The drive from Nam Tha to Luang Prabang takes around 6 hours on a 'good road'. Not the empty motorway that we found in Yunnan but a reasonably surfaced road that winds through the hills and valleys. Big trucks heading to and from China are the main hazard. For the first leg of our journey we retrace our steps to Oudom Xai and then head south. Another hilltop restaurant provides a lunch stop and good views. Our fried chicken mostly goes to our driver, Mr Pan, as a jumbled mix of meat, bones and even the head! We stop at a Hmong village for a walkabout and admire their fat pigs. About two thirds of the way we meet the Nam Ou river again which we follow all the way to Luang.
Luang is a much more attractive city than Vientiane. We stay in the heart of the old city on the peninsula, surrounded by wats (monasteries) and old Lao-French colonial houses. We see more tourists here in the first morning than in the whole of the rest of our trip. Tuk-tuks and motorcycles run up and down the main street. Ordinary houses are outnumbered by craft shops, restaurants, hotels and guesthouses. The climate is perfect - cool in the early morning and evenings and hotter in the middle of the day.
Each morning at around 6:15 monks from all the wats walk round the old city to collect food from the local people - called Tak Bat in Lao. Tourists also sit in lines along the route with baskets of sticky rice and sometimes sashes. Some monks seem to collect bags of junk food (crisps, crackers, chocolate) on their tour. As they pass temples they drop off excess rice into cardboard boxes. We find a quiet spot behind the Wat Xieng Thong where there are just a few locals and NO tourists and watch the monks file by accompanied by various local dogs.
The royal palace museum is a good place to start a tour of Luang. This was built in 1904 in French style and after the royals were deposed in 1974 it was converted to a museum. When we visit a couple are using it for a back drop as they pose for wedding photos. Inside is a mixture of fine public rooms and rather sparcely furnished private ones. The two most impressive are the king's reception room, the walls of which are painted with daily scenes of Laos by French artist Alix de Fautereau in rather a Gaugin style. The main throne room's walled are decorated in spectacular glass mosaic murals, which we also see at Wat Xieng Thong. The king did not get a lot of time to enjoy them as they were only completed in the mid 60s.
Walking around Luang you find Wats on almost every corner. It feels a bit like Cambridge with monks instead of students. We wander through the streets past old Lao wooden houses, textile galleries and a silversmith and end up at the grandest of all the wats, Wat Xieng Thong. This has been beautifully restored, unlike some of the rather crude restoration we see elsewhere. As well as the main prayer hall or sim, there are also several small chapels (hor) all with stunning mosaic scenes on their walls. In the back of building housing a huge ceremonial carriage we find some rather fine wooden buddha statues. After the wat we walk across the Nam Khan river on a bamboo bridge for a fine lunch at Dyen Sabai - a restaurant hidden in the trees on the river bank with tables spread around platforms at varying levels. Some very tasty Lao food including good mixed appetisers where we discover the delicious fried river weed strips.
We debated whether to visit the waterfalls at Tat Kuang Si having been underwhelmed by waterfalls in other Asian locations. In fact we were pleasantly surprised. After a drive through the country passed woods and rice paddies we arrive at a super touristy car park surrounded by shops selling cheap hippy clothes. Entering the gate you first go through the bear rescue centre where fine 'moon bears' have several large enclosures to play in. The path then winds up through pretty woodland past a series of emerald pools to the main falls. On the way back I have a bracing dip in one of the pools. Dinner at the Roselli restaurant with some very good fish Laap finishes off the evening.
Next morning we are up early for a trip up the river to the Pak Ou caves. We have had several boatrides including the full day on the Nam Ou but this is our first time on the Mekong. It is cool and hazy at 9:15 as we head off and the river is wide and calm. We pass villages along the banks and fishing nets marked with plastic bottles. A bright blue kingfisher perches on a tree stump, an elephant grazes on the banks in front of a village. We arrive at the caves just in front of a boat packed with Korean tourists. The upper cave (below), accessible via 200 steps, is the more atmospheric being unlit but it is the lower cave which has the huge collection of buddhas. Plain wood, stone and gilded, they are every shape and size and perch on ledges throughout the large cave. Back outside there is a spectacular view of the mouth of the Nam Ou river which joins the Mekong under towering limestone karsts. We stop for lunch at a floating restaurant opposite before returning to Luang for an afternoon hunting for fabrics in town. Excellent dinner at the Tamerind restaurant - probably our best in Laos.
On our last full day in Laos we fly back to Vientiane and have a quick tour of the sights in the afternoon. When we arrived from Singapore two weeks ago Vientiane looked pretty small and drab but now it looks buzzing. We have obviously become atuned to the pace of the Lao countryside. We like the rather faded Wat Si Saket (below) and are less impressed by the rather solid and chunky stupas of Pha That Luang. We take pictures of funny Korean girls posing at the Victory Monument and wonder at the restoration at the Haw Pha Kaeo which makes it look brand new. One last dinner in the very good Aphora restaurant - more delicately flavoured chicken and pork dishes and a spicy duck laab.
Overall a great trip and a lot packed into two weeks. We did spend quite a bit of time on the road but the benefit was seeing a lot of this beautiful and relatively unknown country.