Cambodia and Laos, Angkor and Luang Prabang - Part 8 (Final)
Temples of Luang Prabang
Xieng Thong and other temples
After a good night’s sleep we got up for breakfast on the veranda overlooking the roadside. Breakfast was a choice of coffee or tea, juice or fruit, eggs and toast or baguette and was included in the room price. It was excellent and a good way to start the day. We were provided with a very basic map by the hotel (confusingly not to scale) and set off to see the sights at around 9.30 a.m.
Luang Prabang is far more laid back than Siem Reap and although there are the odd tuk tuk and mini van taxi running around plying for trade, in general the roads away from the market side of town are relatively free of motor traffic. Quite a few people decide to go around by bike but we had decided that walking was going to give us the best flavour of the place. We turned left out of the hotel and made our way down the road up to the tip of the isthmus. Wat Xieng Thong (Golden Tree) is down a side road just before the top or else you can round the tip and approach the Wat from the other side which is a little more obvious. At the gate a small entrance fee is charged, Kip 20,000 (US$2.00) and bare feet inside the various buildings please so wear appropriate shoes if you don’t want to spend time undoing and doing up laces! The main temple building is a much photographed sight with its eaves sweeping down towards the ground in a style that I have not seen elsewhere. It truly is magnificent. On the back wall of the temple is a large depiction of the tree of life after which the temple is named, don’t miss it! Other visitors are few today and there is a certain tranquillity to the place as we wander around. We leave the same way as we came in and move back down the road on the Mekong side towards the main part of town. The coffee brown river glides lazily alongside us as we check out the menus posted outside various restaurants and guest houses and we end up walking up a side road by the National Museum to the main road and decide that it is close enough to lunch time to take a rest. It is hot and a cold drink is very welcome. We each choose a lemon and mint shake which is delicious and highly recommended and take a look at the menu which has Lao and western favourites and decide on soup noodles, leaving the main meal for the evening.
After lunch we carried on down the main drag past the National Museum and turn left past a market towards Wat Wisunalat. A big deal is made of this Wat because of the hemispherical or Sinhalese pagoda located in the grounds. The reason for this is because Buddhism is said to have arrived in this part of the world not from India but from Ceylon and pagodas there are hemispherical in shape and so this is confirmation that this is true.
However I will take a small digression here and tell you about another place, this time in India, where I have seen another hemispherical pagoda. You will all have heard about the Indian city of Bhopal because of the Union Carbide industrial accident that killed so many people. Well just outside of Bhopal, about 60 kms, is a place called Sanchi. Sanchi is the location of a memorial erected by the India emperor Ashoka, around 250 BC we were told, to commemorate a great battle that he had won nearby and to celebrate his conversion to Buddhism. The main structure here is a beautiful hemispherical stupa (pagoda) and so the story goes, after building this memorial he despatched his sons to go and proclaim the new religion to his domains in Ceylon and Java. So, I ask myself, did the hemispherical shape actually originate here? Another interesting feature of Sanchi are the four ‘gates’ located at the four points of the compass around the stupa. These gates are called toranas and have a striking resemblance to ‘gates’ you will find at Japanese Buddhist temples called torii except that the torana have three ‘lintels’ whereas torii tend to have two lintels. Are they related? I think so. Finally of note here is that in the carvings on the torana there is no human depiction of Buddha but rather he is referred to by using symbols of a three-tiered umbrella or else by waves on the water........remind you of another religion? Find out more by searching on the web.
Ok so back to Wisunalat. It is the oldest temple in Luang Prabang, dating from 1513. Most notable here is the large collection of wooden Buddha statues in the main hall. In the Luang Prabang style, they are very long and thin, arms and hands pointing straight down and very pronounced ear lobes on the head. Very beautiful.
By now it is late afternoon and we wander back the way we came and find that at the start of the main drag they are putting up a night market, hundreds of stalls selling all sorts of local produce, art work, T-shirts galore and, surprisingly, lots of quilt covers with hill tribe motifs and other designs and collapsible paper lampshades – both recommended purchases. This is a great place to buy souvenirs and naturally you must bargain for everything.
Pak Ou and Chom Si
The Caves at Pak Ou
Next day after a reasonable early breakfast we go down to the Mekong to get our 8.30 a,m, boat to the caves at Pak Ou, some 25 kms up river. It is a pleasant two hour journey against the current but, to be honest, there is little of interest to look at as we journey up and only a short 20 minute stop at a village en route to see the villkagers distilling Lao whisky and weaving cloth breaks the monotony, oh and this is also the only place to have a washroom other then the caves themselves.
However the caves are worth the visit with literally thousands of Buddha figures being placed inside over the years by pilgrims. The caves are in two parts, one easily reached from the landing bay and the other a reasonable slog uphill. The first is lit by daylight as it is not very deep set into the rock but at the second you will need a torch as this cave is set well in to the rock and virtually no daylight gets beyond the very entrance.
The journey back is much quicker, going with the current, and we arrive back just before lunch. We get off the boat at some steep steps that come down from the road all the way down to the river very near Wat Xieng Thong. We check out a few cafes by the waterside and select one where we have our usual soup noodles and it is here that we see that Lao Beer is only Kip 8,000 and make a note that we will come back here for supper as funds are running low as we are leaving tomorrow and another excursion to the night market planned for more gifts.
Lao New Year is almost upon us, two days away, and the water guns are out, both locals and tourists, and so the camera has to be protected. On account of the upcoming holiday the museum is closed which is annoying but cannot be helped. We have yet to climb to the top of hill, the main landmark where Wat Chom Si is located. It is quite a climb to the top especially in the heat of the early afternoon but it is well worth the effort. Unfortunately there is a lot of haze around at this time of year and so the views are not as spectacular as they might have been but worthwhile nevertheless. On returning to street level we have one last ‘must do’ left, a small pilgrimage of our own, to visit the tomb of Henri Mouhot, the ‘discoverer’ of Angkor Wat, who died here near Luang Prabang of malaria in 1861. The tomb is located about 30 minutes away from the town centre by tuk tuk and seemed a fitting end to what had been a remarkable holiday. We will be back.
The flight back direct to Bangkok on Bangkok Airways is uneventful, we even manage to take all of our baggage on as hand carry. Once at Suvarnabhumi Airport Immigration is no more trouble than usual and we make our way out to the Public Taxi stand (avoid the Airport Limousine service at all costs...somewhat overpriced!), how many times have they changed the arrangements here since the opening??!! Anyway no queue for a taxi today and we are soon on the expressway on our way home. It feels good to be back in Amazing Thailand more especially since the place does not seem to have blown up whilst we were away!!