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Published: June 29th 2013
Our week-long visit to Luang Prabang ended much as it began. Light rain falling throughout the day and occasional heavy rain showers that often forced us inside for long, leisurely lunches in one of the many delicious restaurants in town. I would like to blame the rain for our lack of adventurous spirit, but I think in reality we just wanted to relax and spend a non-touristy week in this attractive city.
Throughout the week the skies remained overcast. The muted light made photography difficult but kept the heat manageable. The few times the sun came out and the breeze stopped the balmy air made sitting anywhere except under a fan uncomfortable and made us wish the clouds would return. The softer light added romance and intrigue to the many small alleyways that make up much of the UNESCO World Heritage part of the old town.
The town is set between the Mekong River on one side and Mt. Phu Si on the other. A large tributary to the Mekong called the Nam Khan River connects to the Mekong just upstream from the town. The 2 rivers form a type of peninsula where the historic old town is located.
The streets are lined with huge, old trees and flowering plants and many restored French era houses with large garden filled yards. Many Thai/Lao style Teak wood houses are interspersed throughout creating a unique atmosphere. The town is sectioned into small villages (called Ban) which are grouped around a central temple (Wat) of the same name.
Most of our days here were started having a leisurely breakfast of fresh fruits, baguettes, crepes and eggs around the communal table in the covered area behind our restored guest house. The visitors at our guesthouse were a slightly more mature group of travelers than we encountered in much of Thailand. While still travelling the backpacker route they were perhaps less about partying and more in tune with having a slower paced stay. They generally were making their way out for a day trip to visit the local waterfalls or for a day spent at the Elephant Camp learning to become a Mahout (elephant caretaker). Some of the visitors were foreigners who are living and working in other parts of Southeast Asia and just visiting Luang Prabang for a quiet get away from their normal busy lives in Singapore or Hanoi.
had spent time at waterfalls and with elephants recently in Thailand and opted to spend the majority of our time wandering around town and enjoying local life. Luang Prabang is a busy town that wakes up early. The streets and alleys are full of people walking or riding scooters and bicycles everywhere. Women carry baskets of vegetables and men carry large fish from the Mekong to the local morning market located a half block from our guesthouse. While the streets are always busy, the pace of life seems less frenetic than in other Asian cities, with people taking time for conversation or to share a bite of food through their day. Smaller children spend much of the day in the markets with their mothers or grandmothers and don’t seem to lack attention from all the other vendors.
The morning market is in full swing by 6 in the morning with wonderful smelling smoke filling the air from the many grills and pots serving breakfast to the workers and fisherman. Many unique vegetables and interesting meats are for sale. We saw frogs, insects, eels and many types of fish that we had not seen in other countries. Many common fruits
and vegetables (mangoes, papaya, pineapple, onions and tomatoes) were being sold alongside more unique and unidentified herbs, spices and leafy greens.
Many visitors arise early to view the alms procession of the many Monks that reside and study in town. The monks wake early in the morning, well before sunrise and walk in lines to collect offerings from the local people. Unfortunately there were far too many tourists taking pictures of the procession, some even rudely trying to participate. Some were seriously too close to the monks and didn’t seem to remember that this is a serious religious ceremony and an important Buddhist custom. We spoke to a Monk later in the day who was practicing his English with us, and he mentioned that while they are used to it, they really don’t like when the tourists forget their manners.
Luang Prabang has seasonal bamboo bridges that cross the Nam Khan River. We wanted to cross one but on the day we arrived the rains had caused the river to rise and wash the bridges out before we had a chance. There is a more permanent cement and wood bridge that spans the river a little further upstream
and is only used by bicycles, scooters and pedestrians. We took a tuk-tuk to the bridge and made our way across the rickety pedestrian part. While certainly not as exciting as the bamboo bridges it made for a good walk and game us some nice, up close views over the river. We took a slow walk back to town and enjoyed watching some local kids practicing Lao Dance and playing music at one of the local Wats.
Another day we crossed the Mekong by small ferry and visited a smaller village on the other side. The town is quite a contrast to Luang Prabang. One main dirt road runs through the village and is lined by many small wooden houses and a couple of less restored Wats. A cave at the end of the road was quite dark and it was so wet and muddy we did not make it past the entrance. A couple of local kids decided we needed to have tour guides and lead us through town and up the steep steps to Wat Chompet, where we were treated to beautiful views over the Mekong and Luang Prabang. They weren’t very good tour guides, as they
were a bit too distracted turning cartwheels through the mud or stopping for impromptu Pokeman card games. They did help us to not make wrong turns and were more than entertaining with their acrobatics. They asked for money for their services at the end of the tour and seemed genuinely pleased when we paid them 1000 kip (about 10 cents) for their time. They didn’t seem to want to share their new found wealth so we ended up giving them both 1000 kip and the last we saw of them, they were skipping and turning cartwheels down the road, no doubt anxious to add to their card collection.
Another day we made our way up Mt. Phu Si which rises from the center of town. A few hundred steps lead directly up from the main street to the large stupa at the top. A more winding path leads down the opposite side past a small Wat and a small enclosure that contains “Buddha’s Footprint”. Undoubtedly it was not his actual footprint, as it was larger than an elephant’s footprint. The views from the top of the hill were great and provided a view of both muddy rivers and the
mist covered mountains that surround the town.
Afternoons were usually spent at one of the great cafes that offer wonderful baguettes filled with delicious pates, cheeses or delicious smoked ham or fish. Combined with a nice fresh salad and a cool Iced Lemon Tea while sitting under a cool fan was a great way to cool off after a morning’s adventure.
A busy night market sets up on the blocked main street nightly selling handicrafts and local foods. Strolling traffic-free through the hundreds of stalls was enjoyable. Luang Prabang has many nice restaurants and bars. Our favorite night out was at a Lao Barbecue restaurant where we grilled our own chicken and pork slices over charcoal, while ladling delicious broth over fresh local vegetables around the side of the grill. The result was several filling bowls of soup that after adding lime and some spicy chili sauce made for the best meal we have had in a while.
Evenings were filled with nice strolls along the river or catching up on conversations around the guesthouse table and enjoying other guest’s stories of their more adventurous days journeys.
Despite the rain (or perhaps, because of it), we
enjoyed our time in Luang Prabang very much. It has a unique and beautiful setting and is filled with relaxed, friendly people who were very friendly and accommodating to us. The food was good and we enjoyed the other travelers we met. We leave tomorrow morning to continue our travels through Laos. Another long bus ride to another town we hope to enjoy as much as Luang Prabang.
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