“You can’t miss Luang Prabang. It’s my favorite place in all of Southeast Asia.” How could I ignore such a declaration? Here I was, a week before departing again for Asia, sitting in a Montmartre bar sipping a kir with my friend Sarah who’d traveled extensively in the region and just started up a great new bike tour company along the West Coast of the U.S.: Best Coast Biking. Could I squeeze in a few days in Laos in addition to my already tight trip to Cambodia and Vietnam? I was a good packer… and would not regret in the slightest my decision to add to this trip’s itinerary baggage to include perhaps one of the loveliest towns in the whole world.
I had to admit, I had never heard of Luang Prabang until Sarah had mentioned it. I’d wanted to go to Laos for some time, but didn’t really know much about it. A quick google search, had me dreaming of this UNESCO world heritage site with its tranquil temples, humble monks and awe-inspiring vistas. I easily fell for the charms of all of these, however, it was possibly the town’s friendliness which had me completely won over.
Peace in the Heavenly Valley
As soon as I got through immigration, I received a very warm welcome to the country; from the little 3-year old daughter of the man running the currency exchange stand. Sabaidi! We exchanged some hellos for smiles and dollars for Laotian kip.
Checking into the little Phasith guesthouse along the Nam Khan river, I ambled out eager to taste my first Laotian specialties. Settling in on a casual terrace overlooking the river with reasonable prices, I order some fresh mango juice and some sort of vegetarian vegetable dish. What a gorgeous setting, I’d barely seen anything of the town and was in heaven. Lost in the splendid view, I was startled from my dreamy gaze by a little tickle on my arm. I looked down to find a small boy reaching up for my iPhone, sitting next to my juice. Caught in the act by his mom as she brought over my food, he fled up the stairs, now shyly only sneaking an occasional peek in my direction. He’d certainly only wanted to play with the phone, but now didn’t dare return.
Pleasantly sated, I spent the afternoon wandering the quiet streets of town. After hectic Bangkok, this was exactly the speed I needed. No buzzing tuk tuks, no pushy peddlers, just gilded temples and some shy trainee monks gliding by in their gracious orange robes like a gentle breeze on a hot Laotian day. It also helped that I was traveling during the shoulder season, before tourism increases to the area from November so there really weren’t all that many travelers wandering about.
Taking in the Sunset
Luang Prabang is famous for its amazing sunsets and so at the end of the afternoon, I made my way up from the back side of the hill in the centre of town to the Wat Chom Si temple, passing some interesting buddhas as I huffed and puffed to the summit. I’d figured I would not be alone up at the famous sunset lookout, yet since the streets had been so empty during the day, I’d hoped for not too many people. This was where everyone seemed to be. At least I’d managed to squeeze into a decent enough spot on the steeps to enjoy the setting sun. It was still worth it.
Befriending the Locals
Making my way slowly to the base of the hill on the palace side, I stopped to relax and people watch in a little park. It as a tad dilapidated, but I didn’t care, exhaustion starting to set in. After a few minutes these two teen boys sidled over to strike up a conversation. The one’s English was fairly decent, so we made it through some small talk about where I was from, if I was married, what grade they were in and what they wanted to do when they “grew up,” I rallied him to go off to university to study English as he was hoping to do, then I checked the homework of the other boy. Over waddled a wee little girl, learning to walk with the careful guidance of a young man who turned out to be her father, he looked barely older than my new friends. As I was leaving my teen friends, I repeated my encouragements to pursue their studies… before parenthood.
The little break gave me renewed energy to peruse the stalls of the night market consisting of a few busy aisles set up on the main street in front of the palace. Why not do a little advance Christmas shopping? It was much nicer to buy here from actually artisans (look out for the made in Luang Prabang signs) than from “tourist” markets elsewhere filled with poor quality items made in a factory.
I was planning on tracking down one of restaurants recommended by Sarah when I stumbled across a vegetarian street buffet. Surely not the best quality, but the table was overflowing with local culinary curiosities and for a dollar, I was ready to dig in. My veggie hodge-podge went down nicely with a Beer Lao, plus the dining facilities, several makeshift long tables with benches, provided a good venue for single travelers like myself to chitchat with my neighbors, in my case, a nice older Australian woman who had come over to LP by boat down the Mekong. That must be pretty cool. Another time.
The next day I rented a bike which was a popular way to explore town and its surroundings. I whisked by some of the remaining 30+ temples I hadn’t seen yet en route to my first stop of the day: the Royal Palace, once the seat of the Kingdom of Laos. It seemed relatively small compared to international “palace” standards, however, being the true home of only the royal family and not their entourage, it was still rather impressive with its brilliant mosaiced reception hall, refined artwork and the most charming temples at its gateway (pictured at the top of the post). I then peddled back to Wat Xieng Thong, the town’s crowning jewel of its 32 temples. Dating back to the 16th century and built with royal patronage, it was here were the kings were crowned. This importance shone through with its gorgeous mosaics, tilework and interior statuary.
Biking & Local Life
Planning to do a little cycling outside town, I decided to slurp down a quick bowl of noodles across the road from the temple. Filled with locals on their lunch break, my delicious dish cost about 75 cents. Onward I biked alongside the Mekong, feeling freer than I had in ages. The magical charm of the historic quarter was soon replaced with the intrigue of real life; roadside market stalls, busy restaurants terraces blaring Laotian pop tunes and packs of students in their tidying school uniforms giggling home for for lunch.
Hoping to connect back up to the Mekong, I took a side road which instead took me into a little village where I hopped off for a little gander at their temple, much quieter even than the peaceful ones in town. The annual boat festival was the following week, I was sad that I would miss it, however, I still caught glimpses of the preparations, like at this temple with some half-finished lanterns and decorations off to the side of this wat. I eventually found the Mekong again, down at the bottom of a dead end road, looked like I would have to wait until further on in my trip to meet back up with it properly.
Learning Laotian Cooking
At the end of the afternoon I joined up with the cooking class I’d booked that morning. Since it was the last minute, I didn’t get into the one I’d hoped for, but another good stroke of off season luck, I found an available space at the Bamboo Tree School and Restaurant. Arriving at 5 pm I was discovered that the only other participants were this nice Franco-Australian couple. A benefit of taking a class or group tour was meeting new people and I had a nice conversation with this international couple throughout our few hours together.
We were greeted by the friendly owner, Linda, who was going to be our instructor that day. With over ten years experience as a chef and teacher, plus her years of learning Laotian cooking from her family, she’s a passionate endower of her country’s culinary culture. We were allowed to choose four dishes from our cookbook menu to create our custom tasting menu. We were then aproned up, armed with sharp knives and set to work preparing delicate steamed creations, curries, Laotian salad… stuffed bamboo shoot and were treated to a special red rice dessert. It was a great way to learn and sample the local cuisine, and at a reasonable price, though more costly than my dollar meal of the previous night, it was well worth it.
Land of a Million Elephants
Since I was staying a few days, I’d decided to do a little excursion to see some of the neighboring points of interest. When Laos was rule by a monarchy, it’s motto was “Land of a Million Elephants,” therefore it seemed fitting to learn more about these incredible beings and the Laotian links to them. Time seemed a little too short to dedicate an entire day learning to be a mahout (an elephant keeper), so I opted for an day trip which included a visit to a sanctuary and then one of the area’s waterfalls (many excursions can be arranged through guesthouses or at various tourist shops around town).
Our day started out at the relatively new Luang Prabang Elephant Camp, home to around 10 elephants, several whom were rescued for working at logging facilities. The abundance of elephants in Laos has drastically decreased with the modern era, making sanctuaries like this one all the more important. We learnt about the daily life of the elephants, fed a playful two year-old some sugar cane and banana leaves, then we took a short ride. I was a little wary about this, wanting to make sure that the elephants were well treated. Here there are no more than three rides a day lasting around 20 min only, so this seemed reasonable. At the end we got to bathe the elephants (but only if the elephants felt like going down to the water, which on the day we visited they did). They are truly special beings and visiting the right kind of sanctuary is a unique experience.
The Magical Falls
We then pushed on to nearby Kuang Si Falls. I have to admit, I didn’t spend all that much time researching which waterfall to go to, with my happy spirits I’d be content with discovering any of them since they would all be new to me. However, from the faded tourist brochures, I wasn’t expecting such a stunning natural wonder. On my travels I’d visited the powerful Iguazu Falls of Argentina and Brazil, several nice falls in northern Thailand, Bali and Lombok, but these were by far the most magical falls I’d ever seen. Visitors approach the base of the falls after a 10-minute walk through a protected forest. Coming through the trees our eyes dazzled upon the first set of cascading pools of crystal clear light turquoise water, as the trial rises so do the pools, the sun streaking through like a teasing flirt. These culminate in the octacle bliss of the highest, descending down… straight from the heavens.
You can swim in several of the chilly pools, a refreshing break from the heat, or there are various picnic areas (pack your lunch or pick up some snacks at the stalls at the entrance). The sweet Brazilian girl I’d made friends with in our small tour group and I didn’t want to leave, we were in paradise.
But the splendours of the town were not complete. After a short nap back at my guesthouse, I headed out for one more stroll, catching temple life at its best, around 4 pm. The monks were abuzz and I even I arrived with perfect timing at one temple when a group of trainee monks were drumming (see video below), adding to the sublime atmosphere.
Wanting to retain my blissful aura a little longer, I drifted towards the Mekong, where I figured there would be a lovely sunset without the trudge up the hill to sit amongst the other eager viewers. Ordering up my last cool Beer Lao, I had the perfect view of setting sun, interrupted only by the occasional passing river ferry.
Coconut Garden Culinary Feast
Having had just dried vegetable chips and some tofu skewers from lunch, I thought I deserved a good dinner, so after the sun had fully set I made my way to the Coconut Garden, recommended in Lonely Planet for its vegetarian tasting menu, it sounded perfect. As luck would have it, in walked the friendly Californian whom I’d met on the plane. He was here to shoot a documentary during the following week’s boat festival and we’d talked about possibly meeting up for dinner. I’d actually tried to get look up his hotel number once I’d sat down but the wifi connection was patchy. We had a nice time catching up on our own previous days’ adventures in town over delicious local-fusion cuisine.
I was leaving mid-afternoon on my last day. I could do it. I could get up at 5:30 am to witness the morning alms. I was a little torn about taking part. This was a sacred Buddhist ritual, called tak bak, is the practice of providing offerings of food to monks. I didn’t want to propagate the tourist “attraction” feel that this holy practice has become in Luang Prabang, on the other side, it was part of the essence of the city, and if carried out in respect of the local customs, it was a moving experience. I compromised with not sitting to give the offering, but to experience at a distance with respect.
Caught up in the excitement of arriving at the main street and seeing the first approaching monks, I failed to follow Sarah’s advice on going to a side street. I stayed on the main street for a while, both in awe and a little disturbed to see some tourists offering up packaged cookies instead of the traditional rice. The monks graciously accepted these, yet offloaded them as soon as they could to the locals a little further down the road. I could imagine the alms getting quite “circusing” in high season and was once again grateful for traveling before the peak. I moved a few blocks down and discreetly stood back across from a local mother with her young son, passing on the practice. Turning off onto the road parallel to the main street, true to Sarah’s suggestion, I captured more of the authentic experience away from the tourist groups.
The Buzz of the Morning Market
Being up so early, I thought I might as well make the most of my last few hours in town by cruising down to the market, which I’d read to be full of life, colors and flavors in the early hours. Visiting a local market is always a great way to take in the local culture and this rugged one was no exception. I picked up some fresh coconut cakes for breakfast which I nibbled slowly as I passed by the various vendors, eyeing up their piles of fruit, fresh fish and even live birds chirping under little basket cages.
I did two laps around the market before heading back to my guesthouse, lingering to take in the last of my Laos. I couldn’t let myself get too melancholic. I was startled out of my daydream by some wet kisses along my leg. Even the dogs in Luang Prabang were friendly. I’d loved it here so much, I would surely be back, plus I was at the beginning of my trip, I’d surely be having many more great adventures.