Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Luang Prabang


We decided to bite the bullet and take a bus straight to Luang Prabang. It was slated as an eight hour trip, which meant it would be longer (why are travel agents the world over such inveterate liars?), but we allowed ourselves to be seduced by the “VIP bus” blather, and thought that it might not be a totally horrendous trip. It wasn’t horrendous, but the on-board toilet was the right size for hobbits, and if it had ever seen a VIP it must have been Keith Moon judging from the state of the decor. Oisin had his revenge on us by finally throwing up on a road trip, a mere six hours into the journey, but we think we got off lightly and it was probably the MSG for lunch. The scenery was, once again, spectacular. Laos is blessed with a strange type of mountain formation known as karst formations, which seem to rear up unprovoked out of the surrounding plains with nearly vertical sides and improbable round tops. Finally, a mountain horizon that resembled the waggly landscapes I used to draw in primary school. You know you’re in special countryside when there’s a motorcycle parked up at the side of the road, helmet hanging from wing mirror, with a bloke just standing gawping. Motorcyclists don’t usually stop for much else apart from a piss.

The downside of the karst formation’s shape is that there is no going over them – only round them. And round and round. Eventually part of the bus gave up, so we pulled over and got off to watch the driver and assistant empty out the least inspiring collection of hand tools that I’ve seen for quite a while, before proceeding to batter some key part of the rear suspension back into working shape.
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We were only two hours “late” into Luang Prabang, although it was dark by the time we arrived, and the concept of a payphone in the bus terminal was a novelty to all those of whom I enquired as to its whereabouts. With what must be by now tiresome familiarity, we had over-prepared for this leg of the journey by not phoning any guesthouses at all, so now as it got dark and the rain came pouring down, Oisin and Pati huddled under the corrugated tin roof of the bus shelter while I blagged a mobile from a stall holder on the other side of the bus park. Half an hour of calls revealed that every decent hotel listed in the guide book was full, so we ended up in a wooden shack with torn lino on the floor and three single beds. One day we might learn some lessons, but that day is probably still a continent or two away.

Next day we set out early with the one aim of finding decent lodgings. And find them we did. A beautiful old colonial building right by the side of the Mekong, with a dusty antique shop on the ground floor and criminally cheap rooms upstairs – two double beds, aircon, satellite telly and private bathroom for about £7.  Their wifi was “broken”, but I was prepared to forgive them that as everywhere else in town seemed to have wifi coming out their ears. Luang Prabang is another UNESCO World Heritage site, sitting on a peninsula between the Mekong and the Nam Khan rivers, with decaying French colonial villas in neat lines, interrupted only by disproportionate numbers of Buddhist monasteries.
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After the rains of Vientiane, we were in the mood for a change of pace, and Luang Prabang fulfilled our needs amply. Scooter in hand, we wandered the few streets of the touristy end of the town, browsing impeccably tasteful handicraft shops, drinking good coffee and slowly succumbing to the fact that the local beer, Beer Lao, is really very good indeed. Beer Lao has a brand ubiquity that even Guinness would be proud of. Every backpacker and his dog seem to have a Beer Lao t-shirt on, doubtless encouraged by the fact that the logo is visually pleasing and hence makes for a good t-shirt (that and the price – the shirts cost about £1.50 here). For that very reason I fought shy of getting dragged in. But when I eventually gave it a sup, it rewarded my jaded taste buds in style. We promptly bought the t-shirt. In fact, we got one each. It took several hours of scouring the enchanting night market, but we finally found a Beer Lao t-shirt the right size for a three year old, so we are now the Beer Lao family. I’m still waiting to get a photo of the whole team, but as soon as I do it’ll be up here.

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Just today I read a comment on Trip Advisor where a Canadian woman had posted a review of a place in Bangkok where she’d eaten and used the restaurant wifi. The staff refused to hand over her fifty baht change on the grounds she’d plugged her laptop in to the restaurant’s power supply and used electricity. Fifty baht is currently worth about one British pound. The Canadian wrote an appalling review of the place, denouncing the staff as thieves and explaining that she and her partner stood and argued for twenty minutes for their fifty baht. Twenty minutes arguing over a pound. Welcome to the ugly side of international travel. In Luang Prabang I came across an amazing text that was the last page in the menu of a reasonably unassuming bar where we stopped for food one afternoon. The waiter spotted me trying to sneak photos of it, paragraph by paragraph, with my mobile, and happily offered me my very own copy to take home and keep. I’ll put a copy of it up here in its entirety once I get it scanned, for I think it says far better than I could many things about what our presence means here on the other side of the world. And I might just email the link to the Trip Advisor reviewer. The bar is called Lao Lao Garden by the way, and their tempura is great.