After the heat of Cambodia I decided that I lacked enthusiasm for a long bus ride up through the jungles of southern Laos so I opted instead for a flight from Siem Reap to Luang Prabang. Luang Prabang is one of the nicest cities in SE Asia, a combination of buddhist temples and French colonial architecture set on the Mekong river. As one can imagine it is also very touristy, but still not that busy. It also was deliciously cool in northern Laos – not cold mind you, but pleasant. This was the season for slash and burn agriculture so it was also very smoky.
I ended up spending about 10 days here and did a lot of painting. It was also a nice gastronomic change because in Laos they have great coffee and bread, thanks to the French history here. Visual highlights are the boats along the Mekong, Wat Xieng Thong and just the general ambience. I met a lot of terrific travelers here and interacted with many young monks.
Monks watching me paint. Luang Prabang, Laos
The monks are often teenagers who are only temporarily fulfilling family obligations, sometimes for a few years, but also often for just a few weeks. As teenage boys they are often not very monk-like, but smoking or ogling girls, or even poking fun at me as I painted! Mostly very nice and often well-educated, speaking english. English as a second language was much more common in Laos and Cambodia then in Thailand. This is probably because of the poverty here – many more NGO’s are here helping out and giving English lessons.
While there I stopped by the National Museum, which was the old palace for the Laotian royalty. Some very nice murals and mosaic work was in evidence. Especially interesting was some art conservators I met from Japan who were working with locals on the restoration of old wooden buddhas.
Restoring Wooden Buddha in Luang Prabang
A sad note is that a survey was made in Luang Prabang province about 10 years ago 0f these Buddha statues. And since then about 100 of the 1100 in the survey have disappeared. Plans were afoot to implant the remainder of them with microchips.
Panning for gold on the Nam Ou river, Laos
The Town of Luang Prabang is near the intersection of the Mekong and Nam Ou rivers. At some other travelers suggestion I took a 7 hour boat ride up the Nam Ou river to the town of Nong Khiaw. This was in a motor driven long-boat with about 10 seats that sat very high in the water. The water is low at this time of year so once we actually had to jump out and push. But the boat ride was extremely scenic with towering cliffs and fisherman at work for the whole trip. An unexpected bonus was watching locals pan for gold, which is something they do in the dry season when the rivers are low. Nong Khiaw is a well located town amidst beautiful surroundings, but very small.
Gorges on the Nam Ou river, Laos
After a few days I took another short boat ride up the Nam Ou to an even more beautiful town. Here I had a really great view of the river from my bungalow balcony. Not much to do here but I did a few paintings and there was a nice beach.
I met many nice people here and took a short boat ride up to a Weaving village with a Laotian man I met. We bought a few textiles and then a women who also accompanied us bought a live chicken for our dinner. The trip was a free tour but I had agreed to buy all the beer, and well, those Lao’s can drink.
Partying on the Nam Ou river, Laos
On the way back we ran into a few guys on boats, having a party in the middle of this stunning river with giant cliffs all around. They had a big bamboo log made into a bottle filled with Lao lao, which is the whiskey the locals make from rice. We tried a little and then were on our way back to the town where we had the chicken cooked by our friends sister. Tha night ended with a game of spin the chicken head, which is a drinking game . Whoever has the beak pointing at them has to do a shot. When the booze is gone the ” winner ” has to eat the Chicken Head ( luckily I lost).
I also took a tubing trip with some friends while there. It was a very slow float back to town after being taken by a boat upriver, but it was interspersed with this “Apocalypse Now” like moment when a party boat whizzed by blasting music and the Laotians dancing and clapping with the tropical backdrop. It was quite surreal on the otherwise isolated and quite river. We finished the trip with a campfire on the beach. The next day I needed a hammock day I was so tired. I even had my landlady deliver lunch for room service.
Laos is definitely the nicest part of this trip. You really felt that the locals were happy to see you. This was not a feeling I got often in other parts of my journey.