Thursday, April 13, 2006

Laos: Luang Prabang is a stunning old town along the Mekong River

I'm here now in Luang Prabang taking it slow after another long bus trip. After finishing up my entry yesterday, we relaxed a bit then went to the bus station only to find it full of people waiting for buses to the provinces, Luang Prabang included. Sigh! It was the holiday rush as well in Laos and getting a bus to Luang Prabang was going to be difficult. Luckily, someone tipped Kao that a extra VIP bus trip was leaving at 7:30 p.m. and we were able to get a ticket just in the nick of time before other people found out and started rushing to the ticket desk. Had we gotten it a few minutes later, I might have been in the center aisle. Hehe!

Anyway, the bus trip took about ten hours, mostly along a zigzag road through towering mountains. I'm sure the views we're stunning since I could see silhouettes because of the near full moon. I arrived in Luang Prabang at about 5 a.m.

Since the bus station was about 3 km from the town proper, I had to take a tuktuk. By the time I got to town, I was tired, sleepy and sweaty. Sigh! So I tried to look for a guest house. Lonely Planet advice, "The two most important annual events in Luang Prabang are Pi Mai Lao (Lao New Year) in April, when Luang Prabang gets packed with locals and tourists (book accomodation well in advance)..." Yup, I now know how Joseph and Mary felt since I walked from one guest house to another only to hear that they were full. While walking around, I got to witness the morning alms tradition where monks walk around town receiving rice from the locals.

Until finally, there was a lodge with a room. But they were charging me THB600. Hmmm, I was going back to Vientiane tonight so it was a difficult choice. When I was about to say yes since I really needed a shower, the caretaker told me that I had to wait since the room that would be empty at 7:30 a.m. was still occupied. Then I asked if it was OK if I just paid for a shower. He agreed. Great! So I just paid him THB100 for it. Good enough!

Luang Prabang was the former royal capital of Laos until the 1975 Communist takeover. The Town of Luang Prabang was inscribed in the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1995. I started the rounds of the temples early. At the tip of the peninsula is the Wat Xieng Thong, the most magnificent temple in the town. Built by King Setthathirat in 1560, it remained under royal patronage until the 1975 revolution.

Along the street, it was one temple after another! There were just so many. How I wish Intramuros was still standing today in all its glory. It was one magnificent church after another. But alas! It was carpet-bombed by the American Army and they only left the San Agustin Church standing! According to stories, Manila's old ladies were crying as they watched shells hit one church after another. I passed by some including Wat Khili, Wat Saen and Wat Nong Sikunmeuang.

The main street of Luang Prabang was lined as well with charming colonial shophouses and homes which have been converted into guesthouses (countries which promote and push for adaptive reuse reap the benefits with increased tourism arrivals). If not for the Laos text on the shops as well as the monks walking, you would think you were in a small town in France. Really nice! I had breakfast at a French bakery. Then took a walk to the Royal Palace Museum which was the former residence of King Sisavangvong.

Then it was off for more walking around and maybe find out if I could check out one of the waterfalls. When I got to the boat dock area, they were charging me US$15 since I was alone. No thanks! So I just had a drink at a cafe by the Mekong River. It was quite relaxing watching the water flow down the river.

Since I wanted to stay indoors for lunch, I just had a foot massage. At least I was abe to take a quick nap. That costed me 30,000 kip (the street exchange rate is THB100 = 25,000 kip = US$2.5), not bad for an hour. As I got out, the water wars had already started and you could see many of the foreign tourists with water guns, joining in the new year revelry. Hehe! Then trucks with pails of water were also passing by. Oh great! So I walked along the side streets since the trucks could not pass there.

So I'm here in an internet shop trying to stay dry and cool when I read a sign outside that the shop also does tours to the waterfalls for US$3 each! And it leaves in 10 minutes! Imagine the timing! Hehe! So I'm off to the Kuangsi Waterfalls. Hehe!

It was about an hour away. When we got there, I could immediately see that there were so many people. Can you think of a waterfall in the Philippines which could attract thousands of visitors everyday, half of them tourists? They even charge 15,000 kip for entrance. The DOT will really have to rethink the way they look at tourism. Backpackers should be the target more than any other group and we are the only Southeast Asian country without an established backpack route. That's why let's backpack in the Philippines to help establish that tourism trail.

The water was really clear. Greeting you were smaller falls cascading from limestone cliffs with pools in each of them just perfect for swimming. There was also a bear sanctuary where baby bears captured from poachers are nursed to better health. The main falls was a few minutes walk bu the view was magnificent. If I didn't have my backpack with me, I would have gone to the top of the falls since there was a clearly-marked trail to it.

Anyway, the tour I took set the assembly time at 5 p.m. and that would have been too late for me if I were to catch the bus back to Vientiane. So I hitched a ride with some backpackers on the way back to town and they asked me for US$1. That's the point of backpacking, every dollar counts. You try to meet other backpackers going the same way and pool in resources, organize a groups in order to lower individual costs.

The LGUs in the Philippines will have to realize that many of these foreigners are not looking for classy hotels. They'd be happy with a room, a bed and a fan with a very clean common bathroom that charges between US$3 to 5 per night. The hotel must be close to cheap, clean and delicious street food as well! You see the sights, you taste the local flavors the way the locals do, that's backpacking. They don't come to see malls. They travels to see both cultural and natural heritage. These are thus the things we have to preserve in order to attract these tourists. And until our LGU officials and priests realize that, we will continue to get the crumbs of the multi-billion dollar tourism industry.

Anyway, I was able to get a bus back to Vientiane for 85,000 kip. As always, the ride was about ten hours so we left at 7:00 p.m. and were in the capital by 5 a.m. Since it was too early to call Loulou up, I took a nap at the station. Hehe!
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