We arrived at a picturesque town of French colonial architecture, swam in clear blue waterfalls, ate local food in night markets and saw silk being made. May have consumed worm poo.

Propeller planes? I hate ’em Chuck, I hate ’em

Propeller planes? I don’t do propeller planes. Who do you think I am, Louis Bleriot? I can barely fathom how normal jet airliners, massive hulks of heavy metal, get off the ground.

Take those engines off and add some glorified hairdryers on the wings, then you you get a sense why that jangles my nerves. I mean, it’s more than just a bad hair day at risk.

I have a few phobias which are fear of small spaces (known as claustrophobia), fear of deep water and fear of of incompetent people becoming prime ministers (known as borisjohsonophobia). My final one is a mild fear of flying; I know,!not exactly ideal for a travel blogger.

“To be precise I’m not exactly scared of flying; I’m scared of crashing. On a big plane I’m usually okay, just put Gladiator on repeat, give me night shades, a glass of wine and I’ll be fine, but on a twin-hairdryered plane even the slightest turbulence sends my pulse racing and my palms go wet.”

Thankfully the Bangkok Airways flight from Chiang Mai in north Thailand to Luang Prabang in Laos was relatively short (about half the length of Gladiator).

Luang Prabang | Laos

The hills of Laos appeared, pastilles of violet and purple in the bright white haze, rising out of the land, their edging stylised just like a child might draw hills with a shaky scrawl, upwards and downwards with sharp inclines of jagged lines.

It was so beautiful I managed to focus on the hills. I forgot about hairdryers.

**

The airport was quiet and we managed to get our visas on arrival. If you’re planning on coming, make sure you bring unmarked dollar notes (US: bills) because any trace of defacing or ink on them and they will be refused. Luckily I managed to find one dollar note that didn’t have any marks on it.

We were in, we hopped in a minivan to get to the centre of town and we got lucky again with the hotel. The Akira Hotel has wide rooms, with wooden balconies, a safe, a fridge, TV and en-suite for £17 a night. Sarah is doing a sterling job in booking up good places. I knew she would be useful.

It was only then as we checked in that I realised that I knew so little about this country. I didn’t know its currency, or even know how to pronounce Laos right until the guy at the hotel checkin explained (the country is pronounced Laos with an ‘s’ and the people are Lao.).

A world heritage site: a bit of the south of France in south east Asia

We walked down Sakhalin Road passing unbroken lines of old French colonial houses, with red tiled roofs, dark varnished bannisters and verandas and even grandiose whitewashed villas; there are boulangeries selling baguettes, croissants and pain au raisins; upmarket spas and massages decked out in gorgeous cloth and hardwood fur tire: boutiques selling embroidered silks; air conditioned coffee shops selling any type of coffee or muffin you could care to imagine.

Luang Prabang has had a lot of investment made in it, it’s really rather slick in places and you might have thought you were down a side street in Saint Tropez or Antibes were it not for the faces, the abundance of scooters, the coconut palms and the saffron-clad monks that receive alms every morning outside the wat.

This place was clearly going to be a bit pricier than what I had first thought so I went to an ATM and took out 750,000 Kip. (About £75). That amount of zeros would flummox me over the three days and I’d, on occasion, freeze in the mindful study of a single bill (US: cheque).

***

We climbed the main hill in Luang Prabang, Mount Phousi, up its white steps, past russet coloured leaves that would twitch with lizards as we neared. From the ancient wat on top we got splendid views of the two rivers that converge here, the Nam Khan and, the 12th longest river in the world, the Mekong.

We last saw this river a few years ago in Phnom Pen in Cambodia where it was wide and expansive, but here it’s narrow, barely 100 metres wide. By now it has already rushed from its birthplace of Tibet, through Yunnan in China and Myanmar and will course through Thailand and Cambodia, and finally to Vietnam where it will meet the South China Sea.

We walked along the Mekong till we came to an airy family restaurant for locals, overlooking the river and in 41 degrees had the perfect excuse to start on two Beer Laos.

Lao food, and some dishes I couldn’t try

After eating meatballs and fries on the main strip the previous night (holds head in shame), I was determined to eat some local food. A typical dish is Lap Pork Chicken and sticky rice which was being served from a row of frantic stalls off a side-road by the night market.

Lao food is tasty and relatively healthy, much of it is based on noodles, stir fried chicken, fish, lots of greens and rice. Some of the food items were a little unpalatable for me, like fried soaked cow-skin, fried cow gums, spicy fried frog in basil or fried chicken tendons. I mean I could try them, but couldn’t promise I could keep them in me.

It’s not that that grosses me out, it’s just that it would take some cultural attuning to get used to it. In the UK we have dishes like sheep’s guts in a lung (haggis), congealed pigs blood (black pudding), guts in general (offal) and Marmite. I wonder what Lao people would make of that. No one culture can really point at another in truth and say ‘err, your food is gross.

Feeling hot so we need to cool down in a waterfall

On our third day the temperature hit 41 degrees. It was so hot even I started to sun- burn on my shoulders. Jeez, man, I’m of Indian descent and I never thought that was possible. Must get some factor 50.

The Lao people cope uncomplainingly in the heat, they never mop their brows and barely break in to a sweat, but they do enjoy using umbrellas, even on scooters riding one-handed rather nonchalantly. Up Mount Phousi I even saw a guy casually climbing the steps in double-denim. Now that’s just showing off.

Laos is landlocked so instead of going to the beach, we rode a moped for 30km west of Luang Prabang to a series of spectacular waterfalls called the Tad Kuang Si.

It was a pleasant ride passing fields of buffaloes and forests, and suddenly when the Mekong would appear, there’d be a sudden and much welcomed blast of cooler air.

We walked past a black bear rescue centre and through a forest clearing till we got to the the series of falls which drop in to shallow pools, very cool just right for a dip. The water contains calcium which catches sunlight and makes the water blue and I had never before seen river water of this colour.

The night-market sellers

We enjoyed going to the night market, a 500 metre long series of covered stalls, with wares of clothing, bric a brac, paintings, and even cutlery made from ordinance founds from the Secret War.

***

The stallholders are nearly all female, and they enjoy a banter with their neighbours; some have meals by their stalls which they might share with other stall keepers, picking at a dish with chopsticks; the vibe is light and friendly, their manner is relaxed.

One or two of them would have a baby on a mat next to them, usually dozing under a fan although some were watching cartoons like Pepa Pig on a phone. (Not since Teenage Mutant Ninja Hero Turtles has a four-footed creature so much influenced the children of the world).

Silks, silk-weavers and silk-worm poo tea

I’ve been really interested in the parallels here with Assamese culture; there are hints everywhere; in the dishes of bamboo shoots and sticky rice; how evil spirits can be kept away with heated chillies (a Hmong belief too); it’s in the gold embroidered edging on sarongs; it’s in the paddy fields and the the bamboo cane wickerwork of pots, hats, baskets and fish cages; and it’s in the shapes of people’s eyes.

Like the Assamese, the Lao have a fine tradition of silk cultivation and weaving and we walked along the Mekong to a social enterprise called Ock Pop Tok that gives fair wages and health and social security benefits to their silk workers. There’s a fine narrative for visitors on the the different types of worm, the various types of silk and the weaving tradition.

In the cafe that overlooked the Mekong river I couldn’t resist trying out Silk-worm poo tea. I quite liked it. “It tastes like green tea but pooier,”

“You’re really selling it,” said Sarah.

And there we sat at sunset, overlooking the glistening Mekong, drinking our cups of tea and coffee.

“Ahh,” I said as i sipped the tea. “How does it get better than this?”

“Kittens?” she replied.

Honestly there’s no pleasing some people.

***

When you leave a beautiful place like Luang Prabang there’s always an inertia, a natural reluctance to move on.

There’s a part of you that says, if you’ve found that place why not stay. But then, there’s another part of you that makes you think again, perhaps there’s even more beauty downstream, with new places to see and discover.

***

Written on a 4 hour winding minivan ride next to a screaming child between Luang Prabang and Vang Vieng 26.4.19. I feel a bit sick looking at this screen.

This post ‘Luang Prabang, jewel on the Mekong River’ was first published on http://www.heyloons.com and is part of the blog series ‘90 Days in South East Asia’.

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