Luang Prabang, Laos

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May 26th 2014
Published: May 28th 2014
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Luang Prabang

What to do when it gets too hot to stay home? Head further inland of course! OK, maybe this wasn't the smartest time to go but Matt and I were both determined to visit Laos whose people, we'd been told over and over, were absolutely lovely. We only had a short amount of time so oscillated between Vietiane and Luang Prabang until friends from Montréal told us that for them, Luang Prabang was the town in Laos to visit. Boy are we ever glad we trusted their advice - thank you France and Jean-Maurice! It took us about 3 seconds to fall in love with this town. So much so that we started talking about a possible long term visit sometime in the future. There is so much to say about this little city with tons of heart I hardly know where to begin. First of all, it's beautiful. It's almost summer so the flamboyant trees were in bloom absolutely everywhere. These trees are aptly named, tall with thick gnarly trunks and branches spread wide with dark green leaves and contrasting fiery red flowers. To see one against a blue sky is to be awestruck. The town is carefully landscaped and cared for, with clean streets and well maintained French colonial buildings mixed in with ornate temples and neat little houses. Of course the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers are defining features, hugging the city on both sides, and these large lazy muddy rivers provide hours of entertainment. It was too hot to walk much but there are many shady spots on their banks where we could drink something cool and watch people as they crossed the bamboo or old bridge. Children splashed and played in the water and fishermen threw nets from long boats. One afternoon an old fisherman rolled his nets neatly, laid them on the bank of the Nam Khan and then carried his dog in for a bath. They spent several minutes together, the dog with his paws wrapped around the old man's neck and the man talking to him, sprinkling his back and head with water cupped in his hands.

There are many open air restaurants that are built at the top of the bluffs that overlook the rivers. Our first night we found one on the Mekong, a little balcony with cushions and mats instead of chairs, and ordered cold beer and BBQ soup. They bring a grill shaped almost like a bundt pan to the table, lots of thinly sliced beef, pork and pork fat, and sliced vegetables and herbs. Boiling water is poured into the hollow circle and the meat is grilled on the top, with the juices running into the water. As you add spices, vegetables and noodles to the water you get a rich wonderful broth which you eat with the cooked meat. All the dishes we tried were delicious but I have to give a special shout out to the sticky rice. As a rice neophyte I have learned a lot in S.E. Asia. I had no idea there were so many different ways of preparing and enjoying rice. But sticky rice in Laos is something else entirely. Who knew the simple grain could be so amazing? The flavour, the texture, all of it is divine.

Every morning at 5:30AM citizens of the city gather on the streets in front of their houses to give alms to monks from neighbouring monasteries. In Laos it's called tak bat and is a living religious and cultural silent ritual that not only feeds the monks but feeds the people spiritually by allowing them to gain merit . The monks carry with them their individual bowls and people kneel on mats in front of their houses, always careful to keep their heads lower than the monks. We were invited to participate and asked our guesthouse to prepare a large woven basket of sticky rice for us to give, as it was rated as a house that makes very good rice. It has become somewhat controversial for tourists to participate because despite information easily accessible everywhere many still commit faux pas that disrespect the monks and the tradition. Even though these errors are committed out of ignorance and not with any malicious intent they insult the monks and the ritual by breaking some basic rules: keep your body covered from neck to foot, kneel or crouch to make sure your head is lower than the monks' at all time, be silent or speak softly so as not to disrupt the monks' meditation and give only high quality food. Some of the tourists we saw wore shorts and tank tops and used flash photography, a couple spoke very loudly and asked questions while the monks were walking barefoot in procession. We saw a woman put money in a monk's bowl while standing, looking down at him from a higher height and improperly dressed. We spoke with her later and she seemed like a very nice woman; surely her actions were well intentioned but they showed much disrespect to the monk. It is especially important for woman to not touch or look directly into a monk's eyes.

Matt and I both found this a worthwhile experience and were very grateful that Mrs. Chitdara, the owner of the guesthouse, took time to instruct us properly. Of course information about how to comport yourself in any religious environment is easily accessible on the internet and there are leaflets and posters all over Luang Prabang that outline proper conduct. We did our research before arriving as this was something we really wanted to experience. We don't have any photographs of the event. There are so many schools of thought about what is and what isn't proper when photographing people of another culture. The issue first became a topic of discussion for us in Sri Lanka where we saw so many beautiful faces. After talking about what made us feel uneasy, and without judging any other position, we decided the rules for us are:

1. If people are in a landscape or scene we are photographing, that is OK.

2. Ask permission before taking a picture of any specific person.

3. No photography at any religious ritual or practice.

To reiterate these are only our own subjective rules that illustrate what we feel comfortable doing at this point. We have no photographs of monks drumming and chanting at sunrise on top of Sri Pada (Sri Lanka) or striking enormous gongs and reciting mantras in Viet Nam, or numerous other situations, but we have vivid memories and have been able to purchase postcards with sanctioned images.

The rest of our time in this wonderful city was spent wandering the quiet streets, popping in and out of shops and visiting temples. We didn't think that we'd find people as friendly as the Vietnamese anywhere else, but people here almost outdid them. In fact the shopkeepers and cycle drivers are far less aggressive and much more willing to accept a "no, thank you" than in Vietnam. Absolutely everyone smiles and says "sapaidee" when you pass by. This is definitely a place we want to come back to.

Additional photos below
Photos: 39, Displayed: 26


Second bamboo bridge over the Nam Khan, at the confluence with the Mekong RiverSecond bamboo bridge over the Nam Khan, at the confluence with the Mekong River
Second bamboo bridge over the Nam Khan, at the confluence with the Mekong River

This bridge is rebuilt every year after the rainy season

28th May 2014

Nice Blog
Good story and nice pictures. We visited Luang Prabang and, like you found it beautiful. The bamboo bridge across the river washed out on the day we arrived during rainy season. Glad to see it up and working again. We enjoyed visiting the small village across the Mekong. Some small children acted as our tour guides to the Wat located there. Thanks for reminding us of a good memory in one of our favorite places.
29th May 2014

On of our favorite towns!
It has a charm to it that so many other places to not offer. The food was excellent and the people are friendly as you discovered. Love the photos
30th May 2014

Love Luang Prabang Too!
Loved your blog! In Feb. 2009, a friend and I traveled to Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos independently (we were both close to 70 years old at the time). LP was our last stop and we were sad to leave. We absolutely loved doing just what you described- wandering around, visiting a temple, going to the river. We had a 'long' boat ride (just the two of us) and the fisherman up the river. He stopped half way through at another boat which turned out to be a floating gas station. I have a picture in my dining room done by a street artist names 'Tony' of 3 monks in their orange robes all carrying umbrellas. I love to look at it and be reminded of the sweet days in LP. BTW we had stopped in Vientiane first and did not care for it at all. It was full of sterile gov't buildings and no sense of Laotian culture. My blogs are under my blogger name 'gunga'. If you'd like you can go look at my blogs from that trip. Carolyn
2nd June 2014
Monk crossing the bamboo bridge

Love your sensitivity and preparation
I love your respect for the culture and traditions and preparations in participating in the food offering. I'm in South America, where indigenous people generally dislike being photographed unless they're in a public procession, but where I see tourists photographing them anyway. It's great the way you enjoyed and respected the culture. I also loved your story of the man tenderly washing his dog. Great photos and blog--thanks.
2nd October 2014

Luang Prabang
Amazing Blog post! thank you for sharing your experience of our beautiful city Luang Prabang! All the best and see you soon From every one at Villa Maly

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