After an average sleep and a mutual decision that we would skip the shower (bathroom was below average to say the least) we made our way back down to the the boat and walked the plank back onto the boat, they put us onto a different boat, which unfortunately had less seats and there were more people doing the trip so we had to share a seat (plank) but at least we still managed to get a cushion for our tender bums. (you know that feeling you have when you have been riding a bike and then when you hop back on - it hurts? well that is the feeling we had getting back on the boat)
It was quite misty for the first hour or so, this made the start of the trip a bit different. There are a lot of whirlpools along the Mekong at the moment and as we had been warned of the dangers of them whilst rafting on the Zambezi we were a little nervous when ever we approached one (although obviously the size of this boat and our raft don't compare..) the Mekong whirlpools are much bigger and stronger, the boat struggled a few times making a few groaning noises that made me have one or two tiny panics (nancy writing again) but apart from that the scenery was as stunning as the day before, but of course everyone was starting to get a wee bit bored and we saw a lot more people reading,listening to ipods (our options also) or trying to sleep (ever tried to sleep on planks?? quite difficult) About 40 mins out of Luang Prabang at the end of the 9 hour journey on 2nd day, the scenery became even better, it was quite funny to watch as all the chilled out tourists suddenly turned into snappy happy japanese tourists (no offence to japanese tourists).
And it was pretty wonderful at this point. Limestone cliffs loomed above the water, with stairwells to temples, the river was wide and calm right to Luang, and again lots of fishermen and kids in dugouts and swimming/fishing off the rocks.
Arriving in Luang Prabang we had the same walk the plank onto bankside (no flash boat piers here yet) and fell in love with the place straight away. Its on a small peninsula where the Nam Khan flows into the Mekong. The architecture is French colonial mixed with lots and lots of temples (wats) and most buildings have been restored beautifully. As it is low season for tourists here at the moment it does not feel too touristy which some people have complained of recently. It is a very laid back little town which we are very much looking forward to exploring. Even in 1995, when it became a UNESCO world heritage sight, they called it the best preserved town/city is SE Asia. And the French influence is obvious. It seems strange for us to be in a town where they drive on right hand side of the road again. (Rwanda has been the only place on our travels so far) and even more amusing to see Asian men playing petanque next to the Mekong!
We are staying at a superbly renovated french villa (we took the chance to upgrade on our recent accomodation!) overlooking the Mekong in a massive room with beautiful wooden floors and shuttered windows!
We will be here for about 5 days so will not update till our end of time here, it is stinking hot again and so far the rain has not followed us from northern Thailand.
Well after 5 days, we can truly say that we have been in our favourite town on our journey so far. And we did not leave the town once, no day trips and not even on a vehicle during the whole time - which is a relief. The place is small enough, and we managed to spend most of the time just chilling out and soaking in the atmosphere. With the odd visit to wats of course! But just walking around here is enough, taking in the mix of Laos and 1920s/1930s French buildings, and stopping to eat and drink. Which in itself was a real treat.
The main highlights on the tourist front was visiting Xieng Thong which is a very beautiful wat by the Mekong, and taking in the sunset from the top of the hill (Phu Si) in the middle of town. The view from there to the mountains and over the two rivers was superb as the sun went down. And Luang Prabang was the centre for the Laos monarchy before the socialist revolution in 1975, so we went to the old palace, which is now converted into a museum - again a lovely wooden floored building, but this was one museum with a bit more interest as it has that eerie feeling that the people who lived here had just left and forgotten to lock the doors! Basically, most of the back rooms, the royal living quarters are as they were when the family left in a hurry in 1975. They died sometime within the next four years in 're-education' camps. The Laos government has never discussed what happened to them, but they are relaxed enough now that street names in this town are going back to their old monarchal names again. Luang is also full of monks of course, all with their saffron orange robes. This certainly seems to be one of the major buddhist centres. On our last morning we saw all the monks on the street collecting their alms from the locals (basically their food for the day). We thought we would miss seeing this spectacle as it always takes place at dawn, and we had been too lazy,or hungover, to get up, and we thought it was only on the main street. But on our last morning we had to get up to catch a minibus, and opened the shutters to see a very long line of monks walking past our guest house, and below our first floor room, were old women on their mats waiting to give them rice. Apparently this has been happening outside our window every morning, but we slept through it!
And as mentioned - the food. Where to start, but this was a very big highlight. The mix of Laos/Thai and French - can not go wrong. But Laos food has the flavours of the Thai, and a few other extras that you can not get elsewhere! Like fried river moss (Mekong seaweed!) and buffalo sausage, or sweet dried buffalo - a bit like biltong. And some of the best food was something called laap paa which is finely minced fish with a great blend of herbs and spices. Laap also goes with any meat but is best with fish. Jamie Oliver has even been here for a weeks cooking course a couple of years back! We ate at the restaurant of the chef who trained him, and I had a lovely ginger mekong catfish. Again most meals with drink for less than $5 US per head! We especially liked eating along the Mekong, which we were lucky to do, because every three months they have to pack up, if for some reason the government has a crack down on setting up these restaurants. They also occasionally enforce an 11.30 pm curfew nationwide, but they were pretty relaxed while we were there. The best meal of all was when we splashed out to eat at The Apsara. I (Tony) had my first steak for a long long time, and the rest was great Laos food. What a treat and our first bottle of french red wine since London! This came to about $20 a head!