Thursday, 6 February 2014

Finishing on a High - Nong Khiaw to Luang Prabang

We left Phonsavan early, following a much needed and very large breakfast. Continuing our plan of using more minor roads, the route for the day was to be the road 1C. It turned out to be a fabulous choice. The road snaked through the mountains in a series of seemingly endless twists and turns. It was startlingly narrow, which made meeting anything larger than a motorbike a bit of a thrill. Progress was slow, as there was definitely room for improvement regarding the condition of the asphalt. Cruising around a blind bend to find that the super smooth tarmac had suddenly dissolved into deep dust or soft gravel presented a bit of a challenge, but it was still immense fun.

Our route also took us through some of the friendliest villages imaginable. Children seem to love the big bike, and whenever we passed through a settlement we would be assailed with giddy waves and excitable shrieks. I waved back as enthusiastically as was possible without causing a crash, which seemed to be appreciated. Whilst concentrating on not running over any children, we were almost the end of several chickens. They seemed to be positively suicidal in this region, frequently running into the road in a blind panic, almost always aiming for our front wheel. Thankfully, they all survived our passing unscathed.

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On an exciting / alarming note (depending on your point of view), we also started to notice some large posters dotted along the roadside. These happily announced that the area was 'Proud to have Tigers', and were frequent enough to make us wonder just how many might be lurking in the bushes. Sadly, a little research has informed us that the numbers of these beautiful animals are startlingly low. Up to 1200 Indochinese tigers roamed the forests of Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam as recently as 1998. Due to a mixture of poaching and irresponsible development, their numbers have now dwindled down to a mere 350 individuals, with only 30 of those thought to reside in Laos itself. The Greater Mekong Region remains the largest wild tiger habitat on earth, so protecting it is vital to the survival of the species.

Somewhat predictably, we arrived in Nong Khiaw without sighting one of the beasts. The road conditions had meant that it was slow going, and we made it to town as the last of the light was slipping from the sky. Not in the mood for accommodation searching in the dark, we agreed to stay at the first place we asked, and ended up in a pleasant enough bungalow close to the river. This of course had a set of rules pinned up on the wall of the room. Interestingly it seemed to have been issued by the police, and one bullet point clearly stated that it was forbidden to use the premises to film pornographic movies. This begged the question as to whether this has happened before in Nong Khiaw. One to ponder I guess.

Whilst bungalows are nice to look at and all, one thing they do fall rather short on is soundproofing.  It was this shortcoming that led to Oli and I not achieving a good sleep, despite having taken the precaution of using ear plugs. At one a.m. we were treated to what would best be described as a kind of cat duet, with two individuals yowling their hearts out. They kept this up for an impressive amount of time before giving up, at which point several cockerels decided to take up the mantle on their behalf. Everything eventually zipped it at around six a.m., but it was a patchy night's sleep at best. This made our decision for us, and the next morning, we were moving out.

Sleep quality aside, this turned out to be a fabulous choice. We quickly found another guest house, 20,000 kip cheaper a night, with the bonus of free tea, coffee and water, plus the most adorable and random design for bedsheets that we have been treated to so far (see photo below). As if this wasn't awesome enough, our move also led us to run into several other overlanders. It has been rare for us to run into other overlanding motorbikers by chance, so meeting three others (two German, one American) in a small town in Laos was wholly welcome, but definitely unexpected. We chatted and compared routes for a while, and Oli and the guys wasted no time in getting all the bikes lined up to take pictures.

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After the excitement of the morning, we were in the mood for an easy day. Nong Khiaw is a quiet village, receiving a steady trickle rather than a flood of tourists. Aside from its relaxed atmosphere, its main draw is its absolutely stunning natural setting. The combination of the turquoise Nam Ou river and towering limestone mountains is a winning one, and we simply could not get enough of it. Quickly resolving to stay a good few days, we thought we had better get on with checking out the local cafes.

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We spent the day drinking coffee and doing some limited exploring (best not to overstretch ourselves), before ending up on the bridge to watch the sunset. Whilst there, we ran into Frank and Uli, the German bikers from earlier. They were both great guys with lots of interesting stories and good advice, so a chat quickly turned into a beer, which in turn led to dinner and considerably more beer. We were out late by Laos standards (11 p.m.), and when we walked back across the bridge to our guest house pretty much everywhere was dark and shuttered. In the ensuing quiet we could hear a chorus of frogs from the river below, which was a rather nice finish to a very enjoyable evening.

Our original plan for the next day was to walk up the hill to the Nong Khiaw viewing point. However, it became apparent that I had managed to turn my ankle over on a rock the previous evening. Whilst it hadn't hurt at all at the time, in the morning it was decidedly tender. Thankfully it would ease during the day, but we happily resigned ourselves to another relaxed day.

As it was feeling a lot better by the evening, we decided to take a little stroll around the village and surrounding area. The scenery really was incredible, one of those places where to gaze at the horizon in any direction is to be captivated. After wandering up and down a dusty but picturesque lane, we found ourselves back at the bridge in time for the sunset. We found a steep little path down to the water's edge and took in the view. Sunsets, we reflected, really are difficult to get sick of.

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We awoke the next day delighted to find that my ankle was now fine. Unfortunately the beers of two days before must have weakened my defences, and the sore ankle had been replaced by a cold. Determined not to be defeated, I resolved we would be walking up that hill regardless. However, we were pleasantly delayed by meeting another English couple at our guesthouse. Darryl and Christine were lovely people, easy to chat to and full of interesting stories. The time flew by, and suddenly it was early afternoon.

Thinking we had better at least try to make it up the hill, Oli and I set off on our way. Foolishly we had skipped lunch, and as we laboured up the steep slope it started to become clear that the lack of food combined with my cold was not good. Admittedly I am not at my fittest these days, but even so, I can usually climb a steep hill without getting close to passing out. Noticing that I was not doing well, Oli persuaded me to abandon. On reflection, this was definitely the right decision. We rested for the remainder of the afternoon before enjoying a substantial dinner with Darryl and Christine, which was inarguably preferable to passing out at the top of a hill.

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A rest and a good sleep had done me a world of good, and thankfully my sniffle had not taken hold. We were prepared for a difficult drive to Luang Prabang as we had heard the road might be bad, but our fears proved to be unfounded. We made it in ridiculously good time, and commenced looking for somewhere to stay. Our strategy of arriving early paid off, and we found a cheap place at half the average asking price for a room in this part of town. Unknown to us, this weekend happened to be Chinese New Year. Luang Prabang is within relatively easy reach of the Chinese border, so appears to be a popular destination. The steady trickle of backpackers being turned away at our (now full) guesthouse over the past few days has made us realise that we were fortunate indeed.

Luang Prabang was once the capital of Laos, and is still considered by many to remain its spiritual centre. It is a UNESCO world heritage site, which has ensured that the historic old town has been spared any unsympathetic development. The result is a classy, tasteful, but slightly sterile place. As well as the ubiquitous backpacker market, Luang Prabang also draws in more moneyed tourists. It is by no means unpleasant, but certainly takes some getting used to when compared to the rest of Laos.

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We spent our first full day in the city exploring the streets, sampling some of the excellent food on offer, and doing a little sight seeing. Luang Prabang has a very high concentration of temples in relation to its modest size, each one with its own unique features and subtleties. The number of temples was once even higher, with over sixty temples in the town. Unfortunately, many were destroyed in raids by the Black Flag wing of the Chinese army in 1887. Now there are just over 30, housing more than 1000 monks between them. Understandably the temples remain a major draw for tourists, as they are beautiful spaces to explore.

Sadly however, there is a darker side to all the attention. A lack of awareness means that many tourists lose sight of the fact that the temples remain working religious places, and do not behave or dress appropriately. This is particularly manifest in relation to the alms giving ceremony, which occurs daily in the early hours. This is primarily for local and religious people to provide the monks with gifts of food, but has uncomfortably become a tourist attraction. Unscrupulous food sellers have been known to sell poor quality fare to tourists, which in turn makes the monks themselves ill. We have read that many of the monks are unhappy with the way the ceremony is now being treated, but are continuing under government pressure due to the tourist dollar. We cannot verify this for sure, but decided to stay well away from the alms giving as a result. 

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The more time we spent in Luang Prabang, the more it grew on us. Whilst it had been a shock to the system when we first arrived, we quickly started to enjoy its pretty streets and easy charm. We spent a lot of time just aimlessly wandering, taking in the plethora of subtle details.We're not usually too good at getting around to sightseeing, but after the beauty of the temples from the previous day were keen to give touristing more of a chance.

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First up on our (admittedly unambitious) schedule was to see the former Royal Palace, which is now a museum. Now a republic, Laos actually had a monarchy until 1975. The palace itself is a relatively modern one, being completed only in 1909 and renovated and extended since then. The museum set within its walls was full of interesting and diverting objects. We were pleasantly surprised to find amongst these a collection of gifts from other nations. We had certainly not expected to find a photograph of Ho Chi Minh dancing with the King of Laos in the same room as a fragment of the moon gifted by Richard Nixon, but appreciated it all the same.

Although the palace was a fairly modern building, the Lao Royal family were evidently as fond of luxury as any other monarchy. The main rooms were ornately decorated, and both the walls and the contents of the rooms appeared to make extravagant use of gold leaf. Sadly no photographs were permitted, but it was a beautiful space, and unexpectedly lavish given the relatively plain and austere exterior of the building. The grounds also hosted an ornate and glittering temple, which we found difficult to stop admiring.

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Our other sightseeing destination for the day was Mount Phou Si, really more of a hill than a mountain. At the top of a long series of stairs lies a tiny Wat, Tham Phou Si, and it was a decent but easily manageable climb up the steep, wooded hill. It was Chinese New Year's Day, so it was relatively busy with other visitors, but still managed to hold on to a decidedly peaceful atmosphere. The real treat however was the view from the peak. From here, it was possible to see for miles in several directions, which was ample reward for our climb.

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As this weekend happened to be our first wedding anniversary, we decided that it would be fitting to treat ourselves. We kicked off the celebrations that evening with a beer on the river front, followed by a delicious meal out. The restaurant we picked, Tamarind, was brilliant and offered incredible food quality at ridiculously fair prices. The fare was proudly Lao, albeit on the gourmet end of the scale. It was a wonderful meal, and we would wholly recommend this restaurant should anyone happen to find themselves visiting Laos.

We continued much in the same vein the next day, eating and drinking our way through town. This is of course what we do best. Having thought Luang Prabang a little artificial and sterile when we first arrived, it had slowly grown on us and our opinions had certainly changed for the better. It is a very easy place to while away a few days, doing nothing more ambitious than drinking coffee and people watching. Furthermore the sunsets over the river were atmospheric and beautiful, especially when complimented by gently rising mist. Although it is obviously popular with tourists, it remains decidedly relaxed and easy going. This is to be our final major stop in Laos, and definitely feels like finishing on a high. 

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P.S. This post is a few days late due to having had shoddy / no Internet connectivity, and we are now in Thailand. Next post coming soon!

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