The Big Luang Prabang Theory

From Ventiane, it is simply a hop a skip and a jump north to Luang Prabang. Okay it is more like an eight hour bus ride, and an experience that will become synonymous with my time in Laos. Unfinished rocky roads mix with questionable suspension to provide a unique trampoline effect. Additionally, as we weave through the karst mountains, hair pin bends present themselves every thirty seconds creating a kind of roller coaster effect…but without the added security of a safety belt. Sure.

My partners in crime on this particular voyage are Jackie, an American lass who has been living in Bangkok for the best part of a year and recently engaged Brits Emily and James who have been on the road for TWO AND A HALF YEARS. Yes I am not quite sure how this is possible, if I did know it’s unlikely I’d have a flight home booked…

As soon as we arrive in Luang Prabang, life starts to get a lot more colourful.

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We celebrate our safe arrival with some dinner at backpacker hangout Utopia which hosts Yoga by day, and boozy falangs by night. The moodily lit gardens, low level cushioned seating and fringed palm trees offer a great atmosphere, but the food is fairly standard. It’s quiet when we arrive, but by the time we’re turfed out in time for the national 11pm curfew, it’s quite a chore finding our flip flops in the gigantic pile outside the door.

This beautiful town is certainly one of the jewels in South East Asia’s crown, and it’s intangible charm draws me in immediately. Nestled at the confluence of the Mekong and the Nam Khan rivers, it’s the kind of place where time stands still as you wander tree-lined streets perusing handicraft shops, wats and patisseries, the ever present scents of frangipani, sticky rice and baking, a sign of the town’s former French links, lilting around you.

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Being a Unesco World Heritage site saves the centre from the usual logging lorries, trucks and tourist buses trundling through it and many choose to see the sights from the comfort of one of the favoured modes of town transport.

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On day one, the first sight to enthral me is the stunning Wat Xieng Thong, one of Luang Prabang’s most visited monasteries. The wat itself is a classic of local design, roof sloping low on either side and housing gold stencil work capturing exploits from the life of the legendary King Chanthaphanit.

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Classic gifts to Buddha in Laos include money, fruit and sticky rice. However, they also leave beautifully crafted offerings sculpted from banana leaves and flowers. It’s the equivalent of lighting a candle in a church, something of a Same Small World tradition when travelling.

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Dotted around the wat are stupas and chapel halls including the Haw Tai Pha Sai-nyaat featuring an especially rare reclining Buddha dating back to 1560.

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As the sun drops, the monks in their monastic robes play gong and drum which can be heard across the town.

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I wander back through the grounds to scope the stunning view out over the Mekong.

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You can walk all the way down the steep stairs (perfect for practicing your Oscar acceptance walk) to dip your toes in the river. It is one of the most polluted rivers in the world mind, so I wouldn’t dip much else in it.

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Round the corner, just off Th Sakkarin, is Big Brother Mouse, one of the first of many goodwill projects that catches my eye in this little town. It is a bookshop and literacy programme that invites tourists to give something slightly more consequential back than sweets and coins (actually impossible given the Lao currency, the Kip, is note format only) Here, volunteers are invited to drop in at either 9am and 4pm to spend a couple of hours helping local Lao schoolchildren with their English. It is a lovely, warm and fuzzy sort of experience, and I am struck by the linguistic talent on show from the kids. The are varying levels of ability, but the standard is certainly higher than my French would have been at an equivalent age. Of course, Luang Prabang is the big smoke round here, and I will soon learn that this is certainly not the case in the more remote towns and villages.

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Jackie and I have earned our dinner, which is a delicious water buffalo red curry at Lao Lao Garden on Kingkitsarat.

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Those of you very familiar with Same Small World (hi Mum, hi Dad) will know that I’m fairly fascinated by countries who hold their spirituality in high esteem. For me, it doesn’t matter what you believe…but if you believe it so utterly and completely, I will be slightly obsessed by you.

So, it’s not surprising that I’m up a good hour before the sunrise the next day to witness Tak Bat. Daily, at dawn, Buddhist monks, barefoot and saffron clad, perambulate along Th Sakkarin and Th Kamal in procession begging for alms by way of honouring their vows of humility. Townsfolk kneel on the roadside and place balls of sticky rice in their begging bowls, gaining spiritual merit in this act of donation. The stillness of the moment and the simplicity of the faith immediately springs a tear to my eye and gives rise to quiet contemplation. It is a very moving demonstration of faith, humility and respectful giving.

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What is even more stark alongside these admirable human values, is the ugliness of the disrespect displayed by some of the touristic voyeurs. This is supposed to be a meditative ceremony and there are several ways that you can show your respect; observing from a good distance across the road, removing your shoes and kneeling with your feet pointed behind you, covering your bare arms with a scarf and not making eye contact with the monks.

However, the willingness to get that perfect Facebook or Instagram photo seems to overtake good manners, and visitors sporting hot pants and bare arms crowd around them letting flashes go off in their faces. It is utterly despicable, like a twisted red carpet at an awards ceremony…and I’ve marshalled enough of those in my day job to know how empty, vacuous and devoid of admirable qualities they can be. It really gets to me, and now hot tears sting my face as I quietly simmer, head bowed, putting every grain of my being into not running over to berate them.

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Afterwards, I need to get far from the haranguing crowd so I tackle Phu Si, the 100 metre hill which dominates the city centre and skyline.

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Townsfolk are rising and getting on with their mornings below.

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For me, it is time to get involved in another local tradition. Local Lao lad La (try saying that after a few sherries) tells me all about it as we look out over the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers. Locals take songbirds up to the summit in small, hand-woven wicker cages and release them into the wild whilst making a wish. La, dressed head to toe in Lycra, says he runs up here every Saturday morning after dawn as part of his morning jog and makes a wish that he can one day become an English teacher.

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It’s a beautiful sentiment…and I want in. Here are my little songbirds.

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But I’ll be keeping my little wish to myself…

That Chomsi, a beautiful gilded stupa, sits atop Phu Si.

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The walk down the south easterly side of the hill is punctuated with a series of new gilded Buddhas (seemingly themed by the days of the week)…

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Followed by a footprint believed to have been made by Buddha himself (Christ, he must have been massive…)

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The rest of the world is waking…so Jackie, Ebba and I meet for breakfast to decide what to do with the rest of our day.

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After slinging on our bathers, we head out to grab a tuk tuk and meet up with a travelling twosome, French Lisa and Dutch Sander. Together, we drive out to Kuang Si waterfalls which is a little over 30 minutes from the town. As with every tourist attraction, a network of eateries and kiosks have sprung up at the entry to the waterfall’s park, but we’re on the hunt for something with a little more of a local feel. We’re following a recommendation from an expat Luang Prabang library staffer. It takes a good twenty minutes in the unforgiving midday sun…but it is well worth it. It is a waterside organic vegetarian cafe on stilts over the river, which has its own little falls that the local kids splash around in whilst we enjoy one of the best meals of the trip.

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The proprietor’s sun squawks up to her to come down and open up for the falangs. There isn’t even a menu…she just offers vegetables and rice…but it is so exquisitely cooked and seasoned that it becomes a true culinary highlight.

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Heading into the waterfall park, it is a five minute forest walk past a bear enclosure (yes, bear enclosure) to the foot of the falls. The stunning opal blue pools start strong, and only get more and more beautiful as you continue upwards onto higher level cascades. Seriously, it’s somewhere between a Bounty advert and a Timotei advert…but with less hard sell.

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We even happen upon The Thinker.

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The rest of the day is spent splashing around in the pools and behaving like eejits.

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Dinner comes courtesy of the town’s swishest restaurant Tamarind on Ban Wat Nong where we are reunited with Emily and James, and it is sampling platters and stuffed lemongrass ago go.

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So far, Luang Prabang has been utterly mesmerising. But on our last full day, it steals my heart in a way I never thought possible. After breakfast on our last day, Jackie, Ebba and I set off on a boat trip that I will never forget. The Luang Prabang library, in association with Community Learning International, an NGO promoting literacy here in Laos, invite donations from upwards of $2 (the cost of a book) all the way to $300 (the cost of taking a floating library aka the ‘Book Boat’ to remote villages along the Mekong.) I’m completely beguiled by this project, so here we are putting along the river in our long boat surrounded by books on a very special mission.

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Some of the books are in Lao, some are bilingual…and some very recognisable.

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We’re with charity staff Chantha and Sally plus animateurs SinXai and Madame Seangchan, who deftly prepare the props and puppets before we arrive at our destination.

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We arrive at Ban Hoi Koa just over two hours later, and the excitable squeals of the kids as they run down the hill to meet us at the waters edge can be heard clearly over the loud thrum of the boat’s engine.

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We walk up the hill and find shade from the punishing sun under a thatched roof in the centre of the village.

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In association with another NGO Eau Laos Solidarite, who focus their efforts on providing running water systems and toilets in remote Laos villages and educating local children in sanitary matters, SinXai leads an all-singing class on the basics in promoting good sanitation. They are so eager to learn that even children too young for school line up in oversized uniforms to ensure they don’t miss out.

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Around us, the sheer poverty is writ large. It is hard to believe, being so close to Luang Prabang, a town that pulsates with industry, culture and tourism. But, here in the shadow of a dramatic karst rock formation, the population of 300 constituting 70 families live without running water or latrines.*

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One of the many many things that is beautiful about this experience is the solidarity and friendship between the children. They have nothing…but they have each other.

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After class, the kids troop down to the floating library and are allowed to choose a book. Within seconds they are all seated and reading to themselves absorbing every word like their lives depended on it.

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As we hand out textbooks, storybooks, pens and soap to the kids, neatly lined up to wave us off, I’m told it is one year since the Book Boat last visited Ban Hoi Koa…and it could easily be the same again before they can return. It is this fact, and the look in the kids’ eyes as they stare hungrily at our supplies, which slowly and quietly breaks my heart as we slip away upstream back to Luang Prabang.

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I’m very heavy hearted by the time we return. If you are moved enough to read more about it, and how you can help this beautiful literacy project, please have a read of my feature on The Culture Trip here

Thankfully, Jackie, Ebba and I are cheered with a visit to Dyen Sabai just across the bamboo footbridge over the Nam Kham river. It is an open sided riverside restaurant, with wooden decking and seating sloping down the lush hillside to the water and twinkly fairy lights marking out the paths. The pork and aubergine with sticky rice, washed down with Beerlao, is easily the best meal I have had in Laos. Emily and James join us, and since all of us are headed for pastures new in the morning, we chat about the next chapters that await us.

In the more immediate future however, there is the serious matter of the League Cup Final. My beloved Manchester City take on Sunderland at Wembley tonight, and we all troop to the local Sports Bar which is full of cheering expats buoyed by Beerlao. It ends in a 3-1 victory, and after saying my goodbyes to our little Luang Prabang team, I proudly watch Kompany et al lift the trophy before I saunter home in a beery fug.

Luang Prabang has been utterly stunning, and I am immensely sad not to be staying longer.

And the soundtrack was:
Tom Baxter ‘Feather and Stone’
We Are Scientists ‘TV En Francais’
TV On The Radio ‘Return To Cookie Mountain’
Sharon Van Etten ‘Tramp’
Vampire Weekend ‘Modern Vampires of the City’
Arcade Fire ‘Afterlife’
Foals ‘Antidotes’
Luscious Jackson ‘Electric Honey’

*Special thanks to travel buddy extraordinaire Jackie Echegary for contributing this image to Same Small World.

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(Fa)Lang May Your Lum Reek in Ventiane

Finally, Same Small World has been blissfully reunited with its backpack. Having lain impotent at the bottom of the wardrobe for the last nine months taunting me with the adventures that might never be, it’s now stuffed full of flip flops, mosquito spray and travel adapters once more.

Having spent half of last year sauntering through South and Central America, it seems as good a time as any for a return to South East Asia. The first stop on this particular reunion is Laos, population 7 million, which has fast established itself on the backpacker trail.

This trip is much needed and follows a fairly grim few months at the turn of the year which included frequent 20 hour days at work and an unexpected stint in hospital heralded by my maiden voyage in an ambulance. All the signs were there telling me that a change was in order. As a relatively wise person once said, ‘If you keep on doing what you’ve always done, then you’ll keep on being what you’ve always been. Nothing changes unless you make it change.’ So as I shake off the shackles of a very forgettable chapter of my life, I take my bruised and battered soul back to it’s spiritual home…the open road.

I have my first impressions of Laos in Ventiane, the languid capital which nestles on the Mekong whose banks play host to the majority of my first day here. Capitalising on part of its 1865km share of the river, they have developed Fa Ngum Quay, a stunning stone esplanade the length of the city’s river bank. It’s perfect for the runners zooming by, the impromptu keep-fit class taking place up ahead and the evening offerings made by the locals.

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All human life is here.

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It’s the ideal spot to watch my first Mekong sunset, a hazy affair where a perfectly spherical sun doesn’t so much as drop into the horizon as it does into a thick band of smog burning orange reflections into the water below. It is stunning nonetheless.

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Opposite the quay lies Buddhist temple Wat Chanthaburi, a great introduction to the kind of intricate carvings and stunning architecture that pure unadulterated worship provokes in these parts.

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Ventiane also provides a promising introduction to Lao cuisine. Whilst quality varies throughout the city, value is a constant and there are one or two standout joints including Amphone on Th Wat Xieng Nyean and Yulala Cafe on Th Hengboun. Laos has abundant specialities including Laap, a kind of spicy salad prepared with meat or fish, mint, chilli, coriander and lime juice and Or Lam, a stew of vegetables, smoked or grilled meat and aubergine. Other dishes include the kind of curries, stir fries and flavours you would expect from a nation with such proximity to Thailand and Vietnam.

However, the key ingredient is the universally present sticky rice. Laos people eat more sticky rice than any other nation, in fact it is seen as the essence of being Lao. Traditionally, it is eaten by hand, rolling the rice up into balls and dipping it into your curry or stir fry relegating it to accompaniment status. There is a phrase in Lao ‘Luk Khao Niaow’ that they often use to describe themselves, which literally translates as ‘Descendants of sticky rice’ Thankfully, it is utterly delicious and slightly addictive…although don’t expect many variants other than white sticky rice, black sticky rice or wild sticky rice.

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Further out of the city due east lies Phu Khao Khuay meaning ‘Buffalo Horn Mountain’ which is a nationally protected mountainous area of over 2000 square kilometres home to gibbons, Asiatic black bears, clouded leopards and Siamese fireback pheasants. It’s not only the wildlife that entices me out here, but the promise of Tat Xai waterfall set deep amidst the jungle. We set off waterfall hunting from Ban Hat Kai, a 25 strong village on the banks of the Nam Mang river. The journey starts by long tail boat.

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We get acquainted with some of the locals along the way.

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We trek through jungle, over rock and bridge until we have it in our sights.

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It’s a cracker, made all the more enjoyable by the welcome physical exertion to arrive here. I’m impressed that it still cascades at all during hot season.

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We head to the nearby Pha Xai waterfall, but its 40 metre drop is dry as a bone, bullied into submission by the soaring temperatures.

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It still offers stunning scenery set against a verdant backdrop.

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Now, before I make my merry way north to Luang Prabang, I must nod to this post’s title. ‘Falang’ is the entirely inoffensive colloquial noun for ‘foreigner’ and how the locals will be cordially referring to me during my trip. Think ‘gringo’ but in the Far East. Referring to yourself as a ‘falang’ when talking to Lao people immediately prompts a fit of giggles…So it’s a good one for the internal phrase book.

And the soundtrack was:
David Kitt ‘The Big Romance’
Mogwai ‘Master card’
Drenge ‘Drenge’
White Denim ‘Corsicana Lemonade’
Sigur Ros ‘Kviekur’
Rodriguez ‘Cold Fact’