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Published: August 24th 2013
We enjoyed Laos. Really, when I look back upon our trip, everything just seemed to mesh and the places we visited, for the most part, we visited at the proper time. This was true not only in terms of the weather – although hot, we timed it so that we were traveling ahead of the monsoon in every country we visited – but also in terms of our physical, emotional and psychological states. Laos was a good breather, a relaxing time after some intensive traveling. In a sense, the relaxing atmosphere in Laos matched exactly what our conditions required: it was exactly what we were looking for at that time. Luang Prabang, located in the north of Laos, between the Mekong and Nam Khan Rivers, was no exception. Inhabited by about 50,000 people, Luang Prabang is a quaint French colonial gem, with ornate Buddhist temples, attractive streets with bakeries and bistros, street markets and smiling faces, especially the smiling faces of well-behaved kids.
We began our visit of the city at the Royal Palace, which was built in the early 1900s for the royal family, becoming a museum in the ‘70s after the Communist takeover. The royal grounds
include several buildings, such as a conference hall and a garage holding the many cars of the royal family, including a few donated from the US during its involvement in Vietnam and Cambodia. To the right of the palace is a hall displaying the busts of various monarchs; farther at the end the hall is the Phra Bang, the city’s most prized piece of art and from where its name originates. That it is a statue of the Buddha with a legendary story should come as no surprise: cast in bronze in Sri Lanka around the 1st
century, it survived foreign raids and traveled around Asia, from Cambodia, to Laos, to Thailand a couple times during Siam rule, then returning to Laos to permanently stay in the 19th
century. The image, standing just under three feet in height, depicts the Buddha in teaching pose, and is located in a room behind metal bars full of elephant tusks.
We next walked up a high and steep hill to Mount Phou Si, on which sits Wat Chom Si. The hilltop offers 360-degree views of the red-roofed provincial buildings of Luang Prabang and nice views of the confluence of the
two rivers. In the distance, the late-morning sun shone upon prominent green hills. We entered Wat Chom Si, which is another imposingly golden stupa in the Laos style, before sitting down on a bench to enjoy the panoramic scenes.
At the bottom of Mount Phou Si sits another small temple named Wat Pahouak. Primarily constructed of concrete, the temple includes an entrance with four large columns, wooden window panes with intricately carved detail, and a roof displaying the typical Asian Buddhist motif. Inside is a beautiful mural dating back to the mid-19th
century. Unfortunately, it is plainly evident that the mural has not undergone restoration efforts in some time, but has lovely depictions of the events of the Buddha’s life. Architecturally simple, small in stature, and made of plain stone, it was more like a chapel and may have been one of my favorite wats.
The rest of the day was spent becoming “watted out” again. As we walked down the street searching for a place to eat that wasn’t necessarily a bistro, the monks of the many various temples that lined the street began to chant and drum their own individual prayers. All
at once, the sounds of percussive instruments rumbled and echoed through the streets at different tempos, accompanied by a confusing intermingling of mismatched melodies and tonal guttural chanting. As we neared each specific temple, the melodies coming from that temple began to take their own specific shape, the chants and powerful percussion becoming a rhythmic union, only to get lost in the resounding mélange again once passed. And so it was with each temple we passed, until one of the chants caught our interest and we entered to listen. Young monks chanted as others banged their hands and mallets on percussion, bringing forth a harmony so formidable, so fierce, yet so hymnal, I felt a moving tranquility as we sat below the drum tower in the setting sun.
We left when the chanting had come to an end. As we walked through the gates of the temple and entered the street, we noticed that all the chanting had ceased as well, leaving only the typical sounds of a small town that is leaving the afternoon behind and welcoming the evening: conversations livened in cafés, while a single motorbike drove by; small dogs barked at strolling passersby through
wooden fences. In this setting, we walked to Wat Xieng Thong, one of the most important temples in Laos. It was built in the 16th
century and typifies the motifs and symbolism of common Laos architecture. The roof is built in hyperbolic levels; beneath it worshippers began to congregate for the daily ceremony. We circled the temple and took sporadic glances inside: large wooden columns were adorned with intricate, golden patterns, while considerable golden alters glinted in the sunlight coming in through the windows.
The next day, we visited Kuang Si Falls. It’s a beautiful waterfall with clear water that cascades along several travertine tiers that have formed delightful pools in which visitors can swim. We followed the tiers to the main falls, where the water plummets about 200 feet, then hiked a moderately strenuous trail to the top of the falls. We admired the views and, after our light workout, were ready to hike back down and swim in some of the travertine terraces. The water was chilly, but bearably so, and a refreshing break from the day’s heat. The only irritation was the little fish biting at our legs and feet, but this could be
Bear's paws in alcohol
yes, they drink it. saw it on the way to luang prabang.
avoided if we kept swimming.
Just outside the waterfall is a bear rescue center. The center is home to over twenty Asiatic bears that have been rescued from trappers, zoos, and other forms of confinement, including atrocious bile farms, in which bears’ bile is extracted twice a day from their gallbladders using a long, implanted tube. The bile, which is used in traditional Chinese medicine, is sold for a hefty price. Being in Asia, I don’t think it takes an overly robust imagination to reflect on what the living conditions must be like for the harvested bears. In addition to caring for injured and traumatized bears, the center’s main initiative is educating children on Laos’ environmental habitats, with the hope of allaying future threats from the illegal trade of wildlife.
When we returned to town, we ate a scrumptious dinner at the street market that included a spicy papaya salad, fried spring rolls, and noodles in various forms. I also couldn’t resist some buffalo sausage, but did, even surprisingly to me, avoid the fried maggots and insects. Before I left for Asia, I thought I’d have no problem giving the insects a go –
bear rescue center
luckily there's a rescue center in the city too
I mean, I can eat anything. And, really, what isn’t good fried? But, looking at those gross bugs, I couldn’t do it...
My head hung low, we walked the relatively expansive night market, which mostly offers various Asian trinkets, like plates, lamps, paintings, chopsticks, and clothing.
Disappointingly failing to eat strange food aside, Luang Prabang was a great visit. We left Laos the next day, on our way to a much-anticipated Vietnam.
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