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Laos

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 Comments (0)

Riding an Elephant in Laos

There IS a reason I nicknamed him Bronco

sunny 90 °F

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I was thinking that I'd see all the temples on Day 2 in Luang Prabang, and take an excursion out of town my last day there. Even though it did not get to all of the temple I wanted, I decided to go ahead and do the Elephant excursion, anyway. There would be more temples in Vientiane. A chance to ride an elephant through the jungle, and into the Mekong River, was something I didn't want to pass up.

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me and Bronco

The van picked the eight of us from various hotels, but luckily I was last. As it was, it was about a 45-minute to an hour ride to the tiny hamlet in the jungle where the elephants were kept. Along the way, I saw Laotian village life -- rice paddies, Asian cattle, goats, and tradition homes on stilts. What I'd read about Laos' roads was true. They were windy, in poor repair, and only got worse when we turned off the main highway. Scooters, tuk-tuks, and automobiles jockeyed for position on the roads, all in a hurry to get to the magical, mythical place at the head of the column of traffic.

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When we arrived, the elephant mahouts quickly started rounding our mounts up in line. They placed a cloth over their backs to cushion the howdah -- a bamboo construction wide enough for two to sit side by side. One couple insisted on riding bareback astride the elephant. They accommodated them, but we'd find out that all of us would eventually ride astride when we took our elephants down to the Mekong to bathe them. They lined them up next to a two-story building where we would mount them. I initially nicknamed my elephant "Buddy," but would later change it to Bronco -- for reasons that will be clear soon. Our's was the lead elephant, and we led the string of four. I shared the howdah with a teacher from the Philippines named Carol. She was a good sport and enjoyed the ride, plus was much better at elephant selfies than I was!

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We trekked for just under an hour through steep jungle pathways. It was easy to get used to Bronco's swaying gait. The cushioned howdah was comfortable, and I could imagine myself in India hunting tigers on elephant-back. Bronco had an uncanny ability to know which pair of trees he and the howdah could fit between and which he could not. He would resist our guide's lead from time to time, indicating which path he preferred. An elephant's skin is very rough, like sandpaper. Sparse black hairs stick straight up, like a fly's. Bronco flapped his ears back and forth repeatedly, probably to shoo off any insects. I nudged off a huge, black fly a few times with my sandals.

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After our ride, we lined up next to the second story of the building and clambered off. It was at this point when I should have taken the guide's suggestion and changed into a bathing suit. A few of the group had better advance information and did so. Instead, I took some pictures of Bronco and the other elephants. They stripped off the howdahs and we remounted bareback. Oblivious, my Spidey sense was not tingling. We slowly made our way down to the mighty, mighty Mekong River. Elephants do not like descending stone steps, by the way. Bronco tried to talk our guide into detouring through a thicket, but his barking commands convinced our mount otherwise. We continued on towards the muddy brown water.

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Once we entered the water, each guide began to smile mischievously. Uh-oh, I thought. Thank god I'd left the camera bag in the van and had given one of the guides my phone to take pictures. I performed a mental checklist. What was I wearing? Wallet in pocket with tons of low-value Lao bills. Money belt, with a handful of US 20's. Hmmm. This could be bad. Riding bareback on an elephant, by the way, is much more precarious than in a howdah. Several times I was sure I was going to lean too far one direction and be pitched into the mud to my undying shame. I held on....for now. Eventually, my guide could not contain his mischievous streak any longer. He stood up on the back of the elephant, encouraging me to do the same. Like a good dupe, I did. At his point he barked out a command to Bronco, who began to shake like a wet dog. I was unceremoniously tossed into the water, as was Carol. The shock of the cool water, along with the realization everything I wore was now soaked, took a few seconds. Finally grieving to a fault, I helped Carol clamber back astride, and then pulled myself up. Fools. Twice more, we were pitched into the water by Bronco's skilled bucking. A few of the other tourists declined to get back atop their elephants. I was a good sport, and forgave our guide every time. Soon, the guides grew bored of our incompetence, and used Bronco to stage a Mekong rodeo. Our elephant was the best bronco, thus I gave him his name. It was fun to watch our tormentors get tossed unceremoniously into the muddy, brown water.

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Eventually, we remounts for the ride back up from the riverbank. The lunch was a bit of a surprise to all of us. My regular readers know that I can in no way be confused with Anthony Bourdain. Still, it is always good to eat local food prepared by locals. I befriended the village puppies and shooed off the village cats...surprise, surprise! Soon it was time for the ride back home. As a group, we voted to skip the Lao whiskey tasting and power on through. It was undoubtedly a good excursion. It was fun talking to the other travelers, especially the French couple on an 11-month, round the world trip. One day, I tell myself: when I retire, I will take an around the world cruise and finally do my circumnavigation.

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Once back in my hotel, I carefully separated every bill in my wallet and set them in between the slats of the chairs on my deck. The rest of my damp clothes were likewise set outside, quickly drying in the intense! Lao heat. I changed into my bathing suit -- hours later than I should have, obviously -- and jumped into the hotel pool. It felt great to cool down and unwind in the perfect temperatures of the pool. I couldn't resist ordering a big Lao beer (things are cheap here), and savoring the sunshine, warmth, and chance to just sit and let Southeast Asia drift by.

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After dinner -- okay, I broke down and had a pizza -- I shopped at the Night Market. I'd been tempted by the gorgeous fabrics, but ended up buying a paper lamp with scenes of Laos village life on its four sides. Luang Prabang was a great stop. There are lots of travelers, so all the amenities are there. It still has that backpacker vibe, I feel. So. It was neat to return to my traveling roots, so to speak. If I were to come here again, I would definitely stay I town. I loved my hotel and it's genuine and unending graciousness. However, there are simply so many hotels in town there is really no reason to stay a 15-minute walk out of town.

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Posted by world_wide_mike 16:37 Archived in Laos Comments (1)

What Wat?

Temples abound in Vientiane

rain 93 °F

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I landed in Vientiane in early afternoon. It was sunny and hot. Vientiane looked more like a city to me than Luang Prabang, which had the feel of a small, provincial town. Here there was traffic, street lights, horribly-complex looking strands of electrical wires overhead, and the feel of a rushing city street. Luckily, most of the sights are concentrated in a central area, so I could walk virtually everywhere I wanted to go.

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Just two blocks away was my first sight, the Lao National Museum. It had a few of the jars from Laos' famous archeological site, the Plain of Jars. These massive stone jars were used for ceremonial burials more than a thousand years ago. I really wanted to visit the site, but it was far away from both Vientiane and Luang Prabang. Too far for a day excursion, it would have required at least one, probably two, overnights. I did not want to take time away from either of the other destinations, so I would have to settle for the museum's examples. The museum had a number of other artifacts, too. There were a few nice statues from the ancient and medieval cultures -- including Khmer style temple carvings. One of the jars was there, plus two were in the garden outside. I have to admit they weren't much to look at individually. An entire plain covered with them would have been an interesting sight, though. The museum had no air conditioning, and was fairly stifling inside. Once I reached the colonial and more modern era sights, I whipped through them more quickly. The communist propaganda on the signs showed through fairly overtly, all but calling the French and Americans "foreign devils."

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A curious thing about sights in Vientiane is how early everything closes in the afternoon. Checking my guidebook, there was only one temple I'd be able to get to in time. I was able to navigate Vientiane's grid pattern easier than Luang Prabang's curving street layout. However, once to the right place, I ran into a new problem: which temple was the one I was looking for? Yes, it was a case of What Wat? Almost none of the signs are in English, and the Lao script is unique. There are so many temples, or wats, on Vientiane's streets that you could spend months examining them all. They are very colorfully decorated, and have similar architectural features and styles. I think I found the one I was looking for, but couldn't really be sure. Since Imahd arrived in Laos, I had been amused by the sight of monks on their cell phones, playing games or goofing around. I was happy to finally get a good picture of one doing so. I always try to be respectful and ask before I take pictures of people, and this group of four boys were happy to be photographed.

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In general, there were fewer sights in Vientiane than Luang Prabang. I should have probably shifted a day between them, making it four in Luang Prabang and two here. The next morning, it was raining fairly steadily, so I delayed my sightseeing for an hour or so. My fist stop was a fascinating temple, Wat Si Saket. The inside walls were covered in medieval frescoes that were being restored by a team of specialists. It was interesting to examine the ones they'd already restored and compare them to the salt and water damaged originals. One showed a scene of battle between two kingdoms, with spearman, swordsman, and a number of war elephants. I recognized the Burmese style of elephant soldiers, with four platforms (one above each leg) and a central howdah. Multiple signs prohibited photography, unfortunately. Humorously, there were even signs prohibiting photographing from outside the temple looking in. I would really have liked to had pictures of the frescoes, but had to settle with taking a picture of a page in a book they had onsite. An interesting feature of Wat Si Saket is its cloister, a covered gallery surrounding the temple on all four sides. Along the outer wall of the cloister are thousands of niches, each with a small, bronze Buddha. Larger statues sat, cross-legged in a row in front of the niches. It was probably the nicest Wat in Vientiane -- or at least the most historically interesting.

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Laos' sights close down for an hourlong siesta at noon, so I found an air-conditioned restaurant to relax with a cold drink. I was in my usual travel mode of skipping lunch. Next, it was about half a mile walk to the city's most bustling Wat. Here, monks accepted donations inside the temple and would, in turn, perform a blessing on the donor. I saw gifts of food, decorative baskets, even a flower-like arrangement of 1,000 Kip bills (about 13 cents in Lao currency). The streets surrounding the Wat were full of vendors selling potential gifts to temple visitors. Outside the temple, colorfully-painted, larger than life statues of deities and mythical animals were spaced within the temple compound's walls. Behind the main temple were the crumbled ruins of a 5th century temple, still venerated by a golden sash wound around its fire-darkened stones.

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The last two sights of the day had to be reached by tuk-tuk. These come in various sizes, and are essentially a small passenger trailer welded onto a motor scooter. The first stop was That Luang, or the Great Stupa. This is a stupa rather than a temple, so it is a solid monument, not something you can go inside. It was huge and painted in gold. This meant it was not as impressive as Myanmar's Schwegedon Pagoda, which is actually gold plated. Nevertheless, it is a venerated sight, and actually appears on the Lao currency. Visitors and worshippers circled its expanse, taking pictures or leaving offerings.

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From there, it was a dusty, 45-minute ride to the Buddha Park on the outskirts of town. Although a modern construction, this collection of dozens and dozens of varying sizes of statues from Buddhist mythology was a treat for the eyes. Some were massive, multi-level ones that you could climb inside. Some were gigantic Buddhas or creatures, others were man-sized, or smaller. They are arranged in groupings, and it was fun to wander amidst them taking photos. The gray or white stone from which they were carved was weathering aesthetically in the damp climate, giving them an ancient appearance. Although 45 minutes in tuk-tuk, sucking in dust and exhaust is not a pleasant time, the park was one of the highlights of Vientiane, I felt. I had originally planned on taking a taxi there, but sightings of these are rare in Vientiane. So, I had to settle for a tuk-tuk.

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By the time I arrived back in town, all of the tour offices were closed for the day. I had planned on booking an excursion for Day 3, but got back too late. This meant my final day of sightseeing in Vientiane would be relaxed, and less intense. It included a quick perusal of the Morning Market (nowhere as impressive as Luang Prabang's Night Market). I followed this up walking to the Victory Monument, a towering pagoda-like construction that brings to mind France's Arc di Triomph. Much to my surprise, you can climb to the top of it for a view of Vientiane. There was a nice panoram of the city from atop it. I checked out a centuries-old, brick and stone stupa, That Dam. I also wandered along the riverfront, which Laos is slowly developing as more tourists come to Vientiane. I was thinking that it was a low-key way to end my sightseeing in Laos. So, just to make things interesting, a torrential downpour hit Vientiane as I wanted to venture out for dinner. Riding a tuk-tuk through flooding streets was a thrilling and humorous way to end the visit. I think I will remember Laos' wats the most, even after the name of what wat disappears from my memory.

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Posted by world_wide_mike 15:52 Archived in Laos Comments (0)

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