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Luang Prabang

 

This is a charming French Colonial town that in earlier days was the imperial capital until a war with Burma forced its move to Vientiane.  Much of the architecture resembles that in towns in other French colonies like Hoi An in Vietnam and Pondicherry in Southern India. 

 

The French touch
The French touch

 

 

But it is now overrun by over two million tourists each year.  This means that every second building has been converted into an hotel or a B&B.  Those that have not are usually tourist related cafes, restaurants, bars, souvenir shops, massage establishments and tour companies.  There is the occasional privately owned villa and in the back streets the dwellings of the few locals who can afford to live in town.

In addition there are several large Monasteries or Wats from which a small army of monks provides a morning ritual procession through town for the benefit of a larger army of tourists.

 

Wats and Monks

 

Each night the main street become a vast market selling all sorts of trinkets and fabrics. Each morning our street became a food market. 

 

The hotel entrance and the food market in the street outside. Anyone for dog?

 

 

 There are many restaurants on the river bank overlooking the Mekong.  Some have unusual rules.

 

Unusual rules
Now eat your greens!

 

The museum in the Old Royal Palace is interesting but unlike the one in Vientiane this one bans photographs, even of the old cars in the garage.   It features thrones and other furniture and ceremonial weapons (swords and so on) in gold and silver worn by the royal guard.  The bedrooms have things like old radiograms and record players, often gifts from other governments. 

 

The Palace / Museum and grounds

 

There were also a number of display cases displaying gifts to the last King, Sisavang Vong. The Americans gave a chrome plated Lunar Lander and several massive cars including a Ford Edsel - presumably the King was one of the few proud owners of this famous white elephant.  France provided a Citroen D Special.  Other nations gave fine china or elaborate silver services.  Australia gave a mounted wooden boomerang that probably cost ten bob from a Circular Quay gift shop.  Just as well.  The King didn't last long so Australia had the last laugh. 

After his overthrow, in the 1980's Australia became much more generous, providing $42m to build the first Thai–Lao Friendship Bridge over the Mekong to connect the two countries.  It was opened in 1994. 

 

Across the road from the Palace, to the east, is the hill that dominates the town. There are a lot of steps to reach the top and to test the fitness of visitors.  Needless to say there is a temple up there in case you are dying after the climb.

 

Views from the top and a pretty tree snake.

 

 After wandering about looking in the shops, visiting the several Wats and having coffee we decided to take a river boat up the Mekong to some limestone caves that have reportedly become infested with humans. 

 

Along the Mekong
Sedimentary limestone strata tilted vertically - clear refutation that the Earth is only four thousand years old.

 

Along the way we were encouraged to stop at a 'manufacturing village' that distilled a local alcohol and allegedly wove fabrics.  The fabrics as always were delivered from the real factory in large bags, a fact that they didn't even attempt to disguise for just two tourists and their boatman.  We provided insufficient incentive to even pretend that they were weaving. 

But I did like their still.  It used a water cooled inverted metal cone capping the heated drum that dripped condensate from its tip into a collection trough emerging through the side - an interesting alternative to the old copper coil.

 

At the village - temporally bereft of tourists - except us.

 

The caves were an anticlimax after the long, sometimes boring and sometimes exciting, boat trip.  Impressive caves like Jenolan or even Wee Jasper they are not.  But like mice, where you see one limestone cave others are pretty certain to be near at hand.  So the area probably needs a thorough speleological survey.  Who knows, there might be a big cavern somewhere in there.

On this occasion the hundreds of relatively passive Buddhas in the caves probably outnumbered the panting humans stumbling up and down the many steps to reach them.  But this is apparently unusual, our boat driver gave us to understand that we had come at a good time to avoid the crowds.

 

The Buddha Caves

 

Luang Prabang is relatively small and we walked, several times, to the confluence of the Mekong and the Nam Kahn the river that swings back to define the eastern border of the town and back by the alternative routes, occasionally passing the school that promotes itself as: 'A drug free school'.  Is that product differentiation?

About half way along and overlooking the Mekong is a coffee shop that we discovered to have good coffee and lunchtime snacks. It had an interesting story to tell. 

At one time Laos was part of the infamous 'Golden Triangle' from which much of the worlds illegal opium originated.  There is significant effort being expended in encouraging the opium farmers to take up coffee production instead and this coffee shop is an outcome of that effort.  Tourism spiel perhaps, but we found it a good excuse to make it out meeting place after Wendy had been shopping and I had found something interesting to do instead.  The coffee was the best we found.

At the confluence is a bamboo bridge across the the Nam Kahn that figures in all the tourist brochures.  It is taken down or swept away when the river is high and rebuilt annually.  Naturally we had to do the tourist thing and cross it.  On the other side is a small temple-like structure that has just been built/rebuilt.  I scrambled up a steep bank to take a look at it and surprised two young monks (male female?) chatting to two very secular girls on a motor bike.  Seeing me the monks fled with guilty expressions.  The girls called after them laughing. Taunting?

 

The Bamboo Bridge and forbidden dalliance

 

Very soon we had had our fill of Buddhas, Wats and monks.

I found Luang Prabang just a bit too touristy. Sure, the weather was comfortable wearing minimal clothing and sitting beside the river having a meal was pleasant enough.  But there are just too many other tourists wandering about.  There they were, sitting gobbling down food or drinking various beverages everywhere you looked.  There are a lot more interesting places in the world to wander about and much nicer places to sit and enjoy a quiet drink.

 

 

 

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