7th – 13th October 2013
Another week in Luang Prabang and we delve further into life in Laos…and on the road.
Things moved pretty quickly at the start of the week. Well, Graham did: woke up, had a shower, and got dressed. Then got undressed again very quickly when he discovered that a tribe of tiny ants had invaded his backpack – and underpants. Not much fun at the time but he is now at the stage where it’s possible to consider the question: “Can I laugh?” Sure, it was dancing – but…well…ouch.
Ants in your pants: moral of the story: check your jocks. Hostelling 101.
Millionaires – Four times over!
This week we had to turn our minds to extending our Laos visas. The stamp in our passports has “16-Oct-2013” as the last valid date for us to be present here, so, with Prunella ensconced in volunteer work, we needed to extend. The options are a visa run in and out of Thailand, or extending locally. Given that Thailand is, at the most economical, a minimum of a day each way and probably another back and forth across the border at Vientiane, paying USD 300 to get it done for the five of us here rapidly emerges as the wiser option.
We’d already noted the location of the Immigration Office on an earlier walk, so we gathered the necessary paraphernalia of passports and photos, and headed down.
Getting money out in LP isn’t the most efficient process – but it could be a lot worse. Despite the dire warnings on the web, all of the (admittedly touristic-oriented) places we’ve visited in Lao have one or two ATMs which happily dish out Kip in wads of up to a million at a time (AUD 130-ish), which normally suffices for two or three days. The main hazard is whether you’ll end up with 20 x 50,000 Kip notes or worse, 50 x 20,000s: a true first world problem. However, extending our visas required a bit more cash, so, forgoing the option of coughing up US notes – I’m sorry USA, your old school green-and-white bank notes are not very exciting to look at – I set an ATM working, extracting 4,000,000 kip.
With my wallet bent into my pocket in a style George Constanza would be proud of, we soon offloaded them to the neatly uniformed Immigration counter officer. Collecting our documents the following day, our tenure in Laos is secured a little longer.
Hello! Tuk-tuk? Waterfall? Cave? – A Day at Kuang Si
Saturday was the day we finally made one of these pleasantly persistent blokes happy. Kuang Si Waterfall: Our last effort to visit this Luang Prabang icon was scotched by a bad night from young Felix, but this time we were all fit and ready to leave at 0600. No real need to leave quite so early, save to avoid the tour groups and slower-starting tuk tuks. We’d ‘booked’ this trip the previous day, finally giving one of our neighbourhood tuk tuk drivers a smile by responding to the familiar call: “Hello! Tuk-tuk? Waterfall? Cave? Where you go today?”. The haggling started at 300,000, but was down to 150,000 at the end. It is no coincidence Prunella was the chief ‘negotiator’ here.
A different driver collected us, by some arrangement with the first guy – presumably the latter was numb from his savaging at the hands of a career bargainer. We set off, trying to suggest that we wanted to stop for breakfast. We made a false stop at the much-vaunted JoMa bakery, but we declined its flat-pack ambience and urged the driver on. Eventually, we yielded as he stopped a few kilometres down the road at the Phousi Markets, determined to have us fed and on the road before all hope of food supplies ran low.
On the road again, suitably fuelled with Pho, we travel into the hinterland of Luang Prabang, where, quite soon, the town strings out and gives way to small villages among rice fields and tree plantations. We stop at a Hmong village along the way. It’s pretty much part of the tuk tuk itinerary, with permanent (if at this early hour unoccupied) trinket stalls and a concrete path through the village. Nonetheless, we dished out some pencils and exercise books to the small crowd of children who appeared from inside, around and sometimes under the bamboo huts. Supplies were held back and presented to the more diligent children who were returning from a wood collecting mission while their younger or lazier siblings played around the village.
Back onto the tuk tuk, and we climb up into the hills, thunder over wooden planked bridges and fly past the population of a whole village, turned out and trimming the road verges, with a motley collection of whipper snippers and machetes. Finally the tuk tuk lurches to a halt: “OK, here we are! Waterfall!”
A row of restaurants leads up the hill to the entrance gate. After a refreshing shake and a crepe or two, we stump up the entrance fee and head inside. First, past a sanctuary for Asiatic Black Bears. They are variously sleeping, munching, and wrestling their way into the morning jungle air. It’s quite a large enclosure, very well kept and apparently full of activities – wouldn’t look out of place in a zoo back home. In fact it’s part of a project run by a lady from somewhere in Australia called Perth.
Wandering on, we start to catch glimpses of the water itself – the cataract is further up the valley but down here the river forms little limestone pools, a soft clean turquoise in the green of the forest. Lovely. We climb the circuit trail, our prompt arrival granting us a welcome solitude.
Soon the main cascade can be heard through the trees, and we emerge into the bright sunlight, the water thundering down four or five levels to where we stand on the viewing platform, all around a misty spray. It’s one of the most spectacular waterfalls we’ve seen – the water is clear and strong. and powered by a deep spring high up in the limestone hills. Graham and the boys clamber up the trail to the top, where a seemingly moderate stream winds through the trees before hurling itself over the cliff.
Returning to the base of the falls once again, we swim in the cold green blue water – each one it’s own natural infinity pool in the trees. Did I say it was magic?
Felix falls asleep in the tuk-tuk home, the rest of us singing songs as the forest and paddies rush by in the hazy afternoon sunlight.
Food From Back Home…
On our wandering around town this week we have become increasingly lazy with food – the cheapest, filling option for lunch is a brace or three of baguettes. They go down well, smothered in La Vache Qui Rit (Laughing Cow) Cheese, and, wait for it…Vegemite. Yes, we brought some of this stuff along (actually picked up a jar in Chiang Mai), and it adds some zing to the bread. The kids like it, we like it – all good in moderation.
So: fresh bread, cream cheese, concentrated yeast extract: hits the spot. The only thing I ask is: why does my Gerber multi-tool not have a butter knife? The fold-out tools include a sharp blade, a can opener, two types of screw driver, a bottle opener, a pointy thing that was good for adding another hole in my leather belt for the buckle (on the “I’ve lost weight” side), something that would defuse an atomic bomb, and a tool that looks like it’d be great for skinning a dead Aurochs – but nothing to spread cream cheese! Surely this’d be the most useful tool in the kit. Much as we might like to wish it, we’re not all Bear Grylls!
…How much is too much?
But how much is indulging our tastes for home is too much? Well, we try to eat around town, try not to eat twice in the same place, try to self cater now and again. Since we’ve been in Luang Prabang we’ve eaten Lao cuisine of all kinds: Larp (Spicy mince), Sindad barbecue, Khao Soy, Rice Porridge, Pho, Sticky Rice in all its colours, ‘Fusion’ Lao, the local takes on Fried Noodles and Rice. We’ve partaken of spicy salads that rival Korean kim chi, tasted the nutty green seed pods the locals munch on, sampled the oranges sold from mounds piled onto pickup trucks, wiped banana, mango, dragon fruit, and pineapple juice from sticky fingers and chins. Hell, we’ve even forced down a cup of the cheap Lao Black Coffee or three (the horror, oh! the horror!)
Back at home we eat variety: our ancestral Burmese, as well as Indian, Malaysian, Chinese; our other ancestral British food (Dad was just reminiscing with his sons about the unmitigated glory of the chip butty the other night). Our boys almost always ordered sushi from the school canteen when it was available (sadly no more). We eat ‘Aussie’ food: fruit, veges, meat, dairy, honey, nuts, cereal and seafood with gusto.
So, should we feel guilty about ordering variety here? Ten Thousand Thundering Typhoons, No!
Luang Prabang is blessed with good food. Is breakfast today yoghurt, fruit salad and home made granola by the Mekong at the imaginatively titled Bakery Cafe? Or the delicious omlette stuffed with green shoots served to a loyal bunch of locals a few streets up? Rolled rice pancakes with mince and sweet peanut sauce? Or mango cake and a fine coffee at the Ancient Luang Prabang Hotel? Anyone for chicken and cheese baguettes with a fresh lemon and mint shake (hold the sugar syrup, please)?! What’s for dinner? The fantastic Pizza Phan Leung, or ‘Fired Chicken with Garlic and Pepper’, or perhaps you fancy a 10,000 kip plate of vegetarian from the night markets?
Not sure about you – but we’re having a bit of each, thank you.