Saturday, May 3, 2014

Luang Prabang

A shiny mosaic at Wat Xieng Thong.
Day 9 (Feb.1): Wat Xieng Thong, Phou Si, and Dyen Sabai
It's difficult to get lost in the old town of Luang Prabang: it's just one big loop on the top of a hill. I wandered around for a day with no real plans in mind, but it was nice to run into old friends and make new ones.

I met a guy from Chengdu whose English name is Flame. He was very friendly and eager to talk about everything from politics to Taiwanese food. Even though he was from China, he loved Taiwan (and really disliked Chinese communism). We walked to Wat Xieng Thong, the city's most famous temple, where we ran into Corine and Ian! It was hot, but the temples were cool inside, so it was nice to explore and take photos. Overall, it wasn't very interesting, though. I was getting temple fatigue -- they all look the same after a while.
Small Buddha sculptures at Wat Xieng Thong.
Later in the afternoon, Flame got a massage while I got a smoothie and played with free WiFi. Internet access is advertised all over the city, but it's very rarely reliable. In fact, Flame and I actually met at the guesthouse because he asked me how to access its WiFi. It wasn't easy -- I had to go out onto the balcony to get just a few bars.

Anyway, as the afternoon wore on, we decided to hike to the very top of the local hill, Phou Si, to watch the sunset. This wasn't the best of ideas, since it ended up being so overwhelmingly crowded that any enjoyment of the natural beauty was inevitably spoiled by hordes of people taking photos and being loud. It was so ridiculous that it became funny, actually. But I'd paid the price of 20,000kip and a hike to see this, so I joined the crowd and tried to take some photos, too.
The sunset was still gorgeous. It was just hard to appreciate it with all the people around.
Me, Green, and Flame at Phou Si.
At the top of the hill, Flame and I ran into Green, a guy from Taiwan whom I met briefly in between the border crossing into Laos and the slow boat pier at Huay Xai. Green had taken a bus up north to Luang Namtha and had finally found his way back down to Luang Prabang. Realizing that they could have a lot of interesting things to talk about, I introduced them to each other and then tuned out as they talked about their respective countries in Mandarin too fast for me to really follow along.

That evening, I met up with Greg and P, Corine and Ian, and their friend Chrissie at the nice restaurant across the bamboo bridge* from the old city. It's called Dyen Sabai, and I highly recommend it. Their specialty is Lao fondue, which is similar to Cambodian barbecue. Essentially, it's meat grilled on coals like a barbecue, plus a heated broth for cooking other things hot-pot style. There was buffalo meat, Lao sausage, and delicious dishes with eggplant including fried eggplant and baba ganoush. Everything was to die for and also served with class.

The restaurant's atmosphere is also great -- instead of four walls, patrons dine in large open-air huts and sit on the floor with bamboo mats and cushions. It was wonderful. It was also cheap -- we ordered several of the dinner sets and lots of happy hour drinks and ate until we were beyond stuffed, but our total bill came out to less than 100USD. My share of the bill came out to 116,000kip, or $14.50. And this was my splurge meal of the week. Easily four times the amount I'd been paying for meals up until then, but compared to South Korea or the US, it was an unbelievable deal. So, if you are ever in Luang Prabang, be sure to try Dyen Sabai.
Lao fondue: a grill plus a hot pot. That there is buffalo meat! It's basically beef.
Greg, Ian, Chrissie, Corinne, and P, having a wonderful dinner in an open-air hut.
Of course, now that the city is booming with tourism, there are undoubtedly many other high-end restaurants that can provide the same level of class and fine dining, but this place really was something special. I think the good company added to it.

I ended the night at a bar owned by a French man, chilling with the three funny and friendly Brits I'd befriended over the past few days. After just one day in Luang Prabang, I already loved it.

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*If you are ever in Luang Prabang, beware the evening bridge toll scammer! During daylight hours, tourists who cross the bridge must pay toll; this contributes to the maintenance of the bridge, which is washed away every rainy season and rebuilt. But after sunset, the crossing is supposed to be free. That didn't stop a clever swindler from installing himself in the toll booth to collect fees from unsuspecting tourists. I was lucky to be crossing with P, who marched right past the toll booth without even giving the guy a second glance. And the guy was gone when we crossed back after dinner...
The bamboo bridge in Luang Prabang

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