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Lost in Luang Prabang

Navigational failures don't mar visit to amazing temples

sunny 94 °F

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When I was researching Laos, Luang Prabang was praised universally by the guidebooks. The medieval capital of Laos, it is home to dozens and dozens of wats, or Buddhist temples. A highlight of my three days would undoubtedly be experiencing them, and marveling at the gorgeous ornamentation. My flight from Singapore to here utilized two budget Asian carriers -- NokScoot and AirAsia. There was a pretty long layover in Bangkok, but the flights went smoothly,,and my hotel's van was waiting once I'd cleared immigration. The guidebooks kind of let me down on this, I should have brought a passport-sized photo and found the paperwork for a visa on arrival to clear even quicker.

My Dream Boutique is located across the river from downtown Luang Prabang, and is an oasis of quiet. The staff is incredibly gracious and accommodating, and always greet you with a smile and "Sabadee" (Lao greeting). It was early evening when I arrived, so after unpacking, I decided to have dinner at the hotel. The hotel got rave reviews on hotels.com, and they praised the food, as well. One drawback of tropical, outdoor dining, though, are the mosquitos. They started to chew me up pretty good, and I was thankful for the double protection of the sealed, air conditioned room and graceful mosquito netting surrounding my bed. As it turned out, that was the only bad experience with mosquitos in Luang Prabang.

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After dinner, I decided to walk into town and find the Night Market, which was supposed to be spectacular. I didn't take the map the hotel gave me, preferring to depend on my Smartphone's map feature. The fastest way into town is across the bamboo bridge, about ten minutes walk away. Somehow, I found the stairs leading down to it in the humid, inky blackness of the night. The bridge is not quite an Indiana Jones rope bridge, but it only about one step up. It was a thrill to walk across it, hearing the river chattering just a few feet below you. During the daytime, a Lao family collects a small toll to help with its upkeep. Once on the other side, and after climbing the stairs to the street, I pulled out my phone to get my bearings. Oops. I had yet to buy a Lao SIM card, so once I'd left my hotel's wifi, the maps feature was useless.

I made a right turn, walking along the main road alongside the river. Unwittingly, I was going the long, long way. Luang Prabang is built on a peninsula created by the Mekong River and a tributary. I crossed about halfway up the peninsula, and my right turn set me on a looping course to the far end of the peninsula and back down the other side. Eventually, I realized my error, all the while marveling how much bigger this town appeared than on the map. It wasn't to be my first -- or worst -- navigational error in Luang Prabang, though. After cutting off the river road towards what looked like the center of town, I eventually found the Night Market. The gorgeous fabrics, carvings, jewelry, lamps, and other souvenirs were spread out on tarps beneath temporary cloth awnings. Each evening, vendors stake out a spot along the main road, next to the National Palace Museum. The market has essentially two rows, and stretches for about about a quarter of a mile. This would be just a scouting mission. I'd come back to shop another evening.

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After breakfast the next morning, I took the alternate way into town. This railroad, scooter, and bicycle bridge also has a separate section for pedestrians. Beneath me, the river ran a muddy brown, with the long thin boats of fishermen poling across its surface. A short walk brought me to Wat Visoun, the first temple on my list to visit. Built in the 1500s, it is the town's oldest. Inside, centuries old Buddhas lined the walls. Signs explained what each of the poses means in Buddhist myths, from the "praying for rain" to the "stop fighting" aspects. The main Buddha image was golden, and at least 20 feet high. An altar of smaller Buddhas and offerings lay at its crossed legs. Facing the temple was what is known as the watermelon stupa (for the shape of its top portion), a solid brick structure covered in weathered, gray stone facing. A stupa differs from a temple in that it is usually solid, with no inside, and contains a relic of the Buddha. They are usually bell-shaped, tapering to a point at the top. I was surprised to have to pay a fee to enter, as the temples in Singapore that I'd visited were all free. This would prove to be standard for Luang Prabang. Virtually every Wat charges a small admission fee, usually 20,000 kip (just under $3).

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Adjacent to Wat Visoun was Wat Aham. It's whitewashed exterior is guarded by two crouching Buddhist deities, one green faced, the other red. Both leered colorfully at visitors. Inside, it was the opposite of Wat Visoun's dusty, somber feel. The walls of this temple were brightly painted with dozens of scenes from Buddhist mythology. Some colorful paintings depicted the life of the Buddha, others scenes of torture and suffering in what I assumed was the Buddhist version of Hell. The vivid colors reminded me of Caribbean paintings of town life -- especially the bright blue skies.

My next stop was in the Dara Market to obtain a SIM card for my Smartphone. I think it is upon leaving the market where my mind became turned around, as far as directions go. I was using the hotel map and navigating fine, so far. However, I proceeded to march off in the exact opposite direction I needed to go. Referring to the map function on my phone was no help, for once. It simply did not have enough landmarks or streets programmed In to orient myself. I steadily became more frustrated, and hot, in the 90+ degree humidity. Finally, I gave up and paid a tuk-tuk driver to take me back to the hotel. I needed to rest, cool off mentally and physically (a dip in the hotel pool was the cure I needed), and then set out again.

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When I ventured out again, I used the bamboo bridge to head into town. My first stop was Wat Sene -- a Thai-style temple. Contrary to what my guidebook said, the main sim (temple) was closed, but the grounds were open. Wat Sene was a red and gold beauty. The stenciled golden images of warriors on the deep red walls and pillars was striking. A number of temples lined the street heading up from Wat Sene, but I hurried to one of the most impressive, Wat Xien Thong.

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This is a large, walled complex stretches all the way to the river bank, and contains a library, monk's quarters, drum pavilion, small chapel, and even a building to house a funeral chariot built to carry a king's body to his cremation. Of course, it also contains a gorgeous main temple or sim, decorated on the inside in striking black and gold designs. The outside was gilded, colorful, and blazing in the afternoon sun. It was easily the coolest temple I would see in Luang Prabang. Locals consider it the country's most important religious site.

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After relaxing with a cold beer in a breezy cafe, I was fortified to continue my travels under the hot afternoon sun. Make no mistake: Southeast Asia can be brutally hot in summer for sightseeing. I arrived at the National Museum complex -- formerly the Royal residence -- after it closed. Many sights in Laos close early, it seems. I was able to get some nice pictures, though, by climbing the slopes of Mt. Phou Si, a hill that rises up on the middle of the peninsula. I did not count the 328 steps that lead to the top, but the view from up there was spectacular. Trees blocked the view of the main town, but the surrounding countryside was laid out in full glory. Though an invigorate climb, it was well worth the effort.

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Strangely enough, this concluded the sightseeing portion of the day. The heat, combined with my navigational mishap earlier, subtracted a lot of the sights I'd plan on cramming in on "temple day." Still, Luang Prabang did not disappoint. My first two days in Laos were living up to expectations.

Posted by world_wide_mike 08:35 Archived in Laos

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