Luang Prabang is one of last authentic cities in Indochina. This is the place people expect when they fantasize about South East Asia. What makes it so special is that you don’t have to run around checking off a bunch of tourist sites. It is wonderful to just ‘be’ and enjoy the soul of the city.
In the soft grey light of early morning, we sit quietly on a bamboo mat, wicker baskets of sticky rice beside us, across from a shuttered colonial mansion heavy with bougainvillea.
Around a corner, dozens of barefoot monks appear in a swish of saffron, golden bowls hanging from orange shoulder straps. Locals show us how to earn merit. Men adorned with scarves over one shoulder as a mark of respect and kneeling women in traditional shawls put fistfuls of rice into the monks’ bowls.
As in a dream, just as the rising sun gilds the ceramic-tiled temple roofs, the stream of gold vanishes and the monks return inside. Luang Prabang gets on with the business of the day.
Because of its remoteness in the lush mountains of Northern Laos, this ancient royal capital of Lao culture preserved a strong Buddhist culture during the French occupation. Today there are no less than 32 active temples or wats, their sweeping roofs sheltering ornate murals, mosaics and intricately carved golden doors, in this pretty town nestled on a narrow peninsula at the convergence of the Mekong and its tributary, the Khan.
UNESCO World-Heritage city
In 1995, UNESCO granted Luang Prabang world heritage status because of the unique juxtaposition of the French colonial architecture with its temples and traditional Lao wooden buildings.
“It is quite simply one of last authentic cities in Indochina. This is the place people expect when they fantasize about South East Asia,” says one long-time expat. “And what makes it so special is that you don’t have to run around checking off a bunch of tourist sites. It is wonderful to just ‘be’ and enjoy the soul of the city.”
We explore the former royal palace, which is now the national museum. A replica of the pure gold, standing little Pra Bang Buddha, after which the town is named, is housed in a pavilion in the grounds. At 6pm, we return to watch elaborately costumed and masked dancers from the Royal Ballet Theater.
At the 18th century Wat Mai we see gold stucco bas reliefs of the last incarnation of Buddha while at Wat Xieng Thong we marvel at a rare reclining Buddha and spectacular glass mosaics. Even more transporting, however, is to peek inside temple courtyards where orange robes flutter in the breeze and novices play under the palm trees.
Shopping with a purpose
Shops showcasing Lao textiles, woodwork, and silver are identified by the sign ‘Stay Another Day,’ which is an initiative to promote sustainable tourism by connecting travelers with organizations that are helping to conserve local culture and support community projects.
One of the most impressive is Caruso Lao started by Canadian designer Sandra Yuck. Her gallery-quality shop displays exquisite contemporary handcrafted silk furnishings and scarves, silver, and hand-made furniture and wooden bowls that are made by some of the most talented artisans in Laos.
At Ock Pop Tok, which means East meets West, we take a dyeing and weaving workshop under a traditional Lao wooden house beside the Mekong.
“ Ten years ago I stumbled across some weaving villages in Northern Laos and learned how integral silk weaving has been to Lao culture,” says Brit Joanna Smith who runs Ock Pop Tok with a local partner. “We are trying to help reinvigorate this remarkable tradition and our master craftspeople also teach their skills to visitors. In addition, we share traditional Lao meals with our students to help foster friendships.”
Long boat up the Mekong River
We spend a day on a longboat up the Mekong River and see a kaleidoscope of local river life. Fisherman throw their nets from boats, children splash in the velvet shallows, women collect river weeds, water buffalo roll in the mud, farmers tend their vegetable plots. At the sacred Pak Ou Caves, gouged from limestone karsts, we discover thousands of Buddhas high above the water, which is tinted orange like the monks’ habits by the sun’s dying rays. Our guide explains, “These are old and damaged Buddhas that have been retired here in peace.”
When it gets dark, vendors set up their displays at Luang Prabang’s mellow night market. We wander undisturbed along the stalls, lit by colored lanterns, choosing delicately patterned silk scarves, rice paper light fixtures pressed with flowers, Hmong embroidery and silver jewellery, and even antique opium scales. In a nearby street, food stalls offer inexpensive and delectable Lao specialties such as laap, spicy marinated meat or fish with vegetables.
We can’t get enough of the remarkable local food.
At the magnificent food market vendors arrange neat piles of basil, eggplants and bananas. Pyramids of red, brown and golden rice sit beside sparkling fresh Mekong river fish. Mothers in traditional Lao sarongs select eggs, paw paws and tomatoes, fermented fish paste, and jewel-bright chiles. A woman with a shoulder yoke carries baskets of watercress; a child grasps a live chicken; bouquets of gardenias perfume the morning sunshine.
We enjoy a lunch of watercress soup and local buffalo mozzarella, tomato and basil salad at L’ Elephant, savoring also its sumptuous ode to colonial Asia on its terrace decked out with rattan chairs. At 3 Nagas we devour fiery kaipen, a rustic nori made from pressed and dried river weeds that are fried with chilli, sesame seeds, garlic and buffalo skin paste, and knap, delicate parcels of river fish with local vegetables and herbs wrapped in banana leaves.
On our final day, we climb the 328 steps to the temple on Mount Phousi, right in the heart of town. Luang Prabang is spread before us in a tropical patchwork…its slow-motion traffic of bicycles and tuk tuks, its splotches of orange and black as monks with parasols stroll the footpaths, its red-trimmed blue longboats plying the latte-colored Mekong, its pastel-shuttered verandas, its golden temples soaring above mango and frangipani trees.
Everyone has their favorite story about Luang Prabang. I’d love to hear what yours is.
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