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The Princess and the Queen go for a jaunt in Southeast Asia

ASIDE FROM LOVE, few activities seem to promise us as much happiness as going travelling; taking off for somewhere else, somewhere far from home, a place with more interesting weather, customs and landscapes ……… So says Alain de Botton in his book The Art of Travel

CHRISTMAS DAY 2022. Sunset trip up the Mekong River with Diana and Victoria. We were very quickly dubbed the Princess and the Queen by the waiter in our LUANG PRABANG guesthouse, Villa Chitdara – and we did our best to rise to our newly elevated royal status!

LAOS IS A COUNTRY I HAD NEVER BEEN TO BEFORE – the same for THAILAND where we started off; so how did I end up here?

My holiday pal, Victoria, is an American who lives in Bali where I met her more than twenty years ago. She has travelled extensively in this part of the world but, because of COVID, hadn’t been for a few years. She offered to organize everything and lead me by the hand and, bless her, she did. We hadn’t seen each other for seven years and I hadn’t travelled overseas since 2019 – the last trip I had taken was with my husband Michael before he died in 2020. So to say that I was feeling rather raw and anxious about this trip would be putting it mildly – like a turtle without a shell – like jumping without a parachute. I’m so glad I found my brave – as my grandson would put it – and went What a wonderful, interesting and relaxing, time we had.

I should probably just have called this post eating your way round Luang Prabang – but more of that later!

I VIRTUALLY KNEW NOTHING ABOUT LAOS before I went and here are some things I found out that may surprise you too!

  1. Laos is the only landlocked country in Southeast Asia. It shares borders with China, Myanmar (Burma), Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand.
  2. Laos is the most heavily bombed place in history. During the Vietnam War the North Vietnamese began to infiltrate into Laos. As a result, from 1964, the Americans began an air war over Laos. According to official figures, the US dropped 2,093,100 tonnes of bombs in 580,944 sorties. The total cost was US$7.2 billion, or $2 million a day for nine years. No one knows how many people died but estimation are one-tenth of the population – about 200,000 Lonely Planet Guide to Laos 2020. Decades after the end of the Vietnam War, it is estimated that there are 80 million unexploded bombs and landmines left in Laos. More than 20,000 people have been killed or maimed by these unexploded ordnance and currently, 50 people are still killed or maimed every year by them. CNN
  3. Laos is one of the world’s few socialist states that openly endorses communism. The only legal political party is the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party (LPRP). I was surprised to see the Lao national flag flying everywhere alongside the red and yellow communist emblem of the hammer and sickle.
  4. It is also, essentially, a Buddhist country with 65% of the people saying they are Buddhist and the rest Animist – sometimes combining the two. LUANG PRABANG has 33 Buddhist temple with more than 200 monks; a familiar sight in their sunset coloured robes.
  5. Laos is a former French colony and it has left a legacy of great coffee, croissants and fabulous architecture; especially in LUANG PRABANG and VIENTIANE – the capital.
  6. The local food is really very good; fresh tasty and reasonable priced and, in many ways, very surprising!
  7. Happily, Lao culture seems to be centred on the pleasures of life: eating, drinking, sleeping and chatting with friends. They were always very pleasant to be around – helpful, gentle.and with a ready smile.
  8. Aesthetics seem to be a very important part of life – from the beautiful sarongs and textiles they wear, to the gardens and pot plants adorning every footpath and doorway, to the beautiful decorations in the temples and all the artisan arts crafts that were still thriving.
  9. It can get quite cold – especially at night. November to April are the busiest time for tourists with temperatures between 7oC-24oC – we had lovely sunny days with no rain, with quite cool nights. The rest of the year is much hotter and wetter.

LUANG PRABANG

WE ARRIVED ON CHRISTMAS EVE on a short flight from BANGKOK to LUANG PRABANG where we were to stay for the next two weeks. My first impression – after being in BANGKOK for the first few days of my holiday, which was the busiest and most congested city I had ever been to – was that I had turned back the clock 40 years and had returned to the BALI that I used to know. LUANG PRABANG was love at first sight and I felt immediately relaxed. Familiar sights and smells of the tropics – where all life is on the street – and the heady aroma of meat being barbecued over coconut husks instantly makes you hungry; palm trees wave, dogs wander, orchids hang over a fence, sewage smells, monks process, people travel 4-up on a motorscooter, and the noodle soup lady is already closed by 8am because she has sold out.

LUANG PRABANG IS ALWAYS LISTED AS THE TOP DESTINATION IN LAOS. WHY? LET ME TELL YOU

THE TOWN has been given UNESCO status. It is exceptional in both its rich architectural and artistic heritage and reflects the fusion of Lao traditional urban style with that of the French colonial era. The town is remarkably well preserved and, even though many businesses and guesthouses closed during a two year COVID lockdown, most are now in the process of being lovingly restored. However, it is still pretty quiet compared to the bustling tourist days of four or five years ago – so, if you are tempted to go, go soon.

THE LOCALS OBVIOUSLY LOVED PLANTS and GROWING FOOD. Every spare bit of soil, hanging basket or space for a container, was stacked full of lovely ornamental plants and foodstuffs. Down each alleyway I saw seeds being raised in egg cartons, the ends of spring onions cut and put back in an old pot to regrow, chillies. and rosellas drying in baskets on the footpath and beautiful pot plants – everywhere.

GOING FOR S STROLL IS AN ABSOLUTE JOY, there is so much to look at and everywhere a feast for the eyes – so make sure you stay in the OLD TOWN so you can walk everywhere – there are many accommodation and price range options .

NOTE FROM ME. I should add a disclaimer here. I was travelling with a bung knee that is waiting to be replaced – so I can’t talk about any of the popular activities in Luang Prabang that involved more pain; like climbing the 300 plus steps up Phousi Hill to see the sunsetor jungle trekking and waterfall jumping.


RIVER LIFE

The OLD TOWN is set on the confluence of two rivers: the mighty MEKONG and the NAM KHAN which make for a very picturesque setting and opportunities to use the MEKONG for sightseeing, village hopping and sunset cruising.

IT’S EASY AND INEXPENSIVE to hire a boat for whatever you want to do and we went on a day long trip to the PAK OU CAVES where the limestone cliffs and caves are jammed with images of the Buddha. The trip up the river was great, but it was the many steps at our destination that finally made me realise that I was going to need that knee replacement sooner rather than later!

EVERY INCH OF RIVERBANK SOIL IS USED FOR GROWING FOOD – all types of greens, beans, pumpkins, sweetcorn, onions, chillies, aubergines and the very popular river weed or khaiphaeng – a speciality of the area – grown in floating rafts along the shoreline. It’s very relaxing watching other people working!

MY TOP TIP We loved travelling on the MEKONG and vowed that next time we would do the three day trip down to the Thai border where you can hop on a bus to take you to CHIANG MAI in northern Thailand. This can be done on a cheap ferry – sleeping ashore each night in a guesthouse – or the more luxury sleeping and eating aboard option. You can do the reverse too from Chiang Mai.


THE TEMPLES

THERE ARE 33 BUDDHIST TEMPLES and MONASTERY complexes IN LUANG PRABANG with their stunning golden spires, tiled roofs and white washed stupas they reflect an historic mixture of THAI, KHMER and LAO architecture dating back many hundreds of years. The monks, who live in monasteries on the temple sites in Luang Prabang, are woken each morning at 4am by a gong; summoning them to prayer and meditation. – and it often woke me too – reminiscent of being in Indonesia and hearing the dawn call to prayer from the mosques.

TAK BAT. AT 6AM THE MONKS THEN WALK AROUND THE STREETS COLLECTING THEIR FOOD FOR THE DAY – which is offered to them by the locals as an act of devotion who, themselves, have been up since 5am cooking it. It was beautifully quiet at this time of the morning and still dark. All you could hear was the repetitive call of the koel (the alarm clock bird) and the gentle sound of the bare feet of the shaven headed, and sunset wrapped men and boy monks, as they processed quietly through the town.

THIS IS A TIME FOR QUIET DEVOTION and REFLECTION and not the free-for all tourist circus that it has become – with noisy, disrespectful clamouring and intrusive cameras. You don’t have to be a Buddhist to understand this. It’s called RESPECT.

THE SWEEPING, UPTURNED GOLDEN ROOFLINES OF THE TEMPLE BUILDINGS LOOKED QUITE BEAUTIFUL AS THE FIRST RAYS OF THE SUN BEGAN TO HIT THEM – this was my favourite time to go wandering and check out all the stunning paintings and sculptures that adorn the temples. Each one is worth having an amble into for they are all look and feel slightly different. Its best known and largest is Wet Xieng Thong, which was just a short stroll from where we were staying, and I ended up spending quite a bit of time there.

Its initially hard to get used to Lao currency – the kip – because everything feels like it is costing a fortune. For example, the entrance fee to Wat Xieng Thong is 20,000 kip – which seems to be expensive but is, in fact, only $1.70. I’ll just say this. For the three weeks I was away on holiday I spent less money than if I had just been faffing about at home!

IN PARTICULAR, look out for the Tree of Life glass mosaic on the walls of the Wat Xieng Thong – quite breathtaking, and, once instructed by Victoria, I went naga spotting too. These are the fierce, dragon-like serpents that adorn the apex of every roofline and surround images of the Buddha – they are there to offer protection.

I daren’t tell Victoria before we left that I knew virtually nothing about Buddhism and hated shopping – two of her passions – but she forgave me because I too carried gin in my water bottle – well, you never know, do you?

THESE VERY EARLY (and rare for me) EARLY MORNINGS WERE MADE EVEN SWEETER because I knew I was going back to our hotel, Villa Chitdara, to a lovely buffet breakfast that was served in the garden pavillion and surrounded by hanging baskets of orchids. It always tasted so much better because I was being looked after. I hadn’t: shopped, prepared, cooked or had to clean up a thing. There was a daily delicious tropical fruit platter, bottomless coffee pot, baguette/croissants and a personally made omelette. My idea of heaven and a real holiday. (At home, I am regularly cooking for 14 – when all the family is there)

NOTE I know what you are all thinking – she must have waddled off the plane when she got home. But no – Villa Chitdara has a sister hotel with a large lap pool which I could go and swim in whenever I wanted to. They would even send a nice young man with an electric golf cart to come and fetch me! (I really did feel like I was getting the Royal treatment!)


THE FOOD

FORTUNATELY, on this trip, I WAS WITH ANOTHER FOODIE – Victoria is a terrific cook and in a past life had run a bakery and delicatessen in California and over the years we have spent many happy hours chewing the fat, making up recipes, talking produce. She also has a very productive veggie garden in Ubud, Bali and, like me, she too gets excited about compost!. As an introduction to the food of Laos, she had sent me a wonderful book ANT EGG SOUP: THE ADVENTURES OF A FOOD TOURIST IN LAOS by Natacha Du Pont de Bie – which I devoured. Laotian food was one cuisine I knew nothing about so reading this book before I went was absolute gold.

SO, AFTER OUR SUPERB BREAKFAST – which often lasted a couple of hours – we would then decide the all important question where were we going to have dinner because, in Luang Prabang, you are absolutely spoilt for choice – everything was good and inexpensive – and quite different to any other cuisine I had tried before. An added bonus is that all of the places I mention here were a gentle stroll from our hotel.

THE LARGE EXPAT COMMUNITY AND FRENCH INFLUENCE also mean that there are some very good Western style cafes, bars and restaurants in Luang Prabang too but, hallelujah, as yet, no Western style fast food joints.

VEGETARIAN and dietary specific options seemed to be readily available – they are used to tourists.

DINNER AT L’ELEPHANT. Delicious carpaccio of buffalo with shaved local parmesan, capers and basil. with a basket of pommes frites and a tossed salad – coupled with an excellent dry rose. I very rarely eat red meat and have not drunk wine for five years. I enjoyed every mouthful of this and then slept like a log. I must have been on holiday?

  • BELLE RIVE HOTEL, with its riverside terrace, was a favourite for sunset watching with gin and tonic in hand. They served excellent food too – particularly the local sausage served with jeow bong chilli paste and their khaiphaen (river weed) and local mushroom spring rolls were just about the best I have ever tasted. One of the waiters, intriguingly called Lenin, would very kindly reserve us the sunset sofa – knowing we were going to turn up most days about 5 o’clock for a sundowner. Whilst he was practicing his English, we were able to learn a lot from him about the life of a young Laotian man from a rural village who had spent his formative years as a monk.
  • L’ELEPHANT RESTAURANT is a traditional French restaurant and an institution in Luang Prabang. It has been in service since the 1950’s in a beautiful building that dates from the same era. With awnings, clipped box hedge planter boxes and the whole menu in French – you could be in Paris. We had a memorable New Year’s Eve dinner her with a set three-course meal. We returned for our last night in Luang Prabang – see buffalo carpaccio above!
  • POPOLO CANTINA is a fairly new and terrific Italian restaurant and pizzeria. Housed in a beautifully renovated traditional timber building they are serving up some delicious food. I had an excellent charcuterie and cheese platter there one night that was served with pickles and a pot of coffee infused honey – which really worked. The whole place oozes a buzzy charm and they have an art gallery upstairs.

LET’S TAKE A LOOK AT SOME OF THE TYPICAL FOOD OF THE REGION

  • STICKY RICE This is a white variety of glutinous rice that is adored by the locals and is steamed in a basket and is best eaten fresh. It is grown locally along the river flats of the MEKONG.
  • NOODLE SOUPS These come with a side platter of fresh greens, herbs, lime wedges and chilli sauce.
  • LARP or larb (which means luck). This is a fresh salad dish of finely chopped raw or cooked meat with ground roasted rice that gives it its unique flavour, Added to this is the zing and fresh taste of fine shreds of galangal, makrut lime leaves, lemon grass, three kinds of mint, and fried shallots that have been pounded in a mortar and pestle with dried red chillies, fish sauce and fresh lime juice.
  • MEKONG SAUSAGE I did not expect to find sausages being barbecued on every street corner and, believe me, these are some of the best I have ever tasted. They are made with chopped pork and seasoned with lemongrass, galangal, makrut lime leaves, shallots, coriander, garlic, chillies and salt.
  • JEOW BONG is the local CHILLI PASTE traditionally served with the local sausage and all other meats. Both Victoria and I loved its sweet and savoury flavour with a big chilli kick, but we couldn’t quite put our finger all of its ingredients. We could get the dried red chilli, garlic, fried shallots, galangal and fish sauce. What we couldn’t guess was the secret ingredient of finely shredded buffalo skin – hardly surprising? Very addictive.

TWO OF MY FAVOURITE LOCAL FOOD RESTAURANTS

KHAIPHAEN is a vocational training restaurant named after the popular Laotian snack of Mekong River weed, unique to Luang Prabang, and is a lot like Japanese nori. They served a variety of reasonably priced local dishes and a really yummy pandan flavoured panna cotta with mango. This chicken curry with pea eggplant was also very good.

BAMBOO TREE They have two restaurants in Luang Prabang – one on the top road in night market street and the one I loved to go to that overlooked the river. I had delicious noodle soup here on Christmas Day and returned several times to have it again. We also did a wonderful cooking class in the home of the head chef Linda who lived just out of town in a garden full of food – and chickens and pigs! We learnt the the essential ingredients in all Lao cooking are galangal and lemongrass – which gives it its distinctive flavour.


OTHER THINGS TO DO AROUND TOWN

  1. VISIT THE VIBRANT MARKETS There is a daytime produce and tourist market in the OLD TOWN plus a daily huge NIGHT MARKET along the main street selling all manner of handicrafts, textiles, jewellery and tourist knickknacks. In addition – just south of the town – is a very large daily produce market. We had a guided tour here as part of our Bamboo Tree Cooking Class which was really great because I could ask all the what is that questions I had been saving up. I must say that at one point I had to make a run for it. It wasn’t to sight of a whole buffalo being chopped up, or the smell of the fermenting fish sauce – but a glance down at some butterflied and barbecue animals – one of which I was sure was a rat. I’m not phobic about many things but I have a morbid fear of vermin – its an old story that goes back to childhood. Our guide did try to comfort me by telling me it was a squirrel!. I didn’t say anything but was thinking – who’s he trying to kid – I have never seen a squirrel with a tail like that. The thought crossed my mind that it was a lot like being in the middle of a Fawlty Towers skit – remember Manuel’s hamster?

2. GAVAREK STORYTELLING NIGHT. Gavarek is a small company based in Luang Prabang with the aim of promoting and preserving the local traditional stories – myths legends and folktales. The narrator was accompanied by a very ancient and nutbrown gentleman on the Lao bamboo flute – the khaen. This was such a fun and interesting evening. The stories are told in English and had me intrigued because they often referred to characters from Sanskrit myths – like Hanuman the monkey god. This was the same when we went to The Ballet at The Palace – another top night. The characters were so familiar to me from watching the traditional dancing and theatre in Indonesia which tell stories from the Ramayana – the Sanskrit epic. I think this is where the dualism in the Laotian belief system may play a part – Buddhism plus Animism? (The tiny theatre is very close to POPOLO restaurant.)

3. FIND YOUR BRAVE AND CROSS THE BAMBOO BRIDGE OVER THE NAM KHAN RIVER. It is rebuilt every dry season and open for six months of the year – the rest of the year this river is a raging torrent. Like many of the terrified looking bridge crossers it also took me a while to find the courage to cross this rickety bridge to Ban Phan Luang village on the other side – that has a popular cafe selling local food. A real gem for me was stumbling across the temple there – Wat Phan Luang – which is completely covered in vibrant paintings depicting the life of the Buddha – they truly took my breath away. Also, stored in the grounds of the temple, was a 30m ornately carved longboat which I’d love to find out more about? Was it a relic from the days of the ruling royal family when a king lived at the palace in Luang Prabang?

4. VISIT MULBERRY VILLAGEOck Pop Tok. It’s a fascinating centre of handicrafts and textiles all reliant on the humble mulberry – and about 20 minutes by tuk-tuk from Luang Prabang. They are famous for their silk textiles with, of course, the silk worms feeding on the mulberry leaves. I watched in awe as a woman sat unravelling silk cocoons, that were bubbling away in boiling water, the fine thread piling up beside her in a basket. These, then, had to be made into a triple thread ready for dying and weaving – which I also watched with deep respect.

NEXT WE VISITED THE PAPER SHOP – where all manner of paper articles were being made FROM THE POUNDING and SOAKING of MULBERRY LEAVES – I had no idea you could make paper like this? Victoria was buying large wire framed collapsible lanterns. They were about 2m tall and she had bought them from the same place about eight years before – no problem to be custom made again. I love this can do attitude that you find all over Asia There was a vast array of notebooks, albums, bags, lights and artworks on textured paper to choose from – and I actually went shopping!. I watched a very skilled artist, Seng, painting beautiful monochrome watercolours – of course I had to buy one. He was just finishing painting some elephants and he put me on top of one of them. Did I mention that there is a lot of elephant sanctuary tourism to be explored in Laos – which used to be known as the Land of a Million Elephants. Land clearing, exploitation and poaching means that there are now only about 800 left. NPR

LASTLY, we visited the tea shop which specialized in mulberry tea -which, apparently, has a myriad of herbal and health giving properties and taken widely as an overall refreshing tonic by the locals.

THIS THOUGHT OCCURRED TO ME. How many millions of dollars in taxpayers money would it take in: consultancy fees, senate reports, overseas junkets, etc …………. for a government department to come up with such a productive and creative model of sustainability as this Mulberry Village? Discuss? Mind you, I did read somewhere that Laos has the fastest growing economy in southeast Asia. Im not surprised after seeing this kind of initiative and ingenuity?

5. TAKE A TWENTY MINUTE BOAT TRIP UP THE MEKONG TO THE TRADITIONAL POTTERY VILLAGE OF BAN CHAN. I was getting used to this stress-free method of transport – it was just delightful. And we were in for another treat when we got to the village.

Over the years, I have turned my hand to a bit of pottery – mostly hand building with slabs and coils – which would be a very lengthy process that often ended in disaster.

I WATCHED IN WONDER AS A COUPLE MADE A LARGE POT FROM COILS IN ABOUT 15 MINUTES – START TO FINISH. She rolled the coils and gently turned the wheel with her foot, and he smoothed each coil out as he went – occasionally using a thin bamboo stick to check for accuracy of the shape. I was mesmerised and could have watched them all day – the synchronicity and skill involved was incredible. No electricity!

THEY HAVE BEEN MAKING POTS HERE FOR CENTURIES FROM THE LOCAL CLAY OF THE AREA. I have to say that where they fired them looked centuries old too. They had two kilns – one was a local brick built affair which was enormous, and the other – an underground chamber that got heated with large pieces of timber and looked positively medieval.

SO, all in all, a wonderful couple of weeks in a new place – full of great food, people and memories.

KHOBCHAIRAIRAI (kob-chai-rai-rai) – thank you very much in Lao

All about GALANGAL

All about LEMONGRASS

More memorable travel adventures:

In search of Homer on the Greek Island of IOS

Sailing in the exotic SPICE ISLANDS of INDONESIA

Cycling from INNSBRUCK to VERONA

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