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Luang Prabang

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The 1975 creation of a Laos communist government meant many things to many people but for the Laotian monarchy it meant rotting to death from lack of food and medical attention in a communist re-education camp far from their home city of Luang Prabang. The monarchy had survived for over 600 years, despite weakening and being forced to pay tributes to the Siamese, Burmese and Vietnamese. Even the French, having little interest in the Kingdom, allowed for its continuation. Ever since the formation of the first Lao Kingdom (Lan Xang), Luang Prabang, was at the heart of this monarchical power. This historic city now lies regally in the inland peninsula created by the merging of Mekong and Nam Khan River.

We arrived in this historic city after 9 gruelling hours across a road that alternated between pot-holed tarmac and unpaved rut-ridden tracks. The change from the untouched tranquillity of Luang Namtha was startling: there was noise, traffic and touts. We felt rushed and harassed, like a country boy in the big city for the first time. In spite of our seasoned traveller status we felt unable to cope and retreated to our overly expensive room. It took us a day to adjust and we slowly came to the realisation that Luang Prabang is a beautiful, hassle free city. The traffic, that we had originally thought too much, was slow, only peaking when the schools shut, and the touts we had at first found intrusive were polite and courteous.

Walking through the city with its rich colours, inviting restaurants and leaf lined laneways is a pleasure. Its unique position, nested between two rivers, gives wonderful post-prandial promenades with lush mountain backdrops. The French colonial architecture is fading with grace and little could seem more in character then the blackened and uncared for limestone. The Buddhist Wats, that creep up upon you, complete the picture, perfectly suited yet incongruous against the shuttered windows of Parisienesque cafes, their golden gilt roofs gleaming in the tropical sunshine.

As pleasant as spend an hour or a day sipping Beer Lao and watching the world go by can be, there comes a time when the pooling blood needs to circulate. Luang Prabang cure for the lethargy that hot weather, good food and cheap beer induces is Kuang Si Waterfall. Every morning endless pick up truck drivers gently enquire as to your destination for the day. For nine dollars they will take you, and up eight others, the 30 kilometres to the waterfall, wait four hours and drive your wet bodies home.

The falls are amazing; while they don’t have the powerful magnificence of beasts like Niagara they possess an elegance and beauty that is almost artificial in its perfection. Even to our world-weary palates this was paradise. The water was so agitated it was totally white, like a badly poured beer, split into hundreds of individual waterfalls cascaded down 200 meters. Each fall ended in its own pool where the foam briefly reverted back to crystal water before it again poured over the basin lip, like an endless parade of white lemmings. The effect was rather like a cross between icicles dripping from a Swiss Chalet in spring and a Mafioso’s daughter’s wedding cake.

The falls aren’t just a sight to see, but are an adventure playground for the 20-30 year old tourists that proliferate Laos. One particular pool, high on the cliff, is wide and deep making it particularly suited to the inevitable parade of testosterone driven daring do. In the morning people content themselves with gentle swimming, basking in the beauty of their surroundings. Soon though, the jumping begins with nerve being tested by an ever increasing height demanded. The game moved from exciting to foolhardy with a sprinting start needed to gain the necessary momentum to span the vicious rocks that protruded at the base of the bigger jumps. The resulting spectacle and appreciation of the building crowd led to an escalation that, like an arms race, had a destiny of disaster. The culmination was the climbing of the wet slippery bark of a tree that overlooked the fall and the gasp of the crowd as dreadlocks man plummeted a cat-defying 30 feet. This signalled the end of the race, the ultimate weapon wiping all before it.

An adrenalin high, however, can only last so long and soon it was time to go back to Luang Prabang and the Lao Gaelic bar. The world cup that had captured the imagination of South East Asia was to use up any last reserves of tense anticipation we were capable of. Openly pessimistic we never gave Ireland much of a chance of beating Spain and we crossed our fingers for luck.

The Lao Gaelic bar was full, with half of the tourists in Luang Prabang Irish for the night. The English out in force, with the full might of their cheers behind the boys in green, made me guilty of my lack lustre appreciation of their team the night before. The game had all the drama of “the hand that stopped the nation” match of 1990, Ireland vs. Romania, but it wasn’t to be. A stunned silence settled over the bar in realization that in face of a valiant offensive the dream was over. The half-hearted warble of “The Fields of Athenry” from a lad in a green shirt did little to raise spirits. Proud but shocked we reverted to our national stereotypes finding solace in copious quantities of free Lao Lao.

Pictures - click to enlarge
Fading colonial architecture

Kuang Si Waterfall

Not a sight to see but a fall to fall into

Waterfall movie - you NEED quicktime

The blackened limestone of the past
Colonial rooftop