A Love Letter to Luang Prabang, Laos

The bike bell chimed, initiated by the weakened wooden boards running along the rickety bridge,  I bounding along towards the other side of the river, trying to focus on the path ahead while simultaneously keeping tabs on the precarious situation below me.  It was a cool morning, my linen pants flapped faster than the speed at which I was cautiously crossing the Nam Khan.

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Bouncing along my eyes squinting as they adjusted to the low light at dawn, trying to avoid the flattened bike tire from spending too much time within the joints of the adjoining boards.  Wobbling over the threshold, I breathed an unintentional sigh of relief immediately as the rubber touched back on the firm pavement.

I smiled slightly, pretty proud of myself that I championed the bridge at 5am without casualty.  I turned onto the main road in town, the women were already setting up their stations, folding tables on the side of the road with plastic bowls filled with snacks, wooden woven baskets with lids filled with sticky white rice.  Others carried stacks of low blue and red plastic stools, lined neatly along the sidewalk awaiting the procession.almsladyseats

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The light changed quickly, from moody blues to warm golds as the streets slowly filled with both participants and spectators.  I parked my two wheeled trusty steed off to the side, the road closed each morning at sunrise for Tak Bat, the daily alms giving to the monks who reside in the dozens of temples in and around Luang Prabang.  I crouched down on the curb on the other side of the road from where the procession was taking place.  Peaceful and spiritual, I sat in silence taking in the beautiful daily ritual the town allows us to share.  The sense of community, the presence of Buddhism, the importance of tradition, I breathed in the cool morning air and found myself smiling again.

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Laos.  That narrow little country squeezed between the Southeast Asia heavyweights, Thailand and Vietnam.  After several years of heading to the region, I, like I suspect a lot of other travelers, have been skipping over Laos with thoughts that it wasn’t worthy of exploration.  This year I decided to investigate by spending a week in Luang Prabang.  I’m happy to report, that I immediately fell in love.

Luang Prabang

Since I had a limited amount of time, I decided to focus on one city so I could have a better idea of a specific region and avoid feeling like I spent most of my time in the country on a bus or in a van.  Ultimately I chose Luang Prabang, the ancient capital of the north for my  Laotian exploration.  I picked Luang Prabang over the capital city of Vientiane and the backpacker hot spot of Vang Vieng for a few reasons.  I have a tendency to escape bustling capitals, even though Vientiane is small by major city standards, there wasn’t anything there that struck me.  Luang Prabang is a UNESCO city, one of two heritage sites in the country and that was something I wanted to learn more about.

If you’ve read about my previous travels, I’m a sucker for a world heritage site so I was drawn to Luang Prabang, made my plans, did my research and didn’t look back.  After arriving, I knew I made the right choice.

The historic  area has everything I was looking for in a sleepy town, French influence on Asian cuisine, dilapidated yet gorgeous architecture, Buddhist religion with temples to explore, friendly locals and lush landscapes.

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The energy is most palpable when the sun is low, lurking over the horizon of the Mekong at either sunrise or sunset.  This is a town where the heat and humidity of the afternoon is a good excuse to rest in between the action of the morning ceremony and the evening markets.  I was up at sunrise every day, spent the rest of the morning poking around town and then went back out exploring around dinner time.  For someone who works remotely, the schedule was perfect, never feeling rushed and having the time to get my work finished.

Morning Alms

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Tak Bat is the daily alms ceremony that as intrigued tourists rising early to witness the peaceful procession.  Each day at sunrise, there is a wave of saffron robes along the streets of the old town of Luang Prabang.  Because there is such a concentration of temples in such a small city, hundreds of monks line up each day to receive food from locals and tourists who wanted to participate.  There has been some controversy about tourists flashing cameras along the alms ceremony and the attention disrupting the reverence of the routine.

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Laos Larders & Libations

If you are looking to learn Laotian cuisine, Tamarind is THE place to take a cooking class.  They will take you through how to use fresh, local ingredients prepared in the traditional Lao style.

For that French bread craving, head to Cafe Ban Vat Sene, a town staple with great food, working wifi and the upstairs has air conditioning if you want a break from the heat.

Caffeine cravings should inevitably lead you to Saffron Coffee, a cute two story coffee shop with a great menu and a philanthropic concept.  Saffron has created agricultural employment for hill tribe farmers.  I came here several times for a quiet space to work (they have a second floor that is roomy AND has AC) and it was a great way to give back to the community on a local and sustainable level.

Temples & Textiles

Luang Prabang has over 30 temples within its tiny town, making it a must for that temple touring traveler.  Even if you’ve been in Southeast Asia once or one hundred times and have seen tons of temples, it’s a fascinating place to have that many sites of worship in such a small region.  Also what makes Luang Prabang special is that there thousands of novice monks practicing in all of these temples, giving them a space for education because of extreme cases of poverty they may not have received it otherwise.

They are great spots to take in ancient architectural techniques, learn more about Buddhism or just relax and appreciate the quiet calmness that the properties possess.  This peace fullness sets the tone for the vibe of the city and you could easily spend most of your time trampsing around temples.  I recommend spreading out your visits so you can discern the differences between them all, truly appreciate the spaces and avoid what I can “temple fatigue” where the Wats all become a blur one right after the next.  Also be mindful of etiquette when visiting and remember it’s a sacred, spiritual space!

 

There is some serious shopping here in Luang Prabang so be prepared to have your souvenir needs all met before you leave Laos.  You can find your typical standard Southeast Asia souvenirs, the night market is full of stalls selling things that range from inexpensive and mass produced to carefully crafted artisanal creations.  It’s easy to lean towards the cheap but don’t forget that sometimes a little hike in price goes a long way for locals.

Ock Pop Tok, meaning East meets West is a shop promoting fair trade

 

Treat Yourself

I’ve had some pretty epic massages over the years.  I’ve been in different countries with different techniques, on a plush table in a lavish spa, under a gauzy tent on the beach or on a mat on the floor in a hut, I’m always on the hunt for a way to unwind.  The Burasari Heritage Hotel however, has one of the best massages I’ve had ANYWHERE.  If you have the time I highly recommend it!

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