Awoke in a pitch black room to the blaring sound of the alarm. Unusual as we are used to sleeping with no curtains (don’t worry we are not overlooked) and therefore usually wake (at least in part) to the morning sun. Once I had overcome the confusion of where I was, we got ready for the day ahead. Breakfast was simple – bread with butter and jam followed by bananas. It was then time to re-board the boat.
We travelled down the Mekong river towards Luang Prabang watching the beautiful scenery pass us by. At this time in the morning many of the hills were shrouded in mist which looked like something only normally seen in a magazine photo or travel brochure. This shroud began to roll back as the morning rolled on and we whiled away the morning, chilling in the cool breeze with our books (Claire) or some opportunity for more snoozing! (Anthony). Looking at the programme for the week ahead, this is likely to be the last real day for total relaxation (given the range of things we will be doing) so we elected to take full advantage of this!
Before we knew it, lunchtime had returned again and we were once more treated to a delicious buffet: this time, we had a local vegetable soup, with sweet and sour chicken, some beef pieces, spring rolls with rice and a dessert of freshly sliced pineapple. Having not really drank enough water yesterday, we both were determined to keep our fluid levels up and quickly finished off several litres of bottled water requiring frequent visits to the bathroom for a welcome relief!
As the afternoon wore on and the 160km distance to Luang Prabang quickly reduced, we came across Pak Ou Caves in the cliff face opposite the Tam Ting village on the other bank. We disembarked temporarily to explore this ancient cave which has served as a Buddhist Temple for more than four hundred years! Inside the cave system (two caves, upper and lower) are hundreds of Buddha icons placed by people over the many, many years. Even today, the cave is used for travellers along the mighty Mekong as a place of worship. We elected to visit both cave systems, anticipating that the 200 steps to the upper, deeper caves would not pose a large challenge. Whilst the steps were gradual and comfortable to traverse, the humid air quickly turned us both into a soggy mess – whilst not pleasant to see (or feel!), the whole group suffered similarly and the caves we explored were most certainly worth it!
Carefully returning down the steps to our slow boat, waiting to carry us the final kilometres along the Mekong, we all took the opportunity for the welcome relief of additional water and the cooling river breeze to return us back to some feeling of normality. As we pulled away from Pak Ou and looked across the stunning scenery, we saw at Tam Ting, our first significant example of Lao animal diversity: a troop of elephant calves, slowly making their way down to the river bank, possibly to refresh themselves in the cooling water.
Finally we arrived at the pier where we were to disembark for our final journey into Luang Prabang. Whilst it had been a relaxing two days, it was nice to have finally reached the end of the slow boat journey. Whilst porters carried our bags to the top of the slippery bank, we steadily and slowly made our own way up, trying (in vain) to avoid generating too much sweat. At the top of the bank, a private bus was waiting to convey us and our baggage directly to our hotel approximately 20 min away. Whilst Claire and I have talked about travelling independently and I’m confident that we could manage it – especially in regions of SE Asia such as here given their popularity amongst backpackers – there is definitely something to be said for being part of an organised group where all the necessity in organisation and coordination is sorted for you by someone else – all we have to do is turn up at the right time with the right kit!
Before we knew it we arrived at the UNESCO World Heritage town of Luang Prabang, nothing more than a small town by UK standards but still one the largest in Laos. The town is rich in history and was the former capital of Laos before the King and the government moved to Vientiane (which will will visit in a couple of days). Pulling up into the driveway before our hotel, we were quickly provided with our room key and sent on our way, with hotel porters bringing our bags up shortly thereafter. The room provided was luxurious, with a large king size bed, air conditioning and private ensuite wet room – just what we needed after the meander along the Mekong!
Taking the time to unpack, shower and do some much needed hand-washing, we were changed and met the group to wander the streets of this highlight town where we will be based for two days and to get dinner together. As we wandered across town, Nat introduced us to the the money exchange (where Claire spotted a healthy supply of new postcards!) and the Joma Bakery which provides a range of Laotian food including croissants, BLT sandwiches, iced coffees and chocolate cakes (thanks to the French for their colonial heritage!). We then traversed the remaining distance to our restaurant for the evening, passing through the Night Market which was getting into gear and that we would explore later.
The group meal this evening was at an international cuisine restaurant and many of the group took advantage of this to savour some flavours from home in lieu of the SE Asian cuisine that the majority of our diet had been consumed by. Claire and I elected to compromise, with Luang Prabang spicy pork sausage and sticky rice and skewers of pork, chicken and buffalo (a local consumed meat) served with chips! The food was delicious and the company excellent, as we shared travelling experiences with various members of our group, many of whom are extremely well travelled, either with Exodus or independently. To cap this all, our meal and our three soft drinks came to less than £13 for us both, yet another example of the high quality, low cost of living that is possible out here.
Splitting from the group, Claire and I wandered through the Night Market, examining some of the merchandise (which is of surprising good quality) and engaging with the locals. It is refreshing that, even when haggling to purchase items, people here aren’t aggressive in their approach, favouring instead to politely decline a price offer that they consider to still be too low. Claire managed to find some elephant pants, haggling successfully for a mere £2.60 per pair price! Completing the evening, Claire and I purchased a packet of M&Ms and a locally baked chocolate muffin respectively and made our way back to the hotel where we unwound for the evening before an early night ahead of our first full day in Luang Prabang tomorrow.
Anthony & Claire