The journey from Vang Vieng to Luang Prabang was the most incredible bus trip we have taken so far. The terrain is impossibly mountainous, causing all traffic to crawl and wind, up, down and through the most dramatic landscape I have ever seen. Towering hills, plunging green valleys, tangled jungle, and periodically, little villages comprised of tiny houses perched on the side of the road with sheer drops directly behind them. The 213 kilometre journey took our bus nearly seven and a half hours, as the terrain and condition of the roads means that buses can rarely go faster than about 40 km/hour. It was raining the day we traveled, and the bus stop near the zenith was completely shrouded in mist.
Luang Prabang is a beautiful town – another Unesco World Heritage site, often called “The Paris of the Mekong”. The city (Laos’ second largest) only has a population of 50,000 people. The lovely, slow pace, makes you feel like you are kicking back in a small country village, although the prices of food and accommodation remind you that you’re not. Luang Prabang also has a thriving party scene, as we discovered one memorable night.
On our first full day in Luang Prabang we walked around the town, then in the afternoon, decided to escape the heat with a gin and tonic at a pub on the riverside we had glimpsed the night before. As soon as we arrived at the Blue Ice Bar, we were warmly welcomed by Alex and Noi. The bar wasn’t actually open at the time, but they said it was fine to come in, have a drink and play some pool with them. We then spent several enjoyable hours hanging out with them and the owner Phout, fortified with free shots of Blue Ice (a blend of local spirits that Phout mixes himself).
Before long we were joined by Julian, a funny Frenchman who is currently living in Luang Prabang; David, a travelling Irishman on his last night in the town; Gow, a Malaysian businessman, and various other characters. Much frivolity ensued. After it got dark, Alex, Phout and Noi invited us to go to Utopia with them. Utopia is an institution in Luang Prabang, a legendary garden bar with low tables and cushions scattered about, a volley-ball court, open-mic’s, beautiful images projected onto large screens, great cocktails, and so on. We spent an enjoyable couple of hours there, smoking a Turkish water pipe (minty-fresh!), and swapping stories (the group by then also included Tim and Aikesha – an American couple we had met in Vang Vieng and randomly bumped into at Utopia).
After a while, Alex and Phout asked us back to the Blue Ice Bar for dinner. The bar doesn’t usually serve dinner (just snacks), but they had prepared a feast of Lao food for us – delicious bamboo soup, a whole steamed fish, Luang Prabang sausage, sticky rice, and a chicken and egg dish steamed in banana leaves (a specialty of Luang Prabang).
After more merriment, Julian (the Frenchman) asked us back to his place, where we spent an amusing couple of hours trying to understand Julian’s very broken English. Pantomime helped. Finally, it was after 2am, and we thought that we should get back to our hotel. We walked back, only to find that we were locked out. We then spent the next 45 minutes ringing the doorbell and the hotel phone, all to no avail. We could not rouse anyone and eventually gave up, but since the whole town was quiet and it was a warm night, we decided to sit down by the river and wait for the sun to come up.
We only had to wait a couple of hours before the town started coming to life. Every morning in Luang Prabang, the local monks walk in single file along the city streets to receive food as alms from the townspeople. They aren’t allowed to prepare food for themselves, so are reliant on receiving food in this way. Getting up at dawn to see this ritual is a must-do in Luang Prabang and our night on the streets meant that we could do this without the need for a clanging alarm clock! Around 4.30am, two women walked past carrying loads of food, and they asked us if we wanted to come with them to see the monks. Warmed by the Lao hospitality of the night before, we gratefully accepted, and walked up with them. They adorned us with scarves and laid out food in trays ready for the monks.
When the monks became visible, the women gestured for us to hand out the food. We sat there on the street and placed handfuls of sticky rice, bananas, and small packets of biscuits in the monks bowls. About 300 monks walked past, many of them quite young (it’s common in Laos for boys and young men to live at a monastery as novices for a few months or a year). The whole experience just felt so surreal, especially tacked onto the end of an already epic night.
The women kept handing us trays of food, so we kept on putting it in the monks bowls and putting it in the monks bowls…until at some point it clicked that the women were selling the food to us. Each tray of food we handed out was worth 10,000 kip, and we had handed out 21! Looking back, all the signs were right there in front of us and after traveling in Asia for the last two months, we should have been more alert. But, sleep deprived and not expecting that the morning alms ritual had metamorphosised into a tourist spin, we were sitting ducks. After we coughed up, the women actually asked if we wanted to come back the next day! Getting tucked occasionally is just par for the course when traveling in Asia, so you have to learn not to sweat the small stuff. We headed back to the hotel, slept for several hours, then met up with Phout and Alex again for a trip to the market and another wonderful dinner. What a night!