Act 2: Backstreet Beauty: Luang Prabang

Warning! This post contains graphic images, if you have a weak stomach you have been warned…. (but has lots of photos of nice things too).

 So our first few days in Laos got us off on a rocky start when we arrived in the rain into UNESCO cultural city of Luang Prabang.

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First stop our guesthouse where we were greeted by what we assumed to be some confused staff- after confirming that we had indeed booked a room (I had the email) we were shown up to a good sized triple room with a good deal of character and settled in. Luang Prabang’s main attractions are the Kuang Si waterfall 25km from the town, the Pak Ou Caves and the daily alms giving ceremony at 5.30 am. It is also a good base for hiking in Northern Laos- but that would have been crazy to do in wet season (for us anyway).

I’ll tell you now that we did none of these things.

For the waterfall, we had considered going there and there were a few options: 1) hire a tuk tuk for 200,000 kip (£15.60/$24.40), which was a bit pricey for us, 2) get into a shared tuk tuk for 50,000 kip each which would have been not too bad but you could potentially be hanging around for ages for the driver to get enough people or hire a moped (there have been reports of robberies by the moped owners and massive fines) or our last option cycle. This was the preferred option, the road is not flat but it would give us the opportunity to call in where we wanted. Unfortunately, every day we decided to go it was heavy rain the whole day so we gave it a miss. We weren’t really that pushed about going as Gav doesn’t like the fish that live in them as they pull at his body hair. I quite like them nibbling my feet though- we had experienced these at the waterfall in Thailand Part 1.

As for the Cave- we were reliably informed by a fellow traveler that it wasn’t worth the effort and we had passed it on the way in on the boat.

The alms ceremony we participated in ourselves back at the monastery so we felt that this box was well ticked. It is lucky it is still going actually as the monks wanted to stop a few years ago but were forced to keep going by the government otherwise they were going to dress people in orange robes for it as it is a tourist draw. Many had got sick by tourists buying rotten rice from non-Buddhist street sellers and making offerings.

Anyway so that’s what we didn’t do, what did we do then, eh?

First up a cooking class with Tamarind Cooking school! After a short walk from our guesthouse to the Tamarind restaurant where we were met with a welcome drink by Sit our teacher for the day. There were eleven of us in the end, our hopes of a small group were dashed very quickly. Anyway once everyone had arrived we were whisked away in the tuk tuks to the Phosy Market- the largest in Luang Prabang for a tour (This is where the warning comes in).

Food here has a lot of herbs and river plants in it.
Food here has a lot of herbs and river plants in it.
Stuff for making the betel leaf stimulant, the white bags on the left are lime. (calcium hydroxide or carbonate). They believe using more keeps their teeth strong....
Stuff for making the betel leaf stimulant, the white bags on the left are lime. (calcium hydroxide or carbonate). They believe using more keeps their teeth strong….
....next to them were black glue disks.
….next to them were black glue disks.
This lady was making fish sauce, aparently it was good that day as tt didn't stink and wasn't covered in flies.
This lady was making fish sauce, apparently it was good that day as tt didn’t stink and wasn’t covered in flies. That’s Sit there.

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Dried meat- the closest one was a dear. Once it starts to turn they dry it to make it last longer.
Dried meat- the closest one was a dear. Once it starts to turn they dry it to make it last longer.
Bamboo shoots
Bamboo shoots
Like shooting fish in a barrel! They don't need much water apparently, poor things
Like shooting fish in a barrel! They don’t need much water apparently, poor things
Jasmine, sticky and purple rice, different grades
Jasmine, sticky and purple rice, different grades
Get in there! A lady selecting her offal
Get in there! A lady selecting her offal
intestines..
intestines..
Who knows what this is
Who knows what this is
Heads- I think these are goat
Heads- I think these are goat
Congealed blood cubes, you could also buy bags of blood both are used in soup.
Congealed blood cubes, you could also buy bags of blood both are used in soup.
General other produce
General other produce

Everyone shot through the meat section, leaving me and Gav at the back having a good look at everything. Gav spotted some nice steak and well I was intrigued by the blood cubes, we had not seen any in a market anywhere- it was like a horror film set as you can see. We may have been in south-east Asia too long as the strong smells here don’t bother us in the slightest anymore (unless it is really rank of course but then it is definitely not suitable for selling as food). Then it was back in the tuk tuk to race down the narrow pottholed lanes to our work stations for the day. As you can see it was gorgeous there.

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In the end we made 5 dishes: a dip each- Jeow Mak Keua (Aubergine), Jeow Mak Len (tomato), Oua Si Khai (stuffed lemongrass with chicken), Khao Gam (purple sticky rice with coconut), Mok Pa (Fish steamed in Banana Leaves), Koy (minced meat and herb salad) as well as how to prepare Khao Niaow (sticky rice).

Preparing the sticky rice
Preparing the sticky rice
Starting to steam the rice- the one behind was the purple rice. It was harder so needed covered to make it soft.
Starting to steam the rice- the one behind was the purple rice. It was harder so needed covered to make it soft.
Gav preparing his tomatoes for his Jeow
Gav preparing his tomatoes for his Jeow
Charring our Jeow ingredients
Charring our Jeow ingredients

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Charred veg...
Charred veg…
...which then needed to be peeled.
…which then needed to be peeled.
Then we ground the ingredients this is my aubergine Jeow
Then we ground the ingredients this is my aubergine Jeow
.. and Gav's tomato
.. and Gav’s tomato
These are our finished Jeow's eaten with sticky rice. They prefer sticky rice here to jasmine rice. To eat they pick up the rice between the thumb and index finger and then roll it into a ball in their fist so its nice and hard then dip in the sauce. We quite like this method of eating :).
These are our finished Jeow’s eaten with sticky rice.
They prefer sticky rice here to jasmine rice. To eat they pick up the rice between the thumb and index finger and then roll it into a ball in their fist so its nice and hard then dip in the sauce. We quite like this method of eating :).
Next was the fish dish...
Next was the fish dish…
The herbs and spices were pounded with some fish sauce (all the recipes had fish sauce)..
The herbs and spices were pounded with some fish sauce (all the recipes had fish sauce)..
Then the fish was put in and marinaded before transferring to the banana leaves. Interestingly the banana leaves are very stiff and need placed over the coals to soften before use. You could see the change in colour once it was soft enough.
Then the fish was put in and marinated before transferring to the banana leaves. Interestingly the banana leaves are very stiff and need placed over the coals to soften before use. You could see the change in colour once it was soft enough.
Then they were steamed....
Then they were steamed….
Next up the stuffed lemongrass...
Next up the stuffed lemongrass…
....which was a pain to do. Sit was saying that at home his family do it with bamboo (the traditional way) but Joy who owns the restaurant came up with this one..
….which was a pain to do. Sit was saying that at home his family do it with bamboo (the traditional way) but Joy who owns the restaurant came up with this one..
it was then dipped in egg and fried.
it was then dipped in egg and fried.
Tofu- I was tastelss.
Koy the Tofu version- It was tasteless.
Gav's buffalo... fry off the meat, mix with the veg add a spoonful of BILE (!!!) and some diced stomach and there you go. I did not dry it but Gav managed to eat half of it. Sometimes you're better off not knowing the ingredients
Gav’s buffalo… fry off the meat, mix with the veg add a spoonful of BILE (!!!) and some diced stomach and there you go. I did not try it but Gav managed to eat half of it. Sometimes you’re better off not knowing the ingredients
In case you thought we were joking.. we think Gav was the only one to truely embrace this recipe.
In case you thought we were joking.. we think Gav was the only one to truly embrace this recipe.
Then it was time for the purple rice dessert...
Then it was time for the purple rice dessert… cooking on the hot coals didn’t get any easier- hot, hot, hot!
mmmmmmmmmmm :)
mmmmmmmmmmm 🙂

It was a really fun day but there is perhaps a reason that Laos cuisine is not widely known- it had loads of lovely ingredients but for some reason lacks the punch of other cuisines nearby. Also all the restaurant seem to serve Chinese or Thai dishes Lao style anyway but the locals make these ones at home.

We also discovered a company called Backstreet Academy– they run classes all over south-east Asia. Really wished we had discovered them sooner as it was an amazing experience doing classes with them. They train locals in various skills so they can make a living at the market and also teach foreigners, none of them speak English so a student from the local school comes to translate and to practice his English. It’s a sort of social initiative where everyone benefits:1) The tuk tuk driver by bringing you to the classes; 2) the facilitator/translator gets to practice his English and earn some money; 3) the host gets to earn more money by teaching and then 4) the person going to the class gets to learn or try something new while learning about the local way of life. Win all round. In the case of our hosts and facilitators in Luang Prabang, both were from the Hmong tribe who lived on top of the mountains and used to grow opium until the government banned them from doing so. Many came to the cities to be resettled and as they were farmers now with no land they needed a way to support their families.

We could have done a class everyday in Luang Prabang, but in the end we settled on two. Firstly recycled bags from cement bags- unfortunately they are all Thai cement not Laos cement. The lady’s house we went to was called Mrs Chai, we learned from our facilitator Hewlee, that she was married at 16 and had three children and was now 24. If you are seeing someone for 6 months then you must marry and there is no having kids and not marrying here. Her husband (who was bobbing in and out) was a tuk tuk driver. Our class was on the porch of her house with a cockerel behind who was crowing half the time. He was used to lure wild chickens from the jungle and was kept away from any hens to keep his testosterone high so he would still crow when brought to the jungle. Their way of putting it was that he loved chickens  very much but would be so sad when taken away from them he would not crow. Aww.

So we set to cutting our bags and I started sewing mine, in the meantime Gav was having such a great time chatting away with Hewlee and firing crossbows at a sack (another class you can do with them…we were tempted..) that there are no photos of me making my bag- it was a weird sewing machine, and kept rocking back and cutting the thread which was a bit irritating but at least Gav learned from my experience there. We also tried her dessert a coconut rice with sweetcorn-delicious!

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For some reason Laos people do not smile in photos- I'm not sure why! but this is Mrs. Chai. Spot the girl on her smartphone behind..
For some reason Laos people do not smile in photos- I’m not sure why! but this is Mrs. Chai. Spot the girl on her smartphone behind..

After this we did what is possibly my favourite thing we have done on the whole trip- on a day where it lashed rain all day- we played blacksmiths for the day made some kick-ass knives. It was enhanced by Mr Phan, who was our host, clearly he loved what he was doing! All the people in his village were blacksmith’s or could do some metal work. His neighbours were hilarious too and our facilitator Oun (bless him he was only 18, excellent English, only starting secondary school as his family only came down from the mountain when he was 10), was very sweet. They also gave us some of the hottest Papaya salad we’d ever had. Lovely though!

His son worked with him on the first pounding of the metal..
His son worked with him on the first pounding of the metal..
The fire
The fire
...then it was Gav....
…then it was Gav….
...then they got a girl's hammer out (3kg rather than 4kg) so I had a go.
…then they got a girl’s hammer out (3kg rather than 4kg) so I had a go.
Gav got to cut the blade for his one...
Gav got to cut the blade for his one…
We did some straightening.... this lady was brilliant and delighted in talking to us through Oun!
We did some straightening…. this lady was brilliant and delighted in talking to us through Oun!

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... the shaped knives...
… the shaped knives…
We decided not to have a go cleaning them it was a bit dangerous looking.
We decided not to have a go cleaning them it was a bit dangerous looking.
..just using the sparks to light a cigarette.
..just using the sparks to light a cigarette.
tempering the blade
tempering the blade
Doing a spot of welding- muck, filings and copper wire
Doing a spot of welding- muck, filings and copper wire
Fitting the handle
Fitting the handle
Fitting the handles
Fitting the handles
The finished product-again no smile from Mr. Phan, he was smiling all the time until this photo.
The finished product-again no smile from Mr. Phan, he was smiling all the time until this photo.
His and hers...
His and hers…
With covers.
With covers.

So much fun and surprisingly hard work- Mr Phan did most of it. He was in his element. I think he did quite well out of the class ($28 (the main charge spread over the driver, host and facilitator +$2.50 (handle) and $6 for the cover that went straight to him), He also runs the fishing class and was trying to get Gav to go to one he was doing the following day. He also had a job in a whiskey bar. His wife had died a few years ago, he was 54 and a father of 5. Not sure how many kids are at home as we only saw adults there. Anyway it was more that worth the money, great experience!

So other than that we had a bit of an explore of the town and visited the Prabang statue which Luang Prabang was named after and climbed the “mountain” behind our guesthouse (Phou Si Mountain). Also we had many walks along the Nam Khan and mighty Mekong; both swelled dramatically while we were there due to the heavy rains. We suspect it was the tail of the hurricane which battered Myanmar and is currently causing a crisis there (BBC, Guardian). Also there was a few trips to the various markets including Phosy Market (we had already gone there before the Cooking class).

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Our first Lao style BBQ..
Our first Lao style BBQ..
....over the coals
….over the coals
...a nice leisurely way to have dinner..
…a nice leisurely way to have dinner..
This is a temporary Bamboo bridge across the Nam Khan- it was 5000 kip to cross...
This is a temporary Bamboo bridge across the Nam Khan – it was 5000 kip($0.60/£0.40) to cross…
...there was a restaurant and a studio on the otherside.
…there was a restaurant and a studio on the other side.
A few day's later is was no more- a free boat operated in it's place.
A few day’s later is was no more- a free boat operated in it’s place.

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You are permitted only to peer in the door to see the Luang Prabang..
You are permitted only to peer in the door to see the Prabang..
..It was a nice building though..
..It was a nice building though..

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After this we went to the old Palace...I was waiting on Gav taking all the photos...
After this we went to the old Palace…I was waiting on Gav taking all the photos…
...the Royal Palace- more strict than most temples and not worth the effort or cost to get in.
…the Royal Palace- more strict than most temples and not worth the effort or cost to get in.
In various trips to the market we came across lots of interesting snacks...
In various trips to the market we came across lots of interesting snacks…
..including this rather interesting item which gave one of my poor friends nightmares after posting it on Facebook. They do have a problem with Tuberculosis here (we saw a hospital for it in Vientiane) and this may be some sort of treatment perhaps?
..including this rather interesting item which gave one of my poor friends nightmares after posting it on Facebook. They do have a problem with Tuberculosis here (we saw a hospital for it in Vientiane) and this may be some sort of treatment perhaps?
Sticky rice cakes drying on a side street.
Sticky rice cakes drying on a side street.
The local tuk tuk.
The local tuk tuk.
There was an all you could eat buffet line of stalls at then Night Market for 15,000 kip (£1.25/$1.80). I must have chosen well as I thiought it was alright, Gav didn't enjoy his. He said it was the most bland thing he'd ever eaten.
There was an all you could eat buffet line of stalls at then Night Market for 15,000 kip (£1.25/$1.80). I must have chosen well as I thought it was alright, Gav didn’t enjoy his. He said it was the most bland thing he’d ever eaten.
Ice-coffee in a bag.
Ice-coffee in a bag.
Wat Xieng Thong- the most historic temple in Luang Prabang
Wat Xieng Thong- the most historic temple in Luang Prabang
Wat Xieng Thong- Laos temple crest.
Wat Xieng Thong- Laos temple crest.
Wat Xieng Thong
Wat Xieng Thong
Wat Xieng Thong- elaborately painted
Wat Xieng Thong- elaborately painted
Wat Xieng Thong
Wat Xieng Thong
Wat Xieng Thong
Wat Xieng Thong
Wat Xieng Thong
Wat Xieng Thong
Wat Xieng Thong- it was full of green and blue mosaic, I really liked this one, so different from the other temples
Wat Xieng Thong- it was full of green and blue mosaic, I really liked this one, so different from the other temples
Wat Xieng Thong
Wat Xieng Thong
Wat Xieng Thong
Wat Xieng Thong
Wat Xieng Thong- Japanese tile (there was a similar work in the throne room in the Palace- you could take no photos)
Wat Xieng Thong- Japanese tile (there was a similar work in the throne room in the Palace- you could take no photos) located on the rear exterior wall of the temple
Wat Xieng Thong- the funeral chapel
Wat Xieng Thong- the funeral chapel
Wat Xieng Thong- Funeral chapel naga roof detail
Wat Xieng Thong- Funeral chapel naga roof detail
Funeral barge
Funeral barge

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I'm not sure what these are but am guessing some sort of wishes/prayers, the selected papers are wrapped around a stick and placed in a box beside it. Some are also stuck in the old Buddhas lining the room
I’m not sure what these are but am guessing some sort of wishes/prayers, the selected papers are wrapped around a stick and placed in a box beside it. Some are also stuck in the old Buddhas lining the room- all in the funeral chapel

Then a quick walk up the hill (about 10 steps-its was across the road from the Phabang…. to Wat Pahouk, built in 1860 with wall paintings that allegedly can only be found in Luang Prabang.

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Then up to the That Chomsi temple at the top of the mountain:

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That road there - we were staying at the top of it next to the mountain
That road there – we were staying at the top of it next to the Nam Khan River at the foot of the mountain.

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P1080233 - Copy P1080395 P1080397 P1080399On one of our last days in town we went to visit the UXO (Un-exploded Ordinance) Laos Visitors Centre, which is a government run organisation which trains specalist teams of Laotians (with international expert help) in bomb detection and destruction. This was our first taste of the horrors that have afflicted Laos for over thirty five years as a result of the “Secret War” that occurred parallel to the Vietnam war where over 270 million cluster bombs were dropped all over Laos of which approximately 30% failed to explode and remain in jungles, under farmland,  dirt roads, etc which are just waiting to explode. Laos, in fact, has the unenviable distinction for being the most bombed country (per capita) in the world with over 20,000 people killed or injured by the bombs, many of them children who are attracted by the colours or the potential to make money for their family by selling them for scrap. Terrifying stuff. 2015-07-22 13.16.12 2015-07-22 13.16.08

After nine days in Luang Prabang, we were almost part of the furniture at our hostel. When we first arrived we weren’t sure how someone could possibly spend two weeks here as on the surface there appeared to be not much there to do, however that is just the laid back way of the Lao people, relax and look around and there is definitely plenty to do. Next stop Phonsovan and the mystical Plain of Jars……..

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