Indochina Day Thirteen
14.02.2020 - 14.02.2020
Breakfast view at Muang La Lodge
Our short stay in the far north of Laos was over and it was time to return to Luang Prabang. Lee and Mr Ha picked us up after breakfast and we set off on a drive that would complete a circle back to Pak Mong and then south, retracing our route past Pak Ou caves - the left-hand part, and stick, of the lollipop-shaped route on the map below:
(the right-hand side of my 'lollipop' looks oddly straight because the map doesn't recognise the possibility of travelling by river boat!)
This first part of the journey, therefore, was all new to us. A winding road led out of Muang La through what appeared to be very fertile land. The rainy season paddy fields were being put to good use during this drier weather to grow corn, sweet potatoes, beans and more. We stopped quite soon after leaving Muang La to look at the produce for sale at a roadside market - some of it familiar but much of it not. The latter included a pale green variety of aubergine, pumpkin leaves, sour green pineapples, banana flowers, some sour seeds for which Lee didn't know the English name, and a totally mysterious red root.
The roadside market
There were also brooms for sale like the ones we had seen being made in the villages yesterday, and ingenious bird traps made from bamboo which Lee demonstrated - uncomfortable as it may seem to us, Lao people eat sparrows and other small birds.
Traps for small birds
Back in the car the road started to wind and climb through beautiful karst mountain scenery. We passed through the relatively busy town of Muang Xai, where we were held up for a while by some road works and stopped briefly for Mr Ha, our driver, to get some cash from an ATM (we were to discover why he needed cash later on the drive!)
Beyond Muang Xai we turned east and climbed higher into the mountains. We stopped at a viewpoint at the highest point, around 900 metres, where there was a two-storey platform from which to admire the vistas and a small cafe playing very loud music!
View from our rest stop
Ban Xong Ja
But our most interesting stop by far was at another minority village, Hmong this time.
In Ban Xong Ja
Lee led us on a walk uphill on a sandy track between the wooden houses. He pointed out that these were built on the ground rather than stilts (because the Hmong typically live on mountains), and always have two doors – one for people and one for the spirits.
Some buildings are however on stilts – these are for storing grain or other foodstuffs and the stilts, and metal discs, prevent rats from getting to the supplies.
Most houses had at least one rooster cage outside (you can see one in my photo of a typical house above). As we had learned from Lee a few days ago in Pak Mong, these roosters are used for catching wild chickens, to lure them to the hunter.
Man with rooster
Some houses had leaves around the door as the shaman had advised that they offered protection from viruses – there was a lot of nervousness in the wider region at the time of our visit about the Coronavirus potentially spreading from China where it was at that time still largely contained (the village is only about 100 kilometres from the border). On another house we saw a bamboo symbol, intended to drive evil spirits from the home.
Leaves and charm
Leaves around the door
Some people were happy to pose for us, and the woman in the photo on the left below, wearing her traditional headdress, asked to see my photo although I think wasn't impressed with how I had made her look! Others said no – according to Lee they felt they should only be photographed when wearing their best clothes, although some might also have been nervous that the camera would take part of their spirit.
Mothers with children
One young man was keen to chat to us but had limited English. He asked if we spoke French, we said we did a little, and thus managed to have a bit of a conversation about where we were from and where we had visited in Laos.
View over the village from the top of the path
On the road
We could have stopped in Pak Mong for lunch but it was still quite early and we had already seen the small town on our outward journey, so we didn't bother. But we did make three brief stops before reaching Luang Prabang - the first at the same viewpoint where we had stopped a few days ago on our journey north.
Nam Ou viewpoint
Café kitchen at the viewpoint
Our second stop was in a small village, Noca Se, so that Mr Ha could buy fresh river fish for his dinner (cheaper here than in the city, and the reason why he had wanted to withdraw some cash earlier in the day).
In Noca Se
Shopping for fish
Sign in Noca Se
River fish for sale
Fish drying on a roof
And our third stop was when I spotted the partially submerged temple we had seen the other day, lost to the rising waters of the Nam Ou following the construction of a dam just downstream, and called out to Lee to request a photo-stop.
Afternoon in Luang Prabang
We arrived back in Luang Prabang around 1.30 and checked in again at the Villa Chitdara. The first task was to take some laundry to the small shop opposite the hotel, which charged a bargain 10,000 kip (just over $1) per kilo - as opposed to the $1 for a single pair of underpants it would have cost at Muang La. Lee had told us he would pick us up tomorrow at 10.30 for our flight to Pakse, so we arranged to collect the clean clothes at 9.00.
On the streets of Luang Prabang
Having organised that, we walked up to the main road and got a coffee and 'a little something' (in my case a delicious pumpkin and cream cheese muffin) in lieu of lunch in the Joma Café on the main road – the same chain that had supplied our onboard sandwich and cookie on our flight here from Siem Reap a few days ago.
We then carried on along the main road to visit Wat Sensoukharam, where we had come previously to see the monks chanting but not had a chance to properly look around. This temple was originally built in 1718 and restored to its current state in 1957. Its name means ‘Temple of 100,000 Treasures’, which refers to the story (truth or legend? I’m not sure) that it was built using 100,000 stones from the Mekong River.
The sim was unfortunately closed by the time we got there (many wats are open only morning and evening) – but at least we had seen something of it on that previous visit, and could admire the intricate doors, the beautifully painted ceiling of its porch, and the lovely red and gold paintwork on the walls.
Ceiling of porch
And we were able to see the two processional boats kept in the temple grounds which are used in the annual boat racing festival, and get another good look at the huge standing Buddha and some other exterior details.
~ to see his full height have a look at
my entry about our previous evening visit
This is one of Luang Prabang’s larger temples and some of the buildings are as wonderfully ornate as the sim itself. One in particular (I think a monks’ residence) had a beautiful painting above the entrance depicting what I assume are scenes from the life of the Buddha.
Monks' quarters at Wat Sensoukharam
Wat Nong Sikhounmuang
It was very hot in the sun so we walked back to the hotel on Kuman Road, which runs parallel to the main Sakkarin Road and has more shade. In doing so we passed another temple that we hadn't yet seen, Wat Nong Sikhounmuang, so popped in for a look. This one was built in 1729 but was razed in a fire in 1774. The only thing salvaged from the fire was a bronze Buddha statue, but as the sim here too had already closed for the afternoon, we couldn’t see that. The temple was restored in 1804 by the Thais (who introduced some Thai elements to the design) and again at the end of the 19th century. However, in 1965 the sim was badly damaged during bad weather and was later rebuilt on a reinforced concrete base.
Wat Nong Sikhounmuang
We didn’t linger long but it was worth the brief visit to see the roof, considered one of the most beautiful temple roofs in the town, with its 15 parasol dock so far ornamentation, richly decorated doors and window shutters, and five headed naga.
Roof detail (dock so far)
Door and wall ornamentation
Young monk, and Buddha
Back in the hotel room I started to wonder about Lee's plans for tomorrow, as I thought I recalled that our flight left much sooner than the 12.20 he had mentioned when dropping us off earlier in the afternoon. I looked at our itinerary and yes, it said we had a 10.40 departure, arriving at 12.20. I checked online and it said the same. The proposed 10.30 pick-up time would make it certain that we would miss our flight! So I called Lee (fortunately he had given us a card with his mobile number), he said he would check, and called back within minutes to say I was right and he would pick us up instead at 8.30. Boy was I glad I had double checked!
But now we had a problem with the laundry as we had arranged to collect it at 9.00, so we went back over the road to the shop, where we saw our clothes already washed and put out to dry - on the street! The lady there kindly agreed to have it ironed and ready for collection at 8.00 - problem solved.
Last evening in Luang Prabang
After freshening up we went out for our last night in Luang Prabang, returning to La Tangor which we had enjoyed so much a few evenings ago. I ordered another delicious Fragrance of Peking cocktail (gin, rose, lychee) while Chris had a beer, and later, as we had secured a perfect table on the terrace from which to watch all the action on the street, we decided to stay put and enjoy a selection of tapas over another couple of beers.
Sisavangvong Road at sunset
Before going back to the hotel, we strolled down to the night market and blew a few thousand kip (about £15!) on a little carved wooden elephant and a pretty cushion cover to remind us of our time in this lovely city.
Lighting in La Tangor, and the Night Market