Wat Sop Sickharam
This also is a quiet garden to visit and enjoy. There are many novice monks here as there is a school and also is a working temple. More fine buildings but I must admit I was a little "templed out" by now and didn't really pay enough attention to the wat, that merited better. This is a decent place to watch the alms ceremony on the other side of the road as not many of the hordes of tourists in front of Wat Sen bother to walk down this far.
Wat Sensoukharam, Luang Prabang.
Another significant wat in the same area as Xiengthong is this one a little further along the same road closer to the town centre and also known as Wat Sen. Built with reportedly 100.000 stones from the river in the early 1700's. It is rather pretty being painted in a deep brown/red colour and decorated in gold designs.
Wat Xiengthong, Luang Prabang.
Wat Xiengthong is one of the many wats and stupas grouped on the peninsula and is one of the main starting points for the alms ceremony every morning. Once the frenzy has died down it is one of the loveliest buildings in Luang Prabang. Dating from around 1560 the wat overlooks the Mekong, and was the site for coronation of early Lao kings. There have been many renovations and restorations over the years and it was fortunate to escape the pillage and fires in 1887 from Chinese marauders. The buildings themselves are beautifully decorated, the Red Chapel with scenes of local life and religious activities in delicate coloured glass and the main Sim has a magnificent Tree of Life mosaic on the rear façade.
Normally entrance is 20.000 LAK but nobody asked me for anything.
Go and try Mr Bounmee's bridge.
Right down at the N/W end of the peninsula is a bamboo bridge that makes it easier to get across to Ban Xankong, the weavers village and a nice walk along the Mekong. Mr Bounmee built the bridge himself along with his wife and dismantles it every year before the rainy season and then rebuilds it before the next dry season. He is also there for any maintainence necessary. It costs just 5.000 LAK to go across and nothing on the return. You can stop off and have a chat with Mr Bounmee as he has excellent French and a good knowledge of English. He also gave me a small present of some sticky rice wrapped in a banana leaf.
This really should be in the "What not to do's".After reading Fergy's remonstrations over the tourist behaviour during the Tak Bat, or alms ceremony I got up at 5h30 in the morning to go and see what it was all about. To tell the truth I would hate to be classed as a tourist along with the vast majority of these animals. People turning up on tuktuks and tourbuses, there must have been 4 or 500 people out there and the crowd grew as at 6h00 the drums sounded and people rushed over to the walls and started clicking and flashing through the gaps, and the monks weren't even outside yet. I saw one tourguide get off a bus with some Italians and Americans and actually stood there and taught them what to do and then coached them as the monks were walking past. All dignity was lost when the monks started filing along the pavement and bedlam ensued. I can understand people wanting a photo of a centuries old ceremony but to physically get in the face of these poor monks. It is possible to stand on the other side of the street and get the photo (as I did) without the type of frenzied movement I saw. I completely agree with Fergy when he writes that it doesn't take a lot to respect the people and culture of the place you're visiting. Photos are not that good but do show the frenzy, it was 6h00 in the morning (and I didn't use a flash). Fergy's write-up is here :
Two days up the Mekong.
Many many people do this boat trip the other way round, only because more people seem to go to Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai than elsewhere in the N/NE of Thailand. But from Luang Prabang to Huay Xai is just as good as you have to stop at Pakbeng on the way anyway, and the price is the same. It is imperative to get down to the ticket office at 7h30 ready for the opening and be prepared to use your elbows. There is only one desk and the Laotian guides and touts that have clients don't hesitate to push in front if you let them. You can only buy the first part of the trip here LP to Pakbeng. Two French girls we spoke got ripped off by an agency that charged them 280.000 Lak for the whole trip each. Important if you want to be able to choose a decent seat on the boat. Remember to take sandwiches too as on the boat there is food, noodles in containers reheated if that's your thing. They do have coffee and tea at a reasonable price. We had a boat that had good seats although there are reports of wooden benches on some. We had a change of boat in Pakbeng but it was the same, not bad at all even though 9/10 hours is a bit long. There is one toilet on board too. Price is 110.000 LAK per person for each stage, so 220.000 LAK all the way to Huay Xai. The ticket Pakbeng to Huay Xai is bought on board, so once again imperative to be down there early to get a good seat. It is necessary to take your luggage with you as you will probably not have the same boat.
It is possible to do this trip by fast-boat going the whole way in 7 hours, so saving the hotel price of one night but it is not recommended at all, unless you've had a previous life as a Kamikaze, because of the hidden rocks and all sorts of lumps of wood floating in the river.
National Museum, Luang Prabang.
I must admit I started getting a little "templed out" after 3 days in LP even though we had done some different stuff, so here I just wandered round the grounds for a while. Gets you away from the street noise and very peaceful. This building was constructed in the very early part of the 20th century and was the Royal Palace until 1975 when the King was overthrown by the Pathet Lao and the palace converted into the National Museum. In the grounds is the Wat Pha Bang of pretty recent construction and further buildings off to the right side that house the royal barges and the garage that has the Kings collection of cars. Why I don't know but no photos are allowed of the cars (and a guard to make sure you don't). The grounds are free but the museum is not. Photos and bags are not allowed inside the museum and must be put in a locker.
Hours are 8h30 - 11h30 and 13h30 - 16h00 every day except Tuesday.
H'Mong village, Luang Prabang.
This stop on the way back from Kouang Xi is a bit of a tourist trap and can be missed. The village is genuine enough but the shops and stalls certainly are not. There is a concrete path to follow around the village and of course all the way round there are stands where little girls are dressed up in local clothes just for the visitor, ply their wares. No agression at all but 20 minutes of constant "buy this" "food for the baby" etc etc whilst walking around was a bit too much. We did buy a couple of bracelets from the little girl on the first pic (at 0,50€) and a couple of little money purses, but it was more of a conscience thing than the hard-sell.
Do something useful.
I am not for one minute suggesting that the readers of VT are anything other than useful, but if you are in Luang Prabang there is something really useful you can do that will not cost you a penny and will, I guarantee you, make you feel good about yourself. I shall explain by reproducing an antry from my blog which describes what I did.
"This morning I went to a place called Big Brother Mouse, a strange name I know. Big Brother Mouse specialises in trying to attain literacy in the poorer areas round Luang Prabang. In fact, I read in the Vientiane Times that 30% of females aged 6 - 25 have never been to school. They commission books for which they need sponsorship and distribute them in the Province but their shop / office / classroom serves as a drop-in centre every day except Sunday from 0900 - 1100 as a learning facility for Lao people wanting to learn English.
I speak about ten words of Lao, have no teaching qualification, well no qualifications at all unless you count my Cycling Proficiency Badge and a couple of swimming awards, but this doesn't matter. Many Lao can now speak English as learned at school from Lao teachers but they want to work on pronunciation etc. Heaven forbid there should now be three young men in Lao speaking with Belfast accents! It really could not be simpler. There are a couple of tables, a few maps on the wall and a few childrens English posters of the A is for apple, O is for owl type, and you just sit down, introduce yourself and talk. Heaven knows I am good enough at that.
I have always respected teachers and now I begin to realise why. I had no classroom plan or whatever they are called, so what to talk about? It really was quite nerve wracking at first, especially given the natural shyness of the Lao. What do you talk about? There is no guidance at all from the staff there so you just wing it. My "group", although it is all very informal, consisted of three (H)mong lads, two about 20 and one only 12 years old. They were all from far flung villages in LP Province and the two elder lads were working in town whilst the youngster was studying at school a few miles out of LP. We had two books, an English / Lao dictionary and a book of kids games that Big Brother Mouse produce. So off we went.
We started with the usual, "What is your name?", "Where are you from?" routine, so I came to Northern Ireland. That had to be shown on the very useful world map on the wall, so it gave me a plan. Northern Ireland - North. All the guys had notebooks which they assiduously wrote things in, so I got out the pen and did the points of the compass, using my guidebook to demonstrate. LP is Northwest of Vientiane etc. That led to compass and sailors / boats etc. and we discussed long tail boats and slow boats on the Mekong. I could not mime or demonstrate sailor so the dictionary came into play. Remember sailor, it becomes a little odd later on.
So, we had done the compass thing and then I noticed one of the older guys, the quiet one, was wearing an Inter Milan top. I asked if he supported them, trying to start a talk about football which the Lao love, but he told me he had bought it because it was warm! In about 30 degree heat and me sweating like the proverbial pig, I found this odd. However, I then regaled them with the story of the founding of that club in 1908. The kids play book was then brought into play, so I got the young lad to read aloud from it (it is in English and Lao) and it started to get difficult. It has long been the butt of humour that Eastern Asians confuse our L and R sounds, thereby rendering farang as falang etc. They also, like the Germans, have a serious difficulty with the W sound and render it as a V, so a fairly extended session on that, correct pronounciation of walk was the big one.
We were having a great laugh, and one of the kids games in the book was "write your name in the air with your bottom". I can just imagine the hilarity this must cause in a village. So, bottom led to the concepts of bottom top and sides, which went well. Then I was writing something in one of the guy's books and I noticed on the opposite pages a drawing of the Golden Gate Bridge, a map of San Fransisco etc. and a Chinese female name. Apparently, one of the large Chinese community in that city had come here to do what I was doing. I explained that San Fransisco was Spanish for Saint Francis. "What is a saint?" was the inevitable question. How do you explain the concept of sainthood to someone with only the scantest knowedge of Christianity? Go on, try it yourself. I think I managed. This is where it gets odd. In the two hours I was there we probably looked up about five words, so we looked up saint, and what was it adjacent to? Sailor, as above. What are the chances?
Somewhere in the middle of all this I thought to explain how odd a language English was. I did this to make them feel better as they were obviously trying so very hard and it was difficult for them. In fact, their thirst for knowledge was a truly humbling experience, not lost on one who basically squandered the opportunity of a very good education. You English speakers have a go at this. I wrote down BOW and explained it meant a thing you tie on your shoe, bending at the waist, something with an arrow and the front of a boat. Confusing enough until I told them BOUGH as in part of a tree was also pronounced the same as bending at the waist. English is my mother tongue and it confuses the life out of me.
Then he hit me with another one. "What is Engand and what is Britain?" Here we go again. I am sure there are British passport holders who would struggle to differentiate between Britain, Great Britain and the UK. Cue another trip to the map and a discourse on the political makeup of the UK, the passport being used to demonstrate. Which led to more discussion of the perversity of the English language. I was talking about the visa stamp in my passport for PDR Lao. You are undoubteldy ahead of me already, dear reader. Stamp. What is in your passport, what you put on a letter and what you do with your foot. Three entirely different concepts served by the same word.
The older, quiet guy hit me with another couple of questions and I realised how little I actually know about my own language. He asked what did "somebody" mean and he asked me to explain when to use the word "a" and the word "the". Go on, try it. Try to explain that. I know when to use them but damned if I knew how to explain it. I tried my best though.
All too soon the two hour session was over and I have to say I left feeling pretty drained. It is very hard work that teaching lark, glad I never took it as a profession, although this place really is so rewarding. The looks on their faces are a joy and there is no expectation of you, you don't need to be a formal teacher, although I might jot down a few topics for next time should the conversation falter. If any of you ever venture this way, I strongly urge you to do this, it costs you nothing except a bit of a taxation on your brain, and mine could do with it, and the results are so, so wonderful. I didn't want to stick a camera in these young mens faces so I only took a photo from a distance."
Believe me, I sound like I am gushing there but it really was that fulfilling and I recommend it to any native English speaker.
- Budget Travel
Bear Care centre, Kouang Xi falls, Luang Prabang.
When you are up at Kouang Xi, there are two ways up to the top falls. If you don't see the sign it's possible to miss the Bear Centre. Just after the entrance at the fork you have to take the r/h on which in a couple of minutes will take you there. The centre was created in 2003 by "Free the Bears" which has a few projects in SE Asia. There is no entry price for the centre (included in the price for the falls). It is possible to make donation or buy a t-shirt. The link for the site is below.
Kouang Xi (or Si) waterfalls. Luang Prabang.
One of the "must-do's" in Luang Prabang is the Kouang Xi waterfall. The falls lie about 30 kms out of town but there is a decent road to get there. We saw some do this by bike, but I really don't think it's worth the trouble as it is a very long uphill drag to get there. You get the benefit coming back of course but..... You can easily hire a tuktuk to do this for around 200.000 LAK. We tried the adventurous way by boat downriver and a pickup by tuktuk but that worked out closer to 400.000 LAK. We finally opted for a private minibus for 6 people at 280.000 LAK. that waits at the falls and also did us a stop at a H'mong village on the way back. The falls themselves are impressive, of course they are not comparable with the best well-know falls in the world. As you climb up through the woods you pass some turquoise coloured pools, until finally coming out at a bridge where you have a view of the main fall. Some of the pools are not advised for swimming, but there are signs for those that are. You would be advised too to go early as our visit was somewhat spoiled by two coachloads of Chinese tourists that quite simply took the place over, although we were up there at 10h00. Entrance is 20.000 LAK per person.
Use this map and Ctrl and + or - to zoom in or out and you'll see the falls in the bottom l/h corner.
Climb Mount Phousi, Luang Prabang.
In the centre of Luang Prabang is Mount Phousi, around 100/150 metres high, from which you have a great 360° view of LP, the Mekong and the surrounding hills. The downside is that there are some 350 steps to navigate to the top and you also pay 20.000 LAK for the privilege. I climbed from the Nam Khan river side of the hill and there is a shrine on the way up. At the top there is the 200 year old Wat Chomsi.
Sunset is the ideal time for photos up here but don't think you'll be alone. This is quite a gathering place for tourists and locals too at this time. Take care on the way down, there is very little lighting and uneven step heights. Good view of the night market and the Haw Pha Bang temple if you come down the Mekong side.
Big Brother Mouse, Vientiane.
Having run through many of the tips on various places and things to do here on VT, I came across Fergy's (Planxty) excellent tip on the Big Brother Mouse project here in Luang Prabang. He gives a brilliant account of his time with the project here and is well worth reading.
I finally didn't get round to visiting the main office myself as today you can actually find members of the BBM team on the streets at each end of the night market every day. A long chat was had with one of the members and a hefty donation (by Lao standards) was made. If you have the time, it is a very worthwhile idea and y(our) help is required, it's a great idea as Fergy explains it so well on his pages. Have a look.
Ban Xangkhong, near Luang Prabang.
We used the same boatman to take us upriver to BanXangkhong village, noted for the papermakers and their weavers and also to take a slow ride back to try to catch the sunset on the river. Walking through the village you can see the women making different types of paper, and can obviously buy some. We did see one woman at work on her loom but that was all. There are plenty of stands and shops to buy the material or clothes, but no aggressivity at all for buying. The sunset was a bit of a letdown, but it was a nice couple of hours on the water anyway. A boatman can be found down by the main slipway behind the Museum, or you'll see the tours advertised in the agencies. It is also possible to do this by hiring a bike or scooter and taking the long way round past the airport. Or walk across the bamboo bridge at the end of the peninsula and just carry on walking. By using the map here and Ctrl and + or - you can see the village at 219 right at the top.
The boat cost us 150.000 LAK (under 14€ for 4 people)
Hike the Chomphet trails.II
Along the way you have great views of the river and a couple of bamboo bridges. Plenty of wats and stupas too. The really good thing is there is practically no-one, no tour groups, no tuktuk drivers. Quite peaceful in fact, along with a few slices of locals at work.
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