Later that same morning we took an interesting flight northwest from Vientiane across lakes and mountain ranges to Luang Prabang, to land 700m above sea level beside … yes you’ve guessed … the mighty Mekong River! This 2nd largest city in Laos is on a peninsula between the Nam Khan and Mekong, another UNESCO world heritage site with a population of about 15,000 – not including tourists of course. This is where hundreds of monks live in different monasteries and pagodas. It is also the last seat of the Laotian monarchy, abolished in 1975.
We stayed at the very friendly and comfortable Villa Chitdara, owned and run by a charming Lao couple who had lived in France for over two decades and returned to their homeland three years ago. Being New Year’s Eve we found we had to book a table for dinner (not as easy as it sounds even in Luang Prabang but we eventually managed a reservation!). We would not have gone hungry though because lunch in the open at the Three Nagas restaurant was quite a feast. Batteries recharged we set off to the Wat Mai Temple with its carved gilded facade.
Later we climbed 300 odd steps up Phou Si Hill where visitors were thronging around the That Chomsi Temple for sunset. With good views of the town, the river and surrounding mountains, we did not stay to watch the sun go down; there was too much cloud forming and perhaps we’re becoming just a little selective about what we consider to be a stunning sunset!
What we did capture in a golden light was the former Royal Palace with its ornate exterior and at dusk the Wat Xieng Thong.
Our hosts at the hotel had laid on celebratory New Year’s Eve drinks and canapés, and having met a very pleasant German couple (Elaine was in her element) we spent our New Year’s Eve together, before returning to the hotel just before midnight.
New Year’s Day found us stopping off at the National Museum to start with. Highlights were an extremely clever portrait by a Russian painter of the former king, whose eyes and feet pointed at you wherever you stood. Unfortunately photographs were not allowed in the extravagantly furnished interior. There was also some lunar rock on display, donated by Richard Nixon to the Laos people in 1970 after the first landing on the moon.
Then we joined a very pleasant and comfortable boat for a day trip up the Mekong River to the Pak Ou Caves. There are two caves, both filled with buddhas and rather reminiscent of Pindaya in Myanmar, though not as impressive in our view. But at least we got some good exercise climbing to the higher of the two caves.
After lunch on a restaurant boat it was a pleasant journey down stream, with the skipper weaving a serpent like course to avoid rocks, rapids, whirlpools with few channel marks. He clearly knew the waters well and we felt quite relaxed on his pretty boat.