Friday, July 18, 2008

Luang Prabang - Close to the Heavens

Ancient royal city. Laos’ foremost tourist destination. UNESCO World Heritage City.Population: 26,000Main water way: the Mekong and the Nam Kham (Kham River)Elevation: 700 m above sea level


Arriving in Luang Prabang in the early morning was like riding into a dream. The moment I opened my eyes on the bus, I knew I made the right decision to travel on a night bus. It was past 6 AM and the vehicle was making its steady ascent into a zigzag to the heavens. Fluffy clouds hang low, their feathery tufts covering most of the green mountains surrounding us. They were like angels welcoming us.

It was hard not to be moved by such beauty. As the other passengers gradually awoke in the midst of such unfathomable beauty, everyone fell silent. I was wide-eyed, smiling for myself. The only sound that you could hear was the occasional clicking of cameras. It has been more than 36 hours of bus rides from Saigon. My only regret so far is my failure to capture the beauty of the scenery before me – in all its splendor. Is this the road to heaven? The view before me is probably not for cameras to capture, but solely for the human eye to appreciate.


We reached an almost deserted bus garage. It was drizzling by the time our bus found its parking. There was a small office at the center of the station lot. I retrieved my backpack, took shelter and considered my options. I went to one of the waiting sangthaews (which literally means 2 rows). I asked how much he’s charging for Sisavangvong Road, the main street at the center of the city. Whoever thought of that name is a genius. It has a tongue-twisting playful quality. Sisa-vang-vong! Sisa-vang-vong! Saying it is like summoning the spirits of heaven! Sisa-vang-vong! Can I have a smoke machine?

One of the tourists kept saying, “Sisa-VONG!” as though he was trying to correct me. The cretin! Go check your crumpled Lonely Planet and relearn your street names! From behind me, a goo goo eyed Danish girl, in her high-pitched nasal voice, kept gushing, “It’s so beautiful!” I looked around and saw the dusty grounds of the bus station. There were other sangthaews waiting for customers. There was nothing particularly beautiful surroundings us. Unless she was referring to the tall Italian guy she was tightly holding on to. Alright, I’m being a dickhead! LOL

The sangthaew driver I approached was asking for 15,000 kip (almost $2) from each of his 3 passengers, myself included. Cheap. But if you really think about it, it was like a tricycle ride from any of the side streets of Boni Avenue going to Cherry’s Foodarama in Shaw Boulevard, which charges PhP30 ($0.65 ). Buti sana kung airconditioned taxi service ‘to, eh motorbike lang naman na may backride. Tapos may mga kasama ka pa! Off we went to Sisavangvong. The driver earned 45,000 kip from us. That’s $5.60 (PhP255) for his non-aircon luxury vehicle.

Looks like a "thumbs up"as the Mekong flows to the North then turns south and eastward. X marks the Chomsy Hill aka Phou Si.

Sisavangvong was a pleasant surprise. The street is lined by quaint little shops and rows of restaurants. A large hill called Phou Si stands proud along this street. Phou Si is also called Chomsy Hill mainly because Chompasak (Kalachuchi) grows around the whole area. Phou Si is a helpful beacon in orienting yourself around LP. From the peak, you see the spectacular view of the whole city including the confluence of the two rivers – the great Mekong and the Kham River. The town itself is easily navigated on foot. If you are the fun and adventurous “walker”, you can see most of the city in a day or two, although most tourists extend their stay to soak up the atmosphere.
I had two guesthouses on my list to check out. I had to narrow down my prospective choices. The first one on my list was Sackarinth Guesthouse located off Sisavangvong. There is a signpost from the main street which I readily saw from my drop off. For some reason, the rate was lower than what Lonely Planet mentioned. Must be the low season. I met Somsak from the lobby. He showed me room 7 located on the 2nd floor, at the back of the front building. Though dimly lit, my room was big - with airconditioning, a cable television, and a clean bathroom. True enough, as per literature, a koala bear graces the door mat. LOL. Not bad for a S12. The two other backpackers from the bus station got the room next to mine, which was another $12. This meant they get to pay $6 (48,000 kip or PhP273) each for their room. I’ll be damned! LOL. It wasn’t until later in the day that Somsak informed me that “your friends” transferred to a much smaller fan room in the front building. The room rate: $6. My so-called friends shelled out $3 each (Php136.50)! Ohmygod! So, if you have plans of seeing Luang Prabang and are on a tight budget, a $3 room wouldn’t be a bad choice. One thing’s for sure. You have to share a communal bathroom with others. If you are claustrophobic, I wouldn’t recommend it either. As Somsak said, “Is very small room…”

Somsak couldn’t be over 20. I sat up with him for a friendly chat. He pointed to his mop of dark hair, “I’m not so used to having a lot of hair.” He was a monk until 2 months ago. He left his temple to pursue college and to work. He felt he needed to help his family who lives in a rice farming community some 30 minutes from Luang. Most families send their children to temples to avail of their free elementary and secondary education. Having a monk in the family renders a sense of respectability to a Lao family, much like a Filipino family whose sons enter the seminary or a religious order. Somsak tried to convince me to offer food or bread at the early morning ceremony. “You should give…” he said. After 4 years of being a monk, he misses his temple life. It’s their temple stay that makes Lao men gentle people, almost passive with laidback demeanor. Later in the day, we would discuss about the places that I visited. Then he offered me his email address, which surprised me. I didn’t envision locals to be checking their mails at the end of the day. It was interesting how he wrote his note which read: “My name is Somsak. My email is...” Everything was written in complete sentences. He spoke slow, in fractured English and he would smile whenever he mispronounced words. It was nice to meet a friendly soul in a far off land.

When I finally got inside my room, I charged everything that needed charging, especially my camera. My mobile phone’s roaming was working properly. There were no annoying spam messages like those coming from Vietnam’s Viettel Telecom. Warm shower felt good. I imagined scrubbing away 3 days worth of border-crossing debris. I felt like a civilized human being again. I set my phone’s alarm, and then forced myself to sleep for an hour. I didn’t feel tired or sleepy, but I knew I’d need to rest before taking on the rest of the day. There will be a LOT of walking involved later – and I couldn’t wait.
Once I was ready to gallivant, I got my stuff ready. Camera, pen and notebook, Laos Lonely Planet. Sisavangvong looked very relaxed. There were hardly touts offering their trade and following you as you walk the streets. I bought some postcards and mailed a couple for my mother (who loves receiving them). It has become a habit sending them from different cities. I like the “production number” involved in locating post offices. It has become a part of my travels. Postcards and stamps don’t come cheap but they give me reassurance of being rooted somewhere. And that somewhere is the Philippines. Wala lang. Sniff!
The city has few cars or taxis. The main mode of transportation for tourists are the sangthaew which are also called “jumbos”, these are 3 wheeled motorized vehicles bigger than the tuktuks of Thailand. The local police does not allow privately rented bicycles unless you are part of a group tour. These jumbos charge between 10,000 to 15,000 kip for destinations within the city center. An unscrupulous driver asked 50,000 kip (instead of 15,000 kip) from me after taking me to Wat Xieng Thong, the city’s “oldest”. He obviously forgot that I made him write the 15,000 ON MY notebook during our negotiation. I simply showed him his very own handwriting. Lolokohin pa ako ng gago!

Once upon a time, I used to hate doing a checklist of must-see places. It seems too corny, too unhip. However, I end up missing important places and regretting big time. Not anymore. I make a checklist, an itinerary, and I try to follow it religiously, unless better opportunities present themselves. In Luang, this list is an enumeration of temple names; the ones that the books and guides find interesting: the oldest, the biggest, the most beautiful, the holiest, the most visited – then my favorite, those off the beaten track, barely discovered temples. In the succeeding posts, I shall post some of these temples.

At 5PM, a good stretch of Sisavangvong is closed to traffic. Colorful tents gather on the street near Chomsy Hill (Phou Si). Vendors start displaying different products ranging from souvenir shirts to blouses, lanterns, paintings, blankets, pillowcases, brass wares, bags, etc. I bought a painting and some Luang Prabang shirts. I leisurely walked through the stalls until I reached the stair leading to the hill. I climbed the steps of Chomsy Hill. Midway to the top, it got really dark. I’d have wanted to see the night view from the top, but it didn’t feel safe. I sat on the steps and enjoyed the multicolored tents of the Night Market down below. After 15 minutes, I went down and started looking for a suitable restaurant for my dinner. It wasn’t until 9PM that the tents were slowly being dismantled. The locals were heading home in time for the curfew at 10. There is a reason why curfew is being observed in Luang Prabang. This is a country run by a military regime after all. But more importantly, the city has early morning rituals; one of the main reasons why tourists come to Luang Prabang!

Should I wait and observe how the curfew is going to be enforced? No thank you.

The picturesque Haw Kham (others spell it as Ho Kham) is the former royal palace, This has been turned into the Luang Prabang National Museum, the official name written in front of the complex. Lonely Planet calls it the Royal Palace Museum. It sits on a compound that has a temple to its right, the Phralak Phralam Theatre and a little pond beside it. The museum closes between 11:30AM and 1:30 PM.

This museum houses the Pha Bang, its most prized Buddha – cast in gold, silver and bronze alloy, weighing 53kg. This was cast in Sri Lanka during the first century and presented to the Luang King. The Buddha sits in the center of a small hall. Visitors can only view it 5 feet from a deck. I couldn’t steal some photographs coz an old man was watching over the visitors, namely ME! LOL. Just across the street from the Museum is the Chomsy Hill (aka Phou Si). My jumbo driver wasn’t aware of it being called Haw Kham.

The Phralak Theatre

Hmong Market. Hmongs refer to an ethnic minority in Laos.

The Tourist Information Center. Located along Sisavangvong, this office is perfectly situated in the heart of the city. Unfortunately, they were close the two times that I visited them. They are said to give out complementary maps of the city.

Prabang’s Service Ophthalmology Clinic. Can you believe it? A specialty service in Luang Prabang. I found this clinic east of the hill.

Dara Market. Also located in the eastern area of the city, Dara Market is a small center divided into stalls. There are some posh cafes, some DVD shops, as well as stalls selling cell phones and accessories. I was looking for Lao movies and I was greeted with perplexed stares everywhere. It turns out, the Lao Movie industry is non-existent. They have a thriving television industry churning out local telenovelas and TV series, but no Lao movies.

Sackarinth Guest House (left) and my $12 room 7 (right)

Colurful tents make the Night Market along Sisavangvong.

Random Expenditures:

· Sangthaew ride from the bus station to Sisavangvong Road - $1.88 or 15,000 kip or PhP85
· Sackarinth Guesthouse: aircon room with bathroom - $12 or 96,000 kip or PhP546
· Sackarinth Guesthouse fan rooms without bathrooms - $6/room/night good for 2-3 persons
· Postcards – $0.25 or 2,000 kip/piece or PhP11.40. I was able to buy 1,500 kip/piece somewhere far from the center (Sisavangvong)
· Postcard stamps within Asia - $0.88 or 7,000 kip or PhP40
· Dragon fruit, I piece – $0.63 or 5,000 kip or PhP28 (a sliced piece at the Robinson’s Grocery is PhP55)
· Pineapple Pie, 1 piece – $0.63 or 5,000 kip or PhP28
· Coke in can - $1 or 8,000 kip or PhP45 (clearly more than double the price compared to Philippine equivalent)
· Souvenir tshirts (Laos shirts) at the Night Market along Sisavangvong – $2.50 or 20,000 kip (price before haggling: 30,000 kip) or PhP113.75
· Luang Prabang national Museum aka Royal Palace Museum aka Haw Kham admission: $2 or 16,000 kip

South Laos Journeys here:

- Chasing Water Falls and Ethnic Tribes at the Bolaven Plateau -


Twin said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Twin said...

Breathtaking...a postcard cheers up my loved ones too when I'm traveling. Its been a habit to send one at home when I'm abroad.

Anonymous said...

madami din daw cooking classes dyan. am waiting for the food features. sana i feature mo din like your previous posts.

eye in the sky said...

@ rica: amen to that, rics. besides, i love reading these postcards once i'm back home.

@ drei: i will. there are a lot of cooking classes in LP. Most of them will teach Lao cuisine for $25 and 6 typical Lao dish. The food that you cook is yours to eat. Sounds like a good deal to me. From what I heard, presidential daughter Luli loves coming back in LP.