January, 2013

Can a place be better if it's harder to get to?  Even if it isn't too remote and your cel phone still works?

Witness accessible Bali with 3 million tourists in 2012 or the up and coming Sri Lanka hitting 1 million tourists this past Christmas, only 5 years after a devastating 25 year war and an equally deadly tsunami; two in fact.  Some days it seems Bali is just a dumping ground for trash with crumbling infrastructure and beaches like Seminyak that are rumored to have 20 dump trucks just to pick up the garbage the tides bring in every morning.  Sri Lanka has become an expat land rush and Thailand, well, it's 30% more for everything; although everyplace else is trying to catch up fast.

It seems to us the story of South Asia travel destinations is too much or not enough. Too many people, too much garbage, too many hotels, too many scooters and too many clubs like Double Six in Bali that holds 5,000 drunks at a time.  Or, not enough, not enough urban planning or decent infrastructure or things of interest past the pool bar.

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There is a better place.  It's called Luang Prabang which means ‘Royal Buddha’.  It is a little remote and the only landlocked country in South Asia.  You can still get there in half a day from Singapore via Bangkok or Hanoi or Vientiane.  It is spotlessly clean; no garbage on the streets, no rabid dogs hanging around.  It is lovely and cool in our winter with temperatures in the low 80's and down to the low 70's at night.  It is quiet; minimal scooter traffic and, in fact, not much traffic at all if you don’t count the elephants.  The food is wonderful with dozens of charming restaurants to choose from and the kind of bars that come with a guy playing guitar off in the corner.

Ho Chi Ming Trail 

It has culture, history, temples, monks galore and sits on one of the great rivers of the world.  There is a lively night market that takes over the main street 7 days a week with handmade silks and embroidered cottons, lovely woodwork from ebony and teak, and hand made silver dangly things of every description.  

It has a 7 star hotel, many 5 stars, lots of 4's and 3's, as well as, guesthouses and even a few villas.  It sits on a promontory where the mighty Mekong River and the meandering Nam Khan River meet giving it the unique perspective of having two waterfronts separated by about three short city blocks.

Where (you might say) the Hell is that?  It is in central Laos, 400 KM's north of the capital Vientiane and less than a two hour flight from Bangkok on one side or Hanoi on the other.   It has  been known for war and hardship; given it is most famous for hosting the Ho Chi Minh Trail; the jungle track that brought arms, supplies and troops for the Viet Cong fighting in South Vietnam.  It is also the most heavily bombed and deforested country in the world, thanks to nearly a decade of B52 raids that rained 2.5 million tons of bombs down on it for 9 straight years.  That is a planeload of bombs, every 8 minutes, 24 hours a day for 9 years.  More than was dropped on Europe and Japan combined in World War 2.

And, that masterful effort accomplished absolutely nothing except leaving an agricultural society with one third of the country covered in unexploded ordnance, including 75 million live cluster bombs, of which barely 1% has been cleared.  I'm sure the brains at the time in Washington thought you needed to break a few eggs to make an omelette. The wisdom of that is always lost on the eggs. 

But, there are no bombs evident in Luang Prabang, a few bongs maybe as that sweet aroma wafted through the streets a few times. Very chill this place.


Our friends from New York, Joanne and Bruce, were just starting their South Asian tour and their only stop more than two nights was Luang Prabang.  I doubt we would have made it there without that impetus.  Luang Prabang was well down our bucket list, actually not even on it.

The flight in from Bangkok is uneventful.  Once you enter Laos there is just green below and then you see the milky Mekong and the odd promontory of Luang Prabang.  Odd because it sits in between the Nam Khan river, which is more a twisting stream, where it meets the hundred yard wide Mekong.  This is a big river, the 12th longest in the world.  It starts on the Tibetan Plateau and flows into China, through Myanmar, Laos, Thailand and finally Vietnam where it empties into the South China Sea.  The tiny airport is nondescript with the usual South Asian signage indicating a grand new airport is to be built, someday.

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We are to be staying at the AMANTAKA, one of the fabulous Aman resorts peppered throughout Asia.  A brilliant concept hotelier, Aman more often than not finds a stunning piece of real estate (in this case the former provincial hospital), completely restores it  and turns it into a 7 star hotel. 

We have stayed at several Aman’s, most recently the AMANGALLA in Sri Lanka which is still pretty much the nicest 250 year old restored officers barracks you will ever see.  Our room (upgraded to a pool suite thank you) is next to Joanne and Bruce's and is just about perfect.  Spacious, high ceilings, shining teak floors, stunning coffee table books, our own Buddhist prayer shawls and a perfect backyard patio with a heated pool.  

Given Joanne and Bruce have driven 7 hours to get here, we choose the offered BBQ buffet dinner by the main pool with Laotian dance and storytelling.  It's fine.  Seems a shame to keep these perfect looking little children up so late to dance for us and, I'm sorry, if not for the cute kids it would all be a little lame.  Food OK, wine very nice and to bed.  Next decision, do we get up to feed the monks?

Monk’s Tak Bat 

Luang Prabang was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1995.  Prior to that it was a pretty quiet existence for the locals, despite there being over 80 Buddhist temples in town. Unesco status brought backpackers and then the more well heeled appeared leading to the opening of the AMANTAKA in 2009.  Now there are 50,000 people here and in that number, 1,000 monks.  

They have a ritual that is charming but threatened at the same time.  The ritual is TAK BAT.  The daily ceremony of giving alms.  Every morning at 5:30AM, 1,000 monks wearing matching orange robes line up single file in order of age and height to accept alms of sticky rice and bananas from locals and tourists.  They are in meditation and silent, broken only by the incredibly rude tourist habit of popping camera flash's in their faces. The monks never speak.  They are not to be touched.  There is no eye contact and you are requested to sit below the level of the monk's heads.  Your hotel will prepare the rice packets for you or locals will give you some that they have prepared.  With the influx of tourists, there is often too much food and you can see the monks dipping into their overflowing bowls to give their excess food to scruffy looking children who seem to need it.  There has been talk of ending the ritual or modifying it greatly due to the tourist irreverence.  Let's hope not.

Our first full day is slow.  We sleep through our morning temple walk and Joanne & Bruce are out on their prearranged tour.  Breakfast is Fer, much like the Vietnamese Pho, with strong Laotian coffee and fresh squeezed mandarin orange juice.  We walk out of the lovely Aman (and unlike almost any other Asian destination there are no gates and no armed security) and we are on the main street in minutes.  Street vendors have their sidewalk offerings out, little hibachis are grilling things on sticks but it is still quiet, pleasantly so.  We cruise the street knowing that in a few hours, at 5:30PM, the night market will begin. 

Mekong Tour 

It is an easy walking town. Little shops galore with narrow lane ways on your right and left.  Cafes and coffee shops, French/Laotian restaurants and some lovely stores selling locally made goods. Standouts were 'Caruso Lao' (www.carusolao.com) for carved ebony bowls, silks and silver and 'Anakha' in an old French colonial house for linen shirts and pants, silks, bags and jewelry.  Then, at 5:30PM the main street transforms into the night market.  Blocks long, there are hundreds of stalls selling silk scarves, Hmong blankets, embroidered children's clothes and toys, wood carving, silver bracelets and the ubiquitous t-shirts to remind you of all the Lao beer you drank at $2.00 bucks a quart.  Very colorful and easy to bargain.  

We timed our evening market walk to arrive at 'The Three Nagas' for dinner on their terrace. Located in three UNESCO world Heritage buildings dating back to the turn of the century, we ate lovely banana leaf wrapped fish while enjoying perfectly chilled French Pinot Gris and then took a Tuk Tuk home through the quiet streets.  Lovely.

 Ellen with Phait

Ellen with Phait

The next morning, time for some touring and culture.  The hotel invited us to tour the Mekong upriver and were driven to the docks to the Aman's own long boat.  We negotiate some steep steps to the landing, clamber over a few boats and find the Aman's own long boat.  While it looks the same as all of them from the outside, it is not. 

Our boats interior is polished teak with a white elevated sofa platform and cushions; behind that is an intimate dining table and a cute little bathroom.  Tea and scones are served and we cast off now realizing we are the only guests aboard and have our cheery guide Phait all to ourselves.  

The Mekong is about 100 yards wide at this point but you can see the high water marks almost 20  feet higher on the banks when it is in flood.  First thing we see is a string of thatch huts on the opposite bank.  Bars we are told.  About six little beach shacks 100 yards apart where the locals hang out for cheap Lao beer.

Whiskey Village

Then, Phait tells us we are stoping at the 'Lao Whiskey Village' of Ban Xang Hai.  I have visions of small copper stills and charred oak barrels but that is quickly dashed.  We find an ancient 45 gallon oil drum, wood fired with a rice wine fermentation bubbling away while a hand made condenser slow drips a clear liquid into a clay pot.  We are offered a shot.  Yikes!  It's hooch, white lightening!  And, for a dollar more you can have your bottle with a pickled baby cobra in it. 

As we move through the village we find all the same stuff that is sold at the night market because this is where the night market people buy it.  So, the lovely silk scarves and prayer shawls we viciously bargained for last night to get from $10 dollars down to $7 are just $4 here and, if you are indecently cheap; you can get them down to $3.  We stock up, then depart and continue up the river against the current even riding some light rapids and avoiding under water rocks marked by old tethered vegetable oil bottles or bits of cloth on a stick. 

We pass the territorial prison where the population is dominated by opium growers and drug smugglers.  We are in the infamous Golden Triangle after all.  We pass a group panning for gold that has come down river from the slopes of the Tibetan Plateau, another loading sand into flat sampans for construction and all kinds of fish farms and riverside vegetable gardens.

The peace is broken every few minutes by crazy long tailed speed boats flashing past at incredible speeds given the rocks and rapids.  

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Finally, after two hours, we reach our destination.  The Pak Ou caves have been a Buddhist shrine for well over 1,000 years.  There are two, an upper and lower cave and from the river they just look like a jagged hole in a rock wall.  Inside there are 4,000 small Buddha statues in clay, or wood, or brass left as offerings over the years.  The older ones are crumbling back to dust and, despite the warnings not to touch anything, the Chinese tourists have no issue picking them up or even slipping one in their bag.  Tourists, sometimes it's embarrassing just to be one of them.

The trip back to Luang Prabang is at a much better pace as we are now running with the current.  And, it makes the speedboats even more scary.  You can take an open, 16 foot,  long tail speedboat from Luang Prabang to the Thai border in 4-6 hours, depending on the water level, at speeds up to 80 KM's an hour.  In a boat like ours, it takes two days.  You are given some sort of football helmet and a life jacket but, both would be useless if you hit one of the thousands of rocks that lie just beneath the surface.  It seems to be a backpackers right of passage as we only saw kids with a death grip on the side rails as they flew by.  That might be because they are powered by hydrogen canisters, 8 for one trip, that are stacked between their legs.  Ice cold beers and snacks were served on our lovely Aman boat on the way home.  We much preferred that.

Having started in the morning before 9, we are all done and home in the Amantaka by 1:00 pm.  It is suggested we go to 'Tamarind' for lunch on the Nam Khan River side.  It is French/Laotian, charming and so cheap.  I have grilled pork skewers wrapped in fragrant lemongrass while Ellen has stir fried frogs legs with Lao sticky rice and with two quarts of Lao beer; $15.00 USD.

And then, it is our last night and final dinner with Joanne and Bruce as they move on to Myanmar the next day.  We choose 'L'Elephant' as it is recommended and enjoy another terrific French meal with a crisp, chilled Rose from Provence.  You really have to wonder where you are at some moments as this is far more sophisticated than you would ever suspect.  It's been a long day and we make our move to find a Tuk Tuk when, as if by serendipity, the Aman’s own Tuk Tuk pulls up in front of us. This one is special; painted a soft creamy green color with tan leather seats, polished teak and a handy wicker basket attached to the back.  We cruise home in style. I want one.

Years ago we wrote about Siem Reap in Cambodia (another UNESCO site) and how you should visit right away before the world descended on it and it lost all its charm.  Luang Prabang is surely the next destination like that.  Don't all come at once.

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