This is a sort of travelogue, experiences and observations combined with random contemplations, of a trip through Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam in Jan-March 2011. This blog is now closed.
Sunday, 23 January 2011
Luang Prabang (2)
(note: this relates to the 19th of January, but lack of internet access prevented me from uploading this earlier)
Many of the attractions in Luang Prabang, including the majority of temples large and small, and a pretty building that used to be the Royal Palace and is now nothing less than the Luang Prabang national museum – not sure how that works, a national museum of a town -, are located on the small, narrow peninsula between the Mekong and a tributary, the Nam Khan. At the end of the peninsula is a small hill and a steep climb of the stairs leads to Phu Si, a Buddhist stupa and temple at the top. With fine weather, one would also have great views over the town and the Mekong from here, but when we got there, it was pretty hazy (or maybe the effort had clouded our view). A further path leads to an alleged footprint of the Buddha. I have so my doubts, starting with the size of the foot, but anyhow. Walking down on the other side, the main land so to speak, brings one to the oldest temple, Wat Wisunalat, almost 500 years old, and showing it. And that is all, really, not much more to do in town, apart from lazing around along the river bank, a pleasant enough activity… which was rudely disturbed by a swelling noise at around four in the afternoon, coming from all over town. As it turned out, every two weeks, for new moon and full moon, the monks at all the temples beat the drums, gongs and cymbals for about 20 minutes, and hard work it is!It also creates a very special atmosphere in town, not to be misses if one is around (except that, at 4 am, the drum banging was repeated, perhaps not as loud as in the afternoon, but enough to wake up).
(1) The front of the palace, with the royal shield: not quite a million elephants.
(2) a stupa at Wat Wisunalat, (3) and a window, wooden grills.
(4) Monk beating the drum for full moon, and
(5) a nice specimen it is, we actually considered making a offer,
to add it to our collection.
Outside town there are plenty other sights, the most popular one being the Pak Ou caves. Ou is the name of another tributary, Pak means mouth, so you can work out the rest. Rather than signing up for a tour we rented our own boat with driver, and set off leasurely one morning, upstream the Mekong, to the – indeed – mouth of the Ou river. Just outside Luang Prabang it is still very busy with river traffic, although seemingly mostly related to the tourist trade. We were not the only ones with a rented boat, yet from what was moored along the banks, on both sides, many more people could have done so today, from small canoe type with outboard engine to large, what would it be?, 40? 50? seaters with wooden sun roofs. All boats seem to head for the same spot, the caves, and all boat drivers try to minimize the effect from the current. It is a bit like Formula 1, everybody knows the ideal line, tries to stick to it as much as possible, and only diverts if overtaking. The associated exhaust fumes of this flotilla are also reminiscent of Formula 1, I guess.
(6) Some of the boats available on the Mekong.
It is about two hours to the caves, but one can break the journey by stopping off at the "whisky village". Right! The ultimate tourist trap. Ban Xang Hai apparently used to make jars, but they have now shifted to making whisky, or so goes the story. Perhaps "jar village" didn’t have the same pull as "whisky village". Well, we did find, all the way to the back, a primitive distilling set up, where strong smelling fluid did drip into large vessels and where bottles of rice whisky and rice wine were for sale, including special ones with vile-looking animals inside - snakes, crickets, and many other undefinable creatures, quite likely drunk and most certainly dead. But the rest of the village was totally dedicated to selling cloth, scarves, skirts, and what else you can weave. To be fair, so here and there they do sell the occasional bottle of local whisky, which, to be sure, is quite undrinkable even without animals inside. I believe strongly in comparitive advantage: for instance, why would The Netherlands produce wine, invariably mediocre and overpriced, if the French and the Italians, not to speak of many other countries with a much more suitable climate, do a much better job?. Something similar is at hand with Lao whisky.
(7) the only place we found "whisky" in the village, and
(8) attractively bottled they are!, (9) but most of the village is
dedicated to weaving.
On to the caves, then. This has been a spot where people have been offering Buddha sculptures for centuries, and most of them are still here (the sculptures, not the people). Sadly, especially in the upper cave many have been vandalised, and probably others have been stolen – people are the same all over the world – but the selection on display in the lower cave is quite impressive. And the trip to the cave, on the river and back again, is for us at least, equally if not even more enjoyable. The river becomes narrower, upstream, with plentiful menacing rock outcropping. The main channel is occasionally indicated with cement pilars, the height of which suggest strongly that the river could get a lot higher than it was today – and that these outcropping rocks could well disappear below the surface. Anybody’s guess what is just below the surface, right now! Apart from rocks, fish, for sure, and many people are involved in catching it, with traps and fixed fishing nets as well is with nets and rods from small canoes. The results we have been eating, of course, as part of the excellent Lao food available in Luang Prabang.
(10) A small selection of the Buddhas in the Pak Ou cave.
(11) Pillars indicate the main channel of the Mekong, and also suggest that the water level can get quite a lot higher in the rainy season, and you won’t see those rocks anymore.
(12) What looks like polution, plastic floating on the river, is in fact the floaters indicating the location of fishing traps and nets, whilst (13) others will try their luck from their canoe.
Also out of town, but in another direction, is the grave of Henri Mouhot, the French explorer who has been credited with bringing Ankhor Wat back under the attention of the Western world. Annoyingly, many guide books state that he "discovered" the place, a claim he himself is careful to avoid in his travel notes, posthumously published by his brother. Henri died in Luang Prabang, in 1861 if I am not mistaken, from what was then called jungle fever, likely malaria. He did not complete his intended loup from Thailand to Luang Prabang and then down the Mekong to Phnom Penh, another of his trips in the region after he had already explored parts of Northern Thailand, the Thai and Cambodian coast and, indeed, Ankhor Wat. How people in those days could get away with years of travel – Henri spent from 1859-1861 in the area – I don’t know, and he was certainly not the only one, "man of leisure and means", as I have seen them described. His is a beautiful book, unfortunately too heavy to carry in the humble travel library at the bottom of my backpack.