By the time we’d checked in and unloaded, most of the town was shutting up for the night so we had a very mixed dinner of yoghurt and a freshly made crepe from a street stall.
Our first morning in Laos we headed out for breakfast at one of the town’s French bakeries - Le Banneton - and sampled some delicious homemade yoghurt and pastries. We then had to move hostels, as our one had become fully booked. After this switchover and some extra planning we stopped at a local market for some mega sandwiches made on fresh baguettes.
Luang Prabang is famous for its many buddhist temples and so after our filling lunch we decided to spend the afternoon exploring some of them. We managed a total of eight (pretty good going), with the grandest being Wat Xiengthong (which Anita sympathetically nicknamed ‘disco temple’ due to its sparkling mosaics). It included a huge royal carriage which was built to carry the royal urns. We were also lucky enough to witness the monks from the temple performing a musical symbolic ritual with drums and chimes. We ended our tour at the tip of the peninsula, looking out onto the bamboo bridge which has to be rebuilt every year as it doesn't survive the rainy season.
For dinner we had some delicious Laos specialities including Laap (minced pork with lemongrass, chilli and Thai basil) and Orlam (a type of chicken stew with aubergine, beans and dill) and of course some Beer Lao. For dessert we got crepes and discovered the most amazing topping - creamed coconut with condensed milk (definitely one we’ll be recreating when we get home!).
We finished off the day with our first visit to the amazing night market, which brings families from the surrounding tribes and villages to sell their handicrafts to the tourists. It was pretty hard not to buy everything in sight!
The next morning we visited the Traditional Arts and Ethnology Centre, which gave a fascinating display describing the four main tribes in Laos and their traditional handicrafts and dress - including weaving, cotton production, batik, embroidery and bamboo weaving. We also learnt about a special project that’s been set up to record and preserve these skills for future generations.
In the afternoon we explored the former Royal Palace which included a temple that is home to the Pha Bang buddha (after whom the town is named) and the main entertaining rooms and living quarters.
We then summoned up our energy and climbed the 329 steps up Phu Si to the golden stupa of That Chomsi. We had amazing views of the town and the countryside beyond.
In the evening we rewarded ourselves with some Lao whiskey with dinner (as it was cheaper than any soft drink!) and some more local dishes.
Monday was a day of entertaining (on reflection) journeying, to reach the northern mountain town of Nong Khiaw. The day began with our shuttle pick up where we were put in the front of a minibus - slightly worn with a crack that stretched the width of the windscreen. We were glad to find out this was only taking us as far as the bus station, where we all climbed out and waited. After a little while we were shown to our next bus where our bags were tied to the roof and we were all snugly squeezed in. After a long wait we realised we weren't moving any time soon (discovering that Laos is a pretty laid back country) and so two of our fellow passengers entertained us with some ukulele playing and singing. When we thought we were ready to go the bus station staff surprised us by insisting that one more person needed to fit in the bus - despite all the seats being occupied. After some negotiations Anita and I ended up sharing the three back seats with two French guys (one of them was easily over six foot). Not only was it a pretty tight squeeze, it was also probably one of the bumpiest roads I’ve ever been on - lifting us out of our seats on several occasions - Anita actually hit her head on the roof! The spectacular scenery did make up for it though, rolling countryside and dramatic mountains and rivers.
When the end was in sight we were faced with one final hurdle when the van that was taking us from the bus station to town wouldn't start. Luckily there were stronger looking travellers on our bus who were summoned to get out and push until the driver managed to kick it into life!
It really was worth all the morning’s excitement when we arrived - it was the most incredible setting, in the valley surrounded by mountains and the most beautiful village. We spent the afternoon exploring the village and local life and then headed to the bridge over the river to watch the sun set.
In the evening we went to an Indian restaurant for dinner, and although it was quite a wait the food definitely made up for it.
Tuesday was pancake day, so not wanting to miss out we had a banana and chocolate pancake for breakfast! That set us up for our 2km walk out of the village to the Tham Pha Tok caves, where the locals had hidden and lived during the American bombings in the Vietnamese war. To reach the caves we had to cross a precarious bamboo bridge and were then shown around some of the narrow caverns by two local men. Once we’d had our fill we headed back to the village surrounded by spectacular scenery.
We then started a climb up to a mountain viewpoint, which was pretty challenging underfoot but did give us impressive views of the town and river below. We then rewarded ourselves with some desserts and watched the sun set from the bar.
The next morning brought some additional excitement when we realised we didn't have enough cash to pay our hostel. When both the ATMs in the village were out of action we had a bit of nail biting wait for the bank to open, just before our bus was due to leave!
Our journey back to Luang was equally spectacular and much more comfortable - although not for one woman, the bus company had managed to overbook again and she was left to sit on a cushion between the two front seats for the entire ride.