Have you all been on tenterhooks waiting to find out if we got our Vietnam visas and Laos visa extensions? Short answer – yes we did.
Thursday morning saw us bright and early at the door of the Vietnamese embassy waiting for them to open after their three-day holiday. Once inside we were told they could either process our applications by the following Monday for US$60 each, or by the same afternoon for US$80 each, so that was a no-brainer and we duly handed over our passports and a stack of dollars. The next morning (Friday), happily clutching our freshly Vietnam visad passports, we went to the Laos immigration office, where earlier in the week they’d told us that they could do visa extensions on a same-day basis. However, on Friday the very same woman that we’d spoken to earlier in the week now told us they only offered a next-day service and therefore it would be Monday before our extended Laos visas would be ready. We were a bit put out to be honest as we probably wouldn’t have paid extra for the same-day Vietnam visa service if we’d known that we wouldn’t be leaving Luang Prabang until after the weekend anyway. We pleaded and begged and asked if we could pay extra for a same-day service, but no, she was adamant, it would be Monday. We filled in the forms, handed over our passports and the US$2 a day plus US$2 processing fee, and then, as she handed us our receipt, she seemed to have a change of heart and said if we came back at 3 o’clock that afternoon then perhaps our visas would be ready after all. Hurray! We weren’t overly optimistic, but to our delight she pulled it off and at 3pm on Friday our visa extensions were ready and waiting for us.
When we’d first arrived on Monday to find the Vietnam Embassy closed we’d been a bit frustrated, but to be honest, we’re glad now that we had the extra days in Luang Prabang. It’s a lovely place. The whole town is a UNESCO world heritage site full of elegant, old French Colonial buildings with the languid Mekong river making its drowsy way around the town.
It’s very tourist-oriented, but once you get over that it’s got an easy, relaxing charm and there’s plenty to do and see in between eating noodle soup or drinking a fresh coconut at the cheapest restaurant in town which, amazingly, has a prime site on the banks of the Mekong.
We stayed a little out of the town centre (close to the embassy and immigration office) at the excellent Sysomphone Guesthouse, which we highly recommend. It’s a family-run guesthouse and for a reasonable nightly rate (80,000 kip) we had a nice double room with a large en-suite shower and sit-down toilet, plus free wifi, free drinking water and free bananas.
As well as the usual pottering about and poking around markets (after MUCH deliberation Keith bought a fake Samsung dual-SIM smartphone to replace the horribly clunky dual-SIM phone we left home with), we went to a couple of interesting museums (the Traditional Arts and Ethnology Centre and the National Museum in the old Royal Palace), spent two evenings volunteering at the English conversation classes run by an organisation called Big Brother Mouse (which also publishes dual language Laos/English books that they give to village children who often have never owned a book before), and spent a very enjoyable day at the Ock Pop Tok (East Meets West) Living Craft Centre. We were taken on a free tour and told about silk production and natural dyes, and then we watched entranced as the most intricate patterns were woven on different styles of traditional looms.
It’s incredibly painstaking work. A piece of cloth with a complex pattern can grow by just a few centimetres a day so making a single scarf can take up to 22 hours of nimble-fingered, sharp-eyed labour.
The weaving centre is a couple of kilometres outside the town centre and our finding out about it is a bit of a tale in itself:
At our first Big Brother Mouse class I spent a lot of the evening helping a young woman called Mone with her English homework (not that she needed much help as her English is excellent). Although she’s one of the tiniest people I’ve ever met she has a huge personality and quite possibly the biggest smile in the whole of Laos. She’s the kind of person who just brightens up your day when you speak to her. I’d hoped to go and visit her the next day at the Ock Pop Tok shop where she works (selling exquisite fabrics and handicrafts made both in villages throughout Laos and also at their craft centre in Luang Prabang), but unfortunately I’d forgotten which of the three Ock Pop Tok locations Mone works at and we didn’t get around to it, so we were really delighted when we bumped into her the next evening at the night market (where a slap-up vegetarian feast can be had for just 10,000kip/less than a quid.). She was having dinner with her sister, Gao (sorry, that’s probably not the correct spelling), and an American traveller who Mone had met at the shop and we joined them. After dinner Keith took everyone for rides on the Pino, but just as Gao was about to hop on board she was hailed by an Aussie couple who had spent some time with her earlier that day at the craft centre where she works as a talented back-loom weaver. We’d heard a little about the craft centre from Mone (who was also a weaver there before taking on the sales position in one of the town centre shops), and of course we’d read the blurb in the Lonely Planet, but what we hadn’t realised until meeting Aussies Bernard and Margaret was that as well as offering slightly pricier courses where you can learn to use natural dyes and weave your own place-mats, Ock Pop Tok also provide free tours where you can spend as long as you like watching and talking to the weavers, and then spend an enjoyable hour or so over coffee in the elegant restaurant on the banks of the beautiful Mekong. And so the next day that was exactly what we did.
Even more serendipitously, whilst in conversation with our new circle of friends, we also discovered that Bernard knows Keith’s uncle Herb in Australia!! How about that! No matter how far away from friends and family you are it’s nice to know you’re never really all that far away.
As well as beautiful architecture, interesting museums and enticing markets, Luang Prabang is predominantly known for its preponderance of temples and in particular for the daily alms ceremony where monks and novices walk the streets at dawn and the faithful kneel to offer small parcels of rice. It has, unsurprisingly, become a bit of a tourist attraction – to the extent that the tourists are in danger of destroying what they’ve come to see. The town authorities had considered banning the event as fewer and fewer residents were taking part because they, equally unsurprisingly, felt angry that their devout and solemn giving of alms was becoming a circus act for snap-happy tourists. In the end, the daily ritual survived, but tourists are asked to follow some simple guidelines, such as dressing appropriately, standing well back in respectful silence and not using flash photography as it is distracting to the monks’ meditation. Sadly, when we first ventured out at 5.30am I think we were the only tourists who were not standing inches from the monks and sticking cameras in their faces. It was sickening. Keith stood well back and took some photos of the charade but I walked away in disgust.
The next day we found a much better way to observe in what we hope was a more respectful way when we hopped on the Pino and rode across the river to a more residential, less touristy part of town and watched the orange columns filing past the kneeling locals and then chanting blessings in thanks for the offerings.
Here are a few more of our favourite Luang Prabang scenes:
From Luang Prabang we pedalled south on route 13 (hilly) to Phou Khoun (where we bought an interesting sausage, some bundles of ferns, some pea sprouts and various other vegetables at the market) and then headed east on route 7 to Phonsavan. Despite route 13 being the main artery linking the capital Vientiane with Luang Prabang (and, further north, with China) there are hardly any vehicles on the road. The numbers dwindle even more on route 7 even though it’s a major link with Vietnam. We’ve been seeing maybe just 10 or 15 vehicles an hour, and that’s including motorbikes. As you can imagine, we love it! We’ve also been lucky with the weather. We’ve done a lot of climbing over the last few days and at this time of year Laos can be sweltering, but on the day of our longest climb we were saved by the fact that it was overcast all day. Even so, it was so humid that Keith had to stop a couple of times to wring his shorts out as drops of sweat were annoyingly dripping onto his ankles. When we’re not so lucky with the cloud cover our strategies against heat-stroke include trying to get an early start (our alarm goes off at 5.30) and soaking our clothes at regular intervals in water from roadside taps or water-spouts.
We’ve enjoyed some great meals in the village cafes en route even though we invariably choose the cheapest item on the menu: noodle soup with either pork, beef or chicken – usually 15000kip/less than £1.50 each. Each cafe has its own variation and our favourites are those that come with a side serving of lettuce, mint, green beans, beansprouts, fresh limes, ferocious whole green chillies (distracted one day while talking to other travellers, Keith mistakenly munched on one thinking it was a green bean and has paid close attention to what he puts in his mouth ever since) and an unidentified astringent leaf with a taste that’s reminiscent of liquorice. You can add as much or as little of these as you like to your soup.
In addition to the leafy side-plate, no Lao table is complete without an extensive condiment range of (at a bare minimum) salt, sugar, dried chilli flakes, fish paste, fish sauce, sweet chilli sauce and soy sauce. Whilst a bowl of soupy noodles is familiar fare to us from our travels in China, we soon discovered that dining etiquette in Laos is strikingly different to that in China. I think it’s fair to say that the Chinese are admirably efficient eaters. Noodles are directed to the mouth using chopsticks and then sucked in with gusto. Pieces of meat are similarly transferred to the mouth with chopsticks, then the meat and any other edible parts are sucked from the bones which are spat onto the floor to be swept up after the meal has finished. The broth is dealt with by raising the bowl to the lips and slurping noisily until the bowl is drained. There’s a lot to be said for this way of eating and it didn’t take Keith and I very long to set aside our British table manners and gobble away with the best of them, although I don’t think we ever managed to finish our food quite as quickly as the Chinese diners.
In Laos though, we’ve had to re-learn our manners. Chopsticks are still used to transfer noodles and meat to the mouth, but there’s a lot less slurping and any bones are discreetly placed back in the bowl to be left at the end of the meal. Bowls are rarely lifted to drink the broth; instead a spoon is held in the left hand and quite often chopsticks are not used to transfer noodles to the mouth but instead are used to delicately coil the noodles onto the spoon so that a combination of noodle, vegetable, meat and broth can be ingested at the same time. It sounds easy enough, but we’ve found handling a spoon left-handed requires quite a bit of practice. I’ve persevered with it though and tell myself I will enjoy the food more if I don’t gobble it down as fast as possible (always a temptation to a hungry cyclist).
We’ve only got a few more days left now in Laos and we’ll be sorry to leave. It’s a beautiful country and its quiet roads are a delight to cycle on. The people are welcoming and friendly, and most of them exchange broad smiles and sing-song ‘sabaidees’ with us (“sabaidee” means “hello” in Lao). I’ve even risen above my normal state of child-intolerance to hi-five some of the over-excited youngsters bouncing up and down at the roadside. I was, however, reminded why I usually don’t like children when some snot-nosed little sh*te caught me with a stone as we whizzed by. Although I was unhurt I was actually too stunned to respond at first as I’d been all set with my very best ‘being nice to children’ smile, but Keith quickly whipped the Pino around and we chased the little sod up the hill to find him hiding behind his grandmother’s skirt. She didn’t look too pleased when we explained by miming what he’d done and with any luck she’ll have given him ‘what for’ in no uncertain terms after we left. Anyhow, I digress, mostly Laos has been wonderful. Oh, and I nearly forgot!! The best bit yet! We were flying down a hill (which at 40-50 kph was a bit nerve-wracking from my seat to be honest) when we came round a corner to find about a metre and a half of thick brown rope in the middle of the road. At first I thought Keith was going to ride over it, but then he decided to go to the right of it (i.e. verge-side), at which point the ‘rope’ started slithering towards the verge. A quick change of plan took place and we shot narrowly to the left of the departing snake. No photos I’m afraid. Keith did offer to turn the bike around but I was fairly certain it would have been long gone by the time we’d backtracked. You’ll just have to content yourselves with these snaps of Laos scenery instead.