Luang Prabang, May 5-9

As soon as we stepped off our flight from Siem Reap (Cambodia) to Luang Prabang (Laos), it was evident that Laos is considerably more laid-back than its neighbors. Laos is where travelers like us are meant to mellow out (the younger set zones out completely); we've been giving it our best shot.

Just about every visitor to Laos makes it to Luang Prabang, thanks to its very nice atmosphere and beautiful setting. It's the former royal seat of Laos (much-larger Vientiane is the current political capital), and it's a "temple town" -- there are impressive Wats (monastery-temples; photos 1-3) on nearly every block and throughout the surrounding countryside. The town teems with monks of all ages (photo 4), and boasts French colonial architecture to boot. The whole package has been deemed important enough to merit World Heritage status.

Every morning at dawn the monks walk silently and barefoot through town collecting "alms": their daily food, donated by the townspeople. Emily and Tim did an admirable job doling out sticky-rice prepared by our guesthouse (photo 5). Between the hot-to-the-touch rice and rapid succession of monks, it wasn't a trivial task. Apparently the alms ritual has been turning into a bit of a tourist circus, so there's an ongoing effort to educate visitors; the atmosphere in front of our guesthouse was appropriately serene. Luang Prabang epitomizes tourism encroaching rapidly into an area of ancient traditions and significant poverty. Things seem to be going okay so far, with local people closely involved in tourism, and the town retaining much of its character and charm while still providing enough infrastructure to keep things smooth and comfortable for visitors. But tourism is growing quickly, so the verdict is still out.

We stayed at the Lotus Villa guesthouse, our first accommodation selected by Emily with absolutely no nosing in from Jennifer. The place was terrific in every way -- good job Emily! We ended up spending five nights (partly our attempt at mellowing, partly due to boat schedules), and we'll stay one more night after traveling around far northern Laos. Lotus Villa will be second only to Phuket's Baan Suay guesthouse in nights stayed, unless you count the camper or sailboat.

In addition to visiting the Wats and the royal palace, enduring the nightly handicraft market (the kids register their objection to the word "enduring"), and generally soaking up the town atmosphere, we went on a full-day kayaking expedition, and we spent an afternoon at a popular waterfall.

The kayaking trip on the Nam Ou river (photo 6) was a small adventure and very enjoyable. We've been kayaking on lakes and the ocean before, and we've been rafting on rivers, but never kayaking on rivers, which is a bit different. We used sturdy inflatable double kayaks. Our guide "Willy," in his own kayak with an assistant guide, was friendly and competent, and he certainly didn't overburden us with instructions: Just above our first set of rapids he said with monk-like simplicity "use paddles to control boat" and off we went. Fortunately the rapids were just the right level to be exciting but not difficult or dangerous. We jumped into the river a few times for the fun of it, but nobody was dumped involuntarily the entire day. The scenery was great and we stopped for a low-key Lao lunch served on a large banana leaf.

The Kuangsi waterfall is one of the most popular excursions from Luang Prabang. We were dubious, and in fact we made the 35 kilometer trip in good part because a geocache is located there. (After an extremely long hiatus -- our last geocaching was in Barcelona last August -- we've hunted down three of the small handful of caches in Cambodia and Laos. Overall, geocaching and the huge number of unexploded land mines in these countries don't seem an especially good mix.) As it turned out, the cache was gone, but the waterfall, surrounding forest, and swimming holes (photo 7) were terrific.

We rented bicycles for our last couple of days in Luang Prabang. It was too hot for major rides but we did explore outside of the main town (photo 8), the highlight being a Wat the bike rental guy directed us to. His younger brother is a novice monk there, always looking for a chance to practice English. Visiting with him offered a first-hand glimpse into local monastery life. The bikes were also handy for getting around town, although we were instructed to avoid a particular intersection where police hang out and sometimes hassle tourists on bikes. Rumor has it the tuk-tuk drivers have convinced (bribed?) the police to dissuade tourists from renting bicycles, since it hurts their business. This type of low-level corruption apparently is very common in Laos (and Cambodia too, for that matter). On the "good" side, all police in town knock off by 4:30pm, so we had nothing to worry about in the evenings.

Lao food offers yet another cuisine to explore, similar but distinct from the others we've tried so far. (Any of you who've traveled in this part of the world know the ubiquitous phrase "same-same but different." It does seem to be apt in many circumstances.) There's undoubtedly a French influence in both Cambodia and Laos, most obvious being the excellent croissants and baguettes.

Recently we've been making numerous repeat visits to establishments that we like. (Admittedly, the fact that we often sit at the same table in the same seats is a little over the top.) In theory it's nice to get around to different places for variety, but variety is guaranteed in a trip of this length, and constants can be comforting. Recent establishments falling into our repeat-business category include the Red Piano in Siem Reap, and JoMa Cafe and the Lao Lao Garden in Luang Prabang. (Thanks go to our erstwhile sailing companion, Jean-Claude, for suggesting two of these places.) We liked the Lao Lao Garden in part for its good food and cheap drinks, but also for its pool table -- Tim stopped by even when we didn't eat there, developing several pool-playing friends among the staff and other customers (photo 9).

Next: We'll take a moderately luxurious two-day boat trip up the Mekong river to the town of Huay Xai on the Thai border. (Once again we're benefiting from rock-bottom low-season rates; going upriver instead of down lowers the price even further.) From there we'll brave a 4-5 hour public bus to Luang Namtha, near the Chinese border, a truly remote area attracting a small stream of visitors thanks to the neighboring Nam Ha Protected Area. We'll return to Luang Prabang a couple of days later, either by public bus (8-9 hours, yikes!) or by private minivan if we're feeling soft. On May 16 we fly from Luang Prabang to Hanoi, Vietnam.

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