Luang Prabang is around 6 hours north of Vang Vieng by bus, which was relatively painless compared to previous journeys. The road was extremely scenic, if a little too winding for comfort, and I felt compelled to keep one eye on the bus driver who was shouting into his mobile phone whilst tackling hairpin bends, sending us perilously close to the steep edge of the dusty mountain road. Every time we took a sharp turn I slid into the Chinese guy sitting next to me who was wearing the tiniest shorts (that even the Cheeky girls would've baulked at) and sweating profusely. I thought he'd have to be surgically removed from my right leg by the time we arrived in Luang Prabang.
Luang Prabang has greatly increased in popularity with tourists since the Asian tsunami, which means that prices have also taken a huge hike. More built up and upmarket than our previous destination, Vang Vieng, we had to traipse around town, backpacks in tow and dripping in sweat, looking for a reasonably-priced room for quite some time, and even then we had to pay double what we'd paid in Vang Vieng.
Luang Prabang has many swish boutiques, expensive restaurants and a selection of markets selling handicrafts, silk scarves,paper lanterns and decorative umbrellas. It is set alongside the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers and has lots of places to relax and watch the sun set over the river whilst enjoying a glass of wine.
The buildings are old French-style colonial houses mixed in with wooden huts and bungalows and it is a good base for visiting the local waterfalls and bear sanctuary, as well as doing elephant trekking and hikes.
We decided that watching the sunset over a nice cold glass of white wine would take the sting out of the price we'd just paid for the room (which was only really about 20 quid a night,not exactly robbery,but expensive to a couple of broke travellers) so walked down past a few golden temples to the riverfront where we did just that. Feeling our blood pressure drop considerably with every delicious mouthful, we chilled out here for a while (not too long, the wine was pretty expensive) before going for dinner.
The next day was Liam's birthday, which was spent exploring the town, wandering around the markets and having a "romantic" dinner at a table about an inch away from all the other couples packed in like sardines to celebrate Valentines Day. We'd been kind of hoping that people didn't celebrate Valentine's Day here but no such luck - romance-by-numbers was the order of the day, which is therefore, by definition, unromantic. The pace of life in Laos is so laid-back that we could barely muster the energy to do anything, and instead of going out to the Hive Bar as planned, ended up falling asleep at about 9pm. Very rock and roll.
The next morning we found a gorgeous bakery and ate delicious wholegrain bagels, before exploring one of the local temples and then heading off to visit the waterfalls in a pickup with a Canadian couple, who I insulted about 2 minutes into our first conversation by mistaking them for Americans. Oops! Anyone would've thought I'd asked them why they invaded Iraq.Stony silence all round. Once the moment (and the tumbleweed) had passed, we went on to have a great day with them.
Our tuk-tuk driver bumped and jolted us for around an hour until we finally came to Tat Kunag Si, a beautiful spot featuring a wide multi-tiered set of waterfalls cascading over limestone formations into bright turquoise lagoons below. We climbed up to the top of the waterfalls (no easy feat in flip flops) and walked all around them, before cooling off at the bottom in one of the beautiful, but freezing,bright-blue pools. Locals were swinging from ropes and launching themselves into the lagoon oblivious to the sub-zero temperatures, whilst we shivered and climbed out again before we lost all feeling in our lower bodies. A group of Buddhist monks were also cooling off in one of the nearby lagoons, so I snuck up for a few clandestine snaps of the disrobed young monks. They didn't see me but I still felt a bit guilty. Not guilty enough to delete the pics though, eh? (I even caught a few monks having a sneaky cig in the grounds of a temple once but didn't manage to photograph that one, so consoled myself with these snaps instead.)A sanctuary for sun bears was also nearby which we wandered around for a bit before heading back to town.
The next morning I set my alarm for 6am, as I wanted to attend the Alms Giving Ceremony, which takes place every morning in the centre of town at sunrise. This ritual involves around 400 monks dressed in saffron robes forming a procession as they walk through the town, receiving offerings of rice and fruit from local people. Our guesthouse was surrounded by temples, and we often heard the low rumble of drums each morning to mark the ceremony, but as yet we hadn't got up in time to actually participate. Liam would rather sleep than attend, so I snuck out of bed, dressed quietly and set off.
Out in the street, the sun was beginning to rise and I could hear the drums in the distance. The streets were empty, save for a few street vendors selling offerings for the monks, so I paused to buy some grossly overpriced fruit (should've gone to the market), before kneeling down on a bamboo mat to await the monks. There are all kinds of rules in Buddhism, such as don't stand higher than a monk, always kneel instead, don't touch or look at the monks too closely, don't point your feet towards them. The list goes on, so for all I knew I may have inadvertently insulted them in some way, but I did my best to look humble and respectful, which is more than I can say for the other tourists nearby who just snapped away about an inch from their faces, and didn't give them an offering.
As the monks approached I got my bananas at the ready, suddenly feeling a bit nervous. The procession filed past, the monks opening their large silver urns as they shuffled by, and I gave each one a small offering. I looked from side to side to check I was doing the same as the locals and I seemed to be so I began to relax.
After my offering had been accepted I retreated to take a few snaps. It was a fascinating sight - a long line of bright orange robes snaking down the dusty roads, set against the bright pink and orange sky of sunrise, local people kneeling on the side of the road silently offering gifts to the monks, the sound of drums filling the air.
It was almost time to leave Luang Prabang, so now we had to plan our onward journey back into northern Thailand - next stop, Chiang Mai...