June 20 – 23, 2009
We spent much of our second morning in town searching for another guesthouse as the one we booked had a little too much late night partying going on for our liking. After we settled down at the new place and a long breakfast later, we finally began our sightseeing at Wat Xieng Thong around noon.
Wat Xieng Thong is said to be the most important temple complex in Luang Prabang, famous for the decoration of glass and stone mosaics of Buddhist imagery on the temples’ walls. There were only two other visitors at the complex, so we pretty much at the place to ourselves.
Although Luang Prabang is short on must-see sights, its has many beautiful wats, most of them still in used. Often the monks are praying inside the temples, resting under shades, playing simple games like throwing slippers, or simply chatting with each other. Without other foreigner around, I felt like I was an intruder who was disrupting the monks’ daily lives, but they did not seem to mind my presence much.
On the third day we joined a one-day package tour that included a slow boat ride to Pak Ou Caves in the morning and an excursion to Kuang Si Falls in the afternoon.
The Mekong is truly the source of life for the people living along the riverside. Our slow boat passed by fishermen, villagers and farmers – all of their livelihood are interconnected to the muddy water flowing in front of them. Add in the unexpectedly photogenic landscape along the way, the slow boat ride showed me a quintessential side of Laos – albeit in a very limited sense.
There was no escaping from it – joining tour means signing ourselves up for mind-numbing stops at some tourist traps, and this time was no exception. We made a stop at a riverside village that had become almost completely dependent on tourism. Everyone in the village seemed to work for a souvenir shop of some kind. Even the washroom required a small fee to use. The stop was not a total lost – the kids in the village were not shy of the camera and allowed me to take some photos.
After a two hours boat ride from Luang Prabang, we arrived the Pak Ou Caves. I don’t understand why every guidebook recommends this place. I had seen similar Buddhist figurines all over Luang Prabang, without traveling all the way to a dried up limestone cave.
The downstream ride back to Luang Prabang took only half the time. After a quick lunch, we rode a chicken bus to Kuang Si Falls, 29 km south of Luang Prabang. The falls were a pleasant surprise, and the middle section looks a little similar to Huanglong in Sichuan, China, a place I have wanted to go for a long time.
Each morning at around six, all of the monks in Luang Prabang would encircle their temple complex once and collect rice from the local faithfuls. We participated in a really quiet morning as only three middle-aged ladies and a young girl were waiting along the main road. Better still, we were joined by just two other travellers, so there wouldn’t be the awkward scene where the spectators outnumbered the participants. The only annoyance was a tout who insisted us to buy some rice from her, and it took some effort to ignore her and made her to leave us alone.
I have read somewhere that this ceremony is demanded to continue by the ruling party as a tourist drawing event even after several food poisoning cases of the monks, but I hope that’s not the case.
Everything worked out perfectly on this short four-day trip. The weather, despite being in the rainy season, was sunny throughout. The people were very laid-back and friendly, unmoved by their town’s new found status as a tourist magnet, and seemed to go on with their daily lives largely unaffected by the impact of tourism. Many locals were happy to be photography subjects. The food was delicious and the service was good everywhere (except for a dinner at a popular Laotian restaurant). Best of all, there were very few travellers in town, so we often had the town all to ourselves.