The last few weeks, we slowed down, I think this was partially due to the fact we were just a bit tired in ourselves and our level of planning had taken a dip. It’s hard been organised all the time! Due to our poor planning, we had no expectations of Laos but were pleasantly surprised with what we found over the few days we spent there.
It was a shock to me to find out Laos actually has a curfew so everything closes around 11.30pm in order to give people time to get home by 12pm. If you’re a night owl (which I am not) you can still take a tuk tuk from outside the pubs and restaurants which will take you to the local bowling alley. We didn’t make it but they open until the early hours, apparently the curfew is not enforced here and it is a great night out!
We chose to stay centrally and for us it was a great shout as we were in the heart of all the hustle and bustle. There are night markets selling food, clothes and souvenirs that start at 5pm and continue until about 10pm. The town was very busy during our time in Luang Prabang that I am sure it was partly down to the fact Chinese New Year was coming up. There were also a lot of French tourists which later I would learn was due to French ruling Laos as part of Indochina during the colonial period. You can see the influences in the architecture and food – so many food stalls selling crepes, baguettes and French pastries. It was really nice to have something super sweet as in Cambodia their idea of sweet is sticky rice cake with mung beans. Take my word for it, I was very sick after eating this……
Rich’s note: there’s nothing wrong with the rice cakes, Sue’s been dramatic 😉
We had wanted see some elephants and had chosen to go the elephant conservation centre which was a two hour drive followed by a short boat. During the monsoon season, Laos is prone to landslides and this year particularly the roads across Laos got destroyed. There are so many potholes (more like craters) in the road making for a very bumpy drive. We were glad to be doing the journey in dry season!
We choose to do the 3 day, 2 night tour and were so glad as the setting alone was beautiful! You get to experience the elephants being bathed down in the lakes; how the hospital look after them; walks in the forest with the elephants; visiting the nursery and seeing where the elephants socialise. One of the highlights for me was the opportunity for an hour before dinner to speak to the biologist. To hear her passion as well as to have the opportunity to have a really frank conversation about the elephants and conservation was really insightful. It really was an incredible experience to be soooo close to these beautiful animals as well as being totally terrifying! We met a mum and son who were volunteering for a week at the centre which I just thought was great!
Just to mention, it’s good to be aware that some elephant centres are advertised as being sanctuaries but they’re really not. If they let you ride the elephants, this is probably a good indication they don’t have the best interests of the elephants.
In our free time, we took the kayaks out on the lake and enjoyed the sunsets from the hammocks in our little hut. I have never been so chilled about sitting around doing nothing, it really was a magical place. At night time, the sound of crickets and toads was insanely loud, it was like being at a disco but just with crickets and toads. Honestly it was that loud. Considering the size of the spiders outside the hut, I surprisingly kept my cool and had some of the best nights sleep I have ever had!
Market Visit & Bamboo Tree Cooking School
Another day, another cooking school – visiting the local markets first to pick up some herbs for the class. I also picked up a few traditional Laos snacks. I gave these to my parents last weekend, not sure they were that impressed. Put it this way they didn’t try them when I was back home last weekend ? The school was really good but, for me, I personally preferred the cooking school in Vietnam. You had to choose 6 recipes to cook as a group. You could feel a bit of tension as some people in the group of 10, let’s say were quite forceful with there opinion on what should be cooked. All 6 dishes were cooked at the same time by someone in the group so you never prepped all meals. What I did take away is that for a dish to be truly authentic Laos, there must be galangal (same family as ginger) and lemongrass in it. At the end of it the food was great, the cocktails kept flowing and you got a nice recipe book but personally I think there’s better cooking schools out there.
Our plan was only to stay an extra 2 days after the elephant sanctuary before moving on from Luang Prabang. We took such a shining to Luang Prabang we decided to spend an extra few days here and skip Vang Vieng and Vientiane in the end. Not sure if this was a mistake but we really enjoyed the extra few days we had exploring the many temples, markets, waterfalls, bamboo bridge and eating an authentic Laos BBQ. Rich was not as much of a fan of this BBQ as it was veggie heavy but it was right up my street. Laos is not that touristy so its very cheap to eat and drink out. Very helpful when the budget was swiftly dwindling away. We foolishly didn’t pop into the many spas, an authentic Laos massage (2 people massage you at same time) costing about $10-15.
I had read about the Alms ceremony and to finish off our cultural experience, I wanted to experience this age old tradition. The idea of ‘giving of the alms’ is for the monks to get up at sunrise and gather food for their one meal a day. Alms is usually sticky rice or some fruit. The monks will also share there alms with young people to share with there families. As we walked towards the monastery at 5.30am, we saw a little old lady laying out her mat and Alms to give to the monks. As we continued walking, we saw line after line of plastic chairs with rice in front of each. Little did we know we had arrived like an hour to early and when it got to sunrise bus loads of tourists came in to take there seats. The monks ask you to be quiet, to keep your distance, stand on the other side of the road and no flash cameras. Of course the second the monks came out, the tourists acted like paparazzi to get there perfect picture. Rich and I were particularly upset by this as it is a sacred ceremony and people were just not respecting it. Once we saw what was happening we left. If I was advising any tourists on being part of this, I would suggest not to buy into an alms ceremony tour or buy rice. Just visit and stand on the opposite side of the road and just observe it. It’s such a privilege to witness such a ceremony! It would be a shame for this ceremony to die out for the monks and the locals because of poor tourism management.
With just under two weeks before we would fly home to the UK, Rich and I were having a bit of a meltdown questioning whether we should stay in Laos for longer, head to Bali to get another country in or head straight to Thailand. After a pretty intense 10 weeks of travelling, we decided we needed to take it easy before going back to work. After much deliberation, we decided the next stop would be Phuket.