Friday, March 20, 2015

Day 20 - 19 March 2015 - Vientiane to Luang Prabang

 The route to Luang Prabang, I was told, was mostly through mountainous and winding terrain. Hence, I thought it better to start after breakfast, which was almost the same as the previous day, except that watermelon juice replaced passion fruit juice. I had gone over the route in detail last night and made notes. But that did not detract me from hitting the wrong path almost immediately on leaving the hotel! I did quite a few U-turns within the city and then thought I was on R13, the highway to Luang Prabang. Even at 7.30 am the roads were busy since it was school hour and people had started commute for work too. Normal working hour is from 8 am to 5 pm, I understood.

Almost one hour into my drive I was still within the precincts of Vientiane. I had to fuel and hence, turned into a fuel station. The fuel station attendant told me that I was certainly on R13, but in the easterly direction, when I had to be in the northern direction to go to Luang Prabang. So much for travelling without GPS! However, course correction did not cost me much – maybe, an hour in time and about 15 extra kms in distance. Once I got on to the correct part of R13 I stayed on it till I reached a diversion to R4 just after a district headquarters of Kasi. R13 was alright for the most part except that the surfacing needed attention and some parts were potholed, but not unmanageably so.
The diversion to R4 was a blessing. The road surface was excellent and remained so for about 110 kms till it merged with R13 once again, shortly before Luang Prabang. The steep and winding R4 cut through mountains, thick forest, rubber and teak plantations and had to be taken with utmost care. Regular warnings asked drivers to reduce speed and indicated the type of road ahead. Traffic, however, was not heavy and, as I have come to expect in these parts of the world, lane discipline is always observed. Another feature is that honking is almost non-existent and is only resorted to either to warn or to convey annoyance. When I was driving before sunrise from Sukhothai a truck coming in the opposite direction honked as it passed me. I wondered why, initially. Then I realised that I had the high beam on!

When I got into the town portion of Luang Prabang I saw a large number of foreigners, going by the skin color. More than I had seen in any other town or city during this journey. After driving a while in the town and not getting anywhere near the landmarks close to the hotel I was to be lodged in, I decided to ask for directions. It turned out to be futile, as usual, as the language issue surfaced. I thought it would be better to turn into a hotel and seek directions. Evidently I chose the wrong hotel for the man at the reception kept repeating the name of his hotel! Then I asked a touk-touk driver, a young guy, if he knew the hotel I had to go to. He did and gave me directions in English. But it seemed a bit complicated for my brain that cannot analyse even the smallest slice of data relating to directions. And, here I am doing road journeys that went through some tough routes! I requested the driver to pilot me to the hotel for a fee. He quoted 30,000 Kips and I agreed without bargaining for I wanted to get to the hotel as soon as possible, for biological reasons. Just then he got a fare of 5 foreigners emerging from a Spa. He asked me to follow him and I was saved the money. He dropped his passengers off at a shop on the main road of the town. I had stopped just behind him for further guidance when I heard a voice obviously directed at me, “So you are doing this all by yourself, are you?” That was Cloey from New York. She was at a store, having a drink, with her friend Rachel. The stickers on the car had aroused their curiosity. They were avid travellers too; Rachel has been on the move for the past 18 months. She has planned to travel to India in June. I gave her my contact address in Cochin so that I could meet here when she visited. The touk-touk driver gave me further directions to the hotel, where I reached without getting lost again.
The two guys manning the reception of the Mekong Sunset View Hotel looked a bit flustered when I asked them if anything was the matter. They made me comfortable on a sofa, gave me a drink and a plateful of watermelon and broke the bad news! They were full up since a couple of customers could not check out due to flight rescheduling. They said they could accommodate me in a sister hotel that was close by for one night. I agreed and was taken to Saynamkhan Hotel, where I found the room quite comfortable. In the hotels in Laos I did not find anything remotely resembling a check in formality. They just take you to the room and ask if you are happy with it. The same happened here.

I took some time to complete the transfer of photos and videos to a hard disk and upload some on Facebook. The main sights of the town were walkable distance from the hotel. I casually strolled the main street, where tents were being put up for the night market. Since it was nearing sunset tourists were trudging up the Phou Si mountain, on which is situated the 150 m tall Chomsi stupa, to catch the sight. I did not want to strain my knees that much and hence only went up half the mountain. After enjoying a good view of the city from there I leisurely took a round of the night market, where it was mostly locally done clothes and handicrafts. Two items made of bamboo interested me the most - a gun and an iphone speaker.
I reached the Mekong River bank in a short while and was mesmerised by the rays of the setting Sun on the dancing waters. I wanted to catch more of it and thought of doing it from one of the many restaurants that populate the place. I got into one which advertised local food. Before I left the hotel for the walk I was told that I Orlam, Laab and Jaebong are the popular local dishes. I was intent on trying one of them. I took a table facing the river from where I had an amazing view of the Sun going down. On the next table were seated three women, who sounded South American, eating dinner and drinking beer. As I was going through the menu one of them said that she would not eat in that restaurant of she were me. Evidently she had made a wrong choice. I ordered a BeerLao and a bowl of Pork Orlam, a soup dish. Many boats were parked on the bank of the river, waiting for customers to take a ride. The beer was finished and I had soaked in the setting Sun when the soup arrived. It looked perfectly good to me. However, considering what the woman had said I took the first couple of sips just to figure if the taste would agree with me. It did and I enjoyed it. The soup had lots of eggplant, cucumber, spicy wood, mushroom, lemon grass and lots of meat. It was extremely healthy in that it contained neither oil nor spice. It just had natural herbs and boiled vegetables and lightly cooked meat.

Luang Prabang is a world heritage city and hence, there are very strict laws governing construction and transport. It has made this lovely city largely pollution free. I walked about some more after the meal and was soon being solicited for massages of all types. I decided against any since I had a slight scare early morning when my left arm dropped numb, as if paralysed, as I got out of bed. In a while most of the numbness was gone, but some weakness remained. I felt that some nerves may have been pinched during one of the massage sessions. 

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