Friday, 16 September 2011

Hidden gems...

Despite feeling quite ‘templed out’ by the end of Vietnam, it took only a few hours in Luang Prabang and glimpses of gold-topped buildings and monks wandering around as we arrived into town for us to eagerly head out to see our first temples in Laos. We began at Wat Xieng Thong, a beautiful monastery with sweeping roofs and glistening mosaics in brilliant jewel colours. Quiet yet imposing, the monastery and surrounding smaller buildings glowed in the morning light and set us up for a great day.

After a quick breakfast and our first realisation of just how dominant French food is in Laos (with some tasty croissants), we braved the steep climb up Phu Si hill to reach That Chomsi, a stupa that stands proud over the city, visible from just about anywhere. The walk up was extremely hot and sweaty, but there are plenty of distractions along the way. Gold Buddha’s line the walkway, small caves reveal shrines, and there is even a ‘footprint’ of Buddha (which Lonely Planet describes as more like a brontosaurus and I have to agree – Buddha must have had very large feet to have produced the metre-long imprint).

Finally making it to the top we were greeted with gorgeous views across the city and river stretching into the forests beyond, and the slight breeze was very welcomed. We bumped unexpectedly into a couple we’d spent time in Vietnam with, and caught our breath before descending once more.

The Royal Palace museum was next on our list, the former royal residence now preserved for visitors. The exhibits were interesting and labelled in English, which is always a bonus, showing both the throne room and other official entertaining areas, along with the private residences, which were remarkably modest and homely. We visited Pha Bang – the Buddha for which the city is named, and walked in the grounds under the shade of palm trees, bumping into a colleague from home, another odd coincidence.

The following day we took a day trip to see the area around the city. We began with a boat trip up the Mekong, stopping off at the Pak Ou caves, a complex crammed with thousands of Buddha’s of every shape and size, faces peering out from beneath the natural formations of the rocks, bats clinging overhead. The upper cave was especially impressive, huge old wooden doors, carved with delicate and detailed reliefs rewarding the steep climb up (why does everything involve a ‘steep climb’?!). the boat trip there and back was also enjoyable – children splashing around in the water at the banks, even a floating petrol station in the middle of the river.

The afternoon took us to Tat Kuang Si, a jungle park with an impressive multi-tiered waterfall crashing down into milky blue pools where visitors can swim. The water was freezing cold and required some careful manuovering to avoid a shock to the system after all the heat (which this really involved was rather ungracefully crab-walking into the water, if that’s possible to imagine), but incredibly refreshing after a few minutes. Some clever people were jumping from the top of waterfall sections, which seemed a bit suspect as the water wasn’t particularly deep and there were many jagged rocks. One of the people on our bus came back with a potentially broken hand, so it probably wasn’t the best idea.

The waterfalls themselves were great though – fast flowing and loud they cascaded over the rocks, sometimes splitting off so multiple drops fed into one pool, then continued on the next fall. At the base of the waterfall was a bear reserve, where moon and sun bears rescued from poachers or previously kept as pets are brought. We spent some time talking to the British manager of the centre, who explained how the whole thing functioned and how they basically run entirely off of visitor donations, and his personal savings. Using an area of the jungle park allowed the bears room in their natural habitat, whilst keeping them safe from poaching (some were so domesticated that they would have happily approached humans in the wild). The bears themselves were gorgeous, with flat, wide faces and patches of yellow on their upper chests, lounging around in hammocks and on swings (on such a hot day they seemed to have it figured out…), completely oblivious to all the attention they were being paid by my camera lens! A really interesting and worthwhile endeavour.

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