Luang Prabang: Of Phousi, Monk-Hunting And Photogenic Waterfalls

Finally, Laos.

A country so often overshadowed by its more popular neighbours like Thailand and Vietnam - it makes for a refreshing destination to visit, minus the hoards of tourists. 

We were picked up by our guide, Johnny, someone we both debated till the end of our trip if he was a Mr or Miss, at the Luang Prabang Airport. Visa on arrival for Vinnie was speedy and organized, much better than the one in Hanoi. There, we waited for almost 40 minutes and even then, there were no definite signs of how long the wait was going to be!

Since we've stuffed ourselves with junk food at the Hanoi airport, we didn't feel particularly hungry when we arrived at dinner time. Upon check-in, we were told that the daily night market (nightly market?) is only a 5-minute walk from the hotel.

The night market is a far cry from the chaos of the Hanoi streets. We strolled through the market leisurely, greeted with an occasional smile or a welcoming gesture from the vendors. None of them prodded or pushed us to purchase - something I find particularly annoying when in Vietnam. 

Sandwich stalls lined the streets and as the night wore on, a baguette sandwich sounded like a good idea. Vinnie ordered BLT and the baguette lady prepared his while presumably her husband looks on. Then a bunch of tourists approached the stall as the lady finished Vinnie's sandwich and she went on to take their orders. The husband then took over and prepared mine. 

We collected our sandwiches and found a couple of little chairs to sit on. As we happily chomped on our baguettes we later duly noted the Baguette Husband idly scratching and rubbing his feet with his bare hands....  

Um, long story short, I spent part of the night and most of the next day producing mini baguettes of my own....

Wat Haw Pha Bang (At least, I think that's the one).

One of the dresses tailored in Hanoi

On the climb up Mount Phousi, fairly easy- less than 10 minutes to get to the top. What isn't easy, however, is the humidity and the heat in Luang Prabang after the pleasantly cool temperatures of Hanoi! It gets almost unbearable in the afternoon, with us preferring to seek shelter or a/c in cafes.

Shrine and temple at the top of the hill.

(Scroll down for sunset photos from the top of Mount Phousi, we went up again later that day for shots).

Step in for an authentic Laotian spa experience.

Most of the temples further required me to cover up with a shawl or sarong... as modest as my dress is... giving Vinnie the chance to squeeze in a snark or two.

Lunch by the Mekong River-

We ordered the Laap - a uniquely Lao salad of minced meat (in this case, beef), herbs, bean sprouts, spices with lime juice and chilli sauce. Great texture, very good with plain steamed rice!

Also stir-fried mushrooms with vegetables and a "spicy fish soup", which tastes uncannily like tom yum. I loved the spicy soup, there are ample oyster mushrooms (my fave) and onions in them but I couldn't stand the fish! Those were a huge disappointment. They don't taste fresh, ironically just by the Mekong River and leaves a nasty aftertaste.

Some really nice cafes on the main street - we sought the shade of one of them (and a place to deposit mini baguettes) - sipping iced coffee and licking chocolate off the spoon from the dessert.

And up Phousi again for sunset:

Panorama from phone at the top. Just 30 minutes before sunset and the small landing at the top of the temple started filling with jostling tourists. Humidity and crowd do not mix well!

Johnny, our guide, promised to arrange for us to view the alms-giving ceremony away from the tourist crowd the next morning. Vinnie opted to provide alms while I preferred to sit in the background to watch and take photos. It costs 60,000 kip for the alms and we agreed to meet at 6am the next morning.

The local women have already set up their wares and were waiting patiently when we arrived. (That's Johnny on the right, btw!).

The women will kneel when the monks approach, while the men can stand. The monks then break into a chant and the alms-givers slowly pour water on the pavement. The monks then proceed in a single file and the locals pinch some sticky rice into their wares.

Full of excitement and hope, the jedi.

I was surprised the monks were mostly made up of children or young teenagers. I was expecting old and bent variation....

We certainly got the experience of a quiet, locals-only alms giving, true, but we find the alms of 80,000 kip ($10) to be outrageously expensive. We thought the alms will consist of a meal of vegetables, sticky rice and some drink but imagine our surprise and disgust when it was all sticky rice and nothing else. 

We later found out the lady who prepared the sticky rice is family or wife - he never introduced her as one of those, though. We felt cheated and think that as an act of a tour guide, that reflected badly on the country!

It was just after seven in the morning when alms is over and because I'd requested Johnny to bring us to a nice khao-jit-pate (baguette with pate) place, he ushered us to a stall 10 minutes from where we were. "Very popular, I am scared they have no more".

And true enough, by 0730, the baguette ladies were wrapping the last of the baguettes to a handful of customers. Damn! If anything, I cannot stand the idea of missing out! I was determined to come earlier the next day, even if it means waking up at 6am!

So instead, we settled for this.....

Spicy Khao-Jit.

I didn't like the stringly things on the baguette. They tasted a lot like processed ham of some kind but otherwise, it was alright. Not as great as the famous-sell-out baguette, I'm sure!

We got back to the hotel, took a nap and Johnny picked us up again for a cruise down the Mekong River to visit the Pak Ou Caves which reputedly houses thousands of Buddha statues.

It was odd, though. Just us two, Johnny and the boatman occupying the boat:

A little OTT, I have to admit....

Lunch before the caves, laap again, spring rolls and papaya salad. A delicious fusion of the Indochine flavours.

This has got to be the cutest Buddha statue I've seen!

Having gone on almost a week full of Vietnamese/Laos/Asian meals, we needed a break from the culinary monotony. 

After a furious search on google, we found a famous pizza place in Luang Prabang. The catch is, we don't know if it's open that day, and it is pretty tricky to find. 

Getting there involves crossing rickety bamboo bridges! Some planks were missing and squeaking ominously. Look up and have faith....

Pizza Phan Luang! Some have even gone as far as reviewing this place to have the best pizza in the whole of Asia. We thought it's overrated, though. Don't get me wrong, the pizzas are awesome. They only serve pizza, nothing else.

Wood-fire oven baked pepperoni pizza, washed down with Coke. Thin crust and oozy woozy cheezy. Hits the spot, so good.

Phan Luang Pizza
50m up the road from Dyen Sabai across the bamboo bridge river crossing
Luang Prabang.

The next morning, I really did get up at six in the morning..... unlocked one of the bicycles we rented the day before, and cycled to the khao-jit pate stall (Hallelujah, they're there and they're still selling!). Grabbed a couple of the elusive baguettes before they get any ideas.

They have those annoying stringy processed ham thingies again! I fished them all out and  enjoyed what's left. Huge difference buying from a busy stall as opposed to a stall on a quiet night ie no mini baguettes. Was a little spicy and lots of ingredients (NOT the mini baguettes!) - minced meat in spicy gravy, a few types of sauces, some cucumbers and a few strings of cilantros. This was the fuel for my ride!

At first, cycling from the Luang Prabang town to the Kuang Sii waterfall seemed like a bright idea. Well, it was tough! We left at 7:30am in the morning with the crisp morning breeze waking us up from our slumber. The trail isn't easy (at least not for me) and there were quite a number of hills - but challenging enough to make me want to throw the bicycle aside and hitch-hike a tuk-tuk.

As gruelling as the ride was, it does give immense satisfaction and a sense of achievement as the entrance to Kuang Sii waterfall rolled into view. The reward is even better:

How photogenic is that?! Azure blue waters, cascading falls tinkling in the sunlight. I dipped my toe in and my whole body was engulfed in goosebumps - so cold! It was freezing for the first 5 seconds of each exposed skin to the cold water, but once you're in there and sort of water treading, you'll be grand.

Finally ended our last night in LP with a nice meal at Tamarind - a restaurant cum cooking school. The menu is extensive - it includes information on Lao food and how they are prepared. If you're heading that way, just be sure to make reservations. We wanted to dine there the night before, but it was completely full - we ended up having BBQ instead, which was also nice.

Luang Praband starters - a very starchy soup of vegetables and pork (meh, not wild about starchy dishes); crispy seaweed with sambal (yum); black fungus mushroom salad with water spinach (yum); and pork sausages (we went wild with those!).

Water buffalo sausages, pork sausages and a water buffalo with pork combo sausages. Heavenly! Tastes awesome with the deep fried sliced garlic and curry leaves.

More black fungus and water spinach salad, topped with chopped peanuts.

Chicken satays grilled in lemongrass and pandan leaves - fragrant and tastes well with sticky rice. Wasn't a particularly expensive meal too, with plenty of options to order.

Kingkitsarath Road
Luang Prabang.

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