Friday, January 9, 2009

Cooling off in paradise

The bus ride from Vientiane up to Luang Prabang was about 8 hours of non-stop mountains. The guidebook had warned that those prone to motion sickness should either consider another form of travel or stock up on some pills.

Now, normally, I am absolutely prone to car sickness when I'm a passenger, so I was a bit worried after reading the above. However, I did neither, and happily had no problem. That's probably due to the fact that I stared out the window the entire time, completely lost in the stunning views.

At the end of the bus ride, I ended up meeting two very sweet girls who were also looking for a hostel in Luang Prabang. We decided to try and find a place together to cut down on costs and hopped on a tuk-tuk into town.

After finding a really nice place for about $4 each per night with tv AND hot water (oh, the luxury!), we headed off in the general direction of the Night Market.

Oh, was that a terrible idea for my pocketbook.

The place was chockful of gorgeous handmade silk scarves, homemade paper, paintings and sculptures. The jewelry--earrings are my go-to presents for my sisters--was limited and not too exciting, but to be honest, initially I was too busy drooling over all of the scarves to notice. The girls literally had to drag me away from the booths in order to head over to a vegetarian buffet stall set up in an alley.

For the equivalent of one dollar, you can fill up one plate with piles of delicious vegetarian offerings, including some julienned vegetable salads, ramen noodles, rice and stir-fried vegetables (think cabbage, cauliflower). The cook then warms the pile of food with some oil and sauces in the wok behind the stall before handing it back for you to enjoy. Beer lao is, of course, available, as are spring rolls for an additional price.

My advice: Skip the spring rolls, add the beer lao, then head over to the long table down the alley. Wiggle onto the bench, grab a pair of chopsticks and chili sauce, and dig in. Oh, and don't get too freaked out when a cute cat appears out of nowhere and decides to hop on your lap halfway through the meal.

My second day in Luang Prabang, as deliciously cool as the first evening, began with a search for cooking schools in the area. I had planned to take a course at Tamarind, but ended up at the Three Elephant Cooking School, due to Tamarind's evident popularity. Turns out that I was lucky to get a reservation at the latter as well, and for good reason. But more on that later.

As I was saying, I reserved my spot at the cooking school for the next day, then met back up with the girls to plan a trip to a nearby waterfall.

Kouangxi Waterfall is a popular afternoon trip, which means entrance fees and tourists, but it was absolutely worth it. You start off walking down a path that draws you near a black bear resue center. After oohing and aahing and making comments about the adorable bears in front of you, you can head farther up through the forest to the waterfall.

And what a waterfall.

Before you even get to the main event, you pass through different levels where the ground has evened out a bit and formed lovely pools where you're allowed to swim. It was absolutely freezing, but there was no way I was going to miss out. In my mind, you just don't have nearly enough opportunities in life to swim in waterfalls. (Right, Katie?)

So in I went, freezing and unsuccessfully trying to stiffle a bloodcurling scream when my shoulders went under.

I even got up the courage to jump off of a tree into the swirling waters.

This place was paradise, without a doubt.

After toweling off and climbing back into the minivan that would take me back to the city, I dug into a delicious chicken and mayo baguette sandwich I'd packed. Now, this is just my opinion, but I found the baguette sandwiches--a staple throughout SE Asia, thanks to French colonization--to be the best in Laos. The chicken and mayo sandwich, loaded up with cucumber, lettuce and tomato, as well as chili sauce (ask for it, it's a must!), was a perfect combination of flavors and textures, the Laos version of its neighbor's more famous banh mi.

After a hot shower back at the hostel, my friend and I wandered around the main streets of Luang Prabang, admiring the French Colonial architecture.

We sat down once nightfall arrived to enjoy a Beer Lao, which turned into three, then headed back to the veggie buffet for another cheap meal.

Walking around the streets again after our meal, we were waved over by a few Laotian guys around my age. We ended up staying and drinking some more Beer Lao as they practiced their English on us. After a few hours of chatting, we joined them at a real Laos bar, and by real, I mean that my friend and I were the only non-Asians in the place. We even tried a traditional Laos bar food: boiled buffalo skin with chili-garlic sauce.

And no, I probably wouldn't recommend it.

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