Day 28: Luang Prabang to Chiang Mai

by - May 29, 2011

Monks going to collect alms, Luang Prabang
One of the most amazing sights in all of South East Asia is to wake up very early in the morning (at half 4) and go to the Buddhist temples to watch the locals giving alms to the monks.  There are a few places that it is particularly impressive to see this event occurring and Luang Prabang is pretty high up the list.  I therefore set my alarm and drowsily walked through the dark streets until I found a temple to stand outside.  The monks don’t mind people taking photos, but they advise discretion as it is an important religious event - not a show for the tourists.  The alms tend to take the form of basic foodstuffs such as rice and biscuits and tourists are told not to offer food themselves as this will cause the locals to stop feeding the monks.  I wandered up and down the streets for about half an hour and only saw a few people.  It was only at about half 5 that the locals lined the main street and a group of hundreds of monks spilled out of all of the temples and filed past in perfect silence.  The stream of orange clad monks was an amazing sight and it is amazing to think that they get up in the early morning everyday to get their food.

Xan Vieng Toung, Luang Prabang
I have to say that after seeing the monks I went back to bed - I saw no point in walking around at 6am and one thing I have learned from my travels is to take sleep whenever it is on offer.  It was my last morning in Luang Prabang before I flew to Chiang Mai in Thailand in the early afternoon.  After I had woken up for the second time I went for one last wander around the old town.  I was running low on money because the banks charge about 5 pounds in commission charges every time you make a withdrawal and I therefore refused to take out any more money on a point of principal.  This meant that I had to make a choice about how to spend my last few thousand Lao Kip - basically between having breakfast and visiting a temple.  In true culture vulture style, I headed for the temple, which was the oldest in the town, called Van Xieng Toung.  This was one of my favourite Buddhist temples of the trip (and I am becoming quite a connoisseur), as it was in a distinctly Lao style.  It was also fairly deserted and contained a few articles that were fairly unique, such as an enormous 12m high golden funeral carriage.

Funeral Carriage, Van Xieng Toung
This was about it for sights and I went back to the hostel to catch a motorbike to the airport.  This was probably the smallest airport I had ever visited and having arrived 2 hours early for the international flight (as I had been told I needed to) I found myself with an hour and 55 minutes in the lounge with no entertainment whatsoever.  Luckily I had bought a book.  I was taking my second flight with Lao Airlines and it was once again set to last for an hour.  This flight wasn’t quite as smooth as my last one as we entered a turbulent patch in a storm cloud.  Light aircraft like the one I was in do have a tendency to feel turbulence a bit more than their larger counterparts and there were quite a few people who looked fairly nervous.  We landed in a massive rainstorm and with the plane being too small to connect to a tunnel into the terminal, the airline staff made a human chain of umbrellas for us, which was an amusingly sweet touch.  Chiang Mai airport was the most modern place I had been since Singapore and my first impression of Thailand is one of coming ‘back to civilization’.  Unfortunately this perception was scuppered by the incompetence of my taxi driver, who having said he knew exactly where my hostel was proceeded to get lost and after half an hour of searching gave up and told me to walk.  I had to ask a tuk tuk driver for help and he took me the remaining 2km back to my new hostel - the taxi driver had been miles off.

I checked in and then headed into town.  On the hostel’s website it admits that it is located a fair way from the centre, but that it is an easy walking distance of 10-15 minutes.  I walk quick and it took me half an hour, which I was a bit annoyed about.  Thai traffic is a bit more subdued than its Vietnamese counterpart, but is made up of mainly cars which I actually like far less than motorbikes.  My first stop was the train station where I picked up my ticket to Ayutthaya in a few days’ time.  This will be an overnight journey, but unfortunately they had sold out of sleeper tickets and I had to purchase a seat instead - which will be pretty uncomfortable, but that is the price I am willing to pay to not be knocked off my schedule.  I walked back from the station into town to see the markets and street sellers.  I was pretty hungry and turned down a side street to find somewhere to eat, only to hear somebody shouting my name.  Amazingly, it was Grant who I had met in Ha Long Bay, who was with his wife Maria in an internet cafe desperately trying to send me an email to arrange a time to meet up.  The chances of being on the same side street in a city of 200,000 people is so amazingly slim that the meet was a real happy moment.  Funnily enough they were just about to look for food, so we headed to the market together for some local Northern Thai dinner.  I was ready for an early night, having been up at 5, so walked back to my hostel after arranging to meet Grant and Maria in the morning.

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