Let the Celebrating Begin!

by Anna

From the moment we touched down in Luang Prabang, Laos, on Christmas Eve, we have been in constant celebration mode! We couldn’t think of a better place to spend the holidays. Luang Prabang has proven to be one of our favorite destinations so far, and we can’t seem to tear ourselves away. 8 days turned into 11 days which have now morphed to 14 days! More to come on all of the things we love about Luang Prabang, but for now, here is a quick wrap up of the festivities from the past week!

Christmas Eve
We arrived to our guesthouse pretty exhausted on Christmas Eve day after an overnight train from Sapa, a four hour wait at the Hanoi airport and then an hour flight to Luang Prabang. We were so happy to discover when we checked in at Villa Chitdara2, that the owner, Vong, who is one of the happiest and nicest people I have ever met (I’m suspicious that he may be related to Big Jay!), was hosting a Christmas Eve dinner for everyone at the guesthouse. Vong’s wife cooked an amazing spread of duck with orange sauce, veggies and a myriad of desserts – some rolled in coconut, some stuffed in banana leaves – all of which we enjoyed sitting on a deck overlooking the Mekong River. There was even cheese brought specially from Paris and a pile of baguettes – Vong and his wife lived there for 35 years before returning to Laos. We met a lot of nice people from Australia, Washington DC, Philly, France and Luang Prabang over the course of the evening and had one too many glasses of red wine, as Vong was constantly placing full glasses in front of us. We felt right at home after our first evening in Luang Prabang, and knew we had chosen the perfect place for our first Christmas away from home.

Hanging on the deck over the Mekong before dinner

Christmas
Christmas was our first full day in Luang Prabang, so we set out to explore the old town which sits on a peninsula between the Mekong and Nam Khan Rivers. We happened upon a bamboo bridge and decided to cross over to the other side to see what the area outside the peninsula was like. We had just passed a group of men watching a cock fight when we ran into our new friend, Joel, whom we had met at Christmas Eve dinner the night before. He has been coming to Luang Prabang for the past few years and has made friends with many locals in the process. He happened to be bicycling with his friend James to visit the Hmong New Year celebration in a nearby village. The Hmong people celebrate the New Year at the end of the rice harvesting season, and the festivities usually last around 10 days. James invited us along, excited to show us something he was sure we had never seen before, and after following him down dirt roads through some villages, meeting his friends along the way, we came into a clearing filled with Hmong people, many wearing traditional costumes, playing games, cooking, eating and having a really good time. Everyone was so friendly and happy, and everywhere we looked smiling faces greeted us with ‘Sabaidee’ – ‘hello’ in Laos.

Crossing the bamboo bridge En route through villages to Hmong New Year
Hmong New Year!
Hmong girls in traditional costumes
The Hmong ball tossing game pov pob
Johnny got in on the pov pob action Walking home via the “Old Bridge”

That night we had made Christmas dinner reservations at Tamarind, a restaurant we had read had delicious Laos cuisine. But before dinner we took a stroll through the lovely night market…most definitely the most laid-back, quiet, pretty market we have experienced in SE Asia to date. Johnny and I each picked out a “Christmas present” and then headed over to the river to Tamarind. The restaurant was set up in big long communal-style tables, and we immediately got to talking with our “neighbors” – couples from Philly, London and Paris. Towards the end of our meal, Johnny decided that we needed to try some “Lao Lao,” Laos’ rice whiskey that we’d heard a lot about. Since it was only about 50 cents per glass, Johnny ordered a round for our new friends…dangerous! One round turned to four rounds as each couple returned the favor. And then four rounds turned to six rounds as the guys decided that we should try some of the infused Lao Lao. I was pretty sure that my stomach lining had been obliterated after the chili-infused Lao Lao (basically like drinking fire!), but the ginger lime Lao Lao helped to ease the pain. The Parisian couple ducked out after round three of Lao Lao (smart), but the rest of us closed down the restaurant – to the extreme entertainment of the waiters who thought we were hilarious – and headed down the street for a Beerlao nightcap. We were saved by city’s 11:30pm curfew and headed home from our very fun and delicious Christmas dinner.

Shopping the night market before dinner Dinner at Tamarind
Lao Lao round #…? The dudes
Post-dinner brew with new friends

My Birthday
Luckily we had a few days to recover from Christmas before my 30th birthday! I never would have dreamed that I’d be turning 30 in Luang Prabang, Laos, and I feel so lucky to have spent my golden birthday in such a special place! Johnny surprised me with a cooking class through Tamarind, so the day started bright and early at a local market where we were guided through the amazing variety of herbs, produce, rice and meats (severed buffalo legs are a little aggressive first thing in the morning!). We were then driven out into the countryside to a beautiful little oasis on a lake surrounded by gardens where our cooking stations were set up. We made all sorts of dishes, each incorporating tons of local herbs, with our main tool being a mortar and pestle. We were stuffed after enjoying the fruits of our labor (sticky rice, eggplant dip, tomato chili dip, fish steamed in banana leaves, lemongrass chicken, pork stew and coconut purple rice pudding).

That night we posted up at a bar on the river to watch the sunset and had a wonderful dinner in the lantern-filled garden at Blue Lagoon. The only thing that could have made the day any more perfect would have been the presence of our families and friends!! 30 is off to an amazing start!

Lake by cooking school Gardens around cooking school
Our instructor, Jai Sticky rice
Lemongrass chicken The novice chefs
Pickin’ up new skills as a 30-yr-old Pork stew
Sun downers on the Mekong Feeling good in my “old age”:)

New Year’s Eve
Vong invited everyone at the guesthouse for another dinner on New Year’s Eve…lucky us!! After strolling around the streets and checking out all the festive decor in town and listening to the monks chanting in the many temples, we returned to Chitdara2 for our NYE party. Vong’s wife prepared a traditional Laos feast with sticky rice, noodles, papaya salad, chicken, buffalo, chili spread and more delicious desserts. This time around, we met families from Germany and Australia and a fun couple from Norway, along with Vong’s friends and neighbors and Joel. The best part about the night was the hundreds of glowing lanterns being released into the sky. They started as soon as it got dark and continued to rise till after midnight. There were so many in the sky, they looked like giant, orange stars.

We also didn’t realize that fireworks are legal to set off in Luang Prabang, until Vong, the Australians and the Norwegians all appeared with stashes of them. I thought they’d just be little sparklers, but they were actually huge, awesome fireworks shooting up through the palm trees! At midnight, up and down the street along the river, there were all sorts of fireworks and other explosives going off, accompanied by flaming lanterns soaring through the sky. It was quite an unforgettable site, and I think everyone was relieved that nothing caught on fire! To top it off, Vong passed around champagne to everyone for a New Year’s toast. Definitely a New Year’s Eve to remember!!

The streets around Luang Prabang looking very festive for New Year’s Eve
Dinner on the deck of our guesthouse Yum
Johnny, Vong, Anna & Joel…almost midnight Happy New Year!
Vong and I lighting a lantern Almost ready…
And it’s off Our lantern carries NYE wishes to the sky
The scene along the river Lanterns floating everywhere
Trying not to light any palm trees on fire… Ringing in the New Year!

HAPPY 2012!! Here’s a little video from the night for good measure (you can hear my obvious excitement over the size of the fireworks and you can see Vong’s excitement…love that guy!).

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4 Responses to “Let the Celebrating Begin!”

  1. Looks like you had awesome holiday celebrations! We miss you!!! And happy birthday, Anna!

  2. Belated Birthday wishes, Anna! 30 looks good on you! Such a memorable way to ring in the next decade of your life 😉

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