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Luang Prabang (7/26-7/28)

July 28th, 2006 · 1 Comment

Luang Prabang was an authentic town steeped in culture and history. The kicker was the amazing cafes/restaurants with tasty iced coffee & fresh croissants. All in all a fantastic place to relax and admire the local craft scene.

For pictures of wats, monks, tapestries, and more city sites, click here.

Daniel

More adjusted to the Lao way of life, we arrived at the one runway airport in Luang Prabang. After gatehring our luggage we hailed a Jumbo – basically a miniature pick-up truck with a canpoy on the back. We soon arrived at our riverside hotel, Auberge Le Calao, near the center of town. Fortunately, Luang Prabang is best enjoyed on foot.

Only a block from our hotel is Wat Xieng Thong, which houses a number of stunning structures. Each wat is surrounded by a cluster of buildings both functional and ceremonial. In this case, most of the buildings were vibrant and colorful. The golden colored Chapel of the Funeral Chariot housed a ceremonial boat used in funerals. There was also a rare version of the reclining Budda where the upper hand does not touch the head. Rumor has it that the Buddha is so famous, it once traveled to Paris for the World’s Fair. Also, contained within the Wat is the residence of many young monks who lived there. We later learned that people in the surounding villages send their children to be monks so that they receive a good education. Otherwise many families cannot afford the costs of private education in Laos.

We also visited Wat Mai further down the main street and in the middle of town. During the evening, the monks gather to chant in the main Sim. As non-participants, it was all right for us to join them inside the wat as long as we did not distract them. We knelt and watched mostly young boys no older than 12 rythmically chant their hymns. The unexpected learning was that most of the monks are young boys, getting their education the way the system allows. It was fascinating to watch an ancient ritual peppered with reality. For example, watching one of the younger monks join the chant late with a set of apparently communal keys. He quietly tossed them to an older boy who looked back dissapprovingly, who then shyly tossed them to the more elder monks in the front row who in turn snatched the keys and tucked them into their saffron robes.

Another memorable afternoon was spent walking back to our hotel from the main street. From the end of town to the other, one passes wat after wat after wat. We were lucky enough to be out when all the monks in began their evening chants. As we passed out of ear shot of one wat the chant grew louder as we came closer to another. This continued for most of our walk. The rythmic melody of the chants growing louder and softer was mesmerizing

Our second morning, we spent a half day on a river tour of the nearby Pak Ou Grottoes and a local weaving village (possibly where many of the shops in Luang Prabang buy their goods). Our boat was long and narrow, seating about ~15 people. The man driving the boat had a steering wheel and a bright pink, plastic mirror acting as his rearview mirror. Slowly trawling up the river reminded us of Apacolypse Now or scenes from any Vietnam War footage. Tall misty hills and cliffs were covered in thick jungle and vegetation. The caves we visited were hidden high in the hillside and were adorned with a vast number of Buddha figures filling the cave. The tour ended with a couple brief stops at local river villages. With a mission, we briskly walked in and out of shop/homes displaying whatever souvenirs or textiles they had on hand. We finally came upon a home where a humble and friendly woman showed us a wide range of textiles. She was able to explain which were 100% silk, a mix of cotton and silk, or all cotton. Her honestly won us over since most vendors claim that everything is 100% silk. We found a couple pieces that were colorful and representative of the Lao weaving style we liked best. We bought our first tapestry and scampered back to the waiting boat.

With one feather in our cap, we continued to navigate the many textile shops. Overall, we spent a lot of our time wandering the streets, shops, and wats in Luang Prabang. Having seen the handy work at Lao Textiles in Vientiane, we visited almost every textile shop (some even were blessed by our presence multiple times) in Luang Prabang. You could say we had become obsessed with finding the perfect Lao tapestry. In the end we settled on a unique shop, Caruso Lao. Run by a woman originally from Canada, but who spent most of her (pre-1997) life in Hong Kong. She moved to Laos nine years ago and strives to establish a unique blend of traditional weaving & modern flare. Ironically, during our 2 1/2 day stay in Luang Prabang we ran into her at least twice everyday – at the cafe , massage parlor, restaurant, and even walking her dog along the main street. It was fate that we ended up at her shop.

The other amazing event we witnessed was the giving of alms. Early each morning, the monks file out of their wats, bare foot to collect food (mainly rice) from the people. Laotians practice Theravada Buddhism, which differs from Mahayana Buddhism in many ways, but the main one is how they eat. Theravada Buddhists eat only two meals a day, and nothing after 12:00. And the local people rise early each morning to give their offerings to the monks. Of course, we were slightly misinformed that the alms giving started at 5am instead of 6am. We wandered the streets alone in the rain before anyone else in Luang Prabang. As time passed more people began to stir, and the monks eventually came out. The final scene was beautiful – people (sadly a lot of toursits) kneeling bare foot on the sidewalk with bowls of sticky rice and other offerings. As the monks walked by they would place a handful of rice in each monk’s alms bowl. Once a monk had enough food, he would simply keep his bowl covered. At certain points along the road, the monks would discard food into a basket in the street. We learned later that the extra food was given to the poor and/or orphans.

There were some good places to try local cuisine and enjoy just plain tasty food. Tum Tum Cheng, visited by the Naked Chef, offered the most authentic Lao dinner that we had in Luand Prabang. We also enjoyed some fabulous French cuisine at L’Elephant and some fusion Lao cuisine at 3 Nagas. Finally, thanks to our extensive wandering we came across a tiny restaurant, Tamarind, where the hostess taught us about the different foods & how to eat them. A nice cultural treat and a hidden gem.

We also hiked Mount Phousi, taking in the birds-eye-view of Luang Prabang and the many wats scattered throughout the city. It was was enjoyable to see how the Buddist monks integrated with the growing city. As a final treat, we went for yet another $5 massage…yes, that is $5 for a whole hour! This time it was a traditional Lao massage, which is quite similar to Thai massage and not something we were used to. We are going to miss the cheap massages!

We spent our last afternoon bicycling around the Luang Prabang countryside and making our final purchases before setting out to Bangkok.

Tags: Laos

1 response so far ↓

  • 1 Adrian Jones // Oct 12, 2006 at 9:51 pm

    I’m so pleased to read that you enjoyed LPQ! I feel like I’ve learned so much from the blog even having been there myself. You must be taking notes every step of the way.

    L’Elephant was one of the most memorable meals I’ve ever had, if only because of the price tag and outstanding setting. It’s great that you enjoyed it too.

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