From Vang Vieng I took the VIP Bus to Luang Prabang, the old royal capital of Laos. Although, I’m not so sure what was so VIP about it! The bus was old and dirty with faded curtains hanging over filthy windows. I didn’t feel particularly important. The journey to Luang Prabang takes most of a day, up steep mountains on winding narrow roads. It is an arduous and often harrowing trip, drivers in Laos are seemingly unaware of the brake pedal, but the views of the lush green forest mountains of Laos are breathtakingly beautiful and worth the journey.
Not long after we had left Vang Vieng I realised I had lost my camera. With a panicked sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach it dawned on me that I had either left it back at the guest house or at the little road side cafe before the Tuk Tuk picked me up to take me to the bus station. I didn’t know if I would ever see my camera again but I had to go back to Vang Vieng, I had to at least try to retrieve my camera or I would leave Laos and never know if I could have got it back again. I decided to stay a couple of nights in Luang Prabang and then make my way back to Vang Vieng, hopefully to retrieve my camera, before making my way to Bangkok and catch my flight back to England. I would miss my connecting flight from Luang Prabang to Bangkok that I had already booked and paid for, but I gave little thought to this as the adventure of this new plan spread out before me.
It was dark when the VIP bus finally trundled into Luang Prabang. I hopped onto one of the Tuk Tuk’s with some of my fellow bus travellers not having any particular goal, thinking that I would just book into any guest house on route. I booked a room at the Cold River guest house for only 50,000 Kip a night, a very good price. This was probably the most basic room I had stayed at in Laos. The communal showers were downstairs next to the toilet, the flush simply a bucket of water with a spade next to the toilet. A common practice found in the more rural areas of Laos. But I have had worse experiences with toilets, in Egypt you wipe yourself with your hand and then use the bucket of water. I think I prefered the Lao way! Businesses are run by families in Laos, usually in their own homes and the family at Cold River were welcoming and friendly with a busy kitchen that opened onto a sunny courtyard away from the main traffic, which was very pleasant.
Every evening the main street turns into a bustling night market. I walked up and down two lanes of charming hand-made crafts under bright red canopies. I spent two evenings haggling over the price of a beautiful hand stitched blanket that I had known immediately I would buy. Down a side street I piled a paper plate with sticky rice, vegetables and grilled chicken being cooked on market stalls along the street and sat down with crowds of Lao and other travellers enjoying the warm evening.
The next day I took a long walk around the town getting hopelessly lost. I found a pretty cafe for lunch and sat outside to write-up my notes while the cafe’s skinny white cat slept on my lap. In the afternoon a cheerful Lao guy picked me up from the guest house on his motorbike to take me to the elephant sanctuary. Riding on the backs of the huge Asian elephants is a popular excursion in Luang Prabang. The elephants are brought to a tall wooden stand so that you can climb onto the seat, which looks a bit like a park bench, on the back of the elephant. The young men at the sanctuary rode on the necks of the elephants with an easy care free manner as if they were Texans riding a horse.
The elephants meandered along a trail through the woods, crossing one busy road and stopping by a primary school so the children could wave and cheer behind a frail wire fence. The difference in safety standards in schools in England and Laos are staggering, but what’s more incredible is the lack of need for the kind of safety worries we have in this country. As we made our slow way back, and just as I was starting to relax and enjoy myself, my headstrong young elephant decided that it would be a good idea to walk between two trees where a Golden Orb spider web traversed just at the right height with my face. Of course I screamed and I am glad there are no pictures of my travels at this point!
The most important experience in Luang Prabang involves a very early start to watch the monks in orange robes take alms from the people. This is a significant cultural tradition in Laos and should not be on any tourist guide. This is one time I feel that it is best to stand back and watch the life around you rather than get involved. The communist party tried to deter the ritual giving of the alms as they perceived it as the monks begging instead of working for the common good, but the Lao have always taken great pride in their buddhist traditions and are a very stalwart people.
Although I have no photos of my time in Luang Prabang I did retrieve my camera. The owner of the cafe had mistakenly sent it to the wrong guest house. A man at this guest house that I had not even stayed at then immediately rode out on his motorcycle just to return my camera. I have found on my travels that it is the poorest of countries that hold the most honest of people. I was so happy to have my camera back that I gave the owner a big hug (which embarrassed him as the Lao find open expressions of affection uncomfortable) and a big tip in U.S dollors (which he did seem to appreciate).