BATU, Indonesia. Photo by Jes Aznar

Friday, December 17, 2010

Luang Prabang, Laos: A slice of heaven -- New Internationalist

Luang Prabang, Laos: A slice of heaven -- New Internationalist

The journey to Luang Prabang, Laos takes at least 18 hours on a slow-moving bus from Bangkok. There isn’t much to see on either side of the road except hectares and hectares of rice fields.

There’s nothing entertaining to watch, either, on the supposedly VIP bus from the Thai capital. Don’t go waiting for an English film or even a Western soap opera on television. Instead, one has to endure the Asian daytime shows – lesser versions of the famed Eat Bulaga, the Philippines’ longest longest-running daytime show – more than 20 years now and still counting.

When this is done, one’s ears will have to take in the blaring Asian music that is foreign to a Filipino.

The leg room is cramped and, if you’re unlucky, the guy from the other side of the aisle will sit like a king and stretch his dirty foot towards you.

When the bus finally reaches the Northern Bus Station in the Laos capital of Vientiane, one has to transfer to another bus to Luang Prabang.

I travelled with Filipino documentary photographer Jes Aznar. We took the 8 pm bus – a 10-hour bus ride on a rough zigzag terrain that will never, not for a second, be a straight path.

I hardly slept on the overnight bus because of this dizzying journey and many times wanted to just turn around – if only it was that easy.

But just when I was at my wit’s end, the bus finally stopped. We have arrived at our destination. The sun is out and the sky, now a perfect curtain of blue. The crisp morning air greeted us the moment we hopped off the bus.

And there, staring right in front of us, is a place nestled in the middle of rolling hills and mountains.

Groggy and sleep-deprived, we head to the centre to drink some warm coffee. I see saffron-robed Buddhist monks everywhere. They wake up even before the moon hides as they line up before locals and foreigners offering them alms.

I see pagodas glistening under the morning sun. I see naked children swimming in the Mekong River.

We walk a bit more and we see more of the village. Quaint French-style villas sit alongside traditional Lao architecture.

European backpackers are everywhere, savouring the village and everything that it has to offer. Old couples travelling together are testaments that real love can go on and on.

It is my first hour in Luang Prabang and I am overwhelmed. The place is majestic, breathing the freshest mountain air and tantalizing travellers with the most colourful street market, which sells everything from vegetables to elephant puppets.

The village that sleeps snuggly between the busy Mekong River and the quiet Nam Khan River is a patch of heaven on earth. Unbelievably charming.

The atmosphere is beguiling, with touches of the town’s French past dating back to the 19th and 20th centuries and traditional architecture, making it a Unesco World Heritage Site.

There’s a lot to see in this quaint village. One can stroll along the road by the Mekong River, enjoy the view of the sunset while sipping bottles of Beer Lao or rent a motorcycle or a bike and hop from one temple to another to hear Buddha whisper in your ears.

My favourite is the Wat That Chom Sii temple on Mount Phousi, situated 300 steps above the town centre. It offers a breathtaking view of the rest of Luang Prabang and surrounding villages as far as the eye can see.

The walk is tiring but the postcard view it offers will soothe aching muscles in an instant.

Here in Luang Prabang, you spend the Lao kip by the thousands. We exchanged 100 US dollars and we got 800,000 kip. I’ve never held that ‘much’ money in my whole life.

We celebrated with a 20,000-kip- dinner buffet – the cheapest street food buffet ever in real life – loads of vegetables, pasta, salads and fried rice. It is best to bring cash, as swiping would have additional surcharges.

Accommodation is affordable: air-conditioned inns with clean sheets range from $10 to $25 a night. There’s free coffee too and bananas that go with the price.

For adventure travellers with deep pockets, travel agencies offer three-to-four day adventure packages that include a visit to waterfalls some 30 kilometres away from the town centre, trekking, elephant riding and a visit to far flung handicraft villages.

Rest assured, however, that even without the adventure trips, strolling for days in Luang Prabang is feast enough for the senses.

Sabaidee! Sabaidee* indeed, from this patch of heaven in the uplands of Laos. Nothing can compare.

*Hello, good day!