw, and probably washed in contaminated water.
After lunch, we spent some time walking through a local market which had all kinds of foods, many of which we were becoming familiar with but also foods we did not recognize. There were also piles of clothes, jewelry and other random stuff for sale. We walked through it briefly and then our guide dropped us back off at our hotel. We relaxed for a bit and then walked around town looking for dinner…until we found a nice place. We ordered egg rolls, sticky rice, steamed veggies and a fish dish cooked in banana leaves…of course we washed it all down with a Beer Lao. It was pretty good and we took our time eating all of it before going back to our place for the rest of the night.
Breakfast was nice and relaxing this morning sitting outside on the river with our coffee and eggs. Our guide met us after breakfast to show us around Luang Prabang which is well-known for its temples and monasteries, particularly the Wat Cham Si temple sitting at the top of a large hill in the center of town. Luang Prabang is a world heritage Unesco site and for good reason, it is full of culture and customs…every morning for example, after the bell rings throughout the city, hundreds of monks walk the streets and both locals and tourists place extra food in their bowls to feed them. Monks do not work, they study buddhism and therefore live with the most basic of accommodations…hard beds, basic foods etc.
As our guide led us from one temple to the next, he explained what the symbols meant and pointed out the differences in the body positions of each statue. There is so much symbolism within these statues which represents different moments in the life of Buddha. One shows a meditative state, one shows charity, compassion, protection…the list goes on and on. Even the amount of fingers the statue is holding up or the way it is holding its hands have symbolic meanings…for example each of the five fingers starting with the thumb represent sky, wind, fire, water and the earth. It was fascinating to learn about this culture in which we were not accustomed to in the US. We always had to take off our shoes to walk into each temple and we would stop and look at some of the stories drawn into their walls as our guide explained what we were viewing. It was really interesting to watch people on their knees praying and lighting candles for loved ones etc. The amount of elaborate work that has gone into each of these temples was very impressive and intriguing to learn about…between temples we also saw several monasteries with several monks walking around. The guide pointed out the slight differences in how the monks were wearing their uniforms…whether the shoulder was showing or the difference in how the rope was tied around their waist was a sign of how far along they were in their studies etc.
After visiting many many temples, we walked by a women who was frying long skinny black things in a pot sitting on the ground…we pointed and questioned what she was cooking and although she spoke no English, she smiled and handed us a free bag of it. The guide told us they were mushrooms…we put one into our mouth and were pleasantly surprised…they were crispy and salty…not a mushroom consistency. We thanked her and a few more steps down the sidewalk saw a big pile of coconuts waiting for someone to buy them. We couldn’t resist…they cut it open, placed a straw in it and we were sucking down the soothing coconut juice. The guide brought us to the market area to show us the various vendors selling their food…we saw all kinds of meats, veggies, fruits, snacks as well as crafts. The market was coming to a close since it was early afternoon and the guide told us he would see us tomorrow so we could enjoy the city on our own for the rest of the day.
There were tons of little boutique type shops specifically in silver jewelry and antiques. They are also big into haggling so we had fun finding our treasures and getting good prices for them. Giff found an antique silver bowl which is really ornate and very oriental in style…it is kind of heavy and something about it was really intriguing to Giff. We made a deal with the shop owner for the bowl and some jewelry and continued on our way.
After we had done our share of shopping, we had worked up an appetite and found a cute little place who pulled us in by cooking right on the sidewalk. We sat and ordered the chips they were making from scratch…peeling the potato and dropping the slices into the hot oil. We also ordered some of the pancakes which were Thai style…little balls filled with coconut cream and green onions. After dinner we walked around a bit more and then went back to our place to unwind and settle in for the evening.
The sun was just rising when we got up and got our things packed and checked out. After a quick breakfast, we walked with our guide down the main road watching the morning hustle and bustle. People were cooking breakfast on their charcoal fires and kids were crammed into an old truck (their school bus)…some even standing on the back bumper since it was full to get to school. Just a bit further down the road, the morning market was going on and the guide walked us through the little isles pointing out various foods. Money was being exchanged for all kinds of goods, we saw fresh fish being grilled, fried seaweed and dried water buffalo skin amongst regular veggies/fruits.
After the market, we walked back to our boat continuing to ask all kinds of questions in regards to the Laos customs…like the Chinese, they also eat dog. As we walked up to all the long boats docked…we took a picture, it was so beautiful…the sun was just coming up over the mountains and everything was still being it was so early. Once our stuff was loaded, and we had a hot cup of tea in our hand, we were again gliding down the Mekong and watching the locals begin their day. Fisherman were casting their nets, kids were running along the sand, we saw some tents set up holding a market, farmers were working their land and again women were kneeling down using their sifter’s to find minerals.
After sitting for a few hours on the boat, we approached a weaving village…as we pulled over we saw a monk dressed in orange standing on the sand between bags of rice. We jumped out of the boat and walked up the steep path to the top of the hill. Once we were at the top, we saw a building where the monks sleep, a church and many small shacks made of sticks and bamboo. As we continued walking, we saw the women of the village with all of their scarves and shawls hand-made displayed on the floor for sale. They also had some hard homemade alcohol they were selling and offering to taste out of used glasses which we politely turned down. We talked with some of the women and ended up buying a couple scarves before walking back down the hill and onto the boat.
We really never got tired of the scenery…it was relaxing just to sit and gaze out at the mountains and trees passing us by as we ate lunch on the boat. A few hours later we reached the Pak-Ou Caves…there were a few other long boats already docked since these caves are a major tourist attraction. We got out of the boat and walked up the steps built into the mountainside. Once we were at the top, we saw the cave had hundreds of Buddha statues sitting all over the walls and in every nook and cranny. We walked through the cave taking pictures and reading the little plaques about the history of the cave. There was also one set area with a bigger buddha where people were down on their knees in prayer.
Above the lower cave was an upper cave which was extremely dark with steep stairs, I decided for the sake of my ankle to sit outside and wait for Giff to check it out on his own. He said it had less Buddha figures but was much more of a work out with over 100 steps to get inside.
Back on the boat, we enjoyed our last two hours on the river as the sun was setting before arriving in Luang Prabang. We got checked into our new hotel which was about a mile from the center of town. It was right across the street from the river where they had little tables set up for breakfast. We were hungry so after getting our things settled in, walked a couple blocks over to a restaurant we had heard was good, Tum Tum Cheng. We ordered a few different dishes to munch on, sticky rice, spring rolls, spicy green mango salad, soup and a noodle dish which we washed down with Beer Lao. The restaurant began to fill up and the entertainment started…there were traditional musical instruments being played as well as dancers.
It was a long day on the boat and dinner was delicious…we decided to call it a night and went back to our place for the rest of the evening.
Maybe we are high maintenance when it comes to food…ok, we are, but still breakfast this morning consisted of thin basic pre-packaged white bread with jam that looked like a pile of red sugar gel…really nothing else was eatable. Thailand has such amazing food but some of these tour hotels and lunches really are so bad. Anyway, after barely eating…we checked out and put our things in the car. The driver got in and after trying to get the car to start quickly switched us to another car. The drive was literally 5 minutes down the road, he dropped us off at the little white building on the edge of the water. We weren’t really sure what was going on since this was all organized through the tour guide, but we proceeded to stand in line and get our paperwork filled out to leave Thailand and enter Laos.
Once we were approved, they had us go on the back side of the building which is considered Laos and get in a long-boat with the other backpackers. Our Laos guide was waiting for us and showed us to the boat while helping carry our things. We noticed right away he had a very long pinky fingernail….strange.
The boat ride was about 2 minutes and then we pulled up to a small town in Laos where we had to fill our more paperwork and give our pictures in order to stay in Laos for our tour. Once we were approved, we loaded our things into a truck and drove 10 minutes to a different area on the water. There we saw a bunch of huge long boats docked and boarding people. We grabbed our stuff and the guide showed us to our boat, where got our things settled. There were about 30 chairs lined up with more space in the back to sit at a table and chairs to eat etc, the boat was narrow but quite long. We noticed the other boats were loading many people but no one was getting on our boat, then the guide informed us no one else was allowed on our boat…this was a private ride only for us! Giff and I felt really silly…we did not need anywhere near all this space and actually would have liked to chat with travelers from other countries. Thailand Treks tour company had organized this whole SE Asia tour and had told us it was better to charter a boat instead of being on a “backpacker boat,” they made it sound like two different levels of boats…he did not tell us it was the exact same boat but with no other people. We have been kind of disappointed with this tour company so far…the prices they charge are so much more than what you can really get when you are here. To have other people on our boat, the cost for two days down the Mekong would have been about $25 but for a chartered boat (same one but no other people) it is more like $550!! This specific tour guide, Hans from Thailand Treks has definitely made our trip much more expensive than it needed to be…we will not be recommending him to anyone.
We were introduced to the family who owned the boat, it was the father who was the captain…mother who served the food, grandma who probably helped in the kitchen, as well as two kids all of whom slept in the back of the boat. We started our journey down the Mekong. Our guide sat down with us and a Laos (pronounced without the “s”) map, he began talking about the country…where we were and where we were going. We will be on the boat all day today as we float down the Mekong River watching locals as we pass by. He explained how many indigenous people live all along the river in simple houses away from regular civilization. They eat what they hunt or what they raise such as chickens or dogs. The long-boat has a roof but is all open air, so we watched people washing their clothes, fishing, searching for minerals and harvesting rice as the cool breeze kept us bundled up in our coats.
Our guide explained how important the Mekong river is to the Laos people since the roads are so poor or non-existent. This river is the main means of transportation not only to get from point A to point B but most importantly to get goods like rice and peanuts from one place to another. As we watched various people along the way…the guide told us how their people are organized into three different categories, Lao Loum-60% of the country’s people (lowland people), Lao Theung-30% of the country’s people (midland people)and Lao Soung -10% (highland people). We found it interesting the ethnic groups are organized based on the altitude level they occupy. Our guide belongs to the Lao Loum group and we were going to visit a village in the Lao Soung group…to see a tribe known as the hmong people today.
The mountains were beautiful and the land was so untouched, it was very peaceful along the river on our own long-boat. We finally pulled over at the bottom of a hill to the local village we were visiting. We were greeted right away by a few kids selling their string bracelets. We jumped out of the boat with our guide who led us up the mountain on a path which opened up to a bunch of little shack-like houses. As soon as we came up to the first house a tribal member who didn’t speak English showed us into his house. The floor was hardened mud without any kind of rug, the sleeping area did not have a mattress, but a simple blanket on top of a hard surface. There was some food hanging from the ceiling and in the middle of the hut was a place where a fire would be lit for cooking. There were also big bags of newly harvested rice piled up. It was only one small room shared by a family. The shack itself looked like it was made of thin bamboo sheets and straw rooftops. We also noticed what looked like a dried bunch of flowers pinned to the wall which they told us was to ward off the bad spirits.
We left the one room house and continued walking through the village…we peered into another house and saw a couple of people gathered watching what looked like TV. Not all these tribes have electricity but this particular house appeared to have some type of electricity. We continued walking past the dogs and pigs walking around which were obviously future food and heard a shower being taken which is basically water they pipe down from the mountains…which means no hot water unless they heat it on the fire. The little girls whom had greeted us when we arrived have been following us the whole time persistent as they were, to try to sell a string bracelet to us. As we were walking back to the boat, we came across a man who was part of the tribe…he had just gotten back from hunting and had caught a ferret type animal, he was showing us his prize.
We left the town realizing how truly basic these people were living, it is amazing people in the world are still living this way. We have seen things like this on national geographic type shows but now we have seen it really exists with our own eyes. Back on the boat, the family had cooked for us. They set up lunch on the table and Giff and I ate things like fried fish, soup, mixed veggies and local beer.
We continued our journey down the river seeing a lot of activity along the shore. It was obviously rice harvesting season as we saw bags and bags of rice being carried on men’s shoulders and placed into trucks/boats. It was also interesting to watch as the women brought their sifting pans down to the water in hopes of finding minerals worthy of being sold.
We finally arrived in the town of Pakbeng which is the place everyone stops for food and a bed before continuing down the river tomorrow. We got checked into our hotel which was a very basic hotel room without hot water or heat (it was very cold)…we even pulled out our anti-bug sleeping bags so as not to get bed-bugs. Again, Thailand Treks tour guide (Hans) set us up at a super cheap hotel but charged us a lot…grrrrrrr. From what we had read before arriving in Pakbeng, we needed to watch out for thieves who break into the rooms and steal bags. It is a well-known stopping point for all tourists heading to Luang Prabang. We hid our stuff as best we could and walked down the little hill to the small town to look for dinner. There was one main street which held all the restaurants, hotels and small shops. We saw our guide sitting outside at one of the restaurants enjoying some fresh fish and he referred us to a local restaurant to order the well-known local specialty, Laap with khao (sticky rice). We found a place which was by no means fancy…it looked family run and since it was outside had little ants crawling along the plastic table-cloth. We saw the pork laap on the menu as well as the khao so ordered both. We liked both dishes…the sticky rice was served in individual little rice baskets and the laap was minced pork mixed with fish sauce, small shallots, mint leaves, lime juice, roasted ground rice and enough chillies to make you sweat. First we took a piece of rice…rolled it into a ball then scooped up some minced meat and put the whole bite in our mouth. A table full of Thai people started chatting with us a bit and recommended we order the fish soup…which we did but it wasn’t really anything special.
After dinner, we walked the 5 minutes back to our hotel room where we bundled up in every long sleeve we owned since it was so cold. We went straight to bed since we will be getting up super early to get going tomorrow morning.