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20060109_P_0069
Temple detail

We went for breakfast at the Tum Tum Cheng café which was tasty but overpriced for what we had, no doubt a symptom of its cooking school. From here we headed for the Wat Xieng Thong, the former royal temple of Luang Prabang which was built in 1560. We entered from the city entrance which comes in next to the Funerary Carriage house. Inside is a large ornate, gilded carriage that was used to carry the funeral urns of the royal family. It is quite an impressive site although it is a shame that the carriage will never be out and in use again. The building was constructed around the carriage and would need to be demolished if the carriage ever had to be moved.

Although this building was ornate, it paled beside the main sim or ordination hall. This has been constructed in a typical Luang Prabang style and has tiers of roofs that come down low to the ground. The outside is highly decorated with glass mosaics that shimmer in the sunlight and the inside has gilded patterns on the walls and supporting columns. Smaller buildings off to the side of the sim were equally ornately decorated, creating a stark contrast to the simplicity of the monk’s quarters.

A group of monks were sat chatting to each other on what seemed a rare break from the continual activity that most seem to be occupied with. Stef asked he could take their photo and the one that said “no” to the “yes” from all the others found himself slightly ribbed and teased by his peers. We have been surprised by how many speak English, or at least how many say “hello, how are you” and it again brings about a little frustration that we are at a loss with the language here as we were in China.

Dotted around the temple complex were a number of stupas, pillars which must have some religious significance but we have not yet worked out what it is. A boathouse shielded two long and narrow boats from the elements just by the river side entrance which we used to get back down to our hotel. It creates an impressive way to first see the temple as wide steps, flanked by large lion statues, lead up from the river to the temple complex.

We had a quick stop at our hotel then headed back to the central part of tourist ville where coffee and cakes at the Scandinavian Bakery set us up for the afternoon. At the tour office we booked tickets to go by bus down to Vang Vieng, opting for the slightly faster mini bus route. I think we both have mixed feelings about Vang Vieng. The landscape will be similar to what we saw around Yangshuo in China and it will also be wall to wall western tourists, something that neither of us particularly likes.

In the afternoon we went to the Royal Palace Museum. This was built for King Sisavang Vong and his family in 1904 and, as with the temple, is accessible directly from the Mekong River. Set in pretty gardens the site also houses the local theatre, which we came back to in the evening for a traditional dance performance. Just inside the grounds to the right of the entrance is a new ornate pavilion which is still being finished. Once complete it will house the Pha Bang, an 83cm tall Buddha which is about one thousand years old and has a fair history of being traded from one set of hands to another. When we were there painters were still putting the finished coats to the columns on the inside and the seven headed dragons that flank the steps on the outside. They are also still in the process of adding gold leaf to the building and small flakes of gold were just lying about on the floor. One has now been added to our small collection of bits we have acquired along the way.

The tour of the main Palace Museum starts on the outside where you are directed to the current home of the Pha Bang. Much as it has a complex history it did not really create an impression on me as it was dwarfed by the sets of carved elephant tusks on display all around the room. On the inside, the palace was a real contrast of public and private spaces. The main entrance was a lofty room with a very French style, the focus of which was a large square chair on which the master monk sat to receive guests and perform ceremonies. Rooms led off to the right and left with the main throne room being set behind the entrance.

Around the throne room were more glass mosaics. I thought they had been sewn onto fabric which was then stuck to the wall but no. The walls have all been painted a rich dark red and the glass mosaic has been applied directly onto it. The public rooms of the palace all seem to have been refurbished and made more grand by the last King, no doubt his way of stamping his mark when he came to the throne. Unfortunately we were not allowed to take any photos inside the palace but it was awash with bright colours and character.

20060109_P_0101
Traditional Lao dance/theatre

The rooms leading right and left off the main entrance were also for public use serving as reception rooms for the King, Queen and the Secretary. They too were highly decorated, but more in a French style. In the Secretary’s reception there is a display of some of the gifts that have been given to Laos as diplomatic gifts. They are displayed by country and I was staggered when I got to the case with gifts from America. In the early 1970’s, Lyndon Johnson the American President sent a piece of rock from the moon with a message that he hoped it would help to forge peace and unity across the world. I would love to know what the Laos people made of it bearing in mind that at the same time the USA was in the process of bombing north eastern Laos to bits, a legacy that still plagues them today with tons of unexploded ordnance.

Set behind the public rooms were the private rooms of the Royal family. These were almost monastic in their simplicity. The King and Queen had separate bedrooms which were both large, sparsely furnished and with just one or two paintings hanging on the walls. The same was true of the dining room. It was a total contrast to the public rooms but apparently is an accurate reflection of the rooms as they were when the royal family lived here. It was also very modest compared to stately homes and castles that we are used to seeing in Europe.

Over the road from the museum we climbed up the slopes of Phu Si which, from one hundred metres up, gives you a good view over Luang Prabang. We were surprised at how big the town was, again realising as we did in Lijiang that the map in Lonely Planet just focuses on a small area of the town. Monks at a temple at the top were again happy to chat and told us that the golden temple we could see was one were they go, effectively on retreat. Below us the town radiated out amongst the palm trees and in the distance we could see the runway from the airport.

With time to spare before we went to our traditional performance I went in search of a much needed haircut. We had spotted a place down by the river so I left Stef in a café and went in for the chop. Here communication was a problem for the first time since we had arrived in Luang Prabang but old photos of my hair when it was short bridged the gap. I was a bit surprised to be waved onto a bed and motioned to lie down. That was nothing compared to the shock of icy cold water on your head when you have just come in from the heat of mid afternoon. About twenty minutes later, and 30,000 Kip poorer (£1.50) I came away with the cheapest haircut I can ever remember having. Needless to say it is not perfect but it will do the trick and was a much needed tidy up.

I could not see Stef anywhere along the river so worked my way back to the hotel hoping to find him there. Not so. On my way back I spied him having what looked like a confrontation with the staff of the café he had stopped at. He had ordered some food but what was delivered was not what he ordered and the replacement was also pretty poor. With me not around to stop him he had decided to argue the toss and refuse to pay, probably right in principle but hardly worth the effort considering how much money he was talking about. I bet Westerners were cursed a few times at that place today.

We ambled back through more little streets and headed to the theatre. Everywhere you look there are temples and I have lost count of how many we walked through during the day. They all have a similar design of a main sim, a drum tower, the monks living quarters and then various smaller temples or stupas dotted around. They are also for the most part pretty ornate, but all showing signs of wear and tear.

The theatre was back in the Palace grounds, on the second floor of the building to the left as you walk in. It looked like it was originally a large reception room but a stage and rows of chairs have been added in. Depending on how much you paid for your tickets you either got a comfortable lounge chair, a normal upright chair or a plastic garden chair. On the right of the stage a small orchestra, all men, sat and started to tune up their instruments waiting for the performance to begin.

Before the show about seven men and women came onto the stage and sat in a line facing forwards. They conducted a small ceremony with some chanting which ended with them coming out into the audience and tying cotton threads onto everybody’s left and right wrists. They said something to each person as they tied on the threads but we have no idea what this was all for or what the symbolism was.

The main performance was similar to the dance we had seen in Kerala in India. There were decorative silk costumes and most of the performers wore masks which gave them larger than life features. We had been given notes before hand explaining the story which was all about a baddie spying a beautiful girl and deciding he wanted her, the plots he hatched to get her and the steps taken by others to try and save her. I think it is part of the Ramayana tales and if we want to see the end we will need to come back on Wednesday and Saturday when they perform parts two and three of the story.

In this and the other dances some of the characters were animals and I thought the performers had cleverly reflected the movements of the animals. One dance was a monkey dance and as about ten men kept leaping about and pretending to scratch themselves I could feel my skin start to crawl and itch. The opening and closing dances were performed by the ladies who, dressed in silk sarongs and blouses, were graceful and calm in the way they glided about the stage. It was definitely worth going to see.

As we made it back out onto the main street we found ourselves in the middle of a large street market which happens every night. One end of the main Th Sisavangvong is closed off to traffic and stalls are set up on either side of the road and down the middle. You do not need to walk far to see that they are all pretty much selling the same stuff. Alongside the jewellery, bags and slippers were beautiful duvets and linens. Stef was on the look out for an interesting opium pip and was less than interested but I though the linen was pretty beautiful. We did have a look at some but I think they may have been a bit on the small side for a UK sized double duvet so I left empty handed. It is probably just as well.