Laos is the dream come true. I spoke with many travelers in this trip, here and in Vietnam who were in Laos and all of them went more or less through the same experience: they planned the trip in Laos for 1-2 weeks based on what they were able to read in the book and all of them ended up extending their visa and no necessary because they found much more to see or explore. It is just the atmosphere of, probably, one of the best kept secret in SE Asia.
Sabaidee! This is the salutation you hear continuously from everybody. It is for “Hello” and “Goodbye” also and it is used also by the foreigners and is nice and comfortable to hear it. In Vietnam everybody says “Hello” or “Hi” and everything is very pro-American, surprising after such a difficult past, but maybe the new market economy makes people try emulate America. Here a lot of things remained French, including the inscriptions on the major institutions, like the Post Office, but still the salutation is local. Last night, after I had my email done, I went for dinner to the oldest restaurant here in Luang Prabang, dating from 1960, and I had Stuffed Bamboo shoots, a very good and interesting dish. Inside the bamboo shoots they put some meat and they fried it, the dish being delicious. As a matter of fact the food I had here is exquisite, maybe caused by the large number of tourists and travelers who can afford to pay just a little more on dishes. Not the same thing is in Vietnam, where if you want to have good food you go to the best restaurants, that comparatively with the rest of them are slightly more expensive, (still very cheap comparing with USA or Europe). Otherwise the food in Vietnam is repetitive and unappealing. After dinner I walked on the main street and I bumped into Susan who was nursing a beer in one of the restaurants. We chatted for two hours, a great discussion about many issues. After she raised in Virginia her two daughters, who just finished college, she retired from a job of photography, graphic design and product conceptualization and marketing, sold her house and she began wandering throughout the world. She got a voluntary position with Peace Corp in Essaouira, Morocco where she lived for two years working with the Berbers who were making handicrafts, helping them promote their products. She learned one of the Berber languages and when she was done she decided that she will keep traveling. So, now she wants to spend half of the year traveling in SE Asia and other places and half of the year working with the guys who bought the Silk Mill in Pittsfield, MA, who want to create there a artist commune with work, living and exhibition spaces. We are invited to the opening of the first exhibit in June. I left Susan at 10:30pm and I went home to take a shower and go to sleep because I had to wake up in the morning to see the monks. Again! The monks did their tour of duty the same like the day before, long rows of yellow robes, taking their rice in silence and peace. I met Gunther and I walked with him, losing him latter in the crowd. From there I went back home to dress for the day and I went to have breakfast on the Mekong, Lao black coffee, banana shake and omelette with a Mango cake that they sell in the city. Plus the views over the Mekong in the morning! When I left the restaurant I bumped in a middle aged Aussie that I met yesterday on the boat. She was telling yesterday about the hellish experience she had riding the bus from Hanoi to Vientiane. The bus was crammed to maximum, having a bench in between the chairs to fill it to more than capacity. It was an AC bus, so the windows could not open being sealed, but….the AC did not work and inside was like in steam bath. The entire trip took…23 hours, leaving at 8:00pm and reaching the border at 8:00am and entering Laos at 9:30 am. She said that she would not wish it to anybody, but she was lucky because…. the other day the bus broke down and the passengers missed the border opening so they had to sleep in the border town and it took …45 hours to get to Vientiane. So I guess that my one hour flight did the trick ! She will travel till her money run out, somebody was renting her house in Australia implicitly paying her mortgage, and she traveled a lot when she was young but she told me regretfully, with no too much interest in those times for cultural travel. And I know what she talks about because I see many young travelers who are here to have a great time, not knowing most of the times what great opportunities they have to see these great sites. It is just about hanging out and living in a cheap place where money is running longer and they chill more without work. Obviously, most of them are not like this and they are deeply involved in seeing, exploring and understanding the culture of the place. After I parted with the Aussie, who was going to live in a tree house for three days to see and hear gibbons, a successful ecotourism program that she decided to join.
I went to rent a bike for $1 a day and I start exploring the city. I did not have any plan today and I wanted to wander with no checkboxes or lists of to-do things. I saw several temples that I missed last time but this was not the intention, I just bumped into them. I crossed a bridge trying to get to a place and I found a meditation temple, about which I read but I had no idea how to reach it. It was looking and feeling like the one we saw in Chiang Mai, with inscriptions on trees but his time just in Lao not in English. It has a beautiful gilded stupa on three tiers. From there I came back in town and biked lazily to other places and I visited two more temples. I stopped around 2pm in a very hip coffee place, Jabo, close to my guest house, a sort of local Starbucks with pastries and nice assortment of coffee, but the frappucino I had was more than disappointing, so I may skip it tomorrow no matter that I planned it for breakfast. After that I stopped in several stores to buy some things and I went on Mekong to cross it to see some temples on the other side, not very convinced but still… But maybe the weather noticed my visiting mood so it started to rain and I took refuge in a store waiting for the rain to stop, forfeiting my plan to cross the river. The rain continued and after I got some info from an agency for the next time I come to Laos, to go to Mueng Sing, I biked through rain stopping in some other stores. The stores are expensive here. They know that the ones who are buying from them have to have money so they jack up the price ridiculously. I bought a hanging from Sapa for $4 that here they try to sell for $62!!! The same one! There are also very beautiful stores with remarkable things. I found extremely beautiful weaving that they sell, different ones, in the market for $4-7 but in this store they were, of a different quality and an exquisite taste, for $300-650. Eventually, I decided to go to eat something so after I stopped at the guesthouse to take my book to read I went to a great restaurant that I saw on some ads named Tamarind, that makes traditional Lao food. They served me sticky rice, that you eat with your hand making a ball and getting the food with it. The food was more than delicious, was an experience in itself on all sort of spices and dishes from Luang Prabang, a seaweed from the Mekong that they dry outside with sesame, garlic and tomatoes, eggplant salad cooked in a different style, coriander as salad that I never ate before and some sweet tomatoes all with a local hot sauce. They are specialized in these kind of specialty dishes and they do not serve dinner so I told them that I will link them to the blog http://www.tamarindlaos.com , one of the best culinary experience I had in Laos. When I finished lunch/dinner it was almost 5:30pm and the monks in the wat across the street started to chant, a thing that all monks do at that time. I joined them and I shot some video inside and moved latter for more chants and more video and sound recording in another wat nearby that I missed to see inside. I wanted not to miss any more the chance to call home so I came and at 6:30pm I spoke with Victor who just woke up and was very happy when I told him that we will play together soon.