Just arrived in Luang Prabang, Laos ("LP"). Instead of crossing into Laos at the northern border with Thailand and taking a boat downriver to LP we decided to fly. The thought was that the river route was just too unpredictable and (according to my mother) we would be murdered in our sleep by Mekong priates. Turns out a) there are no "Mekong pirates", and b) they have reguarlily scheduled "hotel" boats plying the route to LP.
Old town LP is completely walkable. From end to end is probably less than a mile and except for the main stupa, flat. Old town is set on the end of a pennisula that juts into the Mekong river. On either side of town are nice outdoor reasturants on the cliffs above the river. We like to finish the day by stopping at one of them for a cold Lao Beer. Don't know if its the heat or the beer, but Lao beer is one of the best I have tasted. Coming here is a hugh change from Chang Mai and it is difficult to describe the feeling. Compared to the hustle and bustle of Chang Mai this place is amazing! No traffic, no crowds, I think this is how Thailand must have felt in the 50's. You can cross the street without taking your life in your hands. This was a sleepy French backwater prior to WWII and many of the more decrepit "mansions" show a definite french flare. The people are very friendly. Temperature is in the mid-90s and it is pretty humid as well. We found a nice guesthouse on the main street that has air con, on suite bath and HBO! All for the princely sum of $15 a night
Another nice thing is the relatively few number of beggers (3). One seems to have taken a liking to Scott. So far he has shown up at every meal, no matter where we are. Next time he shows up (probably at lunch, since he has already made is morning breakfast visit) I will get he and Scott to pose for a picture.
Luang Prabang is the old royal capital of Laos. We visited the royal palace yesterday. It was built in the early 1900's. The throne room is very opulent. It was redocorated in the late 1950's by the last king of Laos for his coronation. The walls are covered in a moasic of colored mirrored tiles depicting Laoitian folk tales. Unfortunately they did not allow photographs. We will look for some postcards to scan and upload. Also on display are numerous gifts given to the King by various countries. In the case which included gifts from the US were a plaque from Richard Nixon which included a Lao flag which was carried to the moon and some moon rocks encased in crystal. Other gifts included a silver desk and smoking set from JFK.
Luang Prabang is also famous for its temples. We visited one yesterday. Not sure of its name but it is the only one on the main street. No picture can capture the ornateness of the exterior of these buildings. The front is covered with intricate carvings that are then covered in gold leaf. Inset between is mirrored glass. Inside are a large number of Buddahs in various positions (standing, sitting, reclining) surrounding a hugh central Buddah (seated) that is covered in gold leaf. Off to one side in its own shrine is an emerald Buddah (or at least one made from a green crystal or glass).
Visiting the night market is also a unique and must do experience. My only comparison is the night bazzar in Chang Mai, and again, the difference is startling. No crowds, no pushing, no hawkers. Each seller simply greets you with a soft sa-ba-dee (hello) and allows you to look at your leisure. Bargaining is done quitely, typically by typing your offer into a calculator. Back and forth you go until you reach a mutually agreeable price. Prices are already ridiculously low already so it is hard to beat them down too much on the price. Best deals are on carved soapstone and beautifully woven silk. Prices are probably half of what you would pay in Chang Mai.
In closing, we are having a great time. Tomorrow we are going to do a boat trip up the Mekong to the cave of 1000 Buddahs, visit a few hill tribe villages and end the day with a swim at the waterfalls.