Monday, April 12, 2010

Luang Prabang Laos

In memory of Dee Dee and Mitch Cunnyngham. Dee Dee was a co-worker back in San Diego and her and her husband Mitch were murdered on Easter evening at their home in Poway. Dee Dee was a good, fair, and honest person-an asset to her community. It was evident of the impact their family had on the community as more than 600 people attended their memorial. They will be missed.

In Vientiane I picked up a copy of The Ravens by Christopher Robbins, the definitive book about a CIA sponsored covert military operation in Laos of elite US Air Force pilots operating low flying single engine planes to mark, survey, and engage with North Vietnamese troop and supply movement during the Vietnam War. These cowboy pilots suffered a high casualty rate and their stories are humorous, amazing, and tragic. One of the passages in the book that came to mind while reading and driving through the high mountains of Laos (Hmong territory) was all the slashing and burning of hillsides during the dry season (Dec-April) . As you will note from the hazy photos below, operation "torch the hills" was in full effect. On the drive to Luang Prabang we must have seen about a dozen blazes and stacks of former trees along the highway for curbside pick-up. Visiting the former kingdom capital during the dry season is ill advisable. You might want to bring an oxygen tank and your inhaler. The 100 plus degree heat mixed with trapped smoke is murder on your lungs. This of course is your reward if you survive the 6 hour van ride (or 8 plus by bus) through the (excuse my French) crazy-ass hills. Seriously, where is the opium when you need it. The road was narrow and filled with hairpin curves. The lady sitting in front of us barfed twice and held on the "oh shit" handle for most for the trip. The driver had a stack of barf bags on the dashboard for such occasions. The mountains in Laos are littered with blackened hill and the roads lined with blue plastic bags filled with vomit.

I bet these mountains are to die for during the wet season when the air is clean.

In the midst of the clearing there are freshly constructed huts. The good news is that trees are replanted but take time to grow.

We arrived in Luang Prabang in the late afternoon. Our van driver refused to take us to our guest house even though that was part of the deal. This really upset one of the other passengers in the van who got into a yelling match with the driver. It really wasn't worth the argument, so we got in a tuk-tuk to take us into town and when we paid him he tried to cheat Barbara on her change. It seemed like the problems were mounting, as they say, you only have one chance to make a good first impression and so far there were two strikes against the town within the first ten minutes. Ana needed to get her equilibrium back in order so she chilled out while I went for a short walk around the town center. The population of Luang Prabang reaches just a little over 100,000 but it is filled with enough sights and architecture to keep the eye busy. The above photos is from Wat Xiengmouane Vajiramang alaram.

Outside Wat Choumkhong Sourintharame.

Three nights later I would re-visit this bottle of Healthy Herb Whisky along the Mekong with my new friend Sebastian and the intentions of sampling all four variations of the hooch. Not pictured is the Lao wine, red in color with pealed bananas resting at the bottom of the jar. The Whiskey had mainly wood chips and other unidentified sunken objects. The other two drinks also had natural looking objects at the bottom. Fast forwarding to the future; Sebastian and I had a mission to try all four offerings and since this is Laos we asked the server to pour very little into our shot glasses for we only wanted a tasting and not the headache in the morning. We even ordered a bottle of water to clean our palettes for a proper tasting. As small as the samplings were I got both a taste and a case of the regrets the following morning. The flavors were fine going down, the sunken banana one was voted the favorite.

Ana made the remark that Luang Prabang was like living in San Diego during the wild fires. The orange sky tripped us out as did the occasional falling ash.

A real house boat, two stories even.

A building around town.

Looking towards the center of town.

We saw a traditional Lao dinner show on the first night; the dancers, musicians, and servers all looked related. I was convinced that this was a family cooks, mom and daughters dance, the sons play music, while the cousin waits the tables. We enjoyed it. The above dance celebrates the three ethnic groups of Laos; Lao Loum (lowland Lao), Lao Soung (Hmong-higher mountain dwellers), and Lao Thoeng (lower mountain dwellers). You will see these three women in their traditional dresses on the 1000 KIP bill.

The royal ceremony dance.

The two 8 year-old brother and 13 year-old uncle.

Outside our guest house starting at dawn is the morning food market. I suspect that this is the raw version of the popular kelp that is consumed in this region.

Types of fish.

I just liked the way this looked.

Different types of chili. I picked up a small bag of the bottom left.

Lao KIP and spotted eggs.

Another amazing looking building.

The National Musuem (Ho Kham), former royal palace. No cameras allowed inside, you'll just have to take our word that it is a must see. The highlight of the museum is the gifts from other countries on display. All of which had cultural significance from the giving country with the exception of the US, our gift was a model of an Apollo lunar landing. I guess that was our way of getting back at the commies since the war didn't go so well.

The grounds of the museum.

Wat under restoration.

300 long steps up Phousi Hill. I'm sure the 360 degree view of the city is to die for when it is clear.

This is the same view in FEB 2008 (image borrowed from Stopping To Smell The Roses-used without permission.)

Coming down the other side of Phousi Hill is Vat Thammo Thayaram Pra Thatchomsi. Try pronouncing that with a mouth full of sticky rice.

Definitely worth a visit is Tat Kuang Si (the water falls) about 30 km outside the of town. It is the perfect place to cool down as there are several cold natural limestone pools along the path up to the waterfall. It is also a nice place to sit down and enjoy a lunch. Aussies tend to outnumber just about everyone there-be careful because they like to climb on rocks and jump into the pools below. Most had some sort of open wound, scab, scar, or bruise on them, maybe bodily injury is their Lao rite of passage. As you enter the gates into the falls, there is a bear sanctuary at the base of the mountain.

Damm bear and Dinh bear, guess each bear had its' own log portrait. Membership does have its’ privileges!

The first pool.

The waterfall.

BBQ fish.

No meal is complete without chicken feet!

I was really into the people riding bike and motorcycles with an umbrella. This guy was lucky because he had a personal assistant.

From the Lao National Unexploded Ordnance Programme website ( Lao PDR has the unwanted distinction of being per capita the most heavily bombed nation in the world. Between the years 1964 and 1973, the United States flew more than half a million bombing missions, delivering more than two million tons of explosive ordnance, in an attempt to block the flow of North Vietnamese arms and troops through Laotian territory. The ordnance dropped include more than 266 million submunitions (known as “bombies” in Lao) released from cluster bombs. Significant land battles, including those during the war for independence during the French colonial era and between the Pathet Lao and the Royal Lao forces, also contributed vast quantities of unexploded heavy bombs, rockets, grenades, artillery munitions, mortars, anti-personnel landmines, and improvised explosive devices. It is estimated that up to 30% of all ordnance did not explode. Such unexploded ordnance (UXO) continues to remain in the ground, maiming and killing people, and hindering socio-economic development and food security.

Critical Mass-Lao style.

Freshly washed monk robes.


Jack fruit and not Jacky fruit!

Baby elephant at the hotel!

A gentle reminder that the French and company got their ass kicked out of Laos.

Bun Pi Mai Lao (Lao New Years) was a week away and before the celebration is the water festival to kick it all off. One of the traditions is for people of the street to douse passing cars with buckets of cool water. Our van on the way to Luang Prabang got hit a couple of times. These girls were mainly throwing water at teen boys in the back of trucks. Just a mild form of filtration.

One of the tradition in Laung Prabang is the Buddhist monks collecting alms in the early morning (Tak Bak). Monks walk down the street and people kneel down giving the monks food such as rice. Regrettably we never got our act together to wake up in time to witness this ritual. However the procession remains one of the main attractions to the town.

Buckets of rice.

Our other option was a 10 hour bus ride back to Vientiane then catch the 14 train to Bangkok or the 90 minute plane ride. Sure it cost a little bit more but damn was it worth it.

Also worth noting is the Nightly Market that runs along Chaofa Road (from 5-10 pm), vendors sell Lao handicrafts and relics. The Hive bar run by expat Isabella serves up a nice sangria, chilled red Cuban wine, and has a nightly Lao fashion show 5 night a week and live music. Kopnoi Made in Laos craft shop has a nice assortment of Lao fashions and other items such as Lao Lao (rice whiskey) and Lao cigarettes. the museum/gallery on the top floor has a wealth of useful information about Laos and promotes the program "Stay Another Day." there are some wine shops along Chaofa Road to do some tasting of imported wines. We tried to go to the late night bowling alley which is another popular stop for when the bars close at 1030, I guess we showed up to early. A couple of used book, art, and tea shops line Ratsavong Road. And finally there are no shortages of places to enjoy a meal along the Mekong and around town.


  1. Just stumbled across this. Great write-up. I plan on visiting Laos this winter, but wasn't sure what to expect.