Luang Prabang, Laos

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Temple at the Royal Palace

It’s always kind of fun to wake up in a place you’ve only seen in the dark. A Christmas morning kind of surprise-gift (I-hope-its-not-a-dud) feeling. Waking up in My Dream Boutique Resort in Luang Prabang Laos was definitely exciting. Our welcome the night before boded well: very friendly and efficient, check-in accompanied by chilled ginger water and honeyed mango. The room itself was charmingly styled with woven Lao mats, mosquito net-draped bed, stained-stone shower, generous balcony (albeit sans view–We didn’t figure we’d spend much time in the room.) and mahogany furnishings.

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My Dream “lobby” and restaurant

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I’d chosen My Dream based on its price, glowing Tripadvisor reviews, and location across the river from–but easily accessible to–the more touristy and loud downtown area. I also liked that it had a swimming pool (something banned in the Unesco-certified downtown) and riverfront grounds. Exploring the flower-filled gardens of My Dream in the daylight, stretching out on a grass-roofed palapa overlooking the Khan River, we soon decided we were super-happy with the choice. See more at: http://www.mydreamresort.com

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My Dream is like some fantasy of a jungle resort. It’s casual and laid back, but beautiful, too, with huge bougainvillea draped across bamboo supports framing balconies and the open-air lobby and restaurant. The pool was small, but picturesque, immaculate and delightfully cool. An included breakfast buffet offered western and Asian options, fresh coffee and cooked-to-order eggs. Bikes are provided at no charge, so we had to take them up on that for our first day explore of the town.

Bikes were definitely the way to go, but My Dream could really use an update on their bikes. Oh well, despite a left pedal that missed about 50% of it’s push and flopped weirdly, biking beat walking any day of the week. A nearby scooter/bike/pedestrian-only bridge had us across the Khan River and in Luang Prabang town in no time. (My Dream also offers free shuttles to town, but shuttles have to take the farther “new bridge” and run at fairly long intervals. We didn’t want to be left walking in the heat downtown.) Often bumper-to-bumper with scooters and bikes, the old bridge is an experience. Made of crossbeams of wood, it has two lane of planks set long-ways for bikes and scooters, a great idea save for the occasional tire-grabbing gap near a rotted end. Paying attention was in order.

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The old bridge in very light traffic

Luang Prabang is tucked into the acute angle formed where the Khan River flows into the Mekong. The old town forms a finger pointing northeast into this angle. We biked along the Khan, stopping at a park and a small Wat, then looped back to our left across the “fingertip” to ride along the Mekong toward the main part of town.

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Rebuilding a bamboo footbridge

We quickly came to Xieng Thong, a gorgeous temple complex with graceful-roofed buildings and gilded Buddhas. The decor was noticeably different from Buddhist temples we’d seen in other countries: beautiful mosaics decorated the outside walls and stenciling covered the inner walls. In the main temple, three young Buddhist monks dressed in varying shades of orange robes, walked in and began to pray. [There’s a video of this on Wanderwiles’ FB page.] I’ve really come to love the atmosphere in Buddhist temples: the low light, incense, candles, and peace.

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Xieng Thong
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Beautiful mosaics adorning Xieng Thong

20161026_120524Leaving Xieng Thong and following the map provided by My Dream, we biked on the in the sweltering heat, thinking to visit the Royal Palace Museum. It turned out to be closed for lunch and we took the hint, choosing a outdoor riverside café. Despite lots of cute shops and restaurants, air-conditioning didn’t seem to be an option anywhere nearby and we were a sweaty mess anyway. The proprietress welcomed us warmly and brought an electric fan. Lunch was delicious, cheap and relatively cool and we left refreshed.

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Lunch on the Mekong: A muggy day gets better with a cold Beer Lao!
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Sweaty cycling along the Mekong
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Luang Prabang street

I did a little research on the Royal Palace Museum on my phone over lunch and found that most reviewers praised the grounds, but weren’t so impressed with the paid-admission portion that allowed entry to the palace itself. I got a good laugh at a Spanish-language review stating that the decor in her house was better and that photos weren’t allowed inside so people wouldn’t know how horrible it was. Hmm. We opted to take the advice given and biked through the grounds, peeked at the threadbare collection of cars once belonging to the royal family (a Jeep, some Lincoln Continentals, an Edsel and a Citroën that looked as if it had been hauled from a junk yard), admired the temple from the outside (the only option, paid or unpaid), and were on our way. A spin past the market and we were headed back to My Dream, dreaming of the swimming pool and a break in the heat that Weatherbug now pegged at 90F (feeling like 96F).

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The Royal Palace Museum

Dipping into the just-right cool pool, we almost decided we were done for the day, but couldn’t resist a sunset hike to the top of Mt. Phousi, a highly-touted attraction. Back on bikes (but with a replacement for me), we headed back across the old bridge and along the Khan River to one of the two stairways to the hilltop. It’s possible to hike up one stairs and down the other side, but with bikes, we had to pick one. I chose the longer route given that it was closer to our hotel, less steep and reported to have more to see along the way. Minivans lined the road by the stairs and flocks of people were heading up when we got there. We climbed past a purported footprint of Buddha where a monk prayed out loud in a small, open-air pavillion overlooking the Khan and the buildings and mountains beyond; a stupa; a monastery with working young monks; scattered Buddha statues; and two large golden statues of Buddha, one seated, one reclining.

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20161026_172752A small temple at the summit housed a few worshippers and a cat, the biggest crowd being outside taking in the nearly 360° view and the setting sun. It was worth the hike, but we headed down just ahead of the crowd, not wanting to be trapped on steep stairs in the dark with a group of sometimes-unsteady-on-their-feet tourists.

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After yet another shower, we opted to eat at the hotel’s pretty open-air restaurant and couldn’t have been happier. Convenient, friendly, lovely atmosphere, delicious Lao dishes; we couldn’t go wrong. We started with two mai tais, then moved onto appetizers: Mekong “river weeds” a ubiquitous offering I’d been dying to try, and fresh rolls. The river weeds turned out to be covered in sesame seeds and thin slices of eggplant, then fried super-crispy into squares about 2×2″. I was hooked! The fresh rolls were good, but getting to be an everyday thing for us, and not as full of herbs as we prefer. Our main courses were a coconut milk fish mousseline cooked in a banana leaf bowl (delicate and tasty) and a classic Lao dish called Oor Lam. Oor Lam is a Northern Lao dish particularly associated with Luang Prabang. It’s made with either pork or chicken, flavored with cilantro, dill, lemongrass and basil and thickened with puréed eggplant. I thought it delicious. When I asked our waitress whether pork or chicken was more commonly eaten by Laotians, it took her a minute to understand my question. When she answered, “Chicken,” and I said then that was what I would have. She giggled and thanked me profusely, clearly pleased that I wanted something authentic. She waited on us two nights and was always inordinately pleased when we ordered and liked the local food. Since the food was uniformly good, it was easy and fun to make her happy.

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Mekong river weeds with sesame seed and tomato: crispy and delicious!
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Oor Lam
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Delicate coconut milk fish mousseline

After dinner, we asked the young man behind the small front desk to help us participate in the next morning’s alms-giving to the local monks. This is an every day tradition in Luang Prabang and something we really wanted to do. He told us that monks came by just outside My Dream and that he would get the offerings ready for us (sticky rice, crackers and rice cakes), charge them ($6) to our room, and have them ready at 6am the next morning when he’d also explain how things work. This sounded perfect as reviews and signs around town indicated that tourists in the main town would too often mob the monks and block their path while trying to get photos. One sign even found it necessary to advise large tour buses not to follow the monks! We definitely wanted no part of all that.

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