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.
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).
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.
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).
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!
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!
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).
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.
Then up to the That Chomsi temple at the top of the mountain:
On 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.
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……..