Down the Mekong to Luang Prabang
The next morning saw us dragging those heavy bags back down the hill to the boat, ready for another day cruising down the Mekong. It was still another 6 hours till we would reach Luang Prabang, so we settled back in with our books and Ipods for a relaxing day.
The Mekong is one of the world’s greatest rivers (it’s the 12th longest river in the world) and winds it’s way from the Tibetan Plateau to the South China Sea and is approximately 4350km long. The Mekong basin is one of the richest areas of biodiversity with only the Amazon being greater. There are suspected to be as many as 1700 species of fish, the largest of these being the giant river carp (up to 1.5m in length) and the giant catfish (up to 3m in length). Sadly these are in serious decline due to dams, flood control and over-fishing. Dam building in China has had a catastrophic impact on the countries down stream, affecting the environment, river transportation because of lowering water levels, and the lives of many of the villages dependent on the river. The effects were evident in our own trip. Though we were at end of the wet season, our captain spent most of the time carefully navigating the whirlpools and shallows. In the last few years this has apparently slowed the trip to Luang Prabang considerably.
Before reaching Luang Prabang, we stopped at Pak Ou Caves, situated in the side of a cliff along the Mekong River. The two caves Tham Ting and Tham Phum were discovered by King Setthathirath in the 16th century. 2500 Buddha statue are in the lower cave and 1500 in the upper cave. Some of the statues are estimated to be over 300 years old. Reaching the upper cave gave us a work out, as usual anything worth looking at is at the top of 400 steps.
Back into the boat and 28km further down river we finally made our destination of Luang Prabang. The small compact town is nestled in a valley surrounded by high mountains and situated along the Mekong River and it’s tributaries. In the 14th century the town was established as the first Kingdom of Lao – Lane Xang, by King Fa Ngum, considered the greatest king of Laos and lasted for 200 years. The capital was eventually moved to Vientiane .
In 1563 by King Setthathirath and Luang Prabang became subject to many invasions, with almost all traces of older buildings and structures disappearing due to fire.
While Luang Prabang flourished as a local trading post between Laos, Burma and Thailand, here was little contact with non-Asian countries until the French arrived in the mid 19th century. The French influence is evident in the town, with many bakeries selling pasties and some of the best coffee in the world!
In 1995, the entire town, including the shoreline, was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List, citing Luang Prabang as the best preserved traditional town in Southeast Asia. Under World Heritage Site plans, 33 temples and 111 historic Lao-French buildings were identified for restoration. The plan also limits new building developments so that there are no billboards, out of character buildings and power and telephone lines must be buried.
Our guesthouse, Villa Suan Mauk, was a short walk into the main street of town and we always felt safe walking around at any time of day or night, bearing in mind there is a 12 midnight curfew so everything shuts down at 11.30pm though we did hear a story of an attempted bag snatching. Naturally Tiger Ted, Paul and Dave did not obey guesthouse rules to be in their room by 11.30, being that they appeared to be on a quest to find the best pool tables through Asia!
Dinner at a local restaurant, Indochina Spirit, proved to be a delight. We were introduced to a number of delicious local delicacies – Kai Pen – crispy sheets of river weed, dried flat and sprinkled with sesame seed, tomato and garlic; Laap – mince meat, chicken or fish, cooked and mixed with onion, garlic, coriander, mint, lime, lemongrass, bean shoots, ginger, chilli and roasted ground rice and is an amazing taste sensation and very similar to my favourite Thai dish Larb; Green Papaya Salad, so hot it had Scott in tears and finally Luang Prabang Sausage – a spicy pork sausage with lemongrass, lime, ground pepper and garlic. The sausage is an absolute must have when in Laos, though we found it harder to find outside of Luang Prabang.
After dinner it was a quick stroll to the Night Markets. The night markets are a bustling and colourful place, selling handicrafts, jewellery, rice whisky, coffee, fruit shakes, home-wares, and of course the typical tourist t-shirts, advertising BeerLaos, or proclaiming “same, same – but different”. The stalls stretched further than the eye could see down both sides and the middle of the main road and we needed to remember to duck our heads when moving between each stall. Don and Dave, both being tall had a habit of knocking themselves out on market stalls and street signs!
Scott behaved himself very well, and at least if he was groaning I didn’t hear it. However it was 9.30pm by this stage and stalls were already packing up which was a shock, as we had been used to the markets in Thailand, open til all hours. A quick couple of jewellery purchases, where I suspect that we may not have bargained the best deal, and it was back to the guest house for the night, leaving the party boys to go search out another bar and pool table and Scott to find yet another foot massage!