We did not want to leave Vang Vieng, another tubing adventure was tempting. But Luang Prabang (LP) was at the top of my list from the start of the trip, so off we went in a minivan. The journey was only 230 km, but it took us almost 7 hours to get there. This time we had been warned plenty about the nauseating journey we would have through the narrow potholed roads of Laos that snake through its tall mountains. Being a perpetual sufferer of motion sickness I did not risk it and took plenty of medication that made me too drowsy the whole way, but it was worth it. If there is ever a journey where you need motion remedies, this is it.
Luang Prabang was everything we wanted and more, it was the jewel of our Asian leg. The pace of life in LP is very relaxed, blending perfectly with the French Colonial architecture and innumerable Buddhist temples and monasteries. We were in awe by the richness of culture and heritage this small town had to offer. LP, a UNESCO World Heritage site, has about 100,000 inhabitants, including many many Buddhist monks.
Finding accommodation proved to be tricky. There is plenty of it, but the quality is not as good as we had hoped. In Vang Vieng we had easily found a great room for $10 (expensive for Vang Vieng) so we had arrived with preconceptions. LP gets a lot package tourists and not as many backpackers so it was different. We looked at probably all the guesthouses and small hotels in the town. We actually checked into three of them, we unpacked, and then we packed again and left a couple of hours later. When looking for a room, the first thing we ask is if the room has a bathroom inside. Secondly if it has air conditioning, and third if it has internet. In the first hotel they told us (and advertise big outside) there was free wifi. After unpacking and relaxing we decided to do some work on the blog. Surprise! No internet. We asked and they said it was not working these days. What!! We had clearly asked before checking in and they confirmed they did. Sometimes we take a room with no internet, but in this case it was the deceit which we did not appreciate, so we checked out.
We checked into a second place, unpacked, went out for a walk, went for dinner and came back to sleep. Surprise! The air conditioning wasn’t working at all. 3 different men came in and tried to fix it. After an hour, around 10 pm, Tony told them that was enough, we could not wait anymore. They did not have any more rooms left with AC but did not want to lose our business so they offered to take us to another hotel. The other hotel was out of the town and they intended to charge us more. We checked out again! We walked through the town again checking all options we had not seen before. They were all booked or not good enough. It was getting very late so we ended up staying at a really nice place, but more expensive than all others in town. Tony had checked this place out from the beginning and it was tempting but it was too expensive. He went back 2 more times to ask for a discount but they wouldn’t nudge. In the end we had to take it, and when we checked in the receptionist asked me: “Is it true that my colleague is saying that this is the 4th time that he comes in?”. Yes it was, and this time we stayed there until we left LP.
It turned out to be a real good move. In the end, all things happen for a reason. Our room had a balcony with chairs to sit in, from where we watched every morning before 6 am the Alms Ceremony. Basically we did not have to get out of bed to see the daily procession as our balcony was on the monks route. Everyday at sunrise the Buddhist monks make a single file procession to the temples. The devotees offer them food, which sustains the monks; but also the poorest people in the community, as the monks give some of it back to them. The offerings are mainly sticky rice wrapped in banana leaf, biscuits, candy and packed juices. The women have to kneel to present offerings to the monks, while the men may stand. Those differences between men and women I will never understand or appreciate. Anyway, the point of the ceremony is for the devotees to “make merit” according to Buddhism. We personally chose not to participate by giving offerings, but some tourists do. There are warnings all over town about how tourists should not interfere. First of all, if you take pictures, you should do it very discreetly. It was sickening how some tourists get in the monks way to get a snap. Secondly if you decide to give them an offering, you should not only follow the etiquette of dress, but should only offer fresh food (you should to buy the rice in the morning before 6 am). There were some women befriending tourists and giving them rice so they could participate in the ceremony. Then they demand money from you. We had seen the warnings so were not caught out, the monks end up throwing this rice as it is not fresh. We even read somewhere that some monks had gotten very sick from tourists offerings (provided by the touts) and that they wanted to stop doing the daily ceremony, but the authorities told them the tradition had to be continued to keep the tourists coming to LP. In any case, there is a very special feeling to witnessing this ceremony.
We continued our Laos gourmet tour in LP as there is an abundance of haute cuisine restaurants. It was a big change, as normally in SE Asia we have been struggling to find fine local food. We dii not even have time to try all the ones we wanted. One that is very worthy of a mention is Tamarind, a very small restaurant with awesome menus and tapas, as well as cooking classes. I was delighted that in Laos they use a lot of aubergine, cilantro, and fresh chili. We left Laos and for a change we had not had enough of the local cuisine. Laos did feel more expensive than Cambodia and Thailand, but maybe it was because of our taste in food… The night market does not have food, but it does have beautiful handwork from the natives. We said we would come back, especially to buy my father his Xmas present: giant scorpion in liquor. He is proud of his astrological sign Scorpion, and like Tony, is always willing to try crazy food and drink. Sorry papi!
We could also not pass up the opportunity to try a Laotian massage at the Red Cross. Nothing like Thai massage, Lao massage is really soft. We also rented bikes and cycled through LP and its outskirts stopping at numerous temples. LP is full of Buddhist temples and you get a sense of their traditional customs. The days we were there were extra special as they were preparing for the End of the Buddhist Lent, during which the monks fast. All the locals were building paper boats that they will light on and place them on the Mekong River. Everyday we saw the progress done as they display them at the front of their houses. Every temple we passed by was being beautifully decorated by the monks, with paper stars and other artsy creations they made themselves. Some of the temples were spectacularly beautiful. The temples in LP are definitely the prettiest we have seen. On the last day of the lent, the Alms Ceremony was even more special as more than 300 monks marched through town, all with a fresh shaved head.
There were also boat races going on. Groups of men from different villages in different colored t shirts race against each other down the Mekong River. We saw them practicing daily and also saw several races. Tony hired a motorboat to race the boats, actually he wanted to film them as they raced so he went with them at their speed to see it side by side. It was a pity that we could not stay for the culmination of the festival, the night where the paper boats are lighted on the Mekong. We had no desire to travel by bus to Hanoi, Vietnam as it takes about 40 hours. We decided to go by plane, and since it was last minute there were no seats left for the day after the culmination of the festival. LP was just fantastic: beautiful and relaxing. Now on to something completely different: crazy Hanoi!
Luang Prabang is fantastic for photographing, some of our best pictures of the trip are here. Or check out a video diary, an introduction to a traditional Laotian meal, a few short videos of the alms ceremony, and Tony’s attempts at becoming a sports commentator on the boat racing in our videos below.