Luang Prabang, Laos

Sunday 22 December 2013

This grand family holiday adventure has taken months and months of planning. In fact a gestation period of exactly 9 months. Searching for locations our families could agree on, then searches for accommodation and the right flights to get one family here from Australia and others from England. Now the day has finally arrived for us to head off on this Christmas-New Year family adventure.

Our departure from Bangkok and arrival into Luang Prabang went without a hitch. As we leave the arrivals hall, Rattana from Villa Saynam is there to greet us and whisk us away to our grand Villa overlooking the mighty Mekong River.

Villa Saynam is perfect, we have booked all four bedrooms, spacious and beautifully appointed, and the lounge area opens up to the verandah, garden and deck all overlooking the vast expanse of the fast flowing Mekong. Tough, but somehow we will manage. ( / email: Ban Pha Kham Riverfront, Luang Prabang)

Villa Saynam is a only a couple of kilometres out of town; however Rattana is very happy to offer transport a couple of times per day inclusive of our stay. So it’s off to Coconut Garden for lunch.

Stepping out onto the main street and into Coconut Garden we are led through to a beautiful setting and settle into a lounged corner for our lunch time feast:

•    Dried Buffalo Strips in Sesame Seeds
•    Chicken Larb
•    Chicken wrapped in Banana Leaves
•    Pork and Vegetable Spring Rolls
•    Stuffed Lemongrass Stems
•    Eggplant and Pork

All dishes were beautifully prepared, with fresh flavours of coriander, mint and dill. Topped off with a Lao Dark Beer.

Now to have our first look around this beautiful World Heritage listed town. The first thing that strikes you is how few people are around, it is sort of off-season I suppose (December 22). The skies are clear, day time temperatures in the mid-20s, dry season. An ideal time to visit.

Luang Prabang sits on a tiny peninsula with the Mekong on one side and the Khan River winding along the other side, creating a beautiful setting with river front vistas aplenty and a vast choice of bars and restaurants taking advantage of the location. The riverfront streets are magnificently tree-lined. The grand colonial style buildings, many converted to hotels, overlook the street scape through their timber shuttered windows.

There are two bamboo bridges across the Khan River. The first bridge, nearest to the Mekong, is unfortunately immersed by the current high water level. So we go further up stream to the second crossing to head back to Villa Saynam.

The narrow bamboo foot bridge stretches precariously below as we head down the steps to pay our toll for its upkeep. Stepping across the bamboo slats with the fast flowing river just below, it’s easy to see the need for the constant upkeep, so the toll is a small token well spent. On the other side we climb up to the road that will take us through the Ban Xang Khang weaving village.

As we pass by homes dotted along the way people are very friendly, smiling and saying “sába̖ai-di̖i” (hello). Many are gathered around small fires preparing their evening meal, while some others play badminton in the streets and a group of teenagers are playing a version of volleyball, but propelling a small ball over a string with their feet or elbows or heads. We pass by the weaving shops with women working away on their looms.

Back at Villa Saynam its out onto our terrace overlooking the Mekong for an aperitif in the last light of the setting sun. This is idyllic.

Off to Blue Lagoon for dinner (Ban Chaun Khang, Laung Prabang. We are seated at an outdoor table under a canopy and it suddenly hits us just how cold it is tonight, we are in the middle of an incredible cold snap. It’s going to be just 5°C overnight and we are very under dressed. The waiters bring buckets of burning coals to place by our side but the advantage of the small amount of warmth is countered by the disadvantage of the smoke and fumes encasing the person down wind. My eyes have started to water setting off laughter around our table causing my eyes to water even more. We’ve chosen a more traditional selection of meals tonight and I’ve asked for tender Pot Roasted Pork Neck with Mashed Potato, complimented by a glass of the house Malbec from Argentina. Perfect on a cold winter’s night.

Time to head home which first of all requires us to negotiate with a Sorntaaou driver for the seven of us (a sorntaaou is a large tuk-tuk or van, able to seat up to ten people along two parallel benches, with open sides behind the driver). Thousands of Kip are labouriously discussed before we realise we only have US dollars. So the negotiations start all over again with US$10 agreed. We pile on board and it’s quite clear even before we set off that he has no idea where Villa Saynam is, despite showing him the address and a map. I’m back out in the street with our driver and he has called over another driver between the three of us we seem to have directions sorted out and he fires up the sorntaaou and we launch off down the road for only 50 metres before he pulls over to a shop and asks a mate for directions. Back out onto the street, more direction pointing, more turning maps around and lots more head nodding, up and down, as well as side-ways. Andy chips in with “there’s only three roads in Luang Prabang, how hard can it be?” Thanks Andy! I think he has some vague idea of where our Villa is because the fee is now US$15! Back on board, sorntaaou fired up once again, stalls a few times and we are off, god knows where. I’m not sure what we are more fearful of, heading in the completely wrong direction or freezing to death. Over the noise of the sorntaaou I can hear yelps of “I’m so cold”, “He’s going the wrong way”, “I wish I had another layer”, “I’m 100% sure he is taking us to the airport” and so on. In the pitch darkness and with only a view of where we have come from we all choose a nervous laughter as the best medicine, which soon breaks out into hysterical  cackling until Andy reassuringly calls out “I recognise that Dentist shop, we are going the right way”. He’s found the turn off from the main road and we are now bouncing along the heavily rutted dirt road. Almost a wrong turn but with much yelling and pointing from all of us and we are soon turning into our lane way with an outbreak of applause from all of us. Our driver has become our new best friend and we all bid him goodnight with hearty “khàwp ja̖i” (thank you) and as we are so relieved to be home we gave him a US$20 tip! So much for all that up front negotiation about the price!

Monday 23 December

We awake to a table on our balcony terrace beautifully set with a hand dyed blue linen table cloth against a backdrop of the Mekong with the hills beyond shrouded with mist. We rug up for our simple breakfast of eggs, baguette and fantastic Lao coffee. It’s was so cold that everyone went back to bed after breakfast, still wearing their jackets and scarves, to warm up. But an hour later and the sun has broken through on the adjacent lawn and we are all out as sun worshipers. Emma has gone from wearing her entire wardrobe less than an hour ago, including her hotel issued bathrobe, to now laid out on the grass in shorts and a singlet top. Go figure!

Rattana arranged a lift into town for us to head out exploring. Wat Xieng Thong is our first destination point. The serenity surrounding this temple strikes you as much as its beauty. It was built in 1560 by King Setthathirath. The stories depicted in the simple glass mosaics on the building’s external walls around the site are fascinating. Walk down the steps toward the Mekong River and just below street level is a ‘Boules pitch’. Locals had a very lively game going on here yesterday and today Rory and Luke were able to negotiate a game for US$2.

For lunch we selected Green Discovery to satisfy our range of appetites, Burgers for the boys and Pad Thai for some of the adults, its right next door to Coconut Garden. I selected Grilled Mekong Fish with delicate flavours, meaty and moist.

Time to walk up Phousi Hill, the huge outcrop right in the middle of town. You can walk up flights of steps from pretty much every direction; however we were advised to begin our ascent from the grounds of a School for the Monks, behind the shops on Sisavangvong Road. Entered through a narrow laneway almost opposite Coconut Garden and Green Discovery.

As we walked by the classrooms, Monks were busily studying not just Buddhism but a complete educational curriculum. Then begins the climb up hundreds of steps. Half way up its fascinating to pause and chat with the Monks, who love to practise their English. One of them was a big Chelsea fan! The world may be divided on many matters but there is certainly one thing that unites us – football/soccer.

What a view when you reach the top! The Nam Khan River stretches away in the distance through forested mountains while the mighty expanse of the Mekong glistens in the rays of the late afternoon sun. On the way down we came across our Monk-mates who chat with us as we walk along a beautiful forested trail towards Mashat.

Dinner tonight is at Tamnak Lao and we are in for another Laotian feast:

•    Fresh Spring Rolls bursting with the flavours of freshly packed herbs
•    Stir Fried Chicken with Flat Noodles
•    Stir Fried Greens
•    Pork and Aubergine Casserole
•    Laotian Pork Sausage

Tuesday 24 December

Today we’ve hired a boat to cruise up the Mekong to the Tam Ting Caves. The boat arrives at 9:30am right below Villa Saynam and we take the few steps down towards the embankment to board our vessel. But the steps stop halfway down and we have to gingerly step over huge washed up logs and slippery muddy steps cut into the riverbank. Not an elegant start! But the sight of Andy reversing down the slope made it all worthwhile. The two hour cruise up river is glorious. Sitting back and soaking up the morning sun. Women only, interestingly, can be seen busily farming on steep embankments as children play nearby, smiling broadly and waving as we pass. Jill thinks every child in Laos is gorgeous looking with gorgeous and lively personalities, as they play with nothing more than a stone and a stick.

Along the way we stop at a local village to sample home-made Lao Whisky. The first sample is syrupy sweet but the second sample is very good and little bottles are purchased for US$3 and then after a stroll through the charming village with its highly colourful Wat we are back on the boat and underway.

Mighty cliff faces come into view and we realise we are about to embark on a very steep climb to the caves. It’s a relatively short walk to the upper cave but incredibly tough. Both the upper and lower caves are places for worship, decorated with hundreds of Buddha statues of all sizes. They are all very dusty and some a little decrepit, but the overall effect is quite special.

Lunch is on the waterfront on the opposite bank of the river. At first we’re a bit concerned about the possible quality of the food in the tourist fronted establishment, Namthip Sokby (Lucky) Restaurant. However our fears are quickly put to rest when our meals are served. As we were literally on the Mekong River, Jill and I couldn’t go past Mekong fish for lunch:

•    Steamed Fish with lemongrass, lime leaves and ginger
•    Fried Fish with basil, sweet peppers and onions.

Both were moist, with light fresh, aromatic flavours. Other selections that went down well were the Chicken Curry, Pork Curry and Vegetable Fried Rice.

Back onto the boat for the down-river trip home. Only one and a half hours downstream, and we spot an elephant trekking on the shores, and not long after Andy spots some tiny wild monkeys who have come down to the river’s edge for a drink. This is a magnificent way to spend a tranquil day.

As its Christmas Eve we have given Emma, Luke and Rory some money and set them loose in the Night Market to choose a Christmas gift, that we’ll wrap and give them tomorrow! Emma returns with a stylish bucket hat and the boys have chosen bamboo guns, of course!

Dinner tonight is at Kon Kai, an outdoor restaurant overlooking the Nam Khan River, near the bamboo footbridge. We are a bit concerned about being cold but we should have been more concerned about the quality of the food. Unfortunately our worst choice so far. However, the Fresh Spring Rolls, Deep Fried Spring Rolls and Laos Pork Sausage were perfectly fine. Unlike the inside of the house across the road where the loos were. Emma and Jill returned as if having seen a ghost, but instead their shock was as a result of just having seen the ramshackle kitchen!

Wednesday 25 December

Jill and Adrienne set off in search of nuts to have with the bottle of French bubbly we picked up in town last night. They walked through a lovely and incredibly simple village just nearby to a shop with only three shelves, selling most of the things you’d want. Including peanuts.  So a bowl of the local peanuts with our bubbly gets us into the Christmas spirit on the deck of Villa Saynam just before we head out for our Christmas lunch. The ‘kids’ fake surprise very well as they open their gift. The kids are unimpressed by the assertion that more than 90% receives similar gifts if anything at all. It now feels more like Christmas Day, even though we are here perched over the Mekong and culturally a million miles from a traditional Christmas Day.

Lunch is at The Balcony, part of the Lanith Group, on the other side of town. The restaurant and boutique hotel have been set up as a Project to collaborate with locals in kitchen and service skills of the hospitality industry.

Adrienne spotted this restaurant in the Lao Airlines magazine so we feel it might be a bit of gamble as it’s only been open for about 6 weeks! Right from the time of making the booking our first impressions is of first class service. Veronica advised over the phone that they don’t usually open for lunch but hey it’s Christmas so they are very happy to open for us and might to able to get some other bookings as well.

As we pull into the car park I’ve spotted the restaurant’s herb garden, bountiful with bushes of Lao Basil, a plot of Mint, Tomatoes in flower, Galangal, Ginger and Lemongrass. The boys on the other hand have spotted the adjacent soccer field, but they haven’t brought their football with them!

We are greeted at the front door by waiters with chilled hand towels who then lead up to our balcony table where Veronica greets us warmly. Veronica overhears the boys’ discontent about their absent soccer ball and with that instructs one of her waiters to jump in the car and head into town. It’s not long before Veronica reappears with a brand new soccer ball in her outstretched arms as a Christmas gift for the boys. How is that for service? The service continued in this manner throughout the entire meal with nothing being a problem for them, including driving all of us back into town in their own sorntaaou.

Our meal began with two ‘amuse bouche’ taste delights. The first, a fragrant clear broth with a tiny omelette and carrot shaving. The second was rabbit cooked two ways with a crouton slice. To quote Jill “my bouche is very amused!” For starters, most of us went for the Dumpling, stuffed with Chipolata, served on a bed of pickles and spring onions, in a pool of chipolata juice. Rory chose the Salmon Tataki starter for his main course served in three pieces rolled in pastis and served with wok pak choi on a smear of coffee. Emma and I choose the Pork Mignon for our main course. Sweet pieces of pork cooked two ways with confit bacon and penne pasta tubes stuffed with mushrooms. The other main course was BBQ Grilled Buffalo Fillet served atop coriander-potato mash, with shallot jam. The chef was from a Michelin starred restaurant in Luxembourg and this felt like a Michelin starred restaurant.

What sensational flavours, a wonderful fusion of European style with local Lao ingredients cleverly incorporated. One of the most memorable Christmas lunches, something to savour and cherish.

Back in to town, and it was a stroll through the buzzing night market as store holders were setting up. Busily erecting canopies, folding silk scarves and lining up intricate pieces of silver jewellery. A daily routine for them.

We decided that a perfect way to finish off this amazing Christmas day was to go hopping from bar to bar along Kingkitsarath Road. Our first stop was Lao Lao Garden, decorated to look like Santa’s Grotto. We nestled into a corner for some icy cold Lao beer accompanied by slices of French toast and chicken wings. So bizarre to be sitting in Santa’s Grotto and being eaten alive by mozzies. Next we headed into Hive Bar and seated ourselves in a perfect position for the free fashion show. The colours and styles worn by the models were gorgeous, reflecting their heritage in the styles and colours with a more contemporary twist in the presentation. Of all things this was followed by a Hip Hop dancing group, a little too surreal perhaps?

Where to next? There are some very cool sounds coming from the Reggae Bar across the road and the boys have spotted a pool table. What a finish to the night. A few games of pool, great music, more French toast, a bit of dancing and just one or two more of those crisp Lao beers. A brilliant festive atmosphere filled the Reggae Bar. What a way to finish off this exceptional Christmas Day!

Thursday 26 December

Jill and Emma are up early to head off on a group Trek. Meanwhile Adrienne and I aren’t far behind as we have booked ourselves into the Tamnak Cooking School for the day.

The overall experience of the Tamnak Cooking School was a fantastic one, with great recipes, true hands-on cooking and delicious eating. This is despite our chef’s being a little charmless, they were perfectly professional with great demonstrations however they didn’t really engage beyond that, no culture context or anecdotes. We kicked off with a tour of a local market: piles of fresh herbs; pyramids of fresh chillies; mounds of graded chilli powders; and even buffalo skin for you to throw on the BBQ (a local version of pork crackling I guess) .The market trip was a little rushed, we could have easily spent another 20 minutes around the market without taking away from our kitchen time.

Back in the kitchens for a demonstration of two dishes we were about to make and then devour for our lunch. A wonderfully easy Luang Prabang Salad with a clever mayonnaise that never curdles and Feu Khua rice noodles, where the noodles are uniquely fried as one flat piece in a wok, then an egg added to create an omelette coating, and then removed from the wok. Minced chicken, vegetables and sauces are wok-fried before the fried noodles are roughly chopped and added back to the wok. Onto the plate and served with lime wedges, a taste sensation. After lunch it’s back into the kitchen for the demonstration and tasting of five dishes. We select three of these dishes to then cook and eat as an “early” (4:00pm) dinner. We selected:

•    Chicken Larp (Chicken Salad)
•    Khua Maak Kheva Gap Mao (Fried Eggplant with Pork)
•    Geng Phet (Chilli Casserole or Red Curry)

We loved preparing and eating all five of our dishes and are convinced we will cook all of them when we get back home. Having seen how relatively easy all of these dishes are to cook, once the preparation has been done, I can imagine having guests in the back garden and cooking these dishes in a wok one-by-one on the BBQ for a Laotian feast.

Meanwhile Andy and the boys had a big sleep in and then wandered into town for burgers! As Adrienne and I are finishing up the last dish of our cooking extravaganza, Rory comes bounding down to say “g’day” and with a beaming smile tells us Andy is now taking them off for a massage. Which turned out to be a giggle fest. Apparently Rory farted loudly as the masseuse kneaded his bum!

Jill and Emma report back on their amazing trek with Tiger Trail Outdoor Adventures, Sisavangvong Road (just before the corner where the Royal palace is). Firstly a short bus ride, then onto a boat along the Mekong to alight for the trek through charming villages with the most delightful children they had met in any country, ever. After their trek they’d earned their lunch and the “very sweet” (Jill’s words) guide produced simply exquisite and still warmish fried rice, wrapped in banana leaf and tied with string. The walk finished at a waterfall where Emma and Jill braved the icy chill of the water, and the wrath of fellow impatient trekkers wanting to get on with their hike, to have a fabulous swim. They thoroughly recommend this Tiger Trail trek, despite their small group being made up of quite earnest, high achieving young persons.

We all rendezvous in town and decide to head back to Coconut Garden, where we enjoyed the lunch so much. It’s got to be a good call for dinner. I’ve decided to try the spicy Luang Prabang Buffalo Sausage, a local speciality. The texture is more dry and crumbly than a typical pork sausage, with an earthy, spiced flavour, not unlike the spice of Blood Sausage/Black Pudding.

It’s a pretty early night for everyone as we are getting up at crack of dawn to give alms to the Monks.

Friday 27 December

We are awoken by a light knocking on the door at 5:40am. Rattana is making sure we are all awake for our 6:00am departure; another 10 minutes sleep would have been nice.

Rattana sets us up outside Wat Mai on Sisavangvong Road. A mat is spread for Jill, Adrienne and Emma to kneel on they begin the process of rolling sticky rice into little balls in anticipation of the first line of Monks arriving. But it’s other tourists that arrive first and of all things start taking photos of Jill, Adrienne and Emma! It’s still pitch dark when Monks in their golden robes appear from around the corner. Andy Luke and Rory join in with everyone working swiftly to place a ball of sticky rice into the bowl of each Monk. It’s fast and furious. Not quite the tranquil, meditative experience we had anticipated. There is a break in proceedings so everyone takes the opportunity to put their heads down for more sticky rice ball rolling to get ahead of the game. Rattana is apparently here every morning, and now she is bringing out packets of biscuits to add to the giving.

We relocate thirty metres further along, outside the entrance to the Wat to be in a good position as the Monks return and head back home. First light has appeared as more Monks pass by, each of them being given balls of sticky rice, lovingly prepared, contrasting with packs of biscuits. As the last young Monk approaches, Luke and Rory wonder what happens to all the left-over’s they have in their tray, so a quick decision is to load up this young Monk with multiple balls of sticky rice and many packets of biscuits. I think this is the cleverest Monk of all, trailing the line and getting a bounty as he is the last home.

It’s a beautiful scene and a memorable experience, but I just couldn’t get the image out of my head of kids roaming the streets on Halloween. I did try and push it aside but that image made the whole experience somewhat surreal for me.

It’s not quite 6:30am and Rattana leads us around the corner to visit the Morning Market. What a bustling scene, half of the township must be here. Women line the walls of this narrow laneway with their fresh produce laid out before them: fresh herbs; galangal; ginger; eggplant; buffalo skin; snake beans; bananas; chillies; spring onions; and smoke dried fish. At the end of the lane we turn into another laneway with stalls cooking breakfast. A fire burns in a corner with a big black pot holding a steaming cane basket, brimming with sticky rice almost ready to be served. Further along, Mekong Fish are being cleaned and chickens prepared for sale. Deals are being made for the purchase of live chickens and the bird of choice is unceremoniously withdrawn from its basket by its feet. It’s incredibly early yet smiles abound with almost every stall holder greeting us with “sába̖ai-di̖i” (hello).

What a morning! We are back at Villa Saynam and it’s only just after 7:00am!

Sadly it’s time to head to the airport to begin the second leg of this holiday adventure in Chiang Mai. Would I return to Luang Prabang? Well, there are just so many other places yet to be visited, so a better question would be, ‘would I recommend Luang Prabang as a place to visit?’ Absolutely, without hesitation, in fact a ‘must see’! We all loved it.

As I sit back on our flight and we depart over this beautiful UNESCO Heritage listed town, memories roll by of its tranquillity, its tree lined alleys and streets, its peninsula setting, the sounds of Monks chanting, the solitude of Villa Saynam overlooking the lifeblood of the town, the mighty Mekong, and a brilliant Christmas Day with Jill, Adrienne, Andy, Emma, Luke and Rory.

There is the sinking realisation that this spectacular adventure has come to an end. However the uplifting moment comes with our reflections on just how fantastic it has all been. Our extended family has come together like never before. We have enjoyed every moment of being together and we are already planning the next adventure.

Stay tuned ….