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giovedì 16 febbraio 2012

Future Laos Paradise

What I first remember about this wonderful country is the distinctive scent I smelled as soon as I got out of the plane. A mix of leaves and spices and wet soil which gave me an immediate sense of well being. I was arriving from Bangkok by plane since I decided I unfortunately did not have time to take the train to Chiang Mai in the north of Thailand and then the boat to travel on the Mekong for three days. So I chose the one hour flight to Vientiane, the capital. I vividly remember how peaceful I felt as soon as I got there which was how I remained for a few days, yet not for long since my staying in Laos was very very wet..Yes indeed I went during rainy season but I didn't expect it to rain ALL the time and instead it did. Luckily enough it did not prevent me from enjoying all the things I saw and I did but it was certainly very annoying. In Ventiane I booked this lovely lovely guest house called Thong Bay, a little bit out of the center but easily reachable by tuk tuk. The rooms are big, clean and basically furnished with an exquisite taste. They also have a cooking school inside and the owner cooks marvellous food. I took my first tour of the center of Ventiane where I basically strolled around the gravel roads and had about ten chats with Buddhist monks who also invited me into their convent to stay for praying time. Have you ever heard buddhist monks pray? It's one of the most spiritual experiences you can have. The guttural sound they make at the same moment in one voice makes you shiver for its beauty.
My room at Thongbay guesthouse
Vientiane Buddhist temple internal view
Streets of Vientiane
I also went to have a nice massage in a spa called Papaya owned by a Basc man married to a Laotian woman , but the best experience was to have a herbal steam bath and a massage on the terrace at Wat Sok Pa Luang also called forest temple. It is really in a forest and the temple itself is nice and extremely peaceful. The herbal saunas are amazing . The place may look a little scruffy at first but after you try it and then have a massage outside in the shade of the forest trees, that is real paradise let me tell you. Other things to see and do include of course visit to the temples like Pha That Luang the symbol of buddhist religion and Laos sovereignty with its golden cupola and Wat Si Sakhet or Wat Si Muang or monuments like Patuxai the local Arch of Triumph in the very center. Also a little bit out of town there is Xieng Khuang or Buddha park a very peculiar place where you can see very bizarre sculptures of different gods and of course of Buddha made of concrete.
Pha That Luang
Buddha Park
As far as food is concerned I ate in different places on the river serving typical Laotian food and also in a couple of foreign places including La Cote d'Azur restaurant a a very good French place and Sticky fingers cafè where you can also have a nice drink. Another place where to go if craving western food is the Scandinavian bakery where you can also meet a lot of expats. I actually liked Laotian food very much. The main specialty is làap which is minced fish or meat with fresh herbs and dried chili flakes, lime juice, garlic and green onions (just make sure that after having it you won't speak to anybody) together with khào niaw very very sticky rice. Instead if you feel like shopping you can go to Talat Sao a market where to buy handicrafts, textiles and cutlery at a cheap price. I bought many silk scarves since they are very distinctive amongst Asian textiles and have beautiful patterns and colours in particular various shades of brown and rust.
Laotian scarves
After Vientiane I left by bus to Luang Prabang. The bus was very basic and carried people, vegetables and bags of rice and fish. Laotian people are wonderful: kind, helpful and delicate. The bus ride was one of the best I ever had : the atmosphere was peaceful and relaxing and the landscape was just fantastic. The ride was going to be too long so I stopped in Vang Vieng, a place where travellers go to enjoy themselves on the river doing rafting and all sorts of adventurous sports. I just stayed the night and for as much as 5 dollars I got a beautiful bungalow by the river with a green mosquito net and a bridge just crossing the river where I took a stroll in the mist at dusk feeling just like in a movie. When I went out to have dinner I met a guy from Rome I took an actors retreat with the year before.. funny how sometimes you don't see people from home when you're there and meet then on the other side of the world.
My bungalow in Vang Vieng
Bus ride
Vang Vieng
The next day I took a (very slow) minibus to Luang Prabang. I was the only foreigner on board so I guess that's why we stopped at every single village to pick up people and to groceries shop but that was quite enlightening. We picked up a young soldier with a piece of sticky rice in his hand as a snack, a mother with two young girls with bags of what looked like moss and and an old guy visiting his family. When we got there I realized that even in the rain Luang Prabang was one of the most beautiful places I had ever been too. I wasn't aware of the fact that in those days there was a canoe race on the river so the place was literally packed. I managed to find a room in a not so nice place where I spent a lot of time since I hardly remember a moment when it was not raining. I managed to see the Royal Palace and some temples but I was always wet and miserable. So I resolved to have wonderful massages and go to a hairdresser who made such an effort to straighten my hair only to discover it was completely useless since ten minutes later the humidity was so bad I looked like a hydrophobic cat just landed on my head.
On the way to Luang Prabang
Views of Luang Prabang
Apart from the rain and the disappointment deriving from it, one of the most amazing experiences was to see the monks procession at six o'clock in the morning when they all come into town from all the temples to get offers from all the women of the village kneeling on very beautiful mats who bring jars of sticky rice and distribute spoons of it into the monks' bags. Everything happens in respectful silence and quiet in the very early hours of the day and it is absolutely marvellous. After that I went back to sleep for a couple of hours and then went to the airport since it was time to go back to Thailand where I was gonna spend a few days in an island (considering the disaster that it was going to turn into I might as well stayed in the rain in beautiful Luang Prabang but that's another story). I definitely will go back at some point because Laos is indeed wonderful only maybe in another season...
Buddhist monks morning procession in Luang Prabang