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Luang Prabang's Mass Transport System

Our book says that on Sundays pretty much everything in Laos closes down so we decided to just have a relaxed and easy day, ambling about town, adjusting to the climate and getting our bearings. It felt pretty warm as we headed out and although there was sunshine it was quite hazy and grey as well.

We turned right out of our hotel and followed the road round the peninsula that separates the Mekong River from the Nam Khan. There is a totally relaxed and sleepy atmosphere about the place with some people cycling, some walking and a fair few just sitting around watching the day go by. The water level in the river is pretty low and there is a sandbar in the middle which has been turned into fields for crops. No doubt in the rainy season these fields are under water so it is a short term plot to harvest.

Along the river banks terraced fields led down to the water’s edge and people were out and about watering their colourful crops. The soil looks very sandy but also as if it is pretty fertile. Local kids were mucking about in the water, part swimming and part just floating along with the current, which seemed quite strong. We stopped for breakfast at a little café on the river and watched as they larked about, running barefoot up and down the banks to start the downstream float all over again.

As we turned to head onto the main street we stopped off at our first temple, Wat Siphoutthabat Thipparam. A set of steps led up from the road into a small garden with the temple to our left and the monks living quarters ahead and to the right. As we made our way into the temple one of the monks came to talk to us. He was the Ven. Khaonoy Thammavong, a teacher at the temple’s school and he also seemed to be the person with overall responsibility for the temple.

He looked as if he was in his mid to late twenties and came here last year after spending time in Thailand where he gained his teaching qualification. The temple has basic facilities and he is now starting the process of building it up and improving the facilities for the monks and their education. His first priority has been to create a library which has religious texts as well as novels and some general management type text books. A friend of his, Ven. VanThong Sysavath, also came with him from Thailand and they have lots of plans and ideas of what they want to achieve. You can sense an eagerness in them to get going and make a difference but they both know that it will be a long and slow process that will evolve in stages.

They told us that in Luang Prabang there are fifty five active temples and about seven hundred monks. The monk’s education combines normal schooling with their religious education and meditation also seems to be an important part of their life, so much so that they tried several times to get us to come to one of their sessions. Despite their other worldy lifestyle they are keen to keep up with the modern world and launching a website seemed high on their list of priorities. It was certainly higher up the pecking order than maintaining the temple's buildings, which have seen better days. They explained that maintenance of material things is way down compared to ensuring that people are living in accordance with Buddhist principles.

As we chatted VanThong adjusted his robes which are simple but complex at the same time. They have a basic tunic which has pockets on the front but then over that comes a wide almost tube of material that they wrap around and tuck in, each seeming to do so in a different way. When the French were here they were suspicious of the monks robes and thought they used them to hid books and other papers which the French were in the process of destroying. Although most of the monks we saw here wore orange, there were colour differences with some yellow, brown and red. These reflect different roles and responsibilities within the temple and could signify that someone was a teacher or the master monk.

From the temple we carried on up the main road of this part of town, Th Sisavangvong, stopping at the All Lao Service Co to ask about travel options down to Vang Vieng, Vientiane and Phonsavan. We have a bit of a dilemma of conscience because the cost effective way to travel is by bus but a nine hour bus journey can be replaced for a forty minute flight. Much as the bus is the way to see the local countryside neither of us has a great tolerance for long bus journeys, even less so in Laos where the roads are so poor. We walked away armed with information and options and will mull over whether cost or speed wins.

With a whole stash of Chinese Yuan to change we went in search of a bank, but again found that this currency is not as highly liked as Lonely Planet implies. The Banque pour le Commerce Extérior Lao would change our Yuan but at a very bad rate. Fortunately the Lao Development Bank further up the road (opposite the handicraft market) played ball and gave us a fair rate. Considering everything is meant to be closed at it is Sunday everything seemed to be open. It could just be another symptom of tourism changing the local way of life.

From here we criss crossed down through small streets to end up back down by the river. This part of town was a real mix of old and new, the old being the traditional houses of the local people and the new being concrete boxes going up all over the place that were very obviously going to be yet more guesthouses for tourists. The central part of town is a cultural mix of mainly Dutch, French, Australian, British and German and we were back into our “guess the nationality from the look of people” game. It makes me wonder what the locals make of it all. Even the cheap guesthouses will have facilities that are probably better than in most of the local’s homes and I am intrigued to know if it just washed by them or whether it is creating a yearning for a different standard of living. Certainly the prices in the café’s reflect the international mix of people here and it seems more expensive than China.

It was mainly small paths, wide enough for a motorbike but not much more, that crossed between most of the houses. Some were wider and were generally where the guesthouse entrances were but the smaller paths took you to the local houses. We sensed that not many tourists walked down these but people were all friendly and said sabaidee, hello. I was left with an impression of colourful gardens and plants in pots.

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Young monks in Luang Prabang

Stef stopped for a bowl of noodles at a little riverside café used by the locals, ignoring the tourist café next door. It was a small bamboo hut perched on stilts on the riverbank with a single table flanked by benches for you to sit at. A young chap dragged himself away from his music video long enough to take an order and then a woman appeared who did the cooking. The result was a big bowl of noodle soup which Stef declared to be bland until he started to doctor it with the usual concoction of chilli and other sauces. Even the woman from the café was surprised to see him add so much chilli and she brought him cups of tea and water to cool his mouth down. I somehow think it slightly made her day to have foreign tourists in her café, no doubt not a regular occurrence.

As Stef slurped his noodles in true Chinese style we watched a group of chaps trying to get their concrete mixer going again. It looked as if the mixing “bowl” part had tipped a load of concrete onto the floor and that it had set before anyone noticed. The only problem was that it was covering part of the mixer itself which was now useless until it had been freed up. There was much bashing and banging mixed in with chuckles and giggles from all concerned. Whether they ever got it going again I have no idea.

In the evening for dinner we walked along the river and down to the Somchanh restaurant which from the write up in Lonely Planet sounded like a good bet. We perhaps should have known better when we got there and there was only one small group of local looking people sitting around drinking and chatting. There were no staff in sight and Stef went in search of menus and service. We never got everything that we ordered and I am not sure that what they actually brought out to us was what we did order. The food was not very good and we probably could have simply got up and walked away without paying, the staff were that disinterested.

To try and rectify a poor meal we stopped on our way back at a French restaurant which looked reasonably new. It was tastefully decorated and had a little bar area at the front. When we arrived there were still some people eating inside and with jazz playing softly in the background it was a nice place to round off a meal. We ordered a desert and coffee but before they arrived everyone else had finished their meals, paid up and left so it was just us and the staff left in the place and it was not yet nine thirty at night. I could sense the staff thinking "we can shut up shop as soon as they've finished". Stef was oblivious, probably partly due to the large slug of dark rum he was having with his hot chocolate.