Friday, April 2, 2010

Luang Prabang - Ancient Capital of the Kingdom

Luang Prabang is like no other city in South East Asia. Where the Nam Khan river meets the Mekong, a sort of peninsula is formed. a tall hill dominates the skyline here. The town is centered at this spot, consisting of four main roads and numerous intersecting alleys. The architecture is a fusion of French provincial and traditional Asian style. The town is also home to numerous monasteries and temples. There are few vehicles in the city, but this will soon change as more and more tourists discover this location.

My bus pulled in shortly before sunset. That gave me little time to find a decent place to spend the night. I headed through the town center to the back alleys I had explored a few years earlier. The high-end hotels are located at the north-east part of town, but there are some equally expensive places squeezed between the other streets. I managed to find a place that served primarily as a tour group restaurant that had a couple of nice rooms in the back. I negotiated a reasonable rate and dumped my stuff. On the way out I met my immediate neighbors. A couple of guys sitting on the floor of their room playing cards. I always think of playing cards as something you do when you have absolutely nothing else to do. I could not understand how cards could hold more appeal than just standing on a street in Luang Prabang. I mean, you can play cards anywhere, any time, but you can only do Luang Prabang stuff right now.

The main drag, Sakkarine Rd., is one of my favorite for a stroll. It is lined with guest houses, temples, curious shops and restaurants. At night, a large portion of the road is cleared of traffic and a night market established. Here can be found some of my favorite silk scarves in all Asia. I did a quick tour of the place just to get familiar with what was being produced. It had the usual fabrics, t-shirts and knickknacks as well as some nice handicrafts and antiques.

The bank to the river is very steep. The townspeople manage to produce gardens in the rich muddy soil during the dry season. Enterprising restaurateurs build terraced seating on the top of the bank so dinners can enjoy the spectacular sunset every night. This is where I spent every supper hour.

I planned to spend a few days in the town, so I was no rush to get anything done. I did have a plan, though. Every morning was dedicated to following the monks, every evening exploring the market. Day times were mostly open, but I was determined to visit the local waterfalls. To this end I had to rent a motor bike. After a couple of days of exploring, I ran into trouble with the local constabulary.

I had just turned off the main road and took a side street to another road leading to another part of town. A small group of policemen had gathered at the intersection. I proceeded toward them with some suspicion. I could see no reason why they were gathered there. Bike inspection? They waved me over and I pulled up. Through waves and gesticulations, they alerted me to the fact that the road was one-way. Of course, there was no sign indicating that the road was one-way and I politely pointed out this fact. Furthermore, there were plenty of locals dashing up the road not fifty meters away. Would I be let off with a warning or was this a plain ol' shake-down? I brought up the camera to confirm my suspicion.

Yeah, they did not want proof of who was conducting freelance tourist assistance. I asked how much they wanted; twenty bucks. Aside from being way too much, I had no small bills in my wallet (otherwise I'd hand over a five dollar bill and be on my way). I decided to stand my ground. I sat on my bike, shrugged my shoulders and pointed out the local violators. To the only cop who spoke English, I complained of the lack of signage. After several minutes of me not handing over any cash, he got fed up and had me follow him on his bike. I figured we were going to the main police station (fine by me), but he took me to the far end of town where a "don't turn here" sign was posted. Some lot of good that did when almost no one came up this far. I had him follow me to the road I came down, where there was no signage at all. He wasn't interested and kept driving. Now I'm on my own. The cops might still be staked out at the bottom of the hill, so I made my way around the other way and drove off into the countryside.

Arriving back in town at the end of the day, I decided to return the motorcycle in case I should run into that lot again.

See more photos here.

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