Friday, February 25, 2011

The Kingdom of Cambodia

We first saw Cambodia from a boat on the Mekong River, stepping ashore at their Customs and Immigration which already looked remarkably different from all we had seen in Vietnam and Laos: distinctive pagoda-style entry to the customs / immigration building complex and the Khmer people who are bigger and lighter-skinned than their Vietnamese neighbours.

We are still entranced by travelling a country by boat, so enjoying sitting back and watching the world and its changing vistas sweep past. The river and countryside on the Cambodian side of the Vietnam border was quieter than in its neighbouring country where our boat trips had revealed busy floating markets and fishing as well as incredible industry on the river including commercial scale dredging of sand from the river bed – a highly prized (and priced) commodity used for construction in this low lying, silty / muddy delta area. In Cambodia we saw far less river traffic, fewer farmers, almost no industry immediately apparent; however, the agriculture appeared to be more extensive large-farm business, very different from the market-garden type businesses we had seen lower down the river.

This changes as you approach Phnom Penh and turn from the Mekong onto one of its tributaries, the Tonle Sap River: most of the river traffic in this part is carrying dredged building sand.... and why more of these sand carriers do not sink is a mystery! In the photo, the one at the back (laden) used to have a waterline as the one in the foreground…. And yes, it is moving! They are fully laden to the extent that the decks are awash and they constantly pump out the water that is flooding in. We saw one that was so overloaded that a second boat had tied on alongside to help with pumping out water simply to keep it afloat!! Clearly there are incentives to arrive with plenty of cargo....

Phnom Penh

Our first sighting of Phnom Penh was the ornate pagoda roofing of the Royal Palace from the river: exotic and beautiful! PP is a relatively young city and very modern in appearance, with an extensive waterfront (Sisowath Quay) adorned with flags from almost every country, and lawns providing space for jogging and martial arts exercises in front of the restaurants, bars and hotels. A great place for watching the sunset over the Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda (Erik’s pic below).

Two days in this young city (1800’s) was spent walking the streets (apart from the main streets, little attention is paid to street names; they are all simply given numbers: even numbers run one way and odd numbers the other), and visiting markets and Buddhist Pagodas (Cambodian Wats / temples).

Cambodia is recovering from decades of warfare and violence, including carpet-bombing by the Americans during the Vietnam / American war and then four years of rule by Pol Pot and his genocidal Khmer Rouge in their brutal ‘restructuring’ of Cambodian society to make it more Maoist and peasant-oriented. Everyone knows the history, but a visit to the Choeung Ek Memorial (at one of the “Killing Fields” which are described as “… ad hoc places for execution and dumping grounds for dead bodies during the Khmer Rouge regime 1975-1979”); and Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (former S-21 prison) is sobering but, we felt, necessary to try to get a better understanding of what the people had endured.

We left PP on a north-bound bus for Siem Reap - a 350km journey; air-conditioned and sufficiently comfortable.... and costing only $6!!!! Generally the buses in SE Asia are very good…. not luxury but they work well, are clean, perfectly adequate seats (no, not reclining), comfortable for 6+ hours and very cheap. They always leave on time - but almost never arrive at the promised time!

The 6hour trip was fascinating: all homes are on stilts, with the space under the houses evidently shared by the animals (pigs, water buffalo, ducks, dogs….), children and adults as they eat, play, work or rest on their hammocks (blurry, taken-from-bus photo!). In this dry season the stilts appear unnecessary but Cambodia has, for half the year, the biggest fresh-water lake in SE Asia…. The Tonle Sap Lake. When the rains come the Mekong River pushes up into its Tonle Sap river tributary which then reverses direction and causes the lake to expand 10-fold. In a flat country the effect on the landscape and on the lives of the inhabitants is incredible.

Siem Reap and the Angkor Archaeological Park

Siem Reap, Angkor Wat, Banteay Srei…. For so much of my life I have savoured these exotic words in my head and tried to visualise what they represented. Well, it was all far bigger and more wondrous than my imagination could dare.

The millennium-old ruins of the Angkorian-era Khmer Empire, the Angkor Archaeological Park, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and described as the largest religious monument ever constructed. Angkor literally means “Capital City” or “Holy City” and now refers to the capital city (cities, actually) of the Khmer Empire (900 to 1300 AD) and also to the Empire itself. The Angkor dominance once extended over all of Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Kampuchea (Cambodia).

Obtaining a three-day pass, we went there by tuk-tuk: a wonderful way to see the transition from the busy Siem Reap town to rural sights amongst quiet villages and farming areas.

Entering the Angkor Park, we enjoyed avenues of trees surrounding large lakes, were surprised to see a few villages within the park itself, then exclaimed around each corner as we came upon many large and small ruins, all revealing something of ancient Khmer architecture, civilisation and art. We were taken aback by the huge expanse of land that is the Angkor Park (97 sq km), and the fact that this houses dozens of temples, mostly the remnants of a succession of Angkorian empires. At its peak, this area contained more than a million people and the Khmer kings built extensive waterworks and other infrastructure to service the temple structures.

A timeline of the Angkor area shows the successions of kings, dominance of religions (the shift from Hinduism to Shivaism, again Hinduism then Buddhism) and associated archaeological styles is useful; guidebooks help, as can guides; but much of the beauty of the place is in moving away from the throngs, finding a space and simply absorbing the magnitude and history of it all, trying to visualise the circumstances and people of the time and marvelling at the construction, architecture and artwork.

The sandstone and laterite crumbling stone reliefs, great towers, palaces, temples, passageways, magnificent carvings, jungle backgrounds, moats and high walls seen all around the park make this a fascinating and mysterious destination.

Angkor Wat (top photo; surrounded by a moat and high exterior wall) is legendary for its artistic and archaeological significance, with many of the walls covered with bas-reliefs and carvings depicting the story of the times, interwoven with legend;

the giant faces of Bayon (four carved faces on each of more than 30 towers, oriented towards the cardinal points) are spectacular, recognisable images;

at the Ta Prohm Temple enormous fig, banyan and silk-cotton trees have been allowed to encroach on the temple structure, giving it a creepy atmosphere (and providing the site of the movie Tomb Raider!). But there is incredible beauty and fascination in all of the sites… you need to give yourself time, wear a hat and lots of sunscreen, take litres of water, be patient outside the temple areas where a myriad vendors sell souvenirs and trinkets for a dollar, and – when you get “templed-out” – return to Siem Reap to recover for the next day’s trip!

Siem Reap is the town near the Angkor Park, and also a great place to visit for itself! The town is a cluster of villages that developed around individual pagodas, and these villages are now linked together. The colonial architecture, Old French Quarter and Old Market make it a fun place to hire a bicycle and roam the streets, stopping off for a cheap beer or coffee, or a massage (or even a fish-massage, see Rolf below...) for those aching limbs!

We found a great, cheap place to stay in the heart of the old town and at the entrance to the night market (at $15 per night our room was the most expensive in the place, but WE had private bathroom, hot shower and aircon! Hmm… this was, however, after two days of mishaps with accommodation…). The town, however, is bursting with tourists and offers an incredible range of hotels and guest houses, from very pricey to a dodgy $2 per night!

The range of bars and restaurants reflects tourist needs too, but we ate and drank wonderfully well, as usual. Generally throughout SE Asia our plates of food seldom went above $4 (Rolf once went big with a $6 main meal!) and we had some meals-with-drinks-for-4 that came to a princely $12 total. Generally "local is lekker" and we enjoy eating where and what the locals eat (above: a Cambodian BBQ at a food court… in front of their bar, clearly!), savouring the tastes and textures of local cuisine and coffee (strong... with a dash of condensed milk...) but occasionally the lure of the familiar (grilled meat, latte coffee) takes you to a westernised place where you pay the penalty (although that is never more than we would pay back in SA).
Siem Reap is a real tourist town, with its “Pub Street”, entertainers and vendors in abundance, but it is so easy to support the local vendors ($1 = 4000 riel, but dollars are used everywhere and the goods are extremely cheap), be entertained and enjoy the cheap pubs so a visit is memorable and repeat visits advised. The deep contrast of the light entertainment of the town with the exotic mystery of Angkor Park make for an irresistible destination.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Wonderful Vietnam travelling

Ok, fine, this is a long story! But Vietnam is a long, amazing, absorbing country and we could not do justice to our trip there without putting it all down for ourselves. Bear with us, read this (there are lots of photos to sweeten the pill...), then…. Go there on holiday!

Rolf and I came here to meet Erik and Diana after our trip to Laos (see previous blog….)


Oh my word.... what a shock!! From the peaceful city of Luang Prabang in Laos to the exceptionally busy, noisy streets of 1000-year-old Hanoi; from a city of about 100 000 to a city of about 8 million with its associated noise and traffic; from a city where the dominating colour was the orange of monks’ robes to one where the colour is the red and yellow of the thousands of flags and banners! The experience of Hanoi was almost unbelievable.

Hanoi is situated on the banks of the Red River but the river plays only a small role in the tourists' stay there. Much of the tourists’ enjoyment comes from the Old Town area, which is found to the north of Hoan Kiem Lake.
Old Town Hanoi has kept the original street layout and architecture: 36 streets, each one named according to the merchants specialising there.... hence Shoe Street, Jewellery Street, etc. A foray into old town is absolutely fascinating, revealing so much industry crammed into every available space… placed up against bare walls or squashed into exceptionally tiny stores of dilapidated structures or on the ground floor of beautiful (although often unkempt) classical Vietnamese and old French buildings; these are interspersed with occasional striking entrances to Chinese temples and alternate with a huge range of local eating houses and restaurants as well as several clubs and bars.
There is endless fascination in watching the local people going about their business, many of their old ways still very evident; classic pictures of tiny Vietnamese people in their conical hats abound, hawking their wares on bicycles or carried in two bamboo baskets at the ends of a pole over their shoulders (these are VERY heavy!)

But the first thing that hits you (well, hopefully not literally!) is the traffic. There are apparently about 6 million motorbikes in Hanoi. It is not clear whether there are any road traffic regulations at all: they (probably) drive on the right hand side of the road, as most people seem to do this, most of the time, but there is a catch: when the huge multi-lane streets are totally congested the motorbikes also drive on the pavements / sidewalks.. en masse! The only clear rule seems to be: "hoot". Hoot all the time, everywhere. Let them know you are there; tell them you have seen them; tell them you are coming / turning /stopping.... do it all by hooting. It is a cacophony. The traffic is frenetic, noisy, chaotic, lawless.... but it is also pragmatic and allows others to get where they need to go too. Of course, together with the scooters are the many cars, cyclos (rickshaw-type bicycles) and trucks as well as hawkers plying their trade from their bicycles or shoulders. The bicycle-hawkers could sometimes not be seen for the amount of product carried on their bikes; sometimes the product itself is the point of interest… like a huge pink pig, suitably trussed and lying horizontally across the pillion seat.
The rule for you, the pedestrian needing to cross the road? Tally ho! Walk. Do not look at the driver about to land on top of you as he will then believe you have seen him and that you will therefore give way for him. So walk and stride confidently forward.... they will make way for you. Well, with heart in mouth, that is just what we did. It is not easy or fun or a happy experience. And we must confess to more dodging than the above rule would imply was necessary, but we succeeded.... and were always grateful (and laughing… a touch of hysteria!?) when reaching the other side.

We need to talk about the weather, a topic generally to be avoided. Unless it is remarkable. Well, we forayed into our travelling areas armed with the knowledge that the winter average high/low in Hanoi was supposed to be 19/14 degrees Centigrade. Hence we equipped ourselves with essentially warm weather clothes for the areas further south and a stock of warmer layers for the colder north... brought-from-the-boat-in-the-tropics thermal underwear, beenie and gloves. Ha! Hanoi was beset by “a cold snap” so…. Irene bought several jackets and scarves; Rolf bought gloves and appropriated Irene's scarves, then bought his own scarf (very dapper, our skipper is becoming….). Erik and Di bought jackets, scarves, gloves, beenies.... Hanoi's warm-clothes sellers, both at shops and the mobile street hawkers like below, had a bonus year with the tourists (and the locals) in January 2011!
Thus cocooned, we thoroughly enjoyed our Hanoi experience of street-walking and cyclo-touring along with visits to the Temple of Literature and Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and Museum. Getting to grips with Vietnam’s history is challenging as only some parts are presented to you, depending where you are at the time. However, you come away with a sense of horror at what the populace has endured, an empathy with the Viet people and above all a deep respect and admiration for them now as being generally warm and friendly and not dwelling on the past. It is very evident, particularly in North Vietnam, how beloved Ho Chi Minh was, and still is, and his humanity and empathy with his people.
Not joining the hundreds of locals eating on tiny plastic chairs on the pavement around their small fires, squashed between the retail and the motorbikes, we ventured into smaller local café/ restaurants, an experience that is always interesting what with interpreting the menu (variations on a theme in the English translations always amusing, as also trying to understand WHAT the dish is) to deciding whether what was received actually reflects the order, to understanding the staff…. In one case, after a 30 minute wait, we were told in no uncertain terms that “there is problem, your food is not coming”; our puzzled expressions at this bit of news became even more puzzled as another staff member materialised behind the first, bearing beautifully plated food (...hope it was ours!)
Hanoi is a great place to visit, both for the huge sensory impact it offers and also as a base to set off for Sapa and to Halong Bay. So tourists get here and set about arranging trips to these destinations, often armed with the following bits of information:

1. Go to Sinh Café travel agent (we had heard this from others, and several Lonely Planet guides recommend it.)
2. Beware of being scammed by travel agents.
HA! Re point 1: There must be at least 50 Sinh Cafes travel agents in Hanoi, Old Town (tourist trawling route). There is a strategy amongst travel agents/tour offices and amongst restaurants in Hanoi: get the newest Lonely Planet / Frommers / Trip Advisor and see who they recommend. Immediately re-name your shop accordingly, and support this with a banner that proclaims “As recommended by …etc” or “This is the one GENUINELY recommended by….etc”. Refer to point 2 now… what chance do you have, really, in getting what you paid for!?
Happily, the hotel in which we were staying provided trip-arranging services and they never went wrong (although we were seldom given tickets, an alarming practice that caused some anxiety as we were dropped off in the dark at odd railway stations and found ourselves stumbling across the railway tracks wondering which ancient coach was ours and what sort of trip this next one was to be….!)


From Hanoi, we set off on a local overnight sleeper train for Sapa; booked a “soft-berth, four-sleeper”... and were delighted to actually get it, as tales of people finding themselves in the “6-berth, hard bed” option abound. In the latter, you sleep on woven steel slats about a foot below your neighbour; our “luxury” option had narrow mattresses and 2 fewer bunks… However, it is still a train in a 3rd world country, where the definition of luxury would surprise many. But surrounded by our carry-on snacks and Laos rice wine we were fortified for the fun experience of shared close accommodations and rocking Asian train toilet facilities, some eminently avoidable even when at a station…!
Sapa is a magnificent mountainous area far north, near the China border, where we (almost froze to death in the 2 degrees and yet) enjoyed treks to the villages of the local Hmong ethnic communities. Many of the beautiful views of this area were hidden from us due to the heavy fog (or "frogs" as our Hmong lady guide described it) but as we trekked lower down we were able to see the incredible terraced rice fields at the sides of mountains sometimes so steep that the rice paddies were merely 2m wide.
We loved being amongst the ethnic villagers in their traditional clothing (regular daily wear, not just for tourists, it seems), learning from them of their way of life and observing old farming practices (grain crushing with rotating stones and water-powered hammers), seeing their interaction with their animals, with water buffaloes as domestic pets (Irene somewhat surprised on a narrow path on a steep hill as she felt an unexpected nudge from behind… she decided to be prudent and give the buffalo right-of-way); we were delighted that we had hired the recommended gum boots from the hotel (although unsure why, at the time) and enjoyed the strength and support of the tiny Hmong guide-women as we slipped our way down the incredibly steep slopes in the mud (sheer drop-offs protected by side-rails? Don’t be ridiculous!) … they deserved every dong they earned from us when we bought some of their crafts as souvenirs!
Nonetheless, one still engages in the bargaining game, negotiating upwards from 50% of their original offer. We have proved to be very bad at this game, and the goods are so cheap anyway…. At US$1 to 20 000 Vietnam Dong (VND) however, your brain is always on the go making conversions. Strangely, Rolf and I convert everything to Thai Baht these days! Home?

Halong Bay

The Sapa stay was followed by (a sleeper train return to Hanoi then bus trip to Halong and) an overnight cruise on a junk-type boat in Halong Bay, in what the Vietnamese call the East Sea and we knew as the South China Sea.

What a beautiful area! Similar to the geography of Phang-Nga Bay in Thailand, Halong Bay has a greater density of giant sheer limestone rock islands jutting up out of the sea (the Thais would describe as “same same… but different”) … and much greater density of tourist traffic on overnight boats of many sorts: but no private yachts as Vietnam is not geared to handling that type of tourism.
Two great days were spent enjoying the natural spectacle from the junk and kayaks (Erik and Irene skillfully and gracefully steering their vessel above…) and we were taken on trips to spectacular caves and fascinating floating fishing villages.
Tiny but exceptionally strong local ladies are very skilled at poling tourists around in their basket-type boats … and getting us out of the mud when the tide was too low. We were delighted not to be skipper and crew of the junk when it also got stuck in the mud and enjoyed the very robust approach taken by the skippers with their boats!

Hoi An

Arriving late in this town we wandered mostly empty streets trying to find a bite to eat, ending up in a tiny-plastic-chair-on-pavement scenario. The classic Vietnamese dish of noodle soup (Pho, pronounced her with an F!) from a mobile stall that had disappeared in the morning warmed us and the next morning our first stop was retail…. a trip to the tailors. They did good business with our little party… but we came away happy too!
Hoi An: an old-world town, UNESCO World Heritage Site of quaint buildings mostly beautifully restored, this was an important port trading mostly with China and Japan, and the influences on the buildings can be seen, along with those of the French occupation too. This is a small town, fun to walk and cycle, with interesting nooks and crannies in its many winding roads and alleys and a range of opportunity to meander the streets and eat, view the history and shop.
A chartered longtail (motorised sampan) ride down the Thu Bon River showed us life on the river, with many fishing boats with their painted eyes (a Buddhist practice) and took us to wood carving and boat building villages.

Across Vietnam huge (and small) marble carvings are seen and many originate from the village at the base of the Marble Mountains near Hoi An which are the source of the stone. The mountains are interlaced with fascinating ancient caves, some of which are Buddhist sanctuaries and contain beautiful shrines.

Never judge by appearances: an old lady (wizened, bowed, skinny, with betel-stained red teeth) firmly took over and indicated that we needed a guide and she would be it, notwithstanding the fact that we had no language in common. She scampered ahead of us up all the steep paths within the caves, demonstrated procedure at the shrines… and proved a capable photographer, determinedly arranging our positions appropriately for both their and the site’s best display!

We left this central area of Vietnam on a train, to travel south to Ho Chi Minh City, a trip that gave us an afternoon of sight-seeing and a night’s accommodation. Again on the “luxury” option, this time it was even more grimy and subserviced and less “luxurious” than before, but at least we did have something which might be called mattresses, and there were only the four of us in our cabin. We were glad of the silk sleeping bags bought in Hanoi in preparation for just such circumstances. A young Dane next door, convinced that he had been scammed and that this could not possibly be the “soft-berth, four-sleeper” option he had paid for, was surprised to hear our assurances of the integrity of his tour agent.

What a wonderful way to travel! A fascinating countryside passed by our window: small villages or clusters of homes alternating with emerald-green patchwork paddy fields, farmers in long loose clothing and conical hats tending their fields, natural woods, rivers and canals. We enjoyed the enterprising cart that occasionally came around to sell beers and watched the plethora of hawkers at the sidings and stops as their only chance for business that day pulled in. We watched the backpackers and local train travellers hopping on and off at the stops… and were interested to see the “hot-bed” practice in operation, where the new passengers getting on the train are treated to the departing passengers’ bedding….

Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)

This city was visited primarily to see significant sites of Vietnam’s history, but we enjoyed our short stay here for observations of life on the Saigon River and streets too, and crossing roads proved only slightly easier than in Hanoi. Spot the pedestrians making their way away from the Ben Thanh Market on the pedestrian crossing below… spot the concern on the faces of the drivers…!
Trips to historical sites in Saigon were sobering, terribly sad, maddening and enlightening. The War Remnants Museum provides a thorough, albeit awfully graphic at times, presentation of the wars involving the French colonialists and subsequently the Americans (emphasising the atrocities of the latter although giving the side of the USA too... although not in this poster below). In fact it became clear that the news and ‘fact’ that had been routinely delivered to western listeners did little to reflect the role of the USA in and the complexities of the situation underlying the Vietnam / American conflict.
A trip to the Cu Chi Tunnels (at the southern end of the Ho Chi Minh trail) gives an amazing picture of the resolve of the Vietnamese in fighting their war. Irene and Erik, the least claustrophobic of the four of us, braved these tiny, pitch-black tunnels, crawling on our knees and finding it unimaginable that people could live their lives, hold meetings, hide ... and fight a war in here.

Journey on the Mekong River to Cambodia

At each stage still nervous of being scammed, we nevertheless set off on a trip from Saigon (HCM City) in Vietnam to Phnom Penh in Cambodia. Our trip involved a couple of hours by bus (which broke down after the first 30 minutes… a bad moment! However, this was fairly soon remedied and there were no further mishaps of this nature); then a river boat; then a stop at a river-side rice alcohol plant and then a floating fruit/vegetable market (item for sale tied at the top of a pole rigged on the boat); then another boat up a watercourse - which unfortunately had dried into an un-navigable mud channel due to some combination of tide and current; then onto bicycles when the boat could not proceed any further because of the mud; to another boat to an overnight floating hotel (quite the worst cesspit we have ever endured – own silk sleeping bags and sarongs essential to avoid infection and infestation!), which gave us wonderful dawn sights of life at this river-side village, Chau Doc.
Another river boat carried us to a river side border post between Vietnam and Cambodia after which we had our final boat ride to Phnom Penh and some forms of wheeled transport to our hotel…. All this instead of a 90 minute flight from Saigon to Phnom Penh: what a wonderful, enjoyable experience and great way to travel!

What is not to love about travelling in this country? It was a treat and privilege to have experienced some small part of Vietnam …. Now for Cambodia! (Blog to follow….)

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Laos - we love it!

Oh, wow, guys…. Just do yourselves a favour and get here! Green mountains, deep narrow valleys, threads of rivers at the base, a few roads appearing as tracks meandering seemingly without intent: this is the picture of northern/central Laos from the air, as far as the eye can see.

Our little turbo-prop plane with flower (frangipani) decoration had been waved an enthusiastic good-bye by a line-up of Laos Airlines ground-staff at Bangkok airport... did they know something about this flight? It appeared however that this little ceremony was merely an indication of the warm welcome we would receive from the Lao people. There are only about 6 million of these small, fine-boned and slim people and most of them live along the Mekong River. It is remarkable that these folk have retained their relaxed and friendly disposition despite years of French colonial occupation and then being the most bombed country in the world (in a war in which they did not participate) – thanks to USA carpet bombing to try to close the Ho Chi Minh Trail during the Vietnam / American war. (Interesting that in SE Asia the ‘Vietnam war’ is known as the ‘American war’).

Luang Prabang city, a UNESCO World Heritage site, appears to occupy the only relatively flat area in the region – at the confluence of the Nam Kong (the Mekong) and Nam Khan rivers. What a wonderful city to visit: this French colonial town developed around the 60+ Buddhist temples and monasteries which are all still active. So walking and cycling the streets reveals French provincial-style houses alongside typical SE Asia houses (ground floor of conventional brick and plaster and with upper floors of beautiful timber)... many of which have been converted to guest-houses... situated alongside Buddhist Wats. The three main streets are connected by narrow, cobbled, arcade-type alleys (all clean and safe) with interesting buildings, stalls and people around every turn.
With two river frontages and riverfront streets in the little town plus the maze of quaint cobbled lanes, the French legacy of restaurants providing endless beer, coffee and people watching is perfectly preserved, and diluted only by the proliferation of roadside stalls and massage shops. The local people move their Lao food and souvenir street stalls between open / street market locations... “So you will find me here in the morning, Madame, and there this evening”. The main street turns into a huge night market at 6pm daily: gaily lit, musicians playing, cheap food and wonderful fruit smoothies and a massive number of stalls selling a range of silks, silvers, wooden artefacts etc. We, of course, made full use of absolutely everything on offer… although doing only “window-shopping” at the markets: there is no space to store anything on a boat, so retail therapy, while never big in our lives, is definitely a thing for another life…

There are interesting sights around every corner: on the banks of the clear Nam Khan, local people tending their market gardens of vegetables for the market, children (and novice monks) and pets swimming; on the muddy Mekong the busy river traffic of ferries, tour boats and fishermen, with delightful pictures of goats / crates of beers / lounge chairs all carried on the roofs of the boats... all having a tough time trying to berth in a very strongly-flowing river!
Restaurants on stilts line the river banks – the local ones offering cheap local food and beer (often BeerLao at 2000 Kip where $1 = 8000 Kip … prounced keep) and the ones belonging to the fancy hotels ever ready to offer you western food, at a far greater price - all while watching the sun set over the mighty Mekong river.
Saunter around another corner and you may come upon the sight of many locals congregating at their local Wat to receive a blessings service, or prayer-time for a group of monks where tourists may sit quietly and enjoy the chanting… and the occasional sight of the young novices becoming distracted occasionally and behaving like…. well, youngsters the world over!

Many of the Buddhist temples in and around the town provide facility for the Buddhist practice of every male becoming a novice monk for a period of a couple of weeks to a few months at some time in their lives – generally during their teens or early twenties. This resulted in hundreds of these novice monks in their orange robes in town and provided interesting insights… On the one hand to see the youngsters in their orange robes playing in the river or mock fighting in the corridor…
… and on the other hand participating in the solemn daily ceremony of collecting alms - every morning at sunrise, hundreds of monks from the various monasteries walk through the streets collecting alms from kneeling locals (and tourists) comprising of sticky rice and bananas (and chocolates!) in a process of "making merit": if you give food to others in this life, you will not go hungry in your next life. This is a peaceful, quiet ceremony that, when over, is immediately replaced by busy streets of tuk-tuks, motorbikes, cyclists and pedestrians making the most of the relatively small area between the two rivers.
Luang Prabang has several natural and historical sites: renting a motorbike is the best way to get to them, and took us on meandering trips into the countryside (albeit on a dodgy bike on dodgy roads!). One such trip took us to caves with hundreds of donated Buddha images: Tam Ting (Pak Ou) Caves. Unfortunately restoration and maintenance of some historical sites comprises covering the walls with whitewash, a jarring sight in natural caves, and many of the Heritage Sites are uncared for and dirty. In some of the Wats in Laos there appears to be little maintenance, and restoration appears to have stopped (which is a good thing in some cases as often the restoration attempts are crude and obvious and detract largely from the Wat itself. However, general dusting and cleaning would be good as some do not receive even this basic care.)

On our way back from the caves, we came upon a local rice-wine producing village and so invested in two bottles for future consumption, avoiding the wines with hooded cobras or scorpions in them. Apparently the snakes are bottled without being milked of their poison, but after 6 months it is safe to drink, the toxin presumably having been denatured by the alcohol (and having formed a product necessary for ones general potency, we assume!?)
This day also brought us upon a Chinese Buddhist temple the Santi Cheidy (Peace Pagoda), built in 1988, which, below the row of lovely paintings of a life of prayer and good work, has the most extraordinary paintings of violent and usually bloody deaths: a hint of hell?
Our time in Luang Prabang was really wonderful and we could have spent much longer here than the 5 days we had allocated! We are determined to return to this extraordinarily lovely place and extend our visit to adventure activities near Vang Vieng and also in the capital, Vientiane. But we had to leave…. we had a date with Erik and Diana in Hanoi, Vietnam! Those fun ‘n games stories are in the next blog….