Zen by day. Groovy by night in Luang Prabang

The phrase on the bottom of the receipt at Utopia Bar. Sums up life really; and Luang Prabang.

Luang Prabang is host to the upper & lower echelons of the international travelling public. At one end of the scale young, long-limbed, tanned girls & guys wander around the streets killing time until the next excursion leaves to dote on baby elephants or to frolic in the waterfalls just out of town or darkness falls to get to the next bucket of cocktails or the next plate of chicken fried rice. At the other end of the scale classy, more mature travelers sup their breakfast lattes in banana leaf shade beside the rivers around the edge of town, writing postcards home or checking their iPads & discussing how they will get to the airport to move on to their next port of call.

Luang Prabang was the original Lao capital before the French colonised the country and then the Communists took over after the Vietnam War. The royal family were shown the door and the capital moved to Vietiane. It is an elegant city with a neat centre reflecting its colonial past. Wide boulevards & shadey gardens provide a warm backdrop for smart hotels & guesthouses, restaurants with crisp white table clothes & tall glasses for wine. Bijou boutiques stand beside tat shops but both seem at home catering for their particular class of traveller.

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Evidence of a long, impressive past is found in the numerous Wats that exist in the city. The Vat Visounnarath complex also houses the Thad Makmo Stupa.

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Wat Xiergthang, the Golden Temple was built in 1559. The outside of the temple buildings are decorated in brilliant red & gold designs depicting Lao life. One golden fronted building houses the royal barge and mosaics abound on every surface reflecting the sun and adding to the glory of the place. What a spot to have your wedding photos taken.

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Longtailing down the River Ou through to the Mekong

It is a 350 km drive south east from almost the most northern part of Lao near the Chinese border to Nong Khiaw on the Nong Ou River, which we will follow downstream to where it flows into the Mekong near the Vietnam border. Much of the road is under construction. There are occasions when the road is closed for an hour or so to enable work to be completed. This will range from gangs of men & women picking through rocks or shovelling shingle to huge lorries tipping mountains of hardcore for tag teams of Mad Max road rollers to crunch & grind it to flatbed fitness. At times the lines heavy traffic have to negotiate its way through the work gangs & machines, winding between tippers & rollers & landslips & root banks. Inevitably progress can be painfully slow. It is such a good spectator sport for the locals when this road show reaches town. The plastic chairs come out, groups assemble outside homes with refreshments and families giggle & laugh & point & smile as these gigantic beasts pound their new high street and tiny tourists buses try to get around them in an attempt to make up lost time. Yep, this is our road through town. Fun & games!

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Arrival in Nong Khiaw is compensation for the trials of the journey. In the evening dullness stilted cabins can be seen from the bridge, gazing out over the river & town through the mist & drizzle.

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Underneath my mosquito net, just before dawn, the sounds of the day starting penetrate my sleep & I go with it: a cockerel in the far distance faintly begins a progressing chorous that gradually gets closer until the cacophony hits, dies down & then is started up again, probably by the same darn cockerel; a couple of dogs reenact duelling banjos for a while before returning to silence; cicadas constantly rub their back legs chirpily; a longtail engine splutters & splurges into life & potters up the river, any silencer long expired; a motor bike croans across the bridge; the sound of metal pots being scrapped across ranges adds an extra touch of humanity to the dawning of a new day. Then the darkness lightens and from the gloom of dawn, rooves, limestone hills & foliage appear from the low shroud of cloud & swirling mist. The sound of longtail boats becomes more frequent – a paddle monotonously dragging the surface, a light engine whirring its propeller, larger engines gunning their power to hit the downstream current. A radio comes to life with a broadcast of language & military music. Dawn has broken & the day begins.

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We board our boats on the Nam Ou and roar out of town towards the Mekong. Halfway there were have to leave the river at the recently constructed dam and travel by bus to the Pak Ou Caves on the Mekong. Sacred Buddhist shrines are housed in two caves in the limestone cliffs and thousands of Buddhist images are crammed onto loads of rock shelves.

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#Jungle. Jungle. Jungle, jungle rock in Luang Namtha

So today it’s a trek through the jungle around Luang Hamtha passing into several tribal villages on the way. The day starts with blue skies and yesterday’s rain is a distant memory. First it is down to the market to buy lunch which we will cook in the jungle – fish, vegetables, bananas & omelettes.

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Then, in large took tooks, we travel to the first tribal village of the Lantern people. Dressed in black with white bandage leggings, they come out to sell us their embroidery.

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Then it is on to the jungle. The trek starts at the site of an old stupa that was bombed by the US during the Vietnam War. A new gold painted one has been constructed in its place. As we explore this, a party of 50 or so officers from the Vietnamese High Command, with hats & medals & glossy uniforms appear. They start taking photos of our party of white Europeans and we do the same. The boot is on the other foot as they turn their screens to show the pictures they have taken of us as we reciprocate with them. Both groups laugh together at this random meeting of two cultures in the middle of the jungle.

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Wet & damp from the rain of yesterday we slip & slide along a narrow path avoiding Tarzan vines, hanging caterpillars, thin grasping creepers & large dripping leaves & fonds. Hot, steamy & overpowering, warnings of leeches are at the front of minds. The path scrambles up & down steep valley sides and meanders around tree root & holding branches. After two hours of hacking through this luxurient vegetation the goodies are prepared, the bar-b-q lit from forest litter and the table laid. Only then is the first leech found as blood appears on my foot. Quickly that is treated and lunch is started. The sky darkens. Torrential rain falls soaking everyone & everything. Lunch is abandoned as we slide out of the jungle to cross the bridge to the tribal village only to find the rope banister along the twin bamboo bridge over the stream to have been cut. of course it is Sod’s Law that at this point the sun comes out and we steam contentedly. We have to clamber 100yards upstream & wade across the stream. Then we group together & like gorillas in the mist pick the leeches off each other. Only six have drawn blood! What a bizarre day.

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Up to Luang Hamtha in northern Laos near the Chinese border

Ban Houie Sai at dawn is quiet & serene. At first sight Main Street is deserted. But then I spot groups of kneeling women hidden amongst the parked scooters. The sound of bells & drums comes closer and two lines of saffron monks come down the steps from the monastery and split at the bottom. One group leads off to the left down Main Street and another right. As they pass the kneeled figures sticky rice is placed in their bowls, a prayer is given and the saffron line moves along to the next group.

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The town then slowly comes to life with doors & shutters opened and stalls arranged on the pavements. Mothers pack their uniformed children off with satchels & lunches carried in plastic bags, some walking and some, as young as ten, riding motorbikes & scooters to school. The Mekong lazilly shimmers through the haze and small eddies swirl and gurgle around sandbanks. Fishing families splutter their longtail boats into the current & disturb the stillness.

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After breakfast the bus takes me up into northern Laos up to Luang Hamtha near the Chinese border. This is jungle country with high, sharp peaks & ridges covered in a tangle of groping trees and strangled vegetation. The empty road crosses rivers & streams through luxurient countryside of greens and emeralds. The Lao locals keep to the numerous ethnic minority villages which are an architectural expression of corrugated iron & banana leaf structures mixed with modern constructions of cement and tiles. As the bus crawls up sharp cornered roads, up & over peaks and down, the watching vegetation is hidden by mists, then drizzle through to torrential rain. These clear to reveal a velvet green landscape of small harvested fields of tobacco & rice & wheat surrounded by the tangled jungle before the rain cycle starts again.

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At the town market the locals are shy at first and hold back. A friendly approach from the white strangers and the sharing of photos quickly brings down barriers and giggles & laughter can soon be heard echoing across the stalls as the locals cackle in glee at their own image on the screen. They love it even more when you try local delicacies – tapioca is not so bad; frogs legs, sparrows or various bits of offal are an acquired taste!

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Crossing the Mekong from Thailand into Laos

From the glisty lights & the fuming traffic & the high risers & the noise & heat & humidity of in-yer-face Bangkok I fly north to Chiangrai. Here I step out into rural Thailand, take a bus to the Lao border passing date palm & rubber plantations, fields of rice & wheat with colourful, God painted combines swirling their blades like Mississippi river steamers ploughing through their waters, mango trees, palms, coconuts, bananas & coffee. There is the bridge across to Laos and the first sighting of the great Mekong, SE Asia’s greatest river. A short journey brings me to Ban Houai Sei & my first night with the Lao people.

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Let’s sort one thing out. The country was names Laos by the French & is inhabited by numerous tribes of the Lao people who speak Lao. OK? Got it?
Ban Houei Sei is a one-horse town with a single main Street. Homes open out onto the street on either side and punters walk through front rooms & past families eating to use the bars, eateries, hostels, hippy tat shops & general stores. How any if them make any money is unclear. A family member sits at a low plastic stool at the entrance to each waiting for the occasional young backpacker to wander in for a beer or a packet of crisps or yellow noodle soup. Occasionally a large Toyota cruises by driven by what looks like a 14 year old or a couple of scooters, whole families on board, gently disturb the peace of main street.. Everyone seems so young but all have smiles & welcomes.

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Through a narrow opening steps lead up to the monastery where dusk welcomes the young monks to prayer & the Mekong carries on its glide down to Vietnam and the ocean.

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