Once we got into Luang Prabang, from Vang Vieng, we immediately googled to see if the road we had just taken was on the top 20 most dangerous roads. It isn't but, it definitely should be or, it's number 21! The photo was taken by Craig, sat in the front seat of the minivan, at the top of one of the many mountains we drove up and back down the other side of over 5 hours. The road changed from tarmac, to unsealed road, to sand with the sand prevailing on some of the trickier ascents. The road also had no barriers and no real margin for error because it was so narrow and, if we went over, we would be falling for a while!
We were delighted to arrive at our accommodation, Moon's House Hotel and check in at 14:00. After having a quick lunch, we went for a walk along the main street however it didn't last long as the stalls were being moved into place for the nightly night market. For dinner, we had to walk the length of the market to finally get to Yongkhoune Restaurant where Craig had a Lao take on the Khao Soi he had loved in Thailand (not as good) and Katy had a Luang Prabang sausage. Sadly, something was lost in translation and a single sausage is all she had!
To make up for Katy's disappointment, we shared a crepe from one of the vendors at the market, not the Nutella cheese one, for some reason we didn't fancy it...
The next morning we set out to explore the town further and, after breakfast, we entered the palace. Built in 1904 by the French to house the Laos Royal family, it was in use until the end of the revolution in 1975 when the king was forced to abdicate. Ultimately, the king and queen would be forced to a 're-education centre' where they were put to hard labour with malaria being the likely cause of their deaths. The palace itself has been converted into a museum, depicting the livelihood the monarchy led up until their abdication. There was some interesting artefacts including gifts from other communist and neighbouring countries. We would love to show you some of the exhibits but camera's were banned from the palace. The next stop was to the garage where the cars used by the royal family are still kept including, a very impressive Lincoln Continental. From here we explored the palace grounds and the onsite temple to Buddha.
After spending an hour and a half in the palace, we climbed Mount Phousi a 100m hill, with over 300 stairs, in the centre of town. The hill is dotted with temples and stupas and is considered very sacred to the Laos people. The views from the top were stunning, allowing us to survey the town and the valley it was nestled in along with the confluence of the mighty Mekong and Nam Khan rivers.
We decided to take the north path down (and were really glad we hadn't come up this much steeper side), having come up the south side, and walked along the Nam Khan where we came across the bamboo bridge. Every year it is washed away in the wet season by the river and every year they rebuild it and charge 2,000Kip (20p) per person to cross it to help fund next years bridge.
After lunch we returned to the hotel to spend the afternoon in the room relaxing. Dinner that evening was also a quiet affair and an early night followed.
The tuk tuk picked us up at 09:45 the next morning and took us to the jetty for our half day on the Mekong. The first stop was to a village where the locals made Laos whisky. The word whisky might be a bit strong. Think moonshine and you are probably closer. The product is distilled locally and then sold, mostly to tourists. When we arrived we sampled a Laos Rice Wine which was very sweet, purple in colour, with a grape flavour, and 2 clear whisky's, 1 flavoured with banana and the other a straight up whisky. The spirit is made from sticky rice and tasted like the paint stripper it looked like, with the banana faring little better. The showpiece items were the whisky infused with a snake and another infused with a scorpion. The village also had a market that we had half an hour to explore, we didn't buy anything but it wasn't as poverty stricken as other villages we have visited in SE Asia. We were disappointed not to see the whisky production process but perhaps that was for the best having drank some!
Once we were on our way upstream again we came to the main attraction, the Pak Ou Caves, two caves that have been converted to Buddhist spaces by monks and helped by the sheer number of Buddha statues! We decided to walk to the further away of the two caves first (that contains over 1,000 Buddha images) and so climbed over 200 stairs to the other side of the mountain from the river and, with iPhone lights shinning, entered the dark, three chambered cave. It was impressive to see how many Buddha's they could squeeze into one area! The remains of old statues that have now been swept to the side watch on, their ghosts dancing as the lights move across them as people move through the cave. The candlelight gives the statues an eerie character before tourists cameras suddenly light up the entire cavern, somewhat wasting the illusion.
After finding our way back to the entrance we returned to the first cave, a single chamber cave that has over 2,000 images of Buddha. This was the least impressive of the two mostly as it was less of a cave and more an indentation in the limestone and, it was tremendously busy. It also didn't have the same feeling of spirituality that the other cave had.
After returning to the boat we were served a Lao feast on our way back to Luang Prabang! The menu started with an amuse bouche of Mekong river weed cooked in sesame seeds topped with Luang Prabang sausage and tomato chutney. The next course was a bowl of chicken soup that was simple yet tasty. For our starter we had a pork salad that came with sticky purple rice which was good although, Katy wasn't overly enamoured with it. Our main was fish steamed in banana leaves and served with vegetables and sticky rice, as you can imagine, we were stuffed! That doesn't mean we didn't eat the fresh fruit that was served for dessert however...!
After a relaxing afternoon back at the hotel we headed out for dinner at the marketplace as we didn't need lots of food. After ordering some food at Tonka Kitchen we took a seat under the fairly lights of the park and enjoyed the traditional Laos food we had ordered.
So, it turns out we were being idiots. The hotel we were staying at does a free breakfast. Morning 3 was when we worked that out! After a tasty FREE breakfast we took our booked minivan (with 8 others) to the Kuang Si waterfall. We started by climbing all the way to the top, passing smaller falls and beautiful blue lagoons, and then the near vertical (in sandals and flip flops) climb to the top of the big waterfall. The view was sadly hampered by the haze that has seemed to follow us everywhere in SE Asia but we were among only a handful at the top which was a pleasant experience, in the cool breeze, under the shade of the jungle.
With plenty of time we took our time on the descent, to begin with that was mostly because it was slippy and then to see what we had rushed past earlier. The area wasn't overly crowded which was nice as well although that was a different story at a pool where swimming was allowed!
The next stop was the bear sanctuary which houses a combination of Sun and Moon bears. These bears are trapped by poachers and then sold to Chinese medicine men who extract their bile from the gallbladder via a needle to use in Chinese medicine. The charity, Free The Bears, rescues them and keeps them in a sanctuary as they are weak when they are found but they are also unable to be wild anymore. It was very sad to see these animals living in a sanctuary, and we appreciate their alternative was far worse but surely it would be better if they had been left to roam free.
With some time left we went for a coffee outside of the park, to a restaurant/cafe beside the bus park. We both ordered the Laos coffee and both tasted it at the same time which resulted in us pulling a similar face at the same time! Laos coffee is black coffee with condensed milk and sugar! With one of us having a grandmother who put sugar on strawberries and the other who had two grandmothers renowned for their home baking, meaning we both have a major sweet tooth, it was still far too sickly sweet for both of us! It had a very odd thick texture as well, which didn't help the overall experience.
When we returned to Luang Prabang we headed out for a sandwich from Luang Prabang bakery (after washing our now very dusty legs) and then had a relaxing afternoon. For dinner we returned to the market and decided to treat ourselves to coconut pancakes for dessert. They were a bit doughy in truth and didn't have a strong coconut taste but certainly satisfied an itch for a little bit of sugar.
Tomorrow we head back to Vientiane!