Friday, April 20, 2012

Chom Phet side of Luang Prabang

Steep climb up the main road in Xieng Mene village
Taking the boat across the Mekong as you have seen on the video is an experience by itself. Of course it would have helped if I had read my book completely, since it actually pointed me to the much larger ferry boat. Instead I was sitting with a bunch of locals and their chicken in a small wooden boat, which barely stood out of the water. 

Landing on the other side of Luang Prabang, in the village of Xieng Mene, I met some Dutch tourists who told me about the ferry they had taken with their bicycles. We all climbed up the steep hill passing small wooden houses and other locals who made their way back to their villages. 

Local house in Xieng Mene
What a difference this side of the river was! No beautiful UNESCO protected structures, fancy restaurants and souvenir shops, but the real Laos! No restaurants at all, when I visited. No shops either and no souvenir stalls. Just people living and following their daily tasks. There was also no real street once I passed the short paved way along the river. 

Local transportation of goods
From this side of the river one gets the best view of Luang Prabang, with the river in the front and the mountains in the background. In the morning it was still a bit foggy and they say in the books the best view is really in the afternoon. My reason to visit though were the local temples and I timed my visit, so I have the sunlight on the temples rather then on the opposite side of the river.

Sandbanks along the Mekong
I visited a total of 5 temples, when walking along the river. In the last temple I met a bunch of young girls who where all excited to learn that I can speak some Thai language. With the girls talking in Thai to me they explained some parts of the temple, we took photos of each other in front of the Buddha statue and then they offered to show me more temples "down that way". As always in Asia, distances or time it takes to get somewhere, does not really mean a lot (except in Singapore). So I followed them through the dense forest, thinking the temple would come soon but it actually was quite a walk. 

Different housing style from Luang Prabang
The temple they brought me to was really nice, specially in the forest setting it was located in. The girls also brought me back to their parents house along the river and I enjoyed some fresh fruit before heading back down the steep hill to the boats which brought me back across the Mekong river. 

There is a price tag attached to all of the above though. People here support their living with some income from tourists. It is not expensive in our value system, but it helps them a lot. 

Bamboo bridges
When I visited Luang Prabang the water level was already starting to get lower, so there are bamboo bridges crossing some of the sandbanks and rocks which sit in the river. Crossing those will cost as well and the time for the boat to leave depends on your appetite for a fresh beer or soft drink, which will be happily provided by the same people who own the boat! :-)

Luang Prabang in the morning mist

The Mekong at its best

Friday, April 13, 2012

Ahhhh - Luang Prabang!

Evening mist at the Mekong
What an exciting place on earth it is - Luang Prabang. I had heard and read a lot about it in all my research about temples and Buddha images and I had long dreamt to visit it. So, I finally just went. 

I stayed for a stunning two weeks, which everyone said would be too long. But one of my friends who knows me well, said that the way I visit places, I will not run out of things to do and see. And he was totally correct about that! I actually ran out of time and did not visit all the places I wanted to see. 
First impression of the Mekong

Luang Prabang is a lovely little town high up in the mountains of northern Laos, right next to the Mekong river. And it was the Mekong river, which was the first thing for me to see after landing and checking into my hotel. I wanted to get myself oriented first and I had seen amazing photos about the sunsets of Luang Prabang at the river.  So here I went - just in time for my first sunset at the Mekong in Northern Laos! It was an unbelievable atmosphere with village people hurrying back home across the river, locals locking down their boats for the night and the setting sun turning the sky and the water into a beautiful orange scene.

What a great start for this trip it was! I did walk along the river every day, crossed it a few times and it just became a constant companion in those two weeks. 

Luxury in Luang Prabang
My main purpose to visit Luang Prabang was to visit the temples, their architecture and their monks. And there is many many temples, which will be part of another blog (I hope). And I met many many monks and became friends with some of them, going back to their temples every morning and every evening for their chanting and prayers. Besides working down my list of temples to visit, I did go back to several of them to talk with my monk-friends and learn more about everyday life in the temple. 

Night market
The morning alms-round is an almost surreal experience when out of the morning dusk suddenly appear long columns of quietly walking men in saffron and orange on their way to collect food. It is still dark when the first ones are walking by without making a sound. And I started to recognize some of their faces from the temple visits, which made my mornings even more special. There are quiet places to enjoy this serene scene, but there are also spots where all the tourists go and where most of the monks make their daily rounds. Those spots are still nice, but with with a constant clicking sound of cameras. There is posters all over Luang Prabang asking visitors to behave respectfully, so that this tradition can live on. 

Morning market
One thing I was not prepared for was the sheer amount of tourists in Luang Prabang. On my first day, I felt like there were no locals around, until I found out where to walk and how to avoid the masses. You cannot avoid night market and I did buy a lot of things there, but it is what everyone else is doing. The morning market was more traditional in the early hours before some of the tourists also appeared here. I used to go to the markets with monks to buy food for them and since I did not know what to buy and how to buy it I just loaded a few monks into my tuk-tuk and we went shopping together. 

Nam Khan River
Walking along the Mekong and the Nam Khan River, which runs into the Mekong at the northern end of Luang Prabang, was like walking into another world. Quiet! And mostly just monks and novices walking to and from their classrooms and temples. The color orange is a constant sight. 

Crossing the rivers to the other sides will enable you to see and experience the real Laos (though a bit spoiled from tourism), while Luang Prabang with its UNESCO World Heritage status is a bit like a living museum. Old structures, beautiful temples, amazing villas and houses, all filled with restaurants, galleries, shops and tour offices. 

Royal Palace and National Museum
The Royal Palace, which is now the National Museum is a must to visit. It is here where one can see and pay respect to the Buddha statue which gives Luang Prabang it's name - the Pra Bang Buddha. 

The Buddha was the initial stop for me on my first full day before starting my tours. I always try to follow this order - visit the most important Buddha image on day one. In Bangkok that would be the Emerald Buddha in Wat Phra Kaeo and here it was this beautiful standing Buddha image made of solid gold, weighting 43 kilograms. It is well protected though and only visible behind bars. A bit of a sad scene. But it is carried around town in a procession during the Lao New Year. A good reason for another visit!

Sunset from Mount Phousi
The sunset seen from Mount Phousi is the other important thing to do. And it is a lovely sunset, great colors and a great view. But you share it with hundreds of tourists. A real zoo!! There is almost no space to sit or stand and there is definitely nothing serene about it, no matter how beautiful the photos look. I did it once only, even though I had initially planned to do it every night to get different views of the sunset. 

View from Mount Phousi

Crossing the Mekong river to the other side by boat is quite an experience!  You can get a feel of it through my post with the video and the next post will be about the villages and the views from over there. 

View of the other side of the Mekong

Monday, April 9, 2012

Crossing the mighty Mekong, Laos

I will focus more on Luang Prabang and the Mekong running through it in the next couple of posts, but here is a quick video of what it feels like to cross the river. It looks small until you sit in a boat. I was actually under the impression that I was the only person crossing the river with the small boat until I realized that other people kept entering the boat, with all their bags and animals until the fully loaded boat sits just a few centimeters on top of the water.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

A birds eye view of the Mekong

From the Thai province of Chiang Rai, the Mekong turns east and runs through the mountains and the rain forest of the northern Lao People's Democratic Republic. We just took a flight over this area and it looked very interesting, but we did not really explore this area on the ground. Our next meeting point with the river was actually Luang Prabang, one of the greatest places of SE Asia, we have been to so far. In this brief video we got a good look at the Mekong winding through the mountains below us.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Chiang Saen, Thailand

Chiang Saen in the northern Thai province of Chiang Rai was our first brief encounter with the Mekong River. The Mekong meets up here with Thailand, Laos and Myanmar in the so called Golden Triangle. Formerly an area where drugs were planted and smuggled. Nowadays it is a heaven for gamblers in the Casinos and for tourists. 

We decided to just take a look from far onto the Golden Triangle and focused on the town of Chiang Saen instead. It is an ancient settlement and was part of the former Kingdom of Lan Na and we came here to visit the remains of the old city and the many important Buddhist temples in the area. 

In this northernmost point of Thailand, the Mekong forms the border with Laos for a few kilometers before it heads east into Laos at the town of Wiang Kaen.  

We did this tour here in what we called our "Great Northern Tour" heading over the mountains of the provinces of Nan, Phayao and into Chiang Rai with a very old car which almost did not make it. A very adventurous trip!

The Mekong and the Lao People's Democratic Republic in the distance

Golden Triangle
Wat Phra That Pha Ngao on the mountain
View from a hill overlooking the Mekong

Wat Phra That Song Phi Nong

Mae Nam Khong - The Mother of Water

As frequent travellers to Asia we have been at the Mekong river numerous times and it has never stopped to impress us. The mighty river is the 12th longest river worldwide and the 7th longest in Asia. 

We went to a lot of points along the river from the Thai side, so naturally we called it Mae Khong or Mae Nam Khong. แม่น้ำโขง in Thai, or ແມ່ນ້ຳຂອງ in Lao language. In June 2012 we did see the "Great River" in Cambodia, where it is called មេគង្គ in Khmer language. 
There is still many places along the Mekong where we have not been yet, but with this blog we are starting our journey along the spectacular points of the river we enjoyed so far. 


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