Sometimes it is said that Bangkok is a city of canals, which isn’t really true any more. There are still plenty of khlongs, but the vast majority of them aren’t navigable by boats and you wouldn’t want to go in them, as many are filled with thick black sludge. Rather, Bangkok should more accurately be thought of as a vast knot of numberless black wires which happen to have accreted a city around them:
So we went to Laos. More properly, we went to Luang Prabang, the old capital in the north, which is a place that makes you feel like you are a city slicker if you are from Bangkok. While it is chock full of tourists, of the sort that seem to avoid Bangkok entirely, it is still laid back and there’s not very much going on there, which is nice if you’re looking for a vacation. The center of the old town – which is a peninsula between two rivers, the larger of which is the Mekong – is under UNESCO control, which is probably why it seems more attractive than any other southeast Asian city I can think of – the closest comparison would be Siem Reap, but that feels insanely hectic compared to Luang Prabang, mostly because of all the package tours going to see Angkor Wat. There is not, strictly speaking, very much to see in Luang Prabang, but it is a very pleasant place. In the middle of town is a hill, Mt. Phousi, which gives you a nice view across the Nam Khan, the smaller of the two rivers:
There’s not a lot of development, which is vaguely shocking coming from Bangkok, where such waterfront would be quickly lined with poorly constructed condos. Though it’s generally hard to tell, Laos is still officially a communist country, and they’re a little slow to catch up with the hypercapitalism of the region. Also, of course, the country was extremely thoroughly bombed by the CIA in the 1960s and 1970s, which didn’t help very much, though it did provide some nice flower pots:
Luang Prabang is up in the Annamite mountains, which means there’s a lot of mist in the mountains. The Mekong is extremely wide and muddy:
There are plenty of tuk-tuks which pleased Harriet:
And a lot of Khmer-seeming nagas:
There’s a festival coming up and everyone was busy making nagas out of paper and bamboo; these are floated down a river, I think. Here are some from last year, a bit weathered:
The lions in the wats don’t often look very leonine, but they are reliably well-fed with sticky rice:
Harriet was very pleased to discover a statue of Hanuman in front of Wat Aham:
And I was very pleased to discover that Namkhong Beer is brewed with water that’s up to World Health Organization standards:
There are restaurants where you can eat delicious food or look out over the river:
And you can get paddled across the smaller of the two rivers, which Harriet enjoyed:
After tromping around Luang Prabang and eating too many baguettes we went off to see the Kuang Si Falls, which are south of the city. There’s a bear sanctuary there for rescued bears – Laos, for all of its charms, has a pretty terrible record on wildlife preservation & there’s a thriving trade in bear bile – but somehow we forgot to take any pictures of the bears. They looked much like other bears we’ve seen, perhaps slightly more sleepy. One gets a bit apprehensive when you hear about a bear sanctuary in southeast Asia, but this seemed like a nice one. Anyway, we were not there to see bears, we were there to see the waterfalls, which cascade down a mountain, creating pools for swimming. The current is a little strong – I lost my second pair of flip-flops on the trip there – but it is extremely pleasant.
When you leave the waterfalls you can buy more flip-flops (this was maybe a little suspicious, but not very) and then we went off to see a butterfly sanctuary, which was full of butterflies. My feet were attacked first by fish:
Then by butterflies:
It is hard to take good pictures of butterflies with my telephone. One might also note what terrible taste in flip-flops Harriet has. They did have some fine butterflies though, you’ll have to imagine them. After admiring the butterflies, we took our songthaew back to town, which Harriet was pleased by:
The next day we took a boat down the Mekong to see the Pak Ou caves. On the way we stopped at the village of Ban Xang Hai, where tourists are sold lao-lao, which is rice whiskey, almost insanely cheap. One is encouraged to buy bottles of it with snakes, scorpions, or both, but we bought it without, then forgot to drink it, and had it taken away by customs when leaving the country. Alas. Bang Xang Hai does have a lovely wat:
And the nagas are well fed, though how a snake is supposed to get a ball of rice off its nose without any hands is not clear to me. Maybe they feed each other? I don’t know.
The Pak Ou caves themselves are a set of caves along the Mekong where people have been setting up Buddhas for a long time:
They are relatively nice, though most of the pleasure in going to see them is just taking a boat slowly down the Mekong:
It was a bit like our trip up the river in Myanmar; and the caves with Buddhas were a bit like the caves with Buddhas we went and saw outside of Kampot in Cambodia. But still, pleasant. After getting back, we went to spend a couple of days up in the mountains outside of Luang Prabang, which you can see in the distance here:
The mountains were nice! though there is not very much to do there. We went for a lot of walks and did a lot of swimming and I read a lot of Henry James (The Other House, not so good). Also we ate more baguettes. The roads around there are lined with the sensitive plant, Mimosa pudica:
There are a lot of these! You can’t see it in that video, but sometimes you’ll touch one leaf and other leaflets on the same plant will close up, making it seem like the plant has a nervous system. Also growing wild are what look an awful lot like poinsettias, though those aren’t native to the region:
That concludes the botany portion of this blog post. It is very pretty in the mountains:
Also Harriet found a dead snake:
They have a lot of dead snakes in Laos – there was another one on the street in Luang Prabang as well as all the ones drowned in lao-lao – but we didn’t see any live ones. We took a very long walk around the local village, Ban Xiang Nouak, which almost ended in disaster. It started out very nicely:
But as you can see from that photo it was already the golden hour, and we kept wandering on and on until it was dark and we found ourselves in a confusing banana plantation in the dark. So we turned around and went on an equally long walk back, this time in the dark, and just as we were about to get back to our hotel we were met by a search party. Success all around!
The next morning we met a very large praying mantis:
And after a lot of nonsense involving telephones at the airport which I won’t dwell upon we came back to Bangkok. The end. Oh, somewhere in there we also went to the national ballet where they performed part of the Lao version of the Ramayana, which Harriet enjoyed, but we didn’t get any pictures of that. It was about what you’d expect the Lao ballet to look like? If you are a small child interested in the Ramayana you should go. If not, you might take a pass without missing too much. But that’s mostly what happened.