Well, we took full advantage of our 7-hour no-rain window of opportunity yesterday. The day started with cloud cover but no rain. Our pre-arranged taxi was on time and we headed off at 8am for Ban Phanom, a village touted for all the textile workers there who have formed a cooperative for their cloth product.
Here’s somthing I found online about the village:
“Ban Phanom is a village steeped in traditional textile making, with all families in the village working their looms to provide goods for sale at the night markets. The woven products were once supplied to the royal family and weavers today use the same techniques and patterns, resulting in a distinctly old-fashioned look. Cotton and silk materials with a range of colored threads are intertwined to produce a shimmering effect, whilst silk is added to create a pattern. Some of the families work from their own small workshops with the whole village operating as a co-operative supplying to a handful of manufacturers. Prices are open to negotiation and very affordable, you will need to bargain and expect not to pay the first price offered. In addition to shopping and enjoying a cultural experience, the area around Ban Phanom makes for a great place to take a bike ride and to explore some ancient remote temples.
“Close to the Phon Phau Temple, the village of Ban Phanom makes a popular tourist stop and is similar to the villages of Luang Namtha and Sam Neua, as there you can observe the female textile makers at work on their looms, dyeing and then weaving. Years ago, Ban Phanom was the village of choice for royal textiles, with each reigning monarch continuing to use village weavers as their preferred suppliers. The village itself is rich in history and offers a fantastic insight into an ancient art that is still very much alive today, thanks to tourism. Many sightseers visit the village, so it can get quite busy, especially when coaches arrive between 09:00 and 10:00, so avoid these times and you’ll probably experience a much more relaxed trip. If you’re interested in buying some textiles as a souvenir then it’s definitely worth visiting here instead of buying at the night market.”
OK, all that is just hype. What we found was a sleepy, spread out along the road, village, not a vibrant textile-making town with looms everywhere. In truth, they bring you to the coop’s main building. There we found about a half-dozen women, most with young children, tending to stacks of textile products. We were the only visitors.
Some of the products were beautifully done, but I didn’t need to spend $25 for a fancy skirt. I did buy a shirt ($7) and Nan bought several items, mostly for friends and family.
We headed back to Luang Prabang, stopping at a local eatery along the way for some ground pork and noodles in a tomato-based soup. Just OK.
Our next stop was Mount Phusi, a small hill in the center of town that gives you a great view of the city. The downside are the 355 steps that have to be negotiated to the top. There were the usual photos taken going up and at the top, where we also released two small sparrows for Buddhist good luck (50,000 kip/$6.25). There is a 20,000 kip fee ($2.50) per person. In fact, many of the sights had entrance fees.
Here’s what I found online about Mount Phusi:
“The hill is popular as a place to watch the sun rise or set over the Mekong River. From the summit you can enjoy a spectacular 360-degree outlook across the city and its many temples, and out over the surrounding landscape to the mountains in the distance. Count on spending a couple of hours for the climb and descent, with several stops to see the temples, rest under the shady trees and admire the magical views. There are hundreds of steps to negotiate, but the climb is gentle enough for anyone who is in reasonable health. Next to Wat Chomsi at the top of the hill you can buy flowers to offer for blessings, as well as caged birds. The Laos believe that if you set a bird free you will enjoy good luck and happiness in the future.”
Next we started some temple diving, including a boat trip (50,000 kip/person, ($6.25) across the raging Mekong River to a group of dilapidated temples. A waste of time; the temples were very spread out along muddy foot paths and were small and/or dilapidated. And I have to say that having visiting numerous temples in Indonesia and Thailand, the ones in Luang Prabang are not impressive. Or, maybe I’ve just seen too many and have become jaded.
A visit to the Royal Museum and the temple next to it was a bust – they would not allow me to even take pictures of inside the temple from the doorway, and no cameras were allowed in the museum. We didn’t go in. Here’s some detail:
“Royal Palace Museum. Set in a spacious, well-tended garden just off one of Luang Prabang’s main boulevards (Thanon Sisavangvong), you will find the fascinating Royal Palace Museum, which is also known as Haw Kham. The museum is well worth a couple of hours of your time if you want to learn more about Lao history and culture. Although the current main building dates from the early 20th century, the exhibits stretches back several centuries to trace the turbulent past of the Lane Xang kingdom and the colonial era, through to the present day. Originally the residence of the king, the museum was designed in the French Beaux-Arts style, with many tasteful accents of traditional Lao culture. When the communists came to power in 1975, they took over the palace and sent the royal family to re-education camps. The palace was converted into a museum that was opened to the public in 1995 after careful renovation, and remains in good condition. The grounds contain a number of other buildings, including a new exhibition hall and a chapel (Haw Prabang), and a statue of King Sisavangvong.”
Probably the best temple complex was Wat Long Khoun. Some info:
“Resting close to the river on the banks of the Mekong, Buddhist temple Wat Long Khoun has long and historically significant connections to the Luang Prabang royal family. Also known as the ‘Monastery of the Happy’. the temple once served as a sanctuary for those seeking spiritual rejuvenation, including any new king who would retreat to the Wat for three days cleansing and meditation prior to his coronation at Wat Xieng Thong.
“Wat Long Khoun is typical of local Luang Prabang architecture of the 18th century, with two single-level sections; the front part, however, was extended in 1937 as instructed by the then-reigning King Sisavonvang. This section is more elaborate in style and features gilded columns and intricate wood carvings. The older part contains Jataka murals, which still retain some of their original vibrancy telling the story of the 547 lives of Lord Buddha. The murals also feature local myths and legends incorporating Buddhist morals of kindness and the importance of giving. Unfortunately, revolutionary vandalism in the 1970s and damp weather resulted in some damages to the murals.
“Built in the 18th century, Wat Long Khoun lies almost directly opposite to Wat Xieng Thong and was recently restored by workmen careful to use traditional techniques and materials. Renovation work was much needed as the temple was left in a state of disrepair when the monarchy was disbanded; the work was taken out by the Lao Department of Museums and Archaeology with the assistance of the Ecole Française d’Extrême Orient who went to great lengths to keep it as authentic as possible.
“Entrance to the 1937 portico is guarded by two large Chinese statues, with the entire porch being supported by eight elegant black-and-gold columns topped with lotus petal designs. Inside, the temple features decorative deities and a variety of other statues and carvings, including a red ceiling with dharma wheels, peacocks and mythical creatures intricately stencilled on.”
Next up: Tad Sae waterfall
This was originally scheduled for the morning, but thinking Ban Phanom and the temples would be more interesting, we decided to not go to the waterfall. But when we still had time on our hands, we made the 45-minute trip over mostly bad, and often winding roads.
The bottom of the waterfall park is dominated by tourist restaurants and souvenir shops, and a large parking area for the tourist buses and taxis. There is a long, paved road leading up to the waterfall viewing area, lined by an endless string of Bird of Paradise and other exotic plants. Halfway up, you pass a bear sanctuary holding four black bears.
The falls themselves are spectacular, aided a great deal by the heavy recent rains.
Once we returned to the base, we had lunch of tom yung seafood and penang chicken. Just average. Then the rain returned in earnest and we headed back to the hotel.
For our last dinner in Luang Prabang, I was determined to have a good meal, after three at-best average meals in a row. Two more upscale restaurants didn’t offer the menu I wanted so we decided to head to the area where we found the Coconut Garden our first night in town. There are many restaurants on the street but we decided to choose the known entity rather than gamble on someplace new.
Our second dinner at Coconut Garden did not disappoint, but this time I ordered several dishes instead of the sampler platter. A large Luang Prabang salad was devoured, as were the fried garlic pork strips and river perch stuffed with ground pork and herbs and grilled in a banana leaf. Total, including a Jim Beam and Coke, was just less than $30.
Crossing the Mekong
Wat Long Khoun (entrance fee: 20,000 kip/person/$2.50)
Tad Sae waterfall (Entrance fee: 20,000 kip/$2.50)
Friday schedule: Lounge around all day, maybe lunch on the river, and then a 45-minute plane ride to Vientiane.