Saturday, March 24, 2007

Laos -- Luang Prabang, March 5 &6, 2006

From Vientiane we flew north to Luang Prabang. Surrounded by mountains and nestled between the Mekong and Khan rivers, it was the capital of Laos until the Communist take over of the country in 1975. Designated as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1995, its colonial legacy, French influence, and Laotian tradition, have been woven into the fabric of a town that is a perfect reflection of the Lao culture. Luang Prabang is small, and just about everywhere worth checking out can be reached on foot.

"So pretty!" was our first reaction when driving into town from the airport. Seemingly frozen in time with its quiet beauty and tranquility, Luang Prabang is both relaxing and serene. The entire town is the epitome of "zen," no surprise since the town center is dominated by about 33 temples, home to nearly 1,000 monks and novices. They are so ubiquitous that it is nearly impossible to go anywhere without the sighting the familiar saffron robed devotees of Lord Buddah strolling or sitting by the temples.

Mornings begin very early in Luang Prabang, where locals are awakened by the bells and gongs from the temples, and a procession of monks and novices circuits the town to collect rice for the daily meal. The first gongs sounded at 4AM waking the normally somnambulent Hiroko . When they resumed their call at 6AM from the Wat Xiengthong, Hiroko was already standing on Sakkarine Rd. to witness the endless stream of saffron.

Hiroko's return and Rick's hunger motivated the early morning trip to the morning market by our guest house. By sunrise merchants had lined Manthatoulat Rd along the Mekong River, their intricately designed hand-loomed textile cloths spread before them filled with vegetables, fruits, chili, fish, and meat. There were numerous stands offering cooked food too. Flies were everywhere, particularly attracted to the meat and fish however, this seemed to bother no one... the merchants simply make a practice of waving their hands to keep them from alighting on the food. We were very tempted to try some of the delicious looking sandwiches or grilled chicken, but we had another mission in mind for our breakfast....kao soi noodles!

So we set off in the intense morning sun from the town center to visit a famous kao soi noodle place. It was about 30 to 40 minutes walk from our guest house, and even before 8AM, it was quite hot. The road leading out of town, although relatively empty, was still quite dusty and once outside of central Luang Prabang, there were only a few small guest houses along the way. We finally arrived at what we hoped was our destination, a shop where the tables were filled with people slurping away their faces buried in bowls of spicy noodles. There was no sign (which we wouldn't have been able to read anyway but this sight confirmed for us what we knew without asking....that we had reached our destination!

We sat and ordered "kao soi," but weren't certain that our server understood us. But a few minutes later, we were thrilled to see her arrive with two bowls of kao soi noodles and a plate full of local basil and bean sprouts. We squeezed the juice from the accompanying limes, added a copious quantity of basil and bean sprouts, and immediately began to eat the noodles before they cooked too long in the broth. The Thai version of Kao Soi has coconut milk in it, but the Lao variety instead uses a sort of local spicy miso-like paste similar to that used in pho, the Vietnamese beef noodle soup. It was so addictively spicy that our faces remained buried in our bowls until nothing remained.

After breakfast, and visit to a nearby wat, we picked up the sandwich at the market for a picnic lunch at Kuangsi Falls. These gorgeous waterfalls are about 16 miles (a one hour drive) from Luang Prabang. We hired a driver who adroitly navigated the dirt road to the waterfall. It was extremely hot, and the van's air conditioner hadn't worked in years. And, as badly as we wanted to open the windows, the "dust storm" kicked up on the dirt road was so severe that we didn't dare open the windows for fear of asphyxiation.

Having survived the sweltering drive, our joyful foray into the wooded area near the falls brought us face to face with several young tigers which were kept in
a fenced-in area. We were told that this was a sanctuary for tigers which are still illegally hunted. Following the signs to the waterfall, we came upon a clearing where the silky water of the river flowed into a beautiful turquoise pool. Too inviting to resist, we took off our shoes and waded in. The water was cool and refreshing and a welcome relief after the ordeal of our "sweat box" van experience. We just sat on the rock and luxuriated in the tropical paradise-like surroundings as the cooling effect of the pool reinvigorated us. Refreshed, we picked up the trail again and followed the stream uphill where in another clearing we encountered the majestic waterfall directly in front of us. We found a bench nearby and unpacked our lunch. As we sat there in the spray of the falls eating our freshly made sandwich we drank in the surrounding scene which was as idyllic as anything in our previous experience .

After returning to town, we strolled the streets, then climbed Phusi mountain to view panorama of the surrounding countryside from its peak. It was a breathtakingly beautiful view in the dusky haze of twilight. Sunset was near, so we strolled down by the Mekong River to enjoy the spectrum of blazing color as the sun seemingly dipped into the river.

Laos, as experienced in Vientiane and Luang Prabang, was our favorite country of all that we visited on our month-long trip to Southeast Asia. Because of its rural economy and lack of industrialization, it was the country that seemed most untouched and unspoiled. We loved its tranquility, warm, friendly people and of course, the amazing food!

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