Over the last 3-4 months Matt and I have sweated our way through our second Shanghai summer – a particularly brutal one this year where week after week the temperature soared and the damp air seeped into our skin, clothes and everything we touched (imagine an open-air sauna and you won’t be far off). During this time China clocked a couple of record high days, which disgruntled the locals as well as the expats!
For a pair of pallid Brits, nostalgic for summers hallmarked by the transient damp of English drizzle followed by brisk winds and a few treasured rays of sunshine, the inescapable sticky heat combined with air-con-induced pollution proved exhausting. Having said that, we did agree that while last summer (our first in Shanghai) had been a literal shock to our British systems, we both felt more prepared for it this year and therefore more comfortable.
Making travel plans
With China’s ‘Golden Week’ (I wrote about this last year) approaching and our tanks grumbling on empty, our thoughts drifted to holiday planning and on a rainy Saturday afternoon we sat down in front of a world map and circled the places we simply had to visit before we repatriate to the UK.
We made a good effort to explore the China mainland during the first half of our assignment, so for our remaining 18 months (yes, we’re half-way through!) we decided to see a bit more of SE Asia. Listing the countries we wanted to visit was the easy bit. Narrowing the list to one that could be realistically accomplished given our annual leave allowance was a bit harder. Scheduling these trips around South-East Asia’s lengthy monsoon seasons was nigh impossible!* Nevertheless, 5 hours (and a few glasses of wine) later we had cracked it, and quickly booked our next adventure: Golden Week in Laos (Luang Prabang and Vientiane) and Cambodia (Phnom Penh and Siem Reap).
* Coincidentally, October is a great time to travel in mainland China from a weather perspective as the days are cooler and generally dry but it can be extremely expensive and busy if your trip coincides with a Chinese national holiday. This also applies to Japan and Korea, which are popular destinations for Chinese tourists.
From Shanghai to Luang Prabang
Fast forward a few weeks and we were ready to start the first leg of our journey: Luang Prabang in northern Laos. As our flight descended, we caught our first glimpses of the Laotian countryside; a patchwork of luscious wild forest cast over sculpted dunes and valleys, a kaleidoscope of green from luminous lime to and shadowy-green-grey, which mirrored the drifts of thick white cloud above.
Fortunately, we exited the plane to scorching heat – not a sign of the thunderous downpour which our weather apps had foretold.
After a bit of a chore clearing the entry/ visa processes at the airport we transferred to our hotel, lapped up the complementary mango drizzled in honey (yum), dropped our cases and walked into town to orientate ourselves – just in time for sunset.
Climbing the Dragon Staircase on Mount Phousi
We had read that the sunset in Luang Prabang was best seen from the 360-degree vantage point of Mount Phousi, so the following evening as the heat of the day began to wane we began our ascent via the 328 steep stone steps in the belly of a snaking white and gold dragon. Although the temperature had dipped a fraction, the 150m climb meant we were soaked with sweat within 60 seconds, in sticky camaraderie with our many fellow climbers.
Halfway up the hill we were met by a band of brilliant-gold Buddhas – half-concealed in a grotto of stone and trees – and just after this we passed a white-walled monastery, home to orange-robed monks going about their business.
At the top of the hill we found the gilded stupa of Wat Chomsi, which was built in 1804 and is still an active place of worship – Luang Prabang is the former Royal capital of Laos, and still remains the main centre for Buddhist learning.
Unfortunately, trying to scout a clear view was like was like the hunt for a 16″ shirt at the Next sale on Boxing Day. We didn’t fancy our chances of success among the swarm of people scrabbling for a prime selfie-taking position (plus, can a sunset still be enjoyed while drowning in a sweaty sea of elbows and i-phones?) so we took a few pre-sunset snaps and headed back down, happily perched in a bar with wine-in-hand by the time it turned dark.
I’d never heard of Luang Prabang before researching this trip to Laos (yes, I know I say this about almost everywhere we visit!), but within a few hours I had fallen head over heels in love with the place. More to come!